My mother went through bouts of depression, especially after my sister and I left the house. We provided pleasure and purpose for her. We also were her main source of emotional support. Even after my sister and I left home, we did our best to keep Mom in good spirits. We were not very successful.
As I reflect on our methods of supporting Mom, I realize each of us gave her half of what she needed. I was quick with empathy and soothing words. I listened to her sadness and made her feel valued. She did the same for me. I encouraged Mom to volunteer and go for walks but was not there to join her or actually get her out of the house. I did not emphasize the action part. It did not feel as natural to me.
My sister was more action oriented. She lived closer to Mom and invited her out. She had Mom help her with her kids, encouraged her to exercise and invited her to family events. Empathy and sympathy were harder for my sister to administer.
We offered support but it was not consistent or complete. She slipped into depression.
Enabling and rescuing
I now know through research and personal experience, that empathy with no action steps allows irresponsible behavior to continue and it disempowers the individual. I have written about rescuing people. Always fighting someone’s battles or stepping in with an excuse, takes away their power. They need support and challenge.
Shame of not following through
My mother tried to take some action. She signed up to volunteer at an after school program. She would get on walking kicks every few years to try to lose weight, but after a while she would give up. She didn’t have enough support to keep her doing the uncomfortable activities. When she gave up, she felt even worse about herself. She failed and she was never going to get out of the low feelings she felt. Shame just added to the depression.
Every book, webinar, podcast or article I’ve explored on anxiety and depression, says start with safety and graduate to taking action. We can’t learn or take action if our brains are paralyzed with fear.
Empathy offers safety. It shows we see the person and the feelings they experience. It makes them relax and open to change and healing.
We are with you
The next key ingredient after empathy is a sense of having someone on our side. It is very difficult to do challenging things alone. We like to feel like we have a team or at least someone on our side. We feel resourced when we have someone to turn to.
Marriage and Family Therapist, Terry Real says, men need forthrightness and a lifeline. For men in particular, he says they need to know where they are messing up, but also that they are held in warm regard. For example, a wife might tell her husband, You scare the children with your anger, but underneath that anger you are someone we cherish.” It is not enough to just tell someone they are loved though, we must find genuine moments of appreciation and express our feelings then.
For much of my life, the action part was the hardest to make happen, especially if it was at all challenging. I’m a good thinker and a master at collecting information. I can empathize with and listen to people forever. I could take action if other people did it with me.
I remember working as a Guardian Ad Litem with the juvenile court system. A big part of my job was to find programs (chemical dependency, anger management, parenting classes, etc.) for negligent parents to take part in so they could get better and get their children back. I listened to the parents tell their tales of woe and then struggled to get them to attend the classes. I didn’t know the class options that well and I did not know how to motivate the adults to get their butts to the classes. I thought losing their kids would do it, but it did not. So as you can see, I have even had a hard time getting OTHER people to take action!
Now, years later, I have more skills in this area. I know myself better and what it takes to make me move — usually something I value. I have also taken more leaps into the unknown and survived, therefore, I have less fear around taking action.
Getting others to take action
When it comes to getting others out of low drive or depression, here are a few successful tactics I’ve learned:
- Make sure they feel safe and loved for who they are.
- Show them the patterns that occur when they are depressed or highly anxious. For example, perhaps they sleep a lot or stop doing things with friends. Show them they have control over these patterns. They have to break the patterns to escape the downward spiral. Show them sleeping a lot or staying in isolation are meant to protect them from pain but they are keeping them from what they need — support and engagement with life.
- Find out what or whom they love and ask them how their depression affects those things. How can they increase interactions with those things or people they love? Need to shift from too much internal focus to outside focus.
- Interrupting the pattern of shutting down or withdrawal. If they shut down physically and emotionally when stressed, they need to reconnect with emotions and fight or flight responses. If you feel anger in your body, safely express it, don’t suppress it. If your body wants to run or tense up, let it. Don’t slump, sleep or slip out. Sit up, stay and fight in the moment.
- Ask them to notice what they are experiencing as they experience it. This is presence. When they feel pleasure, they should take note of it. When they do something fulfilling or purposeful, it is important to notice that feeling too. It helps escape the worries of the future (anxiety) and the regrets of the past (depression).
- Invite them out. Help them stay longer in the discomfort of a new or challenging activity. Let them know you are on their side. Show them they can survive. Remind them of difficult situations they have already managed — a move to a new city or starting a new job.
Empathy and action keep us seeking
We cannot heal without support and connection. My friends and family have given me boatloads of empathy over the years. A few have given me a kick in the pants when I needed it too. Both gave me the nerve and energy to keep seeking new adventures and opportunities. Both allowed me to avoid long-term depression and anxiety.
How do you stay above depression or high anxiety? Do you only offer empathy but step aside when it comes to getting a friend to take action? How good are you at keeping yourself engaged with people and life?
** All photos courtesy of Unsplash.
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