Don’t Say “It Could Be Worse”

I’ve dealt with a lot of crap over the past 15 years of health issues. I got to the point where it annoys me when people don’t believe me but then I move on. But there are still a few things that really tick me off: doctors who talk down to patients, people who assume that because I still do things sometimes I’m not actually “sick,” and when someone says, “Well, it could be worse.” Oh goodness how I hate that phrase. So let’s talk about why you shouldn’t say that to someone who has a chronic illness and what to say instead.

Often, people don't know what to say to chronic illness patients so they tend to say, "Well at least it could be worse!" Here's why you shouldn't say that and what to say instead.

Why people say, “It could be worse.” – Generally, they’re trying to be comforting. They don’t know how to deal with the situation, and they don’t know what to say to someone who has a chronic illness. It’s often said when a chronically ill person – who I’ll refer to as a spoonie here, and you can click that link to learn more about what that means – tells a healthy person about their illness/condition for the first time, mentions an increase in their symptoms, or discusses a large, negative event from their condition. In these moments, a healthy person who may not have ever had health problems like that before, is often at a loss of what to say. They don’t know how to relate to or improve the mood of who they’re talking to, so they say what they know: “Well at least it isn’t worse! It could always be worse!”

What it generally means (even if that’s not what is intended) – Unfortunately, the message that comes across is, “What you’re feeling right now is not that bad.” I understand that this is intended to be comforting. However, it puts down what the spoonie is feeling. It says, “Why are you complaining about this when it could be worse? Why aren’t you glad that it isn’t worse?” Obviously, this isn’t what is usually intended by the people who say it, but it doesn’t change that this is what many spoonies hear.

Last year, I asked spoonies to send me quotes of the ridiculous things people have said to them over the years. Several people (at least 5) told me variations of, “It could be worse.” Saying this to people is hurtful because what you’re saying is, “You don’t have anything to complain about. Why aren’t you grateful that it isn’t worse?”

Do you know how frustrating it is when people say, "It could be worse." Just because I'm not dying doesn't mean that my health isn't bad. So try saying something else instead.

What to say instead – There are so many things  you can stay instead. If you’re looking for a way to comfort someone, try asking, “Is there anything I can do?” or “How can I help?” If you don’t know what to say, you can tell them, “I don’t know how to respond to that.” That’s perfectly okay! Most people have no idea how to respond when I tell them about my health issues. You can also always say, “That sounds tough.” You are not obligated to comfort the person you are talking to. And if you’re talking to a friend who is upset about their health and you want to comfort them, you can ask them how to help or just give them a hug.

Saying, “It could be worse,” is not the required phrase for comforting someone with chronic illness. In fact, it you could stop saying it to spoonies overall, that would be great. We’re well aware that it could be worse, but that doesn’t change how tough our situation is.

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  • Reply Angela Tolsma

    I’ve said things like I wish I knew how I could help better and usually left it at that, so that if they wanted help they knew I was open to it, but I don’t know if that’s a direct enough way to put it. I probably should be more blunt and say let me know if there’s anything I can do. Brushing it off though is something I never want to do.

    October 21, 2016 at 2:11 pm
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  • Reply Ariadne Shrubsole

    Speaking from my own experience, and of people I’ve known with chronic illness, I would have to be at death’s door before I would call someone to say, “You said to let you know if there’s anything you can do..” I would recommend being specific. Examples, without all the quote marks because….
    How about I come over Thursday afternoon, if you’re up for company. I’d like to cook a meal or two for you, or vacuum the house, or give me a list and let me do some shopping. Things like that. Specific things that you know would be helpful if you had the flu or something. This presumes you know the person well enough and it’s not just a random ill person you’ve come across.
    The really angry part of me would want to say to the ‘it could be worse’ folks, ‘Yes. Things could be worse. For example, you could get in an accident and total your car and break your bones, your house could burn down, your spouse could run off with the mail delivery person. Things can always be worse. Does not mean what I am going through right now is not significant, because believe me, it really is.’ But then I am very angry at some people. 🙂

    August 24, 2017 at 7:18 pm
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