Live Life Fully: Well-meaning phrases can backfire

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We’ve all been there. Someone we know is going through a tough situation, and we don’t know what to say or do.

Some people do nothing. Others try to “fix” things. The best advice I ever got was, “Just hold me when I cry.”

And then there are the varying degrees of closeness to a situation. You may only know the person professionally or casually, or you may be a close friend. Awkwardness knows no bounds.

There’s lots of uncertainty in our world today. I’m a glass half-full type of person, although platitudes without substance can come off as superficial. And while we all mean well, sometimes the message sent isn’t always the message received.

Take a look at the well-meaning phrases below. Do you see yourself — or a friend — in any of these scenarios?

‘Stay positive’

Well, duh. It’s not that your friend is choosing to be mired in the muck. The reality is that their world is caving in. This may be a temporary situation, or it may be more long-term.

They’re likely to be thinking along the lines of, “I’m so angry, upset, sad, lonely, devastated and hopeless,” that they can’t see any way to look on the bright side. At least not right now.

‘Pull yourself together’

“Snap out of it!” You may remember this line from Cher in the movie, “Moonstruck.” When someone is spiraling downward, though, they can’t relate to flipping a switch and feeling better instantly. And they’ll likely disregard these sentiments from Susie or Steven Sunshine.

“I feel completely useless and hopeless that I’m incapable of holding myself together,” explains author Enoch Li, while describing her depression. “Snap out of what? I don’t want to be like this, either.”

With those suffering from depression, this feeling of incompetence tends to snowball. Even if there’s not a clinical diagnosis, taking the time to process and work through feelings — rather than stuffing them down — can be helpful.

‘Go out and do something’

A common suggestion is to go help someone else. While getting into motion can temporarily take your mind off your problems, your friend may lack the energy to get-up-and-go. That further contributes to feelings of despondency.

“Go do what? I’m too tired. I have no energy. I just want to sleep. Leave me alone” — some additional comments echoed by author Li in dealing with her depression.

‘Count your blessings’

It’s all a matter of perspective. Sure, there are always those who are worse off and gratitude is definitely a daily discipline. Sometimes you just need to “wallow in it” for awhile, though, before coming out the other side.

While this reminder has validity, it can’t often be heard by those in the throes of a personal crisis. And it can just add to the guilt they’re feeling, reinforcing the compulsion to retreat to their hiding place and crawl back into that hole — again.

‘It’s all in your head’

Watch out for this one. While your friend may be acting irrational, what he or she is experiencing feels very real.

Using a phrase like this can come off as patronizing and dismissive. How do you know what’s in their head? And they’ve probably already beaten themselves up about it, so you’re just adding fuel to the fire.

The burden of responding

One of the best gestures I ever received was from a friend who prefaced every text or email with “N2R.” That stood for “Not To Respond” and gave me permission to deal with my mother’s impending death — and receive the comfort of my friend’s messages — without the obligation to respond.

Sometimes I did respond, although knowing I didn’t have to helped me to feel the support even more deeply. Such a simple gesture, yet so profound.

Remote actions

In many situations, it may be better to stay away. Let the other person know you’re there for them, but leave it up to them. A seminar I attended years ago taught a technique called, “What Does Support Look Like To You?” You may be offering support the way you’d like to receive it, and another person interprets it very differently.

You could offer to talk or listen, noting that you want to respect their privacy. A note with a small gift certificate for a lunch or personal service — whenever they’re feeling up to it — could work in some situations.

Every case is different. You’ll need to gauge accordingly, and don’t take it personally if they don’t respond. They just may not have it in them. See above.

The three Cs

If your inclination is to “fix” the situation, you may want to take this to heart:

I didn’t cause it.

I can’t control it.

I can’t cure it.

© 2020 Linda Arnold Live Life Fully, all rights reserved. Linda Arnold, M.A., M.B.A., is a syndicated columnist, psychological counselor and founder of a multistate marketing company. Reader comments are welcome at For information on her books, go to or

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