19 phrases that appear empathetic but actually hide a lack of genuine compassion

Kind people make our lives better. They are there for us when the chips are down and reassure us that things will get better. 

When times are dark, these are the people we turn to: parents and loved ones, trusted work colleagues and friends. 

But there is a snake in the grass: the fake empath. 

This person comes in all shapes and sizes as well as many disguises. They often say the “right thing,” but behind their words is a lack of any real compassion or interest. 

Here are some of the telltale things these fake empaths say. 

1) “It’s not so bad, don’t worry”

Who are they to know how bad it is?

This may be intended to reassure you, but it ends up invalidating the problems you are going through. 

You start wondering if you’re overreacting or weak, because this person is telling you that things aren’t that bad. Really?

2) “At least it’s not…”

The comparison game is a very disappointing occurrence. 

Somebody tells you that what you’re going through is “at least” better or not as bad as some other experience or problem.

This type of weaving of tales is a form of gaslighting and leaves you feeling even more disenfranchised. 

“They might spin an inaccurate narrative about why someone else is having a particular feeling, or they may get stuck in feelings arising from within,” notes developmental psychologist Robin Stern Ph.D. and Yale Professor of Psychology Diana Divecha, Ph.D.

3) “You had a hard childhood”

This may be true. But when a person says this as a kind of summation of what you’re going through it’s very fatalistic. 

Many people have had horrible childhoods and still survived and thrived. The trauma may be devastating, but it doesn’t mean you have no chance. 

Intended or not, those who say this end up making you feel trapped and defined by the problems of your early life. 

4) “Well, that’s one way to look at it”

This is another comment that may be well-intentioned but doesn’t show any real compassion

It makes you feel less secure and wonder if you’re being crazy. 

When you’re suffering you often just need somebody to listen, but hearing this kind of statement can be quite distressing. 

5) “We all write our own story”

There’s an element of truth to this, and there’s no doubt that we each shape the world in many ways by the way we look at it and judge it. 

But when somebody says this they are essentially telling you that whatever you’re going through it’s only subjective and you more or less choose what it means. 

This can quickly become Esther Hicks-level “Law of Attraction” gaslighting.

6) “Just stay positive, man”

Trying to force yourself to be positive is deeply toxic. 

Thankfully, the dangers and inauthentic nature of “toxic positivity” is finally coming to be understood, but there are still far too many people who haven’t got the message. 

As Psychiatry Professor Georgia Witkin, Ph.D. writes

“It refers to believing that no matter what challenges and losses life throws at us, like financial crises, health problems, or failed relationships, we’re supposed to be positive. 

“Unfortunately, that can mean denying very real problems, rejecting the emotions setbacks can trigger, and having unrealistic expectations…”

7) “You’re still young!”

Those who say this are gaslighting even if they don’t mean to do so. 

Your youth or older age does not give somebody the right to minimize what you’re going through. 

Being told you’re still young can be quite condescending, frankly, even if it’s meant well. 

8) “You’ll meet someone soon!”

Unless this person is Nostradamus or a reliable psychic, they don’t know this. 

They may well be simply trying to give you a boost and instill more confidence in you, but it’s still a very presumptuous thing to say. 

If you’re feeling down about being single for a long time when seeking a partner and you’re told this, nobody could blame you for feeling you’ve been condescended to.

9) “I wish I could have your freedom / stability”

You may have enviable freedom or stability, but being told this is essentially being told to shut your mouth about whatever you’re going through. 

If you have a lot of freedom or are firmly established in life, you have your own set of challenges to navigate. 

Being told that you “have it all” isn’t very compassionate, even if it’s meant well. 

pic2059 19 phrases that appear empathetic but actually hide a lack of genuine compassion

10) “There’s still so much for you to learn”

This may be true!

But being told this in a nice and “patient” way is not really very compassionate. It’s actually quite condescending. 

Whether intended or not, somebody who says this is talking down to you. 

11) “It’s not what you think, believe me”

Depending on the subject, they may have a point. 

But when you’re going through something you need somebody who will listen and support you, not a prosecutor making a case in front of a grand jury. 

This kind of game playing isn’t compassionate, it trivializes what you’re going through under the guise of empathy. 

12) “You’re a nice person, you’ll be fine”

It’s nice that they believe you’re nice, and hopefully you are!

But the word “nice” is very vague. It can be great, but it’s also possible to be too nice. 

We all know the saying “nice guys finish last,” and all too often it’s absolutely true. 

In addition, being a good person does not in any way mean you will be “fine.” This person may not have received the news update, but life is unfair. 

13) “Try looking at it this way…”

This may be well-intentioned advice, but in the wrong context it can come across as a bit confronting. 

You’re being offered another way to look at things:

Fair enough. 

But who’s to say you haven’t already done that or that it would necessarily help to do so? 

This is a presumptuous and not very compassionate thing for somebody to say.

14) “Well, it could be worse”

Yes, it could!

But when you’re told this by someone your suffering and issues are minimized. 

You begin to feel guilty, as if you shouldn’t be upset or struggling because others have it much worse than you. 

Being told to stop feeling bad only makes you feel worse, which is why this isn’t really a compassionate thing to be told. 

15) “Everything happens for a reason”

This is debatable. 

Even when it’s meant to make us feel better, it can end up making us feel worse. 

When you’re going through a real struggle, somebody else’s opinion that it’s for a reason only works if you agree with them. 

When you are lost and losing faith it just makes you feel even more lost, because you feel like you should believe that too…but you don’t. 

16) “Try thinking of something else”

Trying to force yourself to think of something else is very difficult and leads to not being able to think of something else in most cases. 

Even if it’s meant well, being told this can be quite minimizing to what you’re going through. 

It’s likely that you’ve already tried thinking of “something else” many times and tried almost everything to do so but are not entirely succeeding! 

It’s not really a compassionate thing to say. 

17) “I went through this too, and I’m fine now”

It’s great that this person is doing well after going through something awful!

But by saying this they are gaslighting you and creating a situation in which your suffering isn’t a big deal because of their success. 

They are also implying they’re stronger or more advanced than you. 

As licensed counselor Suzanne Degges-White, Ph. D. explains

“Gaslighters have extraordinarily little emotional depth, and they may try to fake empathy, but they don’t experience true empathy. 

“They will tell a partner that they ‘understand what they’re feeling,’ but their emotional shallowness doesn’t support emotional empathy”

18) “I’m sure things will improve soon”

This is an encouraging thing to say, but it is quite generic. 

Hopefully it is true, but when somebody uses this as a way to cut the interaction short or summarize it for you, you may feel somewhat rejected. 

You’re told that whatever you’re going through it will get better “soon.”

When exactly is “soon,” and how does this person have this knowledge? 

19) “Have you tried practicing gratitude?”

Gratitude is great, but it has to be genuine. 

“Practicing gratitude” has unfortunately become quite a cliche, and there are far too many #gratitude posts on Instagram and other social media platforms that come off more as bragging than real gratitude. 

Being told this by someone may be well-intentioned, but it’s not truly compassionate

Picture of Paul Brian

Paul Brian

Paul R. Brian is a freelance journalist and writer who has reported from around the world, focusing on religion, culture and geopolitics. Follow him on www.twitter.com/paulrbrian and visit his website at www.paulrbrian.com

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