Do you know what a delusion is? If I were to ask you to define it would you be able to? If not, that’s okay. Many people struggle with the thought of what a delusion is. So I will define it here. A delusion is a false belief, held to be true, despite evidence to the contrary. A delusion is a fixed and stable/pervasive belief that is held for as long as the delusion makes sense to the person. The delusion, often a belief that becomes more complicated as the person seeks evidence to support the belief, is as strong as the belief of someone who has evidence to support their beliefs. For example, you may have a belief that your cousin is lying about everything based on the fact that she or he may have a long history of lying. That belief cannot be changed by anyone else, primarily those who contradict what you so firmly believe is true. This is often how a delusion is formed and maintained. The belief makes sense to the person suffering from the delusion and no one, even the closest family member, can change that belief. This article will briefly review delusions and provide tips on what not to do with someone who may be delusional.
Delusions can be very frightening because they are almost always strongly held to be true which makes it difficult for family members, co-workers, close friends, and even mental health professionals to get through. The topic of delusions can also be very tricky to people who are unfamiliar with the topic. As a result, we must be careful not to label everyone as delusional because they hold a very strong belief system about something. For example, a person of faith (such as myself) and who follows Christianity believes that faith is all that is needed to overcome challenges in life. A person who is very confident in God and confident that faith will strengthen them, is not delusional. However, a person who believes that faith will lead to them being able to perform miracles on others or even engage in psychic-like abilities could possibly be delusional.
The other thing that makes delusions difficult to understand is that many delusions are not bizarre. A bizarre delusion might include a strong belief that the person was visited at night, while sleeping, by an alien who told him or her that they will be transported to Mars to rescue the aliens from outer-space. A non-bizarre delusion might include the person believing that the government is monitoring the phone and Internet. This is non-bizarre because many agencies engage in monitoring the phone and Internet systems. Delusions are very difficult to understand and often requires the help of a qualified mental health professional to perform assessment, create treatment plans, or suggest appropriate treatment.
For those who struggle to separate the person (who may be very loving, intelligent, humorous, successful, etc.) from the delusion (which may be delusions of jealousy, grandeur, control, etc.), it is important that you understand how to communicate with the person. Delusions are so fixed and unresponsive to outside help that you will need to know what to say/do and what not to say/do in order for YOU to survive.
I have outlined 10 things you should not do when communicating with someone who has delusions:
- Do not argue with a person who suffers from delusions: When a person is experiencing a delusion that is clearly unrealistic to everyone else, they do not know their delusion is bizarre or unrealistic nor do they think this. Arguing with the person is not going to cause them to “snap out of it” and begin to see things the right way. Arguing with the person is only going to create animosity, resentment, or even a stronger delusion. For example, a former client of mine struggled with her father’s paranoid delusion that his work at the local post office was being monitored by the government because he had become the most “talented” worker at the office. His 14 year old daughter would argue with him almost every time he would bring the topic up. Although many of us would think the father would look within and finally determine that this delusion was wrong, he became even more delusional. He began to think that his daughter was teaming up with the government to finally “stop him.”
- Do not try to prove the person wrong: Trying to prove that the individual is incorrect, unrealistic, or or misdirected is not going to change anything. A delusion is a belief that held very, very firmly. Arguing and trying to get facts to prove the person wrong is only going to make that person fight that much more to prove to you that the delusion is indeed correct. You’d be surprised how intelligent and wrapped up in the delusion some individuals can be. It is not unrealistic that the person with a delusion begins to turn on you often believing that you are trying to deceive them. The person will almost always stand their ground and may even turn completely on you. Delusions can be very scary because the person is often unable to logically process information and engage in the critical thinking that is required to make sense out of the world. The person also does not believe they are “sick” but rather believe they are most likely more intelligent, insightful, or gifted than everyone else. This is very different from a person who has faith or a person who truly believes in themselves. It is important we do not jump to conclusions and label everyone who fits this description delusional.
- Do not call the person crazy: You have to constantly remind yourself, as even I do with my clients, that the delusion is separate from the actual person you like/love. The delusion is firmly fixed and nothing you do will derail the person from believing as they do. To call the person crazy, even if being lighthearted, will reduce your chances of truly helping the person. Stay tuned for my next article, scheduled for next week, which provides tips on what you should do instead.
- Do not make fun of the person or tease them when the delusion(s) becomes their reality: Again, a delusion is a strong belief that is held to be true. All the things that you believe to be true cannot be changed by someone else who doesn’t believe as you do. Someone who does not believe in God or Jesus Christ will never change the way that I see my faith. This is how a person with delusions see their delusions. They will find any way to disprove your logic and prove their logic. That being said, you don’t want to tease the person about their reality because this often leads, again, to animosity and distrust. If someone called me a “blind faith follower” I would be offended. If someone challenged your strong beliefs, I’m sure you would be offended too.
- Do not reinforce or “play into” the delusion: While it is important not to fight the delusion, you also want to be sure that you are not supporting the delusion(s) or making the person feel you believe in the delusion as well. This is very tricky which is why I provides tips in my next article coming up next week.
- Do not share the person’s delusion with others without the person’s knowledge: Sharing the person’s delusion is like telling the person’s secret. Telling someone about the delusion(s) can also cause the person with the delusion to believe their delusion is in fact true. If it weren’t, why are you talking about it to others? You will also lose the person’s trust by talking about them or talking about the delusion to others. Be sure first that the person is okay with others knowing about their “belief(s).”
- Do not pressure the person to get help: I have seen so many of my client’s parents try to force their spouse to get treatment because of paranoid thoughts and delusional beliefs. The person, who often believes they are not sick or in need of help, will argue, deny, and even blame to avoid looking at the reality that their delusion(s) is problematic. The person will either agree to “get help” to shut others up or disprove their belief that help is needed, or refuse to go at all. This is a losing battle.
- Do not dismiss the person when they talk about their delusion(s): This is very challenging, even for therapists. This will take practice and conscious effort. When the person is speaking to you about their delusional belief(s) they are also looking for you to hear them, trust their perception of reality, and maybe even provide feedback. You do not have to provide feedback, especially if the feedback may reinforce the delusion. Dismissing the person will only lead to an argument, resentment, or true heartbreak. Would you want someone to dismiss your feelings, no matter how odd or bizarre they are? Try to show an understanding of the person’s feelings even if the delusion is bizarre.
- Do not provide articles, books, or videos on delusions: You want to avoid trying to educate the person to their delusion(s) because this, again, will lead to the person feeling defensive and needing to defend him or herself. You don’t want the person to be offended or become defensive. You are “losing” the person this way.
Delusions are very tricky and it is almost impossible, even for therapists, to sometimes separate the person from the delusion. Separating the person from the delusion will take practice and skills. You can learn the skills needed to avoid conflict and protect yourself in the relationship. Individuals with delusions will often argue with you, fight you with words, and even become physically aggressive if the person really feels defensive.
Stay tuned for next week’s article. I offer tips on how to cope with a person who has delusions and how to avoid confrontation.
As always, feel free to post your comments below as I continue to enjoy connecting with my audience.
I wish you well
NOTE: when referring to someone with a mental illness, it is always empathic and more appropriate to say the person first then the disorder. For example, “a person with delusions,” “a person with schizophrenia,” or “a person with mental illness.” You do not want to say “a delusional person,” “a schizophrenic person,” or “a mental person.”
Lakeman, R. (2003). Responding therapeutically to disturbing beliefs. Retrieved on 3/2/2016 from, www.testandcalc.com/Richard.