When someone we care about goes through something difficult, we want to speak words of encouragement and reassurance. We come out with statements like “It’ll be alright, just give it time.” Or “I know you’ll get through this. My aunt had [fill in illness or injury], and she’s fine now.” Or “Well, at least it’s not [fill in something that seems worse].”
Being on the receiving end of statements like these recently, I have found that–despite the best intentions–those words can feel less than helpful, especially if you’re feeling particularly discouraged, sick, or sore at that moment. My unspoken response has sometimes been, “How do you know it’ll be alright?” and “So what if your aunt had cancer and is fine now? I’m not your aunt.”
Of course, these things are said out of love and a desire to be hopeful and affirming. And I would much rather someone say something in the midst of trouble than remain silent. However, this new perspective has made me stop and think about what I say to someone undergoing a trial, and how my words might come across to the hearer.
- “Don’t worry” can serve to invalidate the other person’s feelings of fear, anxiety, and concern. Someone walking a tough road needs to know it’s OK to worry, feel afraid, and be angry.
- “I just know you’ll be fine” can sound Pollyanna-ish. For one, unless you’re a doctor, those words are not based in fact. And we’ve all known someone who, despite the best prognosis and medical care, was not fine.
- Telling a friend she’ll be cured because you or someone you know was cured of that same thing depersonalizes your friend’s experience–as though everyone with a given condition is essentially the same.
- “It’ll be OK in time” overlooks what is directly in front of the person. Maybe it’ll be fine later, but right now it really stinks, and your friend needs someone to live in that moment with her.
- “You’ll do fine because you have such a positive attitude [have such a deep faith, are such a strong person, etc.]” can leave the person feeling guilty when they don’t feel strong, faithful, or positive. Or, worse, that if they can’t be strong, faithful, or positive, they won’t be fine.
- And my new least favorite: “At least it’s not….” Sure, there could always be worse things, but trying to downplay the person’s situation through comparison doesn’t make it feel any less difficult.
Perhaps the most helpful thing is to acknowledge the person’s fear and the reality of the situation, rather than trying to make them feel better. Next time I want to comfort a friend in a difficult time, I hope I will remember to stick with statements like the ones that have brought me the greatest comfort lately: “Oh, no, that stinks. I’ll be praying for you.” Or “I’m thinking about you and hope everything will be OK.” Or, maybe the best one: “I’m sorry you have to go through this. What can I do to help? [Insert hug here.]”