When talking with a loved one who has bipolar, it’s vital to remain cognizant of what you say—especially to avoid using words that could undermine their recovery. Here are my top tips for supportive communication.
Knowing what to say when you’re speaking to someone who is living with bipolar can be challenging. You may unintentionally or unknowingly be using words that are disheartening and discouraging—perhaps even debilitating. If you want to provide your loved one with genuine hope and help, make an effort to use reinforcing language. In other words, watch your words! Here are 10 sound strategies for making your conversations more constructive. Each recommendation is followed by an example of an empathetic expression.
1. Your loved one has a diagnosis; she’s not her diagnosis.
No one should be defined by a diagnosis. “You may have bipolar, but I see you—the person I’ve always known, respected, and loved.”
2. Be useful by making your loved one feel useful.
Take his situation into account, but don’t forget his abilities. “To the extent you feel up to it, I could use your help today.”
3. Listen first; speak second.
This is tough, especially when we are in a manic phase and we hardly let you get a word in edgewise. “I appreciate your sharing what’s on your mind. Now, give me a chance to talk about what I’m hearing and feeling.”
4. Don’t assume; ask specific questions.
Bipolar disorder is a very complex and often-confusing condition. Verify whether what you think is true, instead of presuming what another person is experiencing. “Let me confirm what you feel my role should be if a crisis were to occur. When and how should I intervene?”
5. Don’t minimize; empathize.
Dealing with bipolar can be overwhelming; it’s impossible to put yourself in your loved one’s shoes. That said, you can still educate yourself as much as possible. “Though I can’t imagine how hard what you’re facing must be, I’m willing to learn.”
6. Avoid giving advice; just be available.
Again, it’s not easy to fully appreciate something you haven’t personally experienced. “I don’t have all the answers, but I’m here if and when you need me.”
7. Maximize the good news; don’t minimize the bad.
Avoid trivializing what living with bipolar entails. “I know it’s been hard finding the right treatment; I’m just glad you found a doctor you can trust to help you.”
8. Be considerate, not condescending.
Don’t demean your loved one and diminish the seriousness of legitimate symptoms. This can be difficult, especially during particular episodes. “Even though manic behavior may seem childish, I’m still going to treat you like the adult you are.”
9. Acknowledge the negatives; don’t just push the positives.
You don’t want to insinuate that merely “thinking good thoughts” makes everything better. “I know that confronting the challenge of bipolar is an ongoing battle; I admire your determination and respect your dedication.”
10. Express your love, but know your limits.
You must take your own well-being into account. The goal is to support your loved one without sacrificing your sanity. “I’ll do what I can, but I do have my boundaries.”
If you find yourself struggling to put all these points into practice, that’s understandable. A simple way to start is by clearly communicating these three compassionate concepts: I love you. I care. I’m here if you need me. Such statements convey your presence, availability, and willingness to help.
Dealing with someone who has bipolar can be both frustrating and taxing at times. By incorporating these strategies into everyday speech, you can improve your relationship with your loved one, increase his or her chances for successful recovery, and—just as important—preserve your peace of mind.
Now, take a moment to go back and re-read only the italicized remarks. The more you hear the sound of supportive language, the more likely you’ll be to use it. Tempering your talk will soon become second nature!
Printed as “Mind Over Mood: Watch Your Words,” Fall 2017
Stephen Propst is a public speaker and a coach/consultant focusing on living successfully with conditions like bipolar. He was a columnist with bp Magazine for 17 years. Stephen can be reached at email@example.com.
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