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.
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.
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.
To 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
And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
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.
This is a beautiful article. Thanks Denise!
As usual, a beautiful article and another great argument highlighting the importance of the mind-body connection. Thanks, Denise!
I am a reader from China,while I would like to know when you choose “relationship” as the theme of this month,does “relationship” limit only as “love relations”,or it concerns with all relations with family friends and relatives?
and there is something i do not quite understand ,can you explain a bit?”(covert/genuine/tentative-but-rational … Heathcliff!!) “what does they mean?
Jeremy and Marie-J — thank you!
Breezy — the theme of “relationships” this month does embrace all kinds of relationships, including friends, family, colleagues, romantic partners, etc. — all important to well-being.
The sentence you ask me to explain “(covert/genuine/tentative-but-rational … Heathcliff!!)” — is a play on words and the many definitions of the word “romantic” including the intellectual/artistic tradition of Romanticism …. I am just joking around and making fun of myself, having admitted romantic tendencies even when writing about rational science. D.
Dear Denise ,
Thank you so much for your explaination,I am trying my best to understand of whole .I think I’ve got something from your wonderful article! Thanks!
Would you say that the art of comforting is generally more effective on extroverted people? Is this technique useful for individuals who do not necessarily thrive in relationships with other people?
Thank you for a beautiful article and for sharing your humanity, insight and humor. Your valuable stories offered me reinforcement about the power of touch and the importance of reaching out to others. I recently asked a client if I could help her with a stretch, and when I touched her, she cried. She told me she couldn’t remember the last time someone had touched her. I asked George Vaillant about “skin hunger; it is real and it hurts. I believe appropriate touch is necessary and beneficial in healing as well as building positive relationships. Your article is also perfectly timed as a disputation to Ehrenreich’s new tome which blasts positive psychology. On the Jon Stewart Show, she talked about how the positive view is lacking in empathy! I wish she could read your important PPND article to better understand the importance of Positive Psychology in the world, and the “art of comforting,” as you have so lovingly described it.
Elaine O’Brien, MAPP
Shannon — you pose a great research question. I expect the capacity to comfort would have more to do with capacities for empathy, emotional attachment, and self-regulation. Both introverts and extroverts can thrive in relationship, and introverts might be particularly suited to with one-on-one intimate relationships. On the other hand, since extroversion is associated with positive emotion and approach behavior — so maybe well suited to balance the pos/neg emotion required for active comforting. Lots of subtlety and room for inquiry there…
Elaine — your note on ‘skin hunger’ is so important, as is the integration of the body in psychology. Considering that early brain/CNS development depends on loving touch and stimulation, it’s amazing how little we value or share that most powerful of human capacities as a culture! When I studied reflexology and massage, we would often begin by just cradling a person’s feet, heels in the palms of your hands. Even experienced students would sometimes cry when they were held, even just at the feet — that kind of compassionate, open space is just too rare. We hardly have words in contemporary language to describe it … which is why I so appreciate Vaillant & others reviving ‘agape’ — but sorry that we reach so far back into language to find such words.
I’m in Sean Doyle’s positive psychology class and an activity for our class is to find an article on PPND and ask the author some questions. First of all, I just wanted to tell you how incredible your article is and how much I enjoyed reading it! (I won’t lie, the title drew me in!)
I just wanted to ask your opinion on what you thought about how the age group of college students through younger adults views comforting. An example to clarify my ambiguous question is that I find a lot of people I am around today, they just want to vent, and to them, that person listening is a comfort to them, but I have encountered a lot of people that don’t understand the concept of comforting because they don’t want to be comforted unless you’re agreeing with them, giving them advice, getting fired up/depressed with them, and telling them what they want to hear. I have had friends that have gotten upset with me because I told them that they could consider me as someone to lend an ear, but when I employ my way of comforting…just listening, letting them know I care about them, or just being with them, it just isn’t enough. What do you think can be done to help others to understand the concept of comforting in a more subtle way? I always want to help others, but sometimes I just don’t know the answer to their dilemma and me “being there” for them just simply isn’t enough to comfort them. Is this a form of negative social relationships, or just negative aspects of it?
My last question pertains to the art of comforting as a whole. Do you think that all of the parts of the framework for comforting others must be present at once to effectively use the strategy of comforting, or do you think that they can be used independently of each other to adapt to different situations?
I appreciate the time that you take to read this and I look forward to your response!
Dear Mary Catherine,
Thank you! I’m so glad you enjoyed the article and your questions are insightful. I will do my best to answer, and am also happy to send you Miceli and colleagues’ research paper on comforting if you’d like an even deeper look into their work.
Miceli et al. propose their framework for comforting based on prior literature as well as 52 interviews they conducted to gather more information. The people they interviewed were college students (1/2 male & ½ female) with an average age of 22. So a key part of this work is built on the views of college-age people and young adults. But your question is excellent and worthy of further study – the only way to know how your friends and peers experience comforting would be to ask them.
Your thoughts also hit on an important part of their paper that I touched on only briefly –- they have an entire section titled “The hard task of the comforter” in which they review the obstacles to providing comfort. They offer a wide range of factors, including the comfortee’s resistance to asking for or being comforted (a very vulnerable feeling); and the anxiety or feelings of inadequacy that can come up when you are trying to provide comfort but it doesn’t seem to be working. They note that empathy is not easy, and is built over time as an internal skill and also built over time between people – they say “tuning into another’s thoughts and feelings is a fundamental condition for finding the “right” strategies, that is, those which best accomplish the comforting task.”
It’s important to note that in addition to empathy, the comfortee’s experience defines the art of comforting. So it’s only effective comforting if the person being comforted feels comforted. The art is in the reciprocity of shared experience. And they do highlight that the art of comforting means tailoring your strategies for comforting to the person needing/receiving comfort.
Also, they note that comforting can be given through help and advice, but that there is a quality of comforting/relief that is above and beyond help and advice. So they don’t intend to devalue the importance of help and advice in friendship, just to begin to distinguish the unique and important factors of human comforting.
You know, so much goes unsaid in even close friendships. I bet the people you care for, and show up for, and take the time to be with, very much value your presence even if they don’t say it in words, or if they still need time to work through the problem, or even if you feel internal pressure to do something more. When in doubt, there is magic in just asking – ‘what makes you feel comforted?’ As Miceli & colleagues say in the article, your intention to be there plays a huge role in the art of comforting.
Thanks again for your terrific questions — warmest regards,
Thank you so so much for your thorough and enthusiastic response! I really appreciate how quickly you got back to me! I would love to read the article you’re referring to! I can just look it up on a Psych Database if that’d be easier for you! Thanks again & I look forward to reading more of your articles!!
Dear Mrs. Clegg,
I enjoyed your article on the art of comforting. I agree, I would have shed a tear as well listening to that story. wow. It started me thinking about the feet of whom I would rub and be there for. I would say family, on certain conditions. If a family member was severely depressed, or in a terrible accident, I would feel great empathy for them.
Is there a way to encourage feelings of empathy and compassion towards others because you want those feelings to be there? Or is it difficult to create those feelings from scratch for certain people. Even enemies, to help forgive them.
In what ways can I as a young college student practice empathy towards those I rarely talk to on campus?
I am a student in a positive psychology course this semester, and I loved your article! I am very interested in empathy and the “Art of Comforting”, and I have some questions I am hoping you can answer for me. Do you know whether or not the art of comforting has a reciprocal effect? By that I mean to ask, are people who have been truly comforted by others more likely to be effective comforters themselves? Are these people also more likely to be more empathetic? I ask this because, when we feel comforted by another person, we feel as though they understand our circumstances and our state of mind. Likewise, being understood helps us to feel connected to other people, which is an important part of the act of comforting. Given that, are we more likely to better understand others, when we feel understood ourselves? Are we more likely to engage in trying to connect with others when we feel connected to a comforting social network?
Thank you for your article!
The act of comforting another seems like such a natural act. Is this use cross culturally? Is comfort defined the same way from one culture to the next? Thanks!
Dear Emily and Victoria,
Your insights illustrate two important points related to the art of comforting: the importance of practice, and the reciprocal benefit of offering comfort and compassion to someone else.
Many of us have a natural response to the people we love. There are so many reasons that may be the case, including a shared history that has already established affection, familiarity, and trust. Those relationships take time to build, and one way to look at it is that you have already practiced comforting with family and loved ones. It definitely is possible to practice compassion for others, including strangers and even enemies, and cultivate that quality in oneself – it is a spontaneous quality of human nature, and a matter of focusing one’s attention and intention.
One structured exercise you can try is loving-kindness and mindfulness meditation (LKM). LKM is taught by a number of traditions and has been used in psychological research, and been shown to increase measures of empathy in individuals. A key point of that exercise is that you practice compassion toward others, but also toward one self. Jon Kabat-Zinn has some really good resources you might like at
Another effective positive intervention, or exercise, that can develop compassion is just assigning yourself to do five intentionally kind acts in a week. You can do any kind act, for any one, anonymous or not, big or small. Plan ahead to notice what would be helpful and bring happiness to someone else, and commit to doing at least five kind things. Write down what you did and how it helped. It is a way to focus your attention and your intention. We all know how easy it is to get distracted these days. And, studies show it increases well-being in the giver as well as the receiver.
That’s a good segue into the second important point you bring up: the reciprocal benefit of offering comfort and compassion to another. I think you are right, and that the positive emotions resulting from those actions benefit both the giver and receiver. This has been found to be true in research related to gratitude, forgiveness, and loving-kindness meditation. And we also know that positive emotions are contagious, so a social network that values and practices comfort and compassion is likely to generate those qualities far and wide. It can start with one person.
Thank you very much for your thoughts and questions!
Sarah, great question! I do believe that comforting is an innate human capacity, and there are numerous examples of every-day and extraordinary (not mutually exclusive ?) acts of comforting in cultures worldwide. But just because something is innate/natural does not mean it’s not also complex and dynamic, worthy of time and cultivation. Friendship and family, love, creativity, and teamwork are also natural, as well as mysterious, and have inspired inquiry for centuries.
I don’t know if a cross-cultural analysis of the art of comforting has been done, but it would be a golden resource, and a fun project!
Thank you, D.
I enjoyed your article. I am a student in positive psychology and have been wondering about love/comfort and happiness. I do have a question however, in safe you say “comfort happens when there is a clear distinction between self and other. I am confused what do you mean about a clear distinction between self and other? If you are husband wife aren’t you suppose to comfort one another sort of as one and know what each other want?
Hi Christie — you raise a number of interesting questions. Have you ever shared painful feelings or news with someone and they got so upset on your behalf that you felt the need to comfort them (rather than felt comforted yourself)? I think the point the researchers make is that deep empathy can give you that sense of emotional ‘oneness’ and/but in order to truly comfort someone else — to tend to their needs — you need to come from a place of self-awareness and clear attention to be generous with your own loving presence and energy.