The other day, I told a friend about my chronic pain for the first time. At first I felt weird, because I was telling someone who knew me so well about a part of me they had never known was there. But we kept talking and eventually the weird feeling was replaced with relief, because I assumed that if I explained it well enough, this person would be able to understand me and my life the way I wanted them to.
But then my friend asked me, “why do you never talk about it?” and I responded in the most honest way I could, saying, “Well, its not your fault, but you haven’t experienced anything similar to this, so I didn’t think it would make a lot of sense to you.” My friend replied with an enthusiastic, “Yeah, you’re right. That’s so true.” And my heart sank. I wasn’t upset because what they said was mean; I was sad because what my friend didn’t know was that when I answered their question, I didn’t want to be right.
What I had said to them was basically “I never told you this because you wouldn’t understand how I feel,” and all I got back was, “Yes, you’re correct. I can’t understand you.” And that was really hard to hear, because I had finally gathered the courage talk to my friends about my problems the same way they talked to me about theirs, only to be told that they didn’t get it.
For a while, I was mad that my friend wasn’t willing to understand or support me in the way that I wanted. But eventually, I realized that peoples’ ability to comprehend my challenges is not a choice they make based on how much they care about me; it comes from what they’ve experienced themselves, and that’s not something they can control. It wasn’t my friend’s fault that they had nothing more to say than “I’m sorry, but I can’t relate” when I told them about my struggles. Because we can’t expect other people to truly know what it’s like to experience something when they have nothing to compare it to.
However, it’s still fair to expect them to support us. And something else I learned from this situation is that most people have a hard time supporting someone who is dealing with a problem they haven’t have themselves. But unlike understanding, it’s not because they can’t do it. It’s simply because they don’t know how.
I’ve come to terms with the fact that I can’t force people to understand what my life is like. There are going to be people who can’t understand and it’s not their fault or mine. But something that I can control is the way people support me and people like me.
So, to the people than can’t understand, this is how you can still show that you care:
First of all, don’t feel bad if it doesn’t make sense to you. It’s ok. I’m not expecting you to “get it.” You don’t have to “get it” to care. But please don’t try and force yourself to understand how I feel. It won’t work. It won’t help. I’m not mad at you for not being able to relate to me. Caring despite not knowing how it feels is even more difficult, and I appreciate that you care.
Don’t just tell me you’re sorry. Sorry can be a start, but don’t leave it at that. When someone is looking for your support and all you say is “sorry,” that tells them that you feel bad, but that you’re not willing to do anything to help them. Instead, try something like “I’m sorry you’re feeling like that. I’m here to listen if you want to talk.” or “I’m sorry, what can I do to help?” And if the answer is “no, I don’t want to talk” or “nothing right now,” don’t keep pushing. You’ve done your part, and the person knows you are there for them, which is the most important part.
If you have nothing to say, just listen. I know you probably can’t relate to most of the things I say. I don’t expect you to be able to. I don’t expect you to have perfect advice or a magical plan to make me feel better. So, if you have nothing to add, it’s okay to just listen. But make it known that you are listening if you are. It can be a simple “I hear what you’re saying” or “I’m here” to let someone know you are present and you care. That means a lot.
Don’t try to fix me. I know it’s hard to watch someone struggle and not be able to get rid of the problem. People have this instinctive urge to fix everything, and not next month or tomorrow, but right now. I know because I do it too! When a friend tells me they’re sad, I immediately try to say something funny to make them smile. They’re smiling which means they’re happy, right? And if they’re happy it means I fixed them, right? But it’s not right, because some problems can’t be fixed and they just have to be managed, and that’s okay.
The bottom line is, if you want to show someone that you care about them and want to support them, it’s okay if you can’t understand them. It’s okay if their life is completely different than yours. It’s okay if you don’t know what to say to them. Because the best thing you can do for another person is be present in their life. Tell them that you care. Listen to them. And don’t try to fix their broken parts. All you have to do is be there.