We say “everything happens for a reason” typically when bad situations turn fine. But what happens when they don’t turn out fine? Should we keep holding on to this phrase only to make ourselves feel better and forget how it affects others? Often, we forget the many layers of this seemingly innocuous and well-meaning phrase that, if we decide to dig deeper, is actually very problematic.
In this episode, I’m exploring the invisible privilege of this phrase and how it can really do more harm than good. Even as the current social and political climate seems to call for us to hang on to this phrase, it still helps to be more empathetic of how situations affect everyone differently. At the end of the day, no one deserves to have bad things happen to them, even if it means they might learn something.
Listen to the podcast here:
The Invisible Privilege Of “Everything Happens For A Reason”
“Everything happens for a reason,” is one of those popular phrases that make me want to jab a fork into my eyeball every time it pops up in my Instagram feed in some swirly pretty pink font. Don’t get me wrong, I love swirly pretty pink fonts but even though this seemingly innocuous phrase sounds good on the surface, it’s problematic. In this episode, we’re going to explore the invisible privilege of this phrase and how it can do more harm than good. Let’s get started.
In case anyone was concerned, no eyeballs were harmed in the making of this episode.
Everything happens for a reason. I tend to see this phrase come up most commonly in two different ways. During bad things happening when you’re in the throes of something terrible or after bad things have happened. Typically, when we bring this phrase up afterward, it’s because everything has turned out fine. During bad things, this is usually when someone dies unexpectedly or when something bad happens to you.
Most of the time we use this phrase to make ourselves feel better, not the person we’re saying it to. It’s a great way to avoid sitting in an uncomfortable situation or dealing with uncomfortable emotions. It stops everything in its tracks. Plus, as human beings, we feel better when we can ascribe a bigger meaning to something.
When my grandmother died a few years ago, I heard a lot of, “God needed her more,” and, “It was time for her to go home,” “It was God’s will.” You hear that a lot with deaths and stuff like that in religious circles. If we can explain the unexplainable, then we feel more secure in ourselves. We also hear this phrase after bad things have happened, “But everything has turned out fine.” There’s usually a different platitude if things that didn’t turn out fine.
We hear, “Everything happens for a reason,” if a bad thing has happened and now everything’s okay. For example, my friend opened a bookstore in January of 2020. She was open for two weeks, and then two weeks into opening her bookstore—her grand opening—she opened the store one day to an inch of standing water in her shop.
As you can imagine, standing water in a bookstore is not good. She closed up for a month. She found a new location with a great landlord. She put all her stuff back in and she opened back up in a new location. One month later, she was shut down again because of the pandemic.
Human beings want to understand the why of everything that happens to us. Click To Tweet
We were talking about how amazing her landlord has been with everything going on because obviously, her revenue is not the same. You can sell things online with a bookstore but it’s not the same as being able to sell things when people come into browse. Her landlord has been absolutely phenomenal throughout the whole process.
We were talking about her old landlord with the flood and her new landlord, even myself because I am embroiled in the online culture where this phrase pops up a lot. I caught myself wanting to say, “See? Everything happens for a reason.”
It’s like, “That bad thing happened to you so that this good thing could happen to you instead.” It doesn’t work that way. She didn’t need to experience a flood in her bookstore in order to value her business or learn that she’s a resilient badass or whatever. She didn’t need to experience a hardship in order to learn that stuff about herself.
The underlying need for the phrase is the same whether it’s used while you’re going through a bad thing or it’s used after the bad thing happens. The need is to explain why the bad thing happened to you. Why you had to go through something like that in order to get to whatever either the next thing—the good thing that’s coming if you’re going through a bad thing—or why you got to the good thing eventually in the end.
This originates all the way back to Aristotle who believed that your experiences are “designed” to shape you into the person that you’re meant to be because human beings want to understand the why of everything that happens to us. Our brains are built to always be seeking the answers. Humans don’t like uncertainty or ambiguity because it’s deeply uncomfortable. Our brains want to be sure of what’s happening to us so that we can try to predict what’s going to happen to us so we can mitigate the risk.
We’re always trying to make sure we can keep ourselves alive as a species. To do that, we need to mitigate the risk and be in control. In order to exert control over circumstances, we’re almost biologically compelled to assign them meaning. This well-meaning phrase, I do believe that when people say this, they mean well but it doesn’t always mean well.
As with any circumstance that happens to you, you can choose to think a positive thought about it or you can choose to think a negative thought about it. You don’t need a platitude for that, your brain is already going to automatically decide whether it’s going to think positively or negatively about the situation.
I have a habit of making that, “Everything happens to me for a reason,” like it means something negative about me or a situation. My natural default is to look at the situation as a glass-half-empty. When I got fired and had to move in with my mom in my mid to early twenties, my thoughts were, “I hadn’t tried hard enough to find another job. I wasn’t good enough at what I had been trained to do in college to get hired somewhere. I was putting in hundreds of applications and I wasn’t getting either interviews or I wasn’t getting jobs from interviews I went on. I’m a loser. If everything happens for a reason, this is happening because I’m a total loser.”
I’ve thought similar things when things in my business didn’t work out, it was like, “I have no idea what I’m doing or I’m a fraud.” This is why this well-meaning phrase can be unhelpful because you can take it and twist it into something negative no matter how well-meaning it is.
This phrase might lead you to assign a why to what happened to you but it probably isn’t leaving you room to actually process what happened. If your brain is busy figuring out why it’s not processing fear, grief, sadness, frustration, anxiety, or anger. If you’re busy trying to figure out why did this happened to me and how can I keep it from happening to me in the future, you’re not actually processing the helpful emotions that will allow you to realize that this is just a thing that happened to me and learn how to deal with it.
You can also get stuck in the whole pattern of trying to figure out what you did to make this thing happen to you. If you’re like me, you end up spending all of your time trying to avoid the same unpleasant thing from happening to you in the future.
Of course, this phrase can be as comforting as it is harmful. If it wasn’t comforting, I don’t think we would use it as much. For the most part, it’s a platitude that’s trying to make you feel better but isn’t encouraging you necessarily to actually deal with the situation at hand.
This phrase is problematic for several reasons but it tends to be a phrase that is spoken by those with extreme privilege. A lot of the time, it’s something that doesn’t take into account the truly awful things that human beings can experience. Rape, natural disasters, domestic violence, child abuse, racism, poverty, death or human trafficking, the list can go on.
We, as human beings, can learn big, important, and messy life lessons in ways that don't involve tragedy. Click To Tweet
There isn’t a reason that these things happen. There’s no hidden meaning or lesson in a hurricane destroying your entire town. There’s nothing you need to learn from being raped, they happen and they suck. Granted, I don’t see this phrase used a lot in those situations, which is why it’s problematic.
We know that this phrase doesn’t necessarily apply to those situations. We don’t always use it. There may be some people out there who are using it. I personally see it used in a lot more low-key situations. If you believe this phrase happens because this not very terrible thing happened to you, then even if no one ever says it to you, you can also apply this phrase to something worse that happens to you.
That’s what I did for my own assault. The phrase in these situations almost insinuates that we own responsibility for the bad thing that happens to us. If it happened for a reason, then we must have been able to control it in some way. It’s also a phrase that butts right up against, you control your own destiny.
If you control your own destiny and everything happens for a reason, are you causing these things that happen to you? There are a lot of lessons to be learned from adversity, tragedy, or failure. God knows I’ve learned plenty of them. We, as human beings, can learn big, important messy life lessons in ways that don’t involve tragedy. We don’t need a natural disaster to convince us that community is important. We didn’t need tens of thousands of people to die in a pandemic to see that our system is broken. We don’t need our bookstore to flood to understand resilience.
There’s no logic behind suffering as much as we, as human beings, want to think that there is. Suffering just is. Things happen and you deal with it in ways that are healthy, that allow you to process what happened to you and move on. Therapy, talking with friends, counseling, whatever the thing is, you need to be able to process the situation rather than trying to figure out why it happened to you.
Because if you were spending all your time figuring out why it happened to you so that you can get to the good thing next, then you’re not spending any time processing it, which can be detrimental to your own emotional resiliency the next time that you go through something that’s difficult.
This is a conversation I’ve had with myself, with friends of mine, if we’re not going to use phrases like this and others, what takes its place? What do we do when someone is having a hard time or going through a difficult situation? How do we help them? If you’re tempted to say this phrase to a friend who’s been struggling like I was—this happened to me—try empathizing instead.
If we go back to my example with my friend and her bookstore, ultimately what I did is I didn’t say everything happens for a reason but I did say, “I’m proud of you that you stuck it out despite this other difficult thing that you went through with your store. I’m proud of the way you’re sticking it out now,” because she’s been amazingly resilient in figuring out how to adapt to all the changes from COVID-19.
Her store being mandatorily closed and stuff like that, it’s fantastic, the way she was able to adapt to all of the different changes. Rather than offer her a platitude that might sound good in the moment but doesn’t mean anything, I was able to offer up something that was a little bit more meaningful to her and what she’s actually been through and the situation.
If that’s a concept that feels weird or maybe sounds totally foreign, I get that because that used to also be a concept that was totally foreign to me until I was introduced to Brené Brown. If you want to learn anything about empathy, strength, and courage, look up Brené Brown. I highly recommend her special on Netflix called The Call to Courage. It’s amazing. I’ve watched it several times.
She’s got several books out, half a dozen or so. They’re all good. I’ve read almost all of them. There are a couple I haven’t looked at yet. My favorite one is a book called I Thought It Was Just Me (but it isn’t). This book was especially transformative for me because it made me realize that we’re all going through the same thing but we think we’re going through it alone.
We have this tendency to assume that every bad thing that happens to us because of the whole, we’re trying to assign meaning to things. We have this tendency to say, “This bad thing is happening. I must have caused it. I feel shame. No one else has ever done this before. I can’t tell anyone about it.” Her book was like, “No. Other people go through this too and it’s okay. Sharing it is actually what makes us courageous.”
Plus, if you need more recommendations after you’re finished reading this, you can check out her podcast that launched called Unlocking Us. I’ve listened to all of them. They’re amazing. Another thing, something else that you can do is you can learn how to process your emotions. I do this personally by allowing myself to name the physical sensations in my body. Feeling feelings sounds easy but I grew up in a family where feelings are messy and uncomfortable. We don’t want to talk about things that are uncomfortable. I grew up pushing down my feelings a lot and not feeling them.
Good emotions or bad emotions, they are all a part of the human experience. Click To Tweet
Learning how to process my emotions has been a ride for me. The way that I do it is I literally sit in a quiet space, I name the physical sensations that are happening in my body. I did this with some anxiety that I was experiencing. I walked into my bedroom, I laid down on my bed. I was like, “There’s pressure behind my eyes. My mouth feels dry. My heart is racing. My chest feels tight. My stomach is in knots.” I went from head to toe, all the way up and down.
As I scanned my body, I named every physical sensation that I could feel until they were gone. Depending on what’s going on, whatever the situation is that’s triggering, whatever my feelings are, sometimes the process is fast. It takes five minutes, sometimes the process takes 25 minutes, it depends.
I sit there and name the physical sensations because that allows me to let the feeling be without trying to avoid it, which usually makes the feeling pass slower. It allows me to allow the feeling without making it mean anything about me. It’s been an incredibly helpful process for me to process my emotions without trying to shove them down or ignore them. Good emotions or bad emotions, they’re all a part of the human experience.
That’s another thing that this phrase doesn’t allow you to process or maybe even realize that feelings are just feelings. You need the bad feelings and the good feelings. They’re all a part of the same experience. You need to learn how to cope with the bad thing and the good thing. Being able to cope with both is taking care of your mental health.
That’s therapy, that’s counseling. It’s talking with a friend, it’s working with a mindset coach, it’s meditation or whatever it is for you. You need to make sure that you’re prioritizing your mental health in situations like this so that you are not dropping into blaming yourself, shame, or anything like that.
Everything doesn’t happen for a reason but you get to decide how to deal with the things that do happen to you. Human beings want to help. I don’t think this phrase comes from a bad place. We want to make sense of things. We try to say things that make sense of things but sometimes life doesn’t make sense and it’s hard. Bad things happen and learning how to process that stuff rather than shove it down with platitudes will go a lot longer.
The good news is that we can decide what lesson we want to learn from the hardship and create our own experience. If you have other common phrases that you’d like me to tackle, please email me at Podcast@FeministVisionaries.com with the phrase and I will add it to the list of future episodes. That’s it for this episode. I’ll talk to you later.