When Asking “Why” Doesn’t Help a Sad Friend

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Reader’s Question

Every now and then during conversation with a friend of mine, she will bring up that she is feeling sad, yet when I try to ask her why, she gets annoyed or says she doesn’t know, and then no longer wishes to talk about it.

A close friend of hers who understands psychology well (and also does not wish to discuss this topic with me) says she is simply looking for attention and a sympathetic shoulder, which I am finding difficult to understand.

Psychologist’s Reply

Everyone has different interpersonal needs when they are feeling lonely or sad — and sometimes a friend’s needs can be difficult to meet or even understand. Sometimes the content of what a friend shares may be less important than the simple gesture of reaching out. It sounds like trying to find out the reason for her sadness may not be what she needs — but as this mutual friend may understand, perhaps your friend also needs something else besides endless listening to help her feel better.

Sometimes people really do not know the reason why they feel sad, they just feel the sadness and would like to feel better. Knowing how to self-soothe is a skill that not all people possess — they only know that they are distressed and just want to find a way to make the distress stop. Your friend may just be in distress and may not know what to do to feel better except to reach out to you. After she reveals feeling the distress, it may be enough to help her feel better, and continuing to talk about it may flood her with more unwanted negative feelings. When she says she doesn’t want to talk about it anymore, that may be a good coping strategy for her to help get herself back to feeling calm and able to function.

It sounds like you want to help your friend, but are unsure how to do that. There are several different approaches you could experiment with to see how your friend responds:

  • Just listen to your friend about being sad, without asking why.
  • Reflect her feelings by saying that you can tell she feels sad.
  • Check in with your friend when she says she is sad — asking, for example, if you can help in any way.
  • Share your own experience of sometimes feeling sad — you may also want to share things that help you feel better.
  • Let your friend know that you are there for her — but set limits on the time you have for her (for example, let her know when you have to leave and when you might visit with her again).

I would encourage you to choose one of these approaches that feels comfortable enough to try, and then just observe what happens with your friend. You may choose to try another one if the first one doesn’t fit for you, or if it is less supportive for your friend.

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