One of the most common questions that we get at Take This is, “How can I help someone I care about?” Seeing a friend suffering is hard, and it’s made harder when you feel helpless to do anything for someone you care about. Honestly, I think the perception of being helpless is one of the worst common experiences one can have. So let’s talk about tips to help!
“It’s not just mustard!”
Often, one of the best things you can do for a friend in emotional distress is try to understand their perspective without immediately trying to solve their problems. You might ask, “But, Dr. B, if I solve their problem and make it go away, doesn’t that mean they won’t suffer anymore?” Hang with me on this because this might seem counterintuitive. Sometimes immediately trying to solve someone’s problem can actually do the opposite.
A colleague recently gave a helpful example. His wife is an amazing problem solver. She does it for a living. Her first instinct when she finds a problem is to solve it. Take a bottle of mustard, fresh from the store and sealed up tight. My colleague and I both find those bottles frustrating, but his wife can get the outer wrapping and inner seals off in a matter of seconds. Maybe you can, too. We’d probably marvel at your skills just as much.
One day, my colleague wanted to open the mustard in order to figure out exactly how his wife does it so quickly. She saw him struggling a bit, and, in pure problem-solver fashion, she grabbed it from him and quickly solved his problem – or so she thought. But the problem wasn’t just about getting to the mustard. He was deliberately struggling in order to learn. With the best of intentions, and without knowing, she took that opportunity away from him in order to help.
My colleague and his wife likely solved this with a little communication – him explaining why he was trying to open the mustard, her apologizing, and both of them going on being the awesome people they are. Other examples can be far more serious.
Major depressive disorder is something well-meaning people often want to fix. But many people don’t realize that having depression isn’t just sadness. According to one model, it involves irrational thoughts about one’s self, the world, and the future (i.e. “I’m a terrible person, people suck, and this will never get better.”) Sadness is an honest reaction to a sad event. Contrariwise, in the words of Wil Wheaton, “Depression lies.”
The irrational nature of depression can leave people frustrated that they can’t figure out why they’re depressed. They struggle to find the meaning of it all, and the fact that they can’t sometimes leads to a downward spiral of worsening self-perceptions, confusion, and hopelessness. When friends or loved ones try to fix the problem, it can go like this: “You must know what’s wrong. No? Really? Well, whatever. Let’s go out. It’ll make you feel better.” Even worse, people might say things like, “You need to buck up and get over it.” These both can feel incredibly invalidating, as if they’re saying, “I know what’s best for you. You don’t.” This can send the subtle message that the person is weak and helpless, which can end up deepening the depressive episode.
How You Can Help
People often want to find quick fixes for their friends’ problems, but quick fixes aren’t likely to work with depression. By slowing down, you might end up discovering more effective solutions. Here are some suggestions:
- Ask open-ended questions. These are questions without quick yes/no or factual answers. They generally begin with “who,” “what,” “where,” “when,” or “how.” Generally, try to avoid “why.” It can make people defensive.
- Find something to validate. It can be hard for someone to hear that their perceptions and reactions are wrong, especially if they already think there is something wrong with them. It may be difficult to find something you can validate, but even telling your friend that their feelings are legitimate can make a difference.
- Don’t argue. Your friend is reacting to their perception of things. Arguing invalidates their thoughts, which are what you want to understand.
- Show empathy. Show it! If you find yourself about to say, “I get it,” or, “I know what you’re going through,” stop yourself. Share your thoughts on what they are going through. Showing that you understand is far more impactful than saying you understand, and you’ll keep the focus on them instead of making it about you.
- Remember that if you’re feeling confused and distressed, your friend likely feels those even more intensely.
Here’s how this might sound in practice:
“How long has this been going on? Two weeks? And you can’t figure out why? I imagine that makes you confused and even more down on yourself. Yeah? Makes sense. That would make anyone feel like that.”
“They’re trying to help. They’re trying to help.”
What if you’re in distress, and someone, with the best of intentions, royally screws up while trying to help? As hard as it might be to do (and it really is), coaching the other person in how to help you can be better for both of you in the long run.
- Remind yourself that they’re probably trying to help, in their own way.
- Find something you can validate in their attempt. Validation lets them know you appreciate them, and it makes advice or criticism easier to hear.
- Don’t argue with them. It can make them feel just as invalidated as you would, and it might lead to them not helping in the future.
- Suggest some specific behaviors that will help next time – things they can say or do that you think might help you more.
- Try to make your suggestions in a calm, quiet voice. Ironically, people often can’t hear what you’re trying to say if you raise your voice.
- Ask them if that’s something they can do.
Combined together, this is what that might sound like:
“I appreciate that you’re trying to help. At the same time, what you just said didn’t. What I really need right now isn’t someone suggesting solutions. I really just need someone who can listen and try to understand. Can you do that for me?”
These tips may not always work. Some people need different kinds of help, and some people are unwilling to accept feedback no matter how carefully it’s given. In many situations, though, these tips can improve the process for everyone involved.
If you still find yourself in distress or needing help, get in touch with a local mental health professional. We have some great tips for finding one at TakeThis.org, and us mental health types are usually pretty good at listening and understanding.
Take This is an informational organization. The resources we provide are for informational purposes only, and should not be used to replace the specialized training and professional judgment of a health care or mental health care professional. For more information about these resources, please visit our website.
Feature Image Credit: Disney/Pixar