“Everything happens for a reason.”

It’s a common phrase that someone may have used when trying to offer comfort to you, or perhaps you’ve uttered it yourself when someone you care about was going through a difficult time. It’s often a go-to phrase when people feel at a loss for words upon hearing a friend’s difficult or painful news. But, as a therapist, I really struggle with this statement. In fact, I make a concerted effort not to use it in both my personal and professional life.

Why?

Because, while we often intend the phrase “everything happens for a reason” to be comforting, in reality, in many instances, it can be hurtful. For example, some women who’ve suffered a miscarriage can feel invalidated by this phrase because it has the potential to minimize the reality of their pregnancy and the grief that they are experiencing. They may ask themselves, “What possible reason could there be for me to lose my baby?”

Anyone going through a difficult time in their lives, whether it’s losing a loved one, going through a breakup, or being let go from their job, may feel similarly. How could this painful thing be meant to happen to me? Well-intentioned as it may be, the advice may feel more like a judgment that says that the person somehow deserves to have this happen to them. Of course, this isn’t true, but the phrase can have the potential to be hurtful and confusing to hear.

Better words to say

Over time, I’ve come to use a phrase I learned in graduate school from one of my favorite professors. Instead of saying “everything happens for a reason,” or, “it was meant to be,” she suggested saying something different: “I can’t imagine how much pain you are in right now. I know that, in time, you have the opportunity to make meaning out of this painful experience.”

To me, this saying makes so much more sense.

My psychotherapy mentor explained how phrasing it in this way can help a person feel less out of control and can help them regain a sense of agency amid their pain. It is empowering because it encourages a person to decide how he or she is going to respond to this painful experience that has happened. You get to decide how it will fit into the story of your life.

Will you choose to use this experience as a launching point for self-growth and positive changes, or will you allow it to become the defining moment in your life in a negative way? For example, after losing a child through miscarriage, author Lindsay Schlegel wrote about how she started a support group and changed the way she spoke about pregnancy loss in order to be more validating and sensitive towards women who had experienced this. She responded to the painful and devastating experience she went through by supporting others and growing in her own self-understanding.

Looking forward, not backward

In my psychotherapy practice, I often work with clients who have experienced trauma, breakups, loss of a loved one, pregnancy loss, and other unexpected and negative life events. In their grief and pain, no one wants to hear that whatever they are experiencing was supposed to happen to them. So instead, I work with them to process their pain and what happened while also empowering them to heal and grow.

That’s where this new phrase comes in. It adds an “and” to their life story rather than truncating it with a period. For example, for a client who has suffered childhood trauma, they can feel empowered to say, “I experienced abuse as a child, and now I am focused on healing from that abuse and living a healthy and flourishing life” instead of, “I am a victim of abuse who can never recover from it.”

Of course, this process takes time and is far from an instant fix. It certainly doesn’t happen overnight or as quickly as one can utter the words. It takes time to process the pain and get to a point where you feel ready to move forward. But more important than offering a quick fix, this meaningful phrase offers someone who is suffering empathy and empowerment.