As someone who has lived most of my life with a relatively obscure hair-pulling disorder, I can tell you firsthand that people who have unusual conditions—especially those that affect our appearance—usually feel very sensitive about it. We are well aware that we exist in a society that thrives on judging others for anything and everything deemed “abnormal.” All we desire is sympathy and compassion, but we’re so afraid of being rejected for our differences that often we hide and avoid opening up. If you want to gain the trust of a person suffering from a disorder that’s alien to you, there are a few behaviors you need to adopt.
1. Treat them completely normally.
They already feel awkward, so put them at ease. The most important thing you can do is focus so intently on who they are inside that they themselves forget to worry about how they come across on the outside. Nothing is worse than seeing the face someone makes when they notice whatever it is that already makes you massively insecure. Don’t put on a display of how much you don’t care either – simply act like you would with anyone else.
2. Ask questions respectfully.
Please, don’t be weird about it. If this person trusts you enough to let you in and talk about their condition, don’t pry intensively. If you’re curious, sure, ask for information. Just make sure you are cognizant of the fact that you have a responsibility to show care and consideration towards this sensitive subject.
3. Listen and absorb the information.
One of the worst things you can do is pretend to care. Remember that the person in question may not get to talk to many people – or anyone – about how their condition affects their mental state and emotions. It’s a big deal if they open up to you. The least you can do is really receive anything they share and try to put yourself in their shoes so that you can sympathize.
4. Make a conscious effort to understand
Most people who are suffering from any kind of condition or disorder that they think makes them different from everyone else simply want to be seen. They want to be more than their “abnormality” in the eyes of others. They yearn to be recognized for who they really are. No one is the sum of their outer parts. Exhibit a genuine willingness to wrap your head around their situation and you are more likely to help their confidence.
5. But don’t exhaust the topic.
It can be very overwhelming to finally address feelings about something that’s internalized for years, perhaps even someone’s entire life. While it will probably be a relief for the person in question, it might also bring up surprising and intense emotions. When you begin to sense that the conversation is becoming too much, steer it towards a lighter topic. This will also demonstrate that you still find them interesting for more than their disorder.
6. Don’t make it a big deal.
The best thing that you can do is treat the issue like any other topic. Don’t make it any more important than anything else you’d discuss. This signals that you believe it is only one facet of that person and also that you don’t see it as a more essential characteristic than any other. That will put their mind at ease and keep them from regretting the fact that they opened up to you.
7. Absolutely don’t give them advice.
Seriously. Unless you happen to be suffering from the exact same issue—which is highly unlikely—you have absolutely no place telling them what they should or should not do. Not only have they probably already tried anything you’ll suggest, it’ll put them on the defensive. The last thing you want is to erode the trust between you that allowed the topic to come up in the first place. By all means, try to learn about their condition and thoughtfully ask questions, but do not offer up any commentary.
8. Show sympathy if warranted, but not pity.
There’s a definite difference. Make them feel like they are cared for and cherished. Do not act as if you feel sorry for them. That will just heighten their anxiety about feeling strange or abnormal compared to other people. You may not understand exactly why or how their condition works the way it does, but you can still make them feel like you are there to support them.
9. Leave the conversation open for further discussion.
Obviously you don’t want to overemphasize the topic, but do make sure it’s understood that you are there to listen at any future time. If they feel like they can come to you when they need to talk about their sadness or frustration, they will also begin to feel less alone in general. Even though you can’t actually empathize with them because you aren’t going through the same distress, you’re giving them some relief from their isolation. That in itself is incredibly uplifting.
10. Make them feel seen and safe.
You obviously care about this person if you’re reading this article—especially if you’ve made it all the way to the end. With that in mind, remember that all anyone really wants is to be seen for who they are. Everyone fears being judged over their flaws. If you can truly see them without criticizing what they honestly cannot control, you will win their eternal loyalty and trust. So often in this world we jump to conclusions without taking the time to simply sit down and be with each other. Listen. Learn. Care. It’s that simple.