About one month ago, I spent time with a lifelong friend. She'd been in great spirits as we caught up on each other's lives, but then, without warning, she grew distant and quiet.
She's struggled with depression in the past, so I knew enough not to push.
Instead, I busied myself and gave her plenty of space. I tried hard not to take things too personally, though believe me -- it wasn't easy. I asked myself more than once if I'd said or done something to trigger her emotions.
About an hour later, she still seemed distant, so I asked if she was feeling okay.
Her response was flat, and very cool.
I then asked if I'd, in any way, offended her.
"No," she said, but nothing more.
I wanted to believe her just as much as I hoped to get inside of her head, because I wanted to understand what was driving her mood.
Helping someone in distress is never easy, and through trial and error, I've learned a lot about how not to make things worse:
1. I reminded myself this wasn't about me.
2. I recognized her sadness as driving the situation.
3. I kept my own anxiety in check trying to help her...knowing the only thing I could actually do was listen.
In the past, in situations like this, I've tried teasing out a cause, a source, a trigger, thinking it would help us both to know what was happening. Once I knew what was bothering her, I reasoned, I could help to correct any misguided thinking.
I do not advise this approach. Not at all.
When someone's feeling flooded with emotions, they're trying so hard just to regulate their own brain juices. Adding my questions or thoughts about their feelings only adds to their already suffocating muck -- which sometimes leads to even further shutdown.
While it's reasonable to have concerns/worries/anxiety/curiosity about someone who's in emotional distress, introducing our feelings at this moment is really the very last thing they need.
And so, with my friend last month, it was the use of one word -- OVERWHELM -- that really seemed to help turn things around.
4. I reminded myself she was overwhelmed.
5. I validated this fact and said, "I can see how overwhelmed you feel, and I'm here."
Only then did she open up.
Sobbing, she sat across from me on the floor, holding her face in her hands.
"I feel like it's going to happen again," she cried. "I've beaten depression before, but I'm worried it's just creeping back in again. I can't go back there. I just can't. I really don't know if I can take it again."
My God. I had no idea she was thinking this way. Okay, this helps, I thought.
She continued. "I've been so happy for so long now, and then out of the blue, thinking about everything I have on my plate, I have this sinking feeling I'll just go under again."
In that moment, I had an important decision to make. I could continue to remain silent, or say one of a thousand things. And I knew whatever I said was going to matter. So, I reminded myself just to stay in the moment, and to validate what she was feeling right now.
"I know you're feeling overwhelmed," I said, "and there's a big difference between overwhelm and depression."
She took her hands away from her face, and though she didn't say anything, she finally looked at me, which told me it was okay to continue. And, I kept telling myself to stay in the moment.
"Being overwhelmed feels awful," I said. Validate. Validate. Validate.
She nodded her head. I handed her a tissue.
"And right now," I said, "is the easiest time for your brain to feel hijacked. When we're overwhelmed, our emotions slide all over the place. We slide back, thinking of the bad times that confirm these awful feelings. And we slide ahead, trying to predict how we'll feel living with the pain forever."
She nodded again and blew her nose. Keep validating, I told myself. Keep her gaze.
"Okay, so you've been depressed before," I said. "And, you got through it."
I let that sit.
"Depression in the past doesn't mean that's what this is now," I said.
She looked skeptical.
So I said, "You're feeling overwhelmed right now. The key words being "right now". And, you will feel overwhelmed again."
I didn't like saying this, but it's true. I thought, She'll only trust me if I'm being honest.
"This is normal," I said. "Everyone gets overwhelmed. The difference between overwhelm and depression is, when you're depressed, you give in to the overwhelming feelings -- and that's when isolation takes over. Depression convinces you you're alone. But what you just did, a few minutes ago, was to open up about your feelings. You broke the cycle by opening up."
We sat there, together, no words spoken. Right then, I really don't think she was buying it, but I knew I was right, because I've been there myself.
"You're feeling overwhelmed right now," I continued, "and with good reason [I reminded her of everything she's dealing with]. It feels awful. And, you just took a step away from depression by opening up. Depression convinces us we're not worthy of help or good things or positive outcomes. I can tell you're not falling for that old trick. Good for you."
I crossed my arms and nodded.
You know what? She nodded, too.
And pretty soon, we were actually laughing about everything on her plate, about how ridiculously overwhelming her situation is, and how she'll tackle it all, just one bite at a time.
She needed to be heard before we could talk it out.
And so, in summary, when helping someone who's overwhelmed, try to remember these 5 little things:
1. It's not about you.
2. Their sadness is the issue.
3. For now, though it's hard, listen to their concerns, not your own.
4. Keep reminding yourself: they're overwhelmed.
5. Validate their struggle: "I can see how overwhelmed you feel, and I'm here."
And, keep fighting the good fight. It's absolutely worth it.
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