Jeffosophy: a collection of possibly useful things I have learned over the years.



Depressed woman  

Supporting a Friend Who Is Feeling Down

When someone you care about is feeling down, whether just having a bad day or coping with depression, you probably feel a desire to cheer her up; to make her feel better. Unfortunately, such a seemingly helpful attitude could make your friend (or sister or brother or partner or anyone you care about, but let's use the word "friend" here) feel worse.

Absolutely Do Not Say "Cheer Up"

I trust I do not need to tell you not to say "Cheer up" to someone who is down. In general, people are not down as a matter of choice. People do not wake up in the morning and say, "by golly, I think I'll feel like shit today." If a friend is down it is likely because she has experienced something that makes her feel down, she is going through a difficult period in her life, or she suffers from clinical depression. Telling her to "cheer up" or similar is not going to change how she feels. It is only going to make her feel worse because she now knows you want her to cheer up and she feels incapable of doing that for you. Sure, she might pretend to cheer up to make you happy, but she's only pretending.

Don't Get Competitive

Even worse than saying "cheer up" is getting competitive when your friend is down. If a friend is down because her beloved cat died, saying "It's not that bad, my husband was eaten by a bear and I coped with it" is not going to make her feel better. Instead, it is going to make her think you are an insensitive jerk. And you don't want her to think that, do you?

Be Cautious About Doing Something Cheerful

When a friend is down, you may be tempted to do something to cheer her up. Maybe you take her to a club to dance. Maybe you invite friends around. Maybe you take her to the zoo. Trying to cheer someone up with activities like this may work if your friend is feeling a little down, but if she is truly depressed, they are unlikely to have any effect. Indeed, if you go out somewhere and your friend fails to enjoy herself, it may just make her feel worse.

That said, if you know your friend well, you might try to do something to take her mind off whatever it is that is making her feel down. A walk in the park. A quiet musical performance. A swim. Activities like these, that are not about cheering your friend up, may help her process her feelings of being down. It also helps her to know you care enough about her to do something with her.

So, what can you do if your friend is feeling down? Three things.


Let Her Know It's Okay to Feel Down

The best thing you can do for a friend who is feeling down is to tell her explicitly that it is okay to feel down. Say it: "It's okay to feel down." This validates her feelings. It lets her know that you, as a friend, are okay with her being down. And this is important. Depression, melancholy and being down are all valid feelings to have and experience. If you try and cheer your friend up, you may make her feel that it is not okay to feel down. So, tell it is perfectly okay to feel down as far as you are concerned.

Friendship works both ways. If your friend is feeling depressed, she is likely to worry that she will bring you down or that you will not want to be around her when she is down. Telling her it is okay lets her know that you still care about her when she is down. This is important.


Ask About Her Feelings

If "cheer up" is the worst thing you can say to someone who is feeling down, the second worst thing is to say, "I know how you feel." Stop and think about that for a second. Of course you do not know how she feels, especially if you haven't asked her! You may have been through a similar experience, but you don't know how she feels. So, ask her. "How do you feel?" If she talks about a bad experience, keep asking, "how did you feel when you mother said that to you?"

 On the other hand, if your friend does not want to talk about her feelings, but just wants to be with you. That's okay too. And, again, tell her that it is okay.


Listen without Interrupting

Whether you specifically ask about how your friend is feeling or she shares things with you, be quiet and listen. Let her tell her story and don't interrupt with your own story. Only interrupt if you want clarity. As I've written, avoid saying, "I know how you feel." Instead ask, "how do you feel about that?"

Don't offer advice unless your friend specifically asks for advice. However, you might ask questions with hidden advice, for example, "Have you spoken to your husband about how you feel?" "Do you think speaking with a therapist might help you deal with this?" "Have you ever tried meditation to deal with anxiety issues?"

By posing advice as questions, you give your friend an opportunity to think about what to do, without pressuring her to do so. If she ignores your question or says she does not like the idea of talking to a therapist, so be it. Do not bring up the question again.


Or Just Be Quiet Together

If your friend does not want to talk about whatever is getting her down, that's also okay. You can talk about something else - or just be together silently.


A Word About Physical Affection

The human touch can be powerful. It can be soothing. It can be reassuring. But, it an also be unwanted. If you know your friend is comfortable being touched, then a reassuring hand on the shoulder or a tight embrace can help tremendously. On the other hand, some people are uncomfortable being touched. And the COVID pandemic has left some people uncomfortable with being touched. So, if you are not sure, ask.

A while back, a friend was talking about her mother who recently died. She began to cry. I instinctively wanted to hold her, but our friendship had never been affectionate, so I asked her if she was okay with me holding her. She was. I did.

Years ago, when I was the manager of a unit at a publishing house in Bangkok, one of my direct reports broke down in tears. She felt she had been bullied by a colleague. Again, I felt an instinctive desire to hold her and comfort her. But, in Thai culture, that would have been completely inappropriate. So, I kept my hands to myself, listened and responded sympathetically.


In Summary

When a friend is down, don't tell her to cheer up. Don't tell her you know how she feels. Instead, validate her feeling by telling her that it is okay to feel as she feels, ask about those feelings and listen attentively to what she tells you. You won't magically make her depression go away, but you will help her get through down times more easily and better enable her to get past whatever has brought her down.




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