I know that everyone has had this experience. In fact, everyone has been on both sides of this experience. You are depressed, or maybe going through a rough time, or maybe it’s just a bad day. You confide in a friend or family member, and the response from that person, though well-meaning, makes you feel… violated. Do you know the feeling I’m talking about? You wish you hadn’t said anything. You feel like closing up, changing the subject, not bringing it up again. You recognize this person’s good intentions, and somehow that only makes you feel worse. Why did their response make you feel this way?
Or how about this: Your friend confides in you that she is feeling upset, worried, depressed, etc… Whatever it might be. You really feel for her! You want to help her, and so you say whatever you can think of that might be helpful. And yet you notice a distancing in her eyes, a closing up. She smiles at you and thanks you, but the smile is not genuine. You feel frustrated because you really want to help. But if she’s going to be like that, well…
What happened here? One person is in need and is reaching out, the other wants so much to help. This should be a moment of love, a coming together, an opportunity to give and receive kindness and empathy. What went wrong?
Any number of things. Here is a list of what not to say to someone who is feeling depressed:
- “You are a wonderful person who helps a lot of people. You have all kinds of wonderful qualities. Think about that and you’ll feel great!” This makes the depressed person feel like a fraud. What he is thinking is that on the outside he appears that way, but on the inside he is actually bad. He feels like you don’t understand.
- “Look at all the beauty that surrounds you! Go out and enjoy this gorgeous day instead of moping around thinking about your problems.” The depressed person may not be in a place where she can enjoy life through her senses. When you are depressed your sensory perception is dulled.
- “Maybe this is all because of that childhood trauma you had.” Practicing amateur psychoanalysis is not the way to go. It’s not what your friend is looking for from you, it’s not helpful and in fact, could be damaging.
- “I know exactly how you feel because I’ve been through the same thing…” and then you proceed to tell your story. You do not know exactly how your friend feels. You have no way of knowing that because you are not her. What you know is how YOU felt under what you think might be similar circumstances.
- “I know what you need to do to solve this. Let me tell you…” What makes you the expert? What makes you think that your solutions, based on your values, would help someone else? What’s more, where does your need to give advice come from? When you give advice, you are getting yourself off the hook. You can go on your merry way no longer troubled by this friend’s problems, because you “fixed” them. If the friend does not take your advice, well that’s up to him and you are free from responsibility. Who is this working for? For you, not for your friend.
I know I have said some version of all of the above to a depressed friend and I’ve had it all said to me. While I have appreciated the intention behind these words and I’ve had the best intentions myself, I recognize that these responses are not helpful to people who are troubled.
What is helpful?
Something that is very simple, and yet very hard to do. What helps the most is being present with the friend through her difficulty. Accompanying her with your care. Resisting the urge to fix, to scold, advise, “inspire,” to make the bad go away. Being there as she struggles. Listening. If appropriate, hugging. Respecting the integrity of who she is, believing that she is capable of finding the best answers for her within. One of the greatest gifts you can give someone is seeing her in her wholeness. Seeing that she struggles, and yet still caring about her.
And maybe realizing something that will help you do that. Like, that depression, struggle, and bad times have their place. As Stephen Fry says:
It’s not all bad. Heightened self-consciousness, apartness, an inability to join in, physical shame and self-loathing—they are not all bad. Those devils have been my angels. Without them I would never have disappeared into language, literature, the mind, laughter and all the mad intensities that made and unmade me.
If appropriate, encourage your friend to get professional help and if you are concerned that your friend may do himself harm, read more here about what to do.