Most of us want to help and support our friends and loved ones when they are going through a tough time, grieving or suffering from mental health issues. However, from the thousands of hours I have spent with counselling clients over the years, there are some common epic verbal fails our nearest and dearest can make whilst attempting to be supportive.
Here are five of the most infuriating attempts…
Please tell me who has ever calmed down after being told to calm down? I’ll tell you who…no one! Because it doesn’t happen. It’s one of those classic lines that if delivered (and quite often it is) without empathy, can take your mood to the depths of despair or catapult emotions to 10,000 feet accompanied by steam coming out of every orifice. It’s also ironic that the words “calm down” are normally said by someone who is so far from calm themselves!
Saying something like “what can I do to help you?” or “I’m here for you” can be more settling. Better still, just listen and stay as still and as grounded as possible to encourage your friend or loved one to settle in their own time.
"You know where I am" is a pet hate of mine but a classic that we are all probably guilty of. At worst, this statement can lack sincerity and present as lip service. Other times, it is well meaning but perhaps smacks of someone feeling unsure of what to say or do leaving the receiver to judge whether the statement is heartfelt.
If you have experienced a mental health issue, you will know that it can be difficult to convey what you need. Hell, sometimes it’s hard to take a shower or get up in the morning, let alone reach out for help and actually ask for it.
If you are tempted to say “you know where I am” then this should be as a last resort or if you have been told to stay away.
You might as well say "you look like crap". It can be extremely disheartening if you’ve made a real effort to present yourself to the world and someone says that you look tired. When it comes to dips in mental health, self care can go out of the window. Hair washing can feel like a momentous achievement, so it’s a big deal if the first thing someone comments on is how tired you are looking. This can kick the emotional stuffing out of someone who has battled to get in to work or out for a social activity. Of course, it’s okay to be concerned but it would be more supportive to make a gentle enquiry like "How are you? It's good to see you" or "Morning, fancy grabbing a cuppa and having a catch up?" It's all about keeping the communication lines open and being mindful of the impact of personal comments.
Err, no you don’t. You may view yourself as experiencing a similar situation but how we cope with life is determined by many factors, from personality, environment, relationships, attachment and past experiences. For what may feel a little stressful to one person, may seem insurmountable for others. By saying “I know how you feel” you are making an assumption based on your own experience rather than actually listening and empathising with the other persons thoughts, feelings or reactions.
The "I know how you feel" statement is an easy mistake to make but it can often be uninvited and unwanted and can shift the focus back to you rather than the person you are trying to support. Try saying something like “it sounds like things are really tough for you at the moment.” That way, you are not making it about you and being dismissive.
Hang your head in shame if you have ever said this to someone who’s really struggling. Yes…this is a statement that can bring on evil thoughts by the receiver and is extremely patronising.
Conversely, I’ve listened to clients before that have said this line has been said to them when they’ve been feeling pretty good and upbeat, by people they know. Having a ‘good’ day and then someone tells you effectively to turn your frown upside down…? Hmmmm, give me strength...
There are loads more lines I could mention, like "pull yourself together"or "be strong". I guess the biggest tip I could offer when you feel the pull to default to rubbish lines in an effort to console or support is, don't be afraid to ask how you can help. If you don't receive any guidance around this then perhaps let go of the pressure to fix or make things better immediately for the person you care about. Just be you, don't bend yourself out of shape and practice at being a good listener.
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