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Dear Captain Awkward –

I have a happy life with awesome friends and partner and offspring. I use my words on all kinds of things, as recommended. This generally results in lots of good talk about everything. But I am halted when my friends launch into self-criticism. “I am fat” or I am so stupid” or “I will never understand…”

So when this friend says “I am fat” and she doesn’t look it to me, what should I say? How, in general, do I respond to any friend’s statements when those statements look like self-criticism? I hate trying to reassure them what they think is not the case – that way lies madness. I don’t want to cut off something that might be important for them to talk about. Can you help me find good words to use?

with great respect –

temporarily wordless

Dear Temporarily Wordless:

Here’s an answer you can apply in many, many situations:

When you tell me things like that, what would you like me to say or do?

(wait and listen to what they say)

(Respond accordingly, possibly with the following script)

Because I can listen and empathize, but I don’t like hearing you say unkind* things about yourself like you expect me to agree with them.”

The beauty of this is that if they’re fishing for compliments, it forces them to admit/stop it. If they’re cycling inside their own head and don’t even know that they’re doing it, it forces them to admit/stop it. If they actually want something specific from you, it gives them permission to ask for it. Bonus: Asking a kind, sincere question in response to something you don’t understand is rarely the unmannerly response.

*Though with “I’m so fat” the answer might be “Yup, you’re awesomely fat. Want to go roller-skating?”