Welcome to part 4 of our Talking Things Through series! Last week we look at the importance of being sensitive to someone’s situation and how there’s a time and a place for your interactions, whether talking to them or simply listening. Today we’ll tap into when to take a step back. Let’s take a look!
How many of us give this response when asked how we are? It’s the normal human automatic response, isn’t it. Simple, to the point but a closed response that people can’t dig into without putting some effort into it. For many, it’s a simple way of staving off other peoples’ attempts at delving deeper into their private life. Everyone does it, not just people with depression, but let me tell you about why I do it.
For me, “I’m fine” is a threefold answer. On one hand, I’m reserving the innermost thoughts and feelings for people I know will listen without being worried about it. If I know someone won’t worry, it’s easier for me to feel like I’m not burdening them with my problems. On the other hand, I feel like my problems aren’t that important in the grand scheme of things, so keeping them in appears to be the better option. Lastly, though, it’s a coping mechanism, but I shall explain that in a moment.
What does it mean?
Pure and simple, this is a tricky one. It’s something my mum and I talk about fairly frequently, as it’s a difficult one to work out. The trouble with saying “I’m fine” is that people perceive it as the standard response and don’t always believe it. That can lead to them feeling as though they’ve been shut out, pushed away or rejected in some way. Have you ever felt that way when trying to help someone? It’s hard, isn’t it.
At this point I’d like to point out that it’s nothing that you’ve done. Please don’t feel like it’s personal because, believe me, it’s not. For someone struggling with depression, there are a lot of reasons why they might not open up and explain how they’re really feeling. Perhaps they don’t want to worry you or perhaps they might not feel important enough, as I mentioned before. For those of you who have depression, perhaps there are other reasons you have for saying “I’m fine” when you’re not? Please feel free to comment some below so that we might get an idea of why.
What to do?
So this part is really in two segments, as it’s where it all gets turned on its head. On one hand you should persist and make sure they know that you’re there if ever they want to talk…on the other hand you shouldn’t push too much.
That’s where moderation comes in and this is where it gets turned upside down in some crazy mishmash.
From my own personal experience, I’d use the Rule of Two. No, that’s not a reference to the philosophy of the Sith in Star Wars. Think of it more along the lines of “two is company, three’s a crowd”. If you ask someone the question and they say “I’m fine” then pause, give it a moment, then ask again. If you get the same “I’m fine” answer, ease off and leave it. Here’s why:
- Badgered: asking someone the same question more than twice can lead to them feeling badgered. I’ve felt it many times before. It closes me off further as I withdraw deeper into my shell to avoid being asked again.
- Lying: if I give that response of “I’m fine” because I want to give the impression of being fine, being asked more than twice can lead my mind to highlight the fact that I’m lying about how I’m feeling. That, in turn, makes me feel worse.
- Aggravation: in some cases, constantly being asked if you’re fine can exasperate whatever problem you’re currently wrestling with. When I’m having a depressive spiral or a panic attack, someone asking me repeatedly if I’m fine only serves to accentuate the feeling that I’m not. On the odd occasion it’s even been known to make it worse.
Those are just three reasons why sticking to the rule of two is probably best. If they want to tell you, they will tell you. If not, they won’t. Opening the invitation for them to talk is great and a very important step. Maintaining that respectful distance if they say no, however, is equally important.
The Personal Touch
Really, it all boils down to your relationship with the person. People who know each other better are more likely to get it right than those who don’t. As your friendship develops, you’ll know how the person will react to being asked questions or offers of support. Don’t get me wrong, it’s very much a process of trial and error. Take this example:
Cheryl and I have known each other for a little while now. We met through work and have become close friends since. She knows more about my struggle than anyone else I can think of but even she gets it wrong. A few times in the past, I’ve snapped or become irritated over being asked if I’m OK and I’m sure she’ll back me up if I say we’ve had our fair share of discussions over what to do and what not to do, what to ask and what not to ask. That’s spending a lot of time together, knowing each other really well and knowing the majority of the details of my struggle.
It really does take a personal touch to get it right. You’ll make mistakes, you’ll get it wrong but persist because they’re certainly worth it. They might not see it that way but I’m sure you’d agree.
Next week we’re going to look at the importance of mindfulness. Not the kind of mindfulness that the psychiatrists and psychotherapists talk about in the CBT therapies but my own special mix. Think more along the lines of being aware of others’ situations, being mindful of what they might be going through. Another important step to helping someone. Come back next week to find out more!
Why not subscribe?
Subscribe today to receive a free chapter from my eBook “Pills and Blades”, a subscriber-exclusive podcast episode and more!