Just “Be Happy”.

Well-meaning friends and family frequently advise my clients to, “Be happy”. It sounds so simple. Just choose to be happy. Unfortunately, this is advice that typically frustrates my clients – many of whom would love nothing more than to be happy. This guidance is most often given to my clients who are experiencing depression, but there are variations offered to individuals with different types of symptoms.

  • “Just do it” to individuals who are struggling to get their work done.
  • “Suck it up” to people who are having trouble dealing with day to day activities.
  • “Get over it” to clients dealing with challenges from their pasts.
  • “Sit still” to people who are in constant motion.

Most of the time, when a client has shared being on the receiving end of such advice, the loved one offering the advice is well-intentioned. They want my client to feel and do better. They are uncomfortable with my client’s pain and related challenges and want everything to “get better”. Unfortunately, mental health is not a light switch. It is more a dimmer switch. Consider this – when an individual has symptoms of depression, they are not either all happy or all sad, but are somewhere in between the two extremes. There are days and times when they are closer to the happy end of the spectrum and days and times when they are closer to the sad end.  The goal of therapy (and medication should the person choose this route) is to help the client manage their symptoms of depression in such a way as to help them move (often gradually) closer and closer to the happy end of the spectrum. It is not a switch that can be flipped and happiness achieved where before it was not.

There is a reason when you go to the hospital for an injury. The doctor and nurse often ask you to rate your pain on a scale of 1 to 10 (with 1 being no pain and 10 being the worst pain you have ever felt in your life). This helps them to determine the severity of what is going on for you and whether it is improving or worsening over time. You wouldn’t look at the patient and say, “Stop feeling pain”, would you? Emotional pain works much the same way. People cannot simply choose to no longer experience it, but must rather take steps to reduce their symptoms.

I know it is uncomfortable to watch someone you care about suffer (whether physically or emotionally), but we cannot command them to feel better. You might need to sit with that discomfort while they try to sort it all out. Offer what help you are able to give (even just social support) while allowing them the time needed to make the necessary changes.

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