When I was growing up, one of my mother’s “catchphrases” was, “I carried you in my womb for nine months, so I think you can do this one thing for me.” But the thing is, it was never just “one thing.” She pulled it out so frequently that no matter how much I did for her, it felt like I would always be eternally indebted to her.
For some, “harmless” comments like this might seem insignificant, and have little to no effect on your adult mental health. In my household, this statement was wielded as a weapon of coercion, a verbal reminder of “you owe me” — and I’m still living with the impact of her words.
I’m not the only one who has heard seemingly “harmless” comments growing up. Sometimes there are just some comments that “stick” with you — even years later. Because of this, we asked our mental health community to share one “harmless” comment they heard growing up and how it has affected their mental health today.
It’s important to remember what may seem “harmless” to one person may actually be hurtful to another. No matter what anyone says, your feelings are valid, and you deserve support.
Here’s what our community had to say:
1. “There are so many people worse off than you.”
“‘You don’t have it as bad as other people. You should be thankful!’ Gee, thanks for making me feel guilty for being sad/upset/angry over my current situation. I think people say this to try to perk people up, but it actually just invalidates their feelings. Yes, someone always has it worse but it’s OK to feel sad/upset/angry/whatever about a situation you are in too. Your feelings are valid.” — Kayla B.
“That was, and still is, such a painful thing to hear. I know people have it worse, I know I’m lucky to have what I do. But that doesn’t stop the pain I feel inside.” — Kari O.
2. “You’re just like your mother/father.”
“My father used to always tell me I was just like my mother. In most circumstances, it would be a compliment, but my father also liked to remind me my mother was ‘crazy’ and worthless and that he wishes he’d never met her. Those words still echo in my head and affect the way I parent.” — Lacie J.
“My mother, when upset with me or when I had my mouth open, would say I needed to stop because I looked as ugly as my father… I grew up with a very low self-esteem about my appearance. I didn’t notice it until I entered my 30s.” — Priscilla F.
“My dad would tell me I was just like him. It was terrifying to hear because he was an extremely volatile, toxic, unpredictable and raging human being when I was a child/young adult. He would say it so often to me — even into adulthood — that I started to believe him. He would say it in ways that made me believe I couldn’t be saved or helped or be a healthy person because he thought I was ‘so difficult’ to deal with. Then he would try to console me as if he was the only one who would ever understand me. It was, to this day, one of the sickest forms of manipulation I have experienced.” — Stefanie K.
3. “You’re too young to be going through that.”
“‘You can’t have ‘this’ problem, you’re too young to experience it.’ Every mental health problem I had went unnoticed… I was bullied a lot when I moved to a new school and most of the ‘friends’ I had in elementary school abandoned me in middle school. Everyone told me I was annoying when I tried to speak. I tried to talk to my mom, but she [brushed] it off… To this day, no one really understands the kind of issues I have.” — Ray W.
“Is there a certain age that you can have depression? Anxiety? I don’t think so. This really made me think hard every day and it still does. I may be 16, but I know my body. And if I feel like something is wrong with me, there is something wrong with me.” — Aislynn K.
4. “You’re pretty for a ‘big’ girl.”
“I always used to get, ‘She’s pretty for a big girl’ and ‘It’s always you causing the problems.’ I still say sorry for everything even now that I’m 40! I hated my body for a long time and now I’ve only just started to appreciate what I was given and how nice I actually am!” — Corrie N.
“I was bullied by a girl in my class throughout school, and the one thing that really stuck is, ‘You’re such a pretty girl, but you would be so much prettier if you lost weight.’” — Melissa K.
“I’ve always struggled with weight and I was told countless times, ‘You have such a pretty face.’ That’s a compliment, but with that little jab in there that says not all of you, just your face. Also, ‘If you were to lose weight, you’d really be pretty.’” — Amanda L.
5. “Why can’t you be more like your brother/sister?”
“I was told all the time, ‘Why can’t you be like your brother?’ … This haunts me every day.” — Iona M.
“I always heard, ‘You know you are not beautiful like your sister nor talented like your brother. I just don’t know about you.’ Because of this, I have always felt I am less than others — that I could never be enough. [I struggle with] a serious lack of confidence to this day.” — Neena M.
6. “I’m sorry your feelings got hurt.”
“‘I’m sorry your feelings got hurt.’ That is putting the blame on the person whose feelings were hurt, not taking the blame for saying something hurtful. I heard it a lot and always felt deserving of any emotional hurt I felt because I (wrongly) learned I should have control over my own feelings.” — Jessica L.
“Being told, ‘I’m sorry if what I did hurt you.’ The ‘if’ completely dismissed my feelings and it was a pathetic attempt at an apology.” — Mikayla R.
7. “You need an attitude adjustment.”
“‘You need an attitude adjustment,’ meant I was about to get the living crap beat out of me. Last week my therapist made a joke saying I needed an attitude adjustment and the fear and panic set back in like it used to all those years ago. I was able to explain it to her and she apologized, but then I felt stupid about overreacting to such a simple phrase. Funny how things stay with you…” — Nolan J.
“‘Fix your face!’ As a child and even now, I am told, ‘What’s wrong with you?’ ‘What’s your problem?’ ‘Why the attitude?’ Meanwhile it’s my normal face. Emotionless face. Nothing is wrong, I’m perfectly fine, but apparently my face sucks. Still dealing with that.” — Sherrie L.
8. “You need to try harder.”
“‘You just need to try/focus harder.’ As someone with ADHD and now depression, this may seem like common sense, but the reality is that when I’m in my ADHD brain fog state of distraction, it isn’t about willpower. It’s about not being in the ‘right mental space’ to get things done. Same for depression. I had so many doubts and still do about my ability to perform at the same level as ‘normal’ people, and every failure drives home my inability to do so.” — Jacinta M.
“I can’t remember what I was doing other than cleaning something and it wasn’t up to a parents’ standards. I remember saying, ‘But I tried my best,’ because I genuinely had. They replied, ‘Then your best isn’t good enough.’ I could be the most successful person in the world and I would still be convinced I’m not good enough. In my teens I just gave up on it all and did whatever I wanted. After all, if your best isn’t good enough, why bother trying?” — Rene S.
9. “Don’t be selfish.”
“‘Don’t be selfish.’ I’m an eternal people pleaser to the point I struggle with any conflict and never put my own needs first as an adult.” — Emily M.
“‘You’re so selfish.’ When my dad would scream for me to do things, if I didn’t run immediately, I was ‘selfish.’ It gets me every time. As an adult, I don’t feel like I deserve anything. It will make me ‘selfish’ to be happy or enjoy anything.” — Katlyn S.
10. “Are you sure you want to be [occupation]? That’s a lot of hard work.”
“‘Oh, you want to be a doctor? That takes a lot of hard work. I don’t think that job is one you’re cut out to do…’ I always felt I was never enough, not pretty enough, not smart enough.” — Esther P.
“My grandmother told me I’d make a great librarian. I have nothing against librarians, (and I have always loved to read) but at the same time, she told my cousin she would make a great lawyer. There was a lot of subtext.” — Sarah L.
11. “Everyone gets sad sometimes.”
“’Everyone gets sad sometimes. It’s really not a big deal.’ I know they meant well, but it felt like my depression wasn’t dealt with and kinda pushed to the side.” — Kaitlyn C.
“‘OK.’ It was a frequently-used dismissal of things that adults didn’t want to hear about or deal with. It caused many misconceptions and led to a lot of neglect when I really needed someone or something. And as an adult, it now leaves me constantly wondering if I’ve done something wrong if someone responds with this word.” — Stefanie Q.
By Juliette Virzi for TheMighty