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What NOT to Say to Someone When They’re Struggling

I know it comes from a good place,
I know people are trying to help...


If I share my painful experience with you, please don't give me the adage 'when life hands you lemons, make lemonade'.

Now, don't get me wrong, I actually like, and use, this saying.

The proverb’s message - 'do the best with what is available' - is one of the principles I live by.
I'm the first to look for the lesson within my adversity and find a way to turn things around.

Contrary to what you may initially think, I am not a pessimist, nor am I proposing that one wallow in their misery.

What I am saying is... in this moment, Life has only given me lemons.
No sugar.
No water.
Only sourness.

This is the stage of accepting and processing what's happened, what I like to call the necessary, albeit unpleasant, 'lemon-only' stage.

Before I can start looking around for sugar, I need to process the facts and my feelings.

How many lemons do I have?
What do I need besides sugar and water?
Oh yeah, a knife, a pitcher... unless I can figure out a way to juice citrus without having to slice them open.

My core issue with this adage has to do with WHEN it is offered.

If you say this AFTER I've actually made the lemonade, great - that's the time to use this saying (and when I, myself, employ it)...


If you proffer this right when I've received the lemons - sans sugar, water or pitcher - I may end up pelting you with said lemons.

Why the animosity, you ask?

Because hearing this only makes me feel WORSE.

If your intent is to encourage me, or infuse me with optimism and hope, guess what?

You're actually accomplishing the opposite.

I am not inspired, nor are my spirits bolstered.

I do not feel stronger and ready to face my predicament.

Instead, I feel that you haven't really HEARD what I'm saying, that you haven't grasped the gravity of my situation.

I feel you're implying I shouldn't be upset, I shouldn't feel as I do; that I should be 'over it' already, and able to instantaneously turn things around.

In short, I don't feel seen or understood.

What is my perspective?

Life is hard. Bad things transpire. It's okay to admit this.

It's also okay to experience moments of negativity.
It does not mean I will stay there forever.

Forced positivity is erosive and a denial of reality;
it is dismissive of one's true emotions and psychological experience.

Furthermore, trying to bypass the 'sourness' stage only results in stuffing down your emotions, and that, as we've seen, only compounds your stress.

What is helpful?

Let me know that you understand.

Simply acknowledge my plight and tell me it's normal to feel discouraged and downhearted under the circumstances.

Remind me of ways I've overcome challenges in the past, and reassure me that, in due time, I'll figure out what it is I need to do.

Compassion is far more helpful to me than advice (and yes, this is advice, not inspiration or comfort).

It reminds me that my fragility is nothing to be ashamed of.

It allows me to show myself as I really am and not insist on maintaining an invulnerable self-image.

Your empathy reminds me that I have nothing to fear from the truth;
that my ability to gaze unflinchingly at my circumstances mean I'll be erecting my lemonade stand, complete with signage and paper cups, before I know it.

Ready to stop feeling responsible for others’ emotions?
Want to end the cycle of guilt and doubt?

Learn how to find clarity on what is, and isn’t, your responsibility, and how to set healthy boundaries. Learn more here.

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