What do you say when someone is hurting? There’s often an urge to do something, say something, give some wonderful advice, that’ll magically make the pain go away and get things back to normal. But wait – Your well-meant advice may just be wrong!
Your well-intentioned advice may actually be unhelpful or even cause more harm. We may think we’re being supportive when we offer tips and sayings about Life (and how we think you should be living it). But it’s surprising how frequently well-meant advice is actually unhelpful to the person hearing it. (Sometimes, it isn’t even well-meant, either, but that’s another story).
Below I’ve listed 20 pieces of well-meant advice that commonly get told to people who are anxious, depressed, overwhelmed or dealing with the aftermath of something traumatic. Maybe you’ve been on the receiving end of some of this advice, and it hasn’t helped you feel better.
Many of these sayings are used as a way of shutting the conversation down and avoiding having the talk stay in an area that makes someone else uncomfortable. The person saying them may be only dimly aware – or even completely unaware – that that they are using avoidance tactics.20 pieces of well-meant advice that are just plain wrong... Click To Tweet
20 Pieces of Well-Meant Advice that are Just Wrong
1. “Everything happens for a reason”
I understand why people like to say (and believe) this one. It’s so comforting! I’m a bit tempted to love it too. (And it may align with your spiritual beliefs, in which case, maybe skip this part of the discussion and move on). But just think of people all around the world whose lives have been devastated by wars, tragic losses, atrocities like slavery, or natural disasters. Do we really think that they (and all trauma survivors) have suffered for a reason? Is their suffering justified because it’s how things ‘should’ be? In my view, ‘everything happens for a reason’ sounds uncomfortably like victim-blaming.
2. “You have to forgive in order to heal.”
You can choose to forgive someone who has wronged you. Or you may choose not to. (Or at least, not yet). Healing can still happen, either way. Forgiveness is not a requirement for healing.
3. “You have to love yourself before you can love anyone else.”
Nonsense! Lots of people love others beautifully and devotedly but are not (yet) able to feel loving towards themselves. The grain of truth in this saying, however, is that feeling self-compassionate love for ourselves (in a genuine, and non-narcissistic way) can make us even more available for loving others.
4. “We are only given as much as we can handle”
That’s what we hope. And for many of us, actually, it works out that way. But there are cases where someone has to contend with blow after blow. And sometimes, tragically, a person isn’t able to access the help they need to handle something. The key is usually, how much support a person gets. Ideally the support would be a custom mix of therapy, practical support (including financial support/ access to meaningful work), appropriate healthcare where needed, and crucially, support from family and friends, and the wider community (including the state). We all need others to help us handle emotional challenges – it’s called co-regulation and is part of being human.
5. “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”
Actually, what doesn’t kill you might just weaken you and make you more vulnerable. Studies have shown that statistically, population groups who grew up with significant ACES (Adverse Childhood Experiences) and insecure attachment become prone to many more physical and mental health challenges, including stronger likelihood of chronic illness and earlier death. Occasionally a person may cite early trauma (like loss of a parent) as a factor in their later career success; but on the whole, trauma does not make us more resilient.
The good news is that modern trauma therapy can be very effective, leading to post-traumatic growth. Where someone is able to access really good trauma therapy, for as long as is needed, there really is enormous scope for positive growth and change.
6. “It gets better.”
Well, it might. Or it might not! We may not know yet. And also with this phrase, I think it particularly depends on the context in which it’s said. Particularly the relational context between the sayer and the ‘sayee’. Is “it gets better” said in a spirit of deep empathy coming from lived experience, paired with holding space and deep listening? Or is it said as a way of trying to stop a grieving person from feeling their sadness? The difference is crucial.
7. “Your loved one is in a better place.”
This is one of those phrases that can be very helpful to some people, but to others it can feel like a crushing denial of the reality of their loss. Be careful if you want to say this to someone who is grieving, and make sure you understand their spiritual belief system (or just wait until you hear them say it first).
8. “Have you ever thought these bad things might be a test?”
9. “Fake it until you make it.”
I’m not sure that you can actually “fake” anything. It is just a part of you that you rarely express coming out to play. And yes, there’s definitely a value in seeing if you can allow the courageous aspects of your character to find expression. As long as you’re not trying to negate or ignore the parts of you that feel vulnerable, hurt, sad, scared, etc.
10. “There are people in much worse situations.”
This statement is rarely helpful when someone is feeling really down. Of course it’s always true that there are people in much worse situations. But that doesn’t mean that we should suck it up and ignore our own genuine difficulties. Extended, the ‘logic’ goes: There’s only one person in the world who is allowed to suffer — the single person suffering worst in the world. Which is ridiculous.
11. “It’s not like they beat you.”
This phrase gets used to shut someone up. It’s a form of gaslighting, where someone tries to make another person feel guilty for acknowledging that they had a bad experience (like a difficult childhood). Frequently, many people also use this phrase against themselves, as therapists will attest. The trouble is that it’s very hard to process and heal from harm when you can’t acknowledge the extent of the harm in the first place. Many less visible things can be incredibly potent causes of enormous harm; examples include verbal abuse, childhood emotional neglect, and systemic issues like racism and poverty.
12. “It is what it is.”
Is it, though? Could there perhaps be other ways of seeing/ experiencing/ understanding what ‘it’ is? How about if we explore what else it could be, maybe in a ‘both/and’ way rather than ‘either/or’. Yes, coming to an acceptance of a difficult reality may be absolutely vital, but this is very different from the resigned ‘there’s no point talking about it’ that is often implied in ‘it is what it is’.
13. “You just need to let it go.”
There may be truth in this idea. But telling someone they ‘just need to let it go’ gives them the message that they ought to be able to bypass the painful thing and magically release it without putting in the time and emotional energy of processing. When someone is told that they ‘ought’ to be able to do something, and they find themselves simply unable to, they feel shame and guilt on top of the pain they’re already dealing with. Not nice.
14. “If you’re more positive you’ll have a more positive life.”
This theme is really complex, requiring nuanced discussion rather than a glib one-line lecture. Depends what ‘being positive’ means, and what a ‘positive life’ looks like. Also depends on lots of factors including – crucially – chance, and privilege.
15. “You can’t change the past. Accept it and move on.”
Funnily enough, modern ways of working with trauma in therapy indicate that through processing trauma, you actually can change the past, in that you can change the way the past lives in you. The accepting and moving-on are important, yes, but they come with their own time-scales and you usually can’t just fast-forward without experiential processing.
16. “He probably hurt you because someone hurt him.”
This is not a helpful or appropriate thing to say to someone who has been harmed. Trying to explain or contextualise away what happened minimises and discounts their experience.
17. “I cannot help you if you do not tell me what happened to you.”
This sounds preachy and asserts a ‘power-over’ dynamic, rather than being supportively and kindly alongside. It can also be asking too much from someone who has been harmed. Actually, a lot of help and support can be given even when verbal details have not been shared. It’s also retraumatising to encourage someone to share their trauma story before they are ready, and without making sure they have been helped through the early stages of trauma treatment (stabilisation, safety, psychoeducation).
18. “Time heals all wounds”
Time passes. It doesn’t heal all wounds, although in many cases things can get easier to live with over time. Healing takes time, and healing takes other things as well – time alone isn’t enough. When we are told ‘time heals all wounds’ we can feel like we’re being told to just wait and one day it’ll feel like nothing ever happened. As if our pain, hurt and loss don’t matter and are forgettable. A better analogy may be something like ‘the hole in your life doesn’t get smaller over time, it’s always going to be there, but your life may gradually grow bigger around it’.
19. “You shouldn’t be in therapy, because there is nothing “ wrong” with you.”
I disagree with this one so much! For one thing, anyone who is fortunate enough to be able to access therapy with a good-fit therapist, deserves it for as long as they want. For another thing, what’s all this about having something wrong with you? Maybe you are just fine as you are, and you still want to explore how you might wish to grow and change, and/or explore things that have happened in your past that are still affecting you. It doesn’t have to be either/or.
20. “I know what you are going through!”
No. You probably don’t. Please don’t assume you know what someone else is going through; even if you have experienced something similar. Listen to them, help them ‘feel felt’, and maybe – maybe – there will be a time when they indicate that they are ready to hear about your experience. Use your experience to help you feel and express empathy, but don’t railroad someone who’s in a crisis, into talking about you.
What’s Your Experience Been?
Have you been given one of these pieces of well-meant advice? How did it land? Do you agree that these are unhelpful sayings, or has there been something that really helped? Let us know in the comments below!