When I was a sophomore in college, my roommate, Matt, once reproached me for the terrible job I was doing consoling him for something (a bad grade on a test? I don’t know). After he told me about the grade, I started giving him advice on how to study better, and he said something like, “Rahul, this is an example of the difference in the way that the genders handle other peoples’ problems. Men tend to give advice on how people can fix their problems, whereas women try to alleviate the emotional pain that the other person is feeling as a result of their problem. And when people tell you their problems, they–regardless of their gender–usually want commiseration instead of advice.”
Anyway, I have no idea whether that generalization is true, but it’s stuck with me for years. When people come to me with their problems, my natural tendency is still to give them advice, but I do my best to squash it.
For years, I’d use I’m-feeling-your-pain types of commiseration (i.e. “Oh, that’s so awful” or “Oh, that must be terrible for you.”)
However, I eventually realized that I’m-feeling-your-pain statements tend to sound heavily constructed, insincere, and a little patronizing. Like, err, no, of course you don’t feel my pain. How could you? Also, why do I care whether or not you feel my pain? I mean, I suppose this type of commiseration can be helpful in limited cases, when I’m worried whether or not it’s okay to feel bad about something. But, in general, I think they’re of limited effectiveness in making people feel better.
So that’s when I began a journey deep into the heart of misery and started to really think about why various misfortunes feel terrible. And I realized that, at least for me, most misfortunes are fundamentally pretty minor. Getting a novel rejected or getting turned down by a romantic prospect is not a huge deal in and of itself. There’s always another novel. There’s always another prospect. No, the real problem is that these setbacks tend to undermine my sense of self by making me think, “Huh, maybe I am a terrible writer” or “Huh, maybe I am an undesirable person.”
(And that’s also the reason that some misfortunes don’t require any commiseration. For instance, I not infrequently get ripped off or make terrible buying decisions that have, at times, cost me thousands of dollars. But since I don’t think of myself as a savvy consumer or a sharp, discerning negotiator, this kind of stuff really doesn’t bother me)
So whenever I want commiseration from people, I want them to shore up my sense of self by telling me something like, “No, you’re still a great writer” or “No, you’re still awesome!”
Incidentally, this is why other writers make terrible commiserators. I find that there tends to be a strong instinctive belief, within the writing world, in meritocracy. For instance, when my first novel got rejected by publishers, almost all my writing friends said something like, “Oh no, it sucks that that happened. Publishing is such difficult business.” Which carries within it an implied criticism (“You need to work hard if you’re going to make it in this very tough business.”) It takes a very generous-hearted writer to say something like “No, those editors were wrong. You deserved to sell that book” because most writers carry within them the faith that if a book is good enough, then it will sell, and that if it doesn’t, then it’s probably bad*.
So there it is. It’s simple. If someone comes to you with a problem, all you’ve got to do is figure out the part of their self-image that’s been weakened, and do your best to bolster it. It’s better if you use specifics (i.e. “You are an amazing writer because of X, Y, and Z reasons”). But, actually, even generalities tend to work pretty well on me. I’m always willing to believe good stuff about myself.
*Most writers also believe that it’s possible for bad books to sell, but let’s not get into that.