The phrase “gaslighting” typically appears in sentences alongside words like “abusive” and “narcissistic.”
But there’s another equally insidious way we get gaslit in our everyday lives—and often from brands, influencers, and even friends who purport to bring us comfort.
How many times have you heard (or scrolled by) “everything happens for a reason” or “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger?”
These clichéd slogans aren’t just, like, unrealistic, they’re based in toxic positivity, says therapist Whitney Goodman, LMFT, author of Toxic Positivity. They can invalidate, minimize, and, yes, gaslight people’s trauma and mental health struggles. They can also induce shame and guilt.
If these types of phrases have ever triggered you or made you feel bad about yourself, you’re not “too sensitive.” Your senses are right on.
Why Do People Even Say This Stuff?
Okay, to assume some positive intent here (the non-toxic variety), it is really hard to know what to say to someone who’s struggling. Showing empathy and compassion doesn’t come easy to everyone.
Most people use these slogans with the hopes of consoling, but the words can be damaging. Goodman says her clients regularly share how hurtful it is to hear and internalize these pandering statements. “The inability to show support and sit with someone, even someone that you love, when they are in pain is an issue seen across age groups, backgrounds, and cultures,” says Goodman.
Another reason people might say these things? So they don’t have to empathize with someone in distress, says therapist Patrick Davin, LPC, who specializes in trauma, anxiety, and depression. “Whether it’s subconscious or not, people would rather stay in black-and-white thinking than move into the gray area of someone’s feelings,” he explains.
For others, they simply don’t have the right language, possibly never having learned how to listen and show compassion, Davin says. It may not have been modeled for them growing up. So, in adulthood, this group doesn’t know how to respond appropriately.
“Most people who say these gaslight-y slogans do so because they feel anxious and uncomfortable witnessing and hearing another person’s feelings,” Davin explains. “Their own limitations and fears are getting in the way of connecting.”
In other words: It’s not you, it’s them.
If you’re feeling better already, good! But we’ve got an even better idea: Simple alternatives for each of these out-of-touch slogans—each intended to make you feel heard and held. (Of course, even our suggestions are generalized; always remember that every instance is contextual and nuanced.)
1. “Everything happens for a reason.”
And then they proceed to tell you what they think that reason is.
In reality, most things don’t happen for a reason. This slogan can undermine a traumatic situation and, in some cases, just be straight-up ridiculous.
In certain situations—like a breakup or job opp that doesn’t work out—Goodman concedes that “everything happens for a reason” may be comforting to some. But please don’t say this to someone who’s gone or is going through something traumatizing and completely life-altering.
“You can’t tell someone who has been raped or has lost a child that ‘everything happens for a reason,’” says Goodman. “That’s a lie. These words don’t heal these people. They hurt them. Experiencing trauma is not for some noble, world-saving purpose or reason.”
Why do people say this crap? Davin believes they come up with reasons for why tough things happen to make themselves and others feel better. But truth is, life is inexplicable and unfair.
Now, we aren’t here to completely yuck your yum. You can still believe in miracles, divinity, silver linings, unicorns, Co-Star Astrology’s latest predictions, and whatever else you want to put your faith in—while simultaneously acknowledging that not everything happens for a reason.
What to say instead: Is there meaning that you are making of this? or What’s the hardest part of this for you? suggests Goodman. Or you can simply go with this tongue-twister from Davin: What if what happened happened only because it happened?
2. “Just be positive!”
If only life were so breezy! Plot twist—life ain’t easy.
People’s struggles are legitimate. Saying these three words is like handing a Band-Aid to someone with a gaping wound and walking away.
People may say “just be positive” because they want to share simple solutions to complicated problems, says Goodman. But quick fixes rarely solve nuanced issues.
These words are particularly unsettling for people who are depressed. Forced positivity “induces shame toward negative and uncomfortable feelings,” says Davin, who suggests first listening and trying to connect with the person’s feelings.
As Goodman puts it, “It’s not helpful to give a solution before understanding what someone is going through. Plus, they might not even want a solution at that time. The best thing you can do is empathize with them.”
Later, if they’re up for it, Davin says, “you can suggest reframing a situation in a more uplifting way.”
What to say instead: I understand why you’re worried and upset about what you’re going through, recommends Goodman. Or, It’s okay to feel whatever you’re feeling right now.
3. “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”
This slogan is factually inaccurate. And frankly, what didn’t kill you may still want to (metaphorically) kill you—whether that be a toxic person in your life, PTSD, or a chronic health condition or disability.
Trauma and its resulting symptoms don’t make people stronger. Neither do debilitating symptoms that are extremely difficult to manage on a daily basis. Strength is choosing to do all that you can to live a life you want to live.
People who say “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” love to talk about resilience. It’s a trendy word often used to make people feel better. “People who survived or are surviving terrible things were in many ways forced to be resilient,” Goodman says. There was no choice involved, and I know many people who would trade in the badge of resiliency to not experience what they did.”
Goodman acknowledges the research that proves the right amount of hardship can make someone “stronger.” “People who haven’t dealt with adversity may lack resiliency and not know how to navigate life’s challenges,” she explains. “But there is a big difference between being assaulted and choosing to hike a mountain. People shouldn’t be forced or encouraged to thank the worst things in their life for making them stronger.”
What to say instead: I’m so sorry this is happening/happened to you, or How can I support you during this tough time?
4. “Everything is going to be okay.”
Not gonna lie: Sometimes we do want to hear this, even if we know there’s no way someone can promise it. But for many people, these words feel dismissive.
“This slogan is especially problematic if you use it too quickly when you or the other person doesn’t know all the facts of a situation,” says Goodman. “You can’t say to someone that was diagnosed with a disease that everything is going to be okay, because you don’t know that to be true. It gives false hope.”
Similarly, this isn’t appropriate to say to someone who has experienced abuse or rape, Goodman says.
People often pair “everything is going to be okay” with “time heals all wounds.” But these words can make you feel like something is wrong with you if you continue to suffer as time goes on, Goodman notes.
“Time is not a cure for PTSD or anxiety. The longer you wait to get treatment for symptoms you have, the more likely they will become more debilitating and intensified,” she explains. Throwing out the “time heals” platitude can encourage someone to ignore and disregard their feelings and symptoms, which prevents healing.
Not everything is going to be okay, and that’s okay. It’s important to accept this and help others do the same.
What to say instead: Things will get better, and if they don’t, you will learn how to handle them better, or You have the ability to keep going and find joy again, suggests Goodman.
5. “You are who you are because of what happened to you.”
So your trauma gets credit for the amazing person you’ve worked so hard to become? Oof. This statement lacks sensitivity and awareness that trauma causes people to adapt to a life and symptoms they didn’t choose.
There is a cultural obsession with thanking our trauma, says Goodman. But no one is responsible for creating a fairytale out of their pain. The bad things that happened to you didn’t need to happen for you to be you.
“Trauma doesn’t make you who you are,” Goodman says. “You should be allowed to get to where you are and where you’re going on your own and in ways that are most empowering to you.”
If this concept does somehow feel reassuring for you, it’s fine to say it to yourself. But it’s not something to say to others—especially survivors.
What to say instead: You’re amazing just because you’re you, or You are so much more than your trauma.
6. “Have an attitude of gratitude.”
“Gratitude is the new toxic positivity,” Goodman says. “Gratitude slogans are the worst offenders of today.”
It’s simply not appropriate to recommend gratitude as a solution to someone else’s problems, Goodman explains. Forced gratitude is not genuine or helpful anyway.
“You do not need to shove your feelings down or change them. It’s important to acknowledge, validate, and address them as they are,” she says.
You can appreciate or be thankful for your privileges and the good things in your life, but you don’t have to do this 24/7. You are not a bad person for not feeling grateful all of the time.
There is, of course, research showing that gratitude can be helpful. But it works when it’s a practice someone chooses to do because it benefits them, not when they’re doing it because they’ve been shamed into it by someone else, Goodman says. True gratitude also involves acknowledging the negatives.
What to say instead: Is there something going on in your life that feels good? or I can see and understand that you feel stuck, like you can’t move or see outside of this situation and the hurt you are feeling.
7. “Hurt people hurt people.”
No sh*t, dude!
Pop culture and social media love this one—an issue because it’s often used to minimize and excuse pernicious behavior.
Feeling hurt does not give you the green light to hurt others. “Hurt people hurt people” can squash and silence a person who has been harmed and is trying to speak.
GOTTA READ: Dear Person Who’s Just Been Diagnosed With OCD…
“They did their best” usually comes next. People say this to themselves to ease the hurt they feel from the people who caused them pain, Goodman says. But you can’t say this phrase to others about the people who’ve caused them pain.
“This slogan is very out-of-touch, especially if trauma is involved,” Davin says. “There is nothing wrong with the truth. They hurt you and maybe they didn’t do their best or maybe they did, but they should’ve done better.”
You can empathize and seek to understand where people’s destructive behavior comes from, but that’s very different from disregarding the pain they brought to someone else.
What to say instead: I’m sorry they hurt you and didn’t give you what you needed, or They lacked the ability to treat you how you deserve to be treated, suggests Davin.
8. “You can’t move on without forgiving.”
No one has the right to force anyone to forgive. That can actually be a form of abuse.
“Some things are unforgivable,” Goodman says. “No one wants to believe that people and loved ones can hurt others. But there needs to be more priority given to the victims’ needs and safety, and less to the perpetrators and their desire to be forgiven.”
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People deserve the freedom and space to navigate their pain and life in the ways they want and need. Everyone’s healing journey is their own, and it might not include forgiveness.
Forgiving, Goodman explains, can feel like doing perpetrators’ and abusers’ penance for them. People who suggest or force forgiveness often do so for their own comfort, or as a resolution to a situation. It can also be used as a means to cover up abuse and bypass trauma.
“If forgiveness helps you heal, then so be it,” Davin says. “But it’s not your responsibility to forgive. It’s the perpetrator’s responsibility to hold themselves accountable and apologize. Regardless, you don’t have to wait for an apology or offer forgiveness in order to heal and move forward.”
It’s really up to you. It’s certainly possible to feel free and empowered in both the absence and presence of forgiveness. Above all, focus on forgiving yourself, Goodman says. Because 1) you are not to blame for the abuse you experienced, and 2) you do not need to be sorry for not wanting or being able to forgive the abuser.
What to say instead: Davin suggests trying, You don’t owe anyone your forgiveness, or You’re not a bad person if you don’t want to forgive them.
9. “Anger is never the answer.”
Anger-shaming is big in society, many religions, and certain philosophies—particularly when the anger is expressed by a woman. This conditioning bleeds into communities and individuals’ self-expression, relationships, households, and workplaces. (One Harvard study found that while anger at work increases men’s status, it does the opposite for women.)
Davin explains that anger is a secondary expression of a primary feeling, whether that be sad, lonely, hurt, ashamed, or scared. “Anger is normal and trying to tell you something,” Goodman says. “Maybe you are being treated unfairly. Maybe your limits or boundaries aren’t being respected. Maybe you’re unhappy.”
“It’s assumed that ‘bad’ behavior always comes with anger. But this isn’t true,” Goodman says. “It’s about what you do in response to the feeling.”
Of course, that doesn’t mean we have to get berated on the daily by people getting out their anger. It’s okay to set boundaries on how you will accept others’ anger, notes Goodman. You can allow someone to share that they are feeling angry and why, while also stating that you’re not cool with, for example, being screamed at.
“Anger is healthy because it can propel you forward and create space to do things like have a conversation, make a change, or resolve something,” Davin says. “Don’t be afraid of anger. Don’t suppress it.”
What to say instead: You seem angry, and I can understand how hard it is to sit with that feeling, or Do you want to talk about what feelings may be underneath your anger?
10. “Anything is possible.”
Not everything is possible. It’s just not. And that’s not a bad thing!
“The phrases ‘anything is possible’ and ‘the sky is the limit’ are big in the manifestation crowd,” Goodman says. “But some things simply aren’t possible for certain people. This could be due to having disabilities, illnesses, lack of resources and opportunities, etc.”
What’s healthier? Radical acceptance about what you are and are not able to do, says Goodman, which allows you to orient yourself in places where you do have potential. There is nothing wrong with you or your life if you are not granted something or if you can’t achieve everything in the world.
“Some doors are closed for whatever reason. Sometimes you need different dreams and goals, and that’s okay,” she says.
This reality may feel disheartening. But it can also be freeing. Everyone has different abilities and limitations that can’t be ignored or hidden. There are things that are meant for you, and you can figure out what those things are as you go along.
What to say instead: Goodman suggests, I know you want to achieve X—I will help and support you regardless if you do or not, or X may not be possible; is there another goal or dream you’d like to go after?
Support That’s Actually Supportive
Overall, the best way to support someone is to show curiosity and ask questions. Listen and seek to understand what someone is going through. And don’t assume you know what someone needs in that moment, like advice or a solution.
“Let’s give people the space to actually feel what they are feeling without judgment,” Goodman says.” Validate them, and let them come up with things by themselves and choose what comes next in their life.” More often than not, people simply want someone to sit with them and make them feel heard and loved.
If you’re the one struggling with something, practice voicing what you want and need from the people in your life. If they say things that make you feel icky and sad, tell them.
Goodman suggests saying, I know you’re trying to help AND it makes me feel X when you say these things, or I would love and appreciate if you could do X and say Y instead.
Some people will appreciate that you felt safe enough to share these difficult feelings with them. Others won’t be able to change their ways. When you know that someone repeatedly responds in a way that negatively impacts you, it’s time to stop going to them for support.
And remember: As hard as it may be, try not to internalize things people say if they aren’t helpful or authentic, says Davin. You don’t need to take all the advice you get from people—even your close friends, parents, or wellness gurus. You know you best. And we’re here to validate that.