There is a difference between helping a depressed friend and enabling an abuser.
My background is in psychology -- but not abnormal or relationship psychology. (I studied adult playfulness!) I want to acknowledge that before I start, because this is far from my area of expertise.
But I just saw some of THE MOST FUCKED UP SHIT on Facebook, and it prompted an important realization:
There is a difference between helping a depressed friend and enabling an abuser.
I'm not big on the whole public shaming thing (see also: Quick! Before You Publicly Shame Strangers Who Annoy You -- TRY THIS!), so I'm not going to post screenshots or name any names.
And I consider it my moral obligation to ignore passive aggression. I'm not writing this so the abuser in question will hopefully maybe see it and change her evil ways. I'm writing it so others who know people like this girl will start to question whether what they're seeing is depression... or abuse.
I'm writing it because there's been this great movement on social media that I totally support that's aiming not just to destigmatize mental illness, but also to inform and educate friends of those with mental illness. How do you help someone who's depressed? What can you say to try to help?
Many of the comics just try to help you understand -- because for someone who finds joy in everyday miracles, from clouds to squirrels to wind chimes, it's really hard to understand why a depressed person doesn't just "snap out of it" or "just get out of bed" or whatever.
Others advise friends of depressed people how they can help -- basically, by accepting and listening and just being there. Here's one I've seen a few times:
Which, like... okay. If someone I loved were super depressed, I would occasionally and gladly do things like this for them. But... I would also try to use the time to empower them. As I wrote in For The Love of God, STOP Asking People If They're Okay -- Ask THIS Instead:
All of human interaction can be graphed on an X-Y axis, where X is communion (actions that show caring and bring us closer to others) and Y is agency (actions that establish power or authority. During social interactions, the behavior of one person invites complementary behavior from the other person -- or else there is tension in their system. If I do/say something that is high in agency, the complementary response will be low in agency -- we can't both be the authority. Meanwhile, if I do something high in communion, the complementary response would also be high in communion -- we like people who like us, and it hurts to be rejected.
By interesting coincidence, human depression tends to manifest itself in one of two ways: feelings of disconnection/low communion (e.g., "I'm lonely," "No one loves me," I don't have a single friend that I can confide in," etc.) and feelings of helplessness/low agency (e.g., "I feel helpless," "I feel worthless," "It's hard to get out of bed in the morning," etc.). Read more >
If your depressed friend seems to be suffering from feelings of low agency, it is absolutely worth trying to build them up and empower them. Rather than treat them like they're helpless and broken, say and do things that make them feel like you see them as the same person they always were. You can read the full post if you want some specific, actionable suggestions...
But that's not what this post is about.
This post is about how, in the course of trying to do the "right thing" and follow the advice of comics and bloggers and even researchers, we might actually be enabling abuse.
This leads me back to that super messed up Facebook post.
So this crazy girl I know posts on her Facebook wall something to the effect of, "Please come over and hug me and hold me and let me cry in your arms without asking me to explain myself or criticizing me." Which... is consistent with what these comics say we should do, right? Hug, hold, sacrifice our time to stare at walls with people we care about.
Except then the post goes on to indirectly berate her husband for starving her of affection and causing her all of this distress in a way that's totally not okay.
Nevertheless, following the guidelines set forth in depression comics, her friends generously offered support. Several offered to come over to hold her. Some said they would bring food or board games. Others couldn't make it because they live out of town, but sent their love and support.
I would have been moved by this love and support from her community... if not for the fact that this post was clearly meant to shame, punish, and humiliate her husband.
Their love and support would have been sweet... if not for the fact that it very much felt like she was crowdsourcing her efforts to gaslight her husband. (That word, "gaslight" -- it means a really specific thing. Half the time I see it used online, it's used incorrectly. It doesn't mean, "Someone disagrees with me or asked for evidence to support my view." It's a psychological manipulation meant to make someone question their own sanity. No doubt, this girl is going to use the likes and comments on her post to tell her husband, "See? I told you! You're a garbage person!")
It would have been sweet... if it weren't tacky as fuck to air your dirty laundry on social media like that.
Her post REEKS of abuse, narcissism, and control. I couldn't read it and not ask myself, "If that's how she talks about her husband when she's trying to get attention and play the victim on social media... Can you imagine how she talks when she's speaking directly to him?"
I started this post by saying I am by no means an expert on abnormal or relationship psychology. I'm not writing this post because I think it will have any effect whatsoever on abusers or abusees.
Instead, I'm writing to remind readers that, yes, empathy is important. Compassion, understanding, suspending judgement -- we do it for those we care about, but in my experience, these actions also bring a powerful sense of communion and connection to my own life. (You might even call it "meaning," right? Since, from an evolutionary perspective, self-esteem is worthless and all that matters is what others think about you.)
Just as any ideology, religion, policy, or idea should stand up to criticism, just as a good thinker is skeptical and thorough...
When it comes to helping friends through mental illness and tough times, I think it might also be important to ask yourself:
1. Am I supporting, or am I enabling?
One demonstrated way to fight depression is to avoid rumination, or the tendency to repeatedly think about negative emotions and experiences -- which many well-meaning friends encourage when they listen to depressed friends whine and complain nonstop, instead of changing the topic to books, fun memories, or pretty much anything but the causes of the person's misery. I have a very close friend who used to ruminate nonstop. His other friends totally enabled him, and he was depressed for years. Today, he is happy and successful, and he frequently says to me, "Eva, I'm so glad you forced me to stop ruminating. It changed me life."
Another way to fight depression is to force yourself to go out, do activities, make plans with friends. I know it's hard when you're depressed, and sometimes, that just can't happen -- I've seen the comics. I try not to judge too harshly when someone who's struggling bails on me last-minute. But at the same time, staying in bed all the time will only perpetuate the cycle. Another friend who overcame her depression says she did it by forcing herself to make (and keep) plans with friends.
"At first," she told me, "Everything felt like nothing. Even things like skiing or hiking, things I used to love, literally felt like nothing. But I kept forcing myself to do things, and eventually, I started feeling better."
(I think the web comics and blogs that compare depression to a physical disease or injury are useful ways to encourage understanding... but, as Christina Hoff Sommers and Sally Satel wrote in One Nation Under Therapy: How the Helping Culture is Eroding Self-Reliance, the difference is, depression/addiction are not cancer. There is an element of controllability.)
When you encourage or enable loved ones to stay at home and do nothing all the time, you might actually be hindering their healing -- even though we all have the "instinct for idleness," and a lot of times, in the moment, it feels better/easier to stay at home and do nothing than to spend a little more energy making a fun plan. Even if it's just learning some crazy new dance moves on an old tennis court.
Or making a quick trip to the beach for sunset.
Go out -- and take some photos. That way, next time your friend is sitting around feeling like his or her (according to research, women are more likely to be depressed than men -- but here's why that statistic might be bullshit) life sucks and no one likes him/her... they can look at the photos and remember.
The other thing about staying in with friends all the time and letting them always flake and bail on you is...
Remember that whole, depressed people usually have a problem with feelings of agency or feelings of communion, thing? If your friend's problem is with agency, and you totally indulge all their weaknesses and don't hold them accountable for anything and you just constantly treat them like they are sad, pathetic, and broken...
Your intentions are good, but the result may be demoralizing to your friend. Your actions may be reinforcing the ideas that hurt your friend most.
It's a fine line. I've asked myself, before, "Am I supporting or enabling?" It can be hard to know for sure... You might not get it right...
But you should still be asking.
The second important thing you should be asking is:
2. Am I supporting a depressed friend... or enabling an abuser?
Abnormal psychology doesn't exist in a vacuum. There is almost always an interpersonal component, or some dysfunctional social attitude or behavior (a few examples of which I shared in Saying "Before Others Can Love You, You Have to Learn to Love Yourself" Is COMPLETELY FALSE).
This is something to remember when thinking about how to support a friend who is struggling with mental illness.
I'm not an expert in it. Neither are you. Even doctors and psychiatrists have a hard time diagnosing and distinguishing between mental illnesses.
You may think you see someone who's struggling with depression. But what you're actually looking at may be a narcissistic abuser -- or maybe someone whose crippling insecurities drive them to treat their children, family, husband, or wife in unacceptable ways.
There's often more going on than is visible from the outside, and it is worth thinking twice before involving yourself.
It's impossible to know the whole story. All you can really do... is, yes, be understanding. Don't judge... but still try to think at lease a little critically about what you think you're seeing and how your actions will help (or hurt) the situation.
1/16/2019 11:08:35 am
I have a friend who is a hoarder. I used to unknowingly enable his habit by giving him stuff I didn't need. If he ever heard I had been having a clear-out, he would ask for some of the stuff. I just thought I was doing him a favour as he lives on disability benefits and struggles financially.
5/27/2020 06:55:06 pm
So my husband’s life time friend is living with us and battling depression. We have let him stay for free for 6 months now. All while conducting a huge remodel on our house and using only 1 bathroom. During the time he’s been with us he has quit his job and found another one (but plans to probably quit if they don’t offer him more money), sought treatment and quit, started taking medication and has quit those as well. He has also stopped accepting phone calls from his family. There is no sign of him moving out and this was suppose to be a couple month thing. He has his good and bad days and I try to lend an ear and be supportive. But at what point am I enabling him? And at what point do I say either get a plan or get out? Is he taking advantage of us? He doesn’t seem the type but we could be blinded by our friendship.
7/23/2020 04:51:49 pm
BOY your post resonates with me. I'm living with a friend of my husband who moved in two years ago and didn't tell us she had insane crippling depression that would have her sleeping in bed til 5pm for days on end, skipping work and social obligations and chores (which I end up doing). Her friends all love her and she has a family that supports her to no end. Honestly, some of her friends seem to get a high out of helping her, because she's so fragile and lacking in agency, and they get to feel like a Knight or Saviour whenever they swoop in to do the things she really should be doing herself as a 30 year old grown-ass woman.
11/23/2022 12:06:02 am
I strongly agree that helping a friend or a person with mental illness. As mentioned even experts have a hard time diagnosing and distinguishing between mental illnesses. There is a need to know the whole story about the person before involving oneself. For me it is really important that a person with this concern must have support from their friends and families, anyone close to them. That's why true friends are very important because sometimes there are concerns that I can't relay to a member of family, rather to a friend. I really appreciate having this type of article, it really helps a lot.
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