In his book on Christian Caregiving, Don't Sing Songs to a Heavy Heart, Dr. Kenneth Haugk includes a chapter entitled "Words That Hurt, Not Heal." This chapter is all about the platitudes and cliches and other expressions that people say to suffering people intending to be kind and help them, but in fact are words that hurt, not heal. Chances are that we have all said them to hurting people, and chances are that others have said some of them to us too while we were hurting.
Here are a few statements to avoid.
"I know how you feel"
Dr. Haugk's research showed that no one liked the statement "I know how you feel." They liked "I know just how you feel" even less, and "I know exactly how you feel" even less than that. Don't say these words! They simply are not true. No one knows how you feel, and you don't know how anyone else feels. Any speculation robs people of how they feel, and people hate to be robbed. The best response to these statements is, "No, you don't." Empathy is "feeling with" the other person, which suggests that it is best for you to find out how he or she feels.
"It's for the Best."
Research shows that almost without exception those who are suffering interpret the words "It's for the best" as hurtful, not helpful. Here are other oft-heard statements that communicate much the same message and should be avoided:
- "He's at peace now."
- "Well, you know she's in a better place."
- "It's good he's not suffering anymore."
- "She's better off with Jesus."
- "He's better off."
- "It's a blessing."
It's easy to see why these statements are so popular. They seem so cheery. They emphasize the bright side. The problem is that they don't see the situation from the perspective of the sufferer. Instead they urge the sufferer to see things from the caregiver's point of view. It's better to leave these kinds of statements unsaid until the hurting person arrives at that conclusion by themselves.
"Keep a stiff upper lip"
- To a woman after a miscarriage: "You already have three children. You don't have enough bedrooms anyway."
- To someone just recently divorced: "Go on, have a good time and get over it."
- To a man who lost his job: "What doesn't kill you makes you stronger."
These kinds of statements are meant to encourage hurting people to "keep a stiff upper lip and take it like a man." They, however, do not take into consideration the sensibilities of the one suffering. Often statements like these pile unrealistic expectations on the one who is hurting. "I have a friend who is in a similar situation, and he is at peace." What is the message here? "Why can't you handle your situation like my friend does?" You might as well say, "You are doing it all wrong. Let me tell you how to do it." "You are weak." It's better to allow the hurting person time to heal.
The problem with "at least" statements is that they tend to minimize the pain of the suffering person that it's not as bad as it could be or that other people have experienced worse. Most suffering people say those statements feel hurtful, not helpful. It's hard to get rid of all the at least statements that come to our mind while relating to hurting people. Perhaps a good principle to keep in mind is that it's all right to think at-least thoughts; it's not all right to say them.
More next time.
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