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  • About 10 years ago, I had an incident with a friend, who was bipolar.

    She was generally outgoing, optimistic, and cheerful. But from time to time, she would suddenly become depressed, pessimistic, and sometimes even suicidal.

    I really wanted to help her.

    I had always prided myself as a problem-solver, and I didn’t see why I couldn’t solve this problem. I felt it
    was the least I could do for her, as a friend. So I started out by browsing websites, then reading books, until I eventually found myself at a local support group, looking for advice.

    There, I met a psychiatrist, who told me that the most I could do as a friend was to try and empathize with her. I was told, that if she became depressed again I should sit down with her, and listen to her closely. Then when I felt I had a good understanding of how she was feeling and why, I should express that understanding back to her. And if my understanding turned out to be correct, she’ll feel understood, and that should be enough to make her feel better.

    It sounded remarkably simple.

    That is, until I tried it.

    What I quickly learned was that this was a lot more difficult than I thought. All I was listening to was my friend’s yelling, screaming, and bawling, along with her saying, “You don’t understand.” Wrapped up in chaos and noise, all I could do was guess how she was feeling and why, hoping that I would eventually get it right. But before long, I had run out of ideas, and was unable to figure out what it was that I was missing.

    But then, something occurred to me.

    And I began to suspect that maybe something I had done right before she got depressed, was what caused her to feel the way she was feeling. It occurred to me that it was possible that she became depressed, because of something I did, or because of something I said. So I told her that.

    And like magic, her screaming and yelling subsided, as she sat there quietly sobbing.

    What I realized at that moment, was that everything I had been telling her up to that point, had been framed
    in such a way that it was all her fault. And I had nothing to do with it. I saw her as a problem to be solved, and myself as a gift from God, sent down to solve her problem.

    Actually, I even started off thinking I already knew the answer. It was really simple. She just had to
    calm down, and stop being so negative.

    All I really had to do was convince her to adopt this solution. I thought, if I can only explain this to her logically, if I could just convince her to adopt this solution, she’d magically come to her senses and snap out of her depression.

    But, it turns out, I had gotten it all wrong. The solution to the problem wasn’t a matter of selling her on my ideas. It was coming to realize my own false assumptions, my implicit role-playing, my unawareness
    of my own dishonesty.

    The problem wasn’t her. It was me. It was me that was delusional. It was me that had to snap out of it. It was me, who was preventing myself from being able to empathize with her.

    And once I became aware of this, all I had to do was muster up the courage to express it honestly.

    And with that, I ended up with a story that was completely unexpected, yet so simple, so obvious, and so perfectly logical. Albeit only in hindsight. A story I couldn’t understand why I hadn’t thought of in the first place. One that made me think, “No wonder she was feeling the way she was.” One that not only resonated with her, but also myself.

    Then something even more surprising happened.

    She thanked me.

    If I had ever been a witness to a genuine and visceral expression of gratitude, this was it.

    I was stunned.

    Never once, did I think that I could be thanked for listening to someone and expressing back my understanding.

    I will never forget that moment, when those two simple words “thank you,” made their way through her tears,
    in that barely audible voice.
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