The first step to helping someone with depression

A NUMBER of people emailed me after last week's column, pointing out that I had been a little negative in focusing on "what not to do" when someone you care about is experiencing depression, and asking if I could talk more about how to help.

I thought that was fair enough, and I can completely understand why people would've felt it wasn't very helpful (see what I did there?).

If you're going to do one thing when someone is depressed, anxious, or feeling any painful emotion, it is "validate". I reckon it's not only helpful when people are struggling; it's pretty much the single most effective relationship strategy.

So what is it exactly? Validating is more than just listening, it's giving the other person the experience that we understand and accept how they're feeling, and why they feel that way.

It's not telling people what to do, or how to think or feel differently. When we do that, we "invalidate", sending people the message that what they are feeling, or thinking, is wrong.

The thing with being validating is we don't even have to agree with what they're feeling, or believe that we would feel the same way, just that we understand that given everything we know about them, we get that is how they're feeling.

That might sound easy, but actually it takes practice. Most people trip up on the acceptance bit, acceptance is not the same thing as agreeing, and a lot of people find it hard not to try and calm the person down, or the even subtler version, convince them "everything will be fine": well intentioned, but invalidating.

But far and away the thing that makes validating hard is that, for one reason or another, we're often too busy thinking about what we're going to say next, and often, because emotions are hard, wanting it all to go away.

So the real key to being able to validate people, whether depressed, angry or just upset, is to slow down, take a breath, tolerate our own feelings and responses, suspend judgment and fully accept the other's point of view.

When we really manage to do this, real empathy happens, not sympathy or understanding, but actually feeling like someone else gets what we feel. It's what therapists mean when they talk about feeling "connected" and it feels good to be on the receiving end of.

Talking about your own experiences, giving advice, helping the person see a different perspective, these can help sometimes, but not if you start there. Generally it's a better idea to start with validation, and save those other things for later. And sometimes just feeling understood, truly deeply understood, is enough on its own.

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