Why you should use cliches when talking about chronic illness

Cliches…. hate them, love them? Either way, they’re here to stay…

Why you should use cliches when talking about chronic illness...
Updated October 2017

Clichés fly thick and fast around the world of chronic illness.

Keep fighting. You’re so strong.

God has a plan.

It will turn out all right in the end.

He has his ups and downs.

Do these phrases make you wince? Does anger bubble up your throat when you hear them? Do they make you want to go on a hashtag rant on Twitter or write a Facebook essay speckled with ‘angry’ emoji?

I know the feeling.

Why we can’t get rid of clichés when we talk about chronic illness

Clichés are part of life. Some words simply fit better than other ones. And so we reuse them.

And reuse them, and reuse them…

… until they lose their meaning. “It will turn out” no longer conveys a personal belief in the triumph of good over evil. Instead it is simply a reassurance, a ‘nice’, acceptable reply to someone else’s tragedy.

Over time, even this ‘nice’ reply begins to feel cheap and recycled.

We all have clichés that rub us up the wrong way. For me, it’s when someone tells me to “be strong”. My encourager means well, and I love them… but the words don’t seem to fit. Of course I try to be strong. Sometimes I’m not. So what does it mean when someone tells me to ‘stay strong’? I’m not sure. Perhaps it meant something once, but to me it’s just a ‘nice’ phrase.

Which clichés make you flinch?

Is there really anything wrong with clichés?

Clichés become a habit

A cliché is wrong when it is a habit, rather than a thoughtful response. Inappropriate or misplaced phrases hurt! We must never forget the real meaning of the cliché. For us, it might simply be the “reassuring phrase we use when someone drops their coffee”, but to the listener it might mean something quite different.

Forgetting what a cliché means (or could mean!) can cause pain, or seem condescending.

Clichés make assumptions

Clichés assume that what is helpful for one person is helpful for everyone. They are a ‘one-sentence-fits-all’ approach.

If I am told to ‘stay strong’ in the face of suffering I might decide I can’t possibly tell people that I am actually struggling.

If my neighbour hears them however, they may be inspired to turn to God as the only strong One.

If the child down the road hears them, she might be overcome with guilt, because she doesn’t feel strong at all.

So many responses to one simple phrase.

Clichés do not address the depth and breadth of human experience. We are all different – and so before we offer up clichés we must understand the person we are speaking to. What is helpful for one person may be unhelpful for another.

Clichés stop conversation

Clichés do not help the person who uses them. They do not require much thought. As ‘canned responses’ and ‘acceptable answers’ – they allow us to avoid specifics, deep conversations and hurtful, probing questions.

Clichés can be lies. They can mask reality, stunt growth and slam doors in conversation. Real, true words invite people in to share our experiences and participate in our trials.

Clichés say ‘I don’t trust you’ like nothing else.

Clichés say ‘I don’t trust you’ like nothing else. Tweet!

Why you should use clichés anyway

Clichés are a lesser choice of language, but some days, they’re all we’ve got.

When we’ve exhausted our emotional capacity, clichés can save us, if we use them correctly. When we can’t possibly give a truer answer – due to the situation, our relationship with the person we’re speaking to, or the time frame we have – clichés can come in helpful.

Not all circumstances are equal, and we cannot expect to (nor be expected to) bare our soul a thousand times a day to a thousand different people.

So what do we do? We don’t stop at the cliché. It’s as simple as that. If a cliché is all we have, we can:

  • Acknowledge to ourselves it is a cliché.
  • Examine our motives.
  • Admit to the other person that all we have is a cliché answer, we have ‘nothing to say’.
  • Set or offer a time in which we can answer more fully, if appropriate.
  • Pray God uses it. Ultimately, it is He who gives language its power and purpose, not ourselves.

It’s hard to be gracious when clichés hurt us. It’s difficult to acknowledge that clichés have their place, and we misuse them just as much as the next person.

But I challenge you: Will this understanding of clichés change the way you love people? Will you let it calm your frustration?

What’s one truth you can take away which will impact your conversations in the coming week?

Let me know in the comments, and discuss it on the facebook group!

cliches help us avoid deep conversations about chronic illness and life

Author: Emily J. M.

Hi, I'm Emily. Two of my closest family members struggle with chronic illness, and I watch them. That's hard, and so I write about life as a 'Watcher', what it looks like to support them and find Hope.

4 thoughts on “Why you should use cliches when talking about chronic illness”

  1. Emily, I think you covered this very well, and make your readers think. I think what I take away most, is to be sure I use cliches with love and feeling, and that I make myself accessible to be very present in practical ways that will communicate love, and DEEPER meaning than my shallow cliches may. You are right, sometimes it is the best we have. I have used cliches before because I was “sparing” the person more of my thoughts…………
    https”//grandmamarymartha.blogspot.com

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  2. Hi Emily, I have a rare disease and whenever people find out, they normally say cliche things like what you described. Normally, it doesn’t bother me but one time someone said something that did. I was being interviewed about my disease and after the interview one of the members of the production team said “I’m sorry this happened to you.” It was kind of awkward because I didn’t even know what to say back; I mean, I was born with it, lol. I didn’t take it personal though because I knew he probably just didn’t know what to say. He could’ve benefited from this post haha thanks for sharing!

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    1. Hi Lauren! So good to hear from you. Yes, it can be so hard to be on the receiving end of cliches. Sorry to hear you were! It’s so hard to know what to say. I find it definitely makes me more aware of what I say to others, a sort of ‘what not to do’ lesson…

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