I know I am not the only person who has spoken about mental health symptoms only to have someone respond in an unhelpful or hurtful way. My peers who experience conditions like major depressive disorder and bipolar disorder frequently lament that some people in their lives “just don’t get it.”
Once, I shared with a new friend that I was struggling with extreme irritability and depression due to a medication adjustment. Even though I explained that my current symptoms were triggered by a biological cause, her response to my experience sounded more like a reprimand: “Well, when I feel that way, I just try to stop thinking about myself so much and be grateful for what I have.” Ouch.
I felt hurt but also very confused about why it stung so much. I decided to investigate this topic further, and over time I came to a better understanding and formed a plan to deal with these scenarios. I learned some particularly helpful strategies through NAMI’s Peer-to-Peer program.
While not everyone we encounter understands symptoms of mental illness or knows how to give support, there are some tools we can use to cope and to help people empathize.
Step 1: Give It A Name
I realized that I felt so confused about my friend’s remark because it wasn’t overtly mean, so it didn’t seem like it should hurt so badly. What she said was more subtle than that, so I didn’t know how to categorize and name it. Since then, I have learned that if I can give a name to what is said and what it implies, I feel less confused.
The three main categories into which I have found these types of comments usually fall include: judgement, argument and belittling (JAB). JABS are similar to what people often call “microaggressions.” Now when I feel hurt and confused, I know it is because I have received a JAB. Here are some examples of each — all of which my peers and I have experienced firsthand.
Judgement – These responses imply that we are weak, wrong or, simply, to blame for symptoms.
- “Do you think maybe you just need to try harder?”
- “You should stop being so negative.”
Argument – These comments often happen when someone is focusing on facts and solutions instead of empathizing with our experience.
- “You are being irrational. You should just stop those silly rituals and you’ll feel better.”
- “Well, I told you to join my yoga class.”
Belittling – Sometimes someone will minimize our pain by comparing us to someone with worse pain, which implies we should feel bad for “complaining.”
- “Things could be a lot worse. You are lucky you have a roof over your head.”
- “You think you have problems, what about so-and-so who is going through (fill in the blank).
Step 2: Give Them A Chance
After I have named the type of hurtful comment a person said to me, I try to explain to them why it is hurtful. After all, some of the comments are well-intentioned. By being explicit about what we need, we can teach friends and family how to SEE us: by giving support, empathy, and esteem (as in the verb form “to value or recognize worth”).
Those of us who are involved in NAMI support groups use these skills frequently, although some of us might call them something different. Here are some examples of what we could ask for and what they could say:
Support – We need to know that we are not alone, and that others feel the same way at times. Even if they don’t feel the same way, we need to know they are still there for us. It speaks to our deep need to belong.
- “I have felt something similar at times.”
- “I am here for you.”
Empathy – When people really practice active listening and reflect what we are saying back to us, we feel understood.
- “It sounds like you are describing agitation and restlessness. Is that right?”
- “What I think I hear you saying is that the voices say only mean things about you, which makes you feel bad about yourself.”
Esteem – Even when we are feeling bad, we want to be reminded that we are valued, and others acknowledge our strengths.
- “I feel honored to be here for you. I love you on your good days and bad days.”
- “You have worked hard on your recovery, and I admire how you keep your sense of humor.”
Step 3: Give What You Did Not Get
Sometimes, we might have the above conversation with a serial “jabber” (or even slip them a copy of this blog post), and they still don’t “get it.” In that case, you will need to accept that you can’t always change other people. Depending on the type of relationship, it might be necessary to get counseling with them, create some distance or remove yourself from their company.
I heard a wise teacher advise that when someone is hurtful to you, go be kind to a different person. So, the next time you get “jabbed,” contact one of your peers and SEE them. This will change your focus, which is very helpful if you are obsessing about a recent JAB. It is sort of like paying it forward, but you’re giving what you didn’t get, which will help you SEE yourself not as a victim, but as a giver.
Gina Cross is an adjunct professor, writer and NAMI Peer-to-Peer State Trainer. She lives with her husband and two dogs in Austin, Texas.