One of the most challenging aspects of living with or supporting a person who suffers with depression is communication. People who are depressed are usually highly sensitive to direct or implied criticism. Ideally we should try to understand but this often doesn’t happen. There are some very common ways that both cut off communication and serve to make things more difficult than they need to be. Here are 10 examples to illustrate the point:
- Threats. ‘You’d better sort yourself out because I’m not putting up with this.’ It’s an ultimatum that suggests they way the depressed person is feeling is an indulgence.
- Duties. ‘I don’t have time to see to the kids, that’s your job’. The person is made to feel they have obligations that aren’t negotiable. It’s a statement that uses guilt as the tool for manipulation.
- Questioning. There are ways to ask questions that aim to be helpful and supportive and there are other ways. Oddly enough it tends to be overuse of questioning that serves to block communication. We expect and accept questions as the means to open a dialog but when they don’t stop the balance shifts from enquiry to inquisition.
- Diversion. ‘Can we talk about this some other time, I’m exhausted’. It’s one of those ‘is that the time’ statements designed to move the person off topic. Diversion has its place but used regularly or specifically at the times the person starts to complain about their mood or ailments and it quickly conveys a message of disinterest.
- Admonishments. ‘You’re so miserable’, ‘listen to yourself will you?’ These are shutdown statements that tell the person what they already know. They can result in anger or resentment because the person they look to for support is showing a lack of understanding.
- Sarcasm. ‘I know a place where you can drown yourself’. Like admonishments sarcasm makes light of the issue the person finds personally distressing.
- Owning. ‘I know just how you feel. Why, only the other day I . . .’ It may appear to be a measure of sympathy but actually it’s much more self-centered to turn disclosures around and use it as a platform for personal chatter.
- Directing. ‘Now, what you should do is’. Such statements are often well intentioned by they can appear to simplify a complex situation into an easy course of action that will result in a positive outcome.
- Interpreting. ‘I know what’s wrong with you’. Such amateur analysis can make people feel uncomfortable very quickly. Suggesting you have insight into another person’s emotions and motives can go one of two ways. If you’re wrong it will encourage resentment and resistance but if by chance you are right the person may feel highly vulnerable and emotionally exposed.
- Superiority. In some ways this represents everything previously mentioned but more besides. Anything that suggests you know better can also suggest they know less. The ‘I think you’ll find,’ or ‘no, that’s not right’ statements can make people defend their own perspectives even more strongly.
From what I’ve said it may appear that conversations are a minefield. It can feel like that. Well-intentioned remarks can be interpreted in ways never anticipated. We can’t be responsible for all the emotional reactions of others but we can try to be a little more sensitive and sophisticated in the way we communicate by avoiding some of the areas certain to create barriers.
Jerry Kennard, Ph.D., is a chartered psychologist and associate fellow of the British Psychological Society. Jerry’s clinical background is in mental health and, most recently, higher education. He is the author of various self-help books and is co-founder of positivityguides.net.