Why “Be Strong” or “Buck Up” is the Wrong Response to Suffering…

It overestimates the power of the human will and emotions. It assumes that if only the person tried harder or thought more positively, things would be better. It assumes that the problem is with the person’s effort or attitude. This ends up isolating the sufferer from resources and people that may be necessary for their situation.

 

In the context of talking about people in difficult and ongoing situations, someone once asked me: “Why is the simple instruction to ‘be strong’ or ‘buck up’ at best insufficient and at worst harmful?”

When I heard this question, I was immediately struck 1) by my strong feelings on the subject and 2) by my natural ability to answer the question with insight and nuance. This was presumably in large part because I’ve dealt with significant and ongoing health issues (both physical and psychological) in recent years that have forced me to stare the painful realities of life full in the face. While on this journey, I’ve had my share of both helpful and unhelpful responses from people. Concurrently, I’ve had numerous opportunities to deeply connect with other people who are suffering, even when their suffering is quite different than my own. All that to say, I guess it makes sense that when I was asked the above-mentioned question, I felt both passionate and somewhat-competent in writing up the following reply…

Telling someone who is suffering to “Buck up!” or “Be strong!” shuts down conversation by shaming the person, instead of providing a safe place for healthy dialogue and compassionate understanding. It says that you are not willing to try to understand the other person’s situation, that you’re not willing to walk with them through this trial.

It overestimates the power of the human will and emotions. It assumes that if only the person tried harder or thought more positively, things would be better.

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