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The Art of Comforting

written by Denise Clegg October 21, 2009

Denise Clegg, MAPP 08, is Program Officer for the Positive Neuroscience project at the University of Pennsylvania Positive Psychology Center. She also serves as a facilitator for the Penn Resilience Program and is a daily editor for Positive Psychology News Daily.

Denise writes on the 20th of each month, and her articles are here.

When we chose the theme of relationships as a topic for PPND this month, I asked myself, what is true love? I would describe myself as a (covert/genuine/tentative-but-rational … Heathcliff!!) Romantic, so was a bit surprised when one story – and only one story – kept popping into mind.comfort rainbow hands

In an interview with Krista Tippet, writer and educator Parker Palmer described an episode of severe depression he endured. Depression is isolating, and as a well-known author and leader in his Quaker community, he felt further isolated in the fear that revealing depression would expose him as a fraud. He thought, “if they really knew what a schmuck I was, [they] would cast me into the darkness where I already am.”

Then he describes the relationship that carried him through the crippling depression:

“There was this one friend who came to me, after asking permission to do so, every afternoon about four o’clock, sat me down  in a chair in the living room, took off my shoes and socks and massaged my feet. He hardly ever said anything. He was a Quaker elder. And yet out of his intuitive sense, from time to time would say a very brief word like, ‘I can feel your struggle today,’ or farther down the road, ‘I feel that you’re a little stronger at this moment, and I’m glad for that.’ But beyond that, he would say hardly anything.

He would give no advice. He would simply report from time to time what he was sort of intuiting about my condition. Somehow he found the one place in my body, namely the soles of my feet, where I could experience some sort of connection to another human being. And the act of massaging just, you know, in a way that I really don’t have words for, kept me connected with the human race.

What he mainly did for me, of course, was to be willing to be present to me in my suffering. He just hung in with me in this very quiet, very simple, very tactile way.”

(Excerpt from The Soul in Depression transcript from Speaking of Faith)

The first time I heard this story on the radio, I cried.

This kind of being-with is true love to me, and what defines positive relationships.

The Art of Comfortingcomfort beloved

In “The Art of Comforting”, Miceli, Mancini, and Menna build on research and interviews to propose a conceptual framework for social comforting. They acknowledge that comforting one another can be a complex, sometimes clumsy business. They find that genuine, effective comforting is:

  • a feeling: when we are comforted we feel better, and feel less distress (not the same as “knowing how we should feel”);
  • intentional: comfort is no accident; when someone comforts us, we know they want to be there and their intention is clear;
  • built on empathy: comfort means feeling understood, not alone, that someone close to us accepts our problems and distress, and even shares our suffering;
  • embodied in non-verbal behavior: closeness, availability, listening, and touching signal “you can count on me.” Non-verbal behavior is crucial and signifies “truth” and commonly includes eye contact, proximity, forward body lean, and expressions of interest, acceptance, and concern;
  • different from advice, material/tactical help, and emotional contagion: though the person providing comfort understands and shares our pain, comforting is not the same as offering material help, or giving advice. Our friend does not feel our stress so much that they amplify the distress or can no longer focus on being present and caring in the moment.
  • tailored and caring: if you want to comfort someone, consider what they need and what makes them feel cared for – not what you would need or how you feel cared for when upset;
  • safe: in addition to intentional, empathetic, tailored to the other, and caring, comfort happens when there is a clear distinction between self and other. When you comfort someone, you carry your love and good intentions in the same basket as your empathy for their pain. This demands clarity and self-awareness.

Holding the Space: Positive and Negative

Parker Palmer’s story, as well as the theoretic construct of social comfort, are grounded in empathy, somatic awareness, and the capacity to hold positive and negative emotions at once.

Research on empathy shows that the capacity we have for empathy correlates with our high positive emotion and our high abilities to regulate our emotions. People high in empathy can both feel pain and elation at the same time: they can flexibly negotiate feelings of negative emotions and positive emotions. They can distinguish between, and deal with, the painful emotions shared with loved-ones who are in pain, as well as painful feelings triggered in their own memory and experience. At the same time, empathetic people maintain positive emotions – feelings of concern, love, hope, and strength for the other.

scruffy kissesTo comfort, we must be attuned to body and mind. In A General Theory of Love, doctors and authors Lewis, Amini, and Lannon, describe the physiological impact of empathy and intimate connection. “Because loving is reciprocal physiologic influence, it entails a deeper and more literal connection than most realize. Limbic regulation affords lovers the ability to modulate each other’s emotions, neurophysiology, hormonal status, immune function, sleep rhythms, and stability.”

In many studies, positive social relationships have been identified as beneficial for physical and mental health (Cohen, 2004). Lewis and colleagues note, ” Our lovers, spouses, children, parents, and friends are our daily anodynes … potent magic indeed.”

Closing as a true (covert/genuine/tentative-but-rational … Heathcliff!!) Romantic, I leave you quoting two literary greats:

“I ponder the question, ‘What is Hell?’ I maintain it is the suffering of being unable to love.”

Fyodor Dostoevsky

Late Fragment

And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
I did.
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.

Raymond Carver




Carver, R. (1989). A New Path to the Waterfall. New York: Grove Press.

Dostoevsky, F. (2002) The Brothers Karamazov. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Lewis, T., Amini, F., & Lanoran, R.. (2000). A General Theory of Love. New York: Random House.

Miceli, M., Mancini, A., Menna, P. (2009). The art of comforting. New Ideas in Psychology 27: 343-361.

Tippet, K. (2009). Interview excerpt with Parker Palmer from The Soul in Depression. Speaking of Faith.

Zaki, J., Weber, J., Bolger, N., Ochsner, K. (2009). The neural bases of empathic accuracy. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 106: 11382-11387.

This morning we caught a rainbow from lepiaf.geo’s photostream
speechless from photoalive’s photostream
scruffy kisses from Cali2Okie’s photostream.