1. “Think positive”
Yeah, okay, cool. But like, HOW? Which is really an (somewhat) appropriate response to pretty much all of these. They are all easy to say and very, very hard to do. Especially considering exactly zero people came into the world with the skills to perform that kind emotional labor, and only a slightly larger number have learned effective skills for “thinking positively” along the way. Not to mention… the evolutionary scale isn’t exactly titled in our favor as far as positivity goes. Our ancestors survived because they were on high alert all the time. The human brain is hardwired to notice all things that could potentially harm us, and find a way to avoid it (or confront it, but usually avoid it)
Dr. Rick Hanson has a really great talk about it here.
It has taken me a really, really long time to learn what “thinking positively” means in the context of my own mental health. Because simply trying to take that advice is nearly impossible when you have no idea what it means… and furthermore… probably have developed a complex about positive people since they’ve been the ones annoying you you’re whole life.
Sometimes we just need to be allowed to be negative and acknowledge that something sucks. Doesn’t that feel good to say? This sucks.
That can often be more cathartic than “positive thinking”
Not all the time of course. And I’ve learned via lots of therapy, a great deal of coping mechanisms, all of which somehow can relate back to being “positive” but here’s the deal: it is coming from medical professionals who actually teach me HOW to do things like thought stopping, thought swapping, meditating, and practicing positive affirmations. They are WAY more helpful than just “positive thinking”
2. “Let it go”
It’s in the past! You can’t change what happened! Get over it! Live in the now! Forgive!
Nothing is less helpful when you are sitting in resentment than someone telling you what you need to do to get rid of it. A lot of times, we don’t want to get rid of it because it is a defense mechanism and it is there for a reason. When we have been hurt, anger and resentment are our knee jerk reactions to protect ourselves from letting it happen again. If we forgive, we often assume, that means letting that person off the hook– which is definitely not the case.
That said… forgiveness is often too much to ask. Your past can very much still live in your present when you have lived through trauma or grief. No one can or should expect that you should just forgive people at the snap of a finger (or ever, for that matter). It’s okay to be so burned by someone or something that the idea of forgiving them is offensive.
That isn’t to say you shouldn’t forgive, if that is within the realm of possibility. It’s important to note that forgiveness and acceptance don’t require that someone is let off the hook for their actions, or that it is an invitation for them to do it again. This feeling is often what keeps us in our resentment thinking it will protect us. Which it doesn’t. Also? Understanding that it’s only hurting you doesn’t actually provide you with any kind of tools to stop hurting yourself. That is the bitch of this kind of advice.
I think that the key for reaching a healthy level of moving on is often acceptance rather than forgiveness. If you can accept that something happened, even if it shouldn’t have happened, and even if it hurt… it can sometimes provide you just enough peace to be okay when forgiveness is just not a current option.
3. “Get out and do the things you enjoy”
Depression often robs you of the joy you would typically experience during these activities. This is the hardest symptom and often what feels the most hopeless. This is the most annoying piece of advice for me… but I think it’s mostly because I know how dang helpful it can sometimes be. I also know that other times it’s the most futile attempt one can make. We never really know what we’re getting. And here is some tough love from someone who knows how irritating this advice is sometimes…. do it anyway.
Small aside… but I very often identify with Squidward from Spongebob Squarepants. You see him doing his activities all the time, and he so rarely looks very joyful doing them. He is awful at them. But he plays that clarinet, he takes those dance lessons, he paints those portraits. He is still sad. But he does them.
You may not enjoy that walk or that painting class or that party, but at least you did it. Doing it and being sad is better than not doing it and being sad, which is a tough pill to swallow when you just don’t want to. But, here is some more tough love, sometimes we need to do things we don’t want to do.
It won’t always work, and we should work to still give ourselves credit when that occurs…. it doesn’t mean you have done anything wrong. You have still done right and that is just the nature of mental illness. You tried, and that is important and worth celebration. Again, it is the little things that matter the most here.
4. “It’s all in your head”
Well YAH!! Where else might thoughts occur?! Similarly, pointing out the logical fallacy in anxious/phobic thinking… as though we don’t know it’s not rooted in logic.
The especially hurtful thing about that one is that it automatically invalidates the receivers feelings. I’m thinking of that Dumbledore quote, “Of course it’s happening inside your head. But why on earth should that mean it’s not real?” Of course, the way this statement is presented is not in a Dumbledore-esque manor that makes us know that our feelings are real and valid. What most people tend to mean (or at least what usually gets heard) is “It’s not real. It’s fabricated. It’s invalid. You’re making it up.”
There are few things as hurtful as feeling invalidated in your feelings. But your feelings are real. No one can tell you how you feel about something. They don’t know your feelings, they don’t live in your head. The things you experience ARE real, and of course they are in your head… where else would they be? That doesn’t make them any less valid.
5. “Be grateful for what you do have”
Especially when it comes to loss or trauma… gratitude is not the opposite of that experience. They aren’t mutually exclusive. You can be grateful for a thing that happened along the way and grateful for the things you DO have, and also be sad/angry/hurt/traumatized but what you lost or what happened to you.
Similarly, the “other people have it a lot worse” is my least favorite…. because it doesn’t actually change what you have. (But, you know, thanks for making me feel like an ungrateful, spoiled pile of turds)
Know that you can be grateful and mentally ill/hurt/traumatized/sad/mourning. You are allowed to do both. Working through those things requires a much greater amount of work than just gratitude, and may even require a great deal of professional assistance (as with anything)
6. Spiritual advice, particularly the unsolicited variety
Especially from a place of assumption about ones spiritual beliefs. Saying “pray about it” to someone who doesn’t believe in prayer isn’t going to help anyone. Furthermore, pushing your spiritual agenda on someone who is suffering is, frankly, a really crappy thing to do.
We’ve all experienced unsolicited spiritual advice from an all-assuming individual and I think we can all agree it is the worst. No matter what you believe, I’m sure you know that no amount of prayer, crystal energy, or magic powers will resolve mental illness.
If that is where you derive strength from… more power to you. Spiritual belonging can be very helpful for some people. But it is a deeply personal choice that shouldn’t be assumed or pushed by anyone, even if you know they are just trying to be helpful.
You don’t owe those people anything. You don’t need to be rude to them… but you also don’t need to do anything you’re not comfortable with or that you know is not helpful to your psyche. (What is good for your psyche and what is good for your spiritual health are not always one in the same. Don’t allow anyone to assume they are going to be.)
7. “Reach out to people more often.”*
*this one is coming more from the perspective of how the advice givers (rather than the receivers) can spin this statement into something more helpful…
Well, given this (not even close the exhaustive) list of unhelpful advice I’ve already gotten… not really feeling much like hearing any more of it…
Let me say first, that this is not inherently bad advice. It is advice that I give. I think it’s important to give this advice, not with words but with actions that let a person know you are someone safe who is worth reaching out to. Saying “don’t isolate yourself” is much different than saying, “I would love if you could meet me for coffee tomorrow”. It lets the person know that it is safe(r) to “not isolate” and gives an opportunity where they can feel included and welcome to reach out to you.
Along the same lines, “Ask your partner for more support” and “Lighten your load” might go along with this sentiment of “reaching out” which people must understand is not always an option. Your partner might not have the capacity to give the kind of support you need (for instance, you are a woman who just gave birth to a child and your partner is a man who cannot produce breast milk… or perhaps you are in such a dire financial situation that everyone in your household is doing everything they can and there just simply aren’t enough hours in the day to make ends meet)
Sometimes the support is just not accessible. Rather than giving the advice and hoping they take it… ask yourself, can I do something to make help more accessible?
Which takes me into the next segment of this post which will address the inevitable question of “How do I give better advice?”
And the best answer I can give you is this:
I’m going to sound a little sassy here and there is little that can be done about it. Bear with me please. Ask yourself this…
Did this person explicitly ask you what you think they should do? Did they come to you asking for prayer/a complete list of things to do to not be mentally ill/for you to write them a self help book/to cure them?
It’s pretty likely that this person does not expect you to fix them. If they do, they can’t be helped anyhow (and hi, I’ve been there).
More often than not when a person comes to you for support, the most likely thing they want from you is to be validated. Did you notice anything in common with all of the above sentiments? They are all things people have heard that made them feel invalidated, not heard/seen, misunderstood, brushed aside, lonely, rejected, and hurt. We probably know that you didn’t mean to make us feel that way. But that doesn’t really matter when our feelings are hurt. I think it’s Louis C.K. who said, “When someone decides their feelings are hurt, you don’t get to decide they are wrong.”
No matter how well intentioned any of this advice (and more) might be, I’ve heard from a lot of people, and drawn on my own personal experience to know that all of the above mentioned advice has come across as invalidating to the people receiving it.
Here are some things you can say/do instead:
- “Wow, I’m really sorry you’re going through that.”
- “I understand this is difficult for you.”
- “Do you feel like _____ ?” (going for a bike ride, getting coffee, crying, a hug) rather than “What can I do/what do you need?” because sometimes we just don’t know until it is offered to us.
- “Do you want to talk more about what that has been like for you?” (respect if the answer is no and don’t make assumptions about how they feel)
- “I hear you/I am here for you.”
- Listen fully to what they have to say. If you don’t know exactly what that’s like, don’t pretend that you do. Any of the above statements can be said to offer support instead.
- Realize that you probably can’t fix it, but that doesn’t mean you can’t support the person going through it. Often, just being there is all we really ask.
These are obviously really generic suggestions and should definitely be fine tuned to a specific situation/person and know when items on this list may not apply. Clearly, I cannot tell you how to support a person I don’t know/am not that person. This list can go on and on to include things a lot more specific… but I can really only speak from my own experience. I can’t/won’t step on the many voices that already exist and are active in telling us how to support their specific situation.
If there was anything I wasn’t inclusive of, it is because I didn’t feel comfortable speaking from a place I have never been. I tried to be as inclusive as possible by making the statements into a kind of “archetype” that many people have received under all kinds of different circumstances.
There will likely be follow up posts to this one to get more specific about certain topics, and to offer more tools for people who deal with mental illness in relationships and how to best support each other on both ends (or if both parties are mentally ill… hey, hi, hello)
I wrote this post with the help and feedback from many different people across my online community, and I would LOVE to keep the conversation and feedback going. Feel free to reach out if there are things you feel that weren’t addressed or you’d like to see more of!
I’d also like to take a brief moment to mention the beanie I am wearing in the above photos, which is made by The Sad Ghost Club and says “Still Sad” on it. It’s perfect for this post. It’s important for me to keep in mind that it’s entirely possible to do everything “right” and still be sad. I think about it when I am out doing the things I typically enjoy and I still just don’t feel quite like myself… or I’m feeling… well– still sad.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, I am never going to self-care my way out of mental illness. I might not even ever medicate or therapy my way out of mental illness. These things are still so worth doing though.
I’m still sad… but I can tell you that I’ll ALWAYS be happier in accepting that than I would be trying to pretend I am not the person I am. I am sad, and that’s okay.