Optimism in the dark places

Sometimes, people who want to see themselves as optimistic say things like this to suffering people they encounter:

  • “Look on the bright side!”
  • “Cheer up!”
  • “It can’t be that bad!”
  • “It’s ok.”
  • “Smile, you’ll feel better!”
  • “You have so much to be grateful for.”

Sometimes people who say this kind of thing mean well, but it’s still degrading. It’s degrading because:

  • Sometimes things really are that bad
  • Refusing to acknowledge that doesn’t help anything
  • And when you try to insist to someone who is going through something awful that it can’t be as bad as they think, what you’re really doing is refusing to listen to them
  • Telling someone to shut up is neither kind nor optimistic

This is particularly the case if you’re talking to someone in a bad situation that is unlikely to get better, or which is at least unlikely to get better in the near future eg:

  • Someone who has a terminal illness
  • People who are facing systemic oppression of a kind that isn’t going to go away in their lifetime
  • Someone who is trapped in an abusive relationship they see no way out of

I think that there’s another kind of optimism that is much more helpful:

  • Acknowledge that things really are that bad
  • Don’t try to smooth them over
  • Identify things that make life worth living
  • Work on building and recognizing love (including, love people enough to acknowledge how bad things are without pressuring them to sanitize them for you)

You can’t fix someone’s perspective

Hey there. So, I’m wondering how I can help my sister with her self esteem. She’s very beautiful, and it’s been made clear to her by many that she is, but at the end of the day she thinks herself ugly.
I get really frustrated and angry with her sometimes when she does this– it’s so clear that she’s lovely, everyone knows, and it’s obvious she is. I just don’t know what to do. I want her to see how great she is, without hurting her.
realsocialskills said:
It’s hard for me to tell from your message how your sister sees herself. You’re saying that she sees herself as ugly, and you see her as beautiful. You also say that she has low self esteem, and you want her to see how great she is. I’m wondering if maybe you’re conflating issues that seem the same to you, but which seem very different to your sister.
Sometimes people who have tremendous respect for themselves as people feel ugly. Sometimes amazing, wonderful people really *are* very unattractive by conventional standards. And for some people, it’s really powerful to come to the conclusion that don’t need to be beautiful to be ok. I don’t know how the world looks to your sister, and I don’t know what she’s struggling with. But it may well be that trying to see herself as beautiful is not what’s right for your sister at this point. And really, she’s the only one who know that; you can’t tell from the outside; you can only guess.
Your sister may be struggling tremendously with her self esteem, she may be struggling to feel worthy. But it’s her struggle – you can’t do it for her, and you can’t make her do it faster. This is something she has to figure out for herself.
It’s hard to see someone you love struggle, particularly when you think you know what would solve things, if only they would listen to you. Taking over really doesn’t help though, particularly when someone’s main problem is that they don’t respect themself enough. You can’t give someone self-respect by trying to force them to override their own judgment in favor of yours, as tempting as it might seem.
You can’t take over or direct your sister’s path to self-acceptance and self-respect, but you can support her in powerful ways. The best thing you can do for your sister is to respect the way she feels about herself now and stop trying change her.
You can’t make your sister think that she’s great. You can’t make her think that she’s beautiful.
What you can do is acknowledge that she feels ugly, and show her respect and love as she feels this way. What you can do is be with her anyway, and show her that feeling ugly will not make you abandon her.
Don’t get angry or upset at her for not feeling good about herself. That is counterproductive. If you express exasperation with her over this, it ends up sounding like “I want you to like yourself NOW NOW NOW you’re beautiful”, which on the receiving end can be heard as “I hate you for not loving yourself more”. That is the opposite of the message you’re trying to send.
I think the best thing you can do for your sister right now is accept that, right now, she doesn’t feel great about herself. Your sister’s poor self image is not an inditement of you. It’s not your job to fix it – but you can be there for her while she figures things out, on her own timeline.
You can’t try to change your sister’s self-image without hurting her. What you can do is show her the love and respect that you wish she’d show herself.

Asking for more information when someone asks for advice

How do you ask someone for more information about a situation – as they’re asking for advice, and you want to give accurate advice because you know you don’t have all the info to give informed advise — without them thinking you’re doubting them or judging them? — This is something I struggle with because I want what I say to be accurate and pertinent but I don’t know how to ask for more information. Any advice?
realsocialskills said:
I think sometimes it can help to say explicitly that you believe them, want to help, and need more information. Eg:
  • “I’m sorry that’s happening to you. I think I need to know a bit more about what’s going on in order to give you good advice. Can you tell me ___?”

Another approach is to ask them more about their needs than about the situation. This isn’t always the right approach, but in some situations it works well, eg:

  • What do you need right now? Are you trying to find a safe place to go? Advice on how to talk to them about the situation? Something else?

Listening to Someone Facing a Bad Situation

I have a question and don’t know if you already answered something like it. How can you show support for someone without making it about yourself? like *someone talking about a crap thing that happened* *I answer with how a similar crap thing happened to me or someone I know* I just don’t know what to say other than “well that sucks”, but I always feel like that comes across as not caring (and so does my other approach tbh…)
realsocialskills answered:
It depends on the situation. What you’re describing sounds like the kind of situation in which listening might be the most important thing.
Sometimes what people need is not for you to say things. Sometimes, what people need is for you to listen to them. It can feel like you’re supposed to be filling the conversation with helpful words – but often, it’s much more helpful to create space that they can fill with the things they want to say. Often, it’s important to listen more than you talk.
One way you can create space is by saying things like (depending on the situation):
  • “That sounds hard”
  • “It sounds like things are really hard right now”
  • “It sounds like a lot of people are hurting you”

Another way you can create space is to just sit with them. There don’t always have to be words. Sometimes, pauses are important. Don’t try to fill all of them.

Another way you can create space is by listening to what they’re saying, and repeating part of it in a tone that indicates that you’re asking about it:

  • It’s somewhat hard to describe how to do this
  • Because formulaically repeating everything someone says is obnoxious
  • But if you choose well what to repeat, it can indicate that you understand what they’re saying, and that you want to listen to more of what they have to say
  • And then, you can respond with your own words when you have things to say that might help


  • Susan: The crap thing happened to me *again*.
  • Debra: Again?!
  • Susan: Yes. The people who do that thing always do the thing!
  • Debra: They always do it?
  • Susan: Yes, they do that every single day. Sometimes multiple times. I can’t get them to stop because they outrank me and if I complain I’ll be fired.

Sometimes, people want more from you than just listening. Sometimes, they want advice or practical support. It’s ok and good to offer it, but bad for you to try to take over the conversation with it.

For instance, say the conversation continued:

  • Debra: You’ll be fired?
  • Susan: Yes – the last five women who complained all got fired last month.
  • Debra: I know a good lawyer who does that kind of work – would you like their contact information?
  • Susan: Maybe. I’m not sure it would do any good though. I really can’t afford to lose this job.

Debra here thought that she knew something that might help, and offered it to Susan. Debra didn’t try to force it on Susan. This was a good way to offer support. Here’s a different way the conversation could have gone:

  • Debra: That’s illegal! You should totally sue them! I’ll tell my lawyer about this, they’ve done a lot of this kind of work.
  • Susan: I don’t think that’s a good idea – I REALLY can’t afford to lose this job.
  • Debra: Don’t be silly. The law is on your side. Don’t you want to protect other women from the crap thing they do every day?

Here, Debra isn’t listening to Susan. She thinks she knows best, and wants to push Susan into doing it. That’s not a good way to support others. Push come to shove, people need to make their own decisions, and trying to control them causes a lot of problems.

Sometimes it can work to relate things to your own experiences, but in a way that doesn’t take over the conversation. For instance:

  • Bob: This crap thing happened to me!
  • James: That sounds awful.
  • Bob: Yes, it is awful. And on top of that, they made it even worse by ___.
  • James: I think something similar happened to me last year.

Here, James waits to see if Bob picks up that line of conversation, and reacts according to what Bob wants to talk about. Eg, say it went this way:

  • James: I think something similar happened to me last year.
  • Bob: What happened with you?
  • James: Related crap thing happened.
  •  Bob: Huh. What did you do about that?
  • (and then they continue the conversation, and talk about their shared experiences)

Another way this could have gone:

  • James: I think something similar happened to me last year.
  • Bob: Huh. Well, and then I yelled at them for doing the crap thing, and then I got in trouble for yelling!
  • James: You got in trouble for yelling at them?
  • (here, the conversation continues based on what Bob wants to talk about. Since Bob wants to talk about his experience and not James’, James shows support for Bob by dropping it and listening to him)

In short:

  • When someone wants to talk to you about something awful that happened to them, make sure you’re listening and not taking up all of the space.
  • If they want advice or practical help and you have some to offer, offer it. Don’t try to take over and tell them what to do.
  • If you have shared experience, offer to talk about it if it seems possibly welcome. Drop it if they want to talk about their own experience and not yours
  • If they just want you to listen, listen.
  • In any case, follow their lead and make sure it’s about supporting them.