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Why Fake Optimism Is the Worst Way to Deal with Life's Problems

Looking at crap and calling it candy has become a growth industry. But experts say there are better ways to deal with crisis.

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Sharp says the ability to say, "I'm going to be there with you from now til this is all done," is "worth so much, it's unbelievable; it's worth I don't know how many milligrams of medication." But you have to mean it.

The next step is Empathy: "Conveying in as few words as possible your appreciation of how someone feels." You don't want to say, "Oh, that must be so hard for you," because the "for you" part "puts up walls" he says, making a distinction that essentially says "You poor SOB...but I don't have that problem." Just say "Oh, that's so sad," or "That's so hard," so the person feels understood.

Dr. Charles Sophy, who has appeared on shows like “Larry King Live” and “Dr. Drew's Celebrity Rehab,” is the medical director for the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services. His upcoming book, Side By Side: The Revolutionary Mother-Daughter Program for Conflict-Free Communication, comes out in February 2010. Some of his patients come through crisis hotlines, and may not have even reached the acceptance stage yet.

"These calls come in usually through the child abuse hotline -- that's how we know a family is in need, it shows in a child coming to school not clean or not eating or not as intact as they were," he says when asked how to handle people who have suffered a job loss or other fallout from the economic crisis. "These people are coming from a huge place of fear and embarrassment," he says. They don't want to lose their families.

Sophy counsels listeners to let people tell their stories. "Sometimes no response is fine," he says. "Most people just want to be heard, they want to vent and own it," and once they see you're not horrified but empathetic and supportive it calms the situation.

"Money is power to people," he says, especially men, who feel that when "their money is gone their power is gone." You have to allow them space "to step down from that perceived power position." Once that terrible pressure is off they can be relieved: "They become people again."

Sheri Winston, sex therapist and author of Women's Anatomy of Arousal: Secret Maps to Buried Pleasure is a former nurse practitioner and midwife who often had to deliver bad news rather than hear it -- STDs, unwanted pregnancy, complications with a pregnancy. She says that "as soon as those words are out of your mouth people sometimes can't process any more information."

Winston says this is where empathy comes in; just saying, "Wow, I know this is really hard to hear. It's okay to be upset. It's okay to cry." It's also important to be sensitive to individual reactions, to read those reactions and to permit people to respond. Some people, she says, want a lot of information right away. Others need a hug. For people who are overwhelmed by bad news, Winston lets them know she'll be there to give them more information when they're ready. If people jump to the conclusion that a manageable condition -- like herpes, a treatable STD -- is automatically a tragedy it's best to try to give them some perspective.

For some a broken heart is far more painful than the loss of a job. Empathy was also the first response of Cristina Nehring, essayist and author of A Vindication of Love. In an e-mail from her Paris home, she wrote that all situations are different and responses have to be carefully tailored; for instance, she might say, upon hearing news of an unwanted breakup: "Oh, DAMN. Whew. Ouch. I'm terribly sorry. How are you feeling in the moment?" and then try to "echo what they express, to make them know they're understood. Then, hopefully, I'd attempt to let in a little light from somewhere."

 
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