Do I Offer Sympathy or a Fix To My Upset Friend?

Indignant businesswoman having problem with smartphone, rejecting untimely phone call at workplace, annoyed with discharged or broken cell not working, confused by bad negative news in message


“Our most difficult task as a friend is to offer understanding when we don’t understand.” ~Robert Brault

I just read a story about a graphic designer who created a series of greeting cards for people with serious illness. Fifteen years ago, the graphic designer had Hodgkin lymphoma, so she put messages on her cards that she would have preferred reading when she was sick. Instead of reading “Get Well Soon” her cards read, “I promise to punch the next person who tells you ‘everything happens for a reason’” or “I promise never to refer to your illness as a ‘journey’ unless someone takes you on a cruise.” Finally, there are cards that express what some people dealing with illness really need to read.

I am so very guilty of all of these responses when others are going through difficult times. Call it my Little Miss Fix-It complex, but in the midst of feeling really bad for someone in a bad place, I am compelled to show them a way out of that bad place. I don’t want them to feel bad because feeling bad feels, so… well…. bad. So, I look on the bright side or to try to fix the problem so the bad feelings just go away. That’s a good thing, right?

Not necessarily.

Apparently the world is divided into two types of people – those who want a fix and those who want to hear, “I’m sorry. That really sucks.” It would be easy to reduce these two camps of thought to gender stereotypes – all women want sympathy while all men want to fix the problem – but that is not the case.

Personally, sympathy is just a waste of time to me. It doesn’t produce or change anything. I reach the “acceptance” stage of any grief or loss really really quickly. People die. Items get lost. Circumstances change. That person really did betray you. I get it. I’d rather figure out the why and the how so I can learn from a situation, be a wiser person for the experience and, going forward, try to avoid the same negative situation in the future. In fact, when someone says “that really sucks” they may have well said, “I can’t see any way out of this one. You’re sunk!”. I interpret their sympathy as confirmation that they have no real answers and that I may never get out of this terrible time.

What I really need to hear is, “Don’t you worry, we are going to figure this out”. In situations that appear as if there is no possible fix – for instance, someone has died and they are not going to come back – fixing the problem may ultimately mean learning to let go of what I can’t control and working through feelings of shock, grief and loss. During a major life crisis keeping the perspective that the situation is part of a larger journey brings me comfort. I find it stabilizing to remember other situations that I have overcome in the past and I remind myself of the good that came from all of them.

Then, there is the other half of the world, made up of people who need to hear that their situation just “sucks”. They don’t want a fix. They don’t want to hear about the bright side or about a silver lining. They don’t want to hear a spiritual interpretation of their difficulty. To them, any of these responses are interpreted as, “Things really aren’t so bad. Your feelings aren’t really justified. You are probably overreacting.”

These people want to hear, “I’m so sorry. That really sucks.” To them, this is interpreted as, “I recognize the pain you are going through and it is justified.” They want sympathy and time to sit for a while with their bad feelings and to just feel them, because they are upset. They need the time and the space to be right where they are. Sympathy is the recognition of all of this and that brings them comfort.

Somewhere along the way, I realized that I was responding to friends in need with my attempts to fix their problems – the type of reaction I would have wanted. Well, that is like giving someone a gift you think they should have, instead of the gift that they actually wanted. It turns out that the adage, “Do unto others as you would have done unto you” is not the best guidance. Instead, it should be, “Do unto others as they would want you to do unto them.” Or something like that.

My fiancé, Rich, is someone who wants sympathy, rather than a fix. When my inner Little Miss Fix-It first showed up during a difficult time for him, he was not happy to see her. I, in turn, was confused. We had to talk through what each of us really needed. Since then, it still takes work for me to hold myself back from trying to fix things with him but offer sympathy instead. He still has to remind himself to let me know that everything is going to be all right and to talk about how to fix things when I am going through a difficult time.

How do we know which of the two categories our loved ones fall into? I find it helpful to simply ask. When a friend is upset, I ask, “So, do you want my advice or do you just need to vent?” Sometimes, I try a mix of both approaches and notice which one receives the most favorable response, since not everyone can articulate what they need – especially mid-crisis.

The most important thing you can do for a loved one is show up and make an effort. We really do find out who our friends are during a crisis. One of the worst side effects of going through a major crisis is finding out you were mistaken in thinking someone was a member of your support system – when he or she was not.

Fortunately, there are always a new batch of supportive people who will show up during your crisis. A friend who was dying of cancer noted how her sister, who she had always expected to be there for her, was nowhere to be found. Instead, her brother, who had remained fairly distant in their adult lives, was by her side at every moment. As she lay dying in her hospital bed she said to me, “There are lots of surprises in this process.”

Ultimately I think the worst response is no response. As hard as it is to know what to say to someone, say something. Say anything. If you are clumsy about it, that is all right. If it comes out all wrong, don’t worry about it. At least your friends won’t be wondering, after the dust settles on their crisis, where you were. They will remember that you showed up and that you tried to help. This is so much better than someone who could not get past their own uncomfortable feelings enough to show up at all. We cannot let our own awkward feelings eclipse the feelings of our friends when they are in crisis.

Do you need sympathy or a fix when you are upset?


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