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?
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.
When people are freaking out, it often feels like the best thing to do is to tell them reasons that things aren’t really so bad, eg:
- “It’s ok. It’s not so scary.”
- “It’s only for a week weeks”
- “It’s ok. There is no need to freak out. This isn’t such a big deal.”
- “It’s just for one night.”
- “Don’t worry so much; this is one of the more treatable forms of the disease.”
There are some situations in which those are good things to say. They’re hard to describe, but they exist. Some situations in which reassuring someone by saying this kind of thing are along these lines:
- You understand them and the situation well enough to be fairly confident that their perspective is seriously skewed in way that are causing them distress
- You’re able to express this in a respectful way
- They trust you as a check-in person and are open to that kind of feedback from you
- They trust you to respect their boundaries when they’re *not* open to that kind of feedback about something personal
There are also situations in which it’s likely to be counterproductive to try to convince people that things aren’t that bad:
When things really are that bad:
- When things really are horrible, trying to convince someone that things are ok won’t help
- If you can convince them, then it will skew their perspective and make things harder to deal with
- If you *can’t* convince them, then it will add the problem of them having to deal with you invalidating their perspective when they’re upset
- So, if you’re trying to reassure someone with facts, make sure you actually understand the facts
When you’re not someone they trust:
- If someone doesn’t trust you, trying to get them to adopt your perspective is unlikely to be reassuring
- Even if you are right about what’s going on and they are wrong
- Even if you’re completely trustworthy and they are wrong to be wary of you
- Being vulnerable and having someone you don’t trust try to make you change your perspective on something you’re upset about can be a very frightening and unpleasant experience
When you’re really trying to convince yourself:
- When someone is very upset, it can be upsetting to others
- It can be tempting to try to make them calm down as a way to reassure *yourself* that the situation isn’t as bad as they think it is
- That’s not a very nice thing to do to someone
- Especially if they are right about how bad things are, but even if they aren’t
- People have the right to be upset, even if their feelings about what’s happening are distressing to others
(That said, it’s still ok to have boundaries even when people are very upset. The fact that someone has a right to be upset doesn’t necessarily mean they have a right to your attention or support when they’re upset. It depends on the context, what they’re upset about, how they’re expressing it, and what your relationship is.)
Short version: When someone is very upset, it can seem like a good idea to try to calm them down by convincing them that things are actually ok. Sometimes that actually is a good idea, but in other situations it’s a really bad idea. Tread carefully, and make sure the way you’re interacting with upset people is respectful.