There are founding feelings we chase in life – to be loved, accepted, needed, wanted; the list is endless. We chase these because it allows us to feel something we all want in life – to be acknowledged. It’s something I realised when my photo went viral; I feared that people would get angered that I hadn’t acknowledged their words with a like or a reply.
At the heart of every argument, every tear, every happy emotion is the need and want to be acknowledged; to have someone affirm that we and our feelings matter whether or not they are right.
As someone who suffers with depression and finds life painful for the majority of the time, I can tell you that the one thing I treasure above all else is acknowledgement of that suffering. To have someone say ‘I’m sorry you’re going through this’ (when I’m really going through a bad episode). It’s not sympathy when you acknowledge someones’ pain, it’s empathy. It’s showing that as a human, you can recognise that someone, other than yourself, is struggling.
We live in a world of judgemental fear. Where one persons’ suffering is ‘not as bad’ as someone else’s. Where we are constantly shut down by people who don’t want to listen to what others have to say for fear it’s negative. Where we are told not to voice negativity because there is ‘always someone worse off than you’. And so we say nothing. Despite our heads and hearts screaming in silence that we need and want help, we say nothing for fear that our emotions won’t be acknowledged but instead, judged.
I don’t judge because I know what it’s like to be on the receiving end. If you have a cold, I’m not going to tell you to ‘stop complaining’ simply because I have an autoimmune illness because having a bad cold is horrible. No it’s not life-threatening but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t exhausting and upsetting at times especially when you have 3 kids running around the house, a last minute work deadline or the already-late assignment due in later today. If you suffer with mild depression or the occasional episode, I’m not going to tell you that your problems don’t matter simply because I suffer chronically and have bad episodes often.
As humans we seek constant connections, both fleeting and life-long, with others. We attempt to discover what we have in common so that we may use it as a foundation to a strong relationship. So we open our mouths and speak. We talk about fun memories, hobbies we enjoy and goals we have in life but it’s when we confess our heartfelt struggles that we test that new connection. Will it stand such honesty? Being vulnerable in front of others can be terrifying. It takes so much courage to tell someone we’re suffering and that we need help but we so very often stay silent because of the fear of judgement. That instead of acknowledging our emotions, we will be told to ‘just get on with things’ or receive platitudes because they don’t know what to say or can’t relate to the persons’ struggles.
I often find that platitudes do more harm than good.
A remark or statement, especially one with a moral content, that has been used too often to be interesting or thoughtful:
There are two reasons people use platitudes:
1. They don’t understand the situation you’re in
2. They don’t know what to say or how to make you feel better
The problem I find with platitudes is that it takes away something highly valuable to the person suffering – acknowledgement.
When I was diagnosed with my autoimmune illness, I lost count of the amount of times I was told that ‘at least you know what it is now’ and ‘at least it isn’t cancer’ (that’s a term I truly despise) or ‘you just have to think positively’ (I have a whole other level of hatred for that phrase). I had one person in my life who, despite being generally morose when they spoke about life, dished out platitudes to me as though they were cakes on a plate. It got to the point where I couldn’t talk about my illness or my feelings with them because every time they fed me another platitude, it took away what I needed most at that point – acknowledgment. I needed to be told that it was okay not to be okay in that moment. That my life had irreversibly changed in a matter of days and it was okay to need some time to quietly get my head around it all.
There’s the age-old saying that if you have nothing nice to say then you shouldn’t say anything at all and I agree.
I didn’t expect anyone to know what to say to me when I explained my diagnosis or know how to react when I tell them I suffer with depression but a ‘I’m sorry you’re going through this’ comforts me far more than a platitude ever will because it’s honest and an acknowledgement of my suffering in that moment. It’s validation that I am allowed to feel what I am.
I have a friend. She’s my soul-mate. We suffer in so many similar ways and one of the greatest things she did for me recently, when I was texting her from the beach after attempting to walk into the surf, was that my feelings were valid. That I wasn’t crazy, stupid or weak, that my emotions were real and I had every right to feel them. She didn’t tell me that life would get better or that everything would ‘work out eventually’. She just let me be with my thoughts and feelings and it was the best thing she did for me.
Everyone is different and some people love platitudes but I find them false and insincere though I appreciate that people in life often don’t know what to say in that moment and so I smile because I know the words they say are backed by love even if I don’t appreciate the words themselves. But ask yourself this…
How frustrating do you find it when you’re crying over a broken heart to be told that there are ‘plenty more fish in the sea’?
How upsetting, when you risk losing your job (and therefore your home) to redundancy, do you find it to be told ‘you’ll get another job no problem!’?
How ‘weak’ do you feel when you’re suffering with depression and your friend tells you to ‘get over it because everyone has it harder than you’?
I imagine you probably wouldn’t feel great after hearing any of those platitudes because they take away what you need – acknowledgement. Acknowledgement that you’re having a difficult time physically/financially/mentally and you need a bit of time and help to get through it. That your struggles don’t make you selfish or weak; they prove you’re human.
So next time you want to offer a platitude when a friend/colleague/neighbour confesses they’re struggling in whatever form, be honest. If you can relate to their problem, try and offer helpful suggestions but if you can’t, be honest and tell them that you don’t know what they’re going through but you’ll try and help even if that means taking their kids for the afternoon to give them some breathing space.
Acknowledge the person and their emotions.
It allows them to feel human.