10 Things Not to Say to Those Who are Hurting and Distressed

The world is hurting. Again.

If we’re honest, we’re all having a difficult time with something right now. And after everything we’ve experienced in the last two years, how could we not?

Maybe your heart is broken by what you see on the news. Or you’re feeling the financial pressure with rising prices here at home. You may be worried about your job, your family, your health. Anxiety and depression could be taking a toll. Or loneliness is growing because your friendships don’t look the same anymore.

It’s likely we’re all a bit more overwhelmed and overloaded than before.

Yet in spite of all we’re enduring, I’ve heard people say these things as of late…

  • “It could be worse”
  • “At least it’s not as bad as…”
  • “You could be in a bunker right now…”
  • “Everything happens for a reason…”
  • “You’ll be fine…”
  • “I’m sorry you feel that way…”
  • “Just don’t think about it…”
  • “You’re being dramatic”
  • “Just look at the bright side”
  • “You’re overreacting”

To be honest, I’m a bit surprised that after two years of collective trauma, severe discord, the division of families and friends, financial hardship, inflation, a mental health crisis, and current fears of another world war – we’re still saying these things to each other. 

After everything we’ve been through, why do we still dismiss and minimize the painful emotions or experiences of others?

Why do we still hold to the principle that we should be happy? That hardship must not affect us too much? That only some feelings are allowed and appropriate, but others must go?

Why do we compare our hurt, as if whoever has it worse is the only one allowed to feel sad, mad, afraid, or stressed?

When we make invalidating comments like these, it can undermine a person’s experience and reject, minimize, or dismisses their feelings as inappropriate or wrong. Repeated over time, it can reduce someone’s ability to manage their own emotions, lead to feelings of shame and worthlessness, and contribute to the development of anxiety, depression, and other mental disorders (Khiron Clinics).

I’ve often been on the receiving end of comments like these from well meaning people who didn’t understand the underlying message they were communicating. They saw my pain, anxiety, and grief and tried to be helpful.

But even good intentions can still hurt and harm.

I’ve seen the kind of long lasting effects repeated invalidation can have on your mental and emotional health. Over time, I internalized the invalidating voice of others and eventually adopted it as my own. Today, it’s a constant battle to not immediately criticize, judge, or undermine my own thoughts and emotions as invalid and wrong.

Emotional validation is a critical right now. It fosters trust and vulnerability. It creates a safe place for someone to feel seen, heard, and understood.

Which is why it’s so vital that we understand – especially in this season – the impact invalidating comments can have on those who are hurting.

Why Do We Invalidate?

It’s true that the way we respond to another person’s pain reveals more about us than it does about them.

This begs a reflective, wholehearted look into why.

Most of us probably mean well when we make comments that invalidate. When faced with a person who’s suffering, the compassionate part of us wants to make it better. We want to bandage their wounds and cheer them up so they won’t hurt anymore.

But pain is not the enemy here. And happiness is not the goal.

When we encourage people to fix their pain before providing space for them to express and feel it, we are short-circuiting their growth and reflecting our culture’s values rather than Kingdom ones.

It is Western culture that prioritizes happiness and works to preserve it no matter the cost.

Sadly, many believers have bought into the idea that “good” Christians are the ones who are happy in all circumstances. Who stay positive and retain their optimism no matter what. That “real” Christians don’t struggle with anxiety, depression, or fear. That the spiritually strong embrace whatever happens to them and endure pain and hardship without complaint.

But that’s not Christianity. It’s Stoicism.

Biblical Christianity is not threatened by painful emotions. It allows and even encourages expressions of great sorrow, suffering, and lament. In the presence of God, there is room for the depressed. Jesus doesn’t sugarcoat or hide that “we will have trouble in this world” (John 16:33). Instead, he calls all who are weary, broken, sick, weak, and hurting to himself. He doesn’t minimize our concerns but comforts us in all our troubles (2 Cor 1:3-4).

As people who follow Jesus, we need to be at the forefront of creating space for other people’s pain. 

Our treatment of others is often a reflection of how we treat ourselves (or how we were once treated). So the important question to ask yourself is how well do I make room for my own pain? 

  • Do I treat my emotions like enemies?
  • Do I criticize myself for feeling bad?
  • Do I judge myself for feeling angry?
  • Do I keep myself busy and distracted?
  • Do I rationalize my concerns away?
  • Do I repeat any of the invalidating comments listed to myself?

It’s worth noting that if God does not criticize or harshly judge how we feel, then why do we? God designed us with feelings for a reason. When we understand the purpose of those emotions – rather than seeing them as a threat to be mitigated – we can process our pain (and the pain of others) in a healthier way.

A lot is going on in the world and it’s okay to have feelings about it. It’s okay if you are struggling right now.

While the world is in conflict, let’s remember that what we say to the hurting matters.

May we listen to others (without fixing them), validate their experience (without dismissing it), and let them know that they don’t have to bear their burden alone.

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