Guest Writer: Emily Glassman
In chapter three of Ecclesiastes, Solomon refers to seasons we encounter on earth. He speaks of “a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance.”
When a friend approaches us in a season of hurting, it seems we want to help, but many of us don’t know what to say. There is quite a bit of conversation about patterns of thought when it comes to dealing with depression or negativity, much of which is proven useful.
But as a friend, people rarely come to us looking for suggestions on how to change thinking styles and rarely come looking for pity. This can leave us at a loss for words and with a heaviness on our heart to bear the burden of our friend. How then, can we become more aware of how to respond effectively in this situation?
First, let’s talk about what not to do.
Do not only say “I’m so sorry” in a sympathetic tone. This frequently comes across as insincere and a catch-all phrase for what we say when we don’t actually know what to say. What is unhelpful is the act of feeling for the person rather than feeling with the person (sympathy vs empathy). Tone matters, softer tones do convey compassion. They also can be a bit condescending and overbearing at times.
Do not bombard the person with positivity, suggest they simply need to think positively, tell them to get over it or suggest how it could be worse. This is something I like to call toxic positivity: the act of minimizing the pain or experience of another person because we don’t want to deal with emotions we may find unpleasant. However, we all eventually end up having to deal with the unpleasant things. In my opinion, we might as well start in the present rather than putting it off for the future.
A response that cultivates healing, a safe space to find rest in our brokenness and comfort to speak freely and feel heard is much different than the ideas previously mentioned. When someone comes to you, ask yourself what emotion they are trying to communicate to you, and what would sound encouraging during a tough time if you were in their position.
There is an incredible amount of power in reflection, but in order to reflect we must do more than hear the person speak; we must listen. Instead of thinking of what to say, focus on what is being said. Together through small changes in communication, we can make difficult seasons more bearable.
A friend says:
I have to work tonight, have two exams to study for this week, a paper to write, and my car just broke down. My parents are angry about my car and I’m feeling like nothing is going right. I am not motivated to even open a text book.
Do not say:
I’m sorry. At least your car will be fixed this week and you only have one paper due. I have three.
It seems perfectly reasonable that you feel overwhelmed by all of this. You have a lot on your plate.
A friend says:
I’ve been feeling really down lately. It’s hard to get out of bed in the morning. I think about all of the things I need to do and it feels impossible.
Do not say:
I’m sorry. Maybe if you wake up and think about five things you have to look forward to today it will help you feel better about getting out of bed. I always feel better when I go about my day with a grateful heart.
It sounds like you are really hurting and feeling depressed. That can be an unsettling thing to deal with alone. I’d encourage you to continue to reach out when needed. I appreciate that you were honest with me about how you’re doing.
Part of being a friend means that we are there for each other, not only during the times of laughter, but also in the times of weeping. We all experience these seasons at different times, and just because it is our season of joy does not mean the people around us feel the same. The right words do not always come easily and that’s OK. Learning how to make people feel heard and how to sit with people through the hard things discourages isolation and helps our friends heal and feel valued. We are all capable of changing the way we communicate.
Emily Glassman is a psychology and youth leadership development major from New Carlisle, Indiana.