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The Least Useful Thing to Say to Someone Who's Down

... and 5 ways to really be there for someone who needs you.

Antonio Guillem/Shutterstock
Source: Antonio Guillem/Shutterstock

Consider the following scenarios:

  • A child comes home in tears because she had a fight with her best friend—but when asked about what happened, she refuses to discuss it.
  • A college freshman is upset about leaving home for the first time, and even though he tries to act tough, you can tell that underneath the pretense he is really hurting.
  • A young woman is going through some tough times due to the break-off of her engagement with someone she still deeply cares for.
  • An aspiring athlete is prohibited by his doctor from participating in an important competition because of potentially dangerous injury.
  • A new widow is inconsolable after the loss of her husband, her best friend for decades.

Different as they may be, these situations have one important thing in common—someone we care for is experiencing emotional discomfort and there is not much we can do to help.

Certainly, just saying, "Cheer up!" isn't going to help the situation.

We have all been close to someone going through trying times. As commonplace as the experience is, it doesn’t make trying to comfort someone any easier.

The single most painful experience outside our own suffering is that of seeing someone dear to us facing a hardship. Life gets rough at times and people may become upset for a million various reasons, with their resulting negative feelings ranging from discomfort and sadness to sorrow and grief.

Instinctively, we try to comfort them and make them feel better so that their initial upset doesn’t evolve into heartbreak, self-pity, anxiety, vindictiveness, or depression. To express our sympathy, we tend to rely on somewhat clichéd words of compassion and support: "You poor thing,” “It’s not your fault,” “Don’t worry about it,” “I know how you feel,” and the like.

Often, however, we unsure about what the right thing to say or do might be, and because of that, many of us feel awkward around someone affected by a sudden or deep emotional discomfort. When our inadvertently misplaced attempts to cheer up the troubled person don’t make any difference, it can leave us feeling frustrated and even defeated by our helplessness.

What’s worse, feeling sorry for someone and endeavoring to cheer them up sometimes makes that person become more upset, annoyed, or angry with us. It’s not what we intend to do but how we do it that makes the difference.

Researchers at the University of Louisville, who have studied social support since the 1980s, recently established that there are four distinct behaviors displayed by the people who attempt to cheer up someone.

The first two—providing solace and encouragement, and helping to resolve the issue —are more common and more effective than the other two—minimizing the problem, and refusing to acknowledge the matter while offering distractions.

If our timing is off or we choose the wrong tactic, the outcome of our attempt to help can be the polar opposite of our intent; the person we are trying to comfort may perceive our words and behaviors as insensitive, superficial, or insincere.

Needless to say, though, choosing the right tactic can be a real challenge, especially when time is not on our side. Further, numerous details must be taken into consideration when deciding how to support someone, such as:

  • How well we really know the person or understand their problem;
  • How strongly we relate to the feelings they are living through;
  • The person’s temperament and disposition;
  • Their ability to cope with difficulties on their own;
  • The severity of their emotional discomfort;
  • The unique set of circumstances leading to the problem; and
  • The potential need for professional help and support.

When trying to comfort someone going through difficult times, one crucial factor to consider is the sufferer’s self-esteem. A study from the University of Waterloo and Wilfrid Laurier University, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, looked into sufferers’ receptiveness to social support, considering both the providers’ choice of a support strategy and the recipients’ levels of self-esteem.

The study demonstrated that “individuals with low self-esteem are less receptive than are individuals with high self-esteem to support that positively reframes their experience but are equally receptive to support that validates their negative feelings.”

In fact, low self-esteem individuals in the study were so dismissive of others' attempts at positive reframing that it left the providers feeling bad about themselves, their interaction with the sufferers, and their relationship.

The better way to help sufferers with low self-esteem is to sympathize with them rather than trying to cheer them up. With high self-esteem individuals, reassurance and encouragement may be more effective strategies.

It is important to realize that understanding other people doesn’t happen overnight; it takes experience and a willingness to learn and practice new approaches. It is also essential to remember that some problems may just be too big for us, some people may not want our help, and we simply won’t be able to help everyone who needs it every time.

That said, there are certain things we can all do to help someone get through tough times, regardless of the cause of the problem, or our relationship to the person:

  1. Be there. Sometimes words are meaningless. Sometimes there is nothing that you can do but stay by someone's side. Give them a call, ask them out, stay in touch—but balance this with being non-intrusive. Be proactive and be available, and be there for them whenever they may need you. It may not seem like a lot to you but it could mean the world to the person you are trying to help.
  2. Listen. For many people, it’s hard to open up and share their innermost feelings; not to mention, some topics can be too difficult to discuss. Be patient and encourage the person to share feelings and thoughts at the pace they are most comfortable with. And when they are ready to talk—just listen. Don’t interrupt. Don’t judge. Let them get rid of the negativity they have been holding inside. Often, getting it out is the first step to healing.
  3. Don’t impose your opinion. You will have an opinion, without a doubt. But think twice before sharing it with someone you are trying to help. Sometimes it’s better to say nothing than to blurt out something that will further upset someone. Instead, let the other person arrive at a solution and progress with solving the problem on their own. You can help by asking questions like, “What does this mean to you?” “What would you like to do next?” “How can you begin to approach this, or begin to heal?” or simply “How can I help?”
  4. Don’t insist on your advice. First, you must make sure that you have all the necessary information before offering advice; even if you believe you have had similar experiences, no one has walked entirely in another person’s shoes. Also, if you are going to be pushy about doing things your way, the other person may become defensive, uncomfortable in your company, or withdrawn, so be careful how you say things. You may have only their best interests in mind; you may think you are right; and you may be right, but dealing with emotionally shaken people still requires a certain level of delicacy and self-restraint.
  5. Remain positive. Don’t let the person’s self-pity or grief affect you. When trying to help someone dealing with acute negative emotions, it’s important to show empathy but also to stay strong and remain in a positive frame of mind. They may need you as a pillar of support or source of strength; use positive self-talk on yourself to build and maintain that strength in order to provide it to those who need it most.
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