Through my experiences as a mental health professional and as a person who lives with chronic depression, it has come to my attention that many people don’t know how to provide comfort or respond appropriately in times of need. Instead of listening to what’s being said & taking the time necessary to digest it, reflect on it, then proceed with a constructive response, people often jump to conclusions & say the 1st thing that comes to mind. Or in other words, they react.
This is not only unhelpful, but possibly detrimental &/or destructive to the person in distress. See, when you react, there is no tact. In order to respond, you must think beyond the initial reaction.
In an attempt to resolve this common dilemma, I’ve compiled a list of “reaction pitfalls” to avoid as well as healthier ways of responding. These lists are inspired by communication theorists such as Carl Rogers, the creator of Client-Centered Therapy (Search for “Unconditional Positive Regard” “Empathic Attunement,” & “Acceptance.”), psychologist & couples counselor Gary Chapman, who authored The Five Love Languages, & Virginia Satir, who identified 4 unhealthy forms of communication (i.e. Blaming, Placating, Computing, & Distracting) as well as hypothesized a solution, A.K.A. “Leveling.”
4 reactions to avoid:
1.Dismissing/Minimizing - Someone comes to you upset or with a problem, & the first thing you say is “Could be worse.” Or, “It’s not even that bad.” One step further, you bring up a story that happened to you or someone you know & compare/contrast. This is not helpful. It just makes the person feel bad for mentioning what they’re going through, negates their problem, & makes it look as if they’re complaining & whining. Those of us who suffer from depression often just want to feel heard & understood.
Another way of being dismissive is being too cheerful or overly optimistic. Saying things like “Just think positive!” Or “Look at the bright side!” Toxic positivity is a real thing.
2. Gaslighting – The definition of “gaslighting” is when you discredit someone by intentionally making them doubt their reality. Depressed individuals often hear phrases like, “It’s all in your head!” “You’re choosing to feel this way!” “You’re making this up!” “There’s nothing wrong!” “Stop being so negative!”
A person who is depressed or facing a crisis is not choosing to be. People who face depression may exhibit any or all of the following:
- excessive guilt & shame
- feel hopeless &/or helpless
- have low self-esteem
- feel like a burden to others
- have little or no motivation
- lose pleasure &/or interest in activities they once enjoyed
- experience weight loss or gain
- insomnia or hypersomnia
- feel incredible loneliness and isolation
None of these is a choice. Let us refrain from giving them “tough love,” a “reality check” or “snapping them out of their funk”. This type of language often does more harm than good.
3. Playing the Devil’s Advocate/Challenging
Playing the devil’s advocate may stem from good intentions: Perhaps we want to shift a person’s perspective or help them to see more clearly. But if this is done carelessly or with persistence, it can become needlessly argumentative & damaging.
For instance, say someone tells you about a friend who slighted or betrayed them. After you listen to their story, you may think their friend didn’t do anything wrong or malicious, so you start relating to & defending their friend’s actions. To offer clarity and an alternate perspective is okay, but it is not always necessary or helpful. Your friend told you the story because they were hurt, searching for support, and wanting to be heard. To analyze the story and identify with the other can make your friend feel undermined, unheard, and invalidated.
4. Unsolicited Advice
Humans are natural fixers. When someone comes to you with a problem, it can be your first instinct to solve it. But giving advice when it isn’t requested can be detrimental, especially if you’re not well- informed, qualified, or familiar with the person’s situation.
Very often, those of us who are feeling crappy just want to vent & release our frustrations. We don’t always need advice, just a listening ear. If we ask for it, give the best advice & guidance you can! But if not, don’t assume we need it & can’t figure things out on our own.
Now that we’ve identified the unhealthy reactions people commonly make, here are:
5 healthier alternatives:
As humans, we all seek validation. We want to feel that others hear & understand us. Try saying things like, “I’m really sorry you went through that.” “That must have been tough.” “Gosh, that sounds stressful.” Responses like this mirror feelings and show that you’ve been listening, that you care, & that you’re acknowledging or imagining what they’ve been through.
Another basic human need is empathy & compassion. We want to feel like others can walk in our shoes & feel our struggles. We want to feel like others can relate to & connect with us. This can be a time to use your lived experience & personal wisdom to show them they’re not alone, that you’ve been through something similar, & that they too can recover. (To improve your skills in validating & relating, consider furthering your knowledge by doing research on “active listening” & “empathic responding.”)
This one takes some skill, but those who are depressed tend to look at life through a negative lens. You can help restore the clarity of their lens. If they make a statement like, “I’m a failure,” rephrase it in a more realistic way: “No, you had a setback. But it’s a lesson learned, & now you can try again.” Or, “No, you struggled to get the results you wanted. But that doesn’t define you.” You can also help shift their focus by reinforcing their strengths, skills, & accomplishments.
4. Having a Sense of Humor
This one also requires some tact, but as long as you’re not being insensitive or changing the subject, you can inject some humor to help uplift someone who feels defeated or hopeless. Again, really assess the needs of who you’re talking to & identify their communication style before using humor in this way.
5. Encouragement/Instilling Hope
Dealing with depression can make one feel hopeless. The future may seem bleak; the world may seem shrouded in darkness.
We all need reassurance. As a caring friend, you can help them see the light. Let them know things will be alright. Let them know that you are there for them & will support them every step of the way. Help them keep the faith alive, & remind them that there are resources out there for them if ever needed.
Mental health services & support groups are available if they’re interested. If you’re willing, offer to take or accompany them so they might feel extra supported and not alone. Having your words supported by action will help them feel safe, empowered, and one step closer to healing.