what not to say. do this instead


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:

  1. “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.
  2. “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.
  3. “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.
  4. “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.
  5. “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.

What do you do with bad milk?

In Spanish, mala leche can refer to anger or bad temper. Ese tío tiene muy mala leche means “that guy has a terrible temper.”  This past weekend I participated in some workshops for life coaches and in one of them in which we worked with an actor/director/clown/therapist, he asked us repeatedly, “What do you do with your mala leche?” We talked about how women tend to handle anger in unhealthy ways by expressing it indirectly. I’ve been reading more about anger this week. Women have a history of squashing our anger down because that’s what we’ve seen our mothers and grandmothers do. These women in the past often had to silence their anger to protect marriages that provided their only livelihoods. Anger was expressed indirectly in overeating, alcoholism, perfectionism, and depression, all of which, amazingly and sadly, have been considered more socially acceptable than expressing anger directly. Though now women are less dependent on a relationship to provide for us materially, the legacy of suppression of anger continues.

It’s taking a tremendous toll on our health by causing health problems that can radically shorten our lives. Studies have linked suppressed anger to cardiac problems, high blood pressure, headaches, irritable bowel syndrome, and cancer. Anger can lead to rumination at night, replaying over and over again in your mind what has made you angry, which besides causing insomnia, causes your heart rate and blood pressure to rise, stomach acids to churn, adrenaline and other stress hormones rise, breathing rate increases, and muscles tighten. If you express your anger indirectly, it’s going to do you physical harm for sure.

How do we suppress anger? Here are four ways:

Containing  You know you’re angry, but you hold it all inside hoping it will blow over.

Internalizing  Instead of getting angry at other people or situations who have provoked you, you turn the anger around and blame yourself.

Segmenting You deny that you are angry because you think anger is unacceptable. You tend to be passive-aggressive. Your anger is disguised or rerouted.

Externalizing You contain your anger until you explode. This behavior provokes guilt and shame and reinforces the idea that anger is bad.

I have done all of the above. As I’ve mentioned before, I tend to have very strong, extreme emotions. Practicing Stoicism has gone a long way in helping me manage them, but it’s inevitable that I will sometimes still feel anger, occasionally lots. I’ve come to see that not only is anger inevitable, it’s sometimes necessary. Anger can alert us to a potentially harmful situation that needs to change and powerfully motivate us to make those changes. Anger helps us maintain healthy boundaries, protecting us from people who try to take advantage. Angry energy, properly harnessed, can provide clarity to our values and goals. But how do we deal with anger in healthy ways so as to ensure that it will work to our advantage?

This is how I do it. Some of these are practices I’ve been doing for years, and others I am just barely incorporating now.

1. Take a breather. A long walk has been my go-to anger management device for decades. For you it might be locking yourself in the bathroom, taking a short walk around your office building, sitting on a park bench, weeding the garden, or chopping wood.

2. Realize that you are angry and give yourself permission to feel angry. If you can’t even realize that you are angry, it’s hard to make that energy work for you. There is not a thing wrong with feeling angry. Own it. Embrace it. Having angry feelings does not mean that you are crazy, out of control, or irritable. Suppressing angry feelings, however, might lead to you becoming one or all of those things. Acknowledging angry feelings is the first step to dealing with those feelings in a healthy way and it shows that you are a mature and powerful person.

In the workshop with the actor/director/clown/therapist, we acted out different scenarios, some of which provoked us to anger and frustration. I was amazed at how liberating it felt to have permission to be angry. Not only have permission, but to be encouraged. After experiencing that catharsis, I felt not only relief, but better connected to my emotions, more present, and for lack of a better way of describing it, like my spirit was inhabiting my body more fully. I felt alive down to the tips of my fingers and toes.

3. Identify the true source of your anger. This can take some doing if you have a history (like most people do) of suppressing. I am especially good at redirecting my anger without realizing it. I might feel anger at someone that for whatever reason I don’t allow myself to acknowledge, so it comes out at someone else, someone “safer,” or is dispersed over several different people and situations as general annoyance.

Writing can help you explore those feelings and examine their roots. People keep gratitude journals and those are great. But an anger journal may prove just as life-changing. If you keep a record over a month or so of when you feel angry, you’ll discover the pattern.

4.  Once you understand why you are angry, make a plan. This plan may include approaching someone and calmly yet firmly telling them that something they did made you angry. It’s best to stick to the specifics of one situation rather than generalizing. For example, it’s better to say: “When we were driving to Málaga today and you were weaving in and out of cars so fast, I felt scared and angry” rather than “You drive like an effing maniac!” Depending on the response, you may further harness anger to establish boundaries. That might mean refusing to ride again in the car with someone who drives dangerously.

Anybody can become angry — that is easy, but to be angry with the right person and to the right degree and at the right time and for the right purpose, and in the right way — that is not within everybody’s power and is not easy. -Aristotle

I suppose being angry is an art.

How to Go Through Hell: A Primer

Dante and Virgil visiting Hell. William Blake
Dante and Virgil visiting Hell. William Blake

As some of you know who have been reading this blog, I have been working for the past couple years on becoming more emotionally resilient. For my entire adult life until two years ago, I was married to a man who made it his business to solve any problem I had, big or small. When we separated and I also lost the support of my faith community and many friends, living in a foreign country far from my family, I realized that my emotional resilience level was about zero. There were some men hanging around and I saw that I had the option of choosing one who would take care of my problems for me again. But that didn’t seem like the best option for a smart, strong, independent New England girl. I said to myself, I’ve got this. I can use this time that I’m single to develop the skills I need to take care of my own emotional needs.

It’s been a rocky ride. And I’m not referring to the trials that have come my way. Everyone has problems, challenges, etc. I’m talking about how I handled them. Sometimes I’ve failed quite spectacularly. Sometimes I’ve been needy, selfish, inept, and awkward. However, this time I succeeded. I have to say, I didn’t know I had it in me. I’ve come a long way.

In the last three weeks, I’ve been to Hell and back. I finally told a friend most of the story last night and when I was done, her mouth was hanging open and her eyes enormous. I didn’t tell her all of it because there wasn’t time, and I won’t tell anyone all of it. It’s the kind of thing that could happen to anyone and it doesn’t matter what it was. I’m fine. Hell no, I’m much better than fine. (More about that later.)

A couple of the things that came up in these weeks were things that I’ve never had to deal with in my life, or even think about. I felt overwhelmed, confused, scared, and very alone. I started confiding in a friend but that ended up backfiring and making me feel worse. I felt too vulnerable, so everything she said only made me feel worse. For a while I kept it all to myself. I know that my friends and family are there in part to help me through difficult times, but I wanted to hold off and see how much I could handle on my own without troubling or stressing other people. And I wanted to see how emotionally resilient I could be.

I can’t believe I’m saying this now, but I’m glad all of this happened. In my efforts to establish order in this chaos and find confort, I’ve learned valuable coping techniques that work for me and that I can apply next time I have to go through something like this. (I know I said I was glad this happened, but please God let there not be a next time!) I also discovered a strength that I never knew I had, or at least never considered it a strength in these circumstances. I learned new things about myself as well as useful information about another individual that it was much better to know sooner than later.

Here is my little primer for going through Hell:

1. Let yourself feel your feelings. There were a lot of negative and intense feelings all at once, each competing to have its turn. Guilt, fear, confusion, pain, uncertainty, sadness, disappointment. It wasn’t always convenient or possible to give way to these emotions during the day when I was out and about in the world. It was good to have times where I had to go about my business cheerfully. That made me feel more cheerful, in fact. But it was just as good when I was alone in my bed at night to let myself cry for a little while. I found that when I did this I was less likely to wake up to panic attacks during the night. Further on in the post I talk about what I discovered when I let myself cry.

2. Take care of your body. Even though sometimes I didn’t feel like it, I got myself outside and exercising most days. I made sleep a priority. Even though I had no appetite, I continued eating healthy food. When you are going through Hell, you need all the physical strength you can muster. Be good to your body and it will be good to you.

3. Refuse to self-criticize. It would have been easy to blame myself for these trials and to obsess over what I’d done wrong. However, constant self-criticism is damaging to your self concept and even affects you physically. Attacks to yourself, even if you are the perpetrator, stimulate the body’s threat defense system causing it to release high levels of cortisol, which could eventually cause your body to shut down in a depressed state.

4. Have rational talks with yourself. As opposed to beating yourself up, this works wonders. Remind yourself that what is done is done, and as the past falls into the category of things you do not control, let it go. Ask yourself what you will do differently next time. Be grateful that you are learning and growing.

5. Find distraction in the beautiful and the edifying. I was going to go crazy or become depressed if I thought about my predicament all day. I found marvelous distraction in William Blake, my children, my friends, and an exciting, suspenseful novel. It was nice to escape now and then into someone else’s world. Distracting yourself from your problems doesn’t mean running away from them. It means preserving your good health, physically and mentally.

6. Pray. I am going to piss off all of my friends with this, atheists and avid Christians alike. I don’t know what form God takes, but I suppose I do believe in something because I believe in prayer. It always makes me feel better. It works.

I am glad that I paid so little attention to good advice; had I abided by it I might have been saved from some of my most valuable mistakes.  -Edna St. Vincent Millay

I can not say it better than my fellow Maine girl, poet and playwright Edna.

These sleepless and harrowing nights in my bed crying, I found out that I’m strong in a way I hadn’t noticed before. It happened every time that I would be lying there feeling like utter crap, and suddenly, I would start laughing. It wasn’t hysteria. It was that I could not help recalling something funny someone had said, or seeing something funny in my situation, and it made me laugh. This happened naturally without trying, and when I was giving myself some time to feel negative emotion. What if I had tried to suppress these emotions, forcing myself to “think positive?” What if I’d tried to medicate those feelings away with drugs, alcohol, or food? I never would have discovered that my sense of humor automatically steals in to save me when I need it.

My dad probably had a lot to do with this. Like me, he had the annoying habit of sometimes laughing uncontrollably in inappropriate situations. We would share with each other embarrassing examples of when in concerts, meetings, and other serious places we would find ourselves snorting, choking, and shaking, trying to hold it back. I was so glad that everyone laughed so much at Dad’s funeral. He wouldn’t have had it any other way.

Recently I was listening to a podcast of an actor or writer or someone, I wish I remembered who, who said that the best comedy has an undercurrent of sadness to it. He said that jokes that do not have that touch of sadness are superficial and harsh. I want to think more about that. Maybe that’s why some of the best comedy writers are Jewish.

Sorrow prepares you for joy. It violently sweeps everything out of your house, so that new joy can find space to enter. It shakes the yellow leaves from the bough of your heart, so that fresh, green leaves can grow in their place. It pulls up the rotten roots, so that new roots hidden beneath have room to grow. Whatever sorrow shakes from your heart, far better things will take their place. -Rumi

After going through this, I feel cleansed. I absolutely feel like the yellow leaves have been shaken free and the rotten roots pulled up. I don’t know where the new joy will come from, but I’m ready to receive it.

Oh! And here’s one more from Agatha Christie. I believe this to my very core.