Sometimes people can be trying very hard to be supportive or helpful and yet be saying the very things that bring us farther down and hurt us. I have to believe that most people are well-meaning but unaware of how their choice of words around people who are hurting actually impact them. I could probably make a pretty complete list of all of the inappropriate responses to hurt that people have offered me throughout my life, and just when I think I’ve heard them all, you could probably add one that I never would have imagined a rational person could say to someone who is hurting. Yet most of those responses could actually, in one form or another, be boiled down to two dangerous little words that rip the heart out of anyone who is already hurting….
At least it’s not cancer.
At least you have your family.
At least you can have another baby.
At least you look good.
At least you can still walk.
At least you can have good days.
At least you don’t have to go through what so-and-so did.
At least you’re not as bad as so-and-so.
At least…..whatever you want to add. It doesn’t matter because it is all hurtful.
The truth is, those two, tiny words have the massive power of completely trivializing and disregarding the pain of the person they are being said to. Pain is real. It is not a figment of the imagination or a force easily expelled through will-power and self-discipline. Just as your pain is real to you, their pain is real to them. It doesn’t matter if the pain is physical or emotional, it is absolutely real to the person who is enduring it, and demeaning them for admitting to their struggle with it does not help. Nor does comparing one persons pain to another, as if they should suddenly realize their pain isn’t important because it doesn’t rank as high on your personal chart of pain degrees, and therefore they should instantly be better.
When we use the phrase, “at least” in regards to someones pain it automatically indicates that their pain is in someway insignificant. It is a way of saying that their pain isn’t really that bad because you can imagine a situation in which it could be worse. This only presents a fact about the abilities of your imagination, not a fact about the level of pain that is being experienced. If your goal is to prove how you can imagine a situation worse then you have succeeded. If it is to encourage someone in pain then you have failed miserably. Don’t make the mistake of making them feel that their problem is insignificant or unworthy of concern because it is not the worse problem in the world.
I understand that most of the time that people are using those two destructive words they are, in fact, actually trying to help someone look at the bright side and cheer them up. Never at any point will disregarding someones pain actually help them to feel better about it.
If you want to help someone who is in pain, acknowledge that their battle is real. Even if it doesn’t seem real to you, you can at least give them the decency of admitting that it is real to them. Instead of saying something that albeit non-intentional, leads them to believe you are not taking their pain seriously, say the opposite. Acknowledge the pain that they are in by verbally recognizing it. Words like, “I know it must be hard for you, how can I help” give the person hurting an entirely different perspective of the legitimacy of your support. These types of phrases remove the isolation that is often felt by people in pain. It gives them the sense that they are not alone in their battle because people around them see it and step up to support them.