Sunday, February 16, 2014

What you can say instead of "everything happens for a reason"

"A response rarely makes something better. What makes something better is connection." The way to build connection is through empathy. Empathy is defined as "the ability to understand and share the feelings of another," while sympathy is understood as "feelings of pity and sorrow for someone else's misfortune."

"Everything happens for a reason" is neither empathetic nor sympathetic. The response misses the mark in terms of conveying any understanding and falls short of demonstrating sorrow for another's pain. Instead, it tries to rationalize someone else's pain.  To rationalize is to "attempt to explain or justify with logical, plausible reasons, even if these are not true or appropriate." In the world of mental health rationalization is viewed as a way of protecting the self against emotional pain. It serves a purpose, but ultimately does more harm than good because it prevents the person from confronting reality and working through the emotions that reality evokes.

Emotions are a form of energy and when they are acknowledged and felt they move through the body and mind, much like a wave they rise and fall. But when they are protected against through rationalization or another defense mechanism, they get trapped within the body and wreak havoc on our health- both physical and mental. The person carrying around unresolved anger (say over the death of a friend) may lash out at the store clerk for making some minor mistake or yell at his wife for cooking the wrong thing for dinner- such "expressions" of anger will never lead to feeling better because they are only a distraction from the real issue- from the true source of the person's emotion, which has been denied or rationalized.

When people say "everything happens for a reason" they're unknowingly suggesting we engage in something that is known to be psychologically harmful. They're also protecting themselves from having to empathize or 'experience with' the hurting person. Perhaps the other's pain is just too overwhelming and unbearable for them to face so they rationalize it away- warding off their own feelings of vulnerability and building a wall around their hearts to the suffering other's vulnerability.

Of course I'm not suggesting any of this is done intentionally, instead it's an automatic unconscious response learned over a lifetime. We can do better but we have to know better. And we have to be intentional about responding differently. The truly helpful response is empathic.

"Empathy is a person's attempt to understand and express the thoughts and feelings of another person" (Rogers, 1959). Here are some basics about how to convey empathy (right out of a textbook).

Lead in phrases:
It seems like you are...
It sounds like...
I get the feeling that you are...
You look...
You seem to be...

Identify the:
Want or desire-- what the other wanted or had hoped for "It sounds like you really wanted that job."

Feeling--sad, mad, happy, afraid, or other variations "you must be sad."

Both the wants and the feeling-- "It sounds like you wanted that job and are sad you didn't get it."

Accompanying behaviors:
voice tone
facial expression
posture and body movements can all convey empathy

Remember, the inclination to rationalize or ward off pain (our own or another's) is a learned behavior. It's taken years to develop and can take years to undo. It is possible to offer others connection instead of rationalization. By making an effort to notice the emotion behind what someone else is saying, we offer them an experience of feeling heard and understood in a way that is felt in the core of their being. Sue Johnson, founder of Emotionally Focused Therapy points out, "we are born to need each other. The human brain is wired for close connection with a few irreplaceable others. Accepting your need for this special kind of emotional connection is not a sign of weakness, but maturity and strength."


  1. Thank you for this post! I have been struggling with how to support a friend through the grief of miscarriage and this had given me plenty of great ideas. I now feel armed to support her!!!
    Yes, this comment had been said to me many times in the context of infertility and you have definitely helped me uncover why it was so hurtful to hear. It certainly does close and cut off further communication on the topic, doesn't it?
    Thank you again!

  2. I absolutely love your perspective and love you sharing your expertise in this particular situation. You've given me a lot to think about and even better, some practical things to work on.

  3. Great post. These are helpful tips and observations for all of life. Thank you.

  4. Great suggestions! Empathy is the key!! Something I'll continue working on, for sure! While I've probably gotten tons better at empathizing with those struggling through IF, I could work on my empathy in all other situations. Thanks for the encouragement! :)