Your Friend Tells You They Have a Disability, How Do You Respond?
Here’s how I approached it.
When it happens to you
It was a sunny morning as I bid my new friend a good day. We had just enjoyed a lovely meal at her home, and were discussing our next get-together.
“Cool, do you want to drive or should I?” I asked.
“Can you drive? I can’t drive,” she responded.
“Oh okay,” I asked, “why not?”
“Oh ‘cause I have epilepsy.”
“Oh wow,” I blurted in surprise.
Immediately after I said that I knew it wasn’t the right response. This new friend of mine was incredibly smart and talented, and I’ve only ever seen her in-action kicking butt. I fumbled for words. What do people say when —
“I’m sorry to hear that,” I said with a sympathetic tone. That’s what people say, right? People say that when —
“Don’t be,” she smiled.
I smiled back. Oh no, that wasn’t right either. Damnit.
I got in my car and waved goodbye.
Reflect & Empathize
On my drive home, I replayed the scene in my head.
Why did I say “I’m sorry to hear that”? What was I trying to convey? How did she take it?
I tried to imagine myself in her shoes……
Oh, you feel sorry for me? Gee, thanks. So does everyone else who knows about my condition.
……and I think I would feel sad.
When people tell you they’re “sorry to hear,” it’s usually a “polite way” to show sympathy when something bad has happened.
But is it always polite?
People who have a physical or mental illness often have to accept and live with their condition for a long time, and sometimes even a lifetime.
Do I want to be conveying that I feel bad for my friend? No.
Do I want my friend to feel bad about herself? No.
Do I know how my friend interpreted my response? No.
Inquire & Learn
I got home and messaged my friend.
“Hey girl, I realize ‘I’m sorry’ can be taken the wrong way and I’m not even sure what I mean. I think I might have meant “oh no that must suck” but it’s also just something people say. If you can point me in the right direction I’d be very interested in hearing your thoughts on this. Thanks!”
She messaged me back.
“That’s a very introspective and interesting question that I’m glad you’re asking about…
I’ve had epilepsy ever since I could remember. Around 5 seizures a day from elementary school all the way though college. So I’m very very very used to people saying “I’m sorry” and let me tell you why I think it’s bad from both ends.
First, from the perspective of the outsider who’s trying to empathize, it created this kind of boundary of, ok, I just realized that this person is a little different than me and maybe I kind of feel bad for them.
And from the person with the disability, it validates any insecurity they have about feeling different. The moment they feel different or weird or lesser, they relinquish their inner power of conquering it or even just being happy living with it.
You always want to make the person feel like, they’re cool, unique, and not so different from everyone else.
I know you didn’t mean anything at all. But I just got in the hang of telling people, please don’t be sorry I have it because I’m happy I do. I wouldn’t be me without it.
I would suggest you say something kind of uplifting to the person and also ask questions out of curiosity so they feel important and that you care about them.
Something like, ‘Wow, I would have never guessed,’ or ‘no way, tell me about it. I want to learn about it,’ or maybe, ‘you must a strong person for dealing with it.’”
Get more data points
I was happy to have learned a new perspective, but a researcher doesn’t stop there.
So I messaged four other friends, because a researcher stops at five.
These friends of mine are some of the kindest and most compassionate people I know. The kind of beautiful that radiates both in their tears for an act of love and anger for an act of injustice.
They also happen to have (or have had) a mental illness, such as an eating disorder, clinical depression, or borderline personality disorder.
I asked them: “Hey, when you first share with someone that you have a mental or physical condition, but are not necessarily confiding in them, what are some thoughtful ways people can respond with?”
As I suspected, my friends were more than happy to answer this question. And their responses really helped me gain…
The opposite of clarity.
As it turns out, different people want to hear different things, at different times in their lives, from different people.
Some are happy to tell you what their experience is like, whereas others don’t want to talk about it with, well, you.
Some appreciate you offering your support, whereas others don’t find “the helping hand” genuine.
Some think showing a concerned facial expression means you care, whereas others feel uncomfortable if you overdo it.
It’s complicated. So here’s a disclaimer: I can’t tell you anything that isn’t purely from my own experience and limited data points.
Form a Conclusion, Repeat
What I’ve gathered is that you need to use your human instincts to read people, and weigh your facial expressions and verbal responses based on your knowledge of them. The less you know about them the less you should try to pretend you do.
At the end of the day, everyone just wants to feel genuinely accepted and loved for who they are.
Don’t give unsolicited advice:
- “Just look on the bright side…” Very bad idea, don’t do it.
- “Have you tried…” Very risky, don’t be irksome.
Try saying something like:
- “I had no idea. Thanks for sharing that with me.”
- “That’s not easy. Let me know if I can do anything to help.”
- “I know this isn’t the same, but I also suffer from…”
- “How are you holding up these days?”
A childhood friend came to me recently and said,
“A new friend told me in class today that she has anxiety disorder.”
“How did you respond?”
“I said, ‘Oh.’ I didn’t know if she saw me as someone close enough to seek support from, so I didn’t offer it. I wonder if she thinks I don’t care and feels embarrassed to have told me. What could I have said?”
“I encourage you to ask her how she felt. It’s different for everyone, but I’ve learned that…”
What are some data points you can share to help us be more supportive towards people with mental or physical disabilities?