2 Words That Do More Harm Than Good When A Friend Is Having A Hard Time

Five things to do instead, that are actually helpful.

Friends hanging out talking and listening to each other Chewy | Unsplash

I was having a really bad stretch at work. A cold, rainy week had left my students loud and barely manageable. I’d had an encounter with an angry parent (whose child wasn’t even in my class) and my administrator still hadn’t responded to several requests for basic supplies we sorely needed.

I was unloading my frustrations to a friend, someone I’d always had a sense of mutual sharing and support. So I was more than a bit taken aback when she said, “You know, you’re lucky you’ve got a job.”


OK, maybe I was a bit whiny and caught her at a bad time. I had been fortunate to snag one of the very few openings our district was to have that year and I knew it. But lucky or not, that was not the point. And it was the last thing I needed to hear. Why do we do this to people we love? It's time we stop.

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Two ways you hurt friends when you tell them, "be grateful"

1. You dismiss their reality

Despite my genuine gratitude for the work and income, I didn't feel lucky that day. I was frustrated, angry, and embarrassed that I wasn’t having more success in a profession I had passionately pursued my entire adult life. No, I wasn’t feeling remotely lucky. At least not in this setting. Or this particular week. I had bared my soul, and instead of being respected and heard, I had been blown off.


I thought about all the times I’d felt sad or disappointed or irritated, times I wanted something I was having trouble achieving. And I thought of how some well-meaning person tried to distract me from these feelings by telling me how fortunate I was that things weren’t worse.

These things are not mutually exclusive. Yes, I know things could be worse, and others have it worse than I do. And yes, I’m grateful I have a job and a roof over my head or I wasn’t hit by a bus today. Stop trying to cheer me up.

supportive friend listens

Photo: Odua Images via Shutterstock


2. You ask them to push down hurt and mask it with something else 

Please, understand that I am a huge fan of gratitude and make a point of counting my blessings daily. I know that this practice can help keep me focused and positive and, at times, can be a great tool to keep despair and panic at bay. But gratitude is a poor way to numb feelings when they come up.

Although my natural inclination is to be chipper and upbeat, stuff gets to me, and I no more enjoy sitting with pain, fear, or frustration than anyone else. But I need to honor the emotional complexity and resist the habit of using gratitude as a drug not to feel things I don’t want to deal with. I know the long-term outcomes of stuffing or dismissing uncomfortable emotions, and the resentments, self-harm, and substance use are no longer viable options for me.

So please, don’t give me any message that suggests it’s not OK for me to feel how I’m feeling, even if those feelings seem irrational or absurd to you. Even if I eventually would agree with you, at the moment, what I’m going through is very real for me.

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Five things to do instead of telling someone to be grateful 

If you want to be a friend — not just to me, but to anyone you care about — then there are a few things you can do to support a range of emotions without getting sucked into an emotional vortex.

1. Listen to them.

Sometimes I just want to vent. I tend to process my emotional experiences by talking (or writing) about what I’m going through. If I trust you enough to share something that is affecting me at a deep emotional level, I need you to hear me.

I don’t want to be anesthetized or calmed down. I want to be heard, so please don’t jump in with suggestions or distractions.

2. Accept their feelings.

Respect my vulnerability. Don’t judge or deny my feelings or blame me for what I’m going through. Resist any urge to impose an agenda of how you think I should feel or act. (And by the way, starting a sentence with “At least…” is just as bad as one that uses “You’re lucky…” as a distraction.) That won’t help me, and it will create mistrust and distance instead.


3. Validate them.

Share your understanding of my experience, or at least of my right to it. Reflect. Agree. Nod. Acknowledge.

RELATED: 5 Ways An 'Attitude Of Gratitude' Becomes A Toxic Lie You Tell Yourself

4. Wait and be patient.

Chances are, after a short time, I will shift out of the intensity of what I’m experiencing, although sometimes it takes a little time for me to gain the clarity and perspective I need. Be present. And be patient.



5. Hold space for them 

I’ve developed a bit more discretion about where and how much I share, but sometimes my judgment (or timing) is off. If this isn’t your thing — if you’re uncomfortable hearing what I’m sharing or if my feelings trigger your stuff — it’s OK to say so.


I have a strong network and other places I can go. However, if you can go deeper with me, these gifts will be greatly appreciated. Plus, they will reinforce my intention to reciprocate when it’s your turn to need me.

Feelings are just feelings. Hold a space for me to be wherever I am at the moment, and I am likely to gain some perspective and emotional sobriety. Let’s avoid drifting into unrelated events or experiences. I’ll catch up with my good luck when I get to the other side.

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Dr. Jane Bluestein is an author, artist, and life-long educator who works with parents, counselors, and educators worldwide. She is the author of the award-winning book Parents, Teens, and Boundaries: How to Draw the Line.