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The Problem of “At least …”

When we teach our workshops on grief, one of the things we talk about is that we can’t compare losses. Each life event and person’s response to it, is absolutely unique because their lived experiences, their relationship to that event or person, and their personality are all unique to them.

But so often we hear folks – trying to support a griever – starting a sentence with “At least …”

At least it wasn’t worse. At least you still have your health. At least they aren’t suffering any more. At least you learned something from the break-up. At least you still have your job.

So what’s the problem with “At least?” Aren’t we just trying to make that person feel better? Help them understand that things could be worse or they should look on the brighter side?

The issue with “At least” is that many people have inherited some version of “Other people have it worse than you, so don’t complain.” And that can do a lot of damage because it makes us believe we “shouldn’t” feel down or angry or sad or frustrated or whatever we are feeling.

When people hear “At least” they often feel like they shouldn’t express how they feel because it will just be diminished. They can feel like this isn’t a safe space to process emotion that makes others uncomfortable. It can drive someone to try and grieve alone – which is not helpful to the griever.

And sometimes we do this to ourselves as well. We have a habit of not wanting to complain because someone else may have it worse than us, but that habit takes away our ability to safely process our emotions. Or maybe we inherited a belief that we need to always be strong for everyone else and we shouldn’t show that we are struggling.

The problem with “At least” is that it shuts down conversations. It takes away our connection to one another. It limits our ability to support each other through difficult times. It creates silence and isolation.

Is it terrible to want to learn something from an event? Of course not. Is it wrong to try and be an optimistic person? No.

But next time you find yourself jumping to “At least …” – slow down. And ask yourself why you are saying it. Is there space instead for the emotion to just be what it is – without needing to label what would be worse? In this way, maybe we can normalize and de-stigmatize processing emotions, and we can be connected and supported when we do.

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