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A few times recently I've found myself trying to offer support to people that are unhappy because they feel something that I think is false.

For example, my girlfriend sometimes says "I feel so ugly". She's not, she's very beautiful (I don't want to post pictures, you'll just have to believe me), but she feels like she is ugly.

Another example is a friend telling me that they feel like they annoy the other people in our friend group. I've talked about it with some people in the group, and none of us find him annoying.

In these situations, I don't just want to say "no, you're wrong, you're very beautiful/no one finds you annoying". I've done this before, and been told that it doesn't help because it feels like I'm invalidating their feelings and experiences. At the same time, I don't want to leave their conclusion unchallenged and risk them thinking I agree.

What strategies can I use to support people in these situations?

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  • "Just checking, but is it possible the "I feel so ugly" was just an attempt to fish for compliments?
    – Sarov
    Jul 27, 2021 at 18:04
  • @Sarov I'm confident it's not just fishing for compliments.
    – Omegastick
    Jul 27, 2021 at 18:29
  • Your examples don't seem to be about feelings, but about a person having an incorrect view of themselves and the world. If this is a significant problem then you could look up "cognitive therapy".
    – gnasher729
    Aug 8, 2021 at 21:27

4 Answers 4

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People are different, and I've never found a single strategy that works for every single person. But what I've come to realize is that there is a range of behaviour out there, from people that always assume their feelings are valid to people that can look at their feelings and say 'no, this is indeed irrational'. This range seems to overlap with the range of people that are just venting vs. people that are looking for a solution. And depending on the feelings these people are experiencing, they might change where they are in either of these ranges as well, so there's no set approach you can use for the same friend all the time.

First off, the approach that I found works well for the biggest group of people: the ones that are somewhere in the middle of this range. They don't like being outright told their feelings are wrong, but they also are looking for solutions more than just venting. Instead of simply telling these people that they/their feelings are wrong, I usually acknowledge the presence of their feelings by asking these people what makes them feel the way they do. Depending on the answer, I can then challenge their reasons for feeling that way or offer solutions to take away the cause of their (wrong) feeling, instead of just telling them they're wrong and challenging/dismissing their feelings directly. This works best and is most appreciated by people that seem open to talking about their feelings, and that are more focused on getting a solution/talking through things instead of just venting. People that are just venting are more likely to reply with 'I don't know' to this question.

Then, for the more extreme ends of the range. As for the people that are venting and don't want any solutions, that take their feelings to be the absolute truth, I have yet to find a perfect way to handle them, that allows being completely open and honest about my disagreement (but still keep a good relationship with them). I've asked a question about a similar situation with a coworker before, and the answers to that question basically confirmed: There's no way to challenge a person like that in a way that makes them actually change their mind. For me, the best I could do at such a point is a non-committal remark about knowing these are their feelings, but not being able to relate. This gets me the closest to still being honest and not having to lie, but the trade-off is that it's not always seen as the most supportive reaction either, especially by people on this end of the 'scale'. Some people value the honesty, others find the reaction cold because they'd rather hear me lie to them.

I've also known a select few people (mostly my best friends) that don't mind being told an honest 'I disagree with you on that', like you've done so far. These people are rare, and if I find them, I do treasure them. Because they exhibit the same behavior in return: They're the ones that I can count on to be able to give me the facts and support that I need to not feel afraid of driving a car (more than the expensive instructor ever did), that talk me out of my fear of heights (or falling). They're the ones that make me realize I'm forgetting the facts in favour of my own feelings, that keep me grounded and in touch with reality. These are the people that are on my other side of the scale, and as you might've noticed, I treasure them because they are rare and valuable to me. I might be able to adapt my behavior to others, but in the end, these are the people that I can just be myself with, that don't require tip-toeing around or guessing at their needs.

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Why does she have issues?

The media and magazines and judgy popular kids at school and work constantly poke and prod at minor aspects of women, helping them feel unattractive. They point at minor aspects of women like jiggly bellies, saggy underarms, skin damage, and lots of things like that. I don't know what your friend specifically is up to, but it's a recurring issue that women feel bad about themselves because of the media and popular kids.

This is a powerful and regular flow of negativity towards them, making it hard for them to change their minds, telling them that they look bad, that they're acting wrong, that everything about them is inferior. This stuff is all telling them that to get a good job or a good partner they need to look better. It doesn't matter how smart they are or how good their personality is, what matters is how they look.

Of course, they can never meet these standards. They're comparing themselves to the beauty of women with teams of photo editors, makeup artists and expert wardrobe people with a limitless budget. Rationally, they can't compete.

Even if they do reach these heights, they won't feel secure. They had to put in massive effort to reach these levels of beauty, so they're not naturally this beautiful, or fun. Their breasts don't bounce perfectly without a bra, their face doesn't look smooth and makeup covered when they wake up. There's enough media pictures of women bounding out of bed with perfect makeup and hair, why can't they?

There may also be specific issues with her that make her insecure. Maybe she's not a girly girl and feels she needs to be more feminine to be attractive. Maybe she was fat in the past, and feels insecure about it. Maybe she was heavily bullied and still remembers those words today. Be aware of those potential flash points.

How do you not fix this?

Saying stuff like "no, you're wrong, you're very beautiful/no one finds you annoying"

Let's break it down. First, you're denying all the media things, popular kid comments, and negative experiences she has had. Lots of people probably do find her unattractive or annoying, because there's a whole industry out there fueling this. They make money off of women feeling bad about their bodies and personalities and buying expensive products to fix it, and they're very good at poking at insecurities.

Second, there's a good chance she feels you're just saying that as an obligation to be nice because she's your girlfriend, or to shut up because her complaining is annoying.

Third, she's saying she feels ugly or annoying. That's an emotional issue. You can't argue people out of their emotions.

How to fix this?

There are several ways to help. One way is regular compliments. They should be specific, and not "You're gorgeous" And more like "I love your hair, it's so stylish." or rub your girlfriend's arm. "You look so fit today." or "Haha, I love spending time with you, you're so funny." These specific compliments look less like a lazy obligation compliment and can help boost self esteem.

If she rejects the compliments, just say "I meant what I said" And move on. I personally found in relationships that this generally raised the self esteem of my girlfriend, and I got more and more smiled and relaxed behaviour.

Be aware of what she values in terms of compliments. Some women only believe PDAs in terms of proving affection, some like gifts, some like compliments. PDAs are of course not generally appropriate for non girlfriend friends.

Don't judge her for minor stuff. Be careful with stuff like saying "You look tired" or "You look sad" or other stuff that will look like a subtle attempt to say they're ugly or annoying. I've popped pimples, dug splinters out of feet, and done lots of weird things with girlfriends without judgement as well. Avoid judgement.

Also, talk to them and listen. Ask them why they feel like it. There's often ways to help out if you know specifically why they feel that way. Maybe they feel like they can't compare to Kim Kardassian, but haven't seen her pictures without makeup and Photoshop. Maybe they are having a fight with a friend. Maybe someone bullied them and they want to talk.

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  • I fully agree with "How do you not fix this?". To sensitive people this quickly appears as a desperate try to help them, perhaps tearing them down even more than doing any good. However I recommend to be even careful with the "How to fix this?" paragraph because in the end it is just a lighter version of the other. From personal experience, first of all one should try to take the feelings of someone as they are. People think and feel differently and have different opinions. Repeated denying makes them "close-minded" and not talking anymore about things, but hardly makes them change their mind.
    – puck
    Jul 29, 2021 at 4:36
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    The sequence is; “I think I’m ugly”, then “my mate tries to be nice to me, so I must be even uglier than I thought”
    – gnasher729
    Aug 9, 2021 at 22:19
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What if you were to mentally translate "I feel I am" to "I am worried I might be", which is generally a pretty accurate translation?

I am worried I might be ugly. I am worried I might be annoying.

When people say they "feel" an adjective they are not, I generally say something like

Feelings, huh. Weird things, not bound by reality, right? Like by any objective measure you're not at all ugly. But I get it that feelings zoom in on some tiny thing like your earlobe size or your ankle bones -- I'm making that up, your earlobes and ankles are terrific -- and tell you that they are awful and they outweigh all the zillion beautiful things about you. That must be tough.

or

Feelings, man. Can't control 'em. I worry sometimes people don't really like me and think I'm a loser. It's hard for me to believe they do, even when they're super clear about it. So like I can tell you you're not annoying, but that won't shut the feelings up, I get it. I mean, you're not annoying, but that's not the point right?

In this way you are rebutting the apparent factual claim that isn't in their statement, while not rebutting the actual feelings they feel. This may get you no more than than a shrug and a subject change, or it may get you a deeper conversation about their fears and worries. Either way, you've been supportive.

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As per my experience, this situation occurs when one has a lot of expectations from oneself and others. It's reality that not everything can be fulfilled.

Whenever I come across such people, I just make them remember when they were best at something. For example, if my friend says "I am not beautiful", I just try to remind her of any occasion or incident where she felt she was really beautiful, and she starts feeling good about the incident. My work is done; she is out of her negative thoughts and everything is balanced.

I think that making people realize their successful, beautiful moments gives them more confidence and can easily overcome this thinking.

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  • I like this. Not outright disagreeing with them, but bringing up evidence to the contrary.
    – Omegastick
    Aug 5, 2021 at 13:15

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