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The language we use makes all the difference.
Even when our words are well-intended, they can still do some damage and often make matters worse. This is a classic example of gaslighting—when we minimize or manipulate someone’s experience instead of offering the support they need.
Though I’d never want to gaslight anyone, I’ll admit that I’ve definitely unintentionally done it before. Knowing the right things to say—especially when someone is deeply struggling—is hard! But, becoming aware of how we can be more intentional with our words is the first step to making a positive impact on someone going through a heavy time. As well, recognizing the not-so-harmless phrases that many of us throw around left and right is equally as important.
Here are six seemingly harmless phrases we should never say to someone going through a challenging time:
1. “It’s not the worst thing that can happen to you.”
If someone is going through a painful time, let’s not minimize their experience by comparing it to what could be “worse.” It’s important to understand that everyone’s experience is subjective. If we tell someone what they’re going through isn’t “that bad,” it can cause the person who is already suffering to feel shameful for how they feel.
It’s okay to feel like what we’re going through is the worst. (Because oftentimes, in that moment, it is.)
Here’s an example of what we can say instead: “This must feel really hard.”
2. “I told you so.”
Ah, classic. I know many of us have said this one before (guilty!).
Letting someone know that we were right can be pretty tempting. But if someone is already going through a painful experience, the last thing they need is someone to remind them that they were wrong. Most of the time, they already know they were wrong. Let’s not add any more pain and humiliation to an already difficult experience.
Here’s an example of what we can say instead: “How can I support you?”
3. “It’s nothing, don’t worry about it.”
Again, everyone’s experience is subjective. To me, it is something and I am worried about it.
Though our intentions are good, this phrase can invalidate someone’s experience. When we say this, it can reject that person’s emotions and make them feel like we don’t understand nor care about their feelings.
Here’s an example of what we can say instead: “I understand why you feel that way.”
4. “You’re strong, you can handle it.”
Talk about rejection.
If someone is reaching out for help or confiding in us about a tough experience, and we respond by saying, “you’re strong, you can handle it,” we’re completely rejecting their search for support. This is basically just a sneaky way of saying, “You don’t need help.” But, most of the time, we do need help, and telling someone they can “do this on their own” can cause them to hide their emotions in the future and prevent them from getting the help they need.
Here’s an example of what we can say instead: “I’m here for you.”
5. “You’re in trouble.”
Generally, if we’re in a stressful situation, we already know we’re in trouble and don’t need to be reminded of that. When we tell someone they’re “in trouble,” it can also make them feel like they’re alone in the situation.
Here’s an example of what we can say instead: “Is there anything I can do to help?”
6. “Time heals everything.”
Also known as, “This too shall pass.”
Sure, time can help us process our emotions and adapt to a situation, but time won’t magically heal us. Healing isn’t linear. And especially if someone is going through grief, the pain can come in waves.
When we tell someone that time heals all, again, we are minimizing their experience and not offering them the support they need. When we say this, it just seems like an easy way to get out of having to truly help someone. This isn’t showing we care.
Here’s an example of what we can say instead: “It sounds like what you’re going through hurts. I’m here for you.”
When someone is being vulnerable and opening up to us about an experience they’re going through, it’s incredibly important that we validate their experience and their emotions, and remind them that they are not alone.
Instead of rejecting someone’s vulnerability with these six seemingly harmless phrases, let’s welcome it, support the person who has opened up, and offer a way to be of benefit.
Language is everything.
For more details, check out this video: