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Ashley Solomon, Psy.D is a psychologist who specializes in the treatment of eating disorders, body image, trauma, and serious mental illness.

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It could be worse. Or not.

January 22, 2013 6 Comments by Ashley @ Nourishing the Soul

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{image via pinterest}

Friends, family, and patients themselves often ask me for advice on what to say – and not say – to an individual struggling to overcome a mental health issue or difficult situation. It’s hard to pinpoint what is going to be the “right” thing for someone to hear. Individuals are so different in their sensitivities, as well as what they find comforting.

However, whether it’s an eating disorder or a failed test or a tumor found in someone’s cat, the statement that universally sends shivers down my spine is this one:

It could be worse.

This has got to be not only the least helpful, but perhaps the most ridiculous statement of “comfort” known to humankind. I’m going to tell you why.

First of all, “worse” is a totally relative construct. What is devastating to one person might be NBD (I just learned that this means “no big deal” and yes, I have been waiting anxiously for occasion to use it…) to another. Your parents’ divorce might be as devastating (or not) to you as my favorite pizza place being out of pineapple. There are, of course, a few key issues and events that we expect to really shake people – things like death, illness, or the loss of a job. But when it comes down to it, we have no idea how someone might react to a given event. One thing I’ve learned as a therapist is to never assume you know how someone feels about something. Your great uncle who passed on might have been a royal jerk or the job you lost might be perceived as a huge blessing. The point is, we all have our own individual barometer for how “bad” something is, and thus others don’t know if it could be worse. Maybe it’s literally couldn’t, in our perception.

Further, and perhaps more importantly, does it really matter if it could be worse? In the moment that you learn that you failed your midterm, does it register that the Mayans were totally off in their calculations and the world didn’t end. Sure, that might be worse. But do you care right then? Probably not a whole lot.

What’s even more frustrating is when this phrase is used in an effort to win the Pain Olympics. We aren’t all in competition with one another for who is in more dire straights. Our pain is our own, and we don’t need to prove its legitimacy or relative significance to anyone else. When “it could be worse” is followed up by someone detailing how they or someone they know in fact struggled with something harder, you can bet you’re in a pain pissing contest. And no one really wins.

So the bottom line is that this phrase is meaningless, unhelpful, and leads us on a road to nowhere. And further, it’s incredibly invalidating. It tells someone that their personal pain is less than that of something else and implies that the person needs to buck up, move on, and call it a day. That’s hardly what someone needs if that person is being brave enough to bare their struggle.

I’m sure no one who reads this site ever utters my personal pet peeve, but if you do, I urge you to think twice. If you’re often on the receiving end of this little tidbit, then direct that person to this post so they can learn that there is really nothing worse (than comforting someone with this phrase).

What do you prefer someone to say when you tell them about something you’re going through?

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6 Comments

  1. PTC
    2 years ago

    I prefer to be left alone and not have anyone talk to me, when I’m upset about something have received bad news. I prefer to be by myself for as long as that may be, a day, a week…
    PTC recently posted..So complicated…for no reason

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  2. Donna
    2 years ago

    Wow…fabulous post, as usual. I share, in an extremely visceral way, your disdain for those who would use the dreaded “it could be worse” response when I have dared to expose my personal pain…in my case anorexia nervosa. My beloved father-in-law actually took me aside, by the shoulders, looked me straight in the eye, and told me that I, at least, “had a choice” in choosing life, whereas he did not (he was suffering from lymphoma and did, unfortunately succumb to the malady). I recall feeling guilty about having such a “selfish”…as in self-inflicted…illness..whereas he did not have a say in the matter of terminal illness. Yet I also recall feeling hurt and angry that he seemed to consider my “problem” as one I could simply snap out of…if I took the bull by the horns as it were…as well as feeling almost jealous of the fact that he had a sickness that was socially acceptable…whereas mine was simply an embarrassment to the family. I wish I had known how to react to his version of “it could be worse”…but I was speechless. I think it was my love and respect for him that halted me from responding.

    Perhaps all we can really say to “it could be worse” ..is that, while it might not seem so “bad” to the outside eye or perspective, the pain is felt in a very deep, real way and the person doing the “revealing” should be respected for having the courage to open up thereby revealing human frailty.

    Thank you for yet another post which truly “hit home” and got me thinking. You give us so much to consider and contemplate!

    Reply

  3. Bek @ Crave
    2 years ago

    I just want them to listen :) And be there. My bf has gotten very good at that and can now formulate amazing questions to help me. My own personal at-home therapist.

    I have uttered these words unfortunately- but to myself and my own situation.
    Bek @ Crave recently posted..Body Step 90

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  4. Julia
    2 years ago

    These waters are so murky. I push and pull with loved ones – want them close then demand space. So, in essence, what I think being a supportive loved one requires a lot of patience, and I understand that it can be taxing. But patience coupled with unconditional love is truly powerful. To know that, in time, things will heal, if I stay committed to recovery, is so important. Vulnerability needs slow and gentle progress.
    Julia recently posted..How Extremes Keep Us From Ourselves

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  5. Lori Lieberman, RD, CDE, MPH, LDN
    2 years ago

    Yes, the mere statement “it could be worse” does nothing but minimize the feelings of the suffer. It’s right up there with asking the reflexive questions such as “was he a smoker?” about an individual diagnosed with lung cancer (my father, and he wasn’t, for the record!) or ‘did she drink?’, in an effort to explain (my mother’s) esophageal cancer–and she no, she doesn’t!

    I believe no harm is really meant by such careless statements; they are merely people’s way of making sense of the unpredictability of our world, helping us feel that yes, it could be worse, or we could explain the ills of our world and make us feel protected from the bad that can befall us.
    Lori Lieberman, RD, CDE, MPH, LDN recently posted..Allured By Diet Pills & Laxatives?

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  6. Sarah
    1 year ago

    This post hits home. I hate the “it could be worse” comment. I’d prefer someone listen to my story, let me vent my frustrations, and say “I’m really sorry life dealt you this right now.” Great post!
    Sarah recently posted..How to Fit Everyday Meals Into Your Eating Disorder Recovery Meal Plan: Part 9

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