The Dark Side of “Thoughts and Prayers”

TW: Mass shootings.

Reading Time: 5 minutes 
Reading Time with Exercises: 35 minutes

As a licensed therapist, I am deeply concerned about the mass shootings that continue in the United States and the negative mental health outcomes that arise from living in such an environment.

When these incidents happen, we repeatedly hear the narrative of “thoughts and prayers” from those in power.

How many times have we seen leaders talk about their good intentions without seeing common-sense action to prevent further harm?

Here are the dark sides to “thoughts and prayers.”

They are used to manipulate.

Repeated “thoughts and prayers” with no effort towards action is a sign that you may be dealing with a covert narcissist–someone whose ego is fed by appearing to have good intentions for other people, but is only looking out for themselves. 

You might hear someone say:

  • I’ll pray for you.
  • I’m thinking good thoughts for you.
  • I really care.
  • I value your contribution to the team. 

Someone who says all of the above may not be:

  • Advocating for you. 
  • Following through on your carefully considered feedback.
  • Creating an environment where it’s safe for you to work.  

I hear similar things from high achieving clients in unhealthy work environments. (These are composites from several client scenarios, not actual quotes from clients.)

“They say they appreciate me, Mari, but I haven’t gotten a raise in years. I didn’t even get my birthday acknowledged.”

“They talk about how dedicated we are to the mission. But we can’t eat ‘the mission’. We don’t even pay at competitive nonprofit rates! Meanwhile, I heard the CEO just gave herself another raise. Mission, my ass.”

“My boss talks about work-life balance all the time, but because of my caseload, I haven’t seen my kids in three weeks and I haven’t had a vacation in six months. My nanny tells me that my daughter cries for me to come home and it breaks my heart.” 

If you learned manipulation, it’s very easy to unconsciously repeat this in a leadership role. If you grew up with a manipulative parent or survived a manipulative romantic relationship, you may have learned to manipulate and say the right things to survive. This is not your fault, but it’s absolutely up to you to acknowledge this pattern and work to change it. 

Leadership Question: 

(15 minutes)

What are the ways I learned to manipulate?  

How can I become more aware of these ways?

They are an excuse for inaction.

I’m not saying that spiritual people–those who send out happy thoughts and prayers to the universe or the divine–are inherently ineffective. That would be unfair, prejudiced, and hypocritical, as I’m spiritual myself.

However, thoughts and prayers become futile when they are not coupled with advocacy, action, legislation, boycotts, and voting.

It’s one thing to pray for the poor—it’s another thing to feed the poor. Thoughts and prayers are the seeds to action,but they are not equivalent to action itself. 

As a therapist, I hear daily that people would like better mental health, better relationships, to stop worrying so much, but this ultimately takes hard work. I’m paid to point my clients in the right direction for an hour a week, but what’s done for the other 167 hours is up to them.

Leadership Question: 

(5 minutes)

Would I rather be known as a person with good intentions or a person who takes concrete action? Why? 

They are not a true apology.

Working with many leaders of marginalized identities, I say this all day as a therapist: 

The only apology that we should accept from others is changed behavior–or the effort towards changed behavior.

(This is especially important if you are in a marginalized identity because you have learned to tolerate a lot of cruelty, marginalization, and disrespect in order to achieve your status, income, or title.  I have not worked with a single high achiever of a marginalized identity–whether BIPOC, female, LGBTQIA+, fat, neurodivergent or disabled–who has not encountered heaps of bullshit and ignorance to get to where they are.  This includes you. I see you.) 

Thoughts and prayers are neither a movement towards behavior change or behavior change itself. At worst, they say, “Behavior doesn’t matter as long as we’re thinking happy thoughts.” 

Hear how ridiculous that sounds?  It’s also disrespectful to the memories of those who were lost to senseless gun violence.

The only apologies the grieving families in Uvalde, Buffalo, Columbine (and, sadly, too many other places to mention) should be getting from authority figures are efforts to make sure that this never happens again, to any other family, to any other school, to any other child, to any other community.

Leadership Questions:  

(10 minutes)

What are times I made empty apologies in my life, and why? When have I received empty apologies? How did I know that they were empty? 

For better or for worse, times of crisis are times when leaders are made. 

Take good care of yourselves. Give yourself time to grieve. Know that I am here to support you.

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Disclaimer:This blog does not replace in-depth, individualized help from a health professional or provide any diagnosis or treatment. By reading, you understand this statement and commit to seeking psychotherapy or medication support if needed. You also understand that Mari Verano, LLC will not be able to intervene in a crisis or court situation. Please seek your own legal and/or crisis resources.

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