Just a heads up, I think this will be a controversial post. I don’t mean it to. But alas, while everyone became focused on not being “soft” or “overly sensitive” we lost so much insight into compassion and empathy.
We’re all guilty of “saying the wrong thing” from time to time. That said, saying the wrong thing to someone who is struggling can unfortunately cause significant damage and inadvertently make the situation worse. Here’s how to stop and what to say instead.
This is of course dependent on the context and individual, but it’s my opinion that generally speaking (emphasis on gross generalization here), we as a species have no idea what the hell to say to someone struggling. Everyone’s life experience, even those shared experiences, are different. Also, I am not perfect. I am by no means an expert in relationships, dialogue, sociocultural anthropology, or “advice giving.” But as someone who struggles a lot, and by that I mean for long periods of time with some heavy stuff, I appreciate how burdensome finding the right words can be. After countless occasions when I’ve responded out of frustration or disappointment to the comments of others, people have started to ask me for guidance on how to best navigate difficult conversations. And as you can imagine, I’ve got some thoughts.
Stop Saying These 3 Things Now
What To Say Instead
Although somewhat conditional, I think you’ll find when you apply this list of phrases to any number of circumstances you’ll see they’re extremely unhelpful. I am aware most will not agree with me on these but at least let me state my case. You just might realize those people you’re having trouble getting through to or connecting with share in my logic.
Don’t Say: “Life is hard and you know, shit sucks.”
Ok, so here’s the thing, all else equal, of course life is hard and complex. So our struggling friend does not need condescending affirmation of the obvious. It comes off as dismissive and ignorant. People have said this to me on my darkest days and I always want to tell them to shove it where the sun don’t shine.
Try This: “I can see that things have been difficult lately. How can I help?”
Maybe we can’t help? Maybe we think the person should just suck it up and understand we all have “shit.” But in this moment, if we’re trying to be empathetic, it’s not about us. It’s about our friend or family. Ask the question of how you can help if all your efforts thus far have failed. So often when I’m down I think, “I don’t know how you can help but knowing you’re willing makes all the difference.”
Don’t Say: “Focus on positivity and good vibes.”
Yes, I’m guilty and of this. And looking back, I recognize how ridiculous it sounds. What the hell are “good vibes” anyway? When did that become such a thing? Most people do try to focus on the positive, but when they can’t anymore things start to get dark. Understand that those friends and family we want to “live in the light” just can’t find it. Odds are they’ve been trying. So rather than helping when we offer this bizarre advice about phantom “vibes,” we’re confirming for our struggling loved ones how unattainable living a life rich with “positive vibes” seems. Confirming they clearly aren’t living that life now.
Try This: Act
Be the positive. Bring flowers. Listen. Grab dinner. Listen. Make them dessert. Listen. Send a card. Listen. Show you care. On this, don’t expect immediate change in the person’s energy. But do know, our actions, our caring is a physical demonstration that positive things will come their way. We provide solace not only in our words, but also our actions.
Don’t Say: Nothing
Nothing is the most dangerous of them all. Silence screams volumes. When we say nothing, when we ignore the problem because it makes us uncomfortable or we worry we will say the wrong thing, we alienate our struggling friends and family. Most others will be doing as you are: observing silence for lack of knowing what to say or do. So we go the nothing route. Leading to painful isolation of our struggling love one.
Try This: “I don’t know what to say.”
Man, I wish more people said this. When I’m upset it’s not like I expect you to be all knowing. I know we are all imperfect (most especially me).
So by saying “I don’t know what to say,” a friend might tell us. Tell us how to help. How to avoid a major gaffe. And in the future we’ll be armed with language that will hopefully offer comfort and support. Hope.
One last thought: I believe most people are well-intentioned. I think as humans, in being “imperfect,” we (excuse my french) fuck up. Sometimes we even sicken ourselves worrying over others. Take the burden off. Feel out a situation and when in doubt, maybe ask what to do or how to act. Stop trying to say the “right thing.” It’s futile.
“Wisdom and compassion should become the dominating influences that guide our thoughts, our words, and our actions.” – M. Ricard