The worse someone feels, the more honesty we should wield

In a sad, grieving, anxious or depressed person’s mind, their fears are completely normal.

You can spend all the time in the world promising them that they are not sick, but they’re often unwilling to believe loved ones or even doctors who try to reassure them.

In which case, the only effective way to deal with their irrational thinking is to just play along for their peace of mind. And yours too. Because virtually any other response will only enrage them further.

Hackneyed cliches about everything working out and this too shall pass and making lemons out of lemonade are unhelpful.

Sometimes the best you can do is to hear them out and reply with, I’m sorry, that sucks.

Four magical words.

I’m sorry, that sucks.

Short, sweet and simple.

And it’s actually harder than you think to offer this response. Our mind chatter is loud and wants to fill the space and fix people. The value adding mechanism inside our mind insists on saying more.

When the reality is, the person only needs these those four words, or some variation thereof, bookended by loving pockets of companionable silence.

In fact, there’s a new category of greeting cards centered around these four words. Esty and other artisanal craft supplies stores offer many variations that are both beautifully designed and sympathetically written. Here are a few of my favorites.

The first card reads in bold capital letters, this fucking sucks.

In the product description it says, sometimes life simply, for lack of a better term, fucking sucks. For all your loved ones who need extra support, send them this greeting card to let them know you’ve got their backs.

Another visual theme that shows up quite a bit is the vacuum. What better way to epitomize the sheer suckiness of life.

I found one card with dozens of comments from satisfied customers. One person wrote, sometimes, shit sucks.

This is the perfect card to show your support to a friend or loved one going through a tough time. You can use this card to lighten the mood and put a smile on their face, if only for a moment.

Now, there’s also the cruder and more vulgar expressions of sympathy, which I personally appreciate. One card shows three maudlin sentences that are crossed out.

Doesn’t sending a card like this sound better than spending a lot of time and energy promising someone that they are not sick, depressed, lonely or scared?

I understand denial endures as a coping strategy because it’s so soothing, but I have a feeling that the worse someone feels, the more honesty we should wield.

Now there’s nursery rhyme for a children’s show. Imagine if we taught the next generation the healing value of genuine sympathy. After all, the success of our species can’t be conducted on anything less than regard for the humanity of all people.

Maybe there would be fewer wars if we were willing to look each other in the eye and say some version of, I’m sorry, that sucks.

Now, some may say the phrase is callous, flippant and dismissive. It’s faux active listening, you’re just mirroring and murmuring back platitudes. And too much sympathy feels like pity, which only makes people’s grief more depressing.

Fair enough.

Look, if we want to transition from sympathy to empathy, we can always say something like, tell more so I can understand where you’re coming from.

Then we can feel what they’re feeling.

But in my experience, people usually just need to be validated in their irrational coping of feelings in an effort to return to wisdom. We can create a positive interpersonal atmosphere that’s more conducive to healing, without being coercive.

The hard part is the repetition. If someone you love seems to be constantly going through a rough time, it can make you feel like a broken record. You keep saying those four words and it’s like, well good god, how many times can one person say, I’m sorry, that sucks?

You get sympathy fatigue.

I’m reminded of the advice from my favorite psychologist. He authored a phenomenal book about dealing with difficult family members, and wrote this:

When you say things indirectly or at great length, that means you feel that you don’t have a leg to stand on, that you are ambivalent about your message, or that you hope people won’t discover your hidden agenda. It is better to be clear before you speak, know what you want to say, trust that you have the right to communicate, and then deliver your message simply and directly.

His words remind me that it’s not only effective, but it’s enough, to tell someone, I’m sorry, that sucks. We trust the silence before and after those words to do some of the heavy interpersonal lifting.

It’s better than compulsively talking just to fill the space. You’d be surprised just how hard it is to restrain yourself and respond so simply.

Ultimately, we can all agree on one thing, which is that is being human is hard. Always has been, always will be. Nodding our heads in sympathy works. Shaking our heads in sorry amazement at the depth into which people are sinking works. Genuine acknowledgement of distress and gentleness towards people’s needs works.

Who knows? Maybe if we practice this enough with each other, we might even find the time and energy send the same love to the one person who needs it most.


I’m sorry, that sucks.

How often are you promising people you love that they are not sick, depressed, lonely or scared?


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Author. Speaker. Strategist. Songwriter. Filmmaker. Inventor. Gameshow Host. World Record Holder. I also wear a nametag 24-7. Even to bed.
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