ENDING THE STIGMA: What to do, say when someone says, ‘I’m not OK’

Wendy Tamis Robbins
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Marblehead resident Wendy Tamis Robbins is an anxiety expert, author, wellness speaker and coach. Learn more about her work at wendytamisrobbins.com.

Has anyone ever told you they are struggling — mentally or emotionally? Did you know what to say or do in that moment, with that information, with that sudden responsibility? 

It can be scary to be on the receiving end of that disclosure, whether you’re at home, at a coffee shop or at work. We know what to do if someone shares a physical ailment or financial woe. We are comfortable in this space. We often lead with, “I had a pain just like that last week! Just take some Tylenol,” or “I was in the same situation after my divorce and my accountant was able to help.” 

Or maybe they are struggling in a relationship and you immediately compare it to your current or prior relationships, convinced they will relate to and benefit from your experiences. We try to connect over the struggle. It’s human nature.

It’s not the same when someone confides in you that they are feeling anxious or depressed or something they don’t have the vocabulary to articulate. These waters are more tricky to navigate. Based on my experience, most people try to control the situation or solve the problem. That’s how we’ve been programmed to show love and support. This seems fine in theory, but practically speaking, can do more harm than good.

If your struggle is knowing what to do or say when a loved one or colleague shares that they are no OK, here’s what I know to be true based on my own lived experience on both sides of that conversation:

  1. When someone finally says these words out loud “I’m struggling” or “I’m concerned about my depression, or anxiety levels, or recent thoughts of “X”, this has likely been going on for some time. It didn’t just start yesterday and will pass, as some anxious or depressive thoughts do. You are likely looking at someone who is asking for a lifeline while trying desperately not to fall apart in front of you. 
  2. Do not try to connect over it! This is not the time. The minute you turn your attention back to you, the door closes. You have likely lost your opportunity to help, at least in this moment. Example: If I say, “I’m really getting worried about my anxiety,” and you say “Me too. I was so anxious yesterday after that email I got from my mother. It kept me up all night. She really knows how to push my buttons.” I feel more alone in that moment than I did before my disclosure and will likely not open up to you again. There is a time and place for shared stories and experiences to express “We are all in this together. You are not alone.” This is not one of them. 
  3. Do not try to talk them out of it by recounting how productive they’ve been or how quick they are to smile, laugh or crack a joke. Their struggle is internal, and does not always present externally. How well someone can hide their struggle is not an indicator of how much or how quickly they are unraveling inside. 

What to know: For the person expressing these concerns to you, it is at least one, if not all, of the following: painful, scary, embarrassing and shameful. It is not at all easy, they are not seeking attention and you may be the only person they open up to. Don’t miss this opportunity to help.

What to say: I hear you and I see you. Maybe not explicitly, but at least implicitly with other phrases like: 

  • “Thank you so much for confiding in me. That must have been really difficult.”
  • “I’m so sorry you’re feeling this way. It must be scary.”
  • “Are you comfortable telling me more?”
  • “Do you remember when it started?”
  • “Was there something specific that set it off?” 
  • “What are you most afraid of?”
  • “Have you felt like this before?”
  • “Are there things you’ve done in the past that have helped?”
  • “What do you need?”
  • “What can I do to support you?”
  • “You are not alone. I’m here for you. We’re in this together.” Now is the time to say this, as a way to hold space for their fear and pain. This says, “The weight of this struggle must feel too heavy to bear alone so I will help you carry it.” You are in this together because you are there to support them, not connect over shared struggles. Again, okay later, but not at this moment.   

What to do: I like visuals (you’ll see them a lot in this column). Picture this person at the bottom of a well. It’s dark and they have no way of getting out. You have a rope. With each question and action, you are lowering that rope in and then, hopefully, pulling them out. You can’t see how deep they are or when the rope reaches them, but you will feel a tug. It may get harder for you as you pull them up to bear the weight of what they are sharing. Watch for clues to see if they’ve recoiled and let go or if they continue to hold on long enough to step out and into the light — at this moment at least. Watch their eyes. Were they making eye contact and now they are staring down or into the distance? Have they become more or less physically uncomfortable? Listen closely and be completely present. 

  • Maybe close the door for privacy. 
  • Maybe reach out your hand or open your arms, if appropriate.
  • Maybe push the tissue box closer signaling a safe space to show emotion. 
  • Maybe search for and call a therapist together. 
  • Definitely schedule a time tomorrow to check-in or another time to connect in a few days. 

Whatever the action, it should say, “I am here for you.”

Wendy Tamis Robbins is an anxiety expert, bestselling author of “The Box: An Invitation to Freedom From Anxiety,” and founder of CAVE Club, a wellness community exclusively for professional women. She works globally as a mental health and wellness coach, speaker and advocate. She will be speaking and signing books at Shubie’s Marketplace on May 11 at 4 p.m.

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