What to do with a Friend in Need? Hold the Space, then Allow what Comes.


When we see people in need of help, we will want to help them. That’s natural, we have compassion built into us as social beings. But when we see people in need, especially when they start talking to us, what we think as helpful may not be helpful to them. The way we should deal with their upset is very different from the way we deal with our upset internally. For instance, when we experience trouble, we will try to find a way out, find solutions to match the problems. When it comes to other people’s issues, they first want to be understood, heard and seen, before any other process happen; rather than be problem-solved. I will detail a 2-step process to begin the helping relationship with a troubled friend.

Step One: Hold the Space

Be present, curious, understanding and compassionate. This is a skill we get drilled on repetitively in our training as therapists, counsellors or life coaches. We learn to hold the space for the other person to unfold. Think of the last time you were really interested in getting to know someone because that person intrigues you. You already know how to do this. These are some of the many strategies that we professionals use:

  1. Reflect the meaning – reflect the essence of what is being communicated as we experience the other person fully.
  2. Communicate empathy – let the other person know that we can relate to what he feels, because somehow we have encountered such feelings before. Contexts can be different, but feelings are universal.
  3. Be curious, don’t judge – ask questions to gather more about this issue and let the person tell the story.
  4. Show up and be real – be yourself skillfully, and disclose what you truly feel about the situation, but not to give any advice or judgments.

Through these strategies, the other person would know that we are genuinely concerned, and we understood them. And sometimes, this is all they need from us, just for one other person in this world to know that they are struggling – an immense therapeutic outlet.

Step Two: Let them Decide where to go from here

After holding the space for the other person, for more complex issues, the other person may need and will be receptive to a more involved conversation. Generally, these are the 3 ways the conversation could turn out:

  1. “I can handle it eventually” problems: For these problems, the other person just needs someone to talk to. If we hold the space well, that will clarify the person’s thoughts and give comfort to the person. We have done our helping role here. No advice needed, therapy done.
  2. “I’m lost, confused and torn” problems: In this context, the other person is probably torn between options or even have no idea how to move forward. But the problem is potentially manageable. In this context, advice may expected from us, before which we should always ask for permission to advice. Then, give your opinions and thoughts, some of which may be taken, others may not. Then disengage, while holding the space all the time.
  3. “This is totally hopeless” problems: Sometimes, people encounter problems that are too large to handle, and they give up hope. This is when people start showing self-defeating thoughts. Sometimes, we cannot see a way out for them too. In these situations, we help by shining positive light of hope, and trust that they have the internal resources to cope through. Highlight the good things they have been doing well in moving this problem and ask them what could they possibly explore from here (extracted from solution-focused therapy). Do positive reframe and highlight what positive outcomes they can perceive at this point, flip the problem to an asset (extracted from neurolinguistic programming).

Of course, there are a range of other problem types, which needs different strategies and some can be very complex to explain. Most importantly, bear in mind that in many conversations, if we are highly skillful in holding the space for the other, we can already see a shift in other person. That could be all they ask for.

Original writings by The Realist, inspired by encounters in professional work in life coaching, physical therapy and PhD research.

Depressive Reaction & Reactive Depression: Only One is Worrying.


Throughout our lives, we experience a range of moods. Some of these mood states are more activating, while others are deactivating. One of the most deactivating mood state is depression. Depression is a cause of concern in societies around the world. It is one of the most common mental health issue faced by many people, regardless of gender, occupation and age. Less known to the population is that depression can be classified across a spectrum, from milder levels (depressive reaction) to critical level (reactive depression). It is essential to know the difference along this spectrum, as when the critical level is reached, professional help is often needed. I have seen many people keeping serious depression in the closet and try to self-cope. Many times, for them, the struggle remains recurring, as Winston Churchill said, “when the black dog comes to visit”.

Depressive reaction is a mood-related response most people can exhibit in a challenging situation. Like any mood state, such as feeling anxious, happy, sad and grieve, depressive reaction is temporary, and will come and pass in its own time. It feels like a flattened emotion, with little positivity present. Like depression, depressive reaction will also generate self-defeating thoughts (e.g., hopelessness, over-generalisation) and negative attitudes. But, unlike depression, depressive reaction does not last long, and the person will regain functionality as the mood passes.

Reactive Depression is a conditioned involuntary responses in the face of adversity, stemming from personal belief system and schemas. These responses are likely to be episodes when the depression comes in and stays over time. Reactive depression is likened to a knee-jerk reaction that got triggered, and stays triggered due to cognitive and emotional regulatory reasons.

To properly identify a reactive depression, these are some of the major symptoms:

  1. Duration: Can potentially last from days to months-on-end to even years. It is not a mood, but a state of being that carries the depressive emotion consistently as the norm.
  2. Functionality: The person has difficulty functioning normally or effectively on a daily basis. Activities that were once enjoyed or done easily becomes difficult.
  3. Intensity of thoughts: The person is strongly influenced by the negative thoughts in the head. These thoughts has control over the person, can be irrational and seldom challenged.
  4. Experiential avoidance: The person is resistant towards new experiences, new ways of thinking, behaving and exploring.
  5. Physical exhaustion: These negative mental states will eventually affect the physical state. Other symptoms such as insomnia, weight loss and bowel problems may result.

With these criteria as benchmarks, if you recognise these symptoms in the people around you, it is advisable to help them approach mental health professionals, click here to explore which is an appropriate profession. However, if it is only a passing mood state, do sit down quietly by yourself with the depressive reaction and ask why is it here? And what meaning it has for you? Such exploration will surface some personal truths and foster growth.

Original writings by The Realist, inspired by encounters in professional work in life coaching, physical therapy and PhD research.





Honour our Emotions


Some say emotions make us human, without emotions, we are only living processors. Emotions are inevitable, involuntary, powerful and possessive. If left unobserved, they can take over our mind and body. Yet, to put a structure around emotions is only elusive. When asked “what is the best way to understand and handle emotions?”, I think people have to inquire into the art and science of emotions. The concepts I cover in this article will only be brief, and each will be unpacked in future posts.

“Find the silver lining in experiencing each emotion.”

This is one of my favourite poems that artfully captures the existence of emotions. From this poem, I will draw out its relevant scientific discourse.

The Guest House

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.

Be grateful for whatever comes.
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

— Jellaludin Rumi

1. Emotions are meant to be temporary. Emotions are adaptive temporary experiences that are generated by external/internal stimulus, to help us or to communicate with us. They are to be picked up to be processed, and let go and be given the time to be released.

2. To know emotions, we need mindfulness. The poem is written under the spotlight of emotional awareness. It is only with awareness, can we begin to understand our emotional presence, and how it is influencing our thoughts and behaviours.

3. Emotions bear purpose. Emotions have messages for us. Feeling angry tells us we are first hurt, then seek to protect. Depression tells us we are internal dejected, due to perceived lack of control despite trying. Anxiety tells us we are not prepared, obsessed with control and full certainty.

4. Emotions are contextually functional. Having understood purpose,  when placed in context, we see their functions. Anger functions as defence, depression functions as prompts for us to rest cognitively and emotionally, then re-conceptualise and instil personal control, and anxiety functions as energy to react to unexpected changes.

5. Make space and accept them as they are. Emotions are meant to be felt. Make space and create a bubble of acceptance for them. Don’t judge them, we all know the experience of getting more angry for being angry, getting more anxious for being anxious. Understand these emotions at their core and leave it at that level. At the same time, don’t let them consume all of you, for they are only messengers. Commit to valued actions and behaviours, while making space for emotions and use these emotions if they are contextually functional. If not functional at the moment, open your grasp and let them go at their own time.

6. Positive reframe. Find the silver lining in experiencing each emotion. “He may be clearing you out for some new delight.” Most of the time, each message would have a positive meaning for us. We have to look for what is working for us in this experience, and what can we learn from this.

Original writings by The Realist, inspired by encounters in professional work in life coaching, physical therapy and PhD research.

Living the “Good Life” is about being emotionally stable


At some point in our lives, we will come to ask ourselves “what does living the ‘good life’ means for me?” For me, this question comes at a young age – late adolescence, leading me to seek knowledge and wisdom from scientific and spiritual sources. For others, it can come at a life crisis, when latent dissatisfaction boils up to an unbearable level. For simplicity, many people would answer “to be happy”. Without deeper considerations, some people do take it literally – the pursuit of pleasure. The social construct of happiness gives people the expectation to constantly chase after happiness, and fear from negative feelings, and negatives are bad – a myth we should all probably bust after watching Inside Out. But still, why chase after the positives?

“I believe a good emotional system has similar patterns, having the traits of emotional adaptability and stability.”

Research. The pursuit of pleasure can actually be a negative experience. A study, published in American Psychology Journal Emotions, found associations between the high variability of positive feelings throughout a normal week and worse psychological health, including lower well-being and life satisfaction and greater depression and anxiety. Albeit having positive feelings are generally linked to positive psychological outcomes, when they start fluctuating drastically, it becomes a negative experience. This association can be interpreted in a few ways: (1) high positive emotional variability causes emotional turbulence, and (2) people who are poor emotional regulators tend to fluctuate more than good regulators. The constant pursuit of pleasure may be leading to this fluctuation. If constantly chasing after positive emotions do not guarantee us long-term “happiness”, then what does?

In my PhD research, I work with emotions to subtler levels. I was looking at one of my measures one day on happiness and was astounded. The sub-facets of happiness are feeling “happy”, “content”, “fulfilled” and “satisfied”. The previous research tested a huge normative population with pool of words associated with being happy, and these 4 words hung together to measure happiness. I was wondering what about other emotions like “elation”, “delight”, “joy”, “glee” – words that are of greater positive valence. The former 4 words suggest to me a rather neutral state of having enough and living a meaningful and purposeful life, without much infusion of the mainstream happiness. I start to think that the public associate the former more neutral states with long-term happiness, but subconsciously they want that jolt of positivity that has possibly no link to the idea of happiness captured in this research.

Like a  good heart. The idea of having an undercurrent of life contentment, fulfilment and satisfaction, with little fluctuation in positive affect makes me think of a heart. A good heart is one that is adaptable and has a low heartrate variability, which means when stimulated, the heartrate does not deviate too much from baseline, and can return to baseline quickly. I believe a good emotional system has similar patterns, having the traits of emotional adaptability and stability.

How we got it all wrong? The general public seems to get the idea of happiness wrong. My experience is that people think being happy as having a big night out, throwing party balloons and laughing over drinks. It seems like a staple for weekends, and if without, they feel disappointed. I think people should start thinking what makes them happy in terms of their life satisfaction, contentment and fulfilment, and taking a more stable and centred approach to encounter life experiences.

Original writings by The Realist, inspired by encounters in professional work in life coaching, physical therapy and PhD research.