Using your experiences to support someone else

A reader asked:

People often say that when you’re comforting someone else, you shouldn’t mention your own similar experiences. I understand that making the conversation entirely about you is rude and imappropriate, but isn’t it ok to at least briefly say, “yeah I can relate” and then continue with “that sucks a lot” etc?

realsocialskills said:

Bringing in your own experiences can actually sometimes be a good thing. There’s a specific way of doing it that’s bad, but you are entirely correct that showing ways you can relate can sometimes be good.

I wrote a post a while back about listening to someone who is facing a bad situation that talks about good and bad ways to relate your own experiences.

And I want to add to that: You’re probably seeing a lot of people vent on the internet about thoughtless or otherwise bad things people said to them. That could make comforting someone who is struggling seem very intimidating; it could make it seem like you have to be sure you’re going to say the right thing before it’s ok to talk to them.

And it doesn’t work that way. You don’t have to be perfect to comfort someone. Sometimes, you’ll say the wrong thing. That’s ok. Everybody does, sometimes. It’s good to work on knowing what to say and how to say it, but be careful about worrying too much about that. You can really only get good at this through practice, and you can’t get practice by waiting until you’re absolutely sure you know the right thing to say before you offer anyone support.

Suffering can be very isolating, because people are often afraid of seeing people suffer in ways they can’t fix. Sometimes things aren’t ok, and aren’t likely to be ok any time soon, if ever. And if someone’s in that situation, chances are they’re surrounded by people who are trying to get them to feel better.

If you’re not trying to make them feel a different way, you’re willing to acknowledge that things are hard, you’re listening to them, and you’re treating them with respect, you’re probably doing fairly well. Even if you sometimes say the wrong thing.