Mood symptoms such as overspending, hypersexuality, anger attacks, and self-isolation hurt those around us. A simple apology is just the starting point of making things right.
When Our Actions during Bipolar Mood Episodes Harm Others
Olivia S. of Colorado got up one morning to unexpectedly find two of her four grown children in her living room. Her 30-year-old daughter had come from California, her 24-year-old son from Iowa. Her husband had called them, hoping they could help with a manic episode Olivia now says she’d refused to recognize.
The presence of her children, and her family’s close oversight over the next few days, made her feel “smothered,” “embarrassed,” and “humiliated,” she recalls. In response, she said cruel things, things she wishes she could take back.
Olivia emerged from the mood episode with the help of a medication adjustment. In the aftermath, she was deeply worried she’d ruined her relationship with her children for good.
“I was really sorry for being hateful and pushing them away,” says Olivia. “Having bipolar isn’t an excuse to treat people badly, especially people who love you and are trying to help you.”
Bipolar episodes can spark a host of scenarios involving hurtful behavior—whether coming from a place of euphoria and invincibility, impulsivity, triggered trauma, irritability, or apathy and fatigue.
Some transgressions involve “real world” consequences that family has to deal with, such as brushes with the law or spending down savings during a manic spree. The emotional fallout from episode-driven actions can unravel relationships—the betrayal of infidelity due to hypersexuality, the harm and fear caused by physical aggression during an explosive burst of anger, the damage from tearing someone down with verbal abuse.
Then there are more insidious effects that arise from withdrawal and neglect during a depression—not showing up for important events as promised, for example—or from embarrassment caused by inappropriate behavior.
Asking for forgiveness, and thus exposing ourselves to the possibility of rejection, is no easy matter. As a matter of fact, it may be a drawn-out process of apologizing as often as needed, making amends, and attempting to earn back trust.
At the least, knowing that we did the best we could to right a wrong—to repair what was broken—can bring a certain level of inner peace and acceptance.
Sometimes that has to be enough, since we can’t expect forgiveness just because we crave it.
“The other person has to be at a place of readiness, and [waiting for] that can be really painful,” says Tasha Nadasdi, PsyD, a clinical psychologist in Virginia.
“I see a lot of people who end up damaging the possibility of forgiveness because they can’t tolerate the waiting period, so they push boundaries in the interim.… That ends up being a second issue that compounds the original hurt.”
Knowing that we might face frustration and disappointment doesn’t mean we should shield ourselves from the process, though.
Nadasdi is no fan of the phrase “forgive and forget,” which she describes as a “magical idea” that doesn’t honor the injury.
“Something bad did happen that was very real, so frame asking for forgiveness as, ‘How do we move forward and heal?’ and not, ‘How do we forget and get over it?’”
The Risk and Reward of Apologizing
When Olivia set out to mend fences with her children after the accumulated toll of past manic and depressive episodes, she started with her daughter.
Rather than crafting a long plea or apology, Olivia texted a simple request: Download the song “One Thing Right,” by Marshmello and Kane Brown. The lyrics list one mistake made after another, with the chorus ending: “But I got one thing right, you.”
“I’ve made so many mistakes because of my bipolar,” says Olivia, “but our relationship is better because I took that step. I hope I have her admiration because I was able to admit I was wrong and I am trying my best to be better.”
After a similar conversation with her son, Olivia now realizes the weight of guilt and shame she was carrying around—equivalent to “a hefty bag of garbage,” she says.
“If you’re remorseful, it still makes you nervous to ask for forgiveness because you don’t know how the other person will respond, but … it actually feels right because you are reaching out.”
Note that remorse differs from shame, which is a feeling that you are unworthy or a terrible person because of your actions. The distinction has to do with regret (a sign of a healthy introspection) versus inadequacy (a fertilizer for depression).
Even without shame, seeking forgiveness can make us feel overly exposed. Taking that step—and make no mistake, admitting to botching or completely blowing up a situation can feel like an overwhelmingly huge step—requires a willingness to make yourself vulnerable, plus some preparation regarding your future behavior.
“If you say, ‘I know I have broken your trust and I want to re-earn your trust,’ that’s a very powerful opening,” says Ossefort-Russell. “Then you can say, ‘These are the boundaries I’m going to put in place,’ or ‘These are the practices I’m going to be using’” to maintain that trust.
“And then, because we always think we know what’s going to help somebody else, ask whether those things will help re-earn the trust,” she adds. “If you don’t get at the breach they felt from what you did, your actions aren’t going to make any repair with that person.”
Appreciating Impact & Aiming for Empathy
Understanding the difference between intent and impact is key in your approach, explains Nadasdi. Rather than seeking to explain or excuse what you did, try instead for empathy.
“Usually, the people who do the harm spend a lot of time focused on their intentions and wanting to prove themselves,” she says, “and what they need to do is understand the impact of what they did, regardless of their intentions. The impact is what matters interpersonally in our relationships.”
For instance, consider replacing, “I didn’t mean to hurt you,” with, “I am deeply sorry I caused you pain.”
That doesn’t mean you won’t get an earful. The other person may be bitter, suspicious, or raging mad.
If that’s the case, Ossefort-Russell suggests putting your hand over your heart to soothe and calm your nervous system, or noticing things around the room to get your thoughts moving from the internal to the external.
Having to bear witness to another person’s anger at something you did may feel nearly intolerable. For Evan C. of Ohio, “It’s like something really strong grabs my stomach, like one of those claw machines that pick up stuffed animals.”
Evan had to learn to be patient after his marriage ended and he wanted to make things right with his ex-wife. He spent years trying to earn back her trust, which had been broken for multiple reasons, some a direct result of manic behavior.
“I just had conversations in little doses, kind of like taking my medication, working up the dosage to where it was therapeutic,” he recalls. “My gut said, ‘I want to get it all out right now and be Mr. Fix-It,’ but my desire for instant gratification wasn’t going to work in this case.”
When repeated behavior has eroded trust and goodwill over time, it can feel chancy or even foolhardy for the person on the receiving end to forgive and move forward.
Not every breach can be repaired. Still, don’t abandon hope if your first attempts to apologize are brushed off with responses like, “I don’t want to listen to you,” or, “You’ve hurt me for the last time.”
“It’s easy to get discouraged, but it’s important to remember that people need time to process things,” says Tamara Auger, a licensed professional clinical counselor from New Mexico.
As long as “we can be totally vulnerable, acknowledge our wrongs, be clear about our intentions for how we’re going to be different in the future, and really do our best to stick to that, we may not get a positive response in the moment, but, over time, when people have a chance to reflect some, genuine change can happen.”
In addition to the basics of bipolar management—staying on medication, going to therapy regularly, daily self-care—think about safeguards against your particular patterns and triggers. An apology only goes so far unless strategies are in place for defusing anger, blocking a buying binge, staying faithful, or whatever your most common missteps might be.
Auger emphasizes that people on the receiving end of an apology need to understand that the most dogged attempts to rein in behavior can fail at times.
“When we are not managing our emotions well, we are going to do things we said we weren’t going to do. And that’s human,” she says.
Jacqueline G. of Delaware is open with her friends when she starts to feel unwell as a result of her bipolar I. When they call or email to check on her, though, she can be slow to respond, or she doesn’t respond at all.
Afterward, Jacqueline explains, “I’ll say, ‘It’s not personal. I’m sorry I didn’t get back to you, but I can’t promise you it won’t happen again.’ And that’s a really hard thing sometimes.”
“While they say they’ve accepted the apology, it really doesn’t feel like it, because they keep harping on it again and again,” explains Jacqueline. “And it feels like somebody has punched me in the stomach, like their words will break me, because the disease already leaves me with a lot of insecurities.”
Drew Lightfoot, a licensed professional counselor in Pennsylvania, says individuals with bipolar certainly should look at “variables that maybe they have control over” when approaching a conversation with someone they’ve upset or affronted.
On the other hand, friends and family members need to remember “this isn’t about a moral character dilemma or a weakness. This is a medical issue and shouldn’t be confused with anything else,” he says.
In addition, he recommends that people on both sides of the forgiveness equation focus on feelings, rather than on specifics about a particular occasion.
Let’s say that after uncontrolled spending during a manic episode, the household went into debt. Instead of centering the conversation around buying habits or the household budget—easy topics for provoking frustration—turn instead to the feelings underneath that layer.
“Feelings of mistrust, or not being cared for … that’s where the common ground will be,” says Lightfoot.
Own Up to Bipolar-Related Missteps
Olivia, the mother from Colorado, admits it can be difficult to maintain control of her temper when she feels as though people are invalidating her feelings or experiences.
“However,” she cautions, “this is not a free pass to stomp on people, to squash them down, or to hurt them—whether intentionally or not. At the end of the day, you must pick up the results of your actions and own them.”
John S. of California had to do just that after a recent Bible study group held on Zoom, when he tried to make people laugh at the expense of someone else—something that tends to happen when he is hypomanic.
When the study group’s moderator asked people to turn off microphones when not speaking, John tossed off a comment about a relative newcomer: “Bob never contributes anyway.” Most of the others laughed, but John could see from the reaction of Bob’s wife that the remark crossed a line.
John texted the other man an apology that night. When no reply came, he texted again. Bob then wrote back to say he appreciated the apology and asked if they could talk about it the next day.
“We had a long discussion, and, through that, realized how much we have in common,” John says. “At the end, both of us realized we had just made a big step in our relationship. Who knows? Sometimes you do something insensitive like that and a really good thing can come out of it.”
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“Amend-ments”—Tips for Making Amends
#1 Learn to Listen
“To sit and hear what someone has to say about how we’ve hurt them is a tremendous step in self-growth,” says Tamara Auger, LPCC. “To make an intentional decision not to disagree or defend yourself or argue, and instead truly take in and feel the pain of how you affected this person, takes a lot of strength.”
#2 Forgive Yourself
“While you may feel guilt or shame, beating yourself up won’t be helpful to you or the one you’ve hurt,” says clinical psychologist Tasha Nadasdi, PsyD. “You are a human who is going to mess up like everybody else. You can know you are a good person who deserves love and connection, and acknowledge that work needs to be done at the same time.”
#3 Resist Oversharing
If you are apologizing to a colleague or boss, you may not want to reveal your diagnosis. Keep it simple: “I’m dealing with some extenuating private circumstances that I’m not going to talk about here, but I think you should know that plays into what happened.”
If you don’t acknowledge that your behavior wasn’t in character, notes psychotherapist Candyce Ossefort-Russell, LPC-S, “people nonverbally can pick up that something is hidden, and that makes things feel yucky for everybody.”
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