You hear it everywhere. Baby doesn’t sleep, like, ever? Not to worry – this too shall pass. Toddler being aggressive and hurting others? Normal. This too shall pass. Teenager seemingly hates you? It’s just the hormones – this too shall pass. Job is frustrating the hell out of you? That happens to everybody, sometimes. This too shall pass. Rough patch in your marriage? Marriage is hard. This too shall pass.
The four words that have become the commonplace answer for each of life’s frustrations. The catch-all that tells you that it’s just a phase and not to worry. The statement that is, in my opinion, extremely problematic.
Now before you get all huffy, I understand that the phrase has good intent. I get that it’s meant to be reassuring. I know that it can be helpful sometimes to be reminded that your problems are short-lived and if you can just breathe a little more deeply you will see it through to the other side. Hope is a powerful thing and it’s not bad to be told that there is a light at the end of the tunnel; what you’re going through is normal and that is does get better. That, well, this too shall pass.
The problematic part is that we’re giving all this reassurance and hope without following up with any practical survival tips. It’s great to know that in another year I may sleep for longer than 45 minutes at a time, but right now I’m a walking zombie who can barely function. It’s awesome that my toddler will, in a few months, learn the words they need to express themselves but right now I avoid playdates like the plague for fear of what my little monster will do to their peers. I may know that my teenager will sprout into an adult and decide I’m an okay human to be around, but in this moment I’m hearing ‘I hate you’ for the fifteenth time this week. Job dissatisfaction may be normal, but I’m currently out of sick days because I just can’t muster up the motivation to get my butt to work. Perhaps I’ll decide my spouse is the fabulous partner I once knew, but the thought of jail is the only reason I haven’t acted out the fantasies in my head.
When somebody reaches out to you, they are looking for something – maybe some empathy, commiseration or advice (although as a caution: if they haven’t directly asked for your advice it’s always best if you confirm they actually want it before you start playing Dr. Phil. Sometimes a sympathetic ear is all that’s required.) Most people are fully aware that their children won’t go off to college still needing to be comforted 27 bazillion times throughout the night. They know it will pass. It doesn’t change their now. Telling them ‘this too shall pass’ may make them feel like you are dismissing their experience. It may make them wonder if perhaps their situation is worse than the normal, since you are basically telling them to suck it up and yet they feel so damn miserable. It may make them resort to techniques that aren’t really in their best interest in the name of a short-term solution.
And, sometimes, it actually doesn’t just pass on its own. Marriages normally don’t just fix themselves, for example. Sometimes, it can only pass if you help it along.
So next time you want to assure someone that their experience is normal and likely a phase, avoid telling them it will pass without adding value to that statement:
That happened to me, too. It’s normal. This too shall pass. In the meantime, here are some things that helped me get through it…
Ugh, that sounds so hard! The good news is that this too shall pass, eventually. How can I help you cope?
I’ll help support you through this, until it passes. What do you need from me? Are you open to some suggestions?