It happens all the time. Maybe it happened to you at church. Or at work. Or school. Or maybe it even happened to you in the WalMart check out line. During a time of hurt and pain, someone tried to reach out to you in comfort. But instead of hurting with you, they unintentionally said something incredibly hurtful to you.
Perhaps you had just lost a loved one, had a miscarriage, or informed someone about a struggle you had with an eating disorder or a particular fear. Maybe your soul was aching, and you needed someone to love you well. And in your time of need, the person you told dropped the ball. They used the moment as a teaching opportunity…a chance to bless you with their powerful and wondrous wisdom, when instead they could have used the moment to connect with and encourage you. And chances are, you have also done the exact same thing to others. Or even worse…you’ve said the following things to yourself.
The following list contains 10 common statements that can be incredibly hurtful, dismissive, and invalidating while walking through dark times with friends, loved ones, spouses, or especially those struggling with addiction. Some of these statements might be true, but they are rarely ever helpful to say during difficult times.
1.“Everything happens for a reason…” How narcissistic of you to purport that you are certain there is a reason “why” something horrible just happened. Perhaps you feel the need to make sense of all the bad things that have happened in your life by believing that a higher power arbitrarily causes pain and suffering for random reasons that you will never know. While this view might comfort you and help you sleep at night, it can sound cold and unfeeling to a hurting person who needs you to be present with them. Your grandiose theology is not needed.
But, let’s assume hypothetically that everything does happen for a reason. Saying the phrase won’t magically make a hurting person feel better! Hypothesizing a reason for pain is an attempt at ignoring the feelings you feel. It is a way to put a positive spin on something that isn’t positive at all. Perhaps years later you might find some good that came from a bad situation, but conveying this to a hurting person won’t lessen their hurt in the moment.
2. “It could be a lot worse…” Most of you would never say this to someone else…but you say it to yourself all the time. By doing so, you devalue your pain and your self worth, as if your pain somehow matters less because you aren’t homeless or starving. You would never tell a friend, “Get over it. It could be a lot worse!” But you say it to yourself.
Treating yourself this way puts you at huge risk. You may constantly help and take care of others, when you should also be caring for yourself. Neglecting to care for yourself causes you to bottle up your frustration and pain, believing that you don’t have the right to feel sad. Bottling these feelings up eventually leads to “emotional explosions,” or seemingly random angry outbursts, high and overwhelming feelings of stress, or moments of intense weeping and sorrow. Take care of yourself emotionally by finding safe people with whom you can regularly communicate your brokenness.
3. “I’ll be praying for you…” Disclaimer: While there is nothing intrinsically wrong saying this, it can be used as an “emotional stiff arm.” You might as well say, “I can’t handle being sad with you right now, but I might spend a small portion of some future day praying for you…when it’s convenient for me.” Saying this in the Bible Belt is often much like saying “See you later!” or “Have a great day!” And how much time do you actually spend praying for someone after saying you would?
4. “I know what you’re going through…” or “I’ve been there before…” Many people think that saying these phrases will connect them to others, but it often alienates them from others. While you may think you had a similar experience, you will never know what it’s like to be someone else or what they are feeling. Every person’s pain is uniquely bitter to them. To purport that you have felt what a loved one has felt severely minimizes their pain. While their are times when people with similar experiences can bond through sharing their stories, making presumptuous statements about knowing how they feel can be incredibly dangerous.
5. “Give it over to God…” or “Let go and let God…” This is one of the worst phrases you can say to someone struggling with addiction. Most alcoholics have unsuccessfully tried time and time again to give their addiction over to God but simply can’t. These phrases assume that there is a magic formula or action that will somehow transfer their frustration and hurt to God and that they will no longer be haunted by their choices. Addiction isn’t an old TV you can give away at a garage sale.
6. “You should do this…” or “Have you tried…?” During times of intense pain, our loved ones rarely want or need us to “fix” their problems or offer solutions that they are clearly intelligent enough to think of on their own. It can be highly insulting to make comments that assume your spouse is an idiot who is incapable of generating logical options about what to do. When you feel that light bulb turn on and think you might have the most amazing idea of the century, just be quiet and present with the pain and anguish. It is so much more meaningful to sit in tough emotions with someone rather than throwing out intellectual “quick fixes.” Your ideas might be Einstein like, but not necessarily helpful in times of pain.
7. “Everything will be OK…” or “It will all work out…” Thanks for your omniscient prophecy Nostradamus. Spouting off ridiculous one liners like this assumes that your listener is an utter moron who has obviously temporarily lost the common sense to know that things will be OK. In many of our darkest times, we know that we will eventually “be” OK, but we don’t “feel” OK in moments of pain.
8. “Stay strong…” or “Keep your head up…” Common phrases used by men who have no clue what to do with their own feelings or sorrow. They often see their friends hurting and rather than sitting with them in their pain and silence, they make blanket statements hoping to alleviate that pain. But there really are no magical words to make pain go away. Perhaps the last thing your friend needs is to “be strong.” Maybe your friend desperately needs permission to “be weak.”
9. Saying nothing at all. Perhaps you carry the false belief that acknowledging someone’s difficult situation might burden them further or that saying nothing will make the situation less painful. Nothing could be further from the truth. Asking questions about what your loved one uniquely needs from you is always a safe way to show that you want to be intentional and helpful in any way you can. Get curious!
10. Making jokes. Slow down funny guy. While humor can help in some situations, people don’t necessarily need to be “cheered up.” Using humor can severely wound others by refusing to acknowledge the hurt in the room. Every joke can feel like a knife, being pushed deeper and deeper into a gushing wound that needs healing.
Being present in the painful moments with your loved one is an invaluable way of relating to them in their grief. We might never have the right words, and it’s okay to say just that. Be supportive, without offering ‘fix-it’ ideas. Don’t put a timeline on their grieving period, and simply recognize their loss or pain. Extend a bit of comfort, show that you have not forgotten, and show that you care.
Written By Doug Chisholm, LPC