5 Things You Shouldn’t Say to People in Distress

“Hi, I don’t want to live anymore”.

Sometimes these are the first words people say to me when they connect to the online psychological crisis line where I volunteer for the last 3 years. Old lonely people, troubled teenagers, young women with post-trauma, people going through divorce. Different people in different situations, all united in their need to talk to somebody. So what do you say, and what you avoid saying to people in distress? I hope that these strategies may help you in your conversations and relationships.

Don’t Run From Difficult Emotions – Embrace them

– “No one loves me, I feel so alone”
– “I am sure there are people that love you”

 When people express difficult emotions or thoughts like pain or despair our natural reaction is to negate them. We instinctively try to protect ourselves from their destructiveness by diminishing their power because opening up to pain is frightening. But by diminishing people’s pain we only increase their sense of loneliness, isolation and the feeling that “no one understands me”. Instead of avoiding difficult emotions, we should accept them, give them space, allow them to be expressed and talked about. That’s the essence of empathy.

– “No one loves me, I feel so alone”
– “Loneliness is very hard to bear. Sounds like you are going through a really difficult period”

Don’t Cheer Up – Give Emotional Support

– “I’m never going to find someone”
– “You’ll find somebody, it’s going to be better. Life is beautiful, you have to believe it”

We know that cheering up isn’t always appropriate. We wouldn’t try to cheer up someone who just lost a loved one. But often we try to make people feel better by saying platitudes and generalities, and promising things we can’t really back up . Even worse, we try to convince that life is really good, you just have to snap out from your misery to see it. All of this amounts to a sense of impatience with other person’s feelings. Instead of cheering up, we should give emotional support. That is, expressing positive emotions towards the person we talk with directly and authentically.

– “I’m never going to find someone”
– “You mean a lot to me. You deserve to be happy”

Don’t Talk about Yourself – Reflect What You Hear

– “I sometimes feel that my wife doesn’t understand me, doesn’t know me at all”
– “I know what you mean, I sometimes feel the same. Especially when my wife…”

It’s natural we draw parallels with our own life from what we hear. But our experience isn’t always relevant or helpful, so instead of jumping in with premature analogies, we could strive to better understand what is being said. There is no better way to do it than by reflecting it and allowing the person we talk with to expand and explain his words. Wrapping the reflection in metaphoric, impersonal language makes dealing with the subject less painful.

– “I sometimes feel that my wife doesn’t understand me, doesn’t know me at all”
– “Sometimes close people drift away from each other. Bridges can disintegrate over time. But bridges can also be restored”


– “I am a complete failure”

Divorce is hard, losing a job is hard – there is not much we can do about it. But in addition to the core issue that causes the distress, there is often a layer of guilt, shame and inadequacy that accompanies it. After acknowledging the pain and the hardship, we can deal with the guilt and the shame by normalizing the issue. However bad anyone feels about something, it’s important to note that there are many other people that suffer from similar circumstances. Being cheated on, getting fired, being harassed, failing an exam – that can happen to anyone.  That doesn’t have to be a sign of  a personal failure determined by a flawed character and a dysfunctional personality – instead it can be a reminder of our fallibility as humans, something we all share. That doesn’t make the pain any easier to bear but it can help in neutralizing the shame and the guilt.

– “I am a complete failure”
– “There must be many people that find themselves in similar circumstances. That doesn’t make it any easier, but this can happen to anyone”


– “I can’t believe I talk about this. I always thought I am strong, but I guess I’m not”

Here is the deal: feeling bad makes people feel bad about themselves. Being depressed, confused or paralyzed as a result of some trouble is often interpreted as a sign of weakness, of inability to cope. In addition, the idea that you may need help to overcome a crisis may be troubling if you have a rigid view of yourself. If one thinks about herself as a super mom, than the idea of getting help to cope with her child’s behaviour issues may be threatening to her self-esteem. So our strategy should be first of all to empower and then to encourage getting help.

– “I can’t believe I talk about this. I always thought I am strong, but I guess I’m not”
– “I think it requires a lot of courage to talk about these things. We can’t cope with everything by ourselves. Getting help is a sign of maturity, not weakness”


Do you have other strategies you find useful when talking with people in distress? Share them in the comments.


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