Choosing your words carefully can strengthen relationships, fuel recovery, and make for a better quality of life for everyone.
10 Things NOT to Say to Someone with Bipolar
By Stephen Propst
You may think that talk is cheap. But, when words are used thoughtlessly, carelessly, or hurtfully, they can take a heavy toll. Like an arrow, “wrong” words can be sharp, piercing a person’s spirit, ripping away at self-esteem, and making a person feel belittled or even betrayed. Ill-chosen words can strain friendships and create stress. And especially vulnerable are people who have bipolar disorder.
Now, let’s be honest. Dealing with bipolar disorder is not only tough for the people who have the illness, but it’s also a challenge for those who live with them. Taking time to consider the impact of what you say before you “fire away” makes it easier. Choosing your words carefully can strengthen relationships, fuel recovery, and make for a better quality of life for everyone.
“Never tell anyone that he looks tired or depressed,” says H. Jackson Brown Jr., in his book Life’s Little Instruction Book (Rutledge Hill Press, 1991). That’s good advice! Now, let’s look at 10 more comments to avoid making to someone who has bipolar disorder. These observations come from more than two decades of dealing with the illness and from years of leading support groups and consulting with families. The goal is to help family and friends to more peacefully coexist with those of us who have bipolar.
What not to say…
You sound a little down today.
That’s what a friend said to me within the first 30 seconds when she phoned the other day. No kidding! Since I live with bipolar disorder, of course I don’t always feel 100 percent up to par. I just don’t need my symptoms constantly gauged or continually evaluated. It’s like having a never-ending physical. Most people with a mental illness know how they feel. Being told you are not sounding well is not constructive, nor is it a substitute for true compassion.
I thought you were taking your medication.
Dealing successfully with bipolar disorder cannot be reduced to whether or not someone has taken a pill. There are no quick fixes. Confronting a chronic, serious illness is an ongoing process, and there are bound to be ups and downs. The more you take the time to learn about bipolar disorder, the more you will understand how difficult managing such a condition can be. There are countless resources—books, videos, support groups, etc.—that address and reduce the mystery and misunderstanding surrounding bipolar disorder.
You’re too smart to have bipolar disorder.
When I first heard that remark, I felt so horrible, as if I could have prevented what had happened. Even worse, I felt that someone, such as a homeless person, was somehow more “deserving” of such an illness than I. The brain, like any organ in the body, is subject to having problems. It is cruel to say something that suggests that bipolar disorder doesn’t exist, isn’t legitimate, or isn’t as significant as any other medical condition.
You know he’s ‘bipolar,’ don’t you?
Reducing someone to the illness he faces is destructive. In fact, it is cruel to see a person only through the lens of a diagnosis. Unfortunately, it happens all too often. A person who has bipolar disorder should not be defined by that with which he might struggle. Guard your tongue. Focus on the person you know and love, and dwell on all that makes that individual special. Your friend or family member still has a life.
Stop acting like a fool!
Granted, some conduct associated with bipolar disorder can be very difficult to contend with. When you realize, however, that a particular behavior is actually symptomatic and born of the illness, it makes accepting and dealing with it much easier. I see families who think that their situation is unmanageable, until they meet other families facing the same circumstances. With education and patience, these families come to realize that there is an explanation for what they’ve been witnessing.
It doesn’t take much to set you off!
Those of us who have bipolar disorder are often more vulnerable and responsive to what happens around us. When you make careless statements, your tongue becomes a trigger that can rouse a reaction and escalate symptoms. You unnecessarily incite a mood change in the person you really want to help.
You’re lazy and don’t have a life anymore.
Are you pushing someone who has bipolar disorder to get on with life? Doing so might create stress, counteract recovery techniques, and worsen overall health. If you have a family, a job, social engagements, etc., consider yourself not only lucky, but also far apart from the typical individual who deals with bipolar disorder. Such a person has often dealt with a radical departure from any sense of a normal routine. Recovery takes time and work, and the role you play is critical. Help by using constructive dialogue that acknowledges progress. Don’t push too hard and don’t expect everything to happen overnight.
We used to have high hopes for you.
I sat at a support group and heard a mother say: “My son was going to be a doctor and have a wonderful family, but now he has bipolar disorder.” As I listened, I watched the young man’s face just drop. He was crushed by his mother’s words. Such a statement is not healthy, because it does not convey unconditional love. What you say does matter. Remember that we are all human beings, not human “doings;” the more you acknowledge our being, the more we can end up doing. There is no need to squash hope or diminish dreams.
Don’t take everything so personally.
With bipolar disorder, there are obvious physical symptoms, such as changes in appetite or sleep; the mind, as well as the brain, are impacted. The patient’s self-esteem also takes a tremendous hit. That’s why a promised phone call that never comes may be taken much harder than you might imagine. Likewise, saying things that ignore or make light of someone’s sense of self-esteem should be avoided.
You seem a little overly enthusiastic.
Remember that someone who has bipolar disorder is still entitled to a personality. Before I had bipolar disorder, I was outgoing, happy-go-lucky and quick-witted. Now even though I have this illness, those same personality traits still exist. At a support group recently, a young man was very energetic and expressive. Someone accused him of being manic. Fortunately, a psychiatrist was present. He said that the young man was displaying no manic symptoms whatsoever and that it was cruel to strip a person of his personality merely because he has a diagnosis. The doctor added that anyone is entitled to a full, normal range of emotions.
What you can say…
Sticks and stones can break bones, but words hurt, too. Talking carelessly can shatter self-esteem and stifle a person’s motivation to have a life again. Instead, use statements that are more likely to strengthen relationships and support recovery.
Here are some simple phrases to get started:
“I love you, and I care.”
“You’re not alone in this.”
“I’m sorry you’re in so much pain.”
“I’m always willing to listen.”
“I’ll be your friend no matter what.”
“This will pass, and we can ride it out together.”
“You are important to me.”
“When all this is over, I’ll still be here.”
Speaking of differences
Last year, at the Fernbank Museum of Natural History in Atlanta, Georgia, an amazing, special exhibit revealed that every imaginable genetic differentiation—body size, health, anything—is attributable to less than one percent of all genes (Human Genome Project). We are more than 99 percent identical. So, if you know someone who has bipolar disorder, why not concentrate on speaking to the 99 percent of that person’s humanity that really matters?
Talk is not cheap. It pays to use words that encourage, enlighten, and empower. You can make a positive difference in your loved-one’s recovery and in your peace of mind.
Printed as “The big payoff of well-chosen words,” Fall 2006
Tagged with: bipolar and stigma, conversation, fall 2006, language, stephen propst, stigma, words
About the author: Stephen Propst
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Stephen Propst Stephen Propst, a former chair of DBSA, is a public speaker and a coach/consultant focusing on living successfully with conditions like bipolar. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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