Telling Someone To “Just Get Over it” Doesn’t Heal Their Pain–And Here’s Why

Written by: Matthew Sabatine

Can I tell you about something that really rattles my cage? It’s when I tell someone about something important, shameful, creepy, or awful to me, and they downplay it by saying something unthoughtful and bromidic such as “just get over it” or “you are exaggerating this” or “you are just being terribly insecure” or “you are overthinking.” I even get aggravated when I witness people doing this to each other. When something is important to someone, it is often counterproductive to convince them they should see it as unimportant.

There is no changing the implications and emotional attachments to a problem with just the snap of a finger. People’s stale solutions to your problem make it seem as if they don’t want to be bothered investing any mental energy into thinking of an unfeigned solution. So, their politest answer is to say, “just get over it.”

To be frank, it truly is beyond their human, cognitive and emotional limits to care about your issue as much as you. The world can’t care about you as much as you care. It’s unfair that we are more alone than we want to be. I think we all know this, deep down, which could be one of the many things in our unconscious that drives us mad. But I believe there is a healthy way to live and worth with the universe’s inhospitable and miracle-less presence. We can safely make compromises and sacrifices to accommodate ourselves.  

People will often say “get over it” in response to things that you would never expect. You figure that it is commonsensical for them to realize how painful your plight is and respond immediately with compassion. But they don’t.

When your dog dies, someone will say, “Just get over it. You will buy a new one.”

When your house burns down, someone will say, “It’s okay. You can buy a new one.”  Quite often, looking on the bright side doesn’t always work: “At least, you weren’t in the house when it burned down.”

When you are in a load of debt that you can’t get out of, people can make pointlessly punishing remarks, like, “Well, it was your fault and now you are getting what you deserve.”

When a parent passes away, people can speak as if they have never experienced a death in their family, “You are still ailing and aching over this after six months? Why can’t you just move on?”

“There are plenty of people in this world who have it much worse than you, so stop complaining and feeling sad.” This is another banal trivializer that works for some and doesn’t work for others. Anyone in the world, including the tyrannized, poverty-stricken inhabitants of undeveloped, unindustrialized countries could say this. Although they have plenty of reasons to not say this. I am left thinking, “What is the purpose and motivation of saying it?” If anyone in the world could utilize this unsupportive statement to change their woebegone selves, all emotional problems could be fixed in a jiffy and all mental disorders would never persist. But all you must do is take a long, hard look at the world and realize that things are much more complicated than that.

Downplaying someone else’s pain will often only make them feel worse, even if you have a good, reasonable excuse for not having the time, tolerance, or mental energy to invest in their complaints. I am not saying we should give deference and credence to every complaint made under the sun. But at least we should try as hard as necessary to recognize when a complaint is devoid of attention-seeking behaviors and exaggerations. When a complaint is in line with reality, we should pay attention. But that requires some attention and effort that we may need to make time for.

I honestly believe that people who remorselessly say “just get over it” perhaps assume that, to surmount your problem, you should have the same level of strength they imagine themselves to have for surmounting the problem if they were in your shoes. This is so untrue! Everyone’s strengths are different. Everyone’s neural pathways and learning capacities are different.

How helpful or useful is it to tell a mother with postpartum depression, who feels she can’t control her thoughts, to “just get over it?” Elizabeth Broadbent tells her story on scarymommy.com. [1] If you are a mother who has ever worried tenaciously about her children, you would understand. And then worrying about how all your worrying will affect your children only compounds the feeling of uncontrollability over your thoughts. This transforms your mind into an even deeper labyrinth. Never assume that someone’s feelings are invalid merely because you can’t imagine yourself being struck by those same feelings if you were in the same situation.

I find it to be no coincidence that she must admit about her childhood suffering. Our ignorance cannot confront and neutralize our adverse childhood experiences (i.e. physical, emotional, and sexual abuse, neglect, and witnessing a parent’s mental illness, substance abuse, incarceration, divorce, and domestic violence). Those experiences from long ago can still linger and permeate your life in the many years to follow. Trauma can be heritable, and some people never overcome it. Elizabeth states in her post:

“…I disclosed the abuse I suffered as a child. I talked about how it affected my life in the past and how it still influenced the way I viewed my body. It still hurts, almost 30 years later. It’s still terrifying to think about. There’s a temptation, since it happened so long ago, to tell me to ‘get over it.’” [1]

Her next words say exactly what I am saying:

“…truthfully, no one gets to tell anyone else to ‘get over it.’ You can’t tell someone to stop feeling their own feelings. There aren’t magic emotion faucets you can turn off at will. You can’t control them. You’re telling someone to do something that’s impossible, and it’s frustrating.” [1]

Treating another person’s anxious, intrusive, and depressed thoughts as though they are inconsequential, frivolous, and inconvenient will only exacerbate them. This kind of response, what some people call bluntness or “tough love” kills motivation and desire for bettering oneself.

Negative thoughts and emotions must be dealt with therapeutically instead of ignorantly. I can’t think of any professional who believes that avoidance coping (changing our behaviors to avoid unpleasant thoughts and feelings) works well and does not backfire. [2] Unregulated anger can condition us for sabotaging our success and relationships. [3]

To accomplish healthy self-management, we must affirm the existence of those feelings, then ascertain why we are having them, and lastly receive the messages being sent to us before relinquishing them. Believe it or not, our emotions are our messengers and their messages can have a lot of value depending on how we listen to them. Properly interpreting those messages determines how we utilize our emotions in responding to events in our environment. I suspect that many people assume that negative emotions are always execrable and useless, when in fact they are useful for responding to and forestalling threats. [3]

None of this is meant to encourage rumination on negative things. We don’t want to engage in thinking errors such as filtering out the positive, where, for instance, if 9 good things happen and one bad thing happens during your day, you assume the whole day has been bad, thereby preventing a balanced outlook. We don’t want to fall prey to catastrophizing either, wherein we insist on imagining the worst possible outcome or allow our fears to become disproportionate with the danger or threat. For example, missing the mark on a few monthly financial goals will not subject you to bankruptcy or cause you to lose your house or apartment.

There are abstruse reasons why pessimistic thinking can’t be undone at the snap of a finger, because a lot of time and effort is needed on your self-study to understand why you are thinking pessimistically all the time. Pessimistic thinking is habitual and habitual thinking is hard to break. Cogitating on your imperfections; anticipating that things will go wrong; doubting if people truly love you; dwelling on others’ venomous criticisms; comparing your deficiencies and limitations to others’; feeling that your life is spiraling out of control; even fixating on your regrets due to missing out on opportunities because of your pessimistic thinking; these are things that condition you to expect disappointment and to always have self-disgust.

 It feels like the true reality that you should think about yourself. You can easily convince yourself that this is how reality should be. When humans are so wired with a negativity bias, a lot of practice is needed to go against the grain of gloom and hopelessness. Therefore, people always deserve your refusal to downplay their pain.

The video above states the interesting claim:

 “When you think pessimistically all the time, your brain slows down and decreases activity in the cerebellum. When the cerebellum slows down you will have difficulties solving problems.” [4]

This is an interesting claim, one that I was initially unsure if science has yet verified.

It has been a traditional belief that the cerebellum is responsible for balance and motor control. But studies throughout the past two decades have demonstrated that the cerebellum is responsible for modulating emotions and impetuous decisions, and keeping attention, memory, and flawless learning in a working process. Researchers have inferred the cerebellum’s involvement in psychiatric disorders such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, autism, schizophrenia, and disorders with anxiety, major depression, and bipolar. Professionals have found reasons to believe that an impaired cerebellum will cause motor, cognitive, and emotional anomalies. [5] But none of this really confirms beyond all reasonable doubt that extreme, unrestrained negative thoughts will cause a dysfunctional cerebellum. To me, the correct premise is that a dysfunctional cerebellum causes extreme, unrestrained negative thoughts.

The video makes another interesting claim:

“Another area that becomes affected is the frontal lobe, because it decides what is important according to what you pay most attention to. Therefore, more neurons will be created to support your negativity.” [4]

I haven’t been able to find the necessary empirical studies to validate this. However, something else that might be relevant here is a study that was done on the inferior frontal cortex, a region behind the temples, in 62 college students using neuroimaging scans and questionnaires. Those who had a small IFC were said to be more prone to anxiety and negative bias, even in circumstances that didn’t require it.  [6]

It was reported by the American College Health Association that at least 60% of college students experience at least one episode of unsafe anxiety per year. [6]

There is one last portion of the video I want to address:

“The thalamus also perceives your negative thinking. The problem is that the thalamus can’t differentiate negative thoughts from danger, increasing your blood pressure and affecting your mood. When stress is produced from overthinking, it can increase your chances to develop mental illnesses like depression, anxiety, and personality disorders.  Not only that, but it can also affect our health in ways such as headaches, digestive problems, weight gain, muscle and jaw tension, decreased sex drive, back pain, fatigue, lowering the immune system, and affecting blood sugar.” [4]

This is a very insightful point, one that I think has more truth than the last two points I discussed. The headaches, muscle aches, digestive problems, and other inexplicable pains could be symptomatic of generalized anxiety disorder, which is treatable through cognitive behavioral therapy, a type of therapy that teaches you to reduce anxiety and worry with healthier mental, behavioral, and emotional reactions to provocative situations. [7]

A scientific review, reported in 2016 and led by Rotman Research Institute at Baycrest Health Sciences, inspected how chronic anxiety, fear, and stress disturbs and modifies the brain areas of animals and humans. They found “extensive overlap” of the brain’s system of neural activity regulators in all three mental states, which was inferred as an explanation for the link between chronic stress and the onset of neuropsychiatric disorders, like depression and Alzheimer’s disease. [8] 

It is amply evident to me that the immune, metabolic, and cardiovascular systems can only endure transitory or infrequent stress and anxiety. The brain and body can only afford to express stress and anxiety that is proportionate to whatever threat or danger arising, which can’t be as frequent and intense as our catastrophizing minds want to make us think. Stress and anxiety shouldn’t impede our daily activities with work, school, and relationships. The hippocampus (responsible for long-term memory and spatial navigation) can have atrophic effects from such a disorder.  [8]

An overactive amygdala (in charge of emotions, especially fear) and an underactive prefrontal cortex (the thinking part in charge of personality expression, planning, decision-making, and modulating emotional responses) are said to be involved in the neurocircuitry of fear and anxiety. Anxiety-provoked hippocampal injury is not irreparable. [8] Hippocampal neurogenesis can be made with antidepressants and physical activity, indicating to me that a lot of time, effort, and concentration is needed to accomplish healing. Ergo, the belief that we can “just get over it” is unhelpful wishful thinking that needs to be eliminated from our memory bank of not-so-witty phrases.

The elimination of these platitudes makes more room for compassion and for humans to come together and grow. It lightens the load.   

References:

[1] https://www.scarymommy.com/telling-someone-get-over-it-never-helps/

[2] https://www.verywellmind.com/avoidance-coping-and-stress-4137836

[3] https://www.verywellmind.com/embrace-negative-emotions-4158317

[4] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UAwcCjCzPks

[5] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4419550/

[6] https://news.illinois.edu/view/6367/487507

[7] https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/generalized-anxiety-disorder-gad/index.shtml

[8] https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/01/160121121818.htm

One thought on “Telling Someone To “Just Get Over it” Doesn’t Heal Their Pain–And Here’s Why

Add yours

  1. This is well written and explores the rather complex issue of why dialogue matters. I think that some people feel that when a person opens up to them about things which are bothering them that they are just playing the victim card or just looking for reflexive empathy. If we apply that level of cynicism to everyone broadly, we’ll inevitably destroy people in the process because in most cases, when someone opens up to you about something, it’s an unwritten declaration of trust and respect in so much that they feel they can discuss something very private or sensitive with you, and if you’re just dismissive and give the terse “get over it” response, it will have at least two very negative consequences for both parties; cause the person to turn inwards and no longer feel that they can trust others for expressing their issues to, and it will cause your relationship with the person to lose depth and become shallow as a result of the distrust and hurt. As a general rule, people don’t just walk up to strangers on the street and express deep, dark issues they are struggling with, so there’s an implicit trust when someone talks to you about issues that are important to them, so it’s not acceptable to be dismissive just because you may feel that you’re not the right person to be weighing in on the issue or that you don’t want your relationship with the person to develop that level of depth.

    Conversely, a legitimate counterargument can be made that sometimes a bit of “tough love” is in order because resilience is a necessary tool that we must have in our arsenal so that we can navigate the choppy waters of life without imploding. I believe, however, that this is something that must be used with great care because of the ability for it to be either misinterpreted, or worse, having the exact opposite effect of what is desired. Tough love is something that should be reserved for those who we are closest to and who have a tight enough bond with us to trust that we would always have their best interests in mind over all else, and that we’re not just looking to dismiss their internal battles in the interest of expediency.

    Lots of ambivalence with this topic, so my personal opinion is to always be a good listener, show interest in what others approach you with, and spend the extra time and effort to bake some substance into your response so it has some value for the person and shows that you actually processed the information before offering any response or advice.

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