How to Give Verbal Support to Depressed Loved Ones
As all of you may well know, words are very powerful. They can be used to emotionally maim or injure or they may be used to provide comfort and love. Long after words are spoken we remember them. But more so we remember the emotion behind what was said and also how someone’s words made us feel.
For anyone who loves or cares for a friend or family member who suffers from depression, it can appear that words do not matter. You may think that nothing you say is getting through. But I can tell you from my experience that this isn’t true. A lack of response doesn’t always mean that the person with depression isn’t listening or isn’t emotionally feeling what you say. They just might not have the emotional energy or stamina to react or respond in ways that you expect or want them to.
This lack of response or even a negative reaction doesn’t mean that you should give up. It just means that reaching out and communicating with the person having depression may be difficult at times.
In this post I will give you some ways to provide verbal support to your friend or loved one suffering from depression. And in a future post I will talk about what doesn’t work with regard to what we say to a depressed family member or friend.
Ways to provide verabl support:
Empathy is defined in the on-line Merriam-Webster Dictionary as: “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner; also : the capacity for this”
But what does this really mean? I think everyone has a gut understanding of what empathy is yet it seems difficult to put it into practice. I can tell you that I had full courses in graduate school for social work where the practice of empathy was taught explicitly yet it was still a difficult concept for students to grasp.
For some empathy comes naturally, but for many others it is a skill which needs to be practiced.
Empathy to me is an active process of putting yourself in someone else’s emotional shoes. It is thinking to yourself, “If I had this person’s set of circumstances how would I feel?” It does require some work and some imagination. Perhaps you have never been in the life situations that the other person is telling you about. But as a human being you can still relate to the emotions surrounding those life events.
Empathy is not saying you understand exactly how someone else feels. You can’t ever truly know how the other person feels. People having the same set of circumstances may often feel quite differently from another. But at the same time you can feel with the person as they are describing what is going on in their life. For example, if someone with depression is telling you how fatigued they are you might not have had this experience yourself. But at the same time you can ask yourself, “If I had depression which made me tired and exhausted all the time, how would I feel?” The words of empathy you can then give to your loved one might be: “I don’t know what that is like to feel so tired all the time. But if I did I think I would feel very sad too. It must be so hard to do chores and not feel like you have the energy to get them done.”
When someone is empathic towards us we feel understood. We feel as though the person is “getting us” and what we are saying or feeling. We also feel that the other person is with us and wanting to be with us as opposed to someone who wishes to remain emotionally separated and detached.
You will know when someone is responding well to empathy when they relax and begin to trust enough to open up more. Think of empathy as an open door to communication. Some ways of talking can close the door to further conversation but things like empathy can open that door.
If you are a person who suffers from depression you understand how important acceptance can be to our healing. When you are depressed you may feel unlikeable and unlovable. You may have a warped sense of self worth and feel that you are ugly inside and out. At the same time you are attempting to push people away, your greatest fear is that people will go away and leave you. By the way, pushing people away is a protective strategy so that you have control to turn people away before they reject you. So if you see your depressed loved one doing this, this is what is actually going on a lot of the time: “I am going to push you away before you can hurt me.” So a lot of this self protective defensive reaction can be avoided if we feel accepted.
How do we convey acceptance through words to our depressed loved one? Here are some examples:
• “I know you are depressed but I still love you and want to be here with you.”
• “You are still good and worthy even though you feel bad about yourself right now.”
• “This depression is not your fault. You did not cause this.”
A lot of people with depression have a running soundtrack going through their brain of, “This is my fault. I am a burden to others. Nobody wants me or loves me.” and so forth. Through acceptance we help to turn off that faulty switch to show that these negative self loathing statements are untrue.
I do want to make a point that acceptance does not mean accepting abuse. Depression does not grant your friend or loved one the right to verbally or physically abuse you. You never have to accept behavior which causes you harm.
There was a time when I had called one of the hotlines in order to get help when I was in the midst of an emotional crisis. I still remember words that the counselor said which helped me the most. I explained all my life circumstances and he said, “You have every right to feel angry and sad.” I remember crying over those words with relief that someone was giving me permission to feel what I was feeling.
Have any of you had the experience where the other person you are talking to denies your right to feeling? Many of us have probably heard words of admonishment such as “Snap out of it” or “What’s the big deal?” or “You are crying over nothing.” Your response may be to clam up and not talk to that person again. When someone validates us it is the opposite kind of experience. We feel that our emotions are valid and important and so we open up more.
There may be times when you don’t understand your loved one’s emotions. They may seem to you, disproportionate or excessive in perspective of what is going on. But just because you don’t understand doesn’t mean the other person does not have a right to their feelings. It can be hard to see a person who is suffering. But you have to allow the person to feel as they feel without trying to argue them out of their feelings. Emotions are not something we can dispute. And everyone has a right to their feelings regardless of our thoughts about it.
Examples of verbal validation might include:
• “I can see that this issue is important to you. I am listening.”
• “It is okay to feel sad about this.”
• “This was really frustrating for you. You have every right to feel angry about it.”
I hope that the examples I have given are of benefit to those of you out there who are trying to support a loved one or friend through their depression. I want to say upfront that I know it is hard on caregivers. Depression is not easy for the individual who suffers from it nor is it easy for the family, friends, and loved ones of that individual. There are ways which are more effective in giving support and I hope you explore the more positive ways.
Of course we want to hear from you as to what methods work best in giving support. It would be great to hear both from members who have depression as well as family members and loved ones. Remember that you are the experts here and we wish to hear your voice.