Everyone has an opinion on how I should deal with the continuing turmoil that is my life.
While these suggestions are well intentioned they often do more harm than good. They often simply amplify the sense of failure and defectiveness and shame and guilt already felt and they also come from even the most experienced psychologists and psychiatrists.
I am not alone in this response but the fear and anger of a lifetime of such responses caused me to suppress my story and in part drove me to write a book. And yet, even after reading that book people still feel the need to tell me what I should do.
Perhaps the following alternatives could be more useful for me and others.
“You have a lot to be grateful for.”
“You should be grateful,” is often heard as, “You think I’m not doing enough.
Instead, try: “I appreciate/care for you as you are.”
These words may help to reinforce I am enough and that I am valued. Appreciation is stronger than gratitude, and everyone needs to know they are appreciated.
“You should meditate.”
Every sufferer has tried, and probably does regularly. Just because something works for you, doesn’t mean it will for someone else.
Instead, try: “What brings you peace?”
Meditation is one path to peace. It’s not one-size-fits-all. The goal is to find peace, however you can. Telling any person experiencing PTSD or re-experiencing trauma what they should do will only alienate them further.
“Everything will be okay.”
This is unhelpful to someone who is suffering in any way.
Instead, try: “I am here for you. I will support you.”
Reaching out to say, “I am here to help you and be a friend” makes a world of difference for sufferers already experiencing shame, guilt and fear. Simply being able to acknowledge they are experiencing those emotions can be a huge relief.
“Just be happy.”
This implies that the trauma the person is dealing with is actually just a matter of willpower. That’s disheartening and condescending.
Instead try, “What can I do to help you feel happier?”
This gives the power back to the person feeling stuck, and communicates to them that you’re on their team. It’s incredibly reassuring to feel that someone is there for you.
“It’s all in your head.”
It is and it isn’t, but this suggests we just need to handle our irrational thoughts. It totally trivialises the feelings, body memories and sensations that flood your body and are crippling.
Instead, try: “Let’s go have some fun.”
The less stuck in our head, the easier it will be to feel more joy in the moment. Engaging in activities together helps keep our mind present.
“What do you have to be anxious about?”
This is incredibly condescending. It suggests that you think the person doesn’t deserve to feel anxious based on the limited information you have about their life.
Instead, try: “How can I help you feel less stressed?”
Whether you know the deepest struggles people are facing or not, rather than operate on the surface knowledge you have, offer to lend a hand. Show you’re there and willing to lighten their burden.
“There are people with much bigger problems.”
We all know this, and already feel guilty for that very reason. Being reminded of it actually makes us feel worse.
Instead, try: “I’m really sorry to hear that. Do you want to talk?”
Are you sensing a theme? What people don’t need is prescriptive advice that most of us aren’t actually qualified to give. The most helpful thing anyone can do is be encouraging, offer support, and withhold judgment.