I saw an article recently for which the summary was the following:
“A bipolar mood episode can compel your loved one to say and do hurtful things, but, remember, it’s not personal—it’s a medical condition.”
While I agree with the statement, I think it’s only half of the equation.
It isn’t personal. When experiencing a mood episode, someone with bipolar disorder might react and interact in ways that aren’t very effective. This can sometimes mean being hurtful. These are behaviours based on symptoms, based on the emotional distress caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain, and based on learned coping mechanisms to all of this – coping mechanisms that aren’t necessarily healthy. It isn’t personal. It would not be uncommon for them to lash out at or mistreat people they care about. These are often people who care for them and help support them in their mental health.
When these behaviours come up, it’s important to remember these factors and remain compassionate. Support is still needed and deserved when someone is acting ineffectively and judgment is not going to accomplish anything. That being said, it is valid to be emotionally affected when someone is being hurtful towards us. While compassion and support are needed, so is accountability.
Tough love. Tough love can be dished out alongside compassion and empathy. Tough love to me means holding someone accountable and supporting them in making a change towards healthier coping mechanisms.
While it’s important not to take lashing out personally, and give your loved one a bit of a break, it’s also important not to let it slide.
Here are some things to keep in mind when supporting a loved one through hurtful outbursts:
1) Find a quiet and safe space to talk. Plan to have a conversation with them in a space that is familiar and feels comfortable, away from others and where you can both focus on each other.
2) Wait until you’ve both cooled off. Start this conversation when feelings aren’t running high and you have both taken some time to regulate your emotions. Addressing the situation during the argument or incident will usually not be productive.
3) Calmly explain how the behaviour or outburst makes you feel. Explain how these incidents are hurtful to you and how they affect your relationship. Approach this from the lens of wanting to maintain and strengthen your relationship.
4) Make it clear that you are here to offer support, not to chastise or blame. Accountability does not have to be harsh or accompanied by judgment. It does however mean sticking to your guns in expressing that these outbursts are not appreciated. While everyone is allowed a bad day or occasional negative reaction, frequent lashing out can deeply affect a relationship.
People with bipolar disorder experience complex symptoms and emotions. Some of these are interpersonal and affect the way they interact with the people in their lives. Support means compassion and empathy but it also means holding them responsible for managing these symptoms.
While I do agree that symptoms can’t be taken personally, I also feel that it’s crucial to support the person in understanding and mitigating these symptoms.