Everyone has bad days and faces challenges in life, and we all need encouragement to keep putting one foot in front of the other. Sometimes in our efforts to be helpful and to avoid awkwardness, we say things like, "Look at the bright side of things," or "Think positive." While well-intentioned, the words may not be super helpful.
The reality is, allowing people to be vulnerable, open and honest about where they are can be a real gift. We live in a world where 1 in 4 people struggles with anxiety about different aspects of life. Just telling them to be positive or pointing out what we see as the "silver lining" does not provide a solution or make things better for them.
What might be more helpful than mere words is your presence as they walk the road. Acknowledge the reality at hand by being there and by saying, "I can tell this is so hard," or "In the midst of the storm, it is hard to see past all the challenges." Asking, "What can you do for yourself today that will be comforting as you try and sort things out?" can also make a world of difference in how they view the situation.
Whitney Hawkins Goodman, licensed marriage and family therapist, posted a graphic on Instagram containing common positive statements that are meant to be helpful but might not necessarily be beneficial to someone who is really struggling. She contrasted those statements with ones that offer validation and hope instead.
Instead of saying, "See the good in everything," Goodman suggests trying, "It's probably really hard to see any good in this situation. We'll make sense of it later." Or, instead of, "Just be positive," what about, "I know there's a lot that could go wrong. What could go right?" The truth is, it's super hard to see the good in anything when you literally can't see your way out of the pit. With these statements, you aren't trying to sugarcoat the problem, and you are giving them the opportunity to consider whether there is potential for something good to happen.
Think about the hard times in your own life. Sometimes it doesn't feel safe to express yourself because you aren't sure how another person will respond. What we are looking for in moments like this is empathy.
It can be uncomfortable to see someone you care about struggling. What you really want to do is fix the problem, but you can't and usually you shouldn't. In the midst of not being sure what to say or do, our tendency is to "Don't just sit there; do something." Perhaps in this instance we should turn the tables and say, "Don't do something; just sit there.
It's freeing for both parties if you are able to put yourself in someone else's shoes and get into the trenches with them, even if you can't fix it for them. However, you can listen, hold their hand and help them find perspective. In doing so, you are allowing them to feel what they feel without inadvertently being judgmental or condescending, and that is powerful.
Sometimes we underestimate the power of just showing up. You don't have to have all the right words. Nor do you have to figure out best next steps. It's OK not to be OK sometimes.
Julie Baumgardner is president and CEO of family advocacy nonprofit First Things First. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.