Most people mean well. They don’t set out to be insensitive or judgmental. And yet: When you’re inside the muffled snow globe of mental illness, even kind comments hit the wrong way. Everything is distorted; words land differently when you’re wounded.
Here are some things never to say to someone who’s hurting—and advice on a sensitive rephrase.
“But you have so much to be grateful for!”
We know! But when you’re sick, it really just doesn’t matter. You might abstractly grasp that you have terrific kids, a good job or a supportive spouse—but we can’t enjoy it. You appreciate it the way you appreciate that the Earth orbits the sun. You know it, you understand it, you wish you could relish it, but none of it is incredibly relevant at the moment. It’s like having a binder full of valuable baseball cards. Someday you might be able to cash them in for big bucks, but right now, you just need to go to the ATM. And in this scenario, the ATM is a therapist.
Instead, try: “I’m so glad you have a strong support system, and I’m here to be part of it whenever you need me.”
“Let me know if you need anything.”
This phrase is the free breadstick of the “I care” word buffet—low-maintenance, easy, but not especially nourishing. Why? It puts the onus on the person who’s suffering to (a) reach out and (b) then feel like they’re possibly imposing. They will wonder: What’s a proper ask? How much is too much? Chances are, this person will retreat and not reach out at all. Instead, offer something specific, like to take a walk or to go out to dinner (with no pressure or strings attached).
Instead, try: “I’ll drop off a [book, snack, face mask, you choose!] I loved this week and leave it in your mailbox—no need to come out and chat unless you want to.”
“My [mom, sister, brother, dad] tried [insert drug name here] and it caused [insert horrible, disastrous side effect].”
The human urge to connect over shared experience is strong, but: We really don’t need to know! We’ve already Googled and freaked out about the sleepiness, weight gain, jitters and lack of libido, trust us.
Instead, try: “I’m so glad you’re being proactive about taking care of your health.”
“You should exercise! It really helps.”
This is true. I’ve learned it the hard way! But when you’re struggling to get out of bed, the thought of exertion is overwhelming and being told to move feels like just one more thing we’re not doing, not capable of and failing at.
Instead, try: “Let’s take a walk next week, if you feel like it.”
“Don’t let your kids see you sad.”
Oh, god. We’re already worried about harming our kids’ lives by not being 100% on and engaged. We’re grappling with how much to share and how much to conceal—how to be emotionally authentic without damaging them for life or eroding their innocence.
Instead, try: Nothing, unless someone specifically asks you for advice. Unsolicited commentary about kids almost always leads to no good, regardless of the scenario.
“But you always seem so happy!”
No kidding. That’s the point. Those of us with dual lives specialize in faking it. We don’t want to be the vulnerable downer who exposes their brain’s flawed inner workings to someone who might not understand. Happiness is more palatable—and, sometimes, we really are happy! We just suffer from a specific illness, too.
Instead, try: “I had no idea you were hurting. I’m always here to listen, whether you’re happy or sad.”
Now go forth and converse with supportive, psychologically sensitive ease!