When a friend or loved one confides in you about their mental health, it can be difficult to respond appropriately. It’s not uncommon to freeze–maybe hem and haw or awkwardly pat a shoulder before changing the subject to the Lions. If you take a moment and think about it, though, what an amazing opportunity you now have to deepen a relationship and affirm your love for a struggling soul!
Here’s an acronym to remember for that fragile moment. TABLE it. And, no, I don’t mean put the conversation off for later. Here’s what I mean: thank them, affirm them, ask big questions, listen more than you talk, and encourage them to see a professional.
(I’ve touched on these topics before, but I just came up with the acronym.)
When a person trusts you, of all people, with their emotional cargo, the first words out of your mouth should be thank you.
“Thank you for sharing this with me.”
“Thank you for trusting me and our friendship with this part of you.”
“Thank you for opening up. I really respect and appreciate your vulnerability.”
No one ever deserves to hear the struggles of another person. When one individual opens up to another, it is nothing short of a gift–a precious gift that should be received with deep gratitude as a great honor. Never take someone else’s vulnerability for granted.
Don’t say “But you’re so smart, funny, bright etc.” It can be all too easy for a person prone to depression and anxiety to disregard your general compliments (especially when they’re shot out in desperation to fill the silence). Try, instead, saying something like this:
“I want you to know that, even now, I really think a lot of you. You’re special to me, and I’ve personally witnessed your positive influence in my life.”
When you speak from your own perspective, the truth you are stating is impossible to disregard. If the person says, “no, I’m not those things,” you can respond like this:
“I’m sorry you don’t see yourself as I see you. I would love to help you get to that point because you deserve to see it.”
ask Big questions
Perfect the art of thinking with the individual instead of thinking at them. A listening ear is of much more value than a clattering tongue. Seek understanding, get to know this part of them, and help them think through thoughtful questions with question after question.
Often, questions come naturally, but here’s a general rule: because questions starting with the word why tend to feel aggressive and who questions feel needlessly accusatory, stick with what and when questions.
“When did you begin to recognize this part of you?”
“What kind of activities have you found either help or hurt?”
“When did you decide you wanted to share this part of you?”
“What can I do to help you?”
Remember, the sharing individual should maintain the control of the conversation. Your role is to seek understanding in a kind, loving, and patient way.
Listen more than you talk
Be careful not to butt in too quickly with your words of wisdom. There are so many thoughts crammed into their head that the person can’t hear anything until they word-vomit it all out. Listen, listen, listen, and then ask more big questions so you can listen more.
Encourage them to see a professional
You can definitely share some thoughts, ideas, or things that have helped you in your own struggles, but I think the best period for your statement is an exhortation to see a professional. This can often be brought up with a simple question.
“Have you thought about going to counseling or talking to your doctor about this?”
If they have, affirm them in their proactivity. If they haven’t yet, encourage them to do so, and ask how you might be able to help them take that step. Your friend needs you as a friend–a soldier on the frontlines of their battle–but they also need a professional to help them get to where they can begin to see themselves as you see them.
What are some approaches that have worked for you (either as a supporter or struggler)?