Originally published 1/10/2017
Have you ever found yourself in a situation where a friend or loved one is telling you about this awful experience they’ve had, whether it’s the loss of a loved one, a big failure at work, or a breakup they’ve just gone through? It can feel rather awkward as you think to yourself, “Shit, what am I supposed to say or do in this situation??” Everything you think of feels grossly inadequate, so inevitably you resort to some sort of platitude like, “Well, it’s always darkest before the dawn,” or, “Everything happens for a reason…” Or on the opposite end of the spectrum, you immediately leap into “fix it” mode and try to tell your friend why they shouldn’t even be upset because this is a great opportunity, and now they have all these other options, or you make up some statistic about how wallowing in grief can lead to depression, so you should probably go do something really fun immediately. I think all these approaches miss the mark when trying to comfort someone you care about.
A couple months ago, I made a big decision about the next step in my career. I got really excited about it, feeling as if many pieces of my life were finally falling into place. I started making plans, and even bought a plane ticket to go check out the place where I thought I was going to be living. And then everything fell apart. During my visit, I learned several new pieces of information that all led me to the conclusion that this was not, in fact, the right move for me to make. I came back devastated. After many months of soul searching and evaluating opportunities, it finally felt like I had found THE answer, only for the universe to say, “lol, nope.” I was distraught, and much to my dismay, realized upon my return that when I get enthusiastic about an idea, I tell people. Like a lot of people. As I talked to people, they all excitedly asked me how my trip went, and never one to downplay or sugarcoat things, I simply answered, “It was awful.” I was forced to relive the details of the experience time and time again, and it was interesting to see people’s responses. Many immediately jumped to, “oh well this is a good thing, you should be happy about it.” I understand these people mean well, and they don’t want to see me upset, so they respond in the best way they know how. Luckily, due in part to following the wisdom of Neghar Fonooni for several years now, I felt comfortable and confident to push back on people when they responded this way. I would say to them, “No, I’m not happy. And I’m allowed to feel this way. I’m not going to wallow in it forever, but I’m not going to sweep it under the rug and pretend everything is great. I’ve given myself permission to mourn this idea. I’ll figure out what’s next when I’m done feeling sad about this.” It felt very liberating to respond in this way, knowing I could honor my feelings and not feel like I now had to jump to the rescue of someone feeling awkward about my discomfort.
It felt good to sit with my feelings and let them run their course. I knew if I bottled things up or tried to rush the healing process, the wound would fester and never heal. I took time to journal and meditate on the discomfort, and to ask myself some hard questions. I knew it was temporary, and that I would eventually pull myself out of the funk and move on (because what else could I do? Staying in a funk forever sounds terrible in itself). But the best part of choosing this response when people confronted me about the experience was having a dear friend come back to me later and say I helped her realize that she had a tendency to invalidate people’s feelings by responding to tough situations in her default mode. By pushing back and insisting what I was feeling was valid, she was able to reflect on how she approached conversations with other people in her life. Based on our talk, she had a realization that inspired change, and that felt incredibly rewarding.
So what is the right way to respond in situations when someone you care about is experiencing loss or failure? Obviously there is no one size fits all approach, but I’ll give the advice I gave to my friend when she asked me this question. People usually don’t want to rush past their suffering or sweep it under the rug, but they do want to know they aren’t alone in their suffering. Sit with them, listen to them if they want to talk. Just as those suffering can give themselves permission to fully honor their feelings, so too can you give yourself permission to not take on the responsibility of single-handedly fixing or healing this person. Ask them what they need and what you can do for them. The answers will vary by the individual, but asking is the best way to know what you can do to be there for that person in their time of need.