What NOT to say to someone who is in emotional pain

Do you really know how to show empathy?

Time stops for a brief moment as you frantically search for the right words to say after a loved one reveals to you a tragic or painful event. You want to be caring and helpful, but you don’t know how.

It can be challenging to know what to do in these situations. You want to say the right thing. And yet, our well-meaning responses can sometimes backfire and make someone who is hurting, feel much worse.

Often, sharing one’s story is already difficult enough because it subjects them to feel vulnerable to judgment and rejection, and deeper feelings of shame. If the one who shares receives unhelpful attempts at what may seem like empathy from well meaning people, it may leave the wounded person to feel it would have been safer not to open up in the first place.

Four years ago I went through the traumatic experience of having to testify a second time at the trial of my attacker from 30 years prior in 1984. I was contacted by a cold case detective in 2012 and informed he had been DNA matched to the murder of three women back in 1989. This was weeks upon being released from having to serve only 2.5 years in prison for the attempted murder of myself and one other female. Police officers caught him in the act of strangling her in the back seat of his car, where she lie unconscious, bloody and beaten, in the same location where I was left for dead by the same acts, exactly 30 days earlier.

Four years after testifying at the 2014 murder trial I learned this man had been again positively DNA matched to another woman in another state, and though he had screamed his innocence all along during the trial I testified at, he took up a deal with an investigator who traded a few prison luxuries for his confession. To everyone’s horror, not only did he admit to the murder for which he was currently on trial for, but 90 other women he proudly killed, spanning across 14 states over a 56 year career. I am one of only four survivors.

The media release of my attacker, who has now been labeled America’s “most prolific serial killer,” was only five months ago. I found out quite by accident on my Facebook feed, which will also be a day I never forget. I felt the air sucked out of my chest and fell into an unspeakable hysteria that will forever imprint my daughter’s mind. You don’t easily forget being woken up in the middle of a deep sleep, your mom screaming, wailing and hyperventilating; making the weirdest breathing sounds I’ve ever heard come out of my mouth. Words wouldn’t come out, my eyes were glazed, stuck on the ceiling above me while my entire body froze. Not one muscle would move except for the back and forth twitch of my head that still plagues me at random times. The impact of this haunting news pierced and flooded my brain. If you ever want to learn what trauma does to the body and brain, read The Body Keeps the Score, by Bessel Van der Kolk.

I acknowledge people’s intent isn’t typically to make us feel worse and most of the time people just don’t know what to say or do. But, when you’re in an emotionally fragile state, insensitive comments can really hurt. They can feel like knives that cut a raw wound back open. They can trigger another panic attack, suicidal thoughts, feelings of guilt and shame and re-experiencing the trauma.

This is why it is crucial to learn what it looks like to be an empathetic person. It can deepen relationships and bonds, or cause significant relapse and fracture.

The Difference Between Sympathy and Empathy

First, what is empathy?

Honestly, I never did know the difference until I went to grad school to be a therapist. What we often give people is sympathy, or pity which is not what hurting people want or that which provides any healing support. It results in making them feel patronized, disempowered, weak and pitiful… that they are broken and helpless. Empathy on the other hand, empowers the hurting person. It aligns with and connects two people. Empathy is when you feel the person’s pain through their lens, their experience, not your own. It doesn’t compare or try to relate your own personal experiences, though it were a competition. This invalidates the hurting person and minimizes their pain, shuts them down and makes them feel even more alone.

Can you see the difference? When we are struggling, we long for empathy and connection… someone who won’t disappear because they’re uncomfortable with emotion, or try to give advice and “fix” us, someone who won’t avoid asking the difficult questions. What we often get instead of empathy is sympathy.

“Empathy requires that we understand how people feel in the particular, not in the abstract. To do this, we need to imagine and, to imagine, we need to ask questions.”
-Charles Chu

Who are the Un-empathathizers?

To illustrate the difference between sympathy and empathy, I want to share some examples of what empathy does not look like.

Because of my own experiences I have unintentionally learned more about what empathy looks and feels like, and what it does not. I’ve learned how crucial empathy is to feel from at least someone, which is to give witness to our story.

Can you recognize these types of NOT empathetic responses?

The Avoider

When sharing your story, The Avoider is so caught so off-guard they look like a deer in the headlights. It’s as if the topic quickly becomes a game of hot potato and they can’t get rid of it quick enough.

Their eyes dart, they change the topic, they check their phone. They will do anything to get out of the uncomfortable experience.

Here’s what that sounds like:

“Wow. Um. Yeah. That really sucks. Um, I hate to do this, but I have to run. I’ll check back in with you, okay?”

Have you ever been on the receiving end of this? If not, I can tell you that it leaves you feeling like they’ve left you hanging on a cliff. Or, as if you played that trust-fall exercise and the other person quickly stepped out of the way to leave you falling flat on the floor.

It’s defeating. It makes you feel terribly alone. Stupid. That being vulnerable doesn’t pay off; it only gets you the thing you feared all along: “I will be alone in this,” “It isn’t safe to open up to people.” You are terrified to ever open up again, just to avoid a repeat of these feelings and horrible experience.

The Cheer you Upper

Some people can’t help but paint a silver lining over your pain. I believe this happens because people are so uncomfortable with emotions and hard stuff that they will do anything to talk about something more positive.

They want you to look on the bright side. They search for the positive aspects of the situation. They tell you everything happens for a reason.

It sounds like this:

At least, you’re in a loving marriage”

“At least, the cancer is very treatable.”

“At least, you still have your job / house / friends, etc.”

These responses might sound okay in theory, but instead of making them feel better, it diminishes their pain and completely invalidates their feelings.

This video from Brene Brown articulates it perfectly:

After being on the receiving end of this response, I know that this is not what people want to hear when they are hurting.

The Minimizer

Days before I flew to Los Angeles for the sentencing hearing, I made myself open up and tell my story to a huge group of people at a singles group. I was new to this church and people had only met me maybe five times. As I stumbled to find words to describe what happened, avoiding most graphics, people got up out of their chairs and surrounded me, many crying themselves. I felt so heard, my experience validated. Someone actually seemed to care. I felt uncomfortably vulnerable, weak and broken. But it was this “bottom” I reached, in this perfect place and time, which allowed me to share my pain and let others hold it with me. These people were genuine, and provided sweet empathy that assured my soul; they were safe so I could let the crack open wide for the first time ever. Later that day I realized I had never cried over what happened to me. I just pushed it all down and chalked it up to blaming myself for being so stupid as to let this happen to me. I am forever grateful and thankful for this group of people who gave me the experience of support and empathy that I have never received from my anyone, even my parents. These were essentially strangers in my life… and yet they tangibly demonstrated with wordless action what I needed so desperately to feel, which was that I mattered, what happened to me mattered and it wasn’t my fault. I didn’t deserve to be kidnapped, raped, beaten and strangled, left in a heap of trash in a dump.

One curious, well-meaning person came over at the end of the meeting and asked, “do you feel survivors guilt?” Totally not what I wanted to be asked and have to find an answer to, especially when, thank you, that’s one thing I hadn’t burdened myself with yet. I wanted to tell her how cruel and insensitive she was, and to eff off. Thankfully the rest of the group of people from my new church group, taught and gave me the life saving gift of empathy. I wouldn’t be the therapist I am today without that experience.

Minimizers look for ways to make the problem smaller so they can get out of the conversation. Sometimes, they use silence to try and tell you that the situation you’re experiencing isn’t that big or bad, unique or special. Other times, they are quick to offer a comparison to someone else’s experience that really isn’t the same but you’re supposed to pretend it’s helpful and now you feel better. Ultimately…. there is no attempt to try and connect or genuinely understand.

What you need to know is: It’s not about you, so please don’t make it about you. Listen.

The Advice Giver

There’s nothing like trauma and pain that seems to turn friends and family into insta-therapists and doctors. People suddenly become an expert on everything, especially your life and experiences. They feel it is their place to fix your problems, convince you to just get over it, move past it, try harder, quit being so sorry for yourself, or offer many “why don’t you…. why didn’t you….” comments. Ahhh the guilt and shame that is heaped by the advisor.

I didn’t need one more person to give me advice or solve my problems. What I needed was people to simply listen and be there for me in my pain. Just show up. You don’t have to have any magical remarks, comments or words, and certainly not solutions. Rise up and show up… that is love and empathy.

Unless people ask you for advice, that’s not what they want to hear when opening up about their struggles. It seems helpful, but most times, it is not. Don’t assume anyone wants or needs you to fix them or the situation.

The Relator

Sometimes, people are so eager to find ways to relate to you it’s as if they are combing through the file cabinet in their brain to find a story to share, which is perhaps more about making themselves feel better. This is not empathizing… it’s about finding something to say or talk about so you can avoid feeling uncomfortable.

It often sounds like this:

Oh wow, yeah, I have a friend who went through something similar and here’s what happened with them.”

The One Upper

No matter what happens to you, there will always, always be someone in the world who has it worse. Duh. I know that, you know that…. we all know that. But why in the world would it make sense to many well intended empathizers that what a hurting person wants or needs to hear is how someone else’s pain competes or compares with theirs?

By elevating someone else’s pain, it minimizes yours. This is the last thing you want to hear during a difficult time and it can drive a deep wedge between you and the other person.

The Perplexed & Lost

One of the most interesting and surprising responses is when people overreact to the painful revelation of someone’s news. Should I really have to comfort and console you about my bad news? It’s okay to be upset and devastated but express that using your words and please don’t make it about you.

The Common Denominator in Lack of Empathy

In case you didn’t notice, there’s a common theme in all of these responses…. minimizing the pain and discomfort for YOU.

I totally understand that it’s to listen to someone you love talk about their painful experience. The tendency and drive is to fix it, make it better, make it go away, cheer them up, or have them just not think about it and “move on.” None of these work however and it is extremely invalidating to push, nudge or even expect someone to repress their feelings or need to be heard. The healing timeline is not anyone but theirs.

What Empathy Really Looks Like 

So, what does empathy look like? There is no one right way to be empathetic, but I believe it involves the following actions:

Listen, Listen, Listen

When someone opens up to you and shares what’s going on in her life, the absolute best thing you can do is listen. JUST LISTEN.

Your job isn’t to provide a response or come up with answers. Simply let the person talk. Cry. Yell. Whatever it takes. What I need is a shoulder to cry on, or let out my word vomit and cuss words. Someone whose body language affirms they are safe and able to handle being my support pillow.

You don’t have to have answer or solutions. In fact, don’t. Just listen, validate their pain and be there.

Connect with their feelings

They say you don’t truly know how someone feels until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes. While you can’t do that, you can definitely imagine it.

You might not have gone through the same thing as your friend or family member, but you can envision what that might be like.

How would you feel if your spouse or child had cancer?

How would you feel if you couldn’t have kids?

How would you feel if a family member died?

How would you feel if you had no family to go to for any holiday, always spending them alone?

How would you feel if your parent rejected you as a child, and chose a life of drugs, bad relationships and alcohol instead?

Thinking about how you would feel or even connecting with your own struggles can allow you to more deeply feel the pain with someone.

Acknowledge their pain

As Brene Brown said in the video above, “Rarely, can a response make something better. What makes something better is connection.”

Sometimes the best response is none at all. Anything you say isn’t going to make it better, but, what you can do is acknowledge their pain. You can let them know that you see their struggle.

Here are some examples of what to say you’re not sure what that looks like:

“Wow. I don’t even know what to say but I can be here and listen.”

“This sounds so painful…. I hate that you have to go through this.”

“I can’t imagine how you must feel.”

“Thank you for sharing and trusting me with this. I’m here for you.”

Show them love

Everyone is different, so there’s not a universal response here, but find ways to show the person love.

Maybe that means sitting by her side while you have a Netflix marathon.

Maybe that means you mow his lawn or do his laundry.

Or, perhaps you can simply write a note to let her know how much you care.

Don’t ask what you can do to help. Just do something.

Most of the time, people going through hard things don’t know how you can be helpful. But, they deeply need to know that they are loved and thought about. So, find a way to show it.

I think we all have work to do when it comes to showing empathy. I still do.