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

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. 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.

It guilts people about things which are largely not under their control, instead of freeing them with knowledge that some things are not their fault, while providing a safe and empowering environment in which to make choices over those things that they can manage.

It downplays or denies the reality of the difficult parts of the human experience and the validity of unpleasant emotions. This means, of course, that such persons will be of little or no help in actually dealing with such experiences.

Basically, telling someone to “be strong” or “buck up” shuts down conversation and relationship, isolates the sufferer, guilts and shames over that which is out of the person’s control, may prevent the sufferer from getting the help they need, and denies the reality of the full human experience.

– Hannah

(Picture from: https://quotefancy.com/quote/1398985/Sheryl-Sandberg-Real-empathy-is-sometimes-not-insisting-that-it-will-be-okay-but)

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