Wellness, Productivity, Balance for Graduate Students and Beyond

Reaching Out to Someone Who Is Going Through Hard Stuff

We all have different ways of presenting ourselves, and I tend to let out more of my dark stuff on Instagram. I don't know if it's the pictures, or the longer captions, or what, but I share more about my fears, my failures, my stress, my anxiety, my depression, and my darkness there. I know that's a really compelling pitch to follow me, but it's important context for what happened to me yesterday. A friend saw a few of my posts, and sent me these messages:

Your IG seems to be telling me you are stressed/depressed & scared☹️
Hope all is well and it is just the stress of daily life piling up.

And despite my appreciation for her reaching out, I still had a few minutes of scream-rage before I could bring myself to respond. 

To be clear, this is a person who I believe 100% has my best interests at heart, and was reaching out from a place of concern. But as someone receiving that message, I heard:

Please reassure me that you're fine. Seems scary, whatever is going on with you. Everyone has stress! 

And it got me thinking about how hard it is to express concern for someone who is going through the hard stuff, whatever that hard stuff might be. I know that I absolutely avoid reaching out to people who I learn are struggling in a variety of ways because I don't know what to say and I don't want to say the wrong thing. I worry about not wanting to remind people of what they're going through, or that they might not think we're close enough to discuss something like that, or that it is too late to say something. So, in the interest of making hard stuff easier to do, and honoring the fact that real life (and all its joys and struggles) do not stop during grad school (or when you get your degree!), here are some guidelines for how to reach out if you think someone might be going through it. 

Reach out in a way that respects that person's privacy

I always, always prefer that people who reach out to me about an emotional thing do so in a way that gives me some space to respond in my own time. In other words, please don't send your condolences to your colleague as you pass them in the shared department hallway. Sometimes seeing someone in person can spark you to remember to reach out, but do your best to curb that impulse to "check off" the task on the fly and send a message in a different channel. If you are going to reach out in person (during a meeting with your advisor, or coffee with a colleague) be prepared to step away for a minute to give them space if emotions are running high (and they request it/seem like they would like it.) Unless that person leads with the situation conversationally, saving your condolences/concerns for the end of the "business" of the meeting can help that person feel more safe. 

"Hope all is well" or "Hope you're doing alright" or "Hope things are looking up" can be counterproductive

It is perfectly natural to hope that things are going well, or better, for a person who is struggling. I encourage you, however, to keep these hopes to yourself because there are only two responses to that sentiment:

  1. "Things are better/fine/okay, thank you" - While this could be true, this could also be a lie. The phrasing of the sentiment doesn't really leave any other option but agreeing with the proposed status. 
  2. "THINGS ARE NOT FINE THANK YOU FOR REMINDING ME OF THE CONTINUED/ACCELERATED RATE OF TERRIBLENESS" - In case the person is not okay, or things are not improving, you could be met with rage, or sadness, or any other negative emotion because the person not only isn't in the positive state you hope (wish?) they were in, they have to counteract your well-intentioned wishes to the contrary. 

Better ways to phrase that same sentiment: "You're in my thoughts," "Thinking of you," "Let me know if you'd ever like to talk," "I'm here if you need anything," or "[Situation] sucks. I'm sorry." 

Choose Empathy over Sympathy

This video, by Dr. Brene Brown, nails the distinction between empathy and sympathy. Empathy, she says, "is feeling with people." What makes something hard better is connection. 

The idea of avoiding "at least" responses really resonates with me. Saying "at least...[other terrible outcome]" minimizes the pain of the actual situation, thereby invalidating it. I find that a blanket, empathetic response to any kind of terrible news shared with you is:

That sucks. I am sorry. or That really sucks, I am so sorry. 

For other good language, or should you want to send a card to someone who is going through it, may I recommend Emily McDowell's Empathy Cards? I have sent and received these, and they're perfectly balanced between not sappy or saccharine and genuinely heartfelt. She's also written a book, with Dr. Kesley Crowe (PhD from Cal Berkley #withaPhD) about empathy and how to talk to someone that's going through it that is funny, sensitive, action-oriented and useful. 

Other Things that Help 

In no particular order, here are other things to try/do/say/remember when you're reaching out:

  • Regular standing plans can help someone going through a long term struggle. Regular work dates at a coffee shop were sometimes the only reason I connected with friends during down periods in my life. Standing appointments to talk on Skype or GChat that I didn't have to think about, or ask for, also helped me be less isolated without having to make plans every time. 
  • Include the "You don't have to respond now, or ever" disclaimer. I have been known to not open up text messages, so that they would still show as unread. If they were still "unread," I wouldn't feel obligated to respond to them, even when they were perfectly kind messages! Sometimes responding to messages feels incredibly scary and vulnerable, so I always appreciate it when people include that they aren't expecting a response, or would be fine with a random emoji chain (my love language.) Taking the pressure off to respond can help the act of reaching out feel more like a point of connection rather than an obligation to interact. 
  • If you're going to do something nice (bring food, drop off books, etc) build in an escape mechanism. Visits, even when they're doing a helpful thing, can turn into hosting duties quickly so I always like to have an "appointment" I desperately need to get to. That way, no one feels obligated to talk, offer me food or drink, or entertain me simply because I was in their space. If they want to reach out or spend time, yay, but if not, then I was ready for that. 

which brings me to...

The Most Important Rule of Reaching Out

The other person's reaction to you reaching out is not about you. For example, my adverse reaction to my friend's totally benign, if poorly worded, check in text has everything to do with my own feelings of guilt and shame about my anxiety/depression, and very little to do with who she is as a person, the state of our friendship, etc. It could have absolutely been worded better (see above) but the impulse to connect is genuine and I (eventually) talked myself down and remembered that. 

We've all reached out to people, probably, and had our advances rebuffed, our texts unanswered, our plans dodged. The truth is that it is hard to be in pain, it is hard to go through tough stuff, and sometimes, even the most well-intentioned attempts to connect aren't what's needed at the time. What is important is letting people know that you care, and will be open to whatever they need, whenever they need it, on their timeline and not theres. That's empathy - that's connection - and that's what helps people.