“Think positive, don’t be so pessimistic.”
“Trust me, everything will be fine.”
“At least you have a healthy body, right?”
“Be grateful that you still have food and shelter.”
After having a bad day, you’ve probably either heard these lines from your friends and families, or tried to lighten up your own mood with a little dose of positivity.
When your friends approach you to talk about their frustrations, do you often find yourself awkward and helpless? Have you thought about what you have said to those who share their bad experiences with you?
To those known as Highly Sensitive Person (HSPs), not to mention people with mental health issues, the choices of words in conversations hold significance on the impact they might have towards the other person. This is why languages are to be used wisely to convey understanding and empathy.
Empathy vs Sympathy
Instead of expressing sympathy by showing pity or sorrow, empathy should be the main tool for communicating with people who are mentally in pain. If we don’t speak with caution and compassion, feelings of alienation, sadness and not being understood may be magnified or worsened.
“It felt as if I could not escape (even though I knew eventually I will). And I could feel my body physically reacting to my emotional state, such as being tense, heart dipping to the pit of your stomach, and it is painful… “
“I felt helpless, like nobody or nothing could help me. I kept crying and crying, and once one negativity comes in, the others just kept following and there was no end. Things were so overwhelming that I wanted to end things, but I couldn’t so once again I blamed myself and started using things to hurt myself so the pain could remind myself that I still feel…”
“I was crying every day and I felt like anything I was doing had no purpose. A friend told me that depression was just caused by people who can’t accept the ways of this world. When I felt like hurting myself, I scrolled through the list of contacts but I couldn’t bring myself to call or text anyone for help…”
As seen from some responses collected from the students, reaching out can be a difficult thing to do for most of us when we’re in a vulnerable state. It may be even harder for us to express ourselves with the absence of a safe and healthy social environment.
Since research has shown that empathy is fundamental in improving the effectiveness of recovery and promotes healing, it is vital that we show compassion and support when providing assistance to those that we care.
Use language wisely; avoid toxic positivity!
Positivity can be powerful for some, but it can also be harmful when forced upon someone. In some cases, “stay positive!” has become an abused phrase where it has made people feel guilty for having negative emotions. This is termed as toxic positivity.
Toxic positivity often results in unintentional gaslighting as it blocks emotional conversation and the possibility of getting help. While many who are facing difficult times are in need of acceptance of their current situation, brushing it off may make it worse.
Hence, we should always try to avoid phrases such as “everything will be okay” when we have no idea if things would get better in the future. Rather than saying “things could be worse”, we can choose to accept the limitations of their emotional capacity at that moment of time.
So, how else can we help?
- Talk to them
Provide them with a safe space to share their feelings. Don’t force them to do it if they don’t feel like sharing, but don’t assume or guess what they’re thinking. Most importantly, listen.
- Check them out once in a while
There are many ways of showing your concern and checking out how your friends are doing. Giving a letter and leaving small notes for them can mean a lot.
- Make plans with them
Include them in your outing plans – have a simple meal or spend some leisure time with them, but again, don’t force them.
- Ask them what they need
If they need space, give them space. Let them know if you’re willing to help.
Written by Yu Huan
DISCLAIMER: Views expressed in this article are those of the author and they do not necessarily represent the position of UNM IGNITE.