How often have you heard – or said – statements such as these?

  • “Yes, it’s bad, but it could always be worse.”
  • “Lots of people would gladly trade places with you.”
  • “You may think this is terrible, but imagine if (insert scenario here).”
  • “It can always be worse, so don’t make excuses.”

These are things that are commonly said to people that think they are in an impossible or hopeless situation. They are popular responses. And I despise all of them with a passion. They are terrible things to say, and I believe we should STOP using them.

People say these things because they add perspective, give you a bigger or more global picture, or reduce the size – or the perception of the size – of your problems. On the surface, the effort seems noble. But like any good Sunday morning sermon, I have three points that illustrate otherwise. Specifically, these statements invalidate aspects of the person you are trying to comfort or motivate.

Invalidate the issue. If someone has made it a lifetime goal to run a marathon, and a week before actually running one, a person falls and breaks their leg, you do that person NO favors by saying there are starving people in wherever that would be so happy to trade places, happy to have a broken leg and a kitchen full of food. A broken leg does not feel good. It hurts. Yes, it will heal, and yes, there will be other opportunities to run the marathon, but there is nothing good about this situation. A much better approach is to ask is there anything you can do to help – bring food, help clean the house, maybe just sit and listen as the would-be marathoner vents for a few minutes.

Invalidate the feelings. Suppose you have a friend who lost a job, and applies for 50 jobs within a month, and loses out on every one of them. Your friend is contemplating taking the last $50 available and going on a drinking binge to drown the feelings of hopelessness. If your friend is me, and you tell me that it could always be worse or that I need to not make excuses and just hit the trail again tomorrow, I’m headed out for the binge – and probably throwing a few 4-letter epitaphs at you on my way out the door. Or at least insinuate something similar to this picture here. This downtrodden friend probably needs to be reminded of the marketable skills (s)he has, successes in the recent past, and maybe an offer to have a couple of drinks together in lieu of a binge.

Invalidate the seriousness. The situation may actually be as dire as the fallen person believes it to be. Perhaps this is someone about to lose a home or vehicle, or some other severe financial problem. If someone is sick, telling him/her that someone else is sicker doesn’t make this person healthy. This is another situation where the person in trouble might just need to vent a little bit, and needs someone to lend a listening ear, or an offer to help with tasks that the sickness is preventing from getting done.

These time-honored statements come from good intentions, hoping to give perspective to the hearer so the mindset can rebound. But in my opinion, they are more demoralizing and invalidating than they are inspiring. I suggest when we encounter someone in such a terrible spot, we offer to listen, offer help with tasks, and truly try to encourage them. While “it can always be worse” might be factually correct, it may go in the other direction form the things that a down-and-out person needs to change them to an up-and-coming person. Generally speaking, encouragement will be more effective than a lecture.