Have you ever had someone open up to you? Did you comfort them by saying something? We are all taught to say nice things to people. This is especially true when someone feels a bit down. We try to comfort them with our words. You might offer some advice to your best friend to give them some perspective. But sometimes, these “comforting” words do not help. They might hurt them more. To avoid slipping, here are 7 “comforting” words that are actually hurtful.
1. “It’s Okay, You Will Get Over It”.
It is understandable that when someone is sad or hurt about something, we want them to feel better by emphasizing the future. Maybe, you want them to know that they will move on and get over their feelings. But, when someone is opening up to you, you cannot just tell them they will move on. According to Dr. Friedman (2021), telling a person to move on is counterproductive since it will only suppress their feelings and never really process them. This would make them hold on to these negative emotions and might come back in the future. Maybe, try saying, “you have the right to feel that way” or “what your feeling is valid”. This way they’re given the time and space to process those emotions.
2. “Kim, there’s people that are dying”.
Okay. Maybe, not exactly those words but try not to diminish people’s feelings. It is like saying, “Other people have bigger problems”. I know that the intention is to let Kim, I mean the person, know that they are going to be fine but this is not the way to comfort a person. Of course, there will always be someone far worse in the world. But this does not make this person’s feelings invalid. Saying this makes them think what they feel is less important; improper even. They might feel bad for having those emotions and become fearful of opening up in the future because they might be invalidated again. Maybe Kourtney, I mean you, could try saying, “What can I do to make you help?”. This would mean that you are open to giving them a hand when they need you to.
3. “What you need to do is…”.
Giving advice is not necessarily bad. But, when someone is opening up to you, it can be hurtful. Advice might make them think that they are not trying hard enough or that the situation is their fault and they are the problem. In the principles of Adler, when you want a person to change behavior, you do not tell them what to do but help in their motivation to truly change their behavior (Wong, 2014). So, maybe just let them decide on their own because no one knows them better but themselves.
4. “You know, I went through the same thing”.
Sometimes, when a person is opening up to you, you also want to tell them a story that would relate. It may be your story or others’. But this is not comforting them. It is a way of avoiding a conversation with them. It leads to minimizing their feelings. It also leads to toxic positivity and might prevent them from actually asking for help in dealing with their feelings just because you didn’t need one (Cherry, 2021). Telling them a similar story is taking the light away from them and preventing them from expressing their feelings. Everyone processes things differently. Try not to make yourself the standard for others’ emotions.
5. “Everything happens for a reason”.
Yes. This too could hurt. In some instances, this might work but not when a person is at the peak of their emotions. Hearing this would make them feel like what they went through made sense but the reality is it doesn’t. At least, not all the time. According to Dr. Beltman (2022), using this statement can encourage hope but also creates excessive positivity. Positivity is a good attitude but it should be used at appropriate times. Upsetting times can be confusing. But there is no need for any explanation. You could just say “I wish I had the right words to make it make sense but I don’t. Nonetheless, I am here to listen”.
6.” Well, at least you have a job”.
When we comfort other people we try to take away their pain by highlighting good experiences in their life. But by doing this you are minimizing a person’s experience. You are invalidating their painful experiences and might even make them feel like they are being ungrateful for the good stuff in life. Try saying, “I don’t know what to say, but you are very brave for opening up”.
7. “I know what you are going through“.
No. Even if you think you know what that person is going through, the truth is, you don’t. Grief and pain are common emotions. Everyone goes through it one way or another. But people feel emotions to different degrees. The pain you felt when you lose your dog is not the same as another person losing their dog. So, instead of saying you know what they are going through, you could say “I could not imagine what you are going through right now but I am here to listen”. This is an honest statement of acknowledging your lack of knowledge of their feeling but a reassuring statement that you will be there for them despite this lack (Berns, 2011)
Don’t get me wrong. These words are often slipped out by many, including me. Maybe because we are so used to the quick repairs of the world. Medicine for every illness. User manual for every device. But providing true comfort can be hard. It needs true empathy. And sometimes the best empathy isn’t the words you offer but the presence you give. They don’t need us to say something, they just need us to listen.
Beltman, B. (2022, February 2). Does everything happen for a reason? Psychology Today. Retrieved July 7, 2022, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/connecting-coincidence/202202/does-everything-happen-reason
Berns, N. (2011). In Closure: The rush to end grief and what it costs us. essay, Temple University Press.
Cherry, K. (2021, February 1). Why comparing feelings isn’t helpful. Verywell Mind. Retrieved July 7, 2022, from https://www.verywellmind.com/why-comparing-feelings-isnt-helpful-5095152
Friedman, M. (2021, July 1). Let’s get over telling people to “get over it”. Psychology Today. Retrieved July 7, 2022, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/brick-brick/202107/let-s-get-over-telling-people-get-over-it
Wong, Y. J. (2014). The Psychology of Encouragement. The Counseling Psychologist, 43(2), 178–216. https://doi.org/10.1177/0011000014545091