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I am in a growing friendship. I hope we call it a strong friendship soon. It's mostly based on a common goal, but also a commitment of support. This is not in a professional context at all, this is a personal friend. There is no romantic or financial involvement either.

My friend has unveiled to me the truth behind a mystery I've always wondered about, and it is a bit of a tragedy in their past. The truth was simultaneously shocking in how awful it was, but unsurprising as it very much fit into place with everything else I know about them.

After my friend finished explaining, I feel like the openness bodes well to our commitment, but the facts were still very grim. I expressed my sincere sympathy for the tragedy by saying "I'm so sorry"

They are one of the strongest people I know though. Perhaps their reaction shouldn't have surprised me. My friend's reaction was bordering on offense, and they expressed that they don't want my pity.

Now certainly I meant nothing negative with my expression of sympathy. It was not to look down on them, or frame them as hopeless. It was just sincere sympathy for the very sad thing that had happened. At best, I can shrug this off, pretend the interaction didn't mean much... and that's what I did, for now. But at worst, I feel like (1) they don't care if I care, (2) they are not interested in even the lightest possible support (even though that is the basis of our friendship), or (3) I find my own self bordering on irritation in response to their irritation. The irritated part of me asks "Why would someone reject sincere sympathy like that?"

What is the best way to respond to such an interaction, ideally leaving sincere intentions correctly expressed, positively internalized, and nobody irritated?

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I think the best response is not to your friend, but inside of you: You need to understand, if your friend was telling you a story, and didn't want any pity, then what motivated them to tell you the story?

The impact of the story pushed you into an emotional response, but the irritation of your friend likely arose because you didn't get the point; there was some other reason for telling you this.

I have had a similar reaction (as your friend) in the past. I've had multiple (separate) murders in my family, disabling accidents, drug addicted siblings and more. Because of my position (a professor and researcher with a few successful businesses) people often assume I "don't know what's like" to grow up on the wrong side of the tracks. I do. I did. I spent three years of high school working six hours after school, washing dishes and cleaning toilets, and 100% of that money paid bills for my family.

So when somebody intimates I can't sympathize, if I tell my story it is not to elicit sympathy, it is out of anger to shut down a fool that has assumed too much from my appearance, and thinks they know something I don't.

I am not saying your friend was angry, I'm just providing an example from my own experience, and saying it seems to me if they weren't seeking sympathy then they likely had some other motivation for sharing. To prove expertise, to make a point you missed, to explain to you what to expect from them as a guide to your future behavior.

Your "response" should be to understand their motivation, so you can let go of your own irritation. I'm not sure the air needs to be cleared at all, if you can stand leaving it alone.

That said, if it were me in this situation and I felt I must clear the air, I would apologize for misreading the situation and seek some clarification of why the story was told. If my friend was still sensitive about it, I'd accept that I may never understand; and steer clear of the topic.

  • "Why?" is always the question! Thank you. Your insight to reconsider their motivation for sharing in the first place is key. Now the question isn't 'how i should respond' or even 'why did they react that way', but 'why did they share in the first place.' You answered the first two. I don't think there is any scarring from the event, like I said it was only bordering on hostile, not extreme. So even if your example isn't 100% match to my case, it still absolutely helps understand what you are saying. Thank you. – Outsider Sep 10 '17 at 23:05
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Sometimes it's best to not openly sympathize, that is, some people don't like being looked at with a sympathetic eye.

Since the friend has made that clear, it is best to leave that subject, and get back to other things, and avoid possibly bringing up a discussion about this sad event again.

This is based on my experience dealing with sad people. Sometimes it's best to delay or avoid a talk about a sad event. Give them some space, in this regard.

Soon, the friend will be back to being the usual with you.

Not everyone will react the same way though. Sometimes the complete opposite is the best thing. Some people want to talk about sad things to get some relief, to share the burden with a friend, but some people tend to store away their emotions.

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There are all kinds of friendships, but let's assume we're talking about a deep friendship which is built on mutual trust, respect, understanding/empathy, shared interests/purpose, etc.

Something that you don't understand just happened. I would be confused and unsure of my footing going forward, which would cause me some anxiety. I would want to understand what I did wrong, so I could incorporate that into my deeper understanding of my friend.

I would also want to be respectful of my friend's feelings, especially given that this was a surprise reaction.

You can ask them why they reacted the way they did. It will answer the questions about the friendship that you now have.

Pick a time when the two of you are alone, there's no agenda to be met, things are casual and peaceful. Tell them something has been puzzling you, and ask if you can ask them a question.

If the person is still angry at your (seemingly appropriate) empathetic response, they might bring it up themselves at this point and tell you something helpful. If they just say, "Yes," ask them in a non-accusatory way what happened. For example,

When you told me about [x] and I said I was sorry, I offended you, which sincerely wasn't my intention. Can you tell me what I did wrong so that I might understand and hopefully not repeat it?

It's important that you own that you did somehow offend them, not making the mistake of blaming them for their offense.

If they respond defensively again, it will be hard not to pull back emotionally.

You'll be able (I hope) to learn a lot from the response, including if this friendship can continue to grow.

Terrible things are still terrible 20 years later, even if the 'victim' has dealt with it. Expressing sympathy is not inappropriate. Being strong is not the same as being hard. Part of being hard is to be on the offense. The best defense is a good offense.

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