How To Respond Compassionately To Someone's Suffering

Registered Yoga Teacher By Meagan McCrary
Registered Yoga Teacher
Meagan McCrary, E-RYT 500, is a yoga teacher and author of Pick Your Yoga Practice: Exploring and Understanding Different Styles of Yoga.
Expert review by Kristina Hallett, Ph.D., ABPP
Board-certified Clinical Psychologist
Kristina Hallett, Ph.D., ABPP is a board-certified clinical psychologist, Director of Clinical Training at Bay Path University, and an associate professor in Graduate Psychology. She has a private practice in Suffield, Connecticut.
How To Respond Compassionately To Someone's Suffering

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Sometimes when someone shares what they're going through, they aren't asking for you to make it better. For whatever reason, just telling someone makes us feel a little less desolate. It's human nature to want to share, to have someone who hears us, who understands, who can sympathize with what we're going through. We want to know that we are not alone. We want someone to acknowledge how badly we are hurting and allow us to be just as we are without needing or expecting us to feel better. We don't want someone to fix our sadness.

For the most part, people genuinely want to help. They don't want to see you suffering. And because they don't want to see you suffering, they offer advice, clichéd proverbs, pep talks, or distractions. Many are uncomfortable with pain and sadness and haven't been taught how to respond truly compassionately to other people's suffering.

Do not force them to move on too soon.

Very few of us are capable of jumping right in and objectively looking at our painful situations. Before we can listen to advice or even hear that everything will be OK, we must be acknowledged. We need a little time to just feel hurt without having to get over it or do something about it right away. Simply hearing someone say, "I understand" can mean so much to a person who's suffering.

The list included here contains all-too-common responses someone might give in the face of someone's suffering or conflict. Chances are you've heard them, or have even said them, before. Save them for later in the conversation when you feel that the person you are comforting seems ready to move on from their hurt. 

  • Telling you to "think positively"
  • Giving advice: "What you should do is this...", "Have you thought about doing such and such?"
  • Discounting your feelings: "No use crying over spilled milk," "It's not that bad," "Cheer up!"
  • Trumping your pain: "Oh yes, I've been through this many times myself. Here's what worked for me."
  • Telling you to get over it: "Move on," "Let it go," "Isn't it time you got over this?"
  • Trivializing or diminishing your pain: "Put it into perspective—there are kids starving in Africa."
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Here are some compassionate responses, instead.

Instead of jumping to a solution or a call to action, you'll likely be a much better supporter if you do one of the following. Hearing these compassionate, empathetic responses can make someone feel less alone: 

  • Asking how you feel.
  • Giving you a hug, embrace, placing an arm around you, or holding your hand.
  • Validating your pain: "This must be so hard for you," or "I can't begin to imagine what you're going through."
  • Sharing their own reactions: "I'm so sorry, "I'm so angry," "I feel so helpless; I wish there was something I could do," or even "I don't know what to say."
  • Creating space for your pain: "Do you want to talk about it?" "It's OK to cry," or, "We don't have to talk; I'm happy to just sit here with you."
  • Offering support: "Is there anything I can do to help?" Sometimes it's even better to offer something specific ("Can I bring you over a meal?" "Can I help around the house?"). All too often when we are asked if someone can help, the person just says "No, I'm OK"—getting specific can help. 

The bottom line:

Sometimes it's best to let someone have their space and time to feel their pain rather than immediately attempting to solve the issue or move on. People need space to feel their emotions, and it is a vital part of moving forward.

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