Musing about..."Most Wanted" for Saying the Wrong Thing


Photo compliments by Classic Art Memes

by Jane Stahl

A friend sent me an article written by Alexandra Lacouture* that appeared in the digital news magazine Mental on July 11, 2023, entitled “The 10 Most Gaslight-y Mental Health Sayings Ever,” knowing my interests in mental health and language.

As a retired public school English teacher, a writer and co-editor for a digital news site, freelance promoter, podcast host, and the director of community relations for a local art gallery, words are my business.

But I knew I was probably in trouble after reading the subhead of the article that promised to list the top 10 “crusty, toxically positive phrases.” Uh oh.

It didn’t take me long to realize that I’m a “Most Wanted” offender, so I was eager to read what I should be saying to “actually support a fellow human.” Happily, the author of the article also gave words I could/should be using.

The article quoted therapist Whitney Goodman, LMFT, author of Toxic Positivity, who alerted readers that these sayings are not just unrealistic, they “can invalidate, minimize, and, yes, gaslight people’s trauma and mental health struggles. They can also induce shame and guilt,” especially when also accompanied with the popular “you’re too sensitive” admonition.

Goodman admits that “it is really hard to know what to say to someone who’s struggling…showing empathy and compassion doesn’t come easy to everyone. And while most people use these slogans with the hopes of consoling, the words can be damaging.”

She suggests that some folks can mean well, but therapist Patrick Davin, LPC, offers that “others just don’t want to empathize with someone in distress…or they simply don’t have the right language, possibly never having learned how to listen and show compassion.”

He continues, ““Most people who say these gaslight-y slogans do so because they feel anxious and uncomfortable witnessing and hearing another person’s feelings. Their own limitations and fears are getting in the way of connecting.”

Here are the offending sayings:

Everything happens for a reason.

Just be positive.

What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.

Everything is going to be OK.

You are who you are because of what happened to you.

Have an attitude of gratitude.

Hurt people hurt people.

You can’t move on without forgiving.

Anger is never the answer.

Anything is possible.

I was forced to think about my own use of the phrases. I don’t deny that being a witness to others’ distress is not my favorite thing. But I always thought my powers of empathy and compassion were pretty strong. In using the phrases in question, I certainly always believe I’m trying to be helpful. And having enough words in my bank is not an issue.

So, what is my problem?

Impatience? Let’s hurry up and get well, get over it, move on. You’re not alone. Life is messy and full of all types of suffering. Join the crowd!

Obsessively goal oriented? There’s a lot of work to be done. There’s no changing the situation, so you might as well get busy with what you can change.

On the spectrum: ADD? It’s tough for me to sit too long in low-energy situations. To me, inertia is real—physical and emotional.


What I had to consider is that maybe I’m not so empathetic and compassionate after all. But I am eager to learn, and the authors suggested alternative wording:

“Is there meaning that you are making of this? or What’s the hardest part of this for you?

“I understand why you’re worried and upset about what you’re going through.

“I’m so sorry this is happening/happened to you, or How can I support you during this tough time?

“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.

“You are so much more than your trauma.

“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.

“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,

“You don’t owe anyone your forgiveness,

“You seem angry, and I can understand how hard it is to sit with that feeling, Do you want to talk about what feelings may be underneath your anger?

“I know you want to achieve __?___. I will help and support you regardless if you do or not, or ___?__ may not be possible; is there another goal or dream you’d like to go after?

The authors recommend showing interest by asking questions to understand—to feel what they’re feeling without judging—by not assuming or providing any advice or a solution, and by letting them come up with potential actions on their own before deciding what to do next. Best of all: we can make space for them. Folks often just want someone to sit with them and make them feel heard and loved.

And if you’re the one who’s are struggling, speak up. Tell your people that you know they’re trying to help, but share what you want and need from them instead and what words make you feel worse.

The “five-part confront”—a step-by-step process that I shared with students—comes to mind when there’s a need to negotiate another’s behavior in a relationship. Follow the script. Example provided for clarity

1. When you say… (Everything happens for a reason.)

2. I feel… (stupid, that I just don’t get it)

3. And then I want to… (give up)

4. Instead, what I’d appreciate you to say is… (what is the worst thing that’s happening to you)

5. Can we agree to…. (encourage me to talk about what I’m having trouble understanding)

The article reminded me of the power of language, the importance of using the right words at the right time. People’s “love language” varies. Maintaining healthy relationships means knowing another’s language preferences and speaking their language—especially in distressing times.

Just FYI:
For me? Here’s the thing. The “crusty, toxically positive phrases” work for me, have helped me beyond measure numerous times in the depth of my own suffering, in my own search for serenity.

In my most distressful times, I have been comforted by thinking that by struggling, I am getting stronger and more resilient; that there is a some reason for my suffering that I don’t quite understand…yet; that if everything isn’t all right in the end, it just means it’s not the end; that there’s hope that I can recover; because you never know what tomorrow brings; that anger solves nothing; that I forgive others for my own peace of mind—not for others; that I have so much to be grateful for and should always count my blessings; that being positive is always a choice I have at any moment, that feelings follow action, not the other way around; that I am proud of who I am because of what I’ve experienced; that perhaps the pain others are experiencing caused their hurtful reaction to me—not something I did or am.

I have offered these “toxic positivity phrases” to others knowing they have helped me. I have offered them to others as the greatest gifts I can give—the wisdom and knowledge I have earned as a result of my lived experience. I have offered them so that others know they can survive, that joy will come again.

And yet, I must also remember the only when the learner is ready will the teacher appear. Hamlet says it: “Readiness is all.” Until there is readiness, listening quietly, urging self-discovery—not offering facile quick phrases—is the greater wisdom that the authors seek to share.

I hear ya. Thanks for sharing. I’ll do better. Promise.

*Alex Lacouture is a writer with a focus on health, wellness, and travel. Previously, she was a business and technology consultant for international enterprises and nonprofits. She is currently writing a tragicomic memoir about mental health. She has lived experience with ADHD, anxiety, depression, and PTSD.

The Rest of the Story...
And yet, recently, a team of Mayo Clinic researchers described the growing national crisis in pediatric mental health, concluding that youth visits to emergency departments for mental health reasons doubled and suicide-related symptoms increased fivefoldfrom 2011 to 2020.

In response to that, in a recent effort to improve the mental health of all students in the area, the Wyomissing Area School District and the Wyomissing Public Library are working together in an innovative campaign to blanket the borough and West Reading with signs that offer positive messages.

Two hundred fifty signs were printed, with 11 messages. Each sign is affixed to a metal stand suitable for “planting” in a yard. The message on each sign is printed on weather-proof stock on both sides, and people may choose which message or messages to display.

The following is a list of available ones. The two most popular signs are “Tomorrow is a New Day” and “You Are Worthy.” The goals of the project are for people to read the signs and take the messages to heart, and to have all of the signs all over the two boroughs.

  • Your Mistakes Don’t Define You
  • You Are Enough
  • You Matter
  • Don’t Give Up
  • You Are Worthy of Love
  • Tomorrow is a New Day
  • You Are Not Alone
  • One Day at a Time
  • It’s Not Too Late
  • You Got This

In a recent article in the Reading Eagle, David Mekeel reminds us that "Sometimes, all it takes is one simple, positive thought to turn a bad day into a good try to normalize mental health struggles" and offers a perspective from Jessica Lengle, Wyomissing School District's Director of Pupil Services who came up with the idea for the sign project after seeing a news story on TV during the pandemic, "It's a campaign to say that it's OK to have bad days. But a bad day, or a bad incident, doesn't define who you are."

Recognizing the increasing mental health issues facing students today, the school district created a mental health task force and welcomed the participation of the library. Colleen Stamm, the library's director was happy to be involved and offers that while the library offers a variety of mental health support programs, people resist attending because of the stigma attached to admitting a mental health issue.

Stamm's favorite sign says, "Tomorrow is another day" in part because, like the entire program, the message is simple, but poignant. Merkel quotes her, "If it just brightens one person's day and makes them change the way they're feeling, then that's a success." She hopes that the idea spreads, that other communities consider creating their own version of the effort. 

For information on purchasing the signs, contact the Wyomissing Public Library  610-374-2385 or the Wyomissing School District 610-374-0739.

Not a bad--and simple--idea. I enjoy reading messages that churches often add to their sign boards. And this time of year, I'm often amused driving by a certain automobile repair garage advertising that they now offer pumpkin spice brake pads. The message takes my mind off whatever I may be brooding about and adds a lightness to the moment that lasts beyond the moment. 

And so, I'm left, still musing about...what is the "right" response to those who are struggling, depressed, and even suicidal.  Maybe positivity isn't so toxic. Maybe I'm "most wanted" for a hopeful reason after all! 

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First off, the image with the title is just PERFECT!

I love that you have pondered this list of possibly offensive, or even unintentionally hurtful, ways of speaking to others during times of stress, heartbreak, etc. I have learned over time that though some of those phrases might be okay for me, I don't really know how they'd be for others. I have stopped using them. I try and remember to say things like, "I'm here to listen," or "I can't imagine what you're feeling now, but I'm here to help if you need me." Also, "This is so wrong/unfair," is another. If I have the money, sometimes I'll send a plant or flowers, just to let them know I'm thinking of them. I have dropped off groceries, cleaned cars, cleaned kitchens and bathrooms, taken their dog for a walk. Sometimes not saying much (or anything) is even better. After years of believing what people say or tell me, I am now in the camp of "actions speak louder than words." Firmly. Loved this article! Thanks for sharing your awareness here with your readers.

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