4 Clichés That Really Won’t Help Someone With Depression
Let’s face it: opinions are like clichés — everyone has one and they’re usually not helpful.
Now, I don’t blame my friends or Uncle Earl for using a cliché to help me navigate the down days; after all, if they don’t live with depression like I do, how are they really supposed to know what to say? Heck, I struggle with these ailments and sometimes struggle to find the right words to share when someone I care for is in the soup.
So, before I share some tips on what might be a helpful comment to someone who’s in the middle of a depression attack, let me share some of my most despised clichés:
1. “This too shall pass.”
Grrrr! This cliché is certainly toward the top my angry list. This too shall pass? Really? Of course it will, but so will kidney stones and your words won’t help me speed up the time it takes for “this” to pass.
2. “It’s always darkest before the dawn.”
Words likely uttered by someone at 4:50 a.m., when dawn is just a few minutes away. Yes, I get it, but for me — when my depression is at its worst — the “darkest” can last days, weeks or months. Also, when you’re really in a bad place, the concept of dawn is so foreign you might as well say “it’s always darkest before the pizza.”
3. “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”
Except, of course, when something is slowly killing you over a period of months or years, right? I’m sure if I got shot in the leg once a month every month for five years, I would not emerge stronger, but that’s what it’s like for me with depression. When I’m in a bad spot, it feels like the hits keep coming from everywhere, and I certainly don’t feel strong when the episode ends; I just feel more vulnerable and ashamed.
4. “Instead of having a bad day, be thankful you have the day.”
Oh my lord, this is a tough one. Yes, I get it, and every single day I try to be thankful for my days. Sometimes, I write down my thoughts in a thankful journal; sometimes, I add my daily thanks to my prayers, and sometimes I even meditate on what went right today, but when you’re having a bad day, week or month… it’s tough to be thankful for all the pain, hopelessness and exhaustion.
“OK Ben, you’ve shared some of your most hated clichés, but are you going to recommend anything useful?”
The tough, simple answer is that when you or someone you love is in a bad place, a simple cliché will not help. In some cases, it can actually hurt. In my experience, the single best thing someone can do for me when I’m having an “attack” is to help me normalize my feelings so I can stop the guilt cycle of feeling bad, then feeling bad that I feel bad, etc., etc., etc.
For example, when I’m having an anxiety attack, my wife could say, “calm down” or “this will pass,” but instead she tells me to talk through every single item that’s entering my mind, no matter how trivial it might be. Like a balloon ready to burst, she works with me to release a little bit of air at a time, and get myself back to some position of balance.
When my depression puts me in a real tough spot, I will occasionally call my mother (who also battles this) and she will encourage me to talk about not why I feel the way I do — because it is likely irrational — but just to share what I feel. She will agree I have the right to feel this way or that way, and sometimes the mere act of just speaking words is enough.
(As an aside, this is just another reason why professional talk therapy can be so successful. A little talking can go a long way.)
Listen, there is no magic formula for helping someone you care about get out of a rough state of mind, but if you can just focus on removing any sense of embarrassment they have for sharing their feelings, no matter how irrational they might appear to you, then you’ve done a really good job.
While I never recommend validating an irrational feeling, there are some basic truths to share that help provide context. Some of them I have received or used include:
“You’re right, life is not fair.”
“We struggle because if there were no challenges, you could never appreciate joy.”
“Tell me about the last time you felt like this; did you eventually improve?”
“Play five happy songs in a row and choose to skip the depressing ones — just for now.”
“99% of the things all of society cares about just doesn’t matter, so let’s talk about the stuff that does.”
If you care for a loved one who battles depression, I know it’s frustrating because you can’t just “fix” them and they just can’t “snap out of it.” You may even feel inadequate or like a failure because you are unable to help them.
I encourage you to park those emotions because that would be like feeling like a failure because your loved one developed rheumatoid arthritis. Focus on what you can control, give your loved one the opportunity to just talk in a judgment-free manner and don’t get frustrated. No one “chooses” to be depressed; it’s just a condition that needs to be managed and supported like any other chronic disease.
Remember: where there’s a will, there’s a way. (See what I did there?)
Photo by Gregory Hayes on Unsplash