Tiny Wisdom: Letting Other People Hurt

“The most I can do for my friend is simply be his friend.” -Henry David Thoreau

Yesterday I helped a friend with a project that he’d spent a lot of time, money, and energy planning as a surprise for someone he loves. I knew it meant a lot to him to do this–and do it well.

Things didn’t work out as he had planned, partly due to some misguided advice I gave him. Since he’d been working on it for days, it was an incredible disappointment. I could see the sadness in his face as he saw the final product and realized it wouldn’t make the impact he’d hoped it would.

I felt like it was partially my fault. But even if I hadn’t given him bad advice, I suspect I still would have felt responsible for taking away his sadness. I have done it all through life. When I see someone hurting, I feel an imperative to make everything better. I make suggestions, I offer to do all kinds of things they likely need to do for themselves, and I generally try absorb their feelings with my extreme resistance to seeing and accepting them.

This is more about what I want–to not see someone hurting–than what the other person needs–to simply be with their feelings.

While his is a minor disappointment in the grand scheme of things, there will be other times when people around me are in immense pain. The same is true for all of us. People we know will stumble, and struggle, and maybe even fall apart. It will be hard to watch–perhaps even heartbreaking. Instinctively, we’ll want to help in any way we can, and that’s a good thing.

But people also need to be able to go through their own emotional processes, with pains big and small. Sometimes all we can do is be there, a silent but supportive witness to the sorrow.

We all need a hand every now and then, but most often we don’t need a hero to save us; we need friends who understand when to step up and when to give us space to work through what we’re feeling. Everything heals with time–being a friend means supporting that, not rushing it.

Photo by liveandrock

About Lori Deschene

Lori Deschene is the founder of Tiny Buddha and Recreate Your Life Story, an online course that helps you let go of the past and live a life you love. Her latest bookTiny Buddha’s Gratitude Journal, which includes 15 coloring pages, is now available for purchase. For daily wisdom, follow Tiny Buddha on Twitter, Facebook & Instagram..

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  • Nice thoughts. Many times in life we proclaim ourselves to be heroes, saviors, enlightened, all knowing. I have been guilty of this often, with less than ideal consequences. While I believe my heart to be good, and my intentions honorable, I am human. Which is to say that there are times when my own needs are disguised as desires to be of service to others.

    Life plays tricks on us, makes us believe that with intelligent thinking we can create great change, when all that is really necessary is to simply be present. The sun creates countless fields of blooming wildflowers just by shining in the sky. Raindrops quench the thirst for growth just by falling from the clouds. The examples are endless.

    I don’t deny that man is capable of creating great change, but to quote Soraya, “Sometimes tomorrow comes just as it should”.

    Thank you once again for being present, and moving me to examine who I am and why I do what I do.

  • Great advice Lori.  I’m a ‘fixer’ too and it is so hard to just let others be when we feel we can help.  I need to do this more often.

  • This post makes an excellent point. I too am often guilty of wanting to take away the pain of others.  There is nothing wrong with being compassionate.  The problem starts when I feel responsible and try to make it all nice.  The world isn’t that way, and maybe it’s not that way for a reason.

  • Hi Lori,
    This is a good point when it comes to compassion for others. Often letting someone have their pain is exactly that – compassion – to do otherwise is to take away what could be a valuable lesson for someone; even life-changing!
    I think also, though, that there are times when we are required to step in and relieve suffering directly. This is entirely contingent upon our own resources, time, capabilities and our true motivation. In other words are we relieving someone’s pain because it will make us feel better or are we committing to this act because it is, in the end, altruistic?
    All living beings deserve to experience “happiness”, but it is how we define what happiness is that merits reflection.

  • Idg1311

    Read this right when I needed. Just had been thinking about how I could make my daughter feel better about again not getting a job she so badly wants. Just need to step back and let her get through the dissapointment and use the experience to take on her next challenge.

  • Sue Irene

    Hi, I really enjoyed reading this post. You write in a clear, fluent style and the words helped me reflect on my own reactions to other people’s emotions.
    Sue Irene

  • Hi Lori — Some wise and helpful words as usual, but your post begs the question: How does apology figure into this? Do you find that overly care-taking or in some way meddlesome in your friend’s processing his own emotions? Just wondering because you didn’t mention it.

  • Hi Jeffrey,

    I did apologize. I definitely can be meddlesome in people’s emotions. It’s something I work at!


  • You are most welcome!

  • I’m glad this came at a good time for you. I can only how my care-taking instincts will increase when I have children. I imagine it’s challenging to protect them for anything that could hurt.

  • Thanks Barbara. I think it comes from a good place–but it’s definitely something I work at it!

  • Jeffrey Willius

    I guess I assumed you did but, as I want to learn from others’ experiences, I thought there might be some reason not to. I’ve known some people who seemed never to apologize, and I think feel that somehow compromises their self-esteem.

  • Hi Jeffrey,

    It’s interesting that you should write, as I actually wrote about this very thing recently. I am a recovering people pleaser, so I try to only apologize when I feel I have genuinely done something wrong.


  • “Everything heals with time–being a friend means supporting that, not rushing it.”

    I agree. I don’t think you can rush someone into healing or feeling better. That’s something that they have to do on their own time and nothing you say or do can really speed up that process for them. But with your support and example they CAN eventually heal.

  • Shannon

    Oh my.  A good friend told me Sunday night about 12 years of ongoing domestic violence in her marriage.  I’m the first person she has told, and she doesn’t intend on telling anyone else.  She doesn’t want help–she wants to handle this on her own as she has done for the last 12 years–but she wanted to talk about it.

    The situation is very complex, especially because there are children involved.  I used do work as a domestic violence victims advocate and have strong feelings on the issue.  I also appreciate the importance in respecting her decision, and what kind of a dangerous situation my involvement (whether through my actions or by getting agencies involved) could put her and her children through.  It could be deadly.

    Since she has told me, I have been an emotional wreck, knowing what my friend and her children have gone through, what they are still experiencing, and how this will impact their futures.  I’ve struggled with the, “what could happen if I don’t do something,” and the, “what can happen if I do something,” scenarios.  I’m grateful she broke her silence and privileged that she chose me to open up to, but I have felt burdened by the thought of having to worry and watch over her from now on.

    Today I met with a therapist about this.  She told me point blank, “your role is to be a friend.  Not a clinician.  Not a social worker.  Be her friend.”

    It is still sinking in but the therapist is right.  As is Thoreau, in the opening quote.  The most I can do for my friend is be her friend.

    Thanks for the good post.  Very timely!  🙂


  • Great point about compassion. It’s so counterintuitive to think it’s compassionate to see pain and let it be, but I know I’ve grown and learned tremendously from really experiencing my hurts.

  • Beautifully written, Cary. Thank you. =)

  • I can’t imagine how difficult this situation must be for you. It’s hard to see a friend hurting for a moment, let alone for years. Though I’ve never been in this situation before, I know that powerless feeling. You and your friend are both in my thoughts.

    Much love,