Don't Tell Someone with Bipolar Disorder How to Feel

12 days ago
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"Don't be sad/angry/upset."

"Calm down."

"Smile. It'll make you feel better."

"Stop getting all revved up."

Never in the history of ever has any communication of this sort had the desired effect on a person – especially one with bipolar disorder.

When you offer this sort of "advice," what you are basically doing is telling the person not to feel the way they feel. Not only is this useless, it's insulting.

It's useless because ordering someone to feel a certain way simply won't work. Saying, "Be cheerful" will not make it so. Emotions aren't like flipping a switch on command. Even for neurotypical people, emotions are complex interactions of chemicals in the brain. While some people claim – or may perhaps be able to – shift their emotional state at will (from angry to merely annoyed or to neutral), it isn't easy or natural. There's a reason that you feel the way you do.

For the person with bipolar disorder, it's even more difficult – if not impossible – to shift moods at a whim, especially someone else's. Bipolar is a mood disorder. It affects moods and emotions in a nonstandard, often unpredictable way. Telling someone to alter their own brain chemistry merely by thinking about it is ludicrous.

Even if the bipolar person's moods or feelings seem exaggerated or uncalled-for to you, that person is having an experience no different than when you feel elated or despairing or fearful. The emotions may even be more profound, less susceptible to alteration by force of will.

But telling bipolar people not to feel the way they feel is not just pointless, it is insulting. You are denying their perception of reality, invalidating their experience, dismissing their concerns, minimizing their problems, discounting their feelings. In effect, you are saying, "I don't feel the same way, so your feelings are wrong. Change them to match mine."

Imagine that you have written something – a report, a poem, whatever – and feel good about it. You've made your point and done it well. You've captured reality as you see it and communicated it in a way you think is clear and effective. Then someone comes along and reads it and says, "This is crap." They have denied what you feel and believe. And even if they're right, even if it is crap, they have profoundly insulted you. And, of course, they may be wrong.

Diagnosed bipolar people already know that their emotions do not run the same as other people's. There's no need to remind them of that. And bipolar people are generally doing what they can to alleviate their symptoms, be it through therapy, medication, mindfulness, meditation, or whatever works best for them. When you discount their feelings you are discounting them as persons. That can be anywhere from annoying to soul-damaging.

Adam Savage, of Mythbusters fame, sometimes wears a t-shirt that says, "I Reject Your Reality and Substitute My Own." He is (I hope) talking about substituting a provable, scientific reality for a mythical, uninformed one.

But to go around substituting your own emotional reality for other people's – and trying to make them agree with you – does a disservice to the people you think you are trying to help.

So, what would be better than saying, "Don't feel ________"?

How about, "I know you feel _________ and I can see why."

Or "I can tell you're feeling _______. How can I help you?"

In other words, start by acknowledging that the other person's feelings are real. Then ask what the person needs. This lets the person know that you understand his or her feelings and that you would like to help in the way that the person thinks best.

If you know other things that have worked in the past, you could suggest them (after validating the feelings, of course). Would you like me to run a hot bath? Do you need a hug? Do you just need time alone? Do you want to talk about it? Maybe later?

It occurs to me that this is not really news to a bipolar person. The ones who need to read it are the ones who are doing the invalidating, not the ones who feel invalidated.

So, if you know someone like that – a friend or loved one, feel free to copy this post and give or send it to them, if you think it will help. I know it helped me when I figured out what was going on and what my husband and I could do about it.

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