Friday, September 13, 2013

How (and how NOT) to Comfort Someone

I know I'm a mama bear

I'm on the left, in case you were wondering
I take care  of others all the time, it's my natural modus operandi. And usually, it energizes me. But every now and then, I'm tired, and I'm hurting, and I just want to let out my own troubles. And then I start to (start to-I don't remember the last time it was complete) confide in someone. And by the end of the conversation...

I'm comforting them.


Sometimes, it doesn't really affect me either way- I may not feel any less crappy by the time the convo is over, but I don't feel an increase in crappy feelings, either. But  other times, it makes me feel worse, because it signals that the person I was interacting with doesn't care enough to let me finish or really only keeps me around  to serve as free therapist. And whether or not I'm more upset, I'm usually at least a little annoyed. 

PROTIP: If someone says they're sad, immediately saying you're sad, too, is THE WRONG THING TO SAY. Seriously, it negates their feelings and makes it about you. If you want to comfort someone, keep your own shit to yourself, at least at first- start out by  acknowledging their feelings and prove you've contemplated them before offering your own shitty shit. If you don't send a message that you've heard them, they won't feel heard- and it'll come across as if your only motivation for talking at the time is for them to hear you.

Trust me, I'm an expert comforter. I earned my Ph.D. in comforting others before I was ten. So believe me when I say, the worst thing you can do when trying to make someone feel better is make the conversation about yourself*. Sure, present parallels as a way of demonstrating you understand, but always bring it back to the other person's feelings before you finish your statement(s)- finish telling your experience with a reflection on theirs. For example, the first three lines of a conversation:

"I'm feeling  kind  of crappy right now."
"Aw, how come?"
"Well, my dog died a year ago today, and every dog I've seen for the past week has made me remember him. I don't even know if I'll ever be able to get another dog again."

The Proper Response:
"Oh, I'm so sorry. I understand. He was a really great dog, irreplaceable, I agree. You know, I lost my cat five years ago, I grew up with her. It took me two years to get a new one, and I still miss her sometimes. So I know it's hard, and it's okay if it still hurts, even years from now. But maybe someday you'll be able to get another dog. Not a replacement, because it's not like you can just replace an important part of your life. No  other dog will ever be the same, but that's okay. He was YOUR dog, and special for that! But a new dog for a new kind of companionship may someday happen, too. And you know what? It's okay if it doesn't."

The Wrong Response:
"Oh, I know  what that's like. When my cat died, I was so sad, I didn't even eat for two days. I was a wreck, because gee wiz, that really sucked. I was so sad, I didn't want to go to school. I kept crying in class and expecting her to be there when I got home, then I'd cry when she wasn't. I mean, I still miss her, and I was a kid when that happened. Whenever I see a cat that looks kind of like her, I remember how she crawled on my shoulders as I was trying to do homework and I get this sinking feeling in my stomach."

Do you see why? The first offers comfort, the second is a passive request for it. The second barely acknowledges the person whose dog died, while the first is mostly about that. The first uses the personal experience as  reference point, the second is all about that personal experience.

You shouldn't make it about you. If they say  they're upset first, it should be about them. Even just saying, "I'm sad, too," without offering any words of encouragement (sorry, an "internet hug" doesn't count) is potentially hurtful, because it signals you'd rather discuss yourself instead of the other person's feelings.

Now, here's the thing. It's okay for you to be in pain and not up to dealing with theirs. So what then? You tell them that, plain and simple. "I wish I could help you, but I'm so messed up over my own shit right now, I'm kind of useless.." And if they offer for you to share your stuff, say no. If they persist, only offer your problems  up if  they say it'll distract them from theirs- this sometimes genuinely works for me, which is why I already said it's sometimes energizing to care for others. It does sometimes give us something to focus our attention on apart from our own shitty lives, so if they say as such, then it's okay. Otherwise, try to avoid the conversation altogether if you know they're unhappy and you're not happy enough to provide the kind of comfort they need.

This may genuinely come as shock, folks, but part of why I don't often confide in others (for the real stuff- complaining about the bureaucratic failings of my department or something is small potatoes compared to the REAL shit going on in my life, I promise) is that it HARDLY EVER WORKS. I'm stuck in this terrible cycle of everyone expecting me to be the one comforting them, no matter what the blazes is going on, so if they're already upset, they take me initiating conversation with them as a chance to unload on me. I've had conversations that started with me sobbing so hard my chest hurt turn into me hugging the other person, petting their head, and telling them it's going to be okay. 

And no, not eeeeverybody does this to me, but more do than don't. And it's enough that I just don't bother talking to the people that don't because I'm so used to keeping things to myself. 

So back to the example. I realize  that no, not everyone would respond to the second one like I would- my instinct to care for others means I'd answer the unstated request: I'd tell that person I'm so sorry, do they think they'll ever get a cat again, etc. I'd ask them for happy/funny stories about the cat to remind them that while the loss was sad, the contribution the cat made was a net positive. And I'd crack jokes and do all I could to get them to laugh.

So this  means  that yeah, okay, maybe this isn't universal truth, but I know this is how I respond. And I know I'm not the only one. And everyone tells me I'm so good at comforting people, how do you do it? And so instead of saying, "BOOBS!" like I usually do to be funny, this is some legit, serious advice for making other people feel better.

So here's a very clear how-to, based off of a combination of what I know has worked when providing the comfort, and what I have experienced on the receiving end as helpful or NOT helpful: 

  • When someone expresses being upset, sad, etc. (whether they came to you or it's because you asked what's up, how they are, etc.), do not react by presenting your own crappy situation (current or not). Start out by acknowledging how they feel- give it a thorough verbal contemplation. 
  • If you absolutely CANNOT keep in your own  shit, be as brief and vague about it as possible- only say enough for them to understand that your empathy comes from the fact that your situation is/was similar. 
  • Also, for the love of God, don't shoehorn your own story- if your only way of comforting is through sharing your own experiences, even if they aren't applicable, then, well, stop comforting, or just nod and encourage but don't say much else. It's possible to comfort people WITHOUT talking about yourself, after all. But it needs to actually pertain to the circumstances.  NEVER try to equate, say, insurance problems with someone losing a loved one. Believe it or not, a common element does not remotely equate the same experience. Not only does it make you seem even  more selfish than if you poorly present just something genuinely similar (i.e. they lost their grandma to cancer, you lost yours a while back in a car accident, so you spend a very disproportionate amount of time on that (thus not following the above bullet)), but also makes you come across as not understanding them at all (because if you somehow thought these two things are the same, you must have been the wrong person to come to, because you obviously misunderstand completely).
  • Take cues from them both in the present conversation and based off of what you know of them as to whether they're seeking advice or just a chance to vent (and sometimes also hear that it'll be okay). And for  your own well-being,  if you know they're the kind of person that argues with advice, no matter how good, don't give it. Even if they seem to be seeking it, play dumb. If they ask directly, say you don't know, or give such a non-answer that they'd have nothing with which to argue. If that frustrates them, say something like, "I don't think you're ready for advice yet, it's still too soon, why don't you process how you're feeling, first?" or something. Dealing with hostile comfort seekers is tricky, and you shouldn't be attacked by someone you're trying to show kindness to, so it's okay to dodge a confrontation over advice. Their comfort shouldn't be through bashing you. If that seems to be the only thing that makes them feel better, reassess how important that person is to you, and at least consider avoiding  them when they're sad.
  • Actively listen, meaning demonstrating you're listening and actually hearing them. The most common form is restating some of what they've said  in the form of a question. (But be careful, asking for something like the date or time- unless there's a temporal aspect to their upset- makes it seem like you're more concerned about superficial details than the actual meat of the matter.) You can also do this by nodding, maintaining eye contact, and making little "Mm-hmm" and "Uh-huh" sounds or saying, "yeah," "okay," etc. And, "Go on, I'm listening," if there's a pause or they seem to get hesitant. 
  • Never end on your own story- always come back to theirs and demonstrate how what you learned (if  it's in the past) or are learning (if it's current) from yours can help them get through their own situation.
  • If you're down with touch, offer to hug. If they want one, they'll take it. If they don't, they won't. Sometimes people averse to touch may feel like a hug could help, so give them the option. If you're both comfortable with it, maintain physical contact by letting them lean on you, holding their hand, rubbing  their arm, etc.
  • If you know they like comfort through physical contact, but you don't like touching people, try to gather the guts to at least touch their arm or something once or twice- if they know you don't usually do that, it'll mean a LOT to them. 
  • Put. Your. Phone. Away. If it makes an alert noise (text, email, FB, etc.), don't check it (although if  it seems  to keep going off, silence it). If it's ringing, apologize and stop it. If you do end up needing to mess with it  because some sound won't let up, don't have it out for more than a few seconds. I hate that I should need to say  this, but I've had people answer their phone on me while I'm in the middle of crying when  the received call wasn't even an emergency (and  then a few of them wondered why I said for them to never mind when they eventually hung up).
  • Don't blame them for their suffering in a mean way- it's possible to gently help them to understand how they've contributed to the situation, but this should also come directly with solutions and praise for recognizing that once they do so.
  • Don't downplay the situation to the point of delegitimizing their feelings (as in saying, "It's not that bad, why are you so upset?" in a way suggesting they're overreacting and being  irrational). 
  • Avoid offering "advice" that comes across as judgy or know-it-all-esque. Be helpful, not bossy or condescending. 
  • Don't change the subject too soon because doing so indicates you're uncomfortable or don't care, thereby demonstrating you were the wrong person to turn to, and thus making  the person feel dumb. It's okay to change the subject, but you need to feel 100% certain they're okay with that- so the best way is to either wait for them to do it, or ask if they feel any better or need to keep talking about whatever it was.

I know that's a lot, so if there's one thing you take home from this post, it's this:

Please, think about it before you offer your own sob story to someone that's already crying. You may just make it worse.

Now go forth and comfort someone you know, and take this image with you for strength:

Right on, dog.

*Okay, prolly not always the worst thing, but it's pretty bad. See the bullet list to notice some other things you could mistakenly do wrong. 


  1. This is why I typically don't deal with people? Also, is the cat example a specific person, because I heard that in a specific person's voice.

  2. That exact convo never happened, but ones very similar have happened soooo many times, that while I did have someone in particular in mind when making it up, it may not even be the same person you're thinking of, heh.