By Cynthia Hovis, MSW, LCSW
As many of us know, the key to successful relationships is communication. Healthy communication or lack of it can make or break a relationship -- whether it is a relationship at home or at work. Communication is an active challenge in the best of times, but when you add in the extra roadblocks of mental illness, the path can be even more difficult. If you are in a relationship with someone who has a mental illness, whether it is narcissism, bipolar, anxiety or depression, you are not alone and you have options for improving your communication.
Individual situations require individual solutions, but in general if you are co-parenting with someone with a personality disorder such as narcissism or living with someone who has bipolar, or a family member with major depression, or a coworker with anxiety you still begin the same way. You start by asking questions of how to help communication between the two of you. You also educate yourself with understanding of the diagnosis from reputable sources. Try sources such as the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).
One of the most important things to understand is that you do not have ownership over anyone else’s diagnosis or behaviors. You can only be in charge of your own choices and behaviors in your interactions. Set healthy boundaries for yourself so that you are not overwhelmed by interactions with this person. Maybe it means you only call your mom on Fridays when you have time to really listen and it will not upset or distract you when you are at work. Maybe you set limits with your spouse for expectations of communication during the workday. You can tell them that it’s okay to text you information, but that you may not be able to text or call back right away. Set a code for emergencies and define what an actual emergency is. Be as consistent as possible. Make sure that you are aware of your needs and be mindful of self-care.
Your interactions with others can be exhausting as well as rewarding, so be honest with yourself about your needs in relationships with others and how to discuss those needs and boundaries. Straightforward and honest with kindness should be your communication default. It is not healthy for you to have to bend and contort to accommodate the whims of others, though you want to avoid conflict, and talking things through in a healthy way during the good times can make it easier to have a game plan during the more challenging times.
If the person you are interacting with does not have that kind of self-awareness to help you out then it is even more important to manage healthy boundaries by seeking an outside source of support, such as counseling or a support group for loved ones of those with mental illness. Again NAMI is an excellent resource. If you are struggling and not sure where to start, BJC EAP is also a great starting point to help you organize your thoughts, plan for support and set healthy boundaries.