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What Your Friends Don't Know Can Hurt You

When you're in times of distress, remember: people are not mind readers

By Jill Smolowe

A few weeks back I had a conversation with a friend I’ll call Gina. Because we neither live near each other nor have friends in common, but do have a history of mutual trust, candor comes readily when we talk. As Gina filled me on the current details of her life, it became clear that she was on overload.

There were problems with her husband. Problems with her child. Problems with her boss. Problems with her finances. Yet given an opportunity to vent to a neutral party, she kept circling back to a different source of aggravation: In their attempts to be helpful and offer support, the people in Gina’s inner circle were making things worse rather than answering her needs.

Her cousin, for instance, had a habit of opening every conversation with the sort of cloying “How are you?” that presupposed distress. As a result, where Gina might have been just fine seconds earlier, that opener always dragged her down. “She needs to stop asking me that and just listen,” Gina said. “Sometimes I don’t want to talk about how I am.”

Her husband was also proving an unsatisfying sounding board. “He keeps telling me how I should handle my boss and job. He needs to listen, not offer his opinions.” Then there was the friend who liked to dole out marital advice. “She’s never even been married!” Gina said. “She needs to listen, not voice her opinions.”

Bottom line: At a moment when Gina needed the support of the people closest to her, they weren’t offering what she needed.

When Concern Feels Like a Burden

Boy, could I relate.

After my husband, Joe, was diagnosed with leukemia in 2007, a tide of anguished concern and fretful questions came rushing at me with a force that quickly began to feel almost as overwhelming as the leukemia diagnosis. It’s not that I didn’t appreciate people’s concern. But their constant expressions of worry had an aggregated weight that I feared might drain the energy and strength I needed to handle the medical challenge that was upending Joe’s and my life.

As the deluge of questions continued day after day, I began to sense that when friends turned their attention to Joe and me, they unconsciously saw something beyond a married couple dealing with a medical crisis. Joe and I were now also Rorschach blots onto which friends projected their own fears and worries as they silently wondered how — and if — they would bear up under similar circumstances. “How did you find out about Joe’s leukemia?” (When was my last physical?) “Do the doctors know how he got it?” (What should I avoid?) “What were his symptoms?” (Do I have any of them?) “How old is Joe, exactly?” (Phew, I’m younger.) “Joe’s always been so fit.” (If this could happen to him, what hope is there for any of us?) “I just know he’s going to beat this.” (Cancer is beatable, right? It has to be.)

Initially, I tried to bulldoze my way past the barrage of questions with brief answers and body language that suggested, "Move on to another topic, please; this part of the conversation is over." But people rarely got the message because they usually weren’t really listening to me. Instead, they were either tuning into their own anxieties about dire illness or projecting what they thought they would need if they were me, then offering me the outcome of that calculation.

People Are Not Mind Readers

I’m not talking here about only the casually curious (and, trust me, the ranks of those expand exponentially when cancer enters the picture). I’m talking, too, about people I love, people who I knew truly wanted to be there for me in my time of need. Yet rather than making my life more manageable, their relentless concern about Joe’s condition and progress was making my hours outside the hospital more complicated.

Almost to a person, each friend seemed to assume that she or he was the first and only person that day to inquire about Joe; that I couldn’t possibly want to think or talk about anything but his health and treatment and that this intense and intensely focused interest was what I wanted and needed to talk about in order to feel comforted.

It took me a few weeks to realize something that may sound flip, but I assure you is not: People are not mind readers. Really. They’re not.

In my case, friends had no way of knowing that the anxious questions they asked day after day were questions I’d already been asked dozens, if not scores, of times that day. They had no way of knowing that talking about Joe’s every medical test and doctor consultation provided no relief for me; that far from easing my distress, the constant repetition of test results and medical conversations served only to deepen my agitation. They had no way of knowing that when I was away from Joe, what I wanted and needed most was to recharge my depleted energy reserves with conversation about anything but what was unfolding inside his hospital room.


This was, I realized, somewhat counterintuitive. If my friends were going to provide help and support that actually lightened my load, I needed to tell them what I needed. Politely. Clearly. Without guilt or apology. So, I switched tack.

When people asked me the “How are you?” and “What can I do?” questions, I started offering specific answers that were meaningful to me. Please take me for walks, I said. Please talk to me about you and what you’re up to. Tell me what you’re reading, what movies you’ve seen, what new restaurants you’ve tried. And please, don’t ask me about Joe.

Be Clear About Your Needs

After Joe died in 2009, I made time to write notes of thanks to the people who had most helped me through the previous two very difficult years. My friends’ responses all sounded something like this: “You were so clear about what you needed. It took the guesswork out of it and made it easy to help you.”

It’s a lesson that has proven invaluable, both when I am in need of support and when I want to offer support to a friend or relative in his or her own time of need.

After listening to Gina vent her frustration with the people in her life who kept offering unwanted opinions, advice and judgments instead of a sympathetic ear, I shared with her what I’d learned about people needing and appreciating guidance. “People usually mean well,” I said. “But they’re not mind readers.”

Recently, I spoke again with Gina (who, by the way, was OK with me sharing the gist of our conversations, provided I eliminated any identifying details). There are still problems with her husband. Problems with her child. Problems with her boss. Problems with her finances. But, she told me, she’d finally told her cousin that she needed to stop pushing the conversation in a particular direction and follow Gina’s signals. Just listen. Just be there.

How did your cousin take it? I asked. “She’s totally fine with it,” Gina responded.

I’m going to wager that Gina’s cousin felt a bit relieved, too. Plainly, she cares about Gina. No doubt, she’d prefer to offer useful support than be banished to the sidelines because she was inadvertently driving Gina crazy. But she’s not a mind reader. Really, she’s not.

Photograph of Jill Smolowe
Jill Smolowe is the author of "Four Funerals and a Wedding: Resilience in a Time of Grief." To learn more about her book and her grief and divorce coaching, visit Read More
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