Have you ever tried to console a friend or relative, who is feeling physically or emotionally sick, by saying something supportive? Of course you did. To make them feel better, as well as to make yourself feel more at ease: we are uncomfortable when people around us are not well. So, we say something, in our opinion, helpful, supportive and constructive. Some statements, however, even when said with best intentions, can be more hurtful than helpful. Here are some examples:
“You just have to think positive” -- It is frustrating to hear statements that may trivialize someone’s pain and make it sound that it is all about someone’s lack of effort or willpower. Maybe they can’t see what is at the other end of the tunnel at the moment. Maybe they are in severe physical pain and just feel raw from it. Or they are so emotionally drained by stress or betrayal that it feels to them like being shot in the heart, which generally knocks logical thinking right out of people. In distress, many of us go to the extremes of the emotional spectrum: being numb and detached or agitated from stress cells being turned on full alert. Either way, don’t give advice that can not be applied or even processed at the moment. What to say instead? Simply acknowledge their pain, saying that it really sucks and it is unfair, and that you hope it gets better, and meanwhile, you will be there for them.
“I know how you feel” -- You may relate to their pain, but you can’t know how it feels to them. You also don’t know how they may feel at the moment. Just ask them to tell you. Help them to identify conflicted feelings and safely express distressed emotions that are surging within, but are hard to articulate or share. Or give them a hug or hold their hand, if appropriate, and say nothing.
“You don’t look sick” or “It is not that bad” -- It feels that this is what they would like to hear, but instead it may convey that you don’t relate to what is important to them at the moment. It may also feel that you are feeling awkward to acknowledge the darkness of inner pain and trying to focus on something superficially positive instead. Your friend or relative may feel unheard and not well connected as a result. Instead, say “I am so glad to see you and be here for you” or “How you are feeling?”
Please remember that the greatest consolation comes from the feeling that there is someone who cares enough about you to give the gift of their time and the grace of their kindness and understanding. Don’t coach and consult, just listen, encourage gently, and simply be there. As Maya Angelou noted brilliantly, “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” What are some ways how you were consoled in the past or how you've helped someone to feel better when they were down?