Is “everybody sucks/has crappy lives/etc.” actually helpful for people who are having difficulties?

One of the things I’ve noticed on blogs/fora where the author is having trouble with marriage or kids or work, or what have you, is that often someone in the comments will say, “Oh, everyone’s life is like that.  We’re all miserable/have terrible husbands/rotten kids/awful bosses.  You’re normal.  That’s normal.  Anybody who says differently is a lying liar who lies.”

And this is provided as comfort.

Does it work?

Honestly for me, if I were in a bad situation and got that comment and truly believed it, I might end up being all, “why bother?”  If life is going to nasty brutish and short what’s the point?  Why continue living or striving?  Why not just give up?

I’m glad I don’t believe it.  I’m glad I believe that life can be better.  That marriages can be functional instead of dysfunctional.  That kids can be helped.  That there are good job environments out there if the current one is bad.  I’m not an optimist, but I am optimistic that if I work hard to change things, life can get better.  Maybe not the way I would most prefer, but better than a horrible situation.

The big question though is:  Does this kind of comforting actually provide comfort?  Do people feel better when they’re in a crappy situation and someone comes along and says yeah, all situations are crappy.  (Not, mind you, “it’s not just you” but the more inclusive, “it’s everybody.”)

What does the research say?  It is true that people are happier (and healthier) when they’re at the top of a distribution and can point to people with crappy lives.  This may be why the Koch brothers and others in the 1% of 1% of 1% are trying to destroy America. Big income disparities make people on the top happier than do little income disparities.

But I don’t think it has to be that way.  You’ve got people like Gates trying to bring the bottom up, trying to decrease the income differential.

Research also notes that people who satisfice– who set an external absolute level target– are happier than people who try to optimize.  Maybe if you’re focused on comparisons with others, you’re happiest on top, but maybe you’re happier still if you’re not comparing yourself with others at all.

I don’t know the research on this, but my guess is that it is best to focus on absolute levels rather than relative differences.  Comparing yourself to other people is a sure way to misery because someone will always be better on any level.  (And it must be lonely at the top.)  Instead, compare yourself now to the yourself from before and reach for the yourself that you want to be.

And it’s best if you know that that life that you want to have is actually achievable.  And it’s more likely to to be achievable if someone else is already achieving it.  Because it’s a big world out there, and it would be pretty difficult to be the first person to have a happy marriage, great kids, or a fulfilling job if that had so far eluded the entire world’s population throughout time.

I almost tagged this with deliberately controversial, but I wasn’t sure that it fit (since this is one of those things where there’s so much potential for individual variation), so I stuck with debatable.  Still looking forward to discussion!

What do you think?  Does being told that everybody has your problem (whatever your problem is) provide comfort?  Does it provide despair?  What do you prefer as responses ?

71 Responses to “Is “everybody sucks/has crappy lives/etc.” actually helpful for people who are having difficulties?”

  1. Revanche Says:

    I typically just want to hear a solution if my listener sees one that’s patently obvious to them that I’m clearly missing. I vent to certain friends specifically for that reason, I know they will point out the thing I’m missing right in front of my nose or come up with a solution that my personal experience wouldn’t have yielded. That’s my favorite.

    Once in a blue moon when it’s not something that has an easy solution (See files for Dad, Sibling, Mom, loss), it can sometimes help pull me out of the funk that’s produced when I dwell on the bad AND feel bad for feeling bad. It’s an ugly spiral and reminding me that I’m not the only one who’s ever screwed up ever in the history of families can sometimes help break it. Or put another way: hearing that someone had been through depression, found their way out, had another episode and again, found their way out can be very helpful because it points to the idea that even if their solution isn’t my solution, it’s potentially doable. So that’s still solution oriented and I’m not sure that’s what you’re thinking of, though, is it? Yours is more along the lines of “oh you had a crap day with your kid? well, all kids are crap”?

    It kind of reminds me of how baffled I was when Mom’s depression and anxiety had her dwelling on “bad luck” that led to our circumstances (deep in debt, more than one family with terrible health problems) and it didn’t make any sense to me to blame luck instead of looking for ways to solve the crappiness and make it better incrementally even if we couldn’t solve it all in one go. Today, looking back, I do understand that despairing of bad luck because health feels like such a crapshoot but still: focus on what we can still do. In that scenario, though, sometimes I do benefit from reminding myself that at least I still have use of most limbs and my CNS is in decent shape, so get off my butt and make the most of it.

  2. Saskia Says:

    When something bad (by which I mean devastating) happened to me, it was very helpful to believe that bad things (not the exact same bad thing, but bad things in general) happen to pretty much everyone.

    So I didn’t feel that, somehow, I had been singled out by the fates to have something terrible happen to me while everyone else was living these charmed lives. And if they could live and thrive with their challenges, I could find a way to live and thrive with mine.

    • independentclause Says:

      I agree with what you say, Saskia. When my father died (the first really devastating thing that had happened to me) hearing how other people survived grief was incredibly helpful to me. I was also young-ish (early 20s).

      I began my blog with the idea that people might be tired of reading how every small bad thing that happens in a day can be turned into a blessing. I didn’t want to be all self-promotey in my freelance copyediting blog. Also I am semi-anonymous, so I wasn’t going to be getting work through this. Instead I wanted to kvetch and share the small daily struggles and show the messy truth. Whiney? Yes. But I hope also funny. Possibly cathartic.

  3. Becca Says:

    It’s complicated. K’vetching and solutions are both important, depending on context.

    I also think its… probably not reflective of accurate self knowledge…. to think of oneself as “solution focused” or, for that matter, “problem focused”. Everyone needs solutions some of the time and sympathy some of the time. Not all problems have solutions at this time (see, e.g. chronic degenerative illness), and even if you are Zen AF, it’s still hard and isolating sometimes.
    It *is* very useful to know one doesn’t get any particular benefit out of certain forms of ritualized social griping (I will NOT even, with the self deprecating “I’m so fat” bonding thing some people do).

    • oldmdgirl Says:

      I agree with basically 100% of this comment. Sometimes when I kvetch I’m looking for solutions, but often I am just looking for sympathy. When someone says they are “solution focused” they are putting a value judgement on sympathy seeking kvetching, as if seeking sympathy because you feel bad about something is inherently weak and therefore annoying. (Obvi the “I am fat” griping does NOT fall into this category, but even that is a form of female bonding and probably has some social utility.)

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        Does being told the problem is seemingly insurmountable (especially when we’re talking about something like marital conflict or money concerns, not death and incurable disease) provide sympathy?

      • chacha1 Says:

        Someone saying they are “solution focused” has zero value judgement attached. Self-image as a problem-solver is not the same thing as a superiority complex, and does not equate to viewing sympathy-seeking as weak/annoying.

        As noted elsewhere, someone can say they are “solution focused” and still occasionally just want to kvetch and/or get a little sympathy. The two are not mutually exclusive.

      • Revanche Says:

        Not sure if this and Becca’s comment referring to being solution focused was in response to my mention of it but I didn’t mean it in any assigning values kind of way. It’s just a statement that most of the time I don’t seek solace from kvetching, though sometimes I do. Mostly I kvetch because I’m looking for answers and it helps to have a listener who will respond in that vein rather than focusing on comfort. That’s how I feel better. Obviously I don’t need any answers when I complain about my chronic illness, and I have no problem with the friends who prefer the other kind of response, that’s fine too.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        I assumed such comments were referring to the parenthetical I deleted from the teaser question at the end. (I deleted it because it was supposed to be a parenthetical but people were focusing on it and turning the post into a “do you look for sympathy or solutions” post which I feel has been done to death and isn’t as interesting to me.)

  4. KeAnne Says:

    I think perhaps both comfort and despair. On the one hand, it is comforting to realize that life is hard and has its sucky moments and it isn’t just you. That is the best thing the blogosphere has done IMO: pulled back the curtain on the idea that life and marriage and family are all grand and if you don’t feel that way, there is something wrong with you.

    On the other hand, those comments are very condescending and demeaning. Sometimes your life does suck and that should be acknowledged. I feel like I’m tiptoeing into Pain Olympics territory but having your situation not be acknowledged and the reality check that it isn’t the norm is not helpful.

    • chacha1 Says:

      If I were ever to write AAAARGH MY IN-LAWS ARE A PACK OF IDIOTS I would much rather have someone reply “I know how you feel” than “everybody feels that way.” The first relates directly to my situation … the second extrapolates to a catastrophist worldview that annoys the &#@^!! out of me. :-) It’s like poverty mentality for relationships.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        Yeah, that’s *exactly* what I’m talking about. I can see how “I know how you feel” would be comforting, but “All MIL suck [for whatever reason]” isn’t helpful (and also has some patriarchy assumptions implicit that we’ve talked about in a previous post somewhere).

      • crazy grad mama Says:

        Agreed. “I also feel this way” vs. “everyone feels this way” is a really important distinction for me. The former feels sympathetic, while the latter sounds like it’s telling me to suck it up.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        I think it’s generally intended to be less of the George Carlin suck it up and more of a “it’s not your fault”.

      • Contingent Cassandra Says:

        Also, if your in-laws are, in fact, particularly idiotic (or dysfunctional, or whatever), it’s not helpful to have people erase the distinction between ordinary interpersonal awkwardness and a situation that needs particularly careful handling (I write this out of the experience of having a good many people — including some stepmothers — basically dismiss my concerns about my stepmother-to-be/new stepmother, who turned out to be truly toxic, as variations on the “wicked stepmother” stereotype. Those reactions, combined with my own inherent optimism about the possibility of building decent if not close relationships, even with very different people, led me to discount what turned out to be very sensible self-protective instincts. I’m not sure the practical outcome would have been vastly different, but I would have saved a good deal of emotional energy that I spent trying to make the situation better for more worthy purposes).

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        That is a good point.

    • Rosa Says:

      I think social circles differ on this SO MUCH. So many people are stuck in social circles where you are really pressured to say everything is great all the time. Especially about family/relationship/parenting. So it can be really helpful to hear that nobody’s happy all the time, nobody’s life is actually as perfect as some appear on social media or in blogs or magazines. That’s different than “everything sucks all the time” – everyone’s life sucks some of the time, though.

  5. mosamsky Says:

    Hmmmm. I will say that hearing “yep, [thing that is currently causing you despair] just generally sucks” is 100x better than hearing “oh it’s not so bad it could be so much worse cheer up already!” Which is not something you addressed in this post, but I’ve heard it plenty of times :) Commiseration at least makes you feel like you’ve been heard, but I agree that a blanket statement is less helpful than “it’s not just you”.

    In lieu of unsolicited advice I like questions (whether I’m the venting person or the listening friend). There’s a difference between offering a solution that wasn’t asked for and helping a friend come up with a plan to improve their situation.

  6. nicoleandmaggie Says:

    What about the first question– does it help to be told that everybody is miserable /all husbands suck/ etc? Specifically not that some people have said problem but that ALL people always and forever have that problem?

    • xykademiqz Says:

      I personally never think it’s really everybody when people say everybody. It’s more of a hyperbole, and the true meaning is “me, a few people I know, so I extrapolate there are many”.

      When I whine, I mostly want to have feelings validated and to understand that I am not alone and a freak for feeling how I feel (which is easy to understand intellectually, not so much emotionally, when you are upset). Usually, I already know what I need to do; my process is to wallow and kvetch some, then get bored with myself for wallowing and kvetching, followed by getting out of it and into the problem solving mode and doing what needs to be done (if there is a solution).

      I come from a culture where the Misery Olympics are a way of life (“You have it bad? Well, you are lucky!” [Fill in a gruesome tale of what happened to someone else.]) and while it provides strong social glue, we’re all just whining all the time. It has taken (still does) a lot of time to break out of this mindset, and I still find that I don’t really trust people who have never shared that they struggled with anything (while I know there are regions here wheresharing struggles is considered gauche). It’s a process.

    • mosamsky Says:

      Nope! I agree that’s not helpful.

  7. scantee Says:

    There are some people that find this kind of “everything is awful” validation to be supportive, in that it makes them feel less alone in their problems, and gives them a sense of community with other like-minded people who are also struggling. Social media exacerbates feeling like a comparative failure because everyone looks beautiful and happy and rich 100% of the time and that can make people feel awful even if they’re experiencing totally typical life struggles. Just knowing that other people have the same insecurities can help.

    I’m very much a solutions-focused person, so if I’m telling someone about a problem of mine it’s because I want advice about what to do. Sympathy does very little for me. I sometimes forget that other people are very much not that way and that griping about their problems isn’t necessarily an invitation to provide my (perfectly appropriate and completely life-changing) solutions. So while this specific type of ask for sympathy does not work for me, I do think it helps a lot of people.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      But how about “everything is awful for everyone always” as opposed to “I can relate as I have similar struggles”. Not the yes it happens to other people sometimes but that it happens to everybody all the time and anyone who says differently is lying or delusional.

      • scantee Says:

        I haven’t seen people use the “everyone/everything/everywhere” sentiment to mean literally every single person is miserable all the time. People tend to use it as shorthand for everyone they know or most of the people in their community. Part of that everyoneness stems from a sense that there are external forces that are working against them as a group, and that no amount of personal improvement or hard work is really going to change the trajectory of their lives. Is that justified? In some communities, it certainly is, in others, it isn’t.

        I have a personal philosophy similar to yours in that I believe things can improve and that I do have the ability to effect positive change in my and others’ lives. But I’m also privileged and afforded a level of control over my circumstances that many people do not have. Without my advantages, and surrounded mostly by other people leading lives of disadvantage, I can imagine how I might end up feeling like everything is hopeless for everyone, everywhere.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        I see it a LOT on mommy blogs (hence the post). Usually about marriages always being dysfunctional, husbands being lazy jerks, etc. (Sometimes about kids being horrible or jobs being terrible.) Often accompanied by a statement that anyone who says differently is dishonest and only showing a fake self, and kudos for the honesty of the OP for showing something that is true for everyone but most people are lying about.

        These are generally privileged women living middle to upper-middle-class lives. Definitely not talking about people with extreme structural difficulties (and definitely not talking about death, disability, infertility, etc. etc. etc.)

        In fact, come to think of it, I don’t see these kinds of comments on the low-income frugality blogs I often frequent, though I think I did occasionally see the husbands can’t see dirt/cook/parent ones from low-income people on fora back in the day. Did they provide comfort? I don’t know.

      • scantee Says:

        Ah, okay. I thought we were talking about something more like: people in poor African-American communities where the police regularly go to shoot kids.

        I don’t read UMC mommy blogs for this exact reason (and, also, because I really don’t care about their boring lives). Here is a deliberately controversial post. Parenting: not that hard. If you live one of the most privileged lives imaginable, as most of these parents do, and yet you feel like you have the hardest life ever, as most of these parents seem to, you’re clueless and doing it wrong.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        Absolutely not. Specifically the examples mentioned in the post.

        We’re not going to touch that deliberately controversial post. We don’t know what is going on with other people’s lives and tend to believe people when they relate their experiences. All I know is that my children are amazing (though tiring and man I wish we had childcare this week) and I am not lying when I say that.

        (UMC = United Methodist Church?)

      • scantee Says:

        Well, you can’t expect me to look at every link!

        Why question this one thing if you generally tend to believe people when they relate their experiences? If these mommies look around and make a genuine (to them) assessment that their and everyone else’s lives are awful, then we should accept at face value that that is their lived experience, regardless of whether their lives are truly awful compared to other, less fortunate, people.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        No, they can say their own lives are awful. They can’t say I am lying about mine. There is a difference.

        This post is specifically asking if it helps the original complainer to be told that everybody has that particular problem. Which is different than just the sympathetic that sounds horrible or yeah, I’ve had that problem too. Is it comforting to be told everyone is miserable.

      • scantee Says:

        UMC=Upper Middle Class

        Knowing, or simply feeling, that everyone experiences the same struggle in the same way helps them to feel like “we’re all in this together” and that they’re not alone. That sort of sympathy doesn’t work for me, but I do think it is helpful for a certain type of person during times of hopelessness. So I guess my final judgment on this is: no big deal, whatever works to get through the day.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        But does it really help the OP? So far I haven’t seen a single OP say, “thanks that helps.” But the commenter is obviously trying to comfort the OP. So I’m asking– does anybody feel helped by that?

      • chacha1 Says:

        UMC = upper middle class, I’m guessing :-)

        the more I hear about “mommy blogs” the more glad I am that I don’t have kids and therefore have no earthly reason to read anything called a “mommy blog”

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        I don’t think most would refer to themselves as mommy blogs.

      • scantee Says:

        Oh, it’s totally unhelpful, I agree with you. But most people don’t have super sophisticated empathy skills, so they revert to platitudes in times when they know they’re supposed to say something, but they’re not sure what the right thing to say is.

        Now I want to know what these blogs are…

  8. middle_class Says:

    Sometimes people just need to vent and want empathy/sympathy and sometimes they want or need solutions. I think it’s possible to do both but I tend to listen first and give solutions later (if at all). At work, I simply don’t say anything when my female co-workers gripe about their husbands. Mostly they’re working full-time but also doing all the childcare, cooking etc.. My situation isn’t perfect but it’s much much more egalitarian. I just listen and sympathize. Sometimes if I relate, I will tell them that. However, I do talk about my husband doing 99% of the cooking because I think it’s true and may help them realize that the situation doesn’t have to be that way.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      What do you prefer hearing? Does being told everyone has your problem help?

      • notofgeneralinterest2 Says:

        I don’t think it helps. If there’s a solution (as for elder care), tell me, but random stuff like “yeah, aging sucks” isn’t especially helpful

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        Or to phrase it more like the people trying to help in comments, “We all fall apart as we get older, it’s just part of aging”? I think that’s another good example. Is that helpful? (Also, although it will probably be true for me, I don’t think it’s true for everyone! Some people die before they have a chance to get creaky, even at old ages!)

      • middle_class Says:

        I prefer half empathy i.e. many people have this problem,too, if that’s true, rather than solution. I do like advice/solution, too, but not immediatly after kvetching. Oftentimes going straight to solution seems awfully judgmental. I think Becca’s comment is dead-on.

  9. chacha1 Says:

    I do have a problem which is relatively common: elder care issues – in which an aging parent is losing her grip and is being actively taken advantage of by others in the family. Hearing from other people about solutions or resources they’ve discovered in similar situations is helpful. An expression of sympathy and then a quick change of subject is also helpful (because obsessing/worrying is the least productive approach, IMO, to any difficult situation). Any other type of response is not helpful.

    We don’t talk about it a lot because there is apparently not an oversupply of resource- and solution-oriented people out there. When we are feeling overwhelmed or frustrated, we both tend to resort to research and then to distraction. I, in particular, don’t wallow in things I can’t fix. If I get to a certain point and cannot go forward, I tie a knot and move on to something I CAN affect.

    I never want to hear “oh everybody’s life is like that.” I know it’s not true. It is NEVER true. But: I have that stereotypically “masculine” solution-oriented mindset. Talking about my feelings does not comfort me, and getting spurious reinforcement of my emotional response is more apt to make me think “you don’t actually understand me” than “oh thank god other people have this same shitstorm.”

    Why would I feel comforted that other people have the same shitstorm? NOBODY should have this shitstorm.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      We’re seeing DH’s mom dealing with that right now. She recently told us she would rather commit suicide than decline into Alzheimer’s as her mom is. (To which we responded that hopefully science will have found a cure so that won’t be necessary.). It really would be better if nobody had to deal with those kinds of issues. :(

      • chacha1 Says:

        My grandmother actually DID commit suicide due to Alzheimer’s. She did it the legal way, by getting all her papers in order, including rock-solid healthcare directives, and when she had to go to in-patient hospice and could no longer enjoy any of the things that had given her pleasure, she stopped eating. She was given fluids by mouth, while she would take them, and pain care, but that’s it. Strong lady.

        Yes, it would be better if nobody had to deal with this crap. All I have to offer is: Directives. The family coping with this stuff inevitably flounders without them, and everybody feels worse about everything (except of course the ones who are raiding the piggy bank).

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        Yeah, my MIL is a nurse and has hers already drawn up. Her mother, otoh, has her directive saying to keep her alive by any means necessary (I think it even says heroic measures), so MIL is following that directive. But it is very hard on my MIL.

        Fortunately they don’t have the added problems of piggy bank raiding, just one sibling completely flaking.

  10. noemi Says:

    Hmmm. I’ve been trying to decide if I should comment here. It can be a bit awkward to show up to a conversation that you are pretty sure is about you, where much of the content had been to discuss you in somewhat disparaging terms (if not “you” specifically, then a more general “you” subset into which you obviously fall). I’m not even sure if I can even answer the question, but I suppose I could try.

    I’m not sure I can help because I honestly don’t recognize that sentiment as one that is used frequently, but maybe people say it and I immediately take it with the grain of salt with which it was obviously intended, because you can never say that “all” of anything this exactly the same. I mean, we can always point to an example of someone for whom that is not the case, so how can it be taken at point value? Maybe the sentiment is everyone feels a certain way about their circumstances, despite the comparative realities of those circumstances. I guess that could be taken at face value, but a general “all MILs are shitty” can’t be a true statement, as we know it’s simply not true.

    Having said that, I do appreciate a generalized sentiment about certain struggles, like “parenting is hard,” which I think can be stated as an absolute, because I do believe it’s challenging, though obviously it’s more challenging to some than to others, for a variety of reasons. As someone who does struggle parenting, and feels she has a really challenging kid, it DOES make me feel better to hear that parenting is hard, even if I know a lot of people feel it’s easier than I feel it is, and some may even feel it’s objectively easy. I guess I find comfort in that because I honestly don’t believe parenting is ever not going to NOT be hard for me. I have been very proactive in trying to improve my experience parenting and nothing has made much of a difference, so it helps me to feel like less of a failure, and to be more accepting of the reality, to just believe that “parenting is hard.”

    Similarly, I appreciate hearing that “men don’t see messes the way women do” because it makes me feel like less of a failure in my attempts to make my husband do that. Obviously I know that some men are neater than their wives–I’ve read blog posts about it–but to know that there is a generalization that people make about men being a certain way makes me more accepting of my husband. Again, this is a situation where I have been very proactive in trying to affect change and haven’t been able to make much headway. I think knowing this is an issue for a lot of women helps me to stop worrying that maybe I made a horrible mistake in marrying my husband, because it’s not just him that does these things that bother me.

    So I guess the answer is yes, I do find sweeping generalizations helpful in situations where the outcome is out of my control (because they hinge on another person who will be in my life indefinitely, or for the forseeable future). I do think it would be depressing if it were about something I could affect the outcome of, but even in those situations, a reminder that everyone is sometimes not all that happy with their job, or a lot of people don’t escape their financial circumstances, grounds me in reality in a way I think can be useful, at least as a way to help be more accepting of an entrenched situation that will take a long time to improve, if it can be improved.

    And I say this knowing that of course there is no blanket statement that is applicable to everyone. Of course some people are very happy in their marriage and feel very fulfilled as a parent and find their job meaningful (and also feels it provides for them financially). Some people even have all of those things, at the same time. And that is great. But honestly, I don’t look at those people as a beacon of hope, as an example of what could be. Maybe I should? I don’t know. I guess I would if I knew they had once been in a similar situation, but it had changed somehow, then it would bring me hope. But to know someone has always had a great marriage or always felt raising their kids was easy, that really does nothing to make me feel hopeful about the prospects of my situation improving. It just doesn’t feel relevant to my experience, at all. (Which doesn’t negate it being someone’s reality, it just precludes it from offering me hope of changing mine.)

    I don’t know if that is helpful, but it’s what I was able to get down at the moment (my kids are around, so it’s hard to produce a coherent thought).

  11. crazy grad mama Says:

    I don’t find it helpful in general, no. When someone tells me, “everyone hates their thesis by the end of the PhD,” it makes me want to smack them, because it feels very dismissive and suggests that they don’t really understand how I feel. I’m much more appreciative of individual-level sympathy—hearing that one specific person is experiencing something similar is validating and makes me feel more “normal.” Or just general “yeah, that sucks” responses.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      That’s a really good example, and probably one I am guilty of saying! Gives me a bit more sympathy for the people trying to comfort along other dimensions. (It took me about a year to like my thesis topic again, btw., but I did like it again.)

    • kt Says:

      Yes, that’s a very interesting example, and one I can see both ways. Since this is kind of a deliberately controversial post I’ll be deliberately controversial — don’t hold it against me too much — just finished grading :)

      1) On the one hand, it can be a dismissive answer. Yep, hear you, moving on.

      2) On the other hand, sometimes I may be guilty of something like this and there’s a *reason* for it. Yep, you hate your thesis. You feel super bad about it and you want my sympathy. I don’t want to give you that sympathy. Everyone wants my sympathy. Everyone wants me to feel bad that they feel bad and I just don’t care any more, because everyone hates their thesis by the end and should just suck it up, and I don’t owe anyone any sympathy.

      This sort of grumpiness really kicks in when I have a lot of students arguing about their grades. They all want the individual level of sympathy, and especially when I was teaching 3-3 at a liberal arts school my capacity for that individual attention started diminishing quickly at some point.

      Going back to the original question, “it sucks for everyone” may be tone-deaf or it may be a way of acknowledging the issue but refusing to provide real emotional support. For things like arguing about grades, I really had to turn it around and reframe to say, Yes, I appreciate you as a person, and it is not in your best interests for personal or intellectual development for me to sit here and cry with you because you failed your midterm because you were hungover because your girlfriend dumped you. It is in fact a sign of respect for you and your intellectual development to push you to deal with this in a more adult way. When it comes to commenting on blogs, though, I can’t see how “it sucks for everyone” is a way to support the personal and intellectual development of the blogger :P

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        I think they usually mean it more as a, “it’s not your fault” to absolve people of feeling any guilt, not necessarily as a way to not provide support.

        I know when I say, “it’s normal to hate your thesis at the end (and that’s a sign that you should graduate!)” I’m generally talking to someone who is wondering if they wasted their life in graduate school and sometimes wants to quit right before finishing, or they’re so sick of their dissertation they don’t want to turn it around and work on publishing it (which they should– and at least one doesn’t have to look at it for 3-6 months while it is under review…) And I’m trying to be supportive, to say that they will probably love the topic again and there were good reasons to go to graduate school and to start the dissertation in the first place and that hating the topic right near the end isn’t a sign of anything, other than it’s time to get the @#$ing degree. (Whereas never having enjoyed doing research *is* a good sign that the PhD may not be the right step.) I dunno, maybe it isn’t supportive, but I intend it to be. [The other advice that I got, which was good, was to go to the library where they keep the bound dissertations for your program and to read them. They are generally pretty horrible, even the ones that cleaned up into good published papers (or in rare cases, Nobel prizes) later. That actually did cheer me up near the end– the “everybody’s thesis sucks”. But I guess having a great thesis isn’t necessarily an end goal since nobody reads theses (except future graduate students who need cheering up), so it’s ok if it isn’t perfect.]

        I can definitely see going the George Carlin route as being a good way to not have to deal with histrionics.

      • crazy grad mama Says:

        The thing about blogs is that if you don’t have the emotional energy to give support at the time (which is a totally reasonable and understandable state to be in), you just don’t comment. It’s different from face-to-face conversations, where you have to respond somehow, no matter how you feel.

        I have to say, I’m a bit irked at being compared to grade-grubbing undergrads…

      • kt Says:

        Somehow I can’t reply to your second post, crazy grad mama, so I’ll reply here. First, I knew the comparison was not going to be enjoyed. As I said, it’s a deliberately controversial one which I’m doing post-thesis and post grading. The three situations (bloggers, thesis-writers, undergrads) have some superficial similarities, but how are they different? Numbers, the necessity of commenting/engaging or not, the emotional connections people have, how common the experience is to others. I think it also illuminates what we’re expecting from others and how those expectations are shaped by what we’re coming from: bloggers often have certain expectations of their audience, partially shaped by who shows up and partially shaped by their prior experiences. Undergrads definitely have certain expectations, which change throughout college. Thesis-writers will also have certain expectations, but they might be more heterogeneous, and thesis-writers have to deal with interactions ranging from uncle-who-doesn’t-understand-academia to advisor.

        I agree with nicoleandmaggie’s other comment, too, about absolving guilt, but isn’t that what blog commenters are saying when they say, “All husbands are like that!” They’re trying to absolve the blogger of guilt — but you argue elsewhere that the blogger shouldn’t be absolved, she should leave her husband. It *is* her fault if she puts up with him. So how’s that different from “All thesis-writers hate their thesis” by the end, which I believe to be actually 92% true? and which one should not be guilty about?

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        Correction: I would never argue someone should leave her husband unless the case was abusive. That is a very individual decision and what I would do is not necessarily what everybody should do. We all have different preferences and different constraints. (Additionally I don’t believe that all husbands suck! Therefore I am still married!)

  12. jjiraffe Says:

    Hmm. I don’t know about research on this subject, but I can answer from my own experience (not about my marriage, but infertility and parenting after infertility, which I found difficult). While empathy can be helpful, and sometimes I needed to hear I wasn’t alone, I did eventually find that if I heard too much empathy it was actually counterproductive for me, and often kept me mired in self-pity. No one means to do that with advice I don’t think, they are trying to help, of course. But, sometimes you need to stop hearing pity and start taking steps to improve your situation (or I did anyway)….

    • jjiraffe Says:

      To clarify and to address your post, I agree and consider statements like “everyone has a hard time parenting” to be over-the-top and not helpful. And plus, not true.

  13. Jenny F. Scientist Says:

    I think these statements are annoying and unhelpful (to me) because they are manifestly falsifiable. Some MILs are great! Some people do enjoy grad school even at the end! Etc.

    Although parenting IS hard. But if there’s a specific issue (my kid slammed a sibling’s head in the door! This really happened) it’s not helpful (to me) say either “Oh, all siblings fight like that” or “Parenting is hard”. The first is not true- I never slammed a sibling’s head in a door!- and the second is vague and doesn’t address the actual issue, which is that Kid 1 needs to not make Kid 2 bleed.

    I’d prefer ‘my kids did that and did not turn out to be felons or sociopaths’ or ‘that sounds hard’. Empathy or personal experience. ‘Everyone has hard times with kids’ sounds really dismissive to me. I would only find ‘Parenting is hard’ to be comforting if it was an expression of empathy, like ‘That’s a hard decision! Parenting is hard!’ Or if someone was offering me a drink right after.

  14. Jay Says:

    I think I’m allergic to sweeping generalizations. They are not helpful. They make me want to argue just for the sake of argument. This is particularly true of the “all husbands…” and “men don’t see dirt” versions of this. The underlying assumptions about marriage and heterosexual relationships and the subsequent reinforcing of gender stereotypes makes me FURIOUS. In addition, since none of those stereotypes apply in my marriage, I feel excluded from any sense of community or connection. My husband cooks, does housework, “see dirt” (often better than I do), sews the ribbons on our kid’s ballet shoes, and knows the grocery store layout by heart. So…he’s not really a man? He’s what, a unicorn?

    My experience with the conversation about division of labor suggests that for some people, those generalizations are preferable to actually looking at their situation. It’s more comfortable, as Noemi points out above, to believe that “all men” are like that (or even “most men”) than to actually acknowledge that your partner is being a jerk to you and doesn’t care how you feel about it.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      All sweeping generalizations suck! (hm…)

      As a former math major, I do have to say that my first instinct upon hearing a sweeping generalization is to look for a counter-example. That’s far easier than doing a full theoretical proof on the statement.

      More seriously, I wonder what the alternative to thinking the guy is a jerk who doesn’t care is. For women with resources, leaving is always possible, but not necessarily easy, and some people may prefer delusion to fighting (or, alternatively, accepting that he doesn’t want to rather than he can’t). My first thought with most of these things (which are generally NOT abusive situations– abusive situations are not normal or good etc., just thoughtless situations or they have disagreements, or arguments have gotten heated), it isn’t that the guy doesn’t care, he’s either just oblivious or has time-discounting problems (I always *mean* to do more around the house), or there’s a miscommunication issue (sometimes compounded with him caring *too much* and worrying that criticism means a lack of love because of said communication issue). I’m not sure if that kind of justification would be any better or if it is just as delusional. The reason might matter in terms of how I view the situation and whether or not I try and how I try to attack the problem. If it’s an always forever thing, I wouldn’t bother trying (though in the marriage case, I would probably get divorced!).

      • Jay Says:

        Yes on the time-discounting problem (great term. Thank you). And sure, he might be oblivious. And perhaps their communication has not been effective even though she has tried to tell him and thinks she *has* told him. When emotions are high, it’s difficult to communicate effectively. There’s also the dynamic where one partner asks for “help” and the other complies only to be told “you’re doing it wrong”. I am not the only person in my family who loads the dishwasher; I am the only one who loads it the way I load it, and I accept the variations because I don’t want to be the only person who loads the dishwasher (and the dishes get clean, even if not as many fit and more of them end up needing to be hand-dried because they flip over during the cycle).

        For most of the sweeping generalizations about men and heterosexual marriages, I am living the counterexample and I don’t like being told that I don’t exist.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        “I am living the counterexample and I don’t like being told that I don’t exist.”

        WORD! Or that I’m a man, despite having given birth(!)

        I think we have a post on the dishwasher issue exactly somewhere (IIRC, CPP got very upset by the idea that there is more than one way to load a dishwasher). And if we don’t have a post on the living counterexample thing it’s because Cloud’s post on the unicorn topic was so good we thought it best to just comment on it.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        good grief we have a lot of posts that talk about dishwashers– obviously not having one growing up made a huge impact on my adult life

        The specific one I was thinking about is aptly titled, Relationship lessons we have learned

      • Jay Says:

        Coming back to this after a night’s sleep and realizing that the primary reason I dislike sweeping generalizations is that they erase me as specific and individual person and thus have precisely the opposite effect – I don’t feel comforted but rather made invisible (which is a particular hot button for me, and I realize is not the same for everyone else). It makes me want to dig my heels in and say NO IT’S NOT LIKE THAT.

      • chacha1 Says:

        Jay – I agree with you. I am a counterexample to a lot of things and it’s extremely dismissive, to the point of patronizing/contemptuous, to be told that the perceived norm is The Way It Is and that therefore my experience is irrelevant.

    • Nanani Says:

      “All husbands (insert negative thing here)” sounds like a good reason to go smash the patriarchy. Perhaps motivating to some, but definitely not comforting!

  15. Paul Lamb Says:

    I think such assertions provide comfort to the people who are making them because it excuses them from caring about the other person who maybe really is worst off than most people.

  16. Ana Says:

    I haven’t read all the comments but I agree strongly with Jay, above. I find those types of generalizations unhelpful and isolating on both sides. If I really am having a serious problem and I’m told “oh yeah, all kids are hard” (for example) it completely discounts & invalidates my feelings that my kid actually has serious behavior issues and parenting him is really a lot harder than it is for others with typically-behaved kids. On the other hand, being told that “men don’t see dirt” etc… also invalidates my experience of having a clean-freak husband. (also, any gendered version of sweeping generalizations ENRAGES me because SEXISM and PATRIARCHY! why do women like to perpetuate these things? How the hell is it helping? What are we teaching our sons?). So, in both cases, I feel defensive and misunderstood.
    Only when a generalization really is a universal human truth can it be sort of soothing to hear and commiserate. “everyone goes through ups and downs in their life (the absolute value of the “up” and “down” are not specified)” “sleep deprivation is crazy-making” “residency sucks” etc…

  17. Nanani Says:

    I don’t believe it’s true either, and even if it WERE true, that’s not a reason to give up and not try to improve your own situation.
    In a way this sort of comment sounds like a perverse twist on something that actually does sound comforting, at least to me, along the lines of “don’t feel crappy because your life isn’t as perfect as others’ SEEM to be, because you are only seeing the highlight reel of other lives (through social media for example) but live through all the behind the scenes drama of your own”.
    Cutting out the perspective-shifting to say that everyone actually sucks is missing the point and lazy to boot.

  18. PhD Bound Says:

    I know (at least for me) when I’m venting to someone I generally know what I should/need to/will do, but sometimes it’s nice to just be able to gripe a little and then go back to real life. When someone complains about something to me, (provided it’s not life-altering and they are not actually asking for help) I generally just try to sympathize with them.

    There are two quotes this post immediately made me think of:
    1. Telling someone they can’t be sad because someone has it worse is like telling someone they can’t be happy because someone has it better. (paraphrasing, can’t find the exact quote)
    2. Comparison is the thief of joy – Teddy Roosevelt.

  19. Funny about Money Says:

    LOL! This is the sort of discussion that makes me feel the more I know people, the better I like my dog: You’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. No matter what you say, no matter how well-meaning your response is, someone is going to take it amiss. Videlicet the poor soul (above) who thinks the whole conversation is about her, either directly or obliquely.

    How about this: give people a little slack. Few people deliberately say things to offend, upset, or dismiss you. If they’re doing it on purpose, they’ll give you a signal to that effect — you won’t have to think it through.

    Dwelling in academe tends to cause us to overanalyze everything. Not every casual response or idle remark is a direct insult, an aspersion upon the other person’s gender, or a denigration of the other person’s validity and humanity. Escaping the academy casts an entirely new light on humanity. ;-)

  20. eemusings Says:

    Maybe I’m a bad person. But hearing about other people’s problems (both IRL conversation, and vague end-of-year social media posts has helped me feel so much better and so much less alone.

    A dismissive ‘life sucks everyone has issues’, not so much.

  21. MutantSupermodel Says:

    My guess would be that the research would probably indicate that sort of comment is NOT helpful because it contributes to the downward spiral of negative thinking. My guess would be that trying to help a person identify and celebrate the positives in their lives would be more beneficial.


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