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Diversity and Inclusion

5 things not to say to people with invisible illnesses

Let’s face it, we can all get a bit tongue-tied when talking about disabilities or chronic illnesses. We so desperately want to be supportive but don’t want to say the wrong thing and make the situation worse. When it comes to talking to someone with an invisible illness, it can be tough to find the right words. If you can’t see what another person is going through, it can be hard to know what it’s like living with their challenges.

Here are some things you shouldn’t say to someone living with an invisible illness:

❌ “But you don’t look sick!”
One major challenge of invisible illnesses is that they’re, well, invisible.

Someone who says, “But you don’t look sick,” probably means well and is actually trying to give a compliment. After all, no one likes to look sick! But to someone with an invisible illness, this actually sounds like disbelief. That they’re not really as sick as they say they are.

✅ What to say instead: “This must be frustrating for you. What can I do to support you?”

❌ “At least…”
There are tons of ways this sentence could go. “At least it’s not cancer,” or “At least you have a family to look after you,” and so on. You may think that you’re helping someone see the bright side when you say this, but what you’re actually doing is minimizing their experience.

✅ What to say instead: Reflect back to show you understand what they’re saying. “I hear you say that you’re struggling today. What can I do to help you?”

❌ “Have you tried yoga/cutting out gluten/taking herbal remedies?”
There are probably loads of remedies that you/your cousin/your best friend’s roommate have tried that you’re just bursting to share. But it suggests that if they haven’t thought about these options, they’re “behind”, or aren’t managing their disability adequately. In the future, it’s best to leave the medical advice to the professionals.

✅ What to say instead: “What helps you feel better?”

❌ “I know how you feel.”
Unless you have exactly the same kind of illness, chances are you don’t know how they feel. And even then, your experiences may be different. A bad night’s sleep doesn’t feel the same as chronic fatigue syndrome. And an upset stomach doesn’t compare to Crohn’s disease. It’s nice that you’re trying to empathize, but you can’t understand exactly how they feel if you’re not going through the same thing.

✅ What to say instead: “You’re not alone, and I’m here if you want to talk.”

❌ “You’re so brave.”
Telling someone you think that they’re brave comes from a place of good intentions, but most people just find it patronizing. Folks with invisible illnesses want to be seen as people, not superheroes.

✅ What to say instead: Nothing! Sometimes it helps just to listen. Let them know you’re here for them if they want to talk.

In short, it’s hard to know what someone with an invisible illness is going through, and it can be difficult to know what to say. But that doesn’t mean you need to stay silent! You can still be there for someone with an invisible illness. Just please don’t use the phrase “you don’t look sick.”

5 things not to say to people with invisible illnesses

Each week, we dip into the unanswerable, nuanced and gray areas of inclusion and offer, not answers, but inklings.

Rebecca Webber Picture Rebecca Webber (she/her)

Rebecca is a superstar writer and our in-house expert on collaborative leadership and is the powerhouse behind our flagship leadership programme, Leadership Works. She's read more research and writing on leadership than you — guaranteed! Before she joined the Hive Learning team, Rebecca wrote short and snappy news stories about digital innovation and built brilliant client relationship skills. When she's not geeking out about leadership, Rebecca can be found out in the English countryside either horseback riding or walking her pug, Archie.