I see it almost every day on social media, and it is commonplace at the park and the play date too. Mom posts or opens up about some vulnerable moment (going back to work after baby, kid is starting college, in the trenches of potty training, and so on), and it seems as if ALL of the comments are the same. You’ve got this! You’re amazing! You’re super mom! You can do it! Blah blah. I am guilty of this too; I want to encourage and build others up, so it’s a quick but effective thing to say, right? Hear me out now: that woman is indeed bravely baring her soul and asking for encouragement, and she probably is quite amazing. But, “You’ve got this” is a platitude lacking in depth and is very often not true.
Maybe she doesn’t “have it”. Maybe she can’t handle a full-time job with a demanding boss and a sick child and a struggling marriage all at once. Or the depression and anxiety really is kicking her tail and she can’t get out of bed. Perhaps she can’t manage pregnancy nausea and staying home all day with needy toddlers without losing her mind. Maybe the pull of addiction is too strong. You get the idea. Life is hard and the pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps mentality is not only not encouraging, it can even be dangerous.
Any woman alive long enough to become a mother knows that there are many situations in which trying harder is simply not enough. To a woman in a hard place, the “you’ve got this” encouragement is not only not uplifting, it’s a subtle but nonetheless fierce threat. It threatens that if she doesn’t get it together, everything will fall apart, and it will probably fall apart not just for her but for her family too. It taunts her that the world as she knows it rests on her shoulders. If she doesn’t get it, no one else will. That’s a heavy burden to bear.
These phrases like “You’ve got this,” put all of the emphasis on YOU. YOU can handle this problem. YOU will fix it. YOU will overcome. Real encouragement doesn’t put the burden on the person we are trying to encourage; instead, life-giving encouragement reminds the recipient of the encouragement that there are others who will come along side to help bear the burden. Genuine friendship lifts burdens rather than heaping them on. I’m writing this post not because I am gifted at this type of encouragement, but quite the opposite. I have become convinced that I’m bad at it and it needs to change.
Now, are there times when “You’ve got this” is harmless and probably a perfectly acceptable thing to say? Of course. I’m sure that there are plenty of situations where this phrase (or one like it) is fine; situations like cheering on a child at a sporting event or similar low-stakes environments probably are no big deal. But we rarely know someone’s whole story, or what is really going on in her life. It can be hard to know when the stakes are high or low, so I’m setting out to strike this phrase (and ones like it) from my vocabulary.
What shall we say instead?
Obviously, the type of encouragement will depend upon the situation and your relationship with the person you’re speaking to. But here are a few suggestions for alternative ways to bear the burdens of our friends and loved ones.
I’m so sorry you’re feeling _______.
Acknowledge her feelings, and be specific. Don’t assume she is feeling a certain way, but if she says she is tired, acknowledge her fatigue. If she says she is sad, acknowledge sadness. This is especially valuable if you are responding to someone you aren’t super close with or haven’t seen in a long while. Maybe an old friend or a casual acquaintance admits to a difficulty on social media; you can allow her to feel heard by simply acknowledging her feelings.
I really admire _____ about you.
When someone is vulnerable about a weakness, it usually means that they want and need to be affirmed. So notice the strengths and gifts your friend has and use those to build her up. If she is upset about her unruly children, remind her that she is a great listener and this benefits her kids and her friends. Now, of course you shouldn’t fabricate strengths to make someone feel better, so if you can’t make an honest admission of admiration, try one of the other tips!
I will pray for you about _______.
If you are a woman of faith, one of the most powerful things you can do for a friend or acquaintance is to pray for her. Of course, if you say you will pray, do it. And pray specifically. Don’t just say “praying!” but instead, if you really want to encourage, explain what you are praying for. Big test? Say you are praying that she will remember what she studied. Baby has colic? Explain that you are going to pray for a wise physician to help find a medication to make that sweet babe feel better. If she knows how you’re praying, she’s much more likely to believe that you are praying.
I have heard that your family likes to eat occasionally. I will drop off dinner.
A mother, especially a struggling one, should never, ever say no to a family dinner she doesn’t have to cook. Food won’t fix her problem, but it will help her feel loved and served.
I have heard that your family likes to eat occasionally. I will drop off cookies.
No time to make dinner? Never mind dinner, cookies work too. Or brownies, muffins, or heck, a bag of m&ms. She will know she is loved.
I am thankful for your friendship.
Have no idea what to say and none of the above seem appropriate and/or possible? Just thank her for her friendship. Her burden will be a little lighter because she will know she is cared for and thought well of. This statement makes no promises, just acknowledges her and what she has shared. Sometimes that is enough.