What NOT to Say to a Friend Going Through a Hard Time: 5 Things That Will Make Them Feel Worse

Tough stuff is an unavoidable part of life. Cancer, divorce, death, health crises…you name it. Unexpected, really difficult stuff happens to our friends. It feels so helpless to sit on the sidelines. We often search for something comforting and encouraging to say, desperately trying to make our friends feel better. Today, I’m here to share five things not to say to someone who is going through a hard time.

 

 

It will be ok. It’s a nice thought and a deep hope. But we don’t know this. We can’t see into the future to know that everything is going to turn out okay. Hearing your parent has Alzheimer’s is terrifying. Cancer isn’t always curable. Filing for bankruptcy can be devastating. We may hope and pray and cross our fingers that everything will be ok, but none of us actually know that. To pretend that we know it will all work out swimmingly is to deny the real and painful outcomes our friends fear. So while we desperately want it to be ok, we don’t know that.

 

Everything happens for a reason. This is probably the most common statement to come out of people’s mouths when tough stuff arises, and it’s painful to hear. I think humans want to believe this statement, as it gives a sense of order and fairness to our lives. What reason could there be for losing a child; what reason could there be for having your marriage crumble? And while it may be true that we can learn something from even the most painful of experiences, this is not the same as saying there is a reason for everything.

 

I know how you feel. No matter how deeply we feel, no matter how much empathy we have, we cannot ever truly know how a friend facing a hard time is feeling. Their feelings are uniquely theirs, shaped by their experiences, personality, beliefs, and background. I encourage you to use your empathy muscles to imagine how they feel. Try to be curious about their experience and get as close to standing in their shoes as possible. Even if you’ve been through a similar situation, it’s not the same. Each of our experiences and feelings are uniquely ours.

 

I have a friend/aunt/coworker who went through this. This is probably true, as so many of us know brave and courageous people who have faced all sorts of tough stuff. In a time where uncertainty abounds, it’s natural to want to provide more information to a friend going through a hard time, telling a personal story to offer more data or comfort. However, this personal story telling often has the opposite impact. It can make the friend currently struggling feel even more inundated and lost in the shuffle of suffering. My rule of thumb? If a friend asks whether we know anyone who has faced similar tough stuff, feel free to share, but if not, kindly refrain.

 

Time heals all wounds. As someone who considers themselves an “expert” of sorts in helping people heal, let me tell you right now that I do not believe this statement. It sounds lovely, and I wish it were true, but it’s not. Time plus emotional work can help some wounds heal, but certaintly not all the way. This phrase is often heard by our friend as, “Give it enough time, and you’ll be fine. You’ll move on and go back normal.” This phrase is particularly difficult to hear when it comes to grief and loss, as most people aren’t ready to move on or create a new normal.

 

It’s amazing how quickly these one liners can roll off our tongues. They are usually built on a desire to be helpful and comforting. They’re also rooted in a desire to minimize our own discomfort of watching someone we care about go through a hard time.

 

It can be impossible to know what to say when a friend is struggling, but we can start with NOT saying some things.

4 Comments

  1. Claudia Myers

    Dr.Allison, I heard all of these things when my daughter was murdered. And you are right. People have no idea what you’re going through. It is a lonely journey, because I knew no one whose child had been murdered . “. It will be ok,” and “I know how you feel”,really bothered me, as it will never be ok to me that someone took my daughters life. And time heals nothing. It just makes me aware of how long it’s been since I saw my daughters’ face, and heard her voice. I will long for her until the day I die,and become reunited with her again. Thanks for this article… maybe people will stop and really think before they say something that might upset someone. Now I’m in a child loss,grief support group in which we discuss topics such as these, and it really helps to have people like me to discuss things with. Thanks again! Your articles are wonderful!

    1. Dr. Allison

      Claudia,
      Thank you so much for your comment. I hope it can help others see just how painful and isolating these responses and comments can be. It can feel so helpless to comfort someone in such pain, and I think people sometimes say what reduces THEIR discomfort, not the discomfort of the person in pain. It’s my hope that people can remember the power of empathy, which rarely takes the form of one liners. I’m so glad you’ve found a support group that offers a space to process your experience. Thank you again for sharing and for continuing to support this site. It means a great deal to me.

    1. Dr. Allison

      Great question, Susan. To be honest, I think the two most important things are listening and validating. It may be that after someone shares their story, we acknowledge how difficult their experience is, how scared or worried they might feel, how it must be overwhelming, etc. Mirroring how others feel might seem trivial, but it’s actually really powerful. It helps people feel HEARD. Often, people just want to have friends sit with them in their pain for a bit, rather than rushing to make it “feel better” like so many people do. To your question about support groups, I think support groups are wonderful! Support is a wide and deep concept. It involves trust, relating, comforting, validating, and giving space to feel or say anything we need. Sometimes, people want advice or to hear stories of friends or relatives, but I’ve found this is much more rare than we might think. My rule of thumb is that if someone asks for advice or if we know anyone who has been in a similar place, it’s appropriate to share these stories. If not, listening and validating is more impactful than we initially realize. I hope this is helpful! Thanks for reading (and commenting!)

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