When someone opens up to us about the struggles they are facing in their life, it can be tough trying to avoid the same tired old platitudes. When we sympathize with someone, we are acknowledging that they are suffering. This sounds great, but is actually insufficient if you really want to help someone through their problems. What people need during tough times is your empathy – the ability to enter into their pain with them, remain non-judgemental, and respect what they are feeling without trying to impose your own opinions. This can be tricky, because many of us were raised to be sympathetic rather than empathetic.
So, what shouldn’t you say when comforting someone who is facing emotional or psychological pain? Read on to find out what phrases you ought to avoid, and how you can demonstrate a more empathetic response instead.
1. “At least…”
Do not minimize someone else’s suffering by saying something like, “Well, your marriage may be falling apart, but at least you have a partner!” These kind of responses divert attention away from the other person’s actual pain.
2. “Cheer up!”
The last thing anyone feeling low needs to hear is to be told to “cheer up.” Human emotions just don’t work like that – and if you truly attempt to understand someone else, you’ll know this to be the case. When was the last time anyone telling you to cheer up actually helped? Exactly! A much better approach is to respect the other person’s emotions.
3. “Give yourself a deadline!”
Sometimes well-meaning people suggest setting a grieving or anger “deadline.” They may say something like, “Give yourself a couple of months to get over it,” or even, “It’s been six weeks now, why aren’t you over your breakup/miscarriage/etc.?” This approach overlooks the fact that everyone’s emotional processes are different, and what may be a small blip for one person may be a big deal for another.
4. “You’re so lucky compared to others!”
Yes, it can be a good idea to count one’s blessings from time to time. However, it isn’t helpful to hear this when you’re in the midst of emotional pain. Such phrases overlook the very real problems someone is facing in the present.
5. “Let’s not talk about that any more, it’s depressing.”
If you find it hard to handle what you are hearing, find a polite way to excuse yourself from the conversation. Do not, under any circumstances, just tell the other person that you should talk about something more uplifting! It isn’t their job to bend in accordance with your wishes.
6. “Just keep busy.”
Another common piece of advice given to people undergoing emotional turmoil or depression is to “keep busy.” The trouble with this advice is that during difficult times it can be immensely hard to concentrate on “keeping busy” in the first place. In addition, distractions don’t make the underlying problem go away. Therefore, this suggestion is inappropriate.
7. “I think what you should do is…”
A significant element of empathy is being able to remain non-judgemental towards the person who is telling you about their troubles. When you start trying to give advice or even telling them how to run their life, you are not being empathetic – you are merely being annoying and insensitive. Whilst you may want to “fix” this person, the more helpful response is simply to let them talk about whatever it is they are dealing with and to trust that they will discover a solution that works for them.
8. “Let me tell you about my experience…”
It can be tempting to try and relate someone else’s experiences to your own life history, but think carefully before telling them your own story. Do not dominate the conversation and make it all about you. Keep your attention on the other person, and if you have a past experience that you think may be relevant, ask them whether they would like to hear it before launching into an anecdote.