DISCLAIMER : This article is intended for educational purposes only and is not written to suggest that you are toxic if you have used or heard any of these phrases. It is merely to cultivate more awareness about how our words can be toxic and unhelpful or interpreted as such depending on the situation, and to reframe our supportive vocabulary.
When you’re going through a difficult time in your life, your usual support system might be your family and friends. But sometimes their support might be harming you more than it’s helping you. Their words of encouragement might sound empty and disinterested and can be aggravating and invoke more “negative” emotions than intended. Their support takes on the form of toxic positivity which is devaluing your problems, imposing unreasonable optimism and ignoring your current emotions.
Here are a few harmless, well-intentioned phrases that are actually toxic and unhelpful to a person who’s struggling.
- “It’s Not The Worst Thing That Can Happen To You”
The last thing you want to hear when you’re going through a difficult time is that it’s not that bad. While you might be trying to help someone feel better about their situation, you should resist the urge to compare pain because it is subjective and relative to each person.
We should also avoid “competition” about who should feel the worst about something happening in their life. A minor inconvenience for you could be a colossal obstacle for someone else. As well meaning as you are, keep that in mind the next time you feel like comparing pain.
- “I Told You So”
An already horrible situation can be made worse by someone rubbing it in your face. Saying “I told you so” is just to gloat about being right about a situation that may have looked bad to you from the start, but not to your loved one. It comes off as smug, judgemental and not well-intentioned at all.
You already feel bad about the situation and this phrase creates aggression and resentment in you towards the person you opened up to. You feel even more attacked and now your feelings about the situation have become worse than it was before. You might even doubt if you’ll confide in this person again.
- “It’s Nothing; Don’t Worry About It”
How often have you heard this phrase? Maybe after you didn’t do so well on an exam or you lost your job. While this phrase is meant to calm you down and help you shift your perspective onto the positive, it does nothing in the moment. You feel crushed emotionally and your loved one’s attempt at comforting you is dismissive and comes across as though your feelings aren’t important or interesting.
- “You’re Strong, You Can Handle It”
Usually when a person is told this phrase, they have expressed a vulnerability or a pain point that they have. They have essentially let their guard down and are possibly looking for comfort and support or even a solution. When they have come to you and you reply with this phrase, they already don’t feel strong and this reply aggravates them.
While this saying is used to motivate and strengthen a person’s resolve, in that moment it’s actually unhelpful and reminds them of the helplessness they already feel. A 2016 article by Schwartz in PsychologyToday stated that this phrasing is damaging because it “decimates true self-esteem and our relationships” because we feel like if we’re just told that we’re strong after confiding how weak we feel, we learn to hide our own emotions and our true selves from ourselves and others. It also feels invalidating of your current emotions and reality.
- “You’re In Trouble”
Imagine that you crash your car or you forget an important work deadline. These are stressful situations and for some, extremely so. Confiding in a person you trust who in turn tells you that “you’re in big trouble” doesn’t make you feel better at all. They are re-emphasizing an already unpleasant situation and not giving you any sliver of hope for getting you out of trouble.
A phrase like this during a highly stressful event can provoke hopelessness and resentment, with the person who divulged their issues thinking twice in the future about being vulnerable with you and possibly even keeping these events and emotions to themselves.
- “Time Heals Everything”
Many people in life have gone through trauma, some people have even been through severe trauma of the worst kind. This is a heartbreaking fact of life that is not in any way easy to digest or come to terms with in some instances. Phrases similar to this one such as “this too shall pass” and “time heals all wounds” may be true but when someone is going through profound emotions and grief, they don’t have the bandwidth to entertain or believe it.
These phrases at the moment don’t offer much and might even seem like a lazy attempt at sympathy. It’s hard to envision a future in which your life is better when you’re currently overwhelmed by your emotions and present situation. Time, honestly, doesn’t help much. A person either gets used to the problem or they solve it. Time is a neutral thing and there are some things that time, no matter how much, just can’t fix.
There might be many of us who have uttered these phrases in a desperate or well-meaning attempt to comfort someone we love and to help alleviate the pain of the situation. And it’s good that we care enough to do something about it. However, we would be more helpful to them if we adjusted our vocabulary to being more rooted in realism and current emotions instead of a future we’re not really sure of but still hope for. And when we better utilize our words to comfort others, we have the direct and added benefit of doing so for ourselves.
Thank you for taking your time to read this article, Psych2Go-ers.
See you soon 😊
*Hamilton , J. (2020, December 28). 12 seemingly harmless phrases that may be considered toxic. Psych2go.net . Retrieved March 15, 2022, from https://psych2go.net/12-seemingly-harmless-phrases-that-may-be-considered-toxic/
*Schwartz , M. (2016, February 25). Why acting strong is really weak – psychology today. PsychologyToday. Retrieved March 15, 2022, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/intl/blog/shift-mind/201602/why-acting-strong-is-really-weak
*Schimelpfening, N. (2020, August 7). Worst things to say to someone who is depressed. Verywell Mind. Retrieved March 15, 2022, from https://www.verywellmind.com/worst-things-to-say-to-someone-who-is-depressed-1066982