What to say to a friend in distress

You’re here because you desperately want to know what to say, or because you have said something and didn’t receive the expected enthusiastic response, or because you’re going through a tough time and you give passionate “thank-you”s only because you know that’s what’s expected of you not because you connect with it.

I can tell you exactly what to say to that friend of yours who is going through a tough time: a devastating diagnosis, a loss, recovery, personal growth, injury…

People like to say motivational/inspirational things or memes to people in distress and hide behind the omnipotence of it being “out of good intentions.” But what is that intention for? Having a chronic pain syndrome has allowed me to see that, in most cases, it’s self-serving.

There is no way to avoid taking those comments personally when you and I are in the middle of it. So I am hoping to discuss this idea away from me and you being in that situation.

Do you know what I think when I see something like this that’s supposed to be motivational? I think “Don’t remind me that I not only gave up a day of my life but also all the possibilities that were in it.” I’m not being cranky or reactive. It’s just the reality of it. Chronic pain sufferers make trades – I want to attend a long work meeting today, and I accept that I won’t be able to get off the bed tomorrow. My today is never a new day. The selection of this meme emphasizes that you don’t know my reality but also that you don’t care to know.

But it’s not your fault at all that you don’t know my reality. We haven’t discussed it. So, what is it that you should say?

Let me ask you first. Think of the last time something like that happened, and remember what you said. Why did you choose that to say? The typical answers to this question are
“Because that’s the right thing to say.”
“Because I’ve heard other people say it.”
“Because the instructions/solutions I gave them will be helpful to them.”
“Because I want you to know I care about you.”

You know what I’d love to hear from my friends?
“I knew what to say because I asked you how you were feeling.”
“Because I sat down long and hard and thought this is what I thought you’d want me to say.”
“I talked to several people who’d been in a similar situation, and they all told me to say this.”

I think that you noticed the big thing that’s missing from the first group is the perspective from “you.” I’m sorry to break it to you so abruptly. But we are very often saying things to satisfy our own need to say something. When our attention is swept by the need to say something, we completely forget about the person we are saying it to.

How arrogant we think that anything that comes out of our brain/thoughts/experience can help our friend in distress at all.

Sit down, have a good ponder about what your friend is going through, close your eyes and get a sense of the air, the noise, the environment they are in right at this moment. You’ll know exactly what to say.


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