What Not to Say When Someone’s in Crisis

Most of us have been there. Someone you care about is in crisis—dealing with a loss or illness or depression or something else so hard you don’t know what to say. You don’t even know what not to say. You’re actually afraid you’ve already said the wrong thing.

Or the reverse. You’ve been hurting about someone or something—and you know for a fact that someone has said the wrong thing to you. Because it stings instead of helps.

Consider “The Four Worst Things to Say to a Friend Who’s Suffering” from Andrea Bonior, Psychology Today (from her book The Friendship Fix). What not to say:

  1. “I know how you feel.”
  2. “This is God’s plan.” 
  3. “If you need anything, give me a call.” 
  4. “This, too, shall pass.”

“I know how you feel.” For starters, you can’t possibly know how someone else feels. 

“This is God’s plan.” There are so many things wrong with this. Whose/which God? Who says this “God” has a plan for you? Why would God plan such a terrible thing? Etcetera.

“If you need anything…” is likely to fall on deaf ears, as it, as Bonior says, “puts the burden of effort on the grieving person. How realistic is it that someone in the throes of grieving is actually going to get on the phone to call you and ask for something specific? And if the person is generally uncomfortable asking for help, it becomes even less likely. ‘Let me know if there’s anything I can do’ has become almost laughable in its triteness, even if you mean it.”

“This, too, shall pass” can come across as an invalidation of suffering. The pain is here and now—stick with that fact.

What You Might Say and Do Instead

When your loved one is in crisis, alternatives include offering genuine empathy, hugs or hand-holding, listening/caring, and basically just showing up.

Bonus: The Ring Theory of Kvetching (“Comfort In, Dump Out”)

I first read about this in a column by Oliver Burkeman in which his first pointer, actually, is that it’s probably unrealistic to memorize or use the kind of lists I’ve printed above. (So much for that.)

He then explains psychologist Susan Silk‘s “ring theory” (see also the Los Angeles Times piece by spouse Barry Goldman). The following are Silk’s thoughts, as expressed by Burkeman, on how others need to channel their own discomfort regarding a loved one’s crisis.

Imagine a series of concentric circles. The person in crisis is at the centre. Her closest friends and family are one ring out; lesser acquaintances in the next ring, and so on. The central person ‘can kvetch and complain and whine and moan and curse the heavens’. For everyone else, the rule is: ‘Comfort in, dump out.’ They can moan, but only to people farther from the centre. ‘If you want to scream or cry, if you want to tell someone how shocked you are, [or] how it reminds you of all the terrible things that have happened to you lately, that’s fine. It’s a perfectly normal response. Just do it to someone in a bigger ring.’

Like all the best life-rules, this one seems obvious, yet it’s quite subtle. It accepts that we often feel put-upon by other people’s woes, and affirms our right to vent – just so long as we choose the right listener. And it reveals the common thread linking all those unhelpful comments: ‘I know how you feel’, ‘God wouldn’t have let it happen if you couldn’t cope’, etcetera. Deep down, they are motivated not by an urge to comfort the sufferer, but the selfish desire to make matters less awkward for the consoler: to turn the embarrassment of pain into something more manageable.

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