I have a lot of experience with bipolar depression, and I hate it when people tell me to “cry it out.” I find this one of the most useless pieces of advice you can give a person who’s upset, particularly one that’s already crying. It’s built on the idea that you can cry out a sorrow of some sort as if there’s a beginning, middle and end. Well, I can’t comment for people without bipolar disorder, but for people with bipolar depression, “crying it out” isn’t an option.
Why Say ‘Cry It Out’ to a Person with Bipolar Depression?
I think people have experiencing saying “cry it out” to two-year-olds. You know, when a toddler is upset because his toy broke, there is certainly an end to the upset, an end to the crying. He’s not going to be upset about it forever. So, telling him to cry it out makes sense. And, indeed, adults aren’t upset about the same thing forever either, but it can take considerably longer to get over a broken marriage than a broken toy.
“Crying it out” is also built on the notion of feeling your feelings — in other words, not suppressing them. This clearly applies not just to toddlers learning about emotions, but adults too (maybe more so). Adults more acutely don’t want to feel pain and are more likely to try to suppress it in some way. I’ve blinked away tears more times than I can count.
So, when a person with bipolar depression is upset and starts to cry, the above things may run through a person’s head, and they may say, “Just cry it out,” or “let it out.” I understand. Old-timey, pithy wisdom is memorable.
I Was Told to ‘Cry It Out’ with Bipolar Depression
And, in fact, it was a psychologist who told me to “cry it out” when I was in a bipolar depression. I think he thought there would be a beginning, middle and end. I think he thought there would be a well of suffering I could get to the bottom of. And I think he thought suppressing the tears and suffering was making it worse.
And so I did what my therapist asked. I stopped suppressing the suffering and tears. I attempted to “cry out” my bipolar depression.
My attempt overran our session. He put me in the next room when he had his next client and told me to continue. It was garment-rending suffering in that room. I was wailing in pain. There was a river of tears. Nothing felt better. Everything felt worse. After what felt like three or four lifetimes, I decided to give up on that advice. And honestly, I had to self-harm to get my emotions back under control. (This was many years ago.)
Why You Can’t ‘Cry Out’ Bipolar Depression
I learned two things that day.
- Bipolar depression isn’t the kind of thing you can cry out.
- Psychologists fundamentally don’t understand serious mental illness and how it differs from average distress.
You see, bipolar depression isn’t like feeling sad about something. It’s like being sad. It’s like personifying sadness. It’s like the claws of sadness clutching your soul. It has no beginning, middle and end. It has a life of its own. You can’t cry out bipolar depression because there is no “out” per se. Not in the traditional sense. It’s not something you “get over” it’s something you treat and that’s fundamentally different.
And it’s this difference psychologists often don’t get. Don’t get me wrong, some do, I’m sure, but in my experience, most don’t. Most psychologists look at mental illness as if it were just on the spectrum of upset and distress that anyone else would face, and thus, suggest it will respond to the same techniques. And in some respects, some of those same techniques are useful. But there’s a reason why serious mental illnesses like bipolar disorder have specific forms of therapy that are evidence-based. And it’s for exactly this reason. Serious mental illness is a different animal. It’s a well of suffering without a floor.
Don’t Tell People with Bipolar Depression to ‘Cry It Out’
All of this is to say, just don’t tell people with bipolar depression to “cry it out.” Don’t give that advice. In fact, don’t give advice about something you don’t understand. You might understand pain and crying. You might understand distress. But you don’t understand serious mental illness unless it’s something you have spent years studying or have yourself. You just don’t. And admitting that you don’t understand what a person with bipolar depression is going through is okay. In fact, it’s much better than bad advice that will just make the person with bipolar disorder feel like a failure when the advice doesn’t work out.
So instead of saying “cry it out” to a person with bipolar depression, how about just saying, “I hear your pain. I’m here for you. I love you.”
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