7 Reasons Why You Suck at Comforting Others
I remember a time, long before I ever considered entering into the counseling field when I watched a movie about a lady who was a therapist. She was played by Meryl Streep if I remember correctly. Her son had begun dating an older woman and it was giving her “fits” as we say in the south (in other words, she was less than thrilled about the situation). As she was dealing with how she felt about her son’s romance, she went to see ANOTHER therapist…..
I was “shook” (are people still saying that?). You mean to tell me a therapist has a therapist? What the What?! but why?! Isn’t that just redundancy?
After some thought though, I realized that it makes complete and total sense. Think about what you or people that you know have gone to counseling to work through. Now imagine that on top of your life stuff, you were to address, analyze, and assist a half a dozen serious issues of others around you with their big life stuff.
So yeah. It’s heavy. And as much as I hate to admit to such a thing, Counselors are notoriously bad at taking their own advice, or using the practices that they would prescribe to a client with a similar struggle. It’s as though we get mental-health tunnel vision. It’s ridiculous.
So, getting back around to the title of this post, let me just say that after 7+ years of training on this career path and about 2+ years working in the field, I have determined that the average person is… well…. not great at comforting others. I thought when I first began this journey that I was already good at this, I already had the skills, and all this education would be like a “formality”. wow. wrong. I had so much to learn!
It’s self-disclosure time… prepare thyself. Recently I was having a low-down, no good, awful, terrible bitch of a day. Nothing was going right. and I mean not. a. thing. I was irate with virtually everything and everyone. One of those classic woke-up-on-the-wrong-side-of-the-bed days with some added spicy-ness. And of the few strangers who I encountered on this shit day, looking a hot mess with red puffy eyes and all of my upset feelings glaring out at whomever should enter my general proximity, every one of those well-meaning people had awful advice. EVERY. SINGLE. ONE.
Allow me to share some of this awfulness with you, and Dear God in heaven, I hope that you are not guilty of any of these faux pas. I hope you walk away from this post thinking to yourself, “pff, I already knew all of that,” genuinely. And understand too, that if you do any or all of these things, you aren’t a bad person, but you are bad at making people feel better.
Here We Go.
“This too shall pass”
My stepmom and my dad had kept our children for a weekend last December so that we could get some holiday shopping done, unencumbered by begging tots, and without fear of spoiled surprises. I was talking to her about this very subject and she seemed perplexed as to why “this too shall pass” was not the great and comforting response that everyone needs to get over themselves.
The reason that this SUCKS is that it not only points out the obvious, but when boiled down, it is a DISMISSAL. I find this to be what people typically say when they have no idea what to say. Listen Jill, I get it, the time keeps on ticking away, and that this exact scenario will be short lived in the grand scheme of things, but dammit, I do not need that pointed out to me at this moment. I, and I can only imagine that virtually ANYONE would much prefer you just say, “Wow, that sounds awful. I wish I knew what to say.”
By telling someone “this too shall pass” you are not only saying, “welp, sucks for you, but ya know, it won’t last forever probably, and you’re bringing me down” You are avoiding the real thing that people most need during a rough day month or year which is plain and simple just VALIDATION and EMPATHY.
Try Instead: “That’s awful, I wish I knew what to say” or “Thankfully this won’t last forever, but I know right now it sucks”
“I know EXACTLY how you feel.”
ummmm…. strictly working the numbers here…. no. you don’t. I recently heard someone say that “everyone is living the hardest life they have ever lived.” Which is to say that you may see someone going through something that appears to mirror your own experiences, but the facts are that there are so many mental, emotional, cultural, and historical factors that are at play in all of our lives that the odds that any of us have lived the same life and encountered the same struggles and made the same choices are insurmountable. That’s not even accounting for personality types!
Think I’m being a little nit-picky? Okay, maybe I am, but these are the thoughts that should roll across the marquis in your head before you tell someone “I know EXACTLY how you feel.” How might this be different? none of this is to say that you shouldn’t try to relate to this person, quite the contrary, actually! Relate until the cows come home! but don’t do so by overshadowing their struggle with your long and involved story unless it is solicited. Additionally, partner your relating with VALIDATION of their struggle (noticing a theme here??).
Try Instead: “Oh man, that sucks, I have experienced something similar and it was awful!”
“You should pray about it.”
Now, Hold up, before you shut me down, hear me out. As a Christian, I understand how important prayer is as a part of your relationship with your Creator. That being said, let me just tell y’all, this statement as a standalone does not help.
When someone is struggling, with grief or just a terrible day, the last thing that they need from you is a guilt trip about whether or not they are a dependent enough Christian. People want VALIDATION and a listening ear, not a homework assignment with a guilt jacket on.
Another version of this you may have heard is “I’ll pray for you” paired with literally nothing else. no validation, no acknowledgement, nada. Before anyone gets it twisted, let me reiterate that this comes from a place of genuine care and concern for ALL parties involved. I know that most Christians genuinely don’t want to come off as uncaring or dismissive. I feel that too often Christians fear, or at best avoid at all costs, speaking to negative issues and thoughts, as if they go away when unspoken. (****figure of speech about bad things getting worse in the dark??)
Let it be known that prayer doesn’t make everyone feel better, and not to self-promote but, therapy helps. Too many Christians perceive themselves as ungrateful for their blessings or failing at their faith if they enter into a counseling relationship with a real human. Rest assured, NONE of this is true! Don’t just take my word for it, HERE is an article about the how asking for help actually HONORS God.
Try Instead: “Can I pray with you about it?”
“Well, at least you have it better than my friend Dave…[diatribe about how much worse dave has it than you]”
This is a doozy. I think that this response can come from a couple of positions. Often this is a deflection from “the feels” that are being put upon someone else by your situation and they are saying something to the effect of, “oh wow, this makes me uncomfortable, let me talk about something else, but nothing too far off topic so you think I am actually responding to your situation.”
Alternately, this move can come from a position of insensitivity rather than discomfort. This is something a person might say if they are thinking “what a baby you’re being, let me tell you about someone with REAL problems.” After how far you have come in this post you have come already, do I really need to address why this totally sucks?
I will anyway. There is no validation, no listening, and no empathy in this. period.
Try Instead: “That is awful! I have a friend/acquaintance that has been through something similar and I know how hard that was for them too.”
“Don’t cry, it shows weakness!”
Remember that no good, terrible, low-down, awful day I told you about? Yyyyeah, so on that day, I was visibly upset and had just cleaned myself up enough (Ha!) to walk into a convenient store to grab a tea and the well-meaning foreign man behind the counter asked me repeatedly if I was okay and I would reply with a passive, “yeah, I’m just having a bad day.” This man proceeded to adamantly instruct me to not cry because it shows weakness and I should just fight my problems. (like… with fists?)
I understand fully that this particular instance is likely a cultural issue, but even so. The message is not one of concern for the person who is struggling, but rather for how their struggle makes someone else feel uncomfortable.
Try Instead: “I can see that you’re upset, is everything okay?”
“It’s your own fault”
Sheesh, ever heard this one? I would equate this to an “I told you so.”
Often when we know when our heartache or struggle is of our own making, but damn, I don’t need anyone pointing that out to me! Just assume that I know, okay? okay.
Something important to consider here though is why would a person say this? Are they being spiteful? or is it that they have tried to help you avoid the situation in which you have found yourself? Have you been ignoring their concerns and suggestions in lieu of complaining about your situation? This is where we ask ourselves if WE have been listening and validating the concerns of others before our own breakdown. That makes this a self-awareness issue.
Then again, some people are just jerks, take a minute to weigh out the possibilities.
Try Instead: “I’m so sorry that it turned out this way, what support do you need from me?”
“It’s time to move on”
Or in other words, “get over it.” Oh Gee, why didn’t I think of that?! I’ve been sitting here feeling like dog crap when all I had to do was just get over it! What a game changer!
I jest of course. This is right up there with people thinking that genuine depression and anxiety are just a choice that people make. If only that’s all it took was to hear some rando say, “aw don’t be sad/anxious” and POOF! but alas, that is not the way it works.
We see this most often in instances of grief. Grief over losing a relationship like a marriage or long-time romance, or the loss of a loved one, or even a job! Everyone grieves differently, and for varying periods of time. This is a topic for another blog in the future, but yeah, when people tell those who are grieving to just move on or get over it, it grinds my gears. Moving on. [see what I did there?]
Try Instead: “I hate that this is still so hard on you, what can I do to help you heal/move on from this?”
So, as if I need to reiterate this, people want to be heard, understood, and validated. If someone around you is having a hard time, empathize with them, or just be there and say nothing, sometimes that’s all someone really needs is to not feel alone! Empathy does not mean that you have to take on their “stuff” it just means you give them the space to feel bad when they feel bad.