Hey everyone, guess what?! I graduated from “anxiety school” today! I’m being discharged from the outpatient program I have been attending and released to start treatment on my own. This is not the end. I’ll manage OCD for the rest of my life like a chronic illness but I have so much more hope now because I WILL MANAGE IT, no the other way around. I have my life back because I’ve learned not to give it any power. That is an unspeakable miracle for me.
Today I wanted to share a skill I’ve learned at the program that has done incredible things for my family relationships. It’s hard being on the side of loving someone with a mental illness and having no idea how to help. It’s hard to watch them suffer and want to fix it. It’s hard not to really understand what they’re going through because everyone’s battle is individual and concealed. I used to tell my companions on my mission, “If you want to help, just be there and sit with me when I have a panic attack. Be patient with me and it never hurts to bring me food. But you don’t have to help if you don’t want to.”
I’m not a parent but I imagine it’s excruciating watching your child suffer with mental illness or really any problem and not be able to take the pain away. The problem is that so many people who are trying to be helpful actually just throw gasoline on the fire. Here’s what actually helps-
VALIDATION. It’s not what you think it is. It’s third definition in the dictionary hits it right on the head-
- It feels like someones really on your side. It’s a kind of being there that you can’t do by just sitting with the person. By acknowledging my feels and telling me it’s okay to feel them, you become my greatest ally.
- It doesn’t try to fix the problem. Usually it’s impossible to talk someone out of OCD or anxiety. They are feeling something that is real regardless of whether the facts say the threat is real. Validation simply lets the anxiety be there without fighting it and amazingly, it will go down on it’s own.
On the flip side, invalidation or reassurance seeks to tell the person why they shouldn’t feel the way they do. That’s silly to be that afraid of germs, you won’t actually get sick. Don’t worry about letting me down, that would never happen. Stop throwing a fit, no one cares about how your hair looks.
Reassurance might seem like the right thing to say. It’s your first reaction if you love someone…try to help them feel better by reassuring them. It’s also your first reaction if you’re frustrated…explain to them why they’re being ridiculous. But in actuality it’s the opposite of what’s effective.
*IMPORTANT NOTE* Validation works great…unless it’s followed up with a BUT, or HOWEVER, or NEVERTHELESS. The most important part is to follow up a short validation statement with silence. If you need to say something after, count to 10 in your head before speaking again. But if it’s not absolutely necessary, just stay quiet. Most of the time once someone is validated they will naturally calm down and come up with a plan of action on their own. With you as their cheerleader they will be able to feel their emotions and figure out what do about them.
This skill is essential for the support system of people struggling with mental illness and I think, for anyone struggling with humanness. Because everyone suffers and everyone craves feeling heard and supported.