Why you should stop asking ‘what’s wrong’

The next time someone is obviously upset or sad try asking them “are you ok?” or “do you want to talk?” Frequently in our culture, we say “is there something wrong?” or “what’s wrong?” And, while it may seem like we are asking the same thing no matter what words we use, the words we use and how our sentence is phrased can have a big impact.

Our minds are very receptive to language. We connect our sadness as “wrong” when we say phrases like “what’s wrong?” Being sad isn’t wrong, we just don’t feel happy and while that is not ideal, it is not wrong to feel upset. This is all part of the Relational Frame Theory (RFT), which is the psychological theory of human language. The theory argues that the building block of human language and understanding is “relating.” Therefore by saying to someone that is sad, “what is wrong?” they — and you— are in turn relating being sad with something wrong. 

Avoiding the ‘freeze up’

Asking “what’s wrong?” tends to make people freeze up and build a wall, and frequently results in a “nothing” response. The phrase itself stigmatizes our feelings, forcing us to only show our “happy” selves. It makes people internalize that the emotions they are feeling are wrong, and in turn, they ask others “what’s wrong?”. It is a never-ending circle. Instead, we should be saying things like “what happened?” , “What’s going on?” , or “How are you feeling?” in a tone that is compassionate and caring. 

While we may think what we say is going in one ear and out the other, it is actually being absorbed in the deepest depths of our brain. Same goes with what we say. By telling ourselves things and saying things to others we are conditioning our brain to think and feel a certain way. We are creating relationships between words and feelings that are not necessarily healthy or true. 

There is no doubt this is complicated stuff but there are lessons for us all here. By thinking about how we word things before we say them and de-conditioning ourselves to these common phrases we can change our mindset as well as that of the people we are interacting with. Words are powerful tools if used correctly.

4 thoughts on “Why you should stop asking ‘what’s wrong’

  1. I agree. Have a coworker that asks that from me and others. It’s annoying when she asks that. I tend to freeze and feel judged. While the employee gets frustrated when I shut down.

    1. Hi Vernon, thanks for commenting. I agree! It can sound judgemental. I wish more folks can understand this. What helps you unfreeze when you shut down?

  2. I was dating someone for four years. She would ALWAYS ask me, “What’s wrong?” Now, to be fair… I have a stern look. South American genes, I guess. I get it from my dad. And I told her on MANY occasions, “Oh, nothing’s wrong. Sorry. I know I have a mean look… But really, I’m not upset.” She NEVER believed me. And it got to the point where I started making things up just to satisfy her. Dumb things… “Well, I did step on a cockroach earlier today. And I felt bad because he was probably the matriarch of the family… And now his poor kids will starve to death.” Clearly that’s an exaggeration, but it’s not too far from the truth. And she’d respond, “See?! I KNEW something was wrong! You can tell me ANYTHING! Don’t worry. I won’t judge you.” When we broke up, this came up as a point of contention. Not only did she not believe me when I said nothing was wrong, but then we had to spend half an hour resolving an issue that simply did not exist.

    1. Hi Carlos, thank you for your comment. Most of the time when our partners demand to know “what’s wrong,” it’s usually coming from a place of hypervigilance. Somewhere in their past, something probably went wrong without them knowing and catastrophe happened by the time they knew it. I don’t suggest you go back to your ex and ask her. It’s something worthwhile to note if you encounter something like this again.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *