When you’re going through a challenging time, well-meaning peers, colleagues, and loved ones often try to offer what they think are sage words of wisdom to help, comfort, and inspire you — and yet, there are times that these words do anything but. As therapists, we’ve heard it all. Here are a few pieces of advice we’re requesting to get officially retired from our social circles.
“Stop worrying, just relax.”
If you’re experiencing symptoms of anxiety, there’s likely nothing more frustrating than someone telling you to “just relax.” If only it were that easy!
Telling someone to simply relax or stop worrying invalidates the real symptoms of anxiety they might be experiencing, whether mental or physical — such as panic, nervousness, sweating palms, a racing heart rate, gastrointestinal issues, and more. It overlooks how difficult it might be for that person to control, avoid, or minimize whatever it is that’s triggering their anxiety. In some cases, moving past that trigger might be impossible. Advice like this ends up dismissing others’ emotional experience and often makes anxious individuals feel even worse than they already do.
If you’re on the receiving end of this advice, remember that your feelings are valid. Depending on the situation, you can simply ignore the advice — or let the other person know that while you know they mean well, their input is not helpful, that it dismisses your feelings, and that you don’t want to hear that feedback again.
If you’re in a position to give advice, try this approach instead: let the other person know that you’re there for them and want to support them in whatever way helps them feel safe. Be open to hearing what that looks like for them, and following through on it if asked to.
“When you find ‘the one,’ you'll just know.”
There could be a whole separate post dedicated specifically to misguided love and dating advice (but, alas, we digress). However, we couldn’t overlook this classic one-liner for the intense pressure it places on A) the belief that one person out there exists to be your perfect partner and B) your innate ability to “just know it” when you see it.
Whether you’re looking for a relationship or evaluating one that you’re already in, this advice can feel both stressful and limiting. It assumes that you should know right off the bat whether a potential person will provide you with everything you need, and that it’s not worth pursuing if they don’t immediately check all your boxes. In a current relationship, this mindset can make you think that any doubts or flaws mean everything is wrong. Advice like this focuses on perfection and absolutes, rather than growth and nuance.
While there might be some people lucky enough to know right away that a partner feels right, that doesn’t mean their relationship is impermeable to any future challenges. Doubt and questions in a relationship are natural, and they don’t take away from the quality of the relationship either. Rather, they give you the opportunity to continually evaluate as a couple whether your mutual needs are being met. The questions you should ask yourself periodically, whether you’re casually dating or in a committed relationship, include “How does this relationship make me feel?” “Does it align with my personal values and future goals?” “Am I comfortable communicating my needs, and are they being met?”
Perfection in love (and life) is rare, and in many cases improbable. Accepting the possibility of doubt or imperfection in a relationship doesn’t mean you’re settling for less.
For generations, the phrase “man up” has been used to enforce the mentality that men need to demonstrate strength, take control, and even stifle or withhold their emotions in challenging situations. Yet telling anyone, especially a child, to “man up” can be deeply harmful.
For one, the phrase “man up” equates strength with gender — which is inaccurate, offensive, and can be psychologically damaging, especially if you don’t neatly fit into a mold of what society thinks a man should be. It perpetuates archaic attitudes of toxic masculinity and the idea that men must behave a certain way, inhibiting individuals from exploring the full range of their emotions and feeling safe enough to be vulnerable with others. Ultimately, it dismisses the uniqueness of individual experience, limiting expectations of how one should feel or behave according to their gender identity.
It’s advice like “man up” that further prevents men from seeking mental health resources and support. If your only solution to the problems that life is throwing you is to “man up,” what does that even mean? Further, how does it make you feel about yourself if you do need help? Instead of being given the grace and guidance to seek help when they need it, many men may turn to substances, self-isolation, anger, or violence to cope. So while the phrase might feel innocuous, the ramifications are real — and they impact all of us.
“Life’s too short to be anything but happy.”
Are we starting to notice a theme here? Absolute and reductionist advice that dismisses individual emotional experiences is rarely helpful. Sure, in an ideal world, we’d all like to be happy as often as we can, but in reality that’s not always possible. Phrases like this perpetuate constant positivity in a way that can induce guilt or shame about being sad, or prompt people to suppress uncomfortable emotions.
If you’re going through a challenging, troubling experience, others might pressure you to simply “look on the bright side” and move on in a way that you simply can’t access during that moment in time. And that’s okay. There’s nothing wrong with you if you’re having an experience that seems illegible to others.
Let’s not begrudge the range of human emotions that color all our experiences and enrich our lives. You’re allowed to feel whatever you want and need to feel for as long as necessary. Don’t guilt yourself or others into being “happy” or processing something before you or they are ready to.
How to kick bad advice to the curb
Upon getting advice that doesn’t feel helpful or poignant to you, give yourself permission to set boundaries regarding what you’re willing to receive from the person delivering it. Whether that involves not engaging with or responding to the advice, or firmly letting them know that the advice is not productive (and perhaps even harmful) for you to hear, you have the opportunity to take ownership of your own feelings, needs, and experiences — and to show others how best to truly support you when you need it.
And the next time you feel prompted to give advice to another person, pause and examine what's coming up for you at that moment. Don’t feel like you always need to have an answer or solution at the ready. Sometimes, what’s most comforting is simply the act of listening, allowing the other person to feel heard and understood, and reassuring them that they’re not alone.