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“It’s not so bad”

There’s a scene early on in Howl’s Moving Castle where Howl gets his hair messed up and his potion collection engarbled and Sophie, who is responsible for the mess, says “What a pretty color” and “Come on, it’s not that bad. You should look at it now, this shade is even better” in order to comfort him.

It’s maybe not the best example since she’s lived through worse on her own, and she used similar thoughts as a coping mechanism, telling herself “You’re still in good shape, and your clothes finally suit you”.

But a lot of the time when someone is hurt, telling them “No, you aren’t that hurt” is not a good way to comfort them. This goes double when it’s us that have hurt them.

Humans are a social animal and we use emotions to communicate; when those emotions are not being heard it can sometimes just escalate the situation. Of course, we always need to case-by-case it. Sometimes it really is a misunderstanding (“Look, your keys are right here! They were on the table all this time”) and sometimes things really aren’t as bad as they first seem, especially comparatively (again, Sophie and Calcifer are both living through worse than what Howl, up to that point on the movie, are struggling with).

But some people seem to have formed a belief that this sort of talk is always&​inherently a form of comfort, when the opposite is true. It often leads to those feelings growing stronger.

“Under the rug”

The past section was about invalidation through pretending the problem isn’t there. There’s another approach, maybe even more messed up, in some ways. Instead of just downplaying the problem, you’re paving over the entire emotion. “No, sweetie, in our family we smile and are happy.” This is different, and more insidious because it has the illusion of being more successful since it can tend to deescalate the emotions in the moment, while it’s really festering under the surface until it bleeds out, or blows up, down the road.

“The easy fix”

This one is common in close relationships, like best friends or couples. It’s the “you silly li’l goose, why don’t you just…” Easy solution. Tons of stuff that can go wrong with this one; maybe the person has already tried your solution, or there are other factors in place that means the solution won’t work, or it’s just a wack&bad solution in the first place, but even when the solution is grade-A perfect this can backfire. Why? Because not only are you conveying that their worries and stride and pain isn’t real (similar to the previous two categories), you are (sometimes) making the other person feel stupid, like “duh, why don’t you just…”

That’s not to say “don’t fix things, don’t help each other”. That’s the wrong “women are from Venus” knuckle-scraping takeaway from this. Do offer solutions—after you’ve heard your friend out and made sure they know they are heard. Sometimes that’s all it takes and you can just lay off the solve stuff, other times a helping hand is worth more than rubies.

Let’s be OK

None of that is to say that we should be a bunch of 24/7 crybabies.
How about both letting our emotions be real and fully felt, but not letting our emotions take control over our behavior? Let our action be informed by both emotion and reason; some times one is right, sometimes the other, sometimes they both only have half the picture and you can only get the full view by listening to both. Like how procrastination is often caused as a backlash of ignoring the emotional downside of what your reason-self is asking of you, and so the emotional side takes over and cause you to trip over yourself in a way that’s ultimately much worse than if you had listened to your heart from the beginning. Sometimes all it takes to be OK with doing something is making sure all of yourself feels heard and given a chance to say its piece.

I know negative advice (“what not to do”), like how to not invalidate, is sometimes as useless as a teapot around the sun so if you’re looking for a more “do this” approach, I’ve got you, fam.