Several years ago, I lost a lot of weight over a long period of time. Once I had lost about 25 pounds, I began to feel secure in mentioning it to friends. The replies surprised me. “I just finished a diet and I lost 40 pounds.” Or, “I’ve lost 30 pounds, but in a lot shorter time.” Sometimes, an extremely kind person would start with, “Good for you. . . ” and then continue on to explain their own victory, always making sure to mention that their weight loss was more or faster than mine.
When my brother died, I was astonished that the pattern of sympathy was also tinged with competition: “When my mother died, I went right back to work to keep myself from crying.” Or, “When my sister died, I started a Go Fund Me account in her memory, that kept me really busy.” Or, worst of all, “I know just how you feel—my dog died last week and I could not cope.” Each of those statement focuses the conversation away from the person who is suffering and back onto you. I know, I know, it’s hard to figure out what to say to someone in grief.
The competitive answer has crept onto Facebook and Instagram as well. Post a photo, and someone will post their photo of something similar they took and focus on their reaction. Post an idea in your timeline, and someone will find a typo and mention it in their comment, diminishing what you wanted to express. Or explain how their reaction was different and, somehow, more valid. Or a vaguely similar idea, adding they had it a long time ago.
This one-upmanship has become normalized. But it is not comforting, not empathetic, and oddly competitive in an area where there are no prizes for emotional depth. Grief, joy, and satisfaction should not be competitive topics. What is called for is acknowledgment, a flexible and useful skill that can be developed with some practice.
Acknowledgment has not a shred of competition. It is a simple, compassionate statement that shows you are listening to a friend. It mirrors an emotion the person you are speaking to is experiencing.
Example: Your friend says, “I just lost 25 pounds. Took me forever.” You reply, “You must feel really happy to have stuck with your plan.”
Example: Your friend says, “My brother died last week and it’s so hard for me to concentrate.” You reply, “You sound really sad. It must be hard to lose a brother.”
The benefit of acknowledgment is that it is easy to understand and keeps the focus on the speaker. Acknowledgment is not a tactic to bring the conversation over to you and your needs. Instead, by focusing on your friend, you show you care. Caring always works. Caring wins hearts, not prizes. Caring is powerful because it shows you are listening. And we all need to be heard.
—Quinn McDonald is a writer who teaches writing. She is also a creativity coach.