We Need YOU to Tell US

Here’s an exact script of a conversation that I have had a thousand times:

Me: …So yeah, that’s what’s been going on. It’s been really rough.
Them: No kidding! Well, if there’s anything I can do, let me know.

“If there’s anything I can do…” That sentence became the bane of my existence during my hardest years.

I’m not saying it’s bad, or that anyone who says it is bad. I have said it myself many many times. But this blog is about the things I’ve learned through my pain, and this is one of them. “If there’s anything I can do…” isn’t very helpful.

The problem with “If there’s anything I can do…” is that it’s been overused so much that it’s more of a saying than a genuine statement.

It’s like saying “How are ya?” when you meet someone, but you don’t actually want to know, or don’t actually expect a genuine response.

“If there’s anything I can do…” has become the “How’s it going?” phrase that everyone just says to hurting people, and only some of the time do they really mean it.

This makes it hard on a hurting person when they really do need help. How many of the 10 people who said it actually mean it? Do they have to just guess? Start calling everyone in turn until someone answers? What?

I’ve done it.

One time my husband got severely sick and I had to take him to the Emergency Room. I’m sure I was quite the spectacle: supporting my husband on one side, carrying a baby car seat in the other, and keeping the same wrist locked tightly as the “kid leash” wrapped around it tugged in all directions while my special-needs toddler dashed all around us and weaved in and out of our legs.

With my husband checked in, I sat beside him (my leash arm still jerking about) and started calling down my contacts list. Thank God, I only had to go as far as the “K”s before a friend answered and agreed to take my toddler for a playdate as long as necessary. I don’t know what I would have done if she hadn’t.

While I love the heart behind “If there’s anything I can do…”, a bone I have to pick with it is that it puts a lot of work on the person in need.

First, they have to figure out if the person even meant it in the first place, and then they need to figure out if “anything” really meant “anything”, or if it just meant one or two specific things, AND THEN they have to find out if that person is even available.

That’s a lot for someone who is going through an emergency situation and needs help asap.

It’s a lot for someone suffering from grief or mental illness to muddle through when their brain is so foggy.

It’s also a lot for someone who is chronically ill, when it takes most of their day’s strength to make a single phone call.

But you know what? It also doesn’t make it easy on the person who said it. What happens when someone wants to “cash in” on the blank check they were given?

I can tell you what I’ve seen.

I have seen people’s smiles freeze awkwardly as their brains race to debate whether it is easier to say “no” and let someone down, or say “yes” and regret it.

I have seen people insulted when asked to do something they weren’t prepared for that isn’t their cup of tea, like cleaning or moving.

And I have seen people who aren’t “kid people” freeze in terror when asked to babysit.

As I started observing and finding myself in these situations over and over again, I couldn’t help but wonder if there was a better way.

That’s when I started the process of erasing “If there is anything I can do, let me know.” from my vocabulary.

Here are some of the things I have replaced it with:

I’m free Tuesday afternoons, anytime you want to get a coffee and talk this out.

I want to bring you dinner. Does Wednesday or Thursday work better for you?

I’m heading to the store, can I pick up anything while I’m there?

We’re going to the park this afternoon. Could we pick up your son on the way so you can take a nap?

My heart to help didn’t change, just my vocabulary. Telling people what I could do and when I could do it freed me up to plan ahead. It also relieved my friends from that awkward ask. They actually took me up on my offers to help more often because they knew what to expect.

On behalf of hurting people, I ask you to give this a try. Tell us what you are able to do, and when you are able to do it. Not only will your friends know that you are genuinely offering, they will be grateful to stop playing detective and code-breaker when they have other things on their minds.

Has anyone ever had an uncomfortable moment because of an “If there’s anything I can do?” Let’s hear it below!

© 2021 Ashley Lilley – First time commenting? Please read my Comment Policy.

10 thoughts on “What Hurting People Need (Part 7)

  1. This is very helpful advice. I would feel more comfortable saying what I’m prepared to offer and when. I think that the closer your friendship is the easier it is to offer and ask. So maybe one other thing hurting people need is friends who are there for more than the emergency times.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. So, so true! Thanks for pointing out a better way.

    I’ve been on the receiving end of this phrase (“If there’s anything I can do…”) numerous times and I figured out many years ago that it was almost always “mouth noise”. When push came to shove, even in dire circumstances, I haven’t dared to find out if people meant it.

    My worst experience of this was when my grandfather died and my aunt “volunteered” us all (i.e., all her siblings and their spouses and children) to be on call for whatever Grandmother needed (“If there’s anything any one of us can do for you …”). Since my mom and I were the only ones living close enough to Grandmother to do most things, we ended up running thousands of errands, feeding her, cleaning for her, driving her everywhere and otherwise serving her every wish for several years. She became very imperious. If we said no to something, one of the others would call to scold us and tell us how “selfish” we were being, and then volunteer us for even more servitude. It got to the point that both my mom and I were overwhelmed and losing our health, trying to keep up with work, etc. Getting free of that meant that my mom and I were–and still are–pretty much shunned by the family, and Grandmother was hurt when I put my foot down, even though I tried to be as gentle and loving as possible. I continued to visit her three times a week after that, and my mom visited her a lot, too, but things were never the same. Grandmother died 2 years ago, about 7 years after the break.


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