As many have pointed out to President Trump, words matter. What we say or don’t say can have as much, if not more, impact than what we do. Words can hurt. Words can wound. Words can have an impact long, long after they are spoken, or even forgotten, by the person saying them. If we are trading cliches then I prefer ‘the pen is mightier than the sword’ to ‘sticks and stones……’.
This has been on my mind for months, perhaps years, but was brought into sharp focus for me this week after a long chat with a good friend of mine.
Like me, he is on a long, tough journey with his mental health; building his understanding of what is happening upstairs and why, learning more about his triggers for feeling unwell and how can he intervene in lots of different, sometimes very small, ways to get back and then stay on an even keel. Like me, and millions who suffer from mental health issues, such as depression and anxiety, he has tried to open up to people close to him; to tell them how he is feeling; to share his load; to ask for their understanding and help.
Like me and millions of others, he has received a mixed bag of responses.
Some people get it straight away. They don’t judge. They don’t question. They don’t commentate. They don’t pass remarks. They listen. They try to understand. They support. They bite their tongue if they have something to say they might cause upset or if they are not sure. They help.
My experience tells me that these people are sadly in the minority. They don’t have to have walked this road themselves, or helped someone else down it before, but if they have it can help. If they haven’t, just being kind can really help. Just being kind can always help.
There are others, who in my experience, make up the majority. These folk find it hard to hide their feelings; their judgements; their disappointment. These people fall into two distinct camps. Those who care about you and don’t intend offence but still cause it and those who don’t care either way and just see it as their duty or their right to speak their mind. They call it as they see it, regardless of the collateral damage.
I have lost count over the last few years the number of times people have told me – including my friend this week – of how difficult it was to build themselves up to tell someone they were suffering; struggling; floundering. To take the huge step of confiding in someone close- possibly a parent; a friend; your partner. Confiding that you have depression, or that life is proving very tough, possibly so tough you want to end it. This is a massive, brave and life-changing thing to do. Once that genie is out of the bottle it can never be put back. The person who take that step – who rubs hat lamp – deserves nothing but admiration; understanding; and support. Exposing yourself in that way – one on one in a quiet way or publicly, including in a blog – is not attention seeking but solution seeking.
All to often – including in my own experience – they receive feedback; a school-like report; a judgement. It is these comments – these critiques – whether in detailed discussions or in throw-away remarks that can really hurt. Insults hurt, even when they are not meant as insults. And someone commenting on your ability to cope with life and telling you, or implying, that you are doing it wrong, really can hurt. This is often done under the guise of ‘here’s some advice’ or ‘I just want to help’ but it does the opposite.
- I don’t allow myself to be depressed.
- I just don’t think about that sort of stuff
- I wouldn’t let that bother me if I was you
- Just ignore it
- Take no notice
- You’ve got an amazing job/house/wife/husband/boyfriend/girlfriend/partner/dog etc etc, why are you depressed
- Depressed? You want to try being me for a day
- Any negative comments about your appearance/how tired you look/your weight/your age
- I don’t mean any offence/you know what I mean/don’t take everything so seriously
- Don’t be so sensitive
- Stop feeling sorry for yourself
- You are so loved, how can you say that/feel that
- Any variation of get over it/rise above it/grow a pair/put a smile on your face/pick yourself up/man up!
Just to be clear, not meaning to upset someone doesn’t give anyone a free hand to say what they think all the time. Intentionally or accidentally hurting someone, especially someone who may already be feeling fragile and vulnerable as they tackle mental health issues, is unnecessary. Whatever happened to those two other great cliches, ‘think before you speak’ and ‘if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all’?!
And to be equally clear, these sorts of comments have the potential to hurt anyone’s feelings, mental health issues or not.
When I get asked – as I do all the time – by people who want to support and help someone they care about what they can do to help I always say the same thing; be a listener; be there for them; be kind. I know it can be hugely frustrating – it can make people really angry – when they see someone they know to be brilliant looking so down and so low on confidence. They just want to shake them. Get them to do the things they know will help. Get them to take tablets. Do exercise. Get out of bed. Stop mopping around. Get some fresh air and another 101 things that they know would help.
It can be hard to hide their exasperation but I ask them to try hard; try really, really hard. Remember, you are not the one in pain; the one whose mind is playing tricks on them; the one who wants nothing more than to feel themselves again but cannot shake off the darkness; the one who cannot believe anyone would love them or believe in them, so low are they on confidence/so low are they feeling. There is no magic bullet or simple solution to mental health issues but being kind, listening, not judging, not imposing your views/your feelings/how you would handle something is a very good start.
As the great Seamus Heaney once said, “If you can find the words, there’s a good chance you’ll find the way’. By the same token, if you are careless or heartless about your words you can help people get or stay lost. Words matter. Kindness matters. People’s feelings matter. They matter more than you speaking your mind, making a funny joke, a clever comment or you sharing your advice. I can assure you, the person you are trying to help isn’t being sick or sensitive on purpose. They are not taking offence on purpose. They need you to help not hinder them. Please choose your words carefully and listen more than you talk.