If you have walked with many people through circumstances that are challenging, you’ve doubtless heard them say, “This is too hard.” Chances are that phrase has struck you differently as you’ve heard different individuals speak it. For some you likely felt compassion, others that they were making excuses, and maybe even that they didn’t want to try.

There are many factors that go into our reaction to someone being intimidated by an important step in their progress. This post will not be able to examine them all, but we will look at one – what does this person mean when he or she says, “This is too hard.”

Frequently, I find that the individual does not know and this adds to their difficulty of discerning how to overcome the difficult. As I explore with them the possibility of this seemingly simply sentence it allows a conversation that is beginning to feel unsafe (a possible meaning of “too hard”) to feel safe and creates the emotional space to think with greater clarity about the challenge.

With that said, let’s consider three possible meanings of “This is too hard.”

  1. The skill-level of what is being asked is too difficult (practically challenging).
  2. The complexity of the concept being described is too great (intellectually challenging).
  3. The level of emotional transparency required is too revealing (relationally challenging).

These are three very different statements, which in a moment of feeling overwhelmed, are not always easy to differentiate. But think about the consequences of leaving these differences un-clarified.

  • Offering greater practical advice to someone who is struggling to be vulnerable can come across as condescending or pressuring.
  • Offering simpler phrases to someone who doesn’t feel like they have the ability to do what is asked can feel demeaning.
  • Questioning the authenticity of someone who does not follow the terminology of a conversation can turn your effort to help into an assault from the “other team.”

I am not claiming that these three options are an exhaustive list of what, “This is too hard,” might mean. But I have found that if I ask someone to clarify which of these options fit their struggle best, then most often they are either able to pick the one that fits or articulate better the challenge they are facing.

From my experience, the most difficult to admit is the third (emotional transparency) because of the level of trust and transparency required to make this admission. In these situations it can be hard to tell if someone is (A) genuinely committed to the process of change and intimidated by the process, or (B) trying to find a way to say “I tried” without having to deal with the real issue in their life.

However, if I am patient as I speak with them, then with time those who are in “category A” tend to respond appreciatively to the process while those in “category B” often move from being overwhelmed (“This is too hard”) to defensive (in various forms of blame-shifting or personalizing the conversation).

This biggest take away I would recommend from this reflection is – slow down when a conversation hits an impasse phrase like “This is too hard.” Do not assume you are hearing what your friend is saying or, even, that your friend is clear about what he or she is feeling at the moment. Slowing down a conversation is often the best way that we can honor one another, truly understand each other, and, thereby, actually benefit one another.