Friday, February 7, 2014

"Everything happens for a reason:" why this statement stings so much: Part I

I have a lot to say about what's wrong with this statement. Please know, this series is not meant as an attack on anyone that says it. I'm certainly guilty of saying it at one point or another. This series is intended to not only help people understand why not to say it, but also to shed some light on why it stings so much when we hear it. Many people feel a vague sense of sadness or anger when someone responds with "everything happens for a reason" but can't quite put their finger on why it hurts so much.

Reason 1: It shuts down connection.

"A platitude is a trite, meaningless, or prosaic statement, generally directed at quelling social, emotional, or cognitive unease. The word derives from platFrench word for "flat." Platitudes are geared towards presenting a shallow, unifying wisdom over a difficult topic. However, they are too overused and general to be anything more than undirected statements with ultimately little meaningful contribution towards a solution. Platitudes are generally a form of thought-terminating Cliche." -Wikipedia

"Thought-terminating." When I tell someone about our journey and they respond with "everything happens for a reason" they are shutting down the conversation. What does this phrase do other than communicate "everything will be fine" "you don't have a right to feel the way you feel" and "there, there, I have all the answers now just be quiet." This isn't about what their intentions might be. This is about the reality of what that phrase and others like it do to people who are suffering. And the big deal is- they cut off connection. They communicate that the listener is not interested in hearing more about your experience.

Sharing your pain means making yourself vulnerable and making yourself vulnerable means you are taking a risk. "Will I be heard?" "Is this relationship emotionally safe?" We can't know the answers until we try. And so we try. And try. And too often, instead of hearing something empathic from our loved ones like, "I see how much you're hurting right now" or simply, "tell me what's it like for you," we get shut-down/thought-terminated/kicked in the gut by a big fat platitude. 

In the mental health world we know that what is "sharable becomes bearable." The most painful experiences and emotions can be made manageable simply by being able to share them with a empathic person. When I reach out to others and am shut down by one of the above cliches I feel alone in my suffering. When I can share my pain with someone who truly listens, it quite literally allows me to create a place within my own soul where I can cry my heart out. I no longer have to shut down the emotions and the experience because they are made bearable by the empathic ear. 

Just like this amazing and brief YouTube clip explains, "A response rarely makes something better. What makes something better is connection." So please next time your loved one attempts to share their burdens with you, don't try to make it better with a response. Try to connect.


  1. I am loving this series already! I think we've all had that happen too much; it's hard enough to even come to the point where you can try to share some of it anyway, and when someone hands you a platitude it just doesn't cut it. It also makes me really sad for the times when I've done it to someone else. "Sharable is bearable" is not something I've heard before, but I totally agree, and if it weren't for the blogs where there were people who WOULD listen and respond appropriately, I'm not sure where I would be, but it probably wouldn't be in the (generally) good place that I'm in now (this last week doesn't really count).

  2. I agree 100%. I always try to remember that people mean well when they say that phrase, but you're right - it shuts down the conversation. Really well said - thank you!

  3. I'm so happy you're continuing to reflect on "everything happens for a reason." Ever since you posted that other reflection, I've really felt my relationship with God change for the better. So thank you! Everything you've said here is so true. That phrase and other cliches like it are so "thought-terminating". It's the opposite of feeling-validating, which is exactly what we are hoping for (usually subconsciously) when we share our IF story. I will try better now to not just pushing the other person's feelings aside by saying thoughtless things like "everything happens for a reason".

  4. This is a great reflection - and so so true!
    Thank-you for sharing it :).