How to Emotionally Support People Without Being an Asshole

Years ago, my son was preparing to go into the hospital for a routine procedure. He has it every year and thus far, everything has gone smoothly. However, it’s a procedure that requires him to go under anesthesia and even the most well laid plans can go awry because sometimes shit happens. As a result, there’s always a little bit of anxiety. Before this particular procedure, a friend asked me how I was feeling about my son’s procedure the following week.

“Okay, I guess, but I’m kind of nervous about it,” I said.

“Don’t be, everything’s going to be fine!” she insisted.

“I mean, you don’t know that,” I said. “I hope things are going to be fine, but nothing is for sure.”

“Trust me, I know it’s going to be fine,” she said before changing the subject.

I’ve been thinking about this exchange a lot lately. I think my friend wanted to support me, but people tend to be uncomfortable with horrible, scary truths that sometimes medical procedures can go wrong and sometimes we lose the kids we fight so hard to keep. At that time, I needed to talk about the things that scared me, but my friend was not prepared to have that discussion, despite her bringing up the subject in the first place.

“Everything is going to be fine!”

When you’re facing something that feels huge and insurmountable, people are quick to reassure you that things are going to be fine. I think people mean for it to come from a good place, but it never actually feels like that. Instead, it feels like people are steamrolling over your feelings because they are uncomfortable with sitting in a place that feels dark and scary. Although not the intention, sometimes it feels like people check in like this because they want credit for caring about another person without being prepared to handle the actual subject at hand. This isn’t necessarily their fault–a lot of people are not equipped to deal with these kinds of emotions. But bringing up a difficult situation and refusing to let someone talk about what they are afraid of does more harm than good.

“I know this will work out!”

Do you? Because you don’t know the ins and outs of the situation and the medical team is optimistic, but even they don’t give guarantees. If you think you’re helping, you’re not–you’re just plowing over someone’s feelings and giving them an absolute that you cannot possibly guarantee. Additionally, whether you mean to or not, you are shaming the person you’re talking to for having very realistic fears. It comes across as, “You’re being ridiculous because I know this is going to work out.”

Stop making promises you can’t keep. It’s not helpful.

“God has a plan!”

Fuck aaaaaaaaall the way off with this one. As a disclaimer, I’m not trying to shit on anyone’s belief in a higher power–you do you. If you want to tell someone you’re praying for them in their situation, I think that’s a nice sentiment that shows you care. But someone telling me that my son was born with half a heart and has to deal with serious, lifelong health needs resulting from his transplant because “God has a plan” makes God sound like a real asshole.

*insert smite here*

This response feels like a cop out in a similar way that “I know this will work out!” does. If things go well, God gets all the credit. If things don’t, then “God works in mysterious ways” and “it’s not our place to understand why God does things the way He does.” Ultimately, the sentiment feels meaningless and for some people, they find comfort in there being an amorphous reason for why things happen.

Whatever lingering belief I had in a higher power was shattered after spending weeks upon weeks in a children’s hospital. I don’t think you can be in there and witness the suffering of tiny humans whose only sin is existing and still think there’s a loving god who gives a shit about people. Some people might disagree and argue that it was God that brought my son his new heart, but what about the donor? In order for my son to get a new heart, another child died and their family has to live with that loss forever. God starts to feel a little more Machiavellian when you look at the whole picture.

“So what can I say to someone going through a tough time?”

First, recognize that none of this shit is about you. People are often very anxious to insert themselves in a tragic narrative because *attention* and there is a lot of value in shutting the fuck up. If you must say something, you can try one of the following:

  • “What can I do to support you right now?”: Listen to what they tell you. If they want to talk, listen. If they want to be left alone, give them space. This is not about you and sometimes what you want to give isn’t what people want to receive.
  • “I know this is hard, but I’m here.”: Sometimes it can be helpful to hear someone else acknowledge that shit sucks instead of constantly being drowned by toxic positivity.
  • “I’m dropping food off on your porch.”: When there’s a lot going on, especially if someone is caring for someone else, it’s very easy to forget to care for one’s self. Drop off the food and GTFO–don’t put the pressure of a social visit on someone who might be feeling completely drained.

Second, recognize the value in shutting the fuck up. If you have the spoons for it, let people have the space and support to face their fears. If you don’t, then don’t plow over people with useless platitudes that run the risk of making them feel ignored or patronized. Things get hard enough without having someone dismissing your very valid feelings.

“But what if I want to talk about how this affects me?”

Write it in your diary and keep that shit to yourself, or talk about it in therapy. Inserting yourself into a situation that isn’t about you makes you a narcissistic jackass. You are, of course, allowed to have feelings about a situation and you deserve space to experience those just like anyone else. But do it in a way that doesn’t pull focus away from the situation at hand, or, even worse, put the person actually dealing with the matter at hand in a position to where they feel like they have to comfort you. This happened to me a lot when I was pregnant with my son after we shared the diagnosis about his heart. People meant well, but I was the one who was pregnant, anxiously awaiting each kick as proof that my son wasn’t dead before I ever got to meet him, and I was constantly put in a position where I had to reassure others. Years later, I remember the people who made that time easier, but I also remember the ones who made it harder.

You definitely want to be the former, not the latter.


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One thought on “How to Emotionally Support People Without Being an Asshole

  1. Yeah, I made that first lame statement as an attempt to comfort a bit over seven years ago. I didn’t realize what a hollow sentiment it was; haven’t said those words since. Still learning.

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