Social Question

Mariah's avatar

Is it insensitive to encourage someone who is feeling down to look at the positive aspects of their life?

Asked by Mariah (18398 points ) January 6th, 2013

I have a friend who often comes to me to chat when he’s feeling down. Thing is, this guy is probably the most fortunate person I know. I know it’s not my place to say how anybody should feel, but he is well off, healthy, getting a free ride through school, and has excellent grades and prospects for the future. But he chooses to fixate on the negative aspects of his life. To me that is the definition of pessimism and I try to redirect him to see how many this about his life are good. Is that insensitive? I know even the most fortunate person can still be depressed. I don’t know if he’s clinically depressed or anything, but even so, I know his situation doesn’t make his feelings invalid. I just want to see him appreciate the things he has. Is that bad?

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28 Answers

Sunny2's avatar

It depends on how you do it. Listen to him go on about his latest concerns. Then gently ask if it occurs to him that he only talks about negative things going on in his life and how that seems strange to you, since he seems so much more fortunate than a lot of others. See where he takes it from there. It’s important to listen, more than to say anything more.

lightsourcetrickster's avatar

I don’t think it is. I think it depends on the person you’re trying to get to see the bright side of life with. Sometimes it can be a fruitless exercise – sometimes not. I know some people who have mental health issues can be the toughest cookies to crack on that one because their condition is such that for whatever reason their brain just won’t let them see the positive side of things without a serious struggle for it, but there are times when it can be done. I think it’s the nature of the beast of a mental health issue that determines how it is tamed. As for people without mental health issues, I think it depends on their circumstances and what they are not happy about that would decide whether or not it was insensitive to get them to see the positive in life.

augustlan's avatar

It can be, but not necessarily. If you handle it sensitively, I don’t think it’s a bad thing to do. However, if you were to scoff at his feelings and basically tell him to “buck up and get over it already”, that would be insensitive.

If I wanted to convey this message to someone, I don’t think I’d do it while they are in the middle of a venting session. At a separate time, you could say something like “I’ve noticed that you often seem to be feeling down, even though there is a lot of good in your life. Are you depressed?” If he doesn’t think he’s depressed, that would be a good time to talk about pessimism vs optimism, and how it can affect how he sees his life.

Bellatrix's avatar

I would be wary of doing this if you don’t know whether he is clinically depressed. I also don’t know how well you know him. Perhaps things in his home environment, while financially fortunate, might be awful from an emotional perspective? If you feel you need to say something, I am sure you can find a way to do so tactfully and in a way that doesn’t say “What the heck are you complaining about? You have so much”.

jrpowell's avatar

I’m not really sure why you would coddle him. If you telling him this now will screw him up imagine what the real world will do. You are actually hurting by not telling him that life is hard and sometimes you need to deal with the bad while you fight for the good.

One Mitt Romey on this planet is enough.

GloriaEstefan's avatar

Nobody wants to be told to look on the bright side when they are upset.

bookish1's avatar

@Mariah, great question. I think it is a laudable intention, but if he is truly depressed, or has some other struggles you cannot see, it wouldn’t help much. He’s lucky to have you to listen to him, but he needs to learn how to take care of himself. Can he go see a counselor at school?

mattbrowne's avatar

We need to respect that people experience ups and downs in their lives. Everyone has a right to negative thinking. Unless you are a parent or mentor or counselor, it’s best not to tell people that they should change (the only exception is when people explicitly ask for advice as you did here on Fluther). So in a normal situation, the best strategy is talking about yourself. Examples:

“When I feel down I…”
“I wish I had excellent grades…”

dabbler's avatar

Maybe change the subject with a chronic complainer, it could just be a bad habit.
Especially if the complaints are about mundane things, and they are little compared to his boons in life.

In particular ask him what’s he’s grateful for, or whether he’s grateful for some aspect of good fortune that has just passed in discussion. There’s no more reliable gauge of an enlightened soul than gratitude.

Shippy's avatar

Maybe he does come to you, to see the positive side of life. Depression is a terrible thing regardless of what you have or have not.

marinelife's avatar

Not at all. Being thankful for your blessings is one of the best ways to turn your mood around. Note to Mariah: Someone who is constantly negative needs to be cut out of your life.

orlando's avatar

It can be. In this kind of situation the best thing to do would be to first acknowledge his feelings. If you shoot straight for how blessed he can or should be, you are invalidating his current state of being which will probably make him feel that he should not feel that way, that something is wrong with him and that will probably make him feel worse.

After you fully and unconditionally accept his point of view and current emotional state, you can gently try to guide him to see the more positive aspects of his life, yes. If you add your own personal concern along with it (that is show him that you are saying those things because you truly care about him), that will probably even more helpful.

GloriaEstefan's avatar

Or you can gently try to guide him into being a man and get him to stop looking for pitty.

Ron_C's avatar

That’s what my shrink does. She emphasises the positive aspects of my life to help lift me from the major depression I suffer. It seems to work so I would answer no, it’s not insensitive.

GloriaEstefan's avatar

Why would you trust someone who is always positive? It’s impossible for someone to be honest and positive all the time.

I value the opinions of people I feel are the most honest with me.

Pachy's avatar

Not insensitive, but probably not very useful given his state of mind. I think your friend simply wants someone with whom he can vent. If he wants your input, he’ll ask for it. As to your believing he is the most fortunate person you know, that’s how you see him but obviously not how he sees himself. It’s a realization he’ll need to come to on his own.

Coloma's avatar

I agree that if the guy is seriously depressed no amount of positive reminders for what you see as his comfortable life situation is going to help.
Personally I have long ago learned that people can only help themselves IF they really want to.
My “rule” is to be supportive, for awhile, but not endlessly for years on end. I have no problem saying to someone and I have, on several occasions ” You know, I can’t listen to this anymore.”

The best thing to do is encourage the person to seek therapy and then, take charge of how much contact, if any, you are willing to engage in.
I have a female friend that is in a relationship with ongoing problems and I told her last year that I am am not interested in listening to peoples relationship issues any more.
Either get counselling or break up, but I am not willing to be the sponge for someones endless recycling of the same ol’ same ol’ stuff.

Honesty is the best policy.
I made sure to tell her it is nothing “personal”, and it is not, it is just that I am so far beyond relationship bullshit that it holds about as much interest for me as learning to rebuild an engine. In other words, zero.
There is nothing wrong with protecting your own peace of mind by rejecting extremely negative people that seem to enjoy wallowing in their misery.

Simone_De_Beauvoir's avatar

It can be insensitive, yes. It’s hard to understand why, though, if you’ve never been in that situation. But knowing a bit of your story, you should understand. Say, you were upset about yet another surgery and someone was like, ‘well, at least you can still walk.’ It’s kind of irrelevant.

Now, otoh, my friend is very unhappy with her life but I am finding it hard to believe because she has a job, is very well off, has many friends, is beautiful, etc. I tell her she needs to volunteer more to see all that she has but she doesn’t feel like doing that either. I don’t know so I rarely say anything.

Mariah's avatar

Thanks all, it definitely is not as though I am refusing to hear him or let him vent. He’s been doing a lot of that – actually way too much – I’m working on gently telling him that we need a little more distance.

It’s just that it’s all the time, and it’s always about the same stuff. To the point where it seems like a fixation to me. There is so much good in his life but he can’t be happy because not everything is perfect, there’s always one little thing that he finds to be upset about, and he lets that upset be his dominant emotion.

I have been trying SO HARD to get him to go to therapy, it’s available free on campus, and he just won’t. It’s infuriating.

I am trying to be empathetic and sensitive, but it’s not particularly easy for me. I’m really not the best person for this. A therapist would be a hell of a lot better.

Ron_C's avatar

I don’t understand the controversy because I spent the last 2 weeks locked in a hospital.

The therapy consisted of two things, 1 – find the proper drug mixture, and 2— help me to understand that my life isn’t as bad as I feel.

Believe me I had a lot of examples of guys (fellow veterans) with a much worse live than I ever had. Thinking about it now, I have no reason to be depressed.

augustlan's avatar

@Ron_C Depression is a bastard, often overtaking us without reason. I hope you’re feeling better now. {hugs}

@Mariah Be very careful that your friend doesn’t drag you down with him. At some point, you’re going to have to protect yourself and tell him you can’t be his therapist. If he won’t get professional help, there’s not much more you can do. Maybe advise him to write in a journal for expressing his negative feelings rather than talking to you about them. Take care of yourself.

Mariah's avatar

I’m at that point, and I’ve started the conversation about boundaries. He’s taking it okay. I know I can’t be superwoman for him.

Self_Consuming_Cannibal's avatar

I won’t say it’s bad, but sometimes people just want to vent rather than being told they have no reason to be upset.

dabbler's avatar

“It’s impossible for someone to be honest and positive all the time.”
I’d disagree, but it does depend on what one means by positive.
If you mean whistling and lalalala in the face of difficulty that person is a fool or naive.
If you mean making the best of the situation, I think that is possible at all times.

creative1's avatar

You can’t change a person if they don’t want to change so yes you can be upbeat encourage the positive but its not going to change how they look at the world and life.

wundayatta's avatar

I’ve had a lot of people tell me to be positive in my life. Worse, they tell me I should be more positive. Or I should do affirmations. Or I should be grateful. I’ll tell you, it annoyed the shit out of me.

I’m not naturally a positive person and I can’t make myself be positive. I don’t even want to. It is unnatural and stupid. So when someone tells me to do it, it puts distance between us. I think that person is an idiot, and insensitive, yes. They have no idea what it like to be in my head, and no idea how impossible it is for me to be positive when I am not positive. I do not even want to be positive.

I don’t believe telling someone to be positive is helpful. I suppose for some people, it could be helpful, but for people like me, it isn’t. It works against you.

I think that what might help is a different approach. I think you might want to find out what is going on with your friend. You can tell him what it is like for you, and invite him to share what his experience is. Instead of trying to change him, try to let him open up. Learn about his experience.

When you tell people how they should be, it is insensitive because you are ordering them around. You are assuming you know best, and he may not even have asked you. Unsolicited advice never works. Instead, a more effective technique is to tell a story about your experience with positivity. Hopefully, you will strike a chord with him. In order to do that, though, you need to know his experience, and that means you have to care enough to ask about it and listen, and then, instead of giving advice, just talking about your experience.

Mariah's avatar

Folks please don’t assume I have been a total ass and haven’t let him talk. This advice is coming from me after months of listening to him complain about the same stuff over and over and over…

Bellatrix's avatar

Perhaps you have to tell him that and ask him what he’s going to do to change things. I can imagine the frustration for you. There does come a point where you have to say ‘stop whining and do something or shut up’. Fair enough too I think.

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