By Gina Cross
I know I am not the only person who has spoken about mental health symptoms only to have someone respond in an unhelpful or hurtful way. My peers who experience conditions like major depressive disorder and bipolar disorder frequently lament that some people in their lives “just don’t get it.”
Once, I shared with a new friend that I was struggling with extreme irritability and depression due to a medication adjustment. Even though I explained that my current symptoms were triggered by a biological cause, her response to my experience sounded more like a reprimand: “Well, when I feel that way, I just try to stop thinking about myself so much and be grateful for what I have.” Ouch.
I felt hurt but also very confused about why it stung so much. I decided to investigate this topic further, and over time I came to a better understanding and formed a plan to deal with these scenarios. I learned some particularly helpful strategies through NAMI’s Peer-to-Peer program.
While not everyone we encounter understands symptoms of mental illness or knows how to give support, there are some tools we can use to cope and to help people empathize.
I realized that I felt so confused about my friend’s remark because it wasn’t overtly mean, so it didn’t seem like it should hurt so badly. What she said was more subtle than that, so I didn’t know how to categorize and name it. Since then, I have learned that if I can give a name to what is said and what it implies, I feel less confused.
The three main categories into which I have found these types of comments usually fall include: judgement, argument and belittling (JAB). JABS are similar to what people often call “microaggressions.” Now when I feel hurt and confused, I know it is because I have received a JAB. Here are some examples of each — all of which my peers and I have experienced firsthand.
Judgement – These responses imply that we are weak, wrong or, simply, to blame for symptoms.
Argument – These comments often happen when someone is focusing on facts and solutions instead of empathizing with our experience.
Belittling – Sometimes someone will minimize our pain by comparing us to someone with worse pain, which implies we should feel bad for “complaining.”
After I have named the type of hurtful comment a person said to me, I try to explain to them why it is hurtful. After all, some of the comments are well-intentioned. By being explicit about what we need, we can teach friends and family how to SEE us: by giving support, empathy, and esteem (as in the verb form “to value or recognize worth”).
Those of us who are involved in NAMI support groups use these skills frequently, although some of us might call them something different. Here are some examples of what we could ask for and what they could say:
Empathy – When people really practice active listening and reflect what we are saying back to us, we feel understood.
Esteem – Even when we are feeling bad, we want to be reminded that we are valued, and others acknowledge our strengths.
Sometimes, we might have the above conversation with a serial “jabber” (or even slip them a copy of this blog post), and they still don’t “get it.” In that case, you will need to accept that you can’t always change other people. Depending on the type of relationship, it might be necessary to get counseling with them, create some distance or remove yourself from their company.
I heard a wise teacher advise that when someone is hurtful to you, go be kind to a different person. So, the next time you get “jabbed,” contact one of your peers and SEE them. This will change your focus, which is very helpful if you are obsessing about a recent JAB. It is sort of like paying it forward, but you’re giving what you didn’t get, which will help you SEE yourself not as a victim, but as a giver.
Gina Cross is an adjunct professor, writer and NAMI Peer-to-Peer State Trainer. She lives with her husband and two dogs in Austin, Texas.
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