When in doubt, ask what they need.
When you see someone you love going through a sad time, it’s only natural to want to cheer them up or try to fix whatever is causing them distress.
However, while this response is well-intentioned and feels like the right thing to do, it’s not necessarily going to be beneficial for the person who’s struggling.
“It can feel quite isolating or even invalidating when someone is trying that ‘Cheer up’ approach, or comparisons like, ‘It’s not so bad, look at the people who have it so much worse’,” explains Tal Schlosser, Clinical Psychologist at My Life Psychologists.
“We have the feelings we have and someone saying, ‘Don’t worry about it’ doesn’t make it go away. In fact, we can feel even worse about the fact we can’t just snap out of it.”
Part of the motivation to cheer people up is tied to how society typically views emotions. According to Dr. Janine Clarke, Psychologist at Mend Psychology and The Sydney ACT Centre, there are six ‘basic,’ universal emotions — sadness, anger, disgust, fear, happiness and surprise — and we’ve been conditioned to perceive happiness as the only one worth pursuing.
“Our tolerance for distressing or unpleasant emotions has been eroded such that we work hard not only to rid ourselves of them when they show up, for example by putting on a brave face, but we can feel compelled to ‘fix’ others,” she says.
“I think it’s also reasonable to say that we default to this response because we are partly motivated to reduce our own distress. It is extremely difficult to watch a loved one going through a tough time; we may notice feelings of vulnerability, weakness, failure, and helplessness.”
Tal Schlosser adds that labeling or judging emotions as inherently ‘good’ or ‘bad’ is unhealthy, because each of them serves a purpose — whether we find the experience enjoyable or not. “It’s healthier to acknowledge and name that feeling, and from that place let the feeling pass in its own time. All feelings ebb and flow — we don’t stay ecstatic and we don’t stay sad,” she explains.
Helpful ways to show support:
1. Send a text or call, but don’t expect reciprocation
Schlosser says if you’re not sure how to express your support, a text, message or quick call is always going to be appreciated — even if you don’t receive a response.
“We often think we don’t want to be intrusive, but really the worst that happens is you don’t get a response back. Sometimes just receiving that is helpful for someone and it’s not realistic to expect them to give anything back to you at that time,” she explains.
2. Acknowledge how they’re feeling
Phrases like, “I’m sorry you’re having a hard time right now, “I know this is really tough for you and I just want you to know I’m here,” or even, “That sounds like it’s really hard, can you tell me more about it?” can help someone feel less alone in what they’re going through.
“[It shows] you’re there, that you can handle it, that you don’t need them to be happy or OK. That you can accept them for who they are in this moment, even if they are sad,” Schlosser says.
3. Avoid being unintentionally patronizing
“Don’t make it all about you, by talking about times when you have been in the same situation, etc, unless you are specifically asked,” Clarke says.
4. When in doubt, ask what they need
No matter how well you know someone, it can be hard to know exactly what you can do to help them deal with a personal crisis.
Schlosser says that rather than trying to read their mind, asking is often the best approach. “Say, ‘I know I can’t do anything to make this go away, I wish I could. What do you need from me? What can I do?’” she suggests.
However, some people aren’t comfortable with asking for what they need, so doing something for them that you think will be kind and caring is sometimes the best avenue. This could be dropping off a flower or a meal, or offering to pick their kids up from school one afternoon.
5. Remember that sadness is normal
“Choose your words carefully. Sadness is not something to be controlled, but a feeling that is worth noticing and being curious about,” Clarke says.
And don’t forget — it’s also natural for you to feel sadness.
6. Engage with them in an activity
Whether it’s cooking, walking or photography, Clarke says passing time with your friend in a mindful way can be beneficial.
“The idea is to find an activity in which together you can immerse yourselves; an activity that enables connection with the present and with sensory experiences, such that thinking fades to the background,” she explains.
7. Be willing to listen without offering advice
It’s tempting to try to ‘fix’ a loved one’s problems or help them find a solution, but often just sitting with them is best — even though it can be challenging.
“It’s natural to want to make everything OK. But what that person really needs is you to be able to sit with that [feeling] and be next to them,” Schlosser says.
“They don’t need you to make it all alright. As a friend, the real value comes from someone being OK with you being sad. It doesn’t seem like much but it’s a really powerful thing.”
How do you support a friend through a sad time?