I was recently reading an online article by Faith Deeter of “YourTango,” who was writing about how sometimes people bring up their painful past in their present. This can be applied to your loved one with bipolar disorder as well, and may explain why they do some of the things that they do.
She says: “When a person brings up the past, there is often something they want or need in the present. It’s evidence of what they need right now. It’s a here-and-now problem, not a past problem. That is why apologizing doesn’t work. Regardless of what happened before, the person bringing up the past is feeling something similar now. They may feel hurt, unloved, insecure, misunderstood, or distrustful right now just like they felt before. They are trying to communicate to you what they need right now. Most likely, what they need is for you to understand how they feel in the present or what they need to change.”
I like how she says that what was a past problem is now a here-and-now problem. Because that’s how it can seem to your loved one. Like the feelings that Deeter describes as well – they are just as real in the present for your loved one as they were in the past. But it is also an indication that they never learned to deal with whatever it was that made them feel those feelings in the first place. Although Deeter says,” what they need is for you to understand how they feel in the present or what they need to change,” that isn’t always easy to do, as she illustrates by what she goes on to say:
“Unfortunately, many people do not communicate their needs directly. Some people may not even know what they need. Instead, many people express their needs in the form of complaints. “I need more attention” may come out as, “You never spend time with me,” which would naturally cause you to feel defensive. But defending yourself won’t work because the issue isn’t really about you.”
In other words, like Deeter says, your loved one may say to you: “You don’t care about me …” When what they really mean is: “I need more attention.” They just can’t tell you that. And where that really comes from is a painful place in their past that they’re bringing into their present with you. And the thing is, they are probably not even aware of it! It is probably just an unconscious thing. All they know is how they are feeling now.
For instance, in the above example, they were probably feeling as if no one cared about them, because they were feeling bad about themselves, or just feeling depressed. Especially if they were in a bipolar depressive episode.
And if you get defensive and say: “I do so care about you …” You can expect an answer somewhere along the lines of: “Oh no you don’t. Last Sunday…and before that…” And your loved one will list several examples of when they feel you did not show them that you cared about them – probably situations in which you never even noticed that you weren’t paying them enough attention at all, situations you don’t even remember.
So you can see how getting on the defensive won’t help you in this situation. The only thing that will help you is to deal with your loved one’s actual feelings, as that is what they are acting on in the present. What you need to do is acknowledge and validate their feelings. You need to do this whether you remember the situation or not, and whether you feel you were right or wrong in the situation if you do remember it (because the fact is that your loved one believes they were wronged by you).
So you could say something like: “You’re right. I know I should have spent more time with you
and showed you that I care…” The more specific you can be, the better. Also say something like: “I know that I made you feel as if I was ignoring you or that I didn’t care, and for that I am sorry.” This validates their feelings. It tells them that they have a right to feel what they’re feeling. Like I said, even if you don’t feel that you were wrong.
Now you need to know what they want you to do differently now. The problem is, they may not know what that is, so this may be difficult. But they wouldn’t have brought it up if they didn’t want you to do something different. So you can ask them something like: “How can I stop this from happening again?” Or you can at least say something like: “I’ll try harder to not let something like that happen in the future.” Once you know what they need, act on it as soon as you can. For example, if they have said: “You only care about your job…” Which you translated as “You don’t care about me,” Or, “You don’t pay enough attention to me,” Make sure that you say something like: “Let’s do something fun together right now.”
Well, I have to go!