Continued from last month, here is the third installment of “Stop Saying This,” a series I’m doing on common but damaging phrases running amok among the helping professionals and “lay people” (aka friends, family, community members) alike.
“You need to step out of your comfort zone.”
It’s touted by the self-help industry, which has turned into the optimize-every-nano-detail-of-your-life industry. According to them, being in your comfort zone is a sign that you’re not moving forward, you’re not growing and you’ll never be in the top .01% of your field. It means your relationship won’t be extraordinary and you won’t reach beyond your potential. Which clearly means that your life is not worth living, because the only thing that has meaning is being the absolute best at everything you set out to do—not giving and receiving what you came here to give and receive, making genuine connections with other people, or whatever the hell you want your life to mean.
Coaches and even (increasingly) therapists talk about these gigantic goals as if they were the only choice for how someone should live their lives. Perhaps it’s because they don’t want to deal with the discomfort of the existential questioning that more and more people are engaging in as the chaos builds around us during these times.
Why is it that the “treatment provider” doesn’t have to challenge their comfort zone but that it is the prescribed remedy for their clients? Equally importantly, why exactly is someone a failure if they don’t want to colonize the moon or turn their hobby of popsicle-stick painting into a multinational, seven-figure business? Is nothing sacred? Does every aspect of life have to be monetized? Why are we creating a culture where people don’t know who they are unless they know who their “target audience” is?
Granted, therapists probably mean something different when they encourage clients to challenge themselves out of their comfort zone. Maybe they want to support people in changing old habits or beliefs that the clients have self-reported are in the way of the life they have identified as wanting for themselves. Comfort can be a sign of remaining in those old patterns that sabotage a client’s goals and that a client is doing what is familiar to them. It’s only fair to admit that comfort, or the desire for it, has gotten in my way many times, and it has kept me from what I want. It has caused me to hurt people I love, including myself.
Comfort, though, can also be a necessary refuge when you’re in the throes of healing.
You’ve no doubt heard that infuriating phrase “What doesn’t kill you makes you strong?” (I’m coming for you). However, it is well known that rest and recovery are essential to building physical strength; it is no different in relational, emotional or mental terms. If we make a total enemy of comfort, we are making an enemy out of recovery.
Finally, we need to take a moment to question this whole “continual growth” philosophy that’s behind the constant push to get out of our comfort zone. The self-help industry has done a great job of convincing people that they’re failing if they’re not always growing, but continual, unchecked growth is cancer’s philosophy. Sometimes, it’s okay to get off your own back and just be. A culture that categorically demonizes comfort, a natural state we seek by default, is emotionally abusive. Whatever happened to “everything in moderation” (I’m coming for you, too)?
“What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”
I think the burden of proof is on the person who says this phrase because, in the first place, by what mechanism would something that could kill you but doesn’t make you stronger? Actually, my experience is that what tries to kill me but doesn’t actually makes me sad and sick; what makes me stronger is belonging, love, connecting with people I know believe in me and can see my best even when I feel I’m at my worst (or actually am at my worst), sleep, sometimes exercise….in other words, a lot of things that look like comfort (exercise comforts me because it manages my chronic pain more effectively than anything else I’ve tried).
You should really only “encourage” someone by telling them that what doesn’t kill them makes them stronger if you want to downplay or disregard trauma. And the only reason someone might want to do that is if they’re not willing to step out of their comfort zone and learn how to really walk with people through real-life hell. “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” implies that the appropriate response to injury or hardship is to callous up; there are, of course, many definitions of strong, many of them beautiful, but the common contexts this phrase is used in are not encouraging those types of strengths—when you want to encourage vulnerability, secure attachment with safe others, the ability to rest in a culture such as our feverishly, unendingly, pointlessly frenetic one, the last thing you should say is, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”
Strength is only a virtue when it’s authentic, not born out of trauma and not a coping mechanism. It’s not a virtue when it’s as exalted as it is in our current culture—that is, at the expense of weakness, which can also be a virtue. I know it can sound ridiculous or unbelievable to say that weakness is a virtue, but there are at least two reasons why this is true. First, weakness is a virtue because it tells the truth about an aspect of being human. Human beings are in many ways weak by definition. Not one single one of us is good at everything that is required to succeed in life.
Which brings us to the second reason weakness is a virtue: individual weaknesses are what allow for, and indeed demand, interdependency. And interdependency is stronger than both independence or dependence. “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” assumes that stronger is always good and always better than weaker, which is neither a helpful nor accurate assumption. Not to mention that preferencing strength over weakness, or really any other quality, is really ableist. The reasons for retiring this phrase abound; it’s time to stop saying it.
“Everything in moderation,” doing business as “Don’t be so black and white” and/or “Let’s find a balance/middle ground.”
While our culture is ever more polarized (though we actually aren’t as divided as the media—or social media—would have us believe if you look at survey data from organizations like Pew Research), the reliance on finding “a middle ground” and the obsession with getting away from black-and-white thinking at all costs is still way too common.
It’s very popular to propose a “middle-ground” solution when there’s a conflict that doesn’t look easily resolvable. This middle ground often requires somewhat violent compromise on both sides (have you ever watched how fast negotiating a “win-win” so often devolves into an “I’ll lose this if you lose that” race to the bottom?), which is apparently supposed to bring peace between the sides—as if having to give up meaningful things in order to “resolve” the conflict won’t cause resentment and simply drive the conflict underground to fester.
This situation, where both parties “agree” to give some things up—and the more persistent the conflict, the bigger and more meaningful are the things that each side has to forfeit—is the “middle ground” and it’s often worse than allowing the conflict to persist. For the most part, the suggestion of a middle ground is either intended to avoid real resolution or ends up doing so anyway. In the rare event that a true middle ground is found or that the gray areas don’t blur needs or details, it can be beautiful. But the skills to pull that off aren’t common enough for us to allow this phrase to be thrown about without careful consideration for any and all conflicts, issues, and discomforts.
More importantly, though, can we please apply “everything in moderation” to itself for just a second? Can we moderate our use of moderation and stop making it our crutch when we don’t see how both or all sides of a conflict can truly get what they want? Do we really mean everything in moderation?
Should we have a “balanced” viewpoint about Hitler or genocide? Any “so-called” middle ground between, say, committed sexists and folks like myself who believe women are people is not a place I want to be. Any “balance” between those who believe people of color are equally human and should therefore have full equality with white people and racists is dehumanizing because there is no way people of color would get to keep their full humanity as they walk toward the dividing line between themselves and those who believe that POC having equal rights deprives white people of those or other rights.
If you can think of getting to a middle ground that doesn’t involve compromise, I’d love to hear it. If you can think of a way where applying moderation to everything doesn’t involve apologizing for Nazis or misogynists or racists, etc., please let me know. Until then, can we please strike this misleading, dehumanizing phrase of dismissal cloaked in “maturity” from common use?
“I’m Sorry If…/I’m Sorry You…”
I’m going to stop you right there. Any sentence that starts “I’m sorry if….” or “I’m sorry you…” has nothing to do with an apology. “I’m sorry you feel that way” or “I’m sorry if I hurt you” need to be retired from speech altogether, whether it’s a therapist or a friend saying either one. Regarding “I’m sorry you feel that way,” I’ve had that phrase said to me in response to the following things I’ve said: “I’m so lonely it’s difficult to breathe”; “You told me you would get back to me in a week over two weeks ago. It’s frustrating I have to keep bringing this up”; “I have been wanting to go hiking this whole summer, which I told you several times. You knew about this hike for over a week and you’re just now telling me the day of that it’s happening? It doesn’t feel like you’re ‘trying to include me.’”
How is “I’m sorry you feel that way” at all appropriate for any of those things, especially the first one? The person who told me she was sorry I felt so lonely was someone who appointed herself my pastor (this is a different one than the one who had inappropriate feelings that I’ve discussed before) as opposed to my friend. The appropriate response to someone who is struggling with loneliness so much that it physically hurts them is not a fake apology—it’s to include them, especially if you think you want to be a pastor. Either way, it is callous and dehumanizing to brush someone off that way, regardless of your role in the world.
A therapist saying “I’m sorry you feel that way” comes off as worse than pity. It comes off as high and mighty, like you, the client, wouldn’t have to come to therapy if only you felt differently. To head off any comments to the effect of “but that’s not how it’s meant,” I will preemptively say the only two things I’m going to say about this: first, I’ve had multiple therapists nitpick about using the word “thought” when I mean “feeling: and vice versa. If you’re going to be picky about my words, you’d best be getting picky about your own. And, relatedly, number two: say what you mean and mean what you say.
If you don’t intend to apologize (which is taking responsibility for an action you yourself committed such that you have identified new ways of relating as an effort to not commit the offense again), then don’t use the words “I’m sorry.” Find another way to say whatever it is you’re trying to say by “I’m sorry you feel that way.” If you’re a therapist, it’s your job to be a good communicator.
The reason I interrupt people when they begin a sentence with “I’m sorry if…” is because again, I’m not going to be made the problem for having feelings when what really needs to happen is the other person needs to take some damn responsibility. If I inform you that you’ve hurt me, then you’ve hurt me; there’s no need to throw doubt in there with that “if.”
Even if you can’t genuinely apologize for the action that hurt me, you should be able to apologize for hurting me (otherwise, you shouldn’t be a therapist. If you’re not sorry when you hurt other people who are your clients and are thus paying you to help them, therapy is the way wrong field for you). The sentence for taking responsibility for hurting someone starts this way: “I’m sorry that…” and is followed by specifics and devoid of excuses or explanations unless or until asked for such. “I’m sorry that I hurt you in these specific ways.” Then, you ask if there’s anything else and then stop talking. You may feel like you have a great reason for what you did, but, if the person you hurt doesn’t ask for that, all it’s going to do is invalidate your apology even if you gave a real one.
Maybe I’m naïve, but I believe that the main thing getting in the way of real resolution of conflict is genuine taking of responsibility. Let’s stop asking people to trample all over their needs and values on their way to this magical middle ground. Let’s stop letting those who purport to want to help get away with fake apologies (when they offer any at all). And let’s start accepting only real relational offerings that do not make us contort, disavow comfort, strong-arm ourselves into being appearing strong, or shoulder responsibility that is not ours.
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.