December 5, 2018

How to Support the People You Care About When You Don’t Know What to Say

Anxiety & Depression

At one point or another (or more likely, at lots of points!), we’ve all needed someone to comfort us when the events of life leave us reeling. We’ve also all probably found ourselves in a place where someone else needed our comfort, and we needed to be the comforter. And that place can feel really awkward. If you’ve ever struggled with how to react to these situations, or if you feel the burden of silence in the room where your friend or family member has burst into tears, you’re not alone! Here’s some practical guidance that might not entirely take away that gut feeling that you don’t know what to say, but will hopefully take away some of the pressure, offering a big picture perspective of how to be a good friend to someone in need.

Getting Over “So Close It’s Uncomfortable”

You know those situations I’m referring to:

  • someone has just had a really awful day and is having a breakdown in your kitchen
  • or someone just lost a job and is crying on the phone with you
  • or someone found out their girlfriend was cheating
  • or disclosed that they’ve been abused
  • or just lost a loved one.

You find yourself on the receiving end of the grief or anger or confusion; then the rooms grows quiet. And then sometimes, we start to panic.

The Pressure is in the Expectations

Usually, the panic can be summed up simply: we don’t know what to say. We feel like we need to say something, but how do we figure out what that “something” is? What do they need to hear from us? What if we say the wrong thing? What do we do with ourselves while we figure out what to say? Part of the discomfort that comes in these situations is natural. Vulnerability is uncomfortable – it just is. It’s a powerful and meaningful and great thing, but it is scary and intimate so it makes sense that it would make us uncomfortable. But I think part of the discomfort also comes from our unrealistic interpretations of and expectations for these scenarios.

What You “Say” Isn’t Always the Solution

Somehow, we’ve come to believe that words hold the power here. Of course, words do hold a lot of power. Saying the right thing at the right time can be hugely important, and speaking words of encouragement or support to someone who is struggling can mean the world. But when we overemphasize the words, we underemphasize another aspect of the interaction that is at least just as powerful: the presence of the listener.

Your Time & Ability to Be Fully Present Matter

Sometimes, literally just being there with someone is all that person needs. Again, words can be incredibly helpful and you do want to choose them wisely. But often, what is more comforting for the person in distress is your presence; the fact that you are there with them, in that kitchen or on the couch or on the phone. We are built for relationships, our brain is wired for connection. We underestimate how powerful it is to have someone who loves you so much that they are willing to listen to you and to sit in that pain with you. Think back to when you were a kid and you fell off your bike or down the steps and you started crying. You probably weren’t really worried about the words your parents said to you. You just wanted to go to them, or for them to come to you. You wanted them to hold you, to be with you. Similarly, when you really mess up a job interview or break up with your girlfriend or lose your brother, in that moment you might not be too worried about the words your friend is saying. In that moment, you might just need someone you can go to, or someone who will come to you. Someone who will hold you, or sit with you, or listen to you. There is power in presence.

Practically Speaking….

So what does it look like to be present with someone in the big emotions they are experiencing? To start, try to just be with the person where they are. Stand with them in the kitchen, stay on the phone with them, sit with them on the couch. But apart from meeting them where they are in that moment, you can offer your presence in all kinds of ways. You can go for a walk, go out to eat, go see a movie or go sit in a park. Hopefully what they will take away from the experience is the realization that you value them enough to spend your time with them and to be with them in their discomfort.

Words are valuable, and it is wise to use them carefully. But next time you need comfort, or need to do the comforting, remind yourself that it’s not all about what you say and when. That maybe, they just need someone to be there. If your situation seems further outside practicing presence and you need a helpful resource, consider meeting with a counselor. There are so many things we won’t ever be perfectly equipped to deal with, and having a reliable professional to sit down with might considerably help! For now, know that the expectation for a friend is to show up, and that it shows your care for them in a powerful way.


Written by therapist Clair Miller

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