How do you typically react when someone tells you that they are having a rough time? Do you listen to them? Offer your help? Give them words of encouragement? These are wonderful forms of support, but what happens when efforts to support are severely misplaced? What I am talking about is telling someone anything along the lines of “cheer up,” “shake it off,” “buck up” or “don’t be sad.” While some may think that these are simply another form of encouragement, their effect can often be unintentionally negative.
I have struggled with anxiety and depression for the better part of my adolescent and young adult life. It is chronic and not something that I will ever be able to “shake off,” so to speak. When someone says any variation of that to me, I find myself simply trying to look happier so that the person will stop trying to make me feel happier. This is the key problem with telling someone to “cheer up.” It involves no effort to listen to the person, to try and do something to help or to even comfort them. Though it may be intended to make someone feel better, the message that is received is that the pain that is being experienced is slight enough to be discarded quickly and that you couldn’t be bothered to spend any longer on it.
It may be that someone tells you about something small that is stressing them out and you find it trivial. Your response might be that they get over that thing. But, unbeknownst to you, the small stressor might trigger a traumatic memory, it might have larger consequences or they may be using the small stressor to bridge the gap and talk to you about something bigger. Telling that person to just stop feeling stressed ultimately will be telling that person that you are not the one to ever confide in if they want comfort. Maybe that is what you want, but I can only assume that is not the desired outcome for many people who happen to use the phrase. On top of that, however, you are also probably making them feel alienated. Oftentimes in my life when someone has said this to me, I feel as though my problems are simply not worth someone’s time and that I should just mask my hurt and pretend it doesn’t exist.
Seeing as I have a chronic mental health problem, there are days when my brain is simply unhappy because it is unhappy. Or something small can trigger a spiral. There is very little in those moments that I can do to make myself suddenly feel happy. And why should I? Sadness and stress are just as natural as happiness and they are not evil emotions that we must be rid of as quickly as possible. Maybe you just don’t understand what it means to suffer from mental health issues or maybe you simply believe that ordering someone to get better for you will actually accomplish anything. Whatever you believe, you always have the liberty to tell the people in your lives to “buck up,” but this usually relieves more of your discomfort than it ever actually helps the person you probably care about.