People resort to platitudes when someone is in pain or trouble for a variety of reasons: They may actually believe in whatever the cliché expresses and share it in the spirit of helpfulness. Or they may not know what to say so they hone in on a platitude, wrongly believing that saying nothing would be worse. In the worst case, they’re simply emotionally careless, don’t get the difference between sympathy and empathy, or are deaf to the message the platitude actually delivers.
Following are my personal picks for sayings I’d consign to the trash heap, and the reasons why:
1. “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”
Thank you, Friedrich Nietzsche, for putting this into words (and inspiring a songwriter or two). But alas, this statement is both hopeful and reductionist at once since it assumesresilience is actually increased by severe stress. It isn’t true. According to different theories, how resilient each of us is has a great deal to do with personality and the ability to manage negative emotion. Approach-oriented people are generally more resilient in the face of stress. They’re geared to take on challenges but also anticipate and plan for possible failures and are good at recovering from them. They manage negative emotions reasonably well, in part because they grew up feeling loved and listened to, which made them securely attached.
2.“Happiness is a choice.”
There’s no platitude more withering for someone who’s already down or struggling, but people say it anyway, believing that the positive spin will awaken the sufferer’s inner cheerleader. But this is a half-truth masquerading as wisdom because, according to the theory set forth by Sonja Lyubomirsky and others, we only control a specific piece of the happiness pie. How happy each of us is depends on three factors: our happiness set point, life circumstances, and intentional activity. Your happiness set point accounts for roughly half of your happiness, and is determined by heredity and personality; it’s relatively stable over time.
3.“When life hands you lemons, make lemonade.”
Thank you, Dale Carnegie, great-grand-daddy of self-help, for popularizing this platitude, which alludes to the myth of the American entrepreneurial spirit while summoning up a Norman Rockwell painting. (Can’t you just visualize a tow-haired boy or girl at a lemonade stand?) The problem is, despite the ubiquity of this sentiment, there are lots of situations which don’t yield any lemonade or life lessons that make us feel better. Sometimes, we simply have to do the work of recovering from what’s befallen us, and hearing about those lemons just doesn’t help. Psychologists have looked at why, in addition to personality, some people are better at bouncing back from setbacks than others.
4. “Time heals all wounds.”
The real problem with this—other than the fact that it isn’t true—is that it suggests that simply the passage of time will assuage grief or loss and so it often leads people to believe that there is some magical period of time, whether it be days, months, or years, that should fix you right up. Most unfortunately, this often makes people think that youshould have recovered from whatever loss you’ve suffered by some set deadline. Timedoes permit acceptance and re-framing to occur but, for some, real healing will remain elusive.
5. “Everything happens for a reason.”
I think this is a dandy statement if you actually believe it for whatever reason you do and, if you do, I’m happy for you. But please do not visit it upon someone else until you know that they have reached the same conclusion all by themselves. We live in a world filled with random events and incomprehensibility and all any of us can do is to make sense of it as best as we can with our own psychological immune systems in tow. A true empath says nothing when in doubt about the effect of his or her words.