“Just take it in your stride.” Good advice, right? Nobody wants to be derailed by obstacles and challenges. However, those of us who have mental health problems can find it difficult (often impossible) to take things in our stride.
Even small and/or anticipated problems can knock us off course. Setbacks seem to confirm the negative beliefs we hold or have held about ourselves:
“I am a failure and always will be.”
“I’m not good enough.”
“I can’t cope.”
We feel people are judging us for making mistakes or not being able to cope with our problems. Our thoughts can spiral out of control, so that a tiny setback leads us to think our entire lives are catastrophes.
So how can you help someone gain perspective?
First of all, please don’t contradict what they are saying. You may think you are showing the person concerned that they don’t need to worry, but minimising and dismissing other people’s problems is unhelpful and potentially harmful. They are already judging themselves for not being able to take the situation in their stride; suggesting their problems are unimportant and they are therefore overreacting piles on more judgment. It may not be your intention to belittle them, but that’s how your words can be perceived.
By not being sensitive to how the person in question feels, you imply that their emotional reaction is the problem. This can be easily translated as “I am the problem”, thus confirming their negative beliefs and leaving them feeling worse.
Instead, try a more compassionate and productive approach:
1. Acknowledge how they feel. They are entitled to their emotions and none of us can control our emotional reactions, though we can learn to control how we express our feelings, emotions and thoughts. Don’t start giving advice straightaway — listen.
2. Try to understand their perspective. Keep listening. Ask questions to clarify how they feel. Try to connect and empathise, so that you can learn why they believe the problem, challenge or setback is a disaster.
3. Support them. Let them know you will help in any way you can and reassure them that they can improve the situation. If they ask for advice, give it, but don’t dictate what you think they should do. Ask them questions which help them consider their options and plan their own course of action — if they feel able to take action.
Check your language.
An issue I have encountered a lot when talking about my problems is people dismissing my concerns, often implying that because my life has improved since my worst periods of depression and anxiety, my current situation shouldn’t bother me. I’m sure most people don’t intend to make me feel worse, but many phrases which are supposed to be reassuring can have darker implications.
For example, “look how far you’ve come” can be motivating if someone is in a positive frame of mind, but can also be interpreted as “you should be grateful for the improvements in your life and not expect more.” I find it especially patronising when spoken by people who have led relatively “normal” lives, usually when they try to tell me that my current situation is better than I think — as though I have no right to be frustrated about my mental health, financial situation and living with my parents.
Other phrases which people think are motivating or reassuring, but actually leave a lot of us feeling worse, include:
“There are plenty of people worse off than you.” True, but there are many people better off than me — including the people who like to “remind” me that things could be worse.
“Things will change soon.” Maybe, but often nothing significant seems to change for years on end.
.”You’re lucky to have X.” Again, braodly true, but when X is my dog or parents who haven’t chucked me out on the street, it feels like whoever says this is scraping the barrel.
Before you try to reassure someone, consider:
1. Are they in the right frame of mind to hear this without misinterpreting it? Often, people just want to be heard. They aren’t expecting you to solve their problems or give them a pep talk. They may want to vent or express their emotions without being told they should feel differently.
2. Would hearing this actually help them? In most cases, especially when emotions are high, the answer is no. When I’m depressed, the most inspiring stories can make me feel worse because I feel so pathetic and unable to change.
What can you do if you can’t take things in your stride?
Try to stay afloat. Practice self-care and do what you can to stop things getting worse.
If you can, that is. Sometimes problems and setbacks can make us feel as though we are drowning and we can’t stop struggling. Instead of letting go and hoping we rise to the surface, we try to cling to things in desperation — though clinging to them will keep us trapped underwater for longer. We cling to unhealthy relationships, harmful habits and negative beliefs. We can keep clinging, or we can let go and accept our current situation.
Acceptance is bloody hard, but it’s the only way we can stay afloat. And unless we learn to stay afloat first, our attempts to swim against the tide and change our lives will keep sucking us under. It’s a lesson I’m learning over and over.
Berating yourself (and the world in general) gets you nowhere, because you get sucked down into the same old negative thought patterns. Practicing self-care and self-love lead to acceptance. Unfortunately, as the word “practice” suggests, it’s difficult to learn to love and care for yourself, so you need to pay attention and take active steps on a regular basis.
If you feel unable to cope, please seek help and support. Your GP is a good first port of call, but there are also various helplines, therapists and counsellors. Talking to a trusted friend or family member and asking them to help you access appropriate sources of support is a good idea.
Long term strategy.
When you have chronic mental health issues, feeling blown off course by life events which others seem to take in their stride is a frequent occurrence. I think the trick is to recognise when you need to stop swimming and float for a while.
Doing this can feel like you are taking a step backwards, but it actually prevents you from losing progress.
Constantly swimming against the tide is exhausting, so we all need a break sometimes. If you are experiencing mental health problems, you may need more breaks than other people — perhaps more than you would like — but it’s essential to float when you need to float. In fact, it’s the best strategy for your long term success and fulfilment.
Self-care helps you to swim further in the long run 🙂