Gwyneth’s ‘I Wish You Well’ Was Immediate – But Can It Be, Really?

Photo: Rick Bowmer-Pool/Getty Images.
Once, on a cold January evening, I wrote in an iMessage the words: "I wish you well." I was signing off a text to someone who had behaved less than ideally towards me. I cringed as I sent it
Although now, months later, I recall with minor embarrassment the fact that I really did not wish the recipient of the message "well" at all in that moment, I am impressed that my brain was able to comprehend being able to do so at some point in the future and spell out the letters. 
I’m telling you this because I, a grown woman who has attended talking therapy, felt extremely "seen" when Gwyneth Paltrow leaned over in a Utah courtroom on 30th March, revealing her impeccable highlights, and said quietly to the man who had tried unsuccessfully to sue her over a 2016 skiing accident that she "wished him well" before leaving court to celebrate her $1 victory (plus legal fees) with what I can only hope was a raging night on the bone broth. 
Could Paltrow really "wish" 76-year-old Terry Sanderson, who was seeking $300,000 (£245,000) in damages from her for a crash that he believed was her fault, which had seen the millionaire actress and Goop founder dragged into the public eye and accused of "lying" by Sanderson's lawyer, "well"? 
Sanderson, who responded "thank you, dear" seems to think so. The retired optometrist has said that he thought Paltrow’s parting sentiment was "very kind".
But how quickly after conflict can we really wish the person who has caused us difficulty or pain "well"? 
Doing so is supposedly proof that you are operating on a higher emotional level. Often, however, it feels like yet another way in which young adults today use therapy speak to shut down conversations and attempt to claim the emotional high ground.
Millennials have been described as "the therapy generation" because young adults today are more likely to have experienced a mental health issue and received treatment for it, according to the charity Mind. The evolution of conversations about our brains and the things that go on inside them is undeniably good. It is no longer taboo to talk about anxiety or depression but, on the flip side, the language of therapy does seem to have infiltrated everyday life. 
From TikTok to Instagram, from conversations in the pub to dating app profiles, everyone is either "triggered" or "triggering" and if you aren’t "establishing your boundaries" you’re on the receiving end of someone who is. 
In a professional context, these terms and the clinical framework that they are shorthand for can be incredibly powerful. But like the impulse to diagnose someone who has broken up with you as "avoidant" or dismiss a person who has caused you pain as "toxic", the quick reflex to "wish" an adversary of any kind "well" before the dust has settled on your conflict is a little like saying "f*ck you" without having to sully yourself. 
Dr Linda Blair is a clinical psychologist and an associate fellow of the British Psychological Society (BPS). 
"Saying 'I wish you well' to someone can be a bit like saying 'with respect' to someone you are disagreeing with," she explains over the phone. "The person saying that doesn’t really mean 'with respect' at all!"
For Dr Blair, the ubiquity of "I wish you well" today appears as a symptom of what happens when people feel uncomfortable, as we might imagine Paltrow did that day in court, whether or not her well wishes were heartfelt.
Indeed, as one friend told me when we discussed Paltrow’s courtroom drama: "I have said 'I wish you well' when I’m trying to gain control or power in a difficult situation." 
Dr Blair agrees that this could be partly why people utter the words during conflict.
"When people get nervous they tend to subconsciously buy time with their words," she explains. "I think saying 'I wish you well' is just the latest way of doing this and it isn’t always said with meaning but I think it’s more important to consider the origins of this phrase than interrogate whether or not the people using it really mean it."
Studies show that forgiveness is good for us. Letting go of anger and bitterness is vital in order to move forward and doing so can contribute to better health, from lower blood pressure to fewer symptoms of depression
This, Dr Blair says, is why therapists might encourage their clients to practise forgiveness and wish those who have harmed them "well". 
"You might not really wish someone well and you shouldn’t force it," Dr Blair continues, "because there may come a time in the future where you do mean the words. But equally, there is research to suggest that how we talk to ourselves can influence our attitudes."
That is to say that by wishing someone well even if you’re not quite ready to do so, over and over again, you can fake it until you make it or, rather, feel at peace with the situation you were in with them.
This slender phrase of just four words can contain a multitude of messages; it certainly did when I last texted it to another person. These messages include but are not limited to: "You have caused me immense pain, been careless with my feelings and I am really p*ssed off but I refuse to be provoked into anger and swear at you because then I will be in the wrong too and have to be honest about the role I have played here in ignoring your behaviour until it was impossible to ignore."
I say this not because I think it is impossible to have empathy for other people, particularly if they have harmed us. It is. Or because I don’t think it’s possible to want the best for someone who has, for whatever reason, been a negative force in your life. Two things can be true. 
Rather, the point is that in the great rush to be on the right side of every single encounter we have these days, perhaps some of us are trying to skip through important stages of pain and grief before we get to the healing stage where we can say "I wish you well" to another person and genuinely mean it. 
In her practice, Dr Blair has a saying which she has borrowed from the American author Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Mother Night: "We are what we pretend to be."
As Dr Blair sees it, we need to be very careful about what we pretend to be. If we pretend to be okay when we are not, we will not acknowledge harm when it has been done. By the same token, if we hold onto anger when it is no longer productive or helpful to feel it, then we might stay angry. 
"Just saying 'I wish you well' once has no value. You have to really think about it and mean it," Dr Blair adds. "That can help you get over discomfort as well as a sense of injustice if you are feeling it. And if someone uses this phrase, it could be that they want to wish someone well even if they aren’t ready to yet, and that’s admirable."

More from Sex & Relationships

R29 Original Series