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The Trouble With "At Least"

at leastAhhh…at least.  The Fruit Cake of human communication: endlessly doled out with the best of intentions, and friggin horrible.  “But what’s so bad about saying at least?” you may wonder.  ‘I’m just trying to help people see the bright side.”  The thing is, unless someone is asking for advice or cheering up, they don’t want to hear your silver lining.  They want you to acknowledge their pain.  

When someone comes to you with an issue, they are trusting you with their feelings.  Saying at least sends the message, “Your feelings aren’t welcome here.  I consider them either overwhelming or invalid.”  When someone is sharing their pain, they want to feel heard.  Saying at least makes them feel shushed.  Have you ever noticed how quickly the other person stops talking about their problem after being at leasted?  It’s not because they’ve magically been cured by having someone point out how much worse things could be.  It’s because they’ve been shut down by someone making their feelings seem insignificant.

Most people don’t feel comfortable being present with another person’s intense feelings.  At least is usually spoken with the positive intention of wanting to fix or make things better, but attempting to resolve someone’s pain with at least makes about as much sense as responding with, “You shouldn’t feel that way.  Feel happy.”  Trust me, if joy were an option right now, they’d take it.  Unfortunately they can’t move out of their distress without processing it first.  If you really want them to get over their negative feelings faster, acknowledging what they’re experiencing will work toward that goal much more quickly than saying at least.

But what if what you’re saying after at least is true?  Oh, I’m sure it is.  The trouble is that at least puts whatever follows it in contrast (i.e. opposition) to what they shared with you.  What if we made space for both ideas to be true?  In my line of work my doula clients often hear “at least you had a healthy baby” after they express disappointment in their birth.  Now the mom feels like less of a parent for wanting any other outcome than a healthy baby.  

What if we let this mom feel relieved that her child is ok and feel devastated about her unexpected birth experience at the same time?  After all, the two are not mutually exclusive.  Instead of “at least you had a healthy baby,” this mom would be better served with an empathetic, “I’m glad you and the baby are ok, and I’m so sorry that it didn’t turn out the way you were hoping.”  In fact, she could have already guessed that you’re glad that she and the baby are ok, so feel free to leave that part out and stick with, “I’m so sorry it didn’t turn out the way you were expecting.”

Some people will use at least to point out that the person they’re speaking with still has it better than others despite their pain.  Why must there be a hierarchy of struggle?  Does the fact that some people have two parents dying of cancer make the sadness of a person with one parent dying of cancer invalid?  Of course not.  Somewhere in the world is the one person who has it worse than everyone else.  However, they are not the only person entitled to feel disappointment.  

What someone finds upsetting is based on their circumstances, beliefs, conditioning, etc., NOT ANYONE ELSE’S.  Others may not care about a missing earring, a phone call that wasn’t returned, or a rainy day, but to this person – for their own individual reasons – it’s a big deal.  As Brene Brown mentioned in her excellent TED talk on empathy, failing to recognize someone’s perspective as their truth drives people apart.  Choosing to be present with someone’s painful emotions fuels connection.

“So what should I say instead?”  At least has become such an ingrained response for most people that it takes a lot of effort and practice to not say it.  Try replacing at least with some of the following…

  • “Wow!”
  • “Oh man…”
  • “I’m sorry to hear that.”
  • “That’s a lot to deal with!”
  • “How sad/frustrating/disappointing.”
  • “That sucks!”
  • “How can I help?”
  • I’m glad you trusted me enough to share this with me.”

And if you absolutely must say at least, let it out in these ways…

  • “Can I at least bring you a meal so you have one less thing to juggle while you’re dealing with this?”
  • “At the very least, I can listen to your problems without judgement.”
  • “I’d like to give you at least two scoops of ice cream.”  🙂

Be gentle with yourself as you get used to a new way of being present with other people’s feelings.  It can be hard to resist the temptation to fall back on this habitual way of communicating.  When you look back at times when you may have said less than helpful things to a person who was hurting in the past, know that you were doing the best you knew how at the time.  Your past self needs empathy just as much as the person standing before you, in distress, opening up their heart, and waiting for you to show them that you care.

Dedicated to Connie Moore, whose passing is a huge loss to all who loved and knew her without any ifs, ands, buts, or at leasts


Nikki Shaheed CCE(BFW) CD(DONA)                                                                                                                                                      Certified Birthing from Within Mentor

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