Meaning Well, But Causing Harm: Some Common Phrases to Avoid

The vast majority of people we will interact with over the course of our lives will mean well. Sure, there is a small subset of the population who, due to brain wiring issues, enjoy causing physical and emotional harm. But these people are rare and we will go most days of our lives without encountering one of them. The trouble is that even with most people meaning no harm and trying to help, we often are hurt by things they say or do in that process of trying to be supportive. When we are in a place of mental distress we are often surrounded by our support system who are saying things to us that seem to make us feel worse about the situation. We usually do not think these people are purposely trying to make it worse, but the anger and frustration with them when their words seem to cause mental pain can explode outward and cause conflict. So many people dealing with issues in the mental realm, whether in the forms of diagnosable disorders or not, share similar stories of how someone they care for and know care for them said the wrong thing at the wrong time and created a major problem.

There is two parts to communication between us and another person. There is what we say or what they said, and the messages actually received. For instance, if a person who just insulted someone else says “have a nice day”, the words may have been positive but the message received is often one of sarcasm and disrespect. It is very important for us to stay aware that just because we literally did or did not say something does not mean that is how it is received by another person. We share the commonality of language and implication, so leaning on only literal interpretations of words and phrases is an insincere way to communicate. Let’s look at 3 very common phrases that are often meant in positive or solution oriented ways but tend to only upset a person more when they are already in a negative headspace.

I am sorry you feel that way

The phrase “I am sorry you feel that way” is likely the most commonly known example of something that on its literal face isn’t insulting, but we all know through implication it is not a sincere sentiment. Most people find this phrase to be a way for someone to put the responsibility for someone being bothered on the bothered individual, and not take any personal responsibility. Again, this may not be the intention, but it is often how the message is received. There are times where the message we really want to communicate is that we disagree that we have done wrong, but still want to show our care for a person who is hurt by us. “I am sorry you feel that way” is an attempt to communicate this, but is very ineffective and often offensive. Some alternative phrases are:

  • I’m sorry I hurt you.
  • I don’t agree that what I did was wrong, but I am sorry to see you hurt.
  • I want you to know that I did not mean to hurt you.

This phrase also has a plain insulting meaning at times when people use certain inflections to make it clear that it is more a sarcastic way to tell someone they are at fault for their own emotions. It is important to not assume that is always the intention, as many people use this phrase genuinely not realizing the reaction it often gets from others. Make sure to communicate to people if they say this to you and it is bothersome.

I know exactly how you feel

“I know exactly how you feel” is virtually always a way for someone to try to connect to someone else who is struggling and let them know things get better. This attempt to show someone they are not alone has an extremely positive intention, but often falls short of its goal as well as frustrating the recipient. The problem with saying that you know how someone feels is that it is both inaccurate and runs the risk of minimizing what someone is going through. It is simply factually inaccurate that you know exactly how someone feels, as you are not them. This may seem like a silly semantic argument but it is truthfully an important distinction in dealing with other’s emotions. My feelings during a tragedy are not going to be the same as yours due to infinite factors about our past that influence how we react to things. It also can be seen as minimizing someone else’s suffering as they can receive the message that if you have handled this situation in the past than the person who is currently struggling is not dealing with a uniquely difficult problem, and instead some common issue that should not be too hard to move past. Again, this is not at all the person’s intention when saying “I know exactly how you feel”. There are some alternatives that can communicate the sentiment more effectively:

  • We can work through what you are going through.
  • I feel I can understand a lot of what you are experiencing, can we see if any of my past experiences can shed some light on this for you?
  • You can get through this, you are as capable as anyone else who has.

Just calm down

“Just calm down” is the ultimate worst phrase to say to someone in distress. There are two separate reasons why this phrase should be stricken from all of our vocabularies when dealing with someone who is mentally distraught. The first reason is that the word “just” is never applicable in areas of mental health. There are no simple mental health challenges or emotional troubles. Even the most common emotional stressor is a complex biological, psychological, and social issue that cannot be “just” handled with no effort. This is also helpful to eliminate from our vocabulary when talking about our own feelings. You are not “just depressed”, and it is not something to minimize as if anyone in your shoes would be handling it any better than you. Try to eliminate the word “just” before any statement regarding how someone is feeling or what you feel they need to do to feel better.

The second issue with the statement “Just calm down” is that it is often said to someone who is anxious or even suffering from a panic attack. The instruction to calm down is very unhelpful, as anyone experiencing high anxiety is both already trying to do just that as well as not being able to fully control their emotions. Telling someone mid-panic to calm down is the equivalent of telling someone with a migraine to stop hurting. They would love to! Unfortunately it is not in their immediate control. Most people are familiar with the opposite effect telling an angry person to calm down often has, it can be the same for someone who is anxious. If there is one thing the experience of anxiety has in common across all the millions of people suffering from it, it is the fact that being told to calm down is unhelpful, offensive, and frustrating. Here are some alternatives:

  • How can I help you in this moment?
  • We don’t need to do anything but breathe right now.
  • I’m here for you to use if it will help you.

If you are looking to learn more about how to communicate in better ways to others, please contact Life Enhancement Counseling Services today at 407-443-8862 to schedule an appointment with one of our experienced mental health counselors.


LECS Counselor