The Power of Learning How to Respond to Mental Illness
One of the most powerful things I learned in order to improve my marriage and improve my outlook on life was to learn to respond instead of react. I had never realized before that interacting with someone based on my emotions wasn’t a balanced way to live and wasn’t fair to other people. My emotions are based on my perspective from old emotions and fears and if I always react based on what they tell me, I won’t always see the perspective of others, or even what is really happening in the moment. The following shares what I have learned about responding.
- What is the difference between reacting and responding?
- Why is it important to know the difference?
- How do I make responding easier?
We all have pretty strong reactions to mental illness. For those outside of it a typical reaction is fear, oh no, what’s going to happen? For those inside it, some reactions are shame and guilt, phrases like “why am I broken, why can’t I be normal, what will other people think, am I weak?” And for those not on the outside and not on the inside, those who support a spouse struggling with mental illness often the reaction is both “oh no, what’s going to happen?” and “what do I do to ‘fix’ it, oh wait I can’t fix it”. For me it is fear that the negativity will win, it is old fear coming up even when we are in better space, it is trying to defend myself because I still feel at fault. Reacting is so dangerous, because it is me seeing old fear and saying or doing something because of the fear. When what is needed is to see the situation for what it is in the moment, not with old memories attached, not feeling old emotions, but living in the moment.
An important life skill is learning to respond when we want to react. To let our thoughts direct conversation and interaction, instead of emotions that can take us over.
What is the difference between reacting and responding?
Reaction is emotion based, a knee jerk reaction to circumstance. It is holding on to what happened in the past, and not allowing for growth that has happened or for what new things could be. Responding is a thoughtful interaction based on understanding and allowing yourself to see the perspective of the other person. Responding is recognizing that things grow and change everyday and that just because something used to be a certain way doesn’t mean it will always be that way.
Why is it important to know the difference?
I didn’t always understand that by and large I get out what I put in. This means that if I bring old hurt and memories to conversations, then I am an easier target for emotions to overwhelm me when emotions are put on the line. And communication, real, true, connecting communication involves emotion. So what do I do, I realize that I don’t have to act on that emotion, I can let the emotion be there, without reacting to it and using it as a weapon in the conversation. I can instead choose to respond, that means that when the emotion comes up I realize that is my perspective, and the emotion I brought to the table and I can choose to process it on my own, instead of using the other person to process on. The difference between reacting and responding is taking that moment to step back and see a situation from all angles before I open my mouth or make a decision within myself based on that emotion.
How do I make it easier to choose to respond?
I mentioned in the above paragraph that reaction happens when we bring old hurt and memories into the conversation. There are two things we can do to help us leave the past in the past and to view conversations in the present. First, before going into a situation that could be potentially emotion filled, write down the fears and concerns that are coming up just thinking about the conversation. Take the time to process what is coming up for before you are put on the spot. Second, remind yourself to breath in the moment. Maybe you couldn’t prepare for the conversation, perhaps it came out of nowhere. Well in that moment choose to step back and breath. Process on paper instead of on the person.
I have long wanted my husband to share how he is doing, his thoughts, what is coming up for him. However if when he shares that he is having a bad day or negative thoughts, or is overwhelmed, and I immediately go into fight or flight mode (being afraid that he’s on the precipice, or arguing with him and telling him things aren’t that bad) then I am making the space unsafe for him to want to share things that he needs to share. If however I take a step back, put my fears/frustrations on the back burner (to process on paper) and I let him share and ask how he’s feeling about what is coming up, then I have created space where both of us can share real concerns and create solutions that help both of us cope and progress.