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The Well-Meaning Phrases That Can Hurt More Than Help Someone in Pain

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For over three years now, I’ve run Facebook groups for those with chronic illnesses. When my members share, I try to comment on every post, with encouraging words or my own experiences. At the very least, I hit “like” on every post, to show support for the members who are sharing. I know how it feels to feel invisible, alone, misunderstood or unimportant in a “healthy” world and to need support and understanding. Thus, I try to make sure each person in my groups knows he or she matters and that the pain, struggles or even joys he or she feels are important and deserving of acknowledgement.

There are phrases we all use to show support for one another when feelings are hurt in those we care about: “Ignore it.”  “Move on.”  “Let it go.” “Don’t let it bother you.” I thought these phrases were supportive until, one day, a few were said to me during a low time in my life, and I felt even more hurt by them. Those negative feelings to well-meaning phrases led me on a journey of, I hope, better understanding and support for those in my health communities and towards others in my life.

Two months ago, I had surgery in another state. Long story short, my closest family member didn’t call for over a week to make sure the surgery went well, as she was busy with a community event. As I nearly died having this same surgery six years earlier, her seeming lack of concern hurt my heart.

I posted to my own health group, to vent about my feelings and work through them. Many were upset on my behalf, but one person sent me a well-meaning personal message that basically said that I need to just ignore her and focus on all who love me; move on; get over it. Instead of feeling supported, I felt something else. It took me awhile to sort out how I felt, then it hit me: I felt invalidated. But, why? Why did these well-meaning phrases, ones even I had used for years, give me a feeling of invalidation?

Because I felt unheard. I went to the group to be heard. I wasn’t heard by the person who initially showed a lack of support for my surgery. In order to work through my pain, my pain had to be heard. To be told that I needed to just ignore it, move on, was, again, not hearing me, not acknowledging that my hurt feelings were justified. To move on, I needed that validation.

With more thought, it hit me, too, that I felt rushed to get over my pain. When we tell people they need to move on, we’re giving them a time frame to do so, and that time is now. Get over it (now). Move on (now). Ignore them (now). Not only are we invalidating their pain, but we’re forcing the person to move forward when he or she may not be ready, and if they’re not heard, then they definitely aren’t ready.

So, in doing this, in trying to support someone with these well-meaning phrases, I think we are actually victimizing these hurt people again. We are not allowing them a place to share safely and with ears that will listen, as they need, and we are giving them a time limit on their grief. The person voicing these phrases means well, but in the end, is not giving the person needing support the two things they so much need: validation for their pain and time to work through it.

When we are the victims of others’ words, actions or even inactions, when the pain runs deep, and the person who hurt us isn’t listening, we need to be heard. Being heard helps the grieving process. It helps us to work through the pain and grief, and to move on.

How many times have I said these well-meaning phrases to people who are in pain? Too many. Now, when someone says they are hurting, instead of saying, “Ignore them,” “Move on,” or even, “You know better than that,” I say, “I hear you,” “Your pain matters,” or “What can I do for you.”  I’m not perfect in my support of people, but I’m trying to be better than I was. I hope this change in my understanding, vocabulary, and heart helps others to feel validated — to feel their pain matters, because it does.

Originally published: October 11, 2016
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