helping a friend or relative

How NOT to Give Verbal Support to a Depressed Loved One

Merely Me Health Guide July 06, 2010
  • In a previous post we discussed ways caregivers, friends, and family can provide emotional support to their loved ones. We specifically talked about how things like empathy, acceptance, and validation can go a long way in opening the doors to communication between you and your depressed friend or loved one. As a person who has been on both sides of that door as both a helper and as a recipient of help, I have come to some conclusions about which helping strategies are effective and which are not.

    The thing to remember is that friends and family don’t always know how to help. They may be feeling confused, frightened, or frustrated by your symptoms of depression. Think of the conversation between the two parties as a work in progress. What can speed along this progress is for the depression sufferer to be candid and honest about what methods of support help and what doesn’t help. Speak up for yourself about what you want because you cannot depend upon others to read your mind. At the same time we also hope that family and caregivers become more educated about how to best interact and support their loved one with depression.


    I am hoping that this post will be of benefit in this on-going and interactive process.

    Three Ways Support Can Go Wrong:

    1. Over-Identification

    I suppose there are many definitions out there for this term. It is sometimes used in talking about therapy as in a therapist has over-identified with their patient or client. Practice Central, a service of the APA Practice Organization, which provides “information and resources for practicing psychologists in all settings and at all stages of their career” gives this advice and guidance to therapists working with trauma victims:

    “Therapists working with trauma survivors commonly experience a sense of over-identification with a client (Stamm, 1999). This can lead to a blurring of therapeutic boundaries, with the therapist relying on the use of advice giving, self-disclosure, and perhaps intentional contact with the client outside of therapy sessions.”

     

    This is what happened to me in my last therapeutic encounter. My therapist wanted me to discuss the sexual abuse which happened to me when I was a young girl. But in doing so he began to take over the sessions with stories of his own sexual abuse and put feelings onto my experience which were not there. There was a overstepping of boundaries in his therapist role and I finally had to quit going to him for therapy because his over-identification was re-traumatizing me. But over-identification doesn’t just happen in the therapy-patient relationship. It also happens among friends and loved ones.

     

    Over-identification to me means that the person attempting to give support is going beyond the realm of empathy and is projecting their own feelings and life experience onto the other person. What happens when over-identification taking place is the experience and feelings of the person suffering from depression get hijacked by the person giving support. The person helping may key in on certain words or experiences and begin telling their own story which may or may not relate to the person who needs support.


  • Remember that you can never walk in someone else’s shoes. Allow your depressed loved one or friend to tell their own story in their own words. Don’t assume that you know how they feel. You will need to be patient and listen without interjecting a bunch of your own feelings and stories.

    When the focus is becoming more about you than the person you are helping then it is time to steer the conversation back to the thoughts and feelings of your loved one.

     

    2. Giving Solutions Right Away

    It is very hard to see a family member or friend suffering. You want to help them any way you can. And it is human nature to want to solve problems when we hear about them. But I have found from my own experience and in trying to help others over the years that most people do not want someone else to solve their problems for them. Most people who are encountering a life challenge or struggle wish to be heard and to find the strength and stamina to solve their own problems.


    As I talked about in my previous post, empathy, acceptance, and validation are what most people want first when they discuss life issues which are important to them. They want to know that they are worthy, that they matter, and that someone is listening. One of the ways you can convey that you are listening is to ask clarifying questions. If your loved one is saying that they feel “depressed” you need to ask what this means for them as in: “Can you tell me more about what you are feeling?” You don’t jump right in with a list of things they should do to conquer their depression as your list is most likely not going to be heard. If depression were so easy to cure then they would have already done these things.

    Making suggestions as to how they can get help is appropriate but only after you have heard them out first. Timing is very important. Instead of providing simplistic “solutions” for the depression it is much more effective to help your loved one understand that they are not alone. There is strength in numbers even if the number is two people.

    Remember that you cannot solve someone’s problems for them. The best thing you can do is to help them to feel empowered so that they can take active steps to resolving their own issues and pursuing their own goals. If you try to solve someone’s problems then you are denying your loved one the right to be responsible for themselves.

    3. Minimizing or Invalidating

     

    Pretty much the opposite of empathy and validation is minimizing or invalidating. I am sure everyone here has had the experience of trying to explain our depression to somebody and getting a response back such as, “You think you have it bad well let me tell you (story of how they or someone else has it way worse than you).” Or “What could you possibly be sad about, you have it so good.” And then there is the ever popular “Just snap out of it!” When friends or family use these tactics I really don’t think they mean harm. I just think that they don’t get it.

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    One thing to keep in mind is that some people are just never going to get it. I always think it is worthy to try to reach out to the friends and family you do have. But if you consistently get these types of responses then it may be time to reach out to others who are better able to understand what you are going through such as My Depression Connection or through a local support group.

     

    One example of invalidation from my own life is when I had just experienced a miscarriage. It was a particularly devastating event for me and I told one relative that “I am having a hard time right now due to my loss.” The response I received back from this family member who knew I had lost my baby was, “What loss?” Talk about invalidation.

     

    There was another incident after I gave birth to my first son. I was a new parent and was feeling very exhausted and my tiredness was bringing down my mood. I wearily showed up for my work Christmas party bleary eyed and dragging. One of my co-workers commiserated, “I know just how you feel! I just got a puppy and he keeps me up at night.” Uh yeah. Taking care of a puppy and a baby. Totally the same experience. NOT! I am sure we all have our tales to tell of others who have either minimized or invalidated our experience or feelings and I do want to hear them.

     

    Remember that when it comes to the human experience comparisons are not very useful. Attempting to minimize someone’s pain does the exact opposite, it makes the pain worse. Any communication which dishonors the person’s experience is a sure way to shut the door to any productive interactions. One result of minimizing and invalidating another’s experience or feelings is that the other person will no longer share their thoughts and feeling with you.

     

    Of course you know that we want to hear from you. What are some strategies used by your friends and relatives which have not worked as far as providing you with the support you need in order to cope with depression? What types of support have worked for you the best? We are all in this together. By sharing our stories and experiences we can help one another.

     

    By the way…if you found this post helpful you may also be interested in reading these My Depression Connection articles:

     

    What Not to Say to Someone Who is Depressed

     

    “Just Snap Out of It!”