I remember this experience, eons ago, back in University.
I was going through a difficult time. A friend was dropping me off at my place after an evening at the movies. Before I got out of the car, I could not hold back anymore and burst into tears letting them know I may be depressed and that I did not know if I could keep going (yeah, it was deep). Given-I just blurted this out-it was not expected, I did not ask them if they had time and space to receive my pain and it was late at night.
I had a lot to learn but that was where I was at at the time. I was desperate. I was scared. I didn’t know what to do.
Their car kept running. I just cried.
They looked at me, with what I read as an annoyed, apathetic stare, and made a big sigh and said, “Fanie, my car is going to run out of gas. I can’t talk about this right now”.
I actually stopped crying immediately, perplexed at their reaction. Did they just say that? Really?
I told them I wanted to die and they were concerned that their car was running out of gas AND they didn’t even think to turn off the car!
That night I put aside my depressed thoughts and instead ruminated over and over about their reaction. Was it human? The person I mean, not the car. Was something missing?
Possibly. Reflecting back and 20 years of experience later, who know what they may have been going through , what thier childhood experience was like, or what they were thinking//not thinking. But let’s get back to my actual point.
Was what they said/did wrong? No. It wasn’t about that. Was it supportive? No. Now what someone may judge as supportive or not may be subjective but common here! It was cold, and not the way I would ever respond to a friend, or anyone. Our friendship dwindled after that and that was ok. We both had a lot to learn.
Throughout your life, you may have loved ones come to you to talk about and get support for a difficult and challenging situation or time in their life. Maybe they had a fight with someone at work, are grieving a loss, battling some negative inner thoughts and anxiety, or experiencing some other stressful life event. This is a challenging time for them but it can also be very challenging for YOU.
Often, our initial reaction to sensing or seeing someone in distress is to want to “put out” or stifle the distressful emotions-the ones you are seeing in others and the emotions arising in yourself, possibly due to a reaction to their distress or other internal mechanisms at play that are contributing to your emotional activation.
Either way. It’s uncomfortable. It can be awkward.
So we react. Let’s make it better. Let’s fix it. Put it out!!!
Unfortunately this may help to ease the distress (or at least yours) temporarily but may not be the most supportive response.
So what DO you say? What DO you do?
In this article, I want to share a few tips on how to support a friend when they come to you for support including:
- What to not say and the potential issue (why)
- What to consider saying instead
- A few pointers on how to be supportive and tailor your responses to your unique self and relationship
Are there things you should never say? Possibly. It depends. Throughout my experience-professionally and on a personal level, I have come to believe that yes, there are some things that may be helpful and some that may be more on the harmful side.
For example, “get over it”, “move on already”, “this again?” or “my car is running out of gas” are not supportive statements.
These can be harmful. And if you do not have the capacity to be a good support (and that is totally ok!) , then it might be better that you set a boundary rather than saying/responding in a way that could be harmful (invalidating, judgmental, critical)
Note: In certain professionals and positions/relationships to the person asking for help, yes, there are wrong things to say, not just unsupportive, but may breach ethical guidelines and professional standards and goes against “do no harm”.
This article however is focusing on what to say, not to say, in a friend and/or family context, not a professional relationship.
As your situation is unique, as are you and the circumstances, the following are not strict “dos and don’ts” but there are ways to support a loved one and approach the situation that may be more helpful than others.
5 common things people say that may not be as helpful as you think and what to try instead.
There are no “wrong” statements in the ones listed below (unless you are in a Coaching or Counselling position!) and you will find that your intent comes from a place of love, and caring-these are just some tips to help the impact of your support align with your intent😊.
- “I understand what you are going through” or “I understand how you feel”
The potential problem with this: No. You don’t. Even if the same event or situation happened to you, you cannot possibly know what their experience is like because your experience and interpretation is not their experience or interpretation of the event/situation.
Try instead: Ask them how they are feeling and what the experience is like for THEM.
- “You are going to be ok”.
The potential problem with this: You doesn’t know this and likely at the moment, the person does not “see” and therefore does not feel, that they will be ok. And possibly they aren’t, or they won’t be. You want to validate and acknowledge their current emotions. Meet them where they are at. You will find that with some talking and processing (from your friend, not you), your friend will start to feel that things will be ok or at least have a plan of action whether that be to change the situation or work on their reaction.
Try instead: Give and show empathy and compassion. You might say, “This sounds like a very challenging time” Or “wow, which sounds heavy”. Follow by what support do you feel you need to put in place? Or “How can I support you right now?”
- “I get it – that happened to me” or “Oh well when I went through that……this is what it was like for me…blah blah blah.”
The potential problem with this: Ok. So maybe your intent is to share your story to identify with what they may be experiencing. Now is NOT the time. By directing the focus on you and your story you are not honouring their story. This is not supportive If you feel there is a lack of reciprocity in the relationship and this friend only ever talks about themselves, then you may need to explore boundaries and what you want this relationship to look like.
Try instead: A little disclosure can help so they know they are talking to someone who has encountered a similar situation but a simple sentence or two will do and then the focus is to be put back on them. i.e., “I remember the something similar happened to me to, what has this been like for you?”
- “You should do….
The potential problem with this: Unsolicited advice. Unless your friend is in a crisis mode, you for see imminent danger, or they directly ask you “what should I do?” hold your tongue.
Try instead: Just listen. It sounds so simple but active listening can be hard to do. By simply holding space for your friend and sitting with them, this may be all they need. They may not want you to solve their problem and you may find that just by listening and expressing empathy you provided your friend with excellent support. You may have experienced this already if a friend has said to you “I always feel so much better after I talk to you” and your reaction might have been “huh? I didn’t do anything”. Yes, you did. You gave them space. You gave them time. You gave them compassion.
- At least it’s not as bad as….” Or” “It could be worse.”
The potential problem with this: By saying this or something similar, you are minimizing, disenfranchising, possibly bright siding, and definitely judging their experience. Not to mention tossing any empathy you may have out the door.What does how someone else who has it worse have to do with your friend’s experience? You are now judging your friend and their reaction. Sure, you may mean well by helping them get some perspective or see that things are not as bad, but this s not helpful when your friend is “in the moment”.
Try instead: Practice being non-judgmental. Yes, we all judge but you can catch and release your judgement, by being mindful of it and then putting it aside. If you find you can’t , then you may not be the best person for your loved one to go to. You also want to again, validate and acknowledge their emotions and experience. There is no wrong or right way to feel and if you think so-you are again in judgment.
In addition to what to say/not to say, I want to now provide you with a few general guidelines that may help you structure the way you support someone. The above 5 responses are quite specific and scripted. As you have your own unique relationship with your loved ones, and your own needs to consider, the following pointers may help you in creating and tailoring your own responses AND take yourself into consideration too.
A few pointers to help structure your own unique way of supporting a loved one
- You are likely being supportive than you know by just showing up and being you! Yes, just by showing up as your authentic self may be the comfort and support your friend is looking for-something they feel safe trust, familiarity, stability) and soothed around.
- LISTEN and SAY NOTHING. You don’t need to complicate things. Nor do you need to add pressure to yourself that you are responsible for solving their situation or making them feel better. Listening is actually a lot harder than it sounds like and it is NOT a passive approach-listening is actively holding space for someone – a safe place. Listening demonstrates that you care. It demonstrates empathy and that you are there for them. Sometimes there is no answer or solution and your loved one just needs someone to share their stress and pain with.
- Know your limits and set boundaries. Just because you are a friend and they may feel comfortable coming to you does not mean you have to play that role, a least not all the time. You likely have your own stuff going on and you are doing not only yourself but your friend a favour by letting them know your limits. Boundary setting is for another article but there are different types of boundaries you may want to reflect on including emotional, energy, physical, mental, to name a few. You can still be there for a friend in one way and put limits in certain areas.
- Ask yourself, how YOU would like to be supported in a similar situation? Now this does not mean answering this and giving the same support you would need as you are not your friend, and they aren’t you. It could however help you take a step back, empathize deeper and get a greater understanding of what might support them at this time
- Get some support yourself. If you choose to be a pillar of support (yes, it is a choice to what degree you want to get involved, even if you do not have much choice in being involved) in your friend’s life or in a particular time or situation, then you may need some support yourself to cope with any vicarious trauma, triggers and stress and the effects that these may be putting on you
- Your role is not to “fix” things. You can’t “fix” things and if you focus on this, then both of you will end up in distress. Someone else’s’ distress often creates uncomfortable emotions in ourselves that we want to soothe -our default is to “fix” things and move past the emotional discomfort a soon as possible. Most likely, the situation is not “fixable” for example, if a friend is grieving a breakup, grief is not something to fix. They will have to go what they need to go through in their grieving journey.
- Encourage and/or help them set up professional support. You can only do so much, and you are not responsible for their reaction or outcome. You can help a loved one by encouraging them to get professional support.
Let’s sum things up
You may have noticed a theme throughout this article in regard to how to support a loved one in a difficult time.
Here they are:
Acknowledge and Validate their emotions and experience (this does not mean that you agree or feel the same way)
Catch and release your Judgements
Say nothing. Listen – really listen
Be Present and show up as YOU,
And remember to do this for yourself too😊
So going back to my story at the start.
That friend and situation I was referring to? They may have actually been trying to set a boundary-though perhaps not communicated in the most “appropriate” way. And perhaps I crossed a boundary I was not sure was there. Either way.It was not their job or obligation to support me
So reflecting back? Well they did help. I was able to realize and accept I was not doing well and I needed help and they were there, in their own way, to receive that.And by them communicating to me that they were not the one to go to for support, I went and got the support:)
Healthcare Professionals can only do so much. To move through adversity and navigate in difficult times we need a loving, supportive and safe network and team around us.
That’s where you come in:).
I hope you take some time to acknowledge your important role in helping your loved ones and have some tools to walk away with from reading this article so you be the best support you can be and receive support yourself:)