“But you look so good!”
Five simple words that can immediately stop a supportive conversation of open-ended dialogue.
I implore you to remove this statement from your vocabulary when speaking with someone who is struggling with a chronic illness.
We know that, at its core, people say this to make the person feel better. And, truthfully, to make themselves feel better, because they’re at a loss of what else to say or do to support us. We know it comes from a place of love.
But, unfortunately, all those five words serve is to demean what we are actually experiencing.
I know this is not the first time I’ve talked about this, but it’s worth repeating. Because people forget.
What often happens, is that it is one of the first things said upon greeting one another, if not the first. So it then makes it very difficult to reply honestly about how we are really feeling, inside, after the proverbial “you’re looking great!” horse leaves the barn.
Now, I don’t want to be misunderstood…
It’s okay to compliment you’re friend, or partner, or daughter/son. In fact, it feels good to be recognized for spending that extra “spoon” (Read here) on applying a little make up or wearing a flattering sweater. But there are better ways of going about it. And if you’re open, I’d like to provide some helpful examples here:
“You look really pretty today, but I know that doesn’t necessarily mean your body is feeling great. How are you truly feeling?”
“It’s nice to see you up and dressed, that must of taken a lot of energy!”
“You didn’t have to get dolled up for me! Tell me what’s really going on.”
“Its so nice to see you with some color in your cheeks but I know that’s not necessarily a reflection of how you’re feeling inside. Want to tell me about it?”
“It’s hard, because you always look so great! But I want to know what’s really going on with you today.”
Or just the simple and straightforward, (and completely understanding) , “Hi. How are you feeling today?”
And then let us fill in the blank.
It’s difficult to make space for truth telling. Many of us are afraid of what our loved ones are going to say. We know you don’t want to see us in pain, let alone hear that it may be unrelenting right now.
Just as we want to shelter you from the reality of our daily pain, it must be equally difficult for you, as the care giver, to feel powerless over relieving your loved one’s hurts.
The most interesting part is you’re not alone!
Even doctors fall into the “but, you’re looking so good trap.” This topic came up recently with a friend who has M.S. and his experiences mirrored my own. He was most baffled that the medical community would so easily fall back on this platitude, too. Aren’t they here to hear our actual symptoms, concerns and problems? Yet, at my most recent appointment with my primary, he led and ended our visit with this very statement: “Well, at least, you’re looking really good!” Because, at his core he was at a loss for what else to say. But, I, as the patient, would rather have silence than an empty comment.
It’s the doctors and allies who avoid this, and give space for comforting silence, that we return to again and again. Who we trust to listen to us. They, you, don’t need to fix the problem or even offer a solution. I have one doctor who at my last appointment, held my hand and said, “I am sorry this is all happening to you.” I didn’t leave the office with an “answer”, but I left feeling comforted.
That’s all we really need is…
To be heard, without judgement and to be validated.
This may be difficult because we are asking you to challenge yourself. But I truly don’t think this applies to just “us” who are struggling with daily chronic illness. We all, as humans, just want to be accepted for who and where we are, at this moment in time. None of us knows what is “going on on the inside” of another. Each of us may be walking around looking fabulous, yet internally feeling at odds with uncomfortable feelings around our job, an intimate relationship, or even thoughts of our ill loved one.
So, next time you greet a friend, especially one who has an “invisible,” chronic illness, ask an open ended question and allow them to fill in the blanks. And if you are incapable at that moment to hear the truth they may speak, that’s okay, too. Please just don’t dismiss the situation with the blanket statement,“Oh, but you look so good…” You can always say something like, “Hi, is it okay to give you a gentle hug today?” or “I know your energy is a precious commodity; are you up for a short visit today?” Skip over the external appearance all together, quietly validate the person’s true position, and move on.
We don’t expect you to make things better. We just want you to be by our sides.