Spoiler alert...the Bee Gees were wrong! It's not 'only words'...
Here are some phrases I’ve come across (and in some cases used) in my personal and professional life that I have for years found quietly infuriating. Now I have an outlet, I thought I might force you to share them.
These seem to slip all too easily from our mouths when faced with the emotional and psychological struggles of others. Whilst I’d like to think we use them with the best of intentions, under close inspection some are clumsy and some are downright disrespectful.
So here they are. Six unhelpful responses to other people’s woes - these can largely be paraphrased as “Anyway, more about me…”
“I choose to be happy”
‘I choose to be happy’… quick, get a pad and write that down. It’s so inspirational! Maybe our wise words can provide the key and unlock the potential for others to be as awesome as us.
I know, I’m being harsh, but come on! Who is this comment about? It is pretty obviously about the person saying it. What should we say instead? Try holding our breath and silently saying to ourselves ‘I’m really lucky to be happy at this point in my life.’ Then walk away, unless of course we are really interested in someone else’s experience. If we are interested, instead of suggesting mental illness is a choice, we could listen when they are discussing what's going on in their life — and know that we don't need to suggest a solution to be helpful.
“Just cheer up”
This is similar to the last comment, but not as egocentric. I don’t, however, think I’m on dodgy ground when I say it is pretty simplistic. As much as the person suffering would love to "choose" happiness, they are probably not capable of inducing their brain to produce more serotonin and solve the problem. And there will be a reason why they feel the way they do. Whether you are a believer in a purely medical model which suggests using antidepressants to adjust brain chemistry, or you trust in the power of talking therapies, or mindfulness or a mixture of the above, you can’t get away from the fact that through experience or genetics they simply do not currently have a happy brain. As a general rule, telling a person what to do or think doesn’t work very well in these, or any other, situations.
"You’re not alone"
This is different from the last two. It is obviously kind and focused on the person who is struggling. It is still, however, problematic. An Australian mental health organisation, Beyond Blue asked people who were experiencing anxiety and depression how they found hearing this phrase. The response was that it often felt like a token comment. People didn’t find it helpful. Obviously, the appropriateness of the comment depends on who is saying it. A parent, a partner, a sibling or a long-term friend may already have behaved in a way that shows that they will be there for you in the future. When used by someone who doesn’t know the person directly, it seems insincere. It can (unintentially) trivialise what people feel and experience.
From an existential point of view, there is also something fundamentally wrong about this statement. In truth, we are alone. If we desire it and if we are lucky others may walk with us, but they can’t inhabit our minds and change our feelings. They can’t live our lives. When we are dealing with the big problems life can throw at us; when we are suffering with our mental health, we are often acutely aware of this and well-intentioned platitudes may not be helpful. Also, another good rule of thumb is ‘Don’t offer something you can’t follow through with.’
“Let me know if you need anything”
This is a personal one. I realise how often I’ve said this and how meaningless it is. Not once has somebody come back to me and said ‘You know when you said…’ What’s more, I think there are times when I’ve said it and felt that I’d done my bit. I’d offered support. I could feel good about being a nice person. It might have been better if I’d said ‘What can I do?’ and not just said it once and then given people ‘breathing space’, which conveniently took me away from someone else’s suffering.
“I think we all feel like that sometimes”
Where to start! Let me be clear that I think this is very often said out of kindness and compassion. It is really a misplaced attempt at empathy. What could be better at diffusing someone’s worry or sadness than the reassurance that their experience is shared… that they are ‘not alone’ (see above!)? There is a subtext to this comment that I’m pretty sure is usually unintended, but is nonetheless quite toxic. Rather than reassuring the individual that they are feeling something that many share, we are saying ‘lots of us experience this, but most of us deal with it!’ Even if, by some remarkable insight we have pin-pointed another’s internal emotional experience, we are unintentionally invalidating the way the person is responding to this. As a friend, it might be a good idea to describe an experience we had which we think was comparable, but tread carefully and don’t assume it is the same. Ask if it sounds similar. This may do what ‘I think we all feel like that sometimes’ was intended to do – provide a sense of common experience - without the inherent assumption. Just one final note of caution… we shouldn’t get so carried away in our own story that we miss the point that you are helping someone else.
“Cheer up, it may never happen.”
This is another one that says more about the person offering their wisdom than the receiver. It comes out of the ‘This is how I live my life’ playbook.
Has anyone in the history of anxiety and sadness ever heard these words and said ‘You’re right’ and dismissed their present cares or anxiety about the future? I suspect a few have ‘faked it’ (see previous posts!) but the chances of it having helped anyone to ‘sort themselves out’ are pretty small.
And then there are the obvious questions… Do we know what the person is dealing with emotionally? Do we know what fills them with anxiety? Whatever it is, you’d certainly deal with it better than they are (apparently)!
What to do instead? Almost anything! Maybe just asking how the person is, or even what’s worrying them.
“You’re so OCD”
When I was young, people would regularly use cruel epithets describing physical and mental disabilities in casual, friendly conversation. Many did the same with racism and sexism. Most of us have now learned not to do this. At the risk of being called a millennial snowflake (if in doubt, check out the profile photo) it seems obviously insensitive to use the name of a real condition which blights people’s lives so casually. It will horrify many, I suspect to think that this is similar to those old inappropriate slights. But to characterise the behaviours of someone who clearly isn’t OCD as such is to de-legitimise and trivialise the experience of sufferers. Either that, or it is an emotionally illiterate way to speak to someone who has got OCD!
“I’m a bit ADHD”
Yes, it’s the same as the last one (in fact, you could have swapped the conditions in the phrases and it would work.) The difference with this phrase is that your need to be self-critical has led to us comparing ourselves to someone who has a condition which impacts on most if not all areas of their lives for most if not all of their lives. Think about it, we are putting ourselves down by bracketing us with them. What does that say about our view of people who really have ADHD?
So, time for a conclusion. Apart from the fact that I am getting grumpy in my old age, I’d suggest that the overriding messages are:
1. The impact of a word or phrase depends on the way it is received, not the intent.
2. Before we say something, it is worth asking ourselves why we are saying it.
3. Oh… and don’t assume you can guess what’s going on in other people’s lives/minds. It might be worth asking and listening