7 Seemingly Innocent Comments You Don’t Realize Can Actually Hurt People
Sometimes, it's when you're trying to help the most that you end up doing the most damage. And understanding that even unintended consequences are important can help you be more understanding when it comes to being kind to others. Internalizing negative emotions happens subconsciously, so being cognizant of the effects your words have on people is important.
First, it's important to forgive yourself for doing things that you didn't know were harmful. "The most deeply-internalized, hurtful comments are not always intentional," Jillian Murphy, ND licensed naturopathic doctor with a focus on mental health, and body image issues, tells Bustle. "So much of how we view ourselves involves becoming of aware of how we don't measure up — the ways in which we lack — and we define our deficiency." Understanding the points of view of others may even help you understand your mental health better.
You, too, have likely experienced moments where you just couldn't get past something someone said to you in passing. A lot of knee-jerk responses to uncomfortable emotions can actually make things worse, so training yourself out of certain reactions can be incredibly helpful in the long-run. Others may even learn from your example.
Here are eight seemingly innocent comments that you didn't realize people are likely to negatively internalize, according to experts.
1. "You Are So Brave!"
Calling someone "brave" for simply living their life, whether they're disabled, visibly chronically ill, or any other identity that you find makes them stand out from the crowd, can actually send some really harmful messages.
"This might depend on what you were being brave about, but if it's for just speaking your mind, or showing up in your body as is, or living your life on your own terms, there is the implication that you must feel shameful about who you are or that you don't 'fit in' on some level," Murphy says. Nicole Byer's hashtag #veryfatverybrave is an example of people reclaiming this comment; but for now, it's probably best to try to avoid it.
2. "I Feel So Bad For You!"
When someone is going through a painful or difficult experience, it can be really isolating. Statements like "I feel so bad for you" can further this isolation, even if they're coming from a place of love.
"[This] is a statement of sympathy that distances — as in '[... you're] in a place I hope to never be,'" Murphy says. "In contrast, something like 'I feel for you' is a statement of empathy, it puts you on the same team and brings you closer to the other." Trying to avoid statements that separate you and the person you're talking to is a good practice in general, as well.
3. "Don't Be Sad!"
When someone you care about is sad, your first instinct is likely to try to cheer them up. With that being said, sometimes the first words that come to mind aren't always the most helpful.
"It can be hard to experience strong emotions, particularly ones that we tend to consider negative, and it can be hard to see people you care about experiencing them as well," licensed psychologist Ashley J. Smith, Ph.D., tells Bustle. "Telling someone not to feel a certain way, though, invalidates them and their experience. Instead, try 'I'm sorry that you're feeling sad,' or 'I know that you're anxious, how can I help?'" This reframing is much less likely to make the other person feel like a burden.
4. "You Should've... "
If you're not giving specific, solicited advice, then you likely want to avoid the word "should" in conversation with others, psychologists say.
"These kinds of comments are particularly hurtful when made after the fact," Dr. Smith says. "While the commenter is usually well-intended or trying to offer helpful advice, the comment lands as 'you messed up' or 'that wasn't good enough.'" Trying to talk about the present, rather than what could have been done, may help.
5. "I'm Sorry, But You ..."
Apologies, when genuine, should not come with caveats. So if you're really feeling like you need to own up to a mistake, it's important to try to avoid language that still puts the blame on the other person.
"When you give a qualified apology by saying the words 'I'm sorry,' then spelling out the other person's wrong doing, you're really passing the blame back to them," Dr. Smith says. "It's unlikely to be well received because you're not truly owning your own wrong doing or making amends." Learning how to apologize can be an important life skill.
6. "When Are You Getting Married?"
If you haven't seen a friend or acquaintance for a while, it may be tempting to ask them about major life updates. Some of these questions, however, can be intrusive and even hurtful, no matter how well-intentioned.
"First of all, it assumes the other person wishes to get married," psychotherapist Christine Scott-Hudson, MA, MFT, ATR, tells Bustle. "Perhaps they don't. Secondly, you have no way to be sensitive by asking this question, they may have just broken up with someone and are still in the throes of emotional pain." There are almost infinite ways this question can be read, so asking "how have you been?" is a better, more open-ended question when catching up with someone.
7. "When Are You Having Kids?" Or "Are You Pregnant?"
Like questions about body image, questions about someone's plans to have children, or whether they're currently carrying a child, are largely received as hurtful, even if they come from a place of casual curiosity.
"Don't assume that this is just a casual and easy topic for people," Scott-Hudson says. "You have no idea what struggles and challenges people may have going on behind closed doors." Some people are voluntarily childfree, and others could be experiencing infertility or pregnancy loss. No matter the reason, it's better to ask more general questions about someone's life than this. You can wait until someone offers this information.
Everyone makes mistakes sometimes, and slips up when it comes to considering other people's feelings. Nevertheless, there are certain seemingly innocent comments that are, as a rule, generally best to avoid. There's almost always a different, more conscientious way to get your point across. Even a small change in how you approach someone can be incredibly meaningful.