But once again, it really comes down to trying to win the conversation. "You think you have problems? You should check out my shit!"
Related: 5 Mistakes You Make When Trying To Talk About Your Problems
Offering "This Is An Opportunity In Disguise!" Inspiration
We're getting to what may be the single most common reaction to life's most typical bad news. Loss of a job, the end of a relationship, an expected opportunity that fell through -- each time, the hearer's brain leaps to "Look on the bright side!" Maybe we'll even go the extra mile and recite something we saw in an inspirational meme one time, about how disappointment is but the shit we use to fertilize our dreams.
And hey, maybe someone, somewhere, has felt better after hearing this. But the reality is that it's very easy to sit outside someone's life and, facing none of their challenges, let them know that the thing they lost just wasn't meant to be, or that what really matters is the valuable lessons they've learned, or that their layoff just means that now they can pursue their passion. "You're right, now that I've lost the material and psychological safety net that was my steady income, I will be able to focus exclusively on my my hobby of drawing cartoon dogs with impractically large erections!"
It also puts pressure on them to be positive, when hey, sometimes being negative is the reasonable response. Not everything is a problem you can solve by slapping a smiley face Band-Aid on it. It's OK to be sad that something objectively terrible happened, and it's fine to let someone else be sad. Sometimes they need time to adjust to the fact that things are just worse than they used to be.
And let's be honest: Lots of times, our desire to make their sadness go away is in fact selfish. A happy person is one you don't have to worry about. A happy person, whether their happiness is genuine or a mask they're wearing to get through the day, is a person who will go to the bar or play video games with you. A sad person will focus on the source of their sadness, and you can't hang out with someone who's busy sending out resumes or processing their trauma.
Related: 5 Stupid Things Adults Do When Trying To Talk To Teens
Feeling Like You Have To Say Something
By now, some of you are thinking "Christ, can't I say anything? I just want to be helpful!"
Well, you're being helpful just by being someone who cares enough to listen to a long rant from your friend about how their boss is an asshole, or how they don't get enough respect in the dating world, or how some arrogant know-it-all on the internet is trying to police their conversations. And sometimes that's as helpful as you can be, being there and listening without judgment. By groaning at all the right moments, by offering all the right affirmations. By agreeing that yes, a food truck that only served borscht was a great idea, despite the market's stern rejection.
Sometimes people just need to vent, and sometimes they just share because it would be weird not to say something. ("Oh, thanks for inviting me and my dad to your barbecue, but he actually got hit by a train eight months ago and I guess I never got around to telling you.") But we say a bunch of awkward and unhelpful things because we feel the need to insert ourselves, to become an active participant in their battle. To fill a void that they didn't actually ask us to fill.
Sometimes "Man, that sucks, I'm sorry," is the best and only thing to say, even if we feel lame for saying it. You can gently probe to see if there's more you can offer ("Can I do anything to help? Maybe I can cook dinner for you sometime?"), but often there's really not much you can do, or that your friend even wants you to do. And that's OK! If you're in a tough situation, it's actually really good to just hear people agree with you that yes, what's going on sucks and they have a right to feel lousy about it. They don't need easy solutions or trite reassurances; they just need to know that someone gives a shit.
Mark is on Twitter and wrote a book.
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