What to say when you don't know what to say

What to Say When You Don’t Know What to Say

Everybody has struggled with not knowing what to say when you don’t know what to say. We have all had a friend hurting at some point. Also, we have said the wrong things to a friend hurting whether we were aware of it or not.

Yes, a friend will probably understand that you didn’t intend to dismiss his or her feelings. However, that doesn’t mean that it didn’t still leave your friend hurting.

There is one main reason we have all found ourselves in a position of struggling with what to say when you don’t know what to say. It’s the same reason that I mention in many of my posts that can be applied to so many “mistakes” we make.

What to say when you don’t know what to say to a friend hurting

We aren’t taught how to handle a friend hurting. Our first instinct is to do something to pull the person out of their pain. No, we don’t want to see a friend in pain. However, there’s a much bigger reason for us doing that.

It is incredibly difficult for most people to be in the presence of somebody experiencing big emotions. That’s why we often find ourselves panicking with what to say when you don’t know what to say to a friend in pain.

What We Are Taught About Big Emotions

This typically starts for us as children. When a child falls down and cries, our goal is usually to do something to stop the crying. That is not healthy at all, but, again, remember that we aren’t taught healthy ways to handle that. We just do what we learned because that’s what we know.

If you want to learn more about how to teach kids healthy emotions, read my post Teaching Feeling the Emotions (Emotional Regulation for Kids). It will also help you as an adult, even if you aren’t around children.

If you struggle with your feelings, then you probably got stunted at a young, developmental stage. Don’t panic! You can grow your inner child to be an emotionally healthy adult. Check out my post 5 Steps to Working with the Inner Child to learn how to do that.

Emotional Needs of a Child

Now, let’s go back to the child who is crying because he or she fell down. When that child hears, “You’re fine,” “Don’t cry,” or anything similar, what does that child learn?

The child learns two different things. The first is that he or she shouldn’t be crying. The second is that he or she shouldn’t let others see him or her cry.

Does that bring back some childhood memories for you? I know it sure does for me. What does any of this have to do with the adult struggle with what to say when you don’t know what to say?

From little bitty children, we learn to hide our emotions. Also, we learn to pretend that nothing bothers us. Take that one step further now.

We also praise people for portraying society’s definition of strength, which means hiding our feelings. If that hits home for you, please read my post Society’s Definition of Strong is Wrong.

Let’s get back to having a friend hurting. We dismiss his or her feelings due to the all-too-common struggle with what to say when you don’t know what to say.

Sadly, we don’t just keep our mouths shut, which would probably be the most beneficial thing to do in a lot of situations. Instead, we have coined phrases that we pretend will help the person.

Wrong Phrases for What to Say When You Don’t Know What to Say:

  1. Let go and trust God.
  2. Time heals all wounds.
  3. You just need to be giving it to God.
  4. Don’t worry. It will all work out.
  5. God will take care of you.

Think about a difficult time in your life. I bet you heard some of these phrases. Did any of them help you? I’ll answer that for you. Absolutely not!

Harm from Hearing “Let Go and Trust God”

I’m not bashing a belief in God. So, don’t start commenting that I’m going against your religious beliefs. What I’m saying is that, when you have a friend hurting, these dismissive phrases about God are not helpful.

What does it do to you when you are hurting and somebody says “let go and trust God.” I’ve had that phrase told to me when I was going through tough times. I know it was never beneficial for me.

Be honest with yourself here. Has the phrase “Let go and trust God” really helped you? I doubt it, but I could always be wrong.

The opposite is what it did for me. I was infuriated every time I heard it. What I really wanted to say back was, “If it were that easy, don’t you think I’d do it?”

Time Does Not Heal All Wounds

Now, as a therapist, the phrase that infuriates me is “Time heals all wounds.” That is just total bullshit.

As an adult who experienced a lot of childhood trauma and a life altering traumatic wreck as an adult, I can certainly say that phrase is nowhere near correct.

There is opportunity for healing, but it doesn’t happen just with time. It happens with a conscious intention to heal. Not only that, but there are many things that will always hurt to some degree regardless of the amount of healing work we do. That’s just the truth.

“Giving it to God” and “God Will Take Care of You”

Lumping number three and number five together for the simple fact that they are the same. The phrase, “You just need to be giving it to God,” implies that you believe the friend hurting is doing something wrong.

Shame is NOT something helpful for a friend hurting! When somebody is in the throes of emotional pain, do you really think the advice of “giving it to God” is going to release them from that pain? No, it will not.

The same thing goes for the phrase, “God will take care of you.” That one has been used on me many times throughout my life. My sarcastic mouth always wants to scream, “Well, obviously he didn’t take care of me if I’m dealing with this!”

If you struggle with what to say when you don’t know what to say, puhhhhlllleeeaaassseee don’t say “God will take care of you.” Yes, you may feel it’s true, but that’s not up for debate in this post.

Hopefully, you are seeing that the two phrases, “You just need to be giving it to God,” and “God will take care of you” are not helpful for a friend hurting. My opinion is that those phrases are actually harmful.

Don’t Say “Don’t Worry”

Circling back to the fourth wrong phrase of “Don’t worry. It will all work out,” think about a time when you were the friend hurting. Was that phrase helpful to you?

If so, please comment on this post. I don’t know anybody who truly helped a friend hurting by telling the friend not to worry. There’s nothing else for me to say about that because it just doesn’t work. Instead, it dismisses the feelings of the friend hurting.

Switching gears now to tell you phrases to use when you struggle with what to say when you don’t know what to say. Before I get to that list, I also want to make another point.

If you use these phrases that I’m about to give you, please make sure you genuinely mean them AND that your behaviors can match what you say to the friend hurting.

What to Say When You Don’t Know What to Say:
  1. I am so sorry for your pain.
  2. I am here just to listen.
  3. You can tell me whatever you need to say.
  4. It’s ok to feel exactly the way you feel.
  5. I will continue to check on you until you tell me not to.

When I hear or say the phrase “I am so sorry for your pain”, it immediately warms my heart. I know it comes from a place of love. Say it to yourself right now. Do you feel that warm, tingling in your heart? When you say that to a friend hurting, he or she will feel that, too.

The times that I was struggling with difficult life experiences, the one thing I needed the most was somebody to just listen to me. I would’ve given almost anything to hear “I am here just to listen.” Sadly, that was rarely what I got.

Asking for Somebody Who Can Listen

Fortunately, throughout my own healing journey, I have learned how to ask for that. My friends are pretty used to my asking for that if I’m going through a tough time. Also, I can respect if somebody tells me that he or she isn’t able to just listen when I need it.

If you get that response from somebody, it doesn’t mean he or she doesn’t care. Instead, it usually means that he or she truly isn’t available in that moment and cares enough about you to not pretend to listen while being totally disconnected and distracted.

Just keep that in mind and make sure you are truly able to just listen if you tell a friend hurting that you can. If you can’t, DO NOT say it. That will cause just as much harm as the phrases I was talking about earlier!

Allowing a person to have space to just say anything and everything that is going through his or her mind when in pain can truly be healing. Often, when we are hurting, we filter what we say to protect others. So, to have a friend offer for you to say whatever is needed, can be one of the best gifts you’ll ever get in tough times.

Let Others Express Their Feelings

Recently, I had a friend go through a very traumatic situation. Her first words when she called me were “are you able to talk.” She knows I love her and that, if I am not available, then I will let her know when I am.

Not only that, but she also knows that I will not shame her for any feeling she has, no matter what. If society says that she should be angry about the traumatic event, she knows she’s safe to tell me she isn’t angry.

Most people struggle to put our feelings aside and to allow others to feel whatever they are feeling. If you truly are unable to set your feelings aside, please do not say you can. I promise that friend will know and feel every bit of the feelings you’re having.

It’s Okay Not to Know What to Say

The last phrase I mentioned is very important. Please notice that I am not asking a question in that phrase. It is a statement.

When somebody is hurting, they don’t need to feel like they are a burden. So, please don’t ask what you can do. The friend hurting probably doesn’t have a clue what he or she needs in the midst of the pain.

Instead, offer what you can or are willing to. By letting them know that you will continue to check on them, you can bring them a small piece of peace.

Unfortunately, society has wrongly taught us that we should be able to recover from difficult times quickly. That results in us thinking we have to convince others that we are okay quickly, when we are still far from being okay.

Checking on a Friend in Pain

So, letting a friend hurting know that you are going to continue to check on him or her until you’re told otherwise can truly be a gift. There is no time limit for healing. If you struggle with the belief that you should be healing faster than you are, read my post Emotional Healing Journey (Loving Yourself and Healing Time).

There’s one more phrase to say when you don’t know what to say. It’s the simplest of all. Just tell the person, “I don’t know what to say.”

When somebody goes through a difficult time, they understand that there are no magical words that anybody could say to take the pain away. The friend hurting will probably appreciate your honesty with telling him or her that you truly don’t know what to say.

The next time you have a friend hurting, try one of the five good phases that I listed earlier. You can also add the one I just mentioned to any of those phrases.

There’s no question as to whether you will have a friend hurting again. However, there is the possibility that you could dismiss their feelings and cause more pain if you use one of the phrases like “Let go and trust God,” or the others I listed at the beginning of this post.

Save this post so that you can refer to it when needed. Nobody ever intends to cause more pain to a friend hurting, but it happens all too often. Now, you know how those phrases are damaging and you have others to use instead.

Comment below to share what the wrong phrases have done to you or how you are going to use the much better phrases in the future. There’s enough pain in the world as it is. Don’t add to that with those dismissive phrases!


This site is only intended for people who are truly willing to look at themselves with an open mind and have the ability to truly be vulnerable with themselves and others. Please understand that this site is in NO WAY THERAPEUTIC ADVICE. However, this site can be very beneficial in learning the causes of your Not Good Enough Stuff. This site is not intended to provide or replace medical or psychiatric treatment. Mary Beth HIGHLY RECOMMENDS finding a licensed therapist to help you process the information from this site and all that you learn about yourself. Visit Psychology Today to find a licensed therapist in your area.

Share With Your Friends

5 1 vote
Article Rating
Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments