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  • Writer's pictureSarah Mason

Don't Offer Toxic Advice to Struggling Friends

Everyone has challenges. In the grand scheme, my challenges are minor. I do indeed have challenges that are so small compared to people I know and others around the world. Yet, that does not negate the fact that life is not always easy for me, and my challenges are burdens for me. Someone else having it worse does not negate my own burdens.

We need to stop comparing ourselves. We need to stop trying to outdo each other or belittling our friends with stories of "true victims." It’s not helpful. I’ve been lectured with both types of advice, and I’ve also given both types. Both are annoying. Both fail to support our loved ones. Both fail to listen. Both only serve to silence someone hurting. Thus, both are toxic.

Type one: "At least you can still ______. I can’t even ____."

When you hurt and need some sympathy, it is not helpful to have someone only remind you how terrible their own pain is and then demand you be grateful for your seemingly minor suffering. Oh, you broke your leg? Well, at least it will heal and you can walk again. Their body is failing them and they have had daily agonizing pain. Oh, you are struggling with depression? Well, you should buck up, because they have despaired greater than you ever have; your depression cannot even compare with the utter meaningless they have had.

You know what sucks? They probably have struggled and they probably have had it worse, but, at that time, you just really needed support. Just like you would want to support them during their pain. Now it just sucks that you feel like you cannot seek help for your pain because their pain was worse. It also becomes toxic when their advice keeps you from seeking help. Why do you need to go to see a therapist for your depression? They had it much worse and just sucked it up. Why do you need to go to a doctor for that pain in your stomach? They have nauseating pain that causes blackouts thanks to endometriosis. Your pain is minor. This advice is not only dismissive but it can be dangerous. You are allowed to suffer, you are allowed to grieve, you are allowed to feel your pain as part of a healing process. Also, you need to be allowed to seek help if you need it. Heaven forbid that your pain is a symptom of something very dangerous that can be treated, but you didn't go because it wasn't seen as painful enough to someone else.

You may have shared your pain with that friend knowing they have also suffered and hoped for their encouragement, support, advice, or empathy. But if they cannot move past comparing your pain to their worse pain, you need to find someone else to confide in. It's one thing for them to use their pain and experience as a way to educate you on healing, it's another for them to discuss their pain as a way for making you feel ridiculous and selfish.

If you are that first type of advice-giver, perhaps you don’t realize that you are causing more harm than good. Perhaps you thought that talking about your worse suffering would make the person in the middle of a struggle feel better. “It could be worse,” was meant to be support. However, be aware of how your advice helps or hinders your friend. Recognize that this might be the worst that this person has ever struggled. In that alone, it makes their pain unbearable. Be cautious of making them feel shame and like their pain isn’t painful enough to discuss. Listen to empathize. That’s what they need, and that is what you can offer.

Type two: “At least you can still ______. Some people can’t even ____.”

“There are hungry children in Africa.” I used to hear that growing up, but you know what is also true? One in six American children do not know when their next meal will be. There are hungry children here. And you might be talking to one of them. We are a people that like to categorize and rate people, objects, and places. We score people on hotness and rate books, and we miss so much in our attempt to label and rank. We overlook, and we can miss truth when we are busy trying to classify suffering.

Someone will always have it worse. You could lose a loved one, and someone else could lose a whole family. Someone else could lose their entire community. That does not mean your grief is any less than someone else’s. The “it could be worse” people are not allowing themselves or others to heal.

As a teacher, I heard a number of adults talk about how easy our students had it. I too could assume that my students had generally comfortable lives. Little did I know the full struggles of some of my students. I had students with severe mental illness, students who had major medical surgeries with scars hidden beneath clothing, students recovering from horrific trauma, and students who were homeless. I'm sure I've said heartless words unintentionally to students. In my first year teaching, I remember scolding a student for habitually napping in my class and not valuing the importance of his education. It took months for me to take the time to learn his story, one I could not have fathomed. He was working full-time to provide for his family. He was the primary breadwinner. His parents struggled as undocumented citizens and they relied on him. How could he make education and his future a priority when he was worried about providing for his and his family's physiological needs?

Stop dismissing others' pain. Stop implying that someone is ungrateful for their blessings simply because they are also hurt by their struggles. We need to listen better. We need to support people better. We need to stop placing our own perceptions and expectations on others in ways that only hold them down.

Be a different type, find a different type.

Both of these types of advice refuse to allow people to hurt because they de-emphasize the pain as "not painful enough to complain." Even if meant to be supportive, these types of advice do not allow the hurt person to accept their own struggle so they can overcome it with support.

Don’t be those types of advice givers and don’t turn to those types. Sometimes, you don’t know. You don’t know that your friend won’t empathize when you struggle. And just because your friend wasn't supportive, you don’t have to shut these people out of your life, but do not make them your person.

In Grey’s Anatomy, the characters are all complicated and they all have struggles. It’s a necessary attribute to keep the audience entertained each week. But early in the series, Christina Yang determines that Meredith Grey is the person she’d call to help her remove a dead body if she killed someone. She isn’t planning a murder. She is stating that “her person” is with her. She isn’t judging her, she is with her. They are a team even in the worst situations. Find your person who will struggle with you.

That person should be someone who empathizes and supports you in the suckiness, but also they should be someone who celebrates you in your greatest moments. Because there is another terribly toxic type that we won’t get into: the type who likes miserable people. Those people like you to stay in your miserable state so they can feel better about themselves or so they never have to rise out of their own wallowing. (Misery loves company.) Those people are jealous and miserable when you find your happiness. Make sure your person will cry with you and celebrate with you.

I am thirty years old. For years, I didn’t know the right people. And I still have the dangerous types in my life, but I don’t lean on them. I have found my person, or more correctly my people. I have people who are my people. I have a mug from one that says so. (It literally says, “You’re my person,” and it has a sketch of Christina Yang and Meredith Grey.) At thirty years old, I have created my own little army of cheerleaders who would help me move a dead body if need be (not that I've needed that assistance).

After going through a sucky year of crappy people, impossible choices, and multiple pity parties, I have tested my people. They are good people. My mom and a handful of other amazing women are my people. They have supported me when I fell down, when I got lost, when I was not fun. My people allowed me to grieve without negating it and without comparing it. They empathized. They allowed me to find myself again, and they cheered each small step forward. My people are swell. They really are quite the best.

Find your people and lean on them. They will call you out on your own attempt to be a toxic type of person, they will protect you when you are frustrated by toxic types, and they will let you help you through the crap so you can heal. Because your people want you to be healthy. They want you to shine.

Finally, be that person for your person. It’s something I’m working on still. Sometimes, I fail for others as much as I fail myself, but I keep trying. That’s all we can do: try, and try our best. Be supportive, be empathetic. As much as your people want you to shine, be that much more for them. Heck, be the supportive, empathetic people that you wish some of the unhealthy people in your life were. Model healthy supportive friendships for the people who need it most. We all will be better people for it.


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