The original motivation behind starting this blog was my desire to share things I have learned, whether in life or through my formal education, with all of you. It’s not because I think I have all the answers. But instead it’s because I have learned so many wonderful lessons that I only wish someone had taught me earlier in life. Whether it’s nutrition-related or counseling-related or just plain my-life-related, I choose to share what I’ve learned on here because I know it has made my life better and I hope it can make some of yours better too.
Many months ago I started writing this very post on what to say when someone we know is facing a serious challenge or trauma. Because most of the time, we simply don’t know what to say. And for whatever reason I never finished this post and it got put on the back burner. But just yesterday Jessica Murnane of One Part Plant shared a touching personal story that got me thinking about this topic again and how useful this information could be to lots of people. Jessica is going through the process of adopting a baby and recently an adoption that was so close to happening fell through. You can imagine the heartbreak she’s dealing with. And sadly, one thing that is making this process even more difficult for Jessica is that so many people have inadvertently said the wrong thing to her in response to hearing this news. (Read Jessica’s full post on this topic here.)
I can relate both personally and professionally to Jessica having her feelings compounded by the things people have said to her in the face of her challenge.
In my graduate education in counseling psychology what-to-say and what-not-to-say in given situations is one of the first things we must learn and master in order to become caring, empathic, effective therapists. By nature of our profession we are going to hear people’s challenges, traumas, struggles, and pain. And therefore, it is our job to respond appropriately.
In real life, as opposed to therapy, all too often when someone shares their story about a difficult challenge they are experiencing, it stirs up the listener’s own stuff and causes even the most well-meaning people to say the wrong thing. Bad or sad stories are scary because they arouse our own issues, fears and insecurities. They make us uneasy and this often dictates and clouds our response to the person actually facing the challenge. Because our own issues have been aroused, what comes out of our mouths is often what we need to hear (or believe) in response to the story we’re hearing, instead of what the person actually living it needs to hear. The problem isn’t that our words are so horrible and awful, in fact they may seem kind at first glance. The problem is that what we say often doesn’t match the needs of the storyteller…it matches the needs of us, the listeners, instead.
So, how can we say the right thing when we don’t know the right thing to say…?
The truth of the matter is, it’s not about the exact words you say…instead it’s about the message behind them. And, as I learned in graduate school, the most important message we can convey to someone who is facing a difficult challenge is this simple…
I see you.
And that doesn’t mean in the physical sense. It means I really, truly see you, I see your pain, I see your struggle and I’m ok meeting you where you’re at and sitting here and being with you in this place. When you’re at a loss for what to say, you truly need nothing more than this basic message to appropriately express your deep love, caring and understanding. It’s not your job to fix the situation or to have all the answers. It’s your job to be there and meet them right where they’re at. To see their pain, to recognize it and be comfortable enough to just be with it.
So, next time you don’t know what to say in response to someone else’s pain, remember this concept of “I see you”. Let it be the guiding insight, the genuine truth and the message behind your words. And with that, you can have faith that you will always say the “right” thing and be there for the people you care about when they need you most…