It’s hard to watch people we care about go through hard times. Whether they’re dealing with illness, mental health struggles, financial hardship, a floundering relationship, or any other kind of personal trial, we want to do whatever we can to help. The problem is that some of our best intentions can sometimes go awry: we try to be helpful, and it ends up hurting. Such mistakes are bound to happen (we’re only human, after all), but there are some best practices to follow when deciding what to say to someone going through a hard time. If you can stick to them, you’ll have a much better chance of coming across as empathetic and understanding.
Why we say the wrong things
Like I said: for the most part, people have good intentions. They want to help when they see someone they care about struggling through something. So why is it that we’re often so bad at actually saying something helpful?
One of the reasons we often say the wrong thing is that we simply panic. We don’t really know what to say, but we feel like we should say something, so we end up saying the wrong thing.
We want to solve the problem.
If someone is going through a hard time, we want to help them get through the hard time, right? It would follow that we would try to help them solve whatever problem it is they’re facing. But for a number of reasons, that isn’t always the right course of action.
We don’t want to acknowledge the pain of the situation.
Again, watching people struggle is hard. Sometimes, we subconsciously choose to avoid the pain of the situation by removing ourselves from the emotions surrounding the problem. That’s not a bad way to protect ourselves, but it is a bad way to help someone. When we’re emotionally removed from the situation, we’re a lot less likely to say something that will actually help.
We say what we think we’re supposed to say.
There’s a sort of canon of phrases that we all think of as reassuring and considerate:
“Don’t worry about it.”
“You’ll be fine.”
“Everything happens for a reason.”
On the surface, such sentiments seem like they would be helpful, but 9.99 times out of 10, they really aren’t. Still, saying what we think we should say is one reason why we get it wrong all too often.
What not to say to someone going through a hard time
For any of these reasons, we might end up saying something that doesn’t help the situation (or may even make things worse). I found that phrases like these are best avoided when trying to help someone through a hard time:
- “I can’t imagine what you’re going through.” This makes the person feel isolated and unseen. Let them explain what they’re going through, instead of taking away that chance by saying you couldn’t possibly understand.
- “There will always be another opportunity.” This minimizes a loss (of a job, a relationship, a pregnancy, etc.) and may make the person feel guilty for their sadness.
- “Here’s what you should do.” Unless the person has asked for your advice (or they give permission when you ask if you can give them advice), avoid giving it. Focus on the feelings, not on the potential solutions.
- “I’ve totally been through the same thing.” Maybe you’ve been through a similar experience, but don’t assume that it’s affecting them the same way it affected you. Again, let them lead the conversation. They should be the ones to decide if your experiences can bring them any peace.
- “Things could be worse.” When someone is going through something hard, it doesn’t matter that things could be worse—they’re hard right now. Don’t try to force perspective on them. Rather, encourage them that you’ll be with them as they navigate these rough, uncharted waters.
What to say to someone going through a hard time
What, then, are the right things to say to someone going through a hard time?
“I care about you.”
Sometimes, a simple statement like this one can be more powerful than anything else. Someone who is going through a hard time needs to know, more than anything, that there is someone who is on their side and who cares about them unconditionally.
Other ways to say this:
“I’m always on your team.”
“You matter so much to me.”
“No matter what you choose or do, you won’t push me away.”
“I can take care of that.”
One thing I hear people say a lot is something along the lines of “If there’s anything I can do to help, just let me know.” While this statement is very well-meaning, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with it, it does put the burden on the struggling person to reach out when they need something (a prospect that might be overwhelming for them, considering they’re already going through a tough time).
Instead of leaving the offer open, try offering something specific, like bringing dinner every Monday night, or driving carpool to soccer practice for the foreseeable future. Finding practical ways to help, no matter how small, will make a big difference.
“This makes me so sad.”
Sympathy is feeling bad for someone. Empathy is feeling bad with someone. (If you’ve never seen this 3-minute video of Brené Brown explaining empathy, it’s worth a watch). Empathy opens up an emotional pathway between you and the other person, creating a connection that sympathy or pity can’t.
There’s another reason why saying this works so well: because chances are, it’s true. When we see people we love going through a hard time, we feel sad. It can be uncomfortable to express that sadness, but that doesn’t mean it’s not there. Expressing it is being honest with yourself and with them. It’s acknowledging your true feelings, rather than suppressing them. That will help you show up more authentically for them, and will help you process your own emotions about the situation in an honest, healthy way.
Other ways to say this:
“I hate that you’re going through this.”
“I wish I could take this away from you.”
“It’s okay to not be okay.”
When someone is dealing with something hard, a lot of people feel the need to try to “fix” it or make the bad feelings go away. But there are some things that aren’t okay and can’t be fixed.
Remind your loved one that they don’t have to find a solution to what they’re feeling—not right now, or not ever. Whatever they’re feeling is completely valid, and they don’t have to talk themselves out of it or try to find logic in the situation.
Other ways to say this:
“Whatever you’re feeling is normal and fine.”
“There’s no need to rush your feelings. I’m here for you no matter what.”
“Don’t beat yourself up for feeling bad. This is a hard time.”
“What are you in the mood for right now?”
Sometimes, your friend might be looking for a shoulder to cry on. Other times, they might be looking for someone to watch a movie with, or go out to dinner with, or have a deep, heartfelt conversation with. Letting the other person take the lead is a good way to make sure you’re giving them what they truly need, and not what you think they need.
Whatever their answer to this question: listen! If they just want to vent, or just want to be alone, or need to be totally distracted, do your best to fill that need.
Other ways to say this:
“How can I help right now?”
“Would you rather have a night in or a night out tonight?”
“Do you want to talk about it right now?”
Knowing what to say to someone going through a hard time isn’t always intuitive. You might find that you have to push down some of the things you want to instinctually say, and deliberately focus on the things that will be the most helpful. But if you can show up, authentically and empathetically, for your loved one, you just might help them through one of the worst times of their life.
A brief note: if your loved one is dealing with depression, anxiety, or another mental health struggle that is impacting their daily life, one of the kindest things you can do is encourage them to seek help from (or help them set up an appointment with) a physician or therapist). If your loved one is suicidal, do not hesitate to call 9-1-1, take them to a hospital, and/or use the National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 800-273-8255.
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