Monday, September 5, 2011

Is it a bad idea to cheer someone up?

I've written from time to time (including this post about memorializing him) about the death of my best friend, as it was one of the formative experiences of my life. I learned a lot from his demise, and carry many of the memories with me to this day - and I use a lot of those lessons in my job as a therapist.

One of the most important and long-lasting lessons I learned from that terrible time was that it's not always such a great idea to try and cheer someone up. I heard so many versions of "it's going to be okay!" and "he's in a better place!" and "it's all part of God's plan."

What I didn't hear, at least until his brother said it to me, was "Wow, you must really be hurting. You guys were so close." And that was exactly what I did need to hear. I figured out quickly enough that the people who were trying to cheer me up were doing it mostly for their benefit, not for mine. I'm a cheerful guy. Seeing me grieving threw them off. It made them feel weird, and they wanted me to cut it out. They weren't being malicious about it, or likely even making a conscious choice - but it was clear that it wasn't okay for me to just be there in my grief in front of them.

Going through that has changed what I do when someone is showing emotion. Greg's death came as I was training to be a therapist. Maybe that was his gift to me - his passing solidified and made real the lessons I had been learning in the classroom. No longer was I in a hurry to cheer someone up, and that holds true today both in the therapy room and out.

A simple "you sound sad" or "looks like things are tough for you right now" can really help someone just expand into that space where they're holding their feelings. No need to ask questions ("are you all right?" puts someone into their head as they try to figure out an answer - "you look sad" lets them stay in their heart). Simply let someone know you see them, and you are okay with what you see. This is another one of those easy "therapy tricks" that you can bring into your everyday life to help you strengthen relationships and open yourself to what's really going on with people.

Next time you feel the urge to cheer someone up, ask yourself whether you are doing that for them, or for you. And, make the conscious choice to let them feel what it is they need to feel. In the short run, it may be a little uncomfortable until you get used to it. In the long run, you'll find out how satisfying it can be to give people such a simple but powerful gift.


  1. This reminds me of Harold Kushner's "When Bad Things Happen to Good People." In fact, I think I'm going to go find a copy and read it again.


  2. Thanks for reading, Tom! Much appreciated.

  3. This is simple mirroring and most of us who didn't get this from our parents really do find relief in it. To be seen in that way is so powerful.

  4. I am sorry about your friend.

    It's the "God's Plan" crap that drives me nuts. A fellow atheist friend from college committed suicide this spring, and his Facebook wall became a shrine for people's weird-ass beliefs. He would have *hated* it; I wish before people say that to others, that they realize maybe there are some of us who don't think things "happen for a reason." Sigh.

    Sorry, I needed to rant. :)

  5. I appreciate the "therapy trick". No one ever teaches empathy. While I can identify with what people are feeling. It would never occur to me to say "You look sad." It is a perfect empathetic thing to say! Thanks Doc!

  6. Boo- I don't think that there's much in the world that's more powerful than simply being seen. As you said, people who did not get that from their parents have spent their childhood escalating and trying to figure out HOW to be seen.

    Atty - Boy, do I ever hear you on that one. Again, I think people aren't necessarily being that way on purpose, but you dance with who brung ya. That's what they've been trained to do, and that's what they go to.

    Maggie - Yay! Glad you're reading!

  7. Christian or atheist hearing the words "it is all in God's plan" or "things happen for a reason" (which I believe they do) are not easy to hear. I am Christian and hearing the phrase, "you will be with them again in heaven" makes me want to scream, "but I want them with me here and now!". But sadly even I have found myself saying those stupid phrases before I realized what had come out of my mouth even though they were not the words that I held in heart. Like some pre recorded tape that plays automatically when in a certain situation.

    My parents never taught me what to say to someone that had a loved one die but life did.

    For those that do not know what to say, don't say anything. Look them in the eye and do not avoid them, that is the worst thing you can do to someone that has lost someone they love. It makes a person feel alienated and even more alone.

    A soft smile, reaching out a hand, a hug, or what I say is, "I just don't know what to say except that I am sorry for your lose." Similar words were spoken to me when my mom died by a stranger and they have stayed with me for over 20 years. Those words were comforting, like they understood and knew that there were no words that would erase the pain I was feeling.

  8. I cant agree with you more. I am saddened by the state of the american people that all we care about is pleasing ourselves and making our surroundings comfortable. With all the work I do to help people I run across many people that want to help, but in reality they are not doing it for the needy they are doing it for themselves. Really is hard to find unselfish people these days. And I can totally agree with the "buck up kid everything is going to be alright" statements. After I lost my wife it did nothing but make me want to crawl into a hole. Thanks again for this blog I am learning a lot about human psychology.