I started the Stop Saying This series back in June and, unsurprisingly, I have not run out of unhelpful things people in ostensibly helping roles and professions to comment on. Last month, I discussed the damage demonizing comfort does, how “everything in moderation” categorically pathologizes black-and-white thinking and what real apologies sound likes. As one commenter said, “It’s odd to find validation on the internet and nowhere else.” It is indeed, odd. It also is an indicator of just how sick our culture is.
I would also like to affirm the discussions I’ve seen in the comments about the main issue being the lack of sincerity across the board in the so-called helping professions these days. Yes, the lack of sincerity is often the definitive characteristic in whether someone’s (professional or otherwise) sentiment hits home or offends, at least for me. And yet, sometimes, it’s the presence of sincerity that worsens things for me, as I’ll discuss in this post.
But that brings me to a point of clarification I would like to me: this series of articles is about what people in the helping profession—that is, people with an inordinate amount power bestowed on them by themselves and an uneducated (thus, trusting) general public—say to their clients/patients/ program participants/whatever bullshit PC name they’re using for the human beings that pay their salaries and/or are subjected to the brutalizing processes that this culture still calls “treatment.”
I am not talking about peer-to-peer interactions; those have entirely different power dynamics—namely, one does not have the power to involuntarily commit you, forcibly drug you or officially label you forever. Though most of these phrases are still problematic in my opinion (I still wouldn’t think it’s appropriate for an equal to, say, “I’m sorry you feel that way” because *I’m* not sorry for my feelings. I am, in fact, 100 percent done apologizing for my feelings and emotions and don’t need anyone else to, either.), the discussion of whether and why they are or are not okay for non-professionals to say to each other would look very different than this one.
Now, onto the next up on our list of things to stop saying if you’re a “mental health professional” of any kind and want to actually help.
That’s not about you
I’ve been the target of phrases like “I felt no love for you on our wedding day,” “Go find someone else, you’re too smart for me,” and “if it wasn’t for Jesus, I would have left you.” These were things said by the man who promised to love, honor and cherish me, as well as seek to understand me first, for the rest of our lives. Me. Not someone else. Telling me that those phrases aren’t about me is gaslighting. Those things are very clearly about me; they could not be about someone else. They were said to me and about me: *I* was the one he felt no love on our wedding day for. *I* was the one who was too intelligent for him (way to twist someone’s gifts against them!). *I* was the one he was believing himself a hero for not leaving. No one else.
If you’re my therapist, and you try to tell me that those things aren’t about me, then you’re telling me you’re unwilling to take an abuser to account. Ultimately, yes, choosing to say such destructive things, which are crafted intentionally to do lasting damage, is about the person who chooses to say them, their failure of integrity and compassion and what they value. Ultimately, that my ex chose to say those things reveals more about how seriously he takes his own word, what his real values are and probably his own negative view of himself. But the verbal abuse he perpetrated was still about me; those phrases weren’t generic, applicable to just anyone. They were crafted specifically for me using knowledge my ex had about me—if he had yelled at me that I had rainbow skin, I would have laughed and moved on, perhaps assumed he wasn’t fully awake or something.
It wasn’t like I was standing in line at a grocery store and someone stretched and accidentally hit me in the face. It was like I was standing in a room in my own home assuming I was safe and wanted and chosen for who I am (since those were the literal words of our wedding vows, after all) and an arrow with my name and a picture on it of me as a little girl who dreams of having a life partner landed straight in the center of my heart.
In both scenarios, I’m hurt. In the first one, the pain is an unfortunate side effect of being in the wrong place and the wrong time by accident (though, as we’ll see below, the pain is still present). In the second place, someone knew me, my deeply held dreams and my sensitivities, and used his knowledge to craft something uniquely and deeply painful just for me.
Normally, my stance is that intention does not matter nearly as much as impact. This is why saying “I didn’t mean to” after someone says you hurt them is useless. Apologize (the way we’ve been talking about in last month’s article) and validate their feelings. In the case above, though, I think intention magnifies the impact. If you’re the person in the grocery line who stretches, “I’m sorry” is a response that’s available to you (and you should say it even if you “didn’t mean to.”). If you’re the guy whittling arrows for his wife, “I’m sorry” is a vapid lie that makes a mockery of the covenant of marriage and the sacredness with which you promised to treat her heart. Especially if you keep hurling personalized arrows her way after you apologize.
Regardless of whether you agree with this section—maybe you think “that’s not about you” is accurate all the time—it’s not helpful. It’s dismissive and it’s based solely on perception. I bet my ex’s therapist is telling him that my treatment of him “isn’t about him,” also. So he gets to go through life continuing his damaging behavior thinking a) that he can treat people however he wants and their legitimate anger and hurt has nothing to do with him and b) remain a victim who doesn’t have to be accountable for how his actions affect others. “It’s not about you” applied across the board absolves perpetrators of their responsibility and disempowers others who need to be heard and taken seriously.
Do you want to answer this question in a therapy session: if my ex’s terrible treatment of me wasn’t about me, why do some people (particularly ones that are immensely self-focused and not really working on themselves) have amazing partners and I don’t? If you don’t want to answer that question, then don’t tell me my ex’s terrible treatment wasn’t about me. Help me heal from that terrible treatment perpetrating against me by naming his behavior, validating how wounding it was to experience and help me really get how well I deserve to be treated so that I don’t ever attract such a person again. Telling me it’s not about me alone without significant follow up and spade calling, which our culture seems deathly afraid to do for some reason, doesn’t accomplish any of those things.
The outer world is a reflection of your inner world
Despite the way this phrase directly contradicts the previous one, I’ve heard this one pop up in more and more circles—mostly among coaches, but I’ve heard therapists start to say it, too, even the more traditionally trained ones. And I’ve heard the same professionals say/teach both “it’s not about you” and “your perception creates your reality.”
First of all, you cannot have it both ways. Things can’t both not be about you and a reflection of your inner beliefs, thoughts and perceptions. There isn’t anything more “about you” than your own perception.
Second, is it not obvious that this is really gaslighting? You experienced abuse as a child? Well, it’s because of your perception—which could mean either that the professional is saying you didn’t really get abused (you just perceived you did), or that you were actually abused but something in you caused it.
I didn’t mean to…
Just a brief note on “I didn’t mean to.” Whatever completes that sentence is generally irrelevant, especially if no apology has been offered. I assume you didn’t mean to do the hurtful thing you did, that’s why I’m telling you that you did it. If I thought you intended to hurt me, why would I be wasting my time trying to work things out with you? Why is your intention more important than my actual injury? Why do so many people steadfastly believe that if only the person they just hurt knew that it was unintentional, it would take the pain away?
There are 17,250 unintentional car collisions every DAY in the US, according to the most recent data available from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, and 90 deaths a day. Do you think those 90 families who lost someone today give a damn whether the two drivers “didn’t mean to” hit each other?
Perhaps that’s too extreme for some (most likely those who want to dismiss an argument simply because they don’t like it). All right, then. “I didn’t mean to” is also quite similar to stubbing your toe: did the coffee table “mean” to hurt you? Of course not. Is your toe still throbbing anyway? It doesn’t stop my toe from hurting to know that the coffee table didn’t mean to be in its way. It doesn’t bring the people who perish in car accidents back to life to declare the crash was an accident, no matter how true it is. And it doesn’t stop the pain of your comment or action that hurt me to know you didn’t mean to hurt me, especially not before some reflective listening has occurred.
This is something they teach in therapist school, no? How to listen so other people feel heard? The other name for it is active listening. “I didn’t mean to” doesn’t come in until after you’ve listened, reflected, made sure you understand and validated whatever you can genuinely validate about my experience. Now, why am I paying you when I can do your job better than you can?
All I wonder after hearing “I didn’t mean to” from a provider or therapist is, “Okay, so you were just being careless or sloppy, then?” Of course people are allowed to make mistakes. No human is perfect. But I think the standards should be a bit higher than they currently are for those who sign up to “help” people. I don’t mean “we should never allow people to make mistakes.” I mean we should demand those who get paid to “help” people stop saying dismissive, unhelpful things like “I didn’t mean to,” We should expect them to apologize (the way we talked about last month) and listen instead.
These things take time/Time heals all wounds
This is one where I’d prefer the professional speaking this words actually not be sincere about it, because the level of sincerity when uttering this phrase is generally inversely proportional to the level of open-mindedness the provider has. Of course the provider believes “these things take time.” It completely serves them to believe that.
Recurring income is a thing we all need to live as long as capitalism is what we’re going to keep engaging in. It’s the same principle Upton Sinclair was getting at when he said, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.” This “not understanding,” just like the belief that “these things take time,” can be utterly sincere. In fact, sincerity is useful in propping up the self-deception that time heals all wounds.
The problem is that there’s nothing inherently long about the healing process and there’s nothing inherently healing about time. The logic, as best as I understand it, is that the old patterns of painful thinking and emotions and false beliefs took years to lay down so they’ll take years to undo. Why shouldn’t it take an instant to heal it (and then, say, years to practice the new behavior that would arise from that new, healed way of being)?
Also, I’ve never heard even an attempt at an explanation for what it is about time that heals. There’s nothing inherent in time that heals. Time itself doesn’t heal all wounds. Time seals and conceals all wounds unless something different happens. If you keep experiencing the same thing, you will continue to believe the same thing. The whole point of therapy, if it’s to be any good, is for the client to experience something different, something better than what has hurt them in the past. That’s not going to happen as long as they’re victim-blamed, gaslighted, or told in any way that their feelings either aren’t important, are wrong, or are the problem.
Our brains are wired to form in response to our environment; what changes our minds is experience. The only thing healing about time is if it is filled with healing things, which means that people who have been hurt need to receive real care and validation and the people who did the damage need to be held accountable.
Time heals all things? These things take time? Say that to an ER doctor and see how that goes for you.
Again, I’m talking about when such things as these are said by a provider/therapist or other person in power to their client/patient/subject. I personally would object to my friends telling me that “time heals all wounds,” for example, because it feels dismissive, but it wouldn’t feel as damning or as self-serving of my friend to say such a thing. If you’re the provider, saying “time heals all wounds” translates to “I don’t know how to help you or have anything to help you,” in which case, why am I paying you?
I also don’t appreciate when my friends say “I didn’t mean to,” but it’s not an issue of power. My friend doesn’t have an “official” ranking (above or below me) that she can use to either brand my experience in a way that’s convenient for her business model regardless of how it affects me and/or self-validate what is otherwise dismissive, unhelpful, or plainly inaccurate “advice.”
Sometimes, when a friend uses one of these phrases, it can be positive. I recall a few times when a friend has said “that’s not about you” to me after I’ve described a hurtful or confusing interaction with someone else and I felt reassured (which was only possible because I felt heard and understood first).
While there are problematic aspects of these (and all the phrases in this series) no matter who says them, this series is specifically looking at how the power imbalance inherent in the provider-patient model weaponizes these phrases, whereas, said among friends, most of them are just gnat-like annoyances.
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.