Don’t Tell People How (Not) To Feel

[Content note: mentions of abuse, transphobia, & racism]

The more I do this–this writing/activism/therapy thing that I do–the more I’m coming to believe that there is almost never anything to be gained by telling people how to feel, or how not to feel.

In fact, I worry that doing so is at best neutral, probably manipulative, possibly cruel, and at worst abusive.

The most obvious examples provoke little disagreement from the social circles I move in–for instance, telling a person with depression to “cheer up,” telling a person with anxiety to “calm down,” telling a person who is angry to “stop being so angry,” telling a person who has suffered trauma to “just get over it.” These are all examples of telling people how to feel, or how not to feel, that most of us would recognize as wrong.

But the message that folks seem to get when we talk about this isn’t “telling people how (not) to feel is wrong,” but rather, “don’t tell people with mental illness/trauma history to get better because they can’t just do that on the spot.”

But what if they could? What if the cause of the emotions was something other than mental illness or trauma? Then would it be acceptable to tell them how to feel?

I think some people would say yes, at least in certain situations.

Emotions and morality are all bound up in our minds. We associate certain emotions with certain moral acts and other emotions with certain immoral acts (which with which may depend on one’s social group). Although there may be a correlation, of course, it’s probably not nearly as strong as people assume. Moreover, it’s much easier, in my experience, to change your behavior than to change your emotions. Even if you are neurotypical, but especially if you are not.

So we start to point to certain emotions, which we consider “markers” of certain immoral acts, as the problem. It’s wrong to feel angry or resentful when a potential romantic partner turns you down. It’s wrong not to be angry about injustice. It’s wrong to feel happy during a time when other people are sad. It’s wrong to fail to feel sad when Objectively Sad Things (like the loss of a loved one) happen.

I would argue that none of those are actually wrong, though. It’s wrong to guilt-trip, manipulate, or punish someone who doesn’t want to date you. It’s wrong to do absolutely nothing to make the world a better place despite having the ability to do so. But you can feel resentful at someone who rejected you without ever mistreating them, and you can actively make the world a better place without ever feeling angry about injustice.

It’s ironic that we use emotions as a proxy for actions when they are so much more difficult to change. You can change them, of course, but only with time and effort, and almost never right in the moment. Happiness is pretty easy to kill, as I was reminded very directly after Obergefell v Hodges came down, but it’s rarely replaced with the feelings that were intended to replace it. When people kept suggesting that anyone who feels happy after that decision is a terrible person who doesn’t care about other issues and naively believes that The Fight Is Over, I wasn’t suddenly full of fiery anger on behalf of all the LGBTQ folks who continue to face marginalization (including, by the way, myself). I just felt sad and defeated, and very condescended to.

Nevertheless, despite my happiness at the Supreme Court’s decision, I’m not done fighting. My actions speak louder than my happiness that particular day.

More importantly, though, I worry about the ramifications of assuming that we can and should tell people how to feel. If you tell someone to calm down or cheer up or get angry and they immediately comply, I’m not sure that that’s a healthy process. I’m not sure that it’s ultimately a good thing if people are able to change their emotions (or convincingly pretend to) as soon as someone demands it. To me, that sounds more like an abusive situation than anything else.

I’m also concerned because, once you learn (as many of us do at some point or another) that others are better than us at knowing what our emotions ought to be, that process of adjusting your emotions (or emotional expressions) to their expectations becomes par for the course. Certainly someone can claim that their particular reason for telling you how to feel is Very Important and For A Good Cause, but everyone claims that, including abusive people. Many people in my life could say that it’d be For My Own Good if I could just stop feeling sad on command. Many people have a vested interest in keeping us from being angry, or expressing our anger. Once you get in the habit of “correcting” your emotions at others’ request, it’s going to be, well, a habit.

Moreover, when people believe that it’s their emotions, and not their actions, that are problematic, they often try to push away and suppress those emotions because they are Wrong. They may even succeed for a while, but ultimately, this sort of project inevitably fails. (I’ve been there.) Suppressing Wrong emotions prevents self-awareness, which is exactly what you need to make sure that you don’t hurt people because of your emotions. Telling people their emotions are Wrong is not only ineffective, but counterproductive.

You might think that if you tell someone that their emotions are Wrong, they will immediately say, “Wow, you’re right, I will call a therapist and set up an appointment right away.” Wouldn’t that be nice. But that’s not how it works. Even if there’s a strong indication that someone probably needs to go to therapy, if you stigmatize them that way, they’ll probably believe that 1) the therapist would stigmatize them that way too, and 2) they’re a terrible person who doesn’t deserve help.

Unfortunately, I notice this a lot in people who are trying to figure out how to deal with romantic rejection, especially men. They hear that people (especially men) who get upset when they’re rejected do terrible things, and they hear that feeling upset is as much a problem as the actual doing of the terrible things. And I get that the message gets diluted a lot when we’re trying to deal with horrific shit like Elliot Rodger, but thankfully, the vast majority of people are not Elliot Rodger. Feeling upset or even angry when you get rejected is normal. You can work on it with a therapist (or with some helpful online advice) if you want, but what matters is how you act. That’s what makes you who you are.

What about emotions that are Truly Awful? What if someone is disgusted by trans* people? What if someone is terrified when they see a Black man approaching on the street?

To be honest, I don’t really know what to do with these emotions (and I’m perfectly willing to admit that I don’t know). Here people can make a convincing argument that these emotions actually do lead to actual harm done to marginalized people, which is true. Here, again, the problem is the actual harm done to these people and not what goes on in someone’s head, but what goes on in someone’s head is undeniably related to the actual harm done to these people!

Then again, these emotions don’t come from nowhere. They, like many emotions, come from thoughts or ideas. Those thoughts or ideas are, “People ought to be either Men or Women” (where “Men” or “Women” means “as traditionally defined by cissexist assumptions), “Black men are dangerous,” and so on. There’s no use in telling people not to be disgusted by trans* people and not to be afraid of Black men unless we address the ideas that are prompting those feelings. As someone who has experienced lots of such shifts in feelings over time as my understanding of power, privilege, and oppression has evolved, I can attest to this.

In sum, I don’t have all the answers on this, but I’m starting to believe that it doesn’t really do any good to police people’s feelings, even when they seem like the wrong feelings.


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Irrational Feelings are Still Valid, and Valid Feelings Can Be Irrational

Kate recently wrote about how sometimes, viewing your emotions as unjustified or irrational can actually prevent you from taking action to make them better. On the other hand, simply accepting all emotions as “valid” can also leave you with no way of trying to change them. To try to resolve this issue, she proposes a distinction between “local validity” and “global validity”:

Local validity is about noticing and responding to your current emotions as if they’re real emotions that are happening to you. Global validity is about reflecting about the trends and patterns of emotions and how well you think they’re grounded in a realistic view of the world.

Irrational and invalid aren’t the same thing. We can go wrong when we believe that any emotion that’s irrational must therefore be invalid, but we also go wrong when we believe that any emotion that’s valid must also be rational. (I think the latter error is made less often, but it’s true that some people feel that because emotions are “valid,” they must simply accept them as they are.)

In social circles where rationality is very highly valued, it can become difficult to tell others about how you’re feeling when you think that your feelings are irrational. Sometimes we fear judgmental responses from others (“But that makes no sense! Of course I don’t hate you! How could you possibly believe something like that?”). Other times, we may trust that people will be supportive, but we still don’t want to come across as someone who has a lot of “silly” or “irrational” feelings.

In this way, sometimes, people in social circles that have more traditional approaches to relationships and communication are at a slight advantage. For instance, suppose Sally is in a traditional monogamous relationship with Bob. Sally might feel totally comfortable telling Bob that she’s jealous when Bob spends time with his friend Susie. Sally might even feel comfortable expressing anger about this.

Of course, the resulting conversation might not necessarily be productive–Bob might just agree not to spend time with Susie anymore, or he might react angrily and tell Sally that she’s being “crazy.” But in my social circles, we often wouldn’t express feelings like Sally’s at all. We feel that being progressive/feminist/polyamorous/rational/whatever means we shouldn’t feel jealous when a partner spends time with a friend (or another partner), because that’s irrational, and therefore that feeling should be ignored rather than brought out into the open.

And so a lot of us end up trying to ignore or cope with these feelings alone. Where Bob might hug or kiss Sally and reassure her that he loves her, we get ice cream and Netflix. (Or maybe that’s just me. Seriously, I am Extremely Bad at this.)

The difference is that many people in traditional monogamous relationships treat jealousy as normal, even healthy, even a sign that you really love someone. Expressing jealousy in the context of these relationships can be a completely acceptable thing, like telling your partner that you’re annoyed that they didn’t tell you they’d be home late, or that you’re sad that they can’t spend the holidays with you and your family. I don’t want to borrow traditional monogamous folks’ ideas about jealousy necessarily, but I want to borrow their norms about expressing it and expecting your partner to hear you and respond lovingly to you even if the jealousy is “irrational.” (Yes, yes, #notallmonos.)

But as Kate’s example shows, this tendency to conflate “irrational” and “invalid” doesn’t just apply to relationships and decisions about whether or not to tell others how we’re feeling. I have a hard time engaging in self-care practices that help if I don’t feel like there’s a “rational” reason to feel the way I’m feeling.

For instance, if someone was mean to me or I had an awful day at work, I acknowledge those as “good” reasons to feel bad, and in response, I might ask friends for support or spend some money on something that brings me joy.

But if I’m feeling bad for reasons I think aren’t “good,” such as being jealous of someone or completely randomly, then I don’t feel like I have the “right” to ask for support. I don’t feel like it’d be justified to take time off of my responsibilities to do something pleasant to improve my mood. So I just sit there and suffer through it.

In a blog post, Malcolm writes about how it can be useful to “step outside” of one’s own feelings. To help someone else do that, you might ask them, “What feelings came up for you during that?” rather than “How do/did you feel?” The latter question makes people identify with a feeling in ways that the former doesn’t. To say that sad feelings came up for me feels different than saying that I am (or was) sad. He adds:

Our sociolinguistic context is full of maxims like “that’s just how I feel” or “I can’t help how I feel” or [INSERT OTHER EXAMPLES]. We don’t necessarily take them seriously, but they add to the confusion of what someone might mean when they say “I feel X”. A bunch of questions you could (mentally or verbally) ask in response:

do you endorse feeling X? do you think that feeling X makes sense?

would you like me to address (my reassurance, etc) towards the feeling, towards its causes, or towards you as the experiencer of the feeling?

is that all you’re feeling?

how do you feel about having that feeling?

do you see a way out of the feeling or does it feel all-consuming or inevitable?

Questions like these, when asked of yourself, can make it a lot easier to communicate feelings that you think are irrational. For instance: “I don’t endorse this feeling, but I’m jealous about your date with ____.” “I know this doesn’t make sense, but I’m sad about leaving for vacation tomorrow.”

And on the flip side, when people share feelings like these with us, I think it’s important not to jump too immediately to “Your feelings are valid” or “It’s okay to feel that way.” Those are very important and worthy sentiments, but for many people (such as me), they can contribute to a defeatist sort of attitude: “Well, I guess it’s ok that I’m just going to feel depressed every time a friend succeeds at something I haven’t, since that’s a valid and okay way to feel.” Often, “valid” starts to mean “unchangeable.”

Here, Malcolm’s example question, “How do you feel about having that feeling?” can be very helpful. If someone says they’re ashamed or embarrassed or having difficulty accepting that this feeling is even happening, validation can be very helpful. But if they say they’re frustrated by having to deal with the feeling, or they understand where it’s coming from but still wish it weren’t happening, then validation can unintentionally send the message that they should just accept it.

Some of this, I think, is a question of where someone is in their own process. Years ago, I was unable to fully acknowledge my depressive feelings because I didn’t understand that I had depression, and kept trying to convince myself that I “should” be happy given all the good things I had going for me. At that point, if someone had told me that sadness/depression is a valid feeling, that might’ve been a revelation.

Nowadays, I’ve basically accepted the fact that I have depression and that that brings with it depressive feelings. At this point, reminders that my feelings are “valid” are pretty much useless. I want to change them! And in order to change them, I have to understand how they’re irrational, how they’re set off, how to counter those automatic processes, and basically how to tell myself a better story about my life.

Ironically, both of these counterproductive processes can happen for the same person. Sometimes I refuse to treat my feelings as valid simply because they’re irrational. Other times, I have trouble changing irrational feelings simply because I’ve accepted that they’re valid. Depression feels so real that changing it seems impossible. But it’s not.


Note that I intentionally avoided getting bogged down in what exactly “rational” and “irrational” and “valid” and “invalid” mean. If this post doesn’t make sense to you, we’re probably working from different definitions, and that’s okay. Another blog post, another day.


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How to Motivate Yourself To Read Books


I read a lot.

A lot of my friends have recently been asking for advice about reading. Specifically, they say that they really value reading (books, generally) and have always seen themselves as people who read, but lately they can’t seem to motivate themselves to do it. This causes a lot of cognitive dissonance.

Usually people have one or both of these problems: 1) motivating themselves to actually pick up a book and read it, and 2) maintaining their focus on that book rather than getting distracted by other things, such as social media or articles online. Although these are slightly different issues, I’m addressing both of them here because some of the same suggestions might help for both.

Some people cite various factors that they think have contributed to the problem with reading, such as: 1) the prevalence of distracting technology, 2) being out of school and no longer being required to read all the time, and 3) being more used to reading short articles online rather than books. While I think that working out what causes difficulty with reading can be useful for you, I also think that the problem can be resolved without that. (See also: solution-focused brief therapy.)

Since I’ve had some of these issues myself and have developed a few practices that help, I decided to put together a blog post for reference for folks who have these issues. I also asked friends what’s worked for them, since this is such a common problem in my social circles, and incorporated their recommendations.

This isn’t “advice” per se; some of these might work for you and some of these might not. If you already know that the problem isn’t [thing] and a given suggestion addresses [thing], there’s no reason for you to try it (except curiosity, maybe). Some of these cost nothing to try, and others cost money. Some address the activation energy problem, and some address the focus problem. Some may feel bad to you, like you’re “giving up” on something important. If it feels awful, you don’t have to do it, but also consider that it might be worth readjusting (at least temporarily) your expectations for yourself.

1. Try reading something easier/simpler/more fun, at least at first.

A lot of people say they have trouble motivating themselves to read books, but what they really mean is Big Serious Books. If you really wish you could just pick up a book already, forget about Tolstoy or David Foster Wallace for now, and pick up a YA novel, a comic book, or something else that’s easy for you to get into. Online fanfiction works too. Saga is an amazing comic book series with big political themes, lots of diversity, beautiful art, and an engaging, suspenseful story. Peeps is a YA vampire novel, but it’s nothing like Twilight. Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality is, well, Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality.

This seems to work for a lot of people. My friend Nicole says: “When I can’t motivate myself to read, I approach it like I approach exercise–start off with some easier reads to get the momentum going. Definitely doesn’t work for everyone, but when I pick up some Harry Potter or even a Sweet Valley High book (only Judy can judge me), I’m at an easier entryway for reading than if I went 0 to Dostoyevsky.”

This is in some ways one of the hardest suggestions to implement because, I’ve noticed, a lot of people have a lot of shame and stuff around what they read. It’s difficult to feel like you’re Really Reading if you’re reading a comic book or a teen vampire story. But are you comprehending words on a page? Are you making predictions and feeling empathy for a character and wondering what made an author write it the way they wrote it? Then you’re reading.

If you really can’t get past the potential embarrassment of being seen with one of these books, you could buy a protective cover for it, or use an e-reader (more on that later).

You might find that as you (re)develop a reading habit, it becomes easier and easier to read harder and harder things. Tolstoy will always be there for you when you want him.

For me, this suggestion translates as reading fiction rather than nonfiction. Like quite a few like-minded people, I often feel that reading fiction is “silly” and “useless” compared to reading nonfiction, but I often find nonfiction difficult to get into and focus on. When I can’t get myself into nonfiction, I try to overcome that feeling and read some fiction instead. First of all, reading something is better than reading nothing. Second, it’s not even true that fiction is silly or useless; I absolutely learn about the world from it and get writing ideas from it and such.

Although most of my friends say that they have no trouble reading things online and feel that they have replaced books with blog posts and articles, if that’s not the case for you, then blog posts and articles might be a stepping stone to more “serious” reading.

2. Get comfortable.

When I’m having trouble focusing on a book I want to be reading and I can’t figure out why, I do some body scanning. Often I realize that the problem is that I’m physically uncomfortable and it didn’t even make it into my conscious awareness.

Note that this might be true even if you think the problem is that you’re getting distracted by your phone or whatever. I often automatically check my phone when I’m physically (or mentally) uncomfortable as a way to cope with those feelings in the moment. While this can be extremely useful when I have to be there and need to distract myself from my discomfort, it’s not as useful when you need to focus on reading, and when it’s actually possible to resolve the discomfort.

Figure out which reading positions are most comfortable for you. I like to have back support and a surface that is neither too hard nor tries to swallow me. My favorite places to read are hammocks, couches, armchairs, and those lounge chair things they have at the pool, as long as it’s not the hard plastic ones. Unfortunately, reading in bed is not usually something I can make comfortable for long periods of time, and neither is reading at a computer while sitting in some sort of chair. Regardless of what your favorite reading positions are, if you’re doing it for a while, make sure to get up regularly and stretch. Otherwise you’ll find yourself getting stiff and cramped and therefore distracted.

Other factors play into comfort, too. One friend says she reads on her computer using Kindle for Mac, because reading on her computer means that she doesn’t have to turn the lights on–and lights trigger her migraines. In college, I had a Snuggie so that I could stay warm while still being able to flip the pages.

3. Remove distractions.

Assuming that you do have a problem with getting distracted by things, see if you can remove them. If it’s noise, find a quiet place or use earplugs (they’re pretty cheap at any drugstore). If it’s technology, put it in another room or turn it off. I like to go outside with my books and leave other stuff inside.

Sometimes people don’t do this because they assume that if they “really” wanted to read, they’d be able to do it even with the iPhone right there. But that’s not really how motivation/focus works. Most humans like to move in the direction of least effort, at least when we let our automatic impulses take over. You love reading, but you also love Facebook, and Facebook is just easier. That doesn’t make you wrong (or Facebook evil). It’s just a thing that you might need to acknowledge and plan around.

4. Try an e-reader.

Money permitting, e-readers (or e-reading apps on phones) can really help. That’s the thing that worked best for me, and the suggestion I got most often from my friends who say it worked for them. For some people, e-readers are physically more convenient and easy. For some, it’s that there aren’t other distractions on it (like there are on a phone). For other people, on the other hand, reading on a phone is great because it allows you to read in situations where you otherwise might not have been able to. I used to read e-books on my phone while waiting for clients to show up at work.

Those of you who commute on public transit may also find that e-readers/phones resolve a lot of logistical challenges. When I first moved to New York, I had a hell of a time trying to hold onto a pole on a crowded train and a bag or two and a book with pages I needed to flip. Within a few months, I got my Nook, which can be held in one hand and has conveniently-located buttons that flip the pages without a need for another hand. I happily read for hours each week while standing on trains and holding onto poles.

The cheapest current Kindle is $80, and you can even pay for it in installments. It’s probably even cheaper if you get it used. If that’s still not affordable for you but you do have a smartphone, Kindle and Nook both make free apps (and there are probably others). Your local public library might have e-books available for borrowing. Even the one here in my little Ohio suburb has that now. A friend also recommends BookBub as a way to find cheap and free ebooks.

5. If you have to drive a lot, try audiobooks.

Personally, I dislike receiving information in audio format, but some people say this works for them, especially when they have to commute by car a lot. This is also great if you feel like you can’t justify the additional time spent on reading because you have so many other things to do. This way, you’re not expending any extra time on it, just making better use of the time you already have.

6. Make it social.

Reading is generally a very solitary activity, and it’s difficult to spend hours isolated from other people doing something that’s not easily shared with them. So see if you can make it shareable.

Traditionally, people made reading social through book clubs. If that’s an option for you, try it. Note that book clubs need not be in-person/geographically proximate–online book clubs can work a lot better if it’s difficult to find people nearby who share your interests, or if going to in-person events is stressful.

However, there are plenty of ways to make reading social besides book clubs. For instance, you can post book reviews on sites like Goodreads or on Facebook. You can share what you’re reading on social media, and often friends will get excited along with you or discuss the book with you if they’ve read it too. I love to post quotes on Facebook and Tumblr, especially from nonfiction books (but often from fiction too). It helps me feel like I’m doing something good for people by spreading the knowledge I’m getting, and it also gets me some positive reinforcement from people for reading. Everybody wins.

I’ve written before (to a small amount of pushback) that there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with using this sort of reinforcement to motivate yourself to do things you know are good for you to do. You are not weak or silly or shallow if the encouragement and positive feedback of people you care about helps you do things. Yes, there are downsides to this, but it’s also the way humans work. Be self-aware and use it to your advantage.

7. Take books everywhere.

Take books everywhere you go, even if it’s a situation where people might make fun of you for having a book. (When I used to hang out with friends who were slightly less cool than my current friends, they’d make fun of me for having a book. They’d be like, “What, did you think I’d be that boring?” I’d be like, no, but I thought, what if you were late and I had to wait for you? What if you went to the restroom for a while? What if you needed to leave earlier and I wanted to stay at the coffee shop by myself? That’s to say nothing of public transit.)

If you always have a book, you might find yourself turning to it in those everyday boring situations. In line at the post office. In the doctor’s waiting room. In the train. On your lunch break. At the bar, waiting for your friends to show up. Boredom can be a great motivator.

E-readers help with this, but I’ve been doing it with paper books for as long as I’ve been able to read.

8. Make a habit of browsing bookstores and libraries.

When you’re in a bookstore or a library, there’s really only two things to do: find books, and read books. As a kid I used to walk out of the library with huge towers of books because I couldn’t bear to leave such interesting things in place. I wouldn’t always read all of them, but the excitement of finding something cool in the stacks is its own motivator.

When you find an interesting book, try reading the first chapter (or part of it), not just the jacket copy. If you don’t like it, you haven’t spent that much time. If you do like it, check it out or buy it, and then you’re already hooked and motivated to keep going.

This is also very fun to combine with #6. Make it social. When I was in high school and there wasn’t much else to do, my friends and I made bookstore trips constantly. Nowadays, I like to take people I’m dating (or thinking about dating) to bookstores. You learn a lot about someone that way, and plus it’s fun, and plus it encourages you to read.

Although there’s definitely something special to me about bookstores and libraries, browsing books on Amazon can have some similar effects, especially since it’ll show you similar books to what you’re looking at. I’ve definitely gotten lost in that particular rabbit hole for a while.

9. Graph it, chart it, log it.

This goes along with #6 (making it social) given how social media is these days, but for me, graphing and charting and logging things is also its own reward. I’d imagine the same is true for other nerdy types.

I like recording what I read with Goodreads, and I also use an iOS app called Hours to track how much time I spend reading each book (along with other productive things I do).

But my favorite book-tracking thing by far is this chart created by my friend Malcolm. Malcolm’s aim in creating and using this chart was to encourage himself to read more, but unlike other book-tracking mechanisms, this one tracks the time you spend reading, not the number of books you finish. Sometimes people start books they don’t end up liking but then they don’t want to put them down because sunk cost fallacy + it feels like you get no “points” for a book you don’t finish. This chart acknowledges all the time you spend on books (including audiobooks), whether or not you finish them.

You can see my own version of Malcolm’s chart here.

Some people also find success with HabitRPG, a cute webapp that treats to-do’s and habits as a game and also has an optional social component.

10. Do a little at a time.

For many people, motivation is all about that first push, and then the rest comes easily. Don’t think of it as “I need to read War and Peace.” Think of it as, “I need to read a chapter of War and Peace.” Or even a page. You might find that once you start reading you keep going naturally, or you might not. In that case, you can gradually raise your page goal rather than diving head-first into reading 100 pages a day or whatever.

DailyLit is a website that can help with this by emailing you installments of books each day. HabitRPG, which I mentioned above, can also help, because you can set a daily goal like “read five pages” and see what happens.

Mark Reads, which a few of my friends recommended, is another way to read in installments. In this series, Mark reads books out loud a chapter at a time and reviews them. My friend Suzanne says, “It’s like an online book club led by the kindest, most hilarious person who is never ever prepared for the next twist in the book he’s reading.

11. Shift your assumptions.

Reading is an act that’s all tangled up in things like class, race, gender, and neurotypicality. Sometimes we expect impossible things of ourselves, like reading dozens of dense books each year and being able to regurgitate all their plots or facts on demand, and that leads to a lot of shame that makes reading even more difficult. Sometimes we devalue certain ways of reading (audiobooks, ebooks, social reinforcement, with frequent breaks to check a phone) or certain types of texts (YA, “women’s” literature, fanfiction). Many of us remember our parents or teachers telling us to put that crap down and have held onto those ideas into adulthood.

Yes, I do think that there are ways to evaluate and judge literature, but I also think that what you think is “good” depends entirely on what you need. Recently I read a short self-published novel called Robins in the Night. It was not particularly well-written; it needed a lot of editing and a lot of the stylistic choices seemed stilted or incomprehensible to me. But it was a retelling of the Robin Hood story in which Robin Hood is actually a queer trans woman who stands up against the unjust treatment of a Black man, and at the moment, that’s exactly what I needed to read, “quality” notwithstanding. I recommend it.

As you pursue your reading goals, I recommend keeping some (re)frames in mind:

  • The perfect is the enemy of the good./Reading something is better than reading nothing.
  • Only you get to decide which books are “good” or “impressive” or “valuable” for you.
  • Work with your brain, not against it. If positive reinforcement from your friends helps, use it. If you can’t read for ten minutes without checking your phone, consider figuring out what’s going on with that, but in the meantime, read for ten minutes at a time and take breaks to check your phone.
  • Try to get rid of “should”‘s. Should you read long serious novels? Should you read without an e-reader? Should you be able to read for long stretches of time without taking a break? Should you read quickly? Should you remember everything you read? Should you find nonfiction interesting enough to hold your attention? Maybe, but who cares? Do what you can and what feels right.

What has worked for you? What engaging books do you recommend to someone who’s having trouble picking up a book and staying with it?


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When Someone Sets Boundaries With You and You Feel Like Crap

Reflecting on some experiences I’ve had with setting boundaries, I wrote this earlier today:

A crappy thing for which I have no solution:

Someone unintentionally makes me uncomfortable or hurts my feelings. I let them know. They apologize/etc. Then I immediately see a post from them in my feed about how they’re a terrible person because they hurt people and they were just trying to be nice/funny but they hurt someone so they’re horrible. I try to convince myself that this *isn’t* a passive-aggressive attempt to make me feel guilty, because that’s a crappy thing to assume about someone, but it itches all the same.

The thing is, one of the biggest reasons why most people have such a hard time setting boundaries is because they fear hurting people. They are desperately trying to avoid that exact “I am a terrible person” reaction. Obviously, OBVIOUSLY I would never say that you should not use your own Facebook to vent/post about your feelings, which is why I said I have no solution to this. But all the same, this is instant feedback of a sort (“Your boundary-setting makes me feel like a terrible person”) and it speaks volumes.

I was almost tempted here to ask for feedback: Do I need to be nicer when I set boundaries? Maybe I do. But I’m not asking for feedback because I know it would never end. “Yes, you need to be nicer.” “…yup, still a little nicer please!” “You know, you could really stand to be just a little bit more nice.” “Actually, what would be nicest of all is just shutting up.”

People constantly remind me that I hurt them when I set boundaries, so the only way I’ve been able to set boundaries as someone with depression and a lot of feelings and a lot of empathy is to systematically train myself to stop caring if I hurt people (in this specific circumstance). And it feels monstrous. But the alternative is much worse, and in the alternative, ALL the cost is paid by me. Every cent of it. And I have been there, and I’m never going back.

As I said, I don’t have a solution, but I do have a request: if someone setting a boundary with you causes you to immediately jump to “I am a terrible person,” please try to work on that. Probably most people with that reaction (oh hey, including myself!) are already working on it, so I don’t want to come across as condescending or patronizing. But I really feel that interpersonal things would be easier for all of us if fewer people had this automatic reaction.

I could say a lot more here about how that sort of reaction is actually self-protective and serves a purpose for the individual despite feeling like crap in the moment, but I’ll save that for some other time, because the most important thing is that other people’s boundaries are *not about you*; they are not a referendum on whether or not you are “a good person” (there is no such thing), they are not a punishment to you, they are not a weapon used to intentionally hurt you. They are about the safety and comfort of the person who sets them.

In response, someone asked me a question:

Can you give some examples of how to handle boundary-setting better? I realized halfway through reading your post that I respond similarly to “I’m a terrible person” but I have no idea where to start to fix it. How do I not feel terribly?

I responded on Tumblr, but wanted to expand on that response here.

But first I want to also expand the question. The person asked, “How do I not feel terribly?”, but I think there’s another important question to address, which is, “How do I respond properly?” I realize that’s not what they were asking and don’t mean to imply that they should’ve asked that question additionally/instead; just that it’s interesting and important to address. But more to the point, these things are related. The same things that will help you feel better in this situation will also help you respond better, but when you can’t make yourself feel better–and sometimes you can’t–responding well might be the best you can do.

So what follows are some general thoughts about what to do when someone sets a boundary with you and you feel like shit.

1. Why do you feel like shit? Being told that you’ve hurt someone or made someone uncomfortable can kick up lots of old hurts and fears, especially for those of us who have depression and anxiety. These may be particular to you and your own experience, and that’s for you to uncover on your own. But more generally, there are two broad cultural messages that many of us learn that make it very difficult not to have strong negative emotions when someone sets a boundary with us:

  • The idea that there are Good People and Bad People, and only Bad People hurt people (on purpose or by accident). This idea is wrong and harmful and needs to go away. This idea also drives us to dismiss claims that someone we consider a Good Person has hurt someone. Either they aren’t really a Good Person, or they must not have really hurt anyone. The latter is easier to accept, so that’s what we do. In this case, when faced with incontrovertible evidence that you have hurt someone’s feelings, even by mistake, you may conclude that this means you are a Bad Person. It doesn’t.
  • The idea that we must intuitively/magically divine others’ needs and boundaries, and if we can’t do this, then we are Bad At People or Bad At Life or otherwise A Failure. Guess culture contributes to this, I think. So does ableism–some people’s brains make it especially difficult to read subtle cues from others, and we tend to assume that the problem is with these people and their brains, and not with our society and our expectations. So in this situation, if someone is having to set a boundary with you, you may feel that it means you have Failed at intuiting their boundaries and therefore had to be told. In fact, verbally setting boundaries should be considered the default. It is rare to know what someone’s boundaries around everything are, even if you know them quite well.

Understanding that these cultural messages are not necessarily accurate or useful to you is a good first step in learning how to react less negatively when someone sets a boundary with you.

2. A good practice when something happens that causes strong emotions is one that applies to many interpersonal situations, whether or not they involve boundary setting: before responding in any way (to the person directly, elsewhere online, etc), take some time just for yourself to process how you’re feeling. Name the feelings to yourself. “I feel angry that they told me to stop doing this.” “I feel depressed and worthless because I did something wrong.” “I am a piece of shit because I hurt a friend.” Name the feelings even if you feel ashamed of them.

This is a little more complex than the standard “breathe in and count to ten” advice. Yes, that can help you not respond automatically in a way you’ll regret, but it doesn’t necessarily help you understand or deal with what you’re feeling.

3. Intentionally think about how these emotions may impact your response. “I’m really angry, so I might yell at them.” “I feel really upset and self-destructive, so I want them to make me feel better.” Thinking about this will help you make sure that your response is what you want it to be, not what jerkbrain is yelling at you to do. It will also help you understand why you’re feeling pulled towards a particular response (yelling, shutting down, crying, ignoring the person, etc).

4. Give yourself permission to be upset/angry, even if you wish you weren’t. Being upset/angry isn’t the problem; lashing out at people or making them responsible for your feelings is. Make a pact with yourself: “I get to feel absolutely however I feel about this as long as I make sure that I’m treating people the way they should be treated.”

5. If talking to people tends to help you feel better, consider reaching out to a friend (not a friend who’s involved directly in whatever it was that made you upset). Explain to them that you’re not asking for reassurance that you did nothing wrong; rather, you’re asking for reassurance that you’re still a good person even though you did do something wrong.

This is important because sometimes our friends care about us so much that they take “sides”: “Wow, what an asshole, what’s their problem, you didn’t do anything wrong!” This might feel good to you, but it doesn’t help you treat others well.

It might help to share with them the fact that you’re doing all this work to make sure that you still respond appropriately when called out for crossing a boundary, so that they can give you some positive reinforcement for being awesome and handling this in such a good way.

6. Practice encouraging yourself to feel gratitude towards the person who set the boundary with you. This may feel out of place right now, but I find that it helps me reframe things. “I’m glad that [person] felt comfortable enough with me to let me know I was crossing a boundary.” “[Person] helped me learn how to treat them better, that’s awesome.” If this person is doing you a kindness by setting a boundary with you, then you can’t be a terrible person, because if you were, then you wouldn’t have such great friends who help you be even better!

7. Ask yourself, what is the function of feeling like a terrible person when someone sets a boundary with you? That may sound like a weird question, but it’s one I think about a lot both as a therapist and as someone working through depression. Automatic emotional responses often have a defensive function, even if they feel very bad.

Sometimes, the automatic “I’m a terrible person” response has the function of allowing you to avoid engaging with the situation fully. If you’re a terrible person, well, obviously you’re just going to fuck up and trample all over people’s boundaries and there’s nothing to be done about it. If you’re a terrible person, then you don’t deserve this friend anyway and you might as well cut them off now that they’ve set this boundary. If you’re a terrible person, then you deserve some sympathy right now rather than having to respond to this person who’s just made you feel so bad.

Understanding this dynamic won’t necessarily make you stop feeling “I’m a terrible person” in response to things like this. We can’t always choose our feelings, though we can shape them with practice.

If you realize that your automatic responses are serving the function of allowing you to avoid difficult situations like this, you may feel even more crappy and guilty than you felt before. I’m sorry if I’ve added to that. But you can also use this knowledge to reframe future automatic responses in ways that help you move through them. “My brain is telling me that I’m a terrible person to help me avoid this challenging situation, but I want to face this situation instead and deal with it like the sort of person I want to be.” You can tell yourself that your brain’s just trying to look out for you and keep you safe, but it’s not doing so in a very helpful way right now.

In conclusion, shitty feelings happen, self-awareness helps, and your automatic emotional responses don’t have to determine the actions you ultimately choose.


For some more general emotion management advice, Olivia has a great series on DBT (Dialectical Behavior Therapy) skills on Teen Skepchick. Although DBT was originally developed to treat Borderline Personality Disorder, it’s extremely useful for many people, including those without any diagnosable mental illness, because it teaches basic adulting skills that most of us are never taught. If you have a bit of money to invest in this effort, I recommend this workbook.


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Setting Boundaries With Your Therapist

It’s a rare relationship that doesn’t require any boundary setting, and the therapeutic relationship is no exception.

Setting boundaries is something many people find difficult for all sorts of reasons–fear of rejection, uncertainty over whether or not your desired boundaries are legitimate (spoiler alert: they are), a history of getting bad reactions from people when setting boundaries with them, and so on.

It’s especially difficult to set boundaries with people you perceive as having more power than you, whether they actually do or not. Therapists are often perceived as having power over their clients because of their expertise and authority, and because it can feel like your therapist is holding your mental wellbeing in their hands. Sometimes that power is more tangible–for instance, in cases where counseling is mandated or when the client needs their therapist to sign off on or approve something. And sometimes that power is compounded by structural factors, like when a client of color works with a white therapist or a queer client works with a straight therapist.

Although these power differentials are real and have consequences, it might be helpful to reframe the client-therapist relationship slightly. Namely: you, as a client, are employing your therapist. Your therapist works for you. Most likely, either you or your insurance company (or both) are paying this therapist, not the other way around. If your therapist isn’t helping you, or is doing something that you find harmful, you have a right to let them know and to expect them to fix the problem. You can fire a therapist who is failing to help you just as you can fire anyone else you hired for some task or service that wasn’t done to your satisfaction.

Some therapists may reject this framing because it feels too consumer-y, or because they worry that this will cause clients to leave them. But I would argue that we shouldn’t be using social norms to trap clients in therapeutic relationships that aren’t working for them, and also, this framing is directed more at clients than at therapists, because I think it will help them feel a greater sense of control over their therapy.

How to know when you need to set a boundary

Therapy can be uncomfortable sometimes. But it should be uncomfortable in ways that mesh with your goals. For instance, if your goal is to learn how to ride a motorcycle, but you’re scared of riding motorcycles, you’re going to be rather uncomfortable. That’s normal and okay. However, if your goal is to learn how to drive a car, and someone is pressuring you to ride a motorcycle instead, that’s not a normal and okay sort of discomfort.

If your goal is to form healthier, more stable relationships with others, you might be uncomfortable when your therapist notes that you seem to assume negative things about people without evidence. You may disagree with your therapist’s observation, at least at first. You may even be right. You may think, “How dare they tell me I assume the worst of people!” But that discomfort is part of the process. Even if your therapist’s observation turns out to be wrong, both of you have gained from this. You’ve gained greater understanding of you. But if your therapist’s observation turns out to be right, then you’ve especially gained.

On the other hand, if your goal is to form healthier, more stable relationships with others, and your therapist suggests that maybe it would help if you accepted Jesus into your life, the discomfort you may feel (at least if you don’t already believe in Jesus) is not part of the process. You and your therapist are at cross purposes. You have already decided that Jesus is not for you.

Not all examples of boundary-crossing are that obvious, however. Many people who go to therapy to deal with trauma report that therapists ask them invasive questions about the trauma, questions that they’re not ready to answer before more trust is built or before they work through things a little more. However, some therapists were trained that they should push for details about traumatic events because talking it all through in detail helps people heal. This theory has since been complicated quite a bit.

Even if sharing all the details of a traumatic event necessarily helped people heal, though, it is crucial that therapists understand that just because the therapy office should be a space where clients feel comfortable sharing anything, that doesn’t mean it automatically is. It can be triggering for survivors of trauma to reveal intimate details about what they went through to someone who is still basically a stranger to them. It’s perfectly legitimate for them to shut down certain avenues of questioning and to expect therapists to respect that boundary until they are ready to shift it.

Setting a boundary vs. firing

When do you ask a therapist to stop doing something that isn’t ok with you, and when do you simply stop seeing them? In most cases, the answer probably depends on what happens when you try to set a boundary. If your therapist refuses to respect your boundary or argues with it, it might be a good idea to find a different one.

(Note, though, that they might agree to respect your boundary but still ask you questions about the boundary itself. While this can feel uncomfortable, I think that’s usually that better kind of uncomfortable–your therapist needs to understand you and your boundaries in order to be able to help you, and it may also help you to process your reasons for needing the boundary.

For instance, when a client says that they can’t talk about something [yet], I won’t push them to talk about it. Instead, I might say, “How do you feel when you imagine telling me about this?” or “What happened last time you tried to talk about this with someone?” That yields a lot more information than “I really think you should tell me,” and is more compassionate.)

Another way to tell whether to boundary-set or leave is this: think about what it would take for this situation to be okay. For instance, suppose your therapist mentions that attending church might be a helpful way for you to cope with depression because that’s what helped the therapist. This makes you feel really uncomfortable and you don’t want to hear anything else about the supposed benefits of religious observance from your therapist. Imagine you say, “Please don’t mention religion to me anymore; I’m not religious and am absolutely not interested in attending church or hearing anything else about church.” Imagine your therapist responds, “Okay, absolutely. I won’t mention it again.” Does this feel okay to you? Are you okay continuing to open up to someone who might believe that you’d do better if you went to church (but doesn’t say so out loud), or are you still uncomfortable?

If you continue to feel uncomfortable no matter how well the therapist responds to your boundary-setting, then you might need to find a new therapist. The strength of the relationship between a client and therapist is the best predictor of the effectiveness of the therapy, so if you can’t trust or feel comfortable with your therapist, they’re unlikely to be able to help you.

Scripts for setting boundaries

In many ways, setting boundaries with a therapist doesn’t work much differently from setting boundaries with other people. Just as I might ask my friends not to talk about weight loss around me, I might ask my therapist not to mention weight loss in therapy. Just as I might ask a partner not to ask me about [topic], I might ask a therapist not to ask me about [topic].

One difference, though, is that it might be really useful in therapeutic boundary-setting to explain why you’re setting that boundary. With other people in our lives, that’s not always necessary and may be too scary/risky–I don’t want to disclose my history of disordered eating every time I ask someone not to talk about weight loss with me. Your boundaries are your boundaries whether your reason for them is one that others would consider “legitimate” or not. (All boundaries are legitimate.)

But a therapy situation, telling your therapist why you need this boundary gives them useful information that will allow them to help you better. If you say “please don’t mention weight loss because I have a history of harmful behaviors around that,” they might know what else not to mention, or what to ask for permission before mentioning. Knowing that you have a history of harmful weight loss behaviors helps them understand your psychological history and know what to look out for in the future.

Here are some specific examples of ways you can set boundaries with a therapist:

“Please do not ask me about my weight or dietary habits. It’s a trigger for me because of past issues with disordered eating.”

“Actually, I didn’t ask for advice. Please either ask me before you give advice, or wait for me to ask for it myself.”

“The issue I came here to work on was my depression, not my relationship with my parents. Let’s keep our discussion focused on my depression as it’s affecting me right now, because that’s what’s causing the most problems for me right now.”

“I’m not ready to talk about the stuff that happened with my brother when I was little. You can ask me again in a few weeks and I’ll let you know if I’m able to talk about it then.”

“My identity as an atheist is not the reason I’m struggling with depression. If you continue to suggest that my mental illness is caused by atheism, I won’t feel comfortable coming here anymore.”

“I do not believe in karma, Zodiac signs, or any other superstitions. Please stop bringing them up in our sessions and stick with what can be tested scientifically.”

“I need you to stop suggesting that it’s my fault that I’m being bullied. Even if there were some truth to that, it feels like you’re putting all the blame on me and it’s preventing me from opening up to you about things.”

It may feel somehow manipulative to tell a therapist that you won’t tell them things or come back to therapy if they don’t respect your boundaries, but it’s also true. You can’t effectively work with a therapist you can’t trust, and they need to know that.

Also, while I certainly don’t think you should be intentionally mean, don’t worry about the therapist’s feelings. It’s our job to worry about our feelings, and your job to be as direct and open with us as you can be.

When setting boundaries is a challenge

As I mentioned, most people find boundary-setting difficult, especially in situations where they feel that they have less power than the other person. If you’re finding it so difficult to set boundaries with a therapist that you’re unable to speak up about it at all, here are some suggestions:

  1. Practice first. You can practice in front of a mirror, alone in the dark, with a friend–whatever works for you. If you’re practicing with a friend, you can tell them a little about your therapist and what they’ve been doing that’s problematic so that they can roleplay as the therapist. Make sure to be clear with your friend about what you want them to do in the roleplay–for some people, roleplaying “worst case scenarios” (for instance, your therapist arguing with you and refusing to respect your boundary) can be useful because it allows them to prepare; for others, it might just be really anxiety-provoking.
  2. Write it down and bring it to session. If you don’t feel like you can come up with the right words on the spot, write them down and bring them to therapy with you so you can read them or at least refer to them. It might sound weird, but you won’t be the first person who’s done it. Many therapists actually encourage clients to do things like this, because anything that helps facilitate communication in therapy is probably a good thing.
  3. Write it down and email it. Although we often hear about the virtues of Real Face-To-Face Communication, I’d say two things here: 1) text-based communication is also a real and legitimate way to discuss difficult things, and 2) the perfect is the enemy of the good. If you are so uncomfortable bringing something up with your therapist in a session that you’re not going to bring it up at all, try doing the next best thing, which is emailing them. That way, you’ll have ample time to think about what to say and run it by trusted people if you want to. Know that your therapist may respond by asking you to bring this up with them in the next session, so you’ll probably still need to discuss it with them in person, but that initial email can help open the floodgates.
  4. Be transparent with your therapist. You can say something like, “Setting boundaries is really hard for me, so I’m having trouble finding the words for what I’m trying to say,” or “I’m really uncomfortable with something you said in the last session, but I’m scared of bringing it up.” A good therapist will know how to guide you through this and help you speak up.
  5. Don’t worry about bringing things up days or weeks after the fact. You don’t have to have a perfect, firm, concise boundary-setting comeback right away. It’s totally normal in therapy to bring up things that happened a few sessions back. It’s never too late to make sure that therapy is meeting your needs.


Sometimes all people need to hear to be able to set boundaries with their therapists is that they have the right to. Always remember that. Your therapist works for you. Your therapist has expertise, yes, but they are not the expert on you individually. You know way more about yourself and the boundaries you need than any therapist can ever know.

It is true that some of the boundaries you may set may delay your growth or recovery, or make it more difficult for your therapist to understand what’s going on with you. However, what delays your growth or recovery even more is feeling unable to trust your therapist or connect with them. A boundary isn’t a permanent brick wall. It’s a fence. Two people can stand and chat from opposite sides of a fence, and over time, you can choose to build a gate in the fence and open it up, or close it again.


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A List of Ways I Have Used Trigger Warnings

[Content note: mentions of sexual assault]

These are some ways I have mentally responded to encountering a trigger warning/content note on the internet:

  1. [ignores, continues reading]
  2. “Oh, yikes, this is going to be pretty serious. Ok, I’m ready. Let’s do it.”
  3. “I think I need to take a few minutes to mentally prepare myself before reading this.”
  4. “Welp, that’s just too much right now. I’m going to wait a few hours or days until I’m in a better brainspace and then engage with this.”
  5. “Ok, this is totally fine for me, but it’s nice to know what I’m getting into.”
  6. “I can do this. But I’m going to message a friend and talk to them while I read it, or maybe pet the purring kitty.”
  7. “I’m going to read this, but I already know I’m going to be a wreck afterwards, so I’m going to set up some hot tea/some time with a friend/Chinese food/a fun TV show to help me afterwards.”
  8. “You know what? I don’t need to read this. I’ve lived this. I know this. There’s no reason to make myself think about it again.”

I’ve been hearing a lot about how trigger warnings are nothing but a way for trauma survivors to “avoid challenging material.” I present this list in order to show some more typical ways that people use trigger warnings, such as mentally preparing themselves for the material, choosing the best time to engage with it, and setting up self-care practices that will help.

As you see from #8, yes, sometimes people choose not to engage with triggering material at all. In that latter (and not extremely common) case, it’s useful to remember that people who are triggered by something are usually triggered by it because they have lived it. I’ve sat through many classroom discussions about sexual assault, suicide, eating disorders, sexism, and other things that I have lived through, and while I occasionally did learn from these discussions, more often I learned little or nothing, because I have lived through it. And yes, everyone’s experiences are different, which is why it can be useful for survivors of trauma to share their experiences with fellow survivors and learn from each other. But that’s usually not what the classroom space is.

I’m also a bit fed up, to be honest, with this deceptive word “challenging.” What is a challenge? Here are some things that I find challenging:

  • applied math problems
  • recipes that involve very precise timing
  • coping with depression
  • keeping my apartment clean when I’m very fatigued all the time
  • wrapping my head around dense and difficult literature or philosophy
  • persuading myself to make the effort to go out and see friends even when I’m wiped out from work, because I know that it’ll be good for me
  • sitting through a very boring class or meeting
  • saying goodbye to people I love after a visit
  • shooting in low-light conditions without a tripod
  • telling someone that I love them
  • addressing situations where I feel like someone is communicating passive-aggressively and we need to get things out into the open and talk about them
  • dentist appointments
  • arguing with someone who thinks that rape victims ever deserve what happened to them
  • economics
  • climbing up four sets of stairs while carrying several bags of groceries
  • figuring out how to properly manage my enormous student debt
  • relationships where I feel like I’m more invested in the person than they are in me

You might notice that many of the things on this list seem to have absolutely nothing to do with each other because “challenging” is a very ambiguous word!

There are intellectual challenges, like solving a difficult math problem or understanding a difficult text. There are interpersonal challenges, like figuring out the right way to address a conflict with a partner. There are physical challenges, like climbing a lot of stairs while carrying a heavy load. There are emotional challenges, like coping with depression or with dentist appointments. Some challenges involve combinations of these things. For instance, shooting in low-light conditions without a tripod involves an intellectual challenge (knowing what all those manual settings on the DSLR mean and how to set them) and a physical challenge (holding the camera as still as possible). Telling someone that they have hurt my feelings involves an interpersonal challenge (figuring out the right way to say what I need to say in a way that’ll be effective) and an emotional challenge (dealing with my hurt feelings as I do this).

When people condescendingly claim that college students who ask for trigger warnings are trying to “avoid challenging material,” they are–perhaps intentionally–conflating two meanings of the word “challenging.” Triggering material is emotionally challenging. The challenge is that you feel like you’re about to start screaming and crying in front of your classmates and professor. The challenge is that suddenly you’re back in that bar or that dorm room or wherever it happened, and you’re trying to get away but you can’t get away and you’re trying to scream but nothing comes out. The challenge is that suddenly you’re floating somewhere high above the classroom looking down at yourself sitting there unable to move. The challenge is that you forget who or where you are. The challenge is that your brain starts to empty out like a glass with a crack in it, and no matter what you do you just can’t fill it up again and they’re all looking at you because the professor asked you a question and you have no idea what any of those words meant or how to even make words.

Do we really go to college to encounter this type of “challenge”? No, college coursework is intellectually challenging. The challenge is understanding the nuances of complicated arguments or literary devices. The challenge is connecting ideas together in a way that flows and makes sense, finding patterns in the texts, defending your opinions using evidence from the book. The challenge is being willing to entertain an argument that you personally disagree with, to examine it from all sides. Sometimes, the challenge is memorizing facts, though that’s not so common in college. Sometimes the challenge is writing code that works, or designing a study that effectively examines a particular research question.

You know who would be pretty bad at those types of challenges? Someone who, in their mind, is currently stuck reliving the worst thing that ever happened to them.

Yes, those who insist that trigger warnings are no substitute for professional mental healthcare and that it’s not a professor’s job to heal their student’s personal trauma are absolutely correct. Trigger warnings will not heal trauma. However, they will also not “prevent people from healing” or whatever’s getting thrown out as the latest justification for not using them. What they do is allow people to engage with triggering content in a way that works for them. Only sometimes will they cause people to choose not to engage at all, and remember, the absence of the trigger warning wouldn’t have made them engage with it anyway. It would’ve made them try, get triggered, and fail to engage. It’s such a creepy “Gotcha!” sort of thing to insist on tricking people into trying to engage with triggering content by not including a trigger warning when they asked for one.

In my experience, most survivors of serious trauma–the ones that get triggered by things–are either already accessing mental healthcare, are unable to access mental healthcare, or have tried it and found it unhelpful. Please stop with the condescending advice to students to seek mental healthcare “instead” of asking for trigger warnings. Engaging with triggering content in a thoughtful, intentional, and controlled way is often part of someone’s healing process and has been recommended by plenty of mental healthcare professionals.

Trauma survivors know best what they need. They don’t know perfectly, but they know better than someone with no experience or knowledge of that trauma. If you don’t want to use trigger warnings, then don’t, and say so. But don’t cloak that unwillingness in a patronizing concern for the survivor’s well-being. We see past that stuff. You’re not the ultimate authority on what we need and what’s best for us. Just say it’s too much of an inconvenience for you and you won’t do it.

Reaching Out for Support When You Have a Mental Illness

[Content note: mental illness]

After having written tons of posts about supporting people with mental illness, I realized that there was a gap–I’ve seen few articles about how to reach out for support when you’re the one with the mental illness. Specifically, how to do so in a way that’s respectful of people’s boundaries.

This is a difficult topic, for reasons that I think are obvious. I don’t want to discourage anyone from reaching out for help, ever. I also want to encourage people to be mindful of others’ needs and boundaries, even when everything hurts so much that that feels impossible to do. Especially then.

Why do these two goals feel like they stand opposed to each other? They shouldn’t. Getting affirmative consent before sharing difficult and potentially-triggering things with people isn’t just good for them, it’s also good for you. Most of us who struggle with mental illness have our moments of panic about imposing on others or being a burden on them. Making sure that we’re actually getting their consent before leaning on them for support can help us with those feelings.

I’ve been on both sides of this. I’ve been the depressed and suicidal person who had to reach out for help, sometimes in ways that didn’t really allow people to say no. I’ve also had people reach out to me in ways that made me feel trapped and coerced. So I think I have a lot of empathy for everyone in both of these situations.

This is a huge topic and this post is very long, but it still doesn’t cover all the nuances. This post is focused on the issue of consent and boundaries specifically, so please don’t be too disappointed if it doesn’t cover everything you thought it would. Suggestions for future posts are welcome as always.

Consent, Consent, Consent

The most important thing about reaching out to someone for support with a mental health issue is to explicitly ask for their consent to have this conversation. This means that, rather than sending them a sudden wall ‘o’ text on Facebook, you might first say, “Hey, can I vent to you about depression for a bit? You can respond whenever you have a moment.” Or in person, if the topic hasn’t come up organically in a way that suggests that they’re ready to hear about it, you might say, “Can we talk about some ED stuff I’m going through right now?”

If you want to talk to someone about things that are fairly likely to be triggering–examples include self-harm, suicidal ideation, eating disorders, homicidal ideation, and so on–it’s a good idea to include a content note. In a message or text, that can just look like “TW: anorexia”; in person, you might say, “Can I talk to you about some eating disorder issues I’m having. I might get into detail.” This is important because 1) the person you’re talking to might have their own issues, which you may not necessarily know about; 2) they may be in a space right now where seeing a sudden wall of text about a very serious topic might really stress them out; and 3) regardless, people can often help you better if they have some idea of what you’re going to talk to them about, especially when it’s something pretty serious like that. When I see “Hey, can I talk to you about anorexia?”, I put myself in a different headspace than when I just see “Hey, can I talk to you about some stuff?”.

When you message someone to talk to them about Heavy Stuff and do not give them a warning about the content or an opportunity to politely bow out, understand that you are making it very difficult for them to say no to you, especially if they’re not someone who feels comfortable asserting boundaries (and most people aren’t). You may not intend to make them feel this way, but that’s the effect it often has when you don’t check in to see if it’s okay first.

I’ve gotten sudden walls ‘o’ text while in class, while on dates, when I was just about to fall asleep in bed, while finishing an assignment on deadline, and all sorts of other inopportune times. It put me in a serious bind, because on the one hand I had a really serious message demanding my attention, and on the other hand, I had things that I needed to be doing. When someone suddenly sends me five paragraphs about having an eating disorder and being suicidal, it feels incredibly wrong to say, “I’m really sorry, but I’m busy right now and can’t talk.” I usually do it, but that’s only because I’ve developed very strong boundaries over the years. Most people haven’t.

Another way that you may unintentionally make it difficult for people to set boundaries is by getting their consent for a certain type of conversation (“Hey, got a minute to chat?”) and then, once they agree, making it clearly way more than a minute and more than just a “chat” (“So I’m really really depressed and I think I’m about to lose my job and I just don’t know what to do, I’m almost out of savings and–“). Phrases like “got a minute to chat” and “hey what’s up” are vague, sometimes intentionally so. Once someone gets into a conversation with you, it’s almost impossible to then be like, “Um, actually, I thought this would just be a casual chat; I’m not really available for a conversation like this right now.”

If someone tells you that no, they cannot talk/listen right now, respect that answer, even if it feels unfair or unreasonable. They may in fact be lazy. They may in fact be selfish and callous. They may in fact completely not understand what you’re going through and if they did then they’d listen. They may in fact just be shallow people who want everything to be sunshine and daisies all the time. They may be all of those things, but they still deserve to have their boundaries respected.

The Importance of Being Specific

Consent is one reason why, when you’re reaching out to someone for support, it can be helpful to be as specific and clear as possible about what you need from them. (I say “as possible” because that can be really difficult when you’re in a moment of crisis.) If they know what they’re being asked to do, then they can actually consent to it. But taking a moment to think about what you need from others right now will help you, too–it’s easier to get what you need if you know what that is and ask for it:

“Hey, I need to just vent at someone about some depression stuff. Would you be able to listen for a bit?”

“I’m feeling down and it would be helpful to distract myself. Could you come over and play video games with me?”

“I’m feeling unsafe tonight. Is it ok if I spend the night at your place and just do my own thing with someone else in the room?”

You may, like me, be concerned that if you let people know you’re having a hard time, they’ll try to offer you types of help that you don’t need. In that case, it can be a good idea to be clear about what you’re not looking for, too:

“I’m going through a really rough time. I don’t really want to talk about it, but could we just chat for a while about something else?”

“I’m having a really bad day. I’m not really up for talking to anyone, but could you send me some cute animal videos?”

What if you want support but have no idea what would help? In that case, being specific is clearly impossible. I think it’s better to be transparent and say something like, “I’m feeling really bad and to be honest I don’t know what would help right now. I just wanted to reach out to someone.” Hopefully, your support person might have some ideas about how to help or what to say.

The reason this sort of transparency is helpful is because otherwise, the person might assume that you do need something specific and you know what that is, but that they need to somehow intuit it. Or they may ask you what they should do, which can be stressful for you to have to respond to.

As a more long-term strategy, though, it might be helpful to try to figure out what other people can do that would help you feel better, so that you know what specifically to ask for from them. If you have a therapist, they can help with that project. If not, you can ask others who struggle with similar issues (maybe on a support forum if you don’t know anyone personally) what works for them. Just because you have similar issues doesn’t necessarily mean the same things will work for you, but there’s a good chance you’ll find something.

Why This Can Be So Hard

Back to the issue of boundaries. For many of us, the pain of mental illness is so strong that it’s hard to empathize with someone who says it’s too much for them to hear about. Resentment can build. You think: “They can walk away from this conversation, but I have to live with this my whole life.” When someone is unable to listen to us talk about how awful we’re feeling, that can kick up those feelings of resentment.

But just as we ask our friends, partners, and family members not to take it personally that we have a mental illness, we should try not to take it personally when they have their own feelings and limits. There’s a reason psychologists have a concept called “vicarious traumatization,” and a reason why therapists and social workers have such high burn-out rates. Of course, you may not be asking them to do anything close to what a therapist does, and they may not experience it as “traumatization,” but the point is that being very close to someone’s pain can have an impact. In addition, your support people may be dealing with their own mental health issues, which you may or may not know about. They may want to listen to you, but may be unable to because of what it brings up for them.

One last thing I want to say about this is that for me personally, depression made it really difficult to see how my own pain was hurting others. I don’t mean in that awful way that we talk about, where people take our pain as a personal insult or expect us to be happy all the time. I mean that seeing someone you love in pain hurts. Legitimately. But when I’m depressed, I think I’m so awful that I don’t understand how anyone could possibly care that I’m hurting–even though I reach out to them with the hope that they’ll listen. (Mental illness causes many such contradictions.) And when they say that they care so much that it’s really difficult for them to hear about it, it sounds like they’re insulting and patronizing me, presumably to “get out” of having to listen to me. That this perception is often wrong is something that I had to recover from the worst of it before I could understand.


Reading this, you may realize that you have overstepped boundaries in the past. (Or maybe you already knew this.) Mental illness can make people feel like they’re horrible and deserve to die, and realizing that you have overstepped boundaries may exacerbate this.

Try to be gentle with yourself. Mental illness can provoke boundary-crossing behavior, and while it’s important not to use this as an excuse not to work on it, it also means that you’re not a terrible person, and you can get better–both in terms of boundaries and in terms of your symptoms themselves.

Talking about this issues presents what The Unit of Caring refers to as a competing access needs problem. Some people will really benefit from this advice. Some people may already be so terrified of violating boundaries that they almost never ask for the help they need. (This may be surprising given that I wrote this post, but I’m squarely in the latter group.) Mental illness also complicates matters in that people may simultaneously be excessively terrified of crossing boundaries, while also sometimes crossing boundaries!

If you feel that implementing this advice will do harm to you, then don’t implement it. However, I would posit that it would actually be helpful for most people, because my core message here isn’t “You should be Very Very Careful about not violating anyone’s boundaries,” but rather “Hey, here’s how to reach out for help in a way that respects people’s boundaries.”

Supportive People Who Aren’t Really

One reason you may be terrified of crossing boundaries is because you may have done your due diligence and followed all this advice and then still had people tell you that you’ve overwhelmed and burdened them and they never wanted to help you this much but felt obligated to. There’s a lot going on here, such as:

  • Poor boundaries on the part of those people
  • People being used to passive communication and reading unspoken messages into your words that you never put there (such as, “If you don’t help me I will hate you/hurt myself/etc”)
  • A duty-centered view of relationships (believing that being your friend/partner/family member obligates them to help you whether or not they want to or can safely do so)
  • Simple ableism: believing, however implicitly, that your mental illness makes you so weak and helpless that they are ethically obligated to help you, no matter at what cost to them

The plentiful existence of people who act in these ways makes it difficult to talk about boundaries and mental illness. If we’re constantly accused of being burdensome and asking for too much no matter how careful we are, that can easily obscure the fact that sometimes we really do reach out to people in ways that make them feel like they can’t say no. But remember: both of these things can be true, and are true. They sound contradictory but are not.

There’s no simple way to fix this problem. If you’re not sure whether or not you’re being mindful of boundaries, it might be worthwhile to consult a friend that you trust to be honest and ask them for feedback. And if you notice that there are people in your life who keep telling you that it’s okay to vent about your feelings or to ask them to take you out for ice cream but then it turns out that they never wanted to help you and only did it out of a sense of obligation, it might be time to downgrade these people from “friend that I ask for mental health support” to “acquaintance that I talk about Marvel films with.”

Whatever their reasoning for not being honest (or not being aware enough of their own needs to be able to be honest), it’s not a healthy dynamic. It’s the sort of dynamic that leads many of us to feel like such awful burdens all the time. It’s the sort of dynamic that can make it really difficult to take this blog post seriously, because if people are constantly calling you a burden when you’re not, you may not be able to recognize the ways in which you might actually be crossing boundaries.

Of course, supportive people are difficult to come by and it can feel counterintuitive to stop going to these people for support when they seem to be acquiescing. (And if you ever feel like it’s a matter of life or death, please, do whatever you need to do to keep yourself safe.) But they’re not, in fact, supportive people. If they were, they would properly set boundaries with you in a way that’s compassionate but still assertive. Pretending to consent and then blaming you for believing them is an unkind and unsupportive thing to do.


If you are in crisis and do not feel safe, and none of your support people are available to talk to, please call 911, go to the ER, or call one of these hotlines if you don’t feel safe doing the first two things:

  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
  • The Trevor Project (for LGBTQ youth)
  • Trans Lifeline

Physical Space, Mental Accessibility

This is a short post in which I’m going to make a request: if you organize events, run meetings, teach classes, or do anything else that requires getting a bunch of people to sit in the same room together, please give some thought to making sure that people have ample physical space.

I recently finished graduate school, which is a relief for many reasons, one of which is the fact that I will (probably) never have to sit in a classroom again. I found most classrooms really stressful because I never had enough personal space. Often there’d be only six inches (or less) between me and the people next to me, and we’d be accidentally elbowing each other and reading each other’s notes for two hours straight. Getting up to step out and use the restroom or get a drink of water turned into a disastrous mess of trying to wriggle out of my seat without touching anyone or disturbing the class (so, basically impossible). If I needed to make some notes about something personal (reminders, to-do’s, rants), I could count on at least two people seeing it without even meaning to. If somebody next to me was coughing and sneezing, I could count on it getting all over me, even if they were trying to be mindful of that.

Similar issues frequently come up at work meetings, conferences, and anywhere else I have to sit in a room full of people. I end up spending meetings and events that are meant to be educational, productive, and/or fun scrunched up with my knees pressed together and my elbows jammed into my sides, ignoring my need to use a restroom or get a drink of water, hunched over my notebook so that people don’t read my notes over my shoulder, and panicking like hell.

I’m sure some people don’t mind it, but by now I’ve had enough conversations with people about this to know that I’m far from the only one who finds it really anxiety-provoking to not be able to have a personal bubble at all. And that’s not even getting into the issue of mobility aids and people who use them. As uncomfortable as I must be in spaces like these, someone who uses a wheelchair or has difficulty sitting down/standing up must be even more uncomfortable.

I know that sometimes giving everyone sufficient space is impossible. I know that people have different norms about what’s “sufficient space,” and a lot of this is culturally specific. I know that it’s a trade-off between personal space and audience size. Yes, I know.

But often it feels like no thought is given to this at all, that people who organize or lead these events (even social work professors or professionals who ought to know) don’t even realize that having to sit very very close to other people can be really anxiety-provoking to some people, and that anxious people aren’t necessarily the most effective students, audience members, or meeting attendees.

There are some things you can do to make this better if you organize spaces like these:

  • Consider a maximum attendance limit, if you don’t have one.
  • Think about how you’ve arranged the seating. So often I hear “LET’S ALL SIT IN A BIG CIRCLE SO THAT WE CAN ALL SEE EACH OTHERS’ BEAUTIFUL SMILING FACES” and I feel that drop in my stomach. Yes, it’s nice to sit in a big circle so that we can all see each others’ beautiful smiling faces, but some spaces/audience sizes cannot accommodate this comfortably. Consider arranging the chairs in rows instead.
  • Do not, do not, do not pressure people that you see have chosen to sit in the back, off to the side, or somewhere else that’s not close to other attendees. I’m so sick of hearing “BUT DON’T YOU WANT TO SIT UP HERE WITH EVERYONE,” which is not something to which I can reasonably say “no.” Assume that people have a legitimate reason for choosing to sit wherever they choose to sit.
  • If there are lots of rows of chairs, make sure to include aisles so that people sitting towards the middle of the room still have a way to get up and step out if they need to.

I’m sure this can never be fixed entirely and I’m not asking for a perfect world in which there’s always at least two feet between me and other people, but this would be a nice start. Accessibility has both physical and mental components–can people physically access the space, and also, can they actually feel mentally okay enough in that space to do what they’re supposed to do there? Both of these are important.

The Importance of Self-Awareness for People Who Want to Change the World

I gave this talk at Sunday Assembly NYC last weekend. A bunch of people have asked to see my notes and slides, so here they are! That’s why this isn’t really in blog-post format. Here are the slides.

[At the beginning, I asked how many people in the audience volunteer their time to a cause they care about, and/or donate money to a nonprofit organization. Not surprisingly, it was most people in the room.]

Why do people engage in altruistic acts like volunteering time or donating money? Here’s a partial list of reasons:

  • Community building: for instance, we might donate or volunteer when there’s an emergency in our community, or when someone in our social network is doing a crowdfunding campaign.
  • Social pressure: for instance, we might donate when a canvasser asks us to and we feel bad about saying no.
  • Religious or moral obligation: maybe not applicable to most people in this room, but some people do altruistic acts because they believe their religion obligates them to.
  • Social rewards: when we volunteer for reasons like resume building or making friends, those are social rewards
  • And, finally: because it feels good! This is the one I’ll mostly be talking about here.

Some people claim that altruism stems entirely from one’s values and ethics, and that emotions have nothing to do with it. They may also claim that doing good things because it makes you feel good makes those things less good, which makes it unpopular to admit that you like how it makes you feel when you act altruistically.

This view is more about the sacrifice made by the individual doing the altruistic act, and less about the actual positive consequences that that act has. It comes from the belief that anything that feels good is inherently suspicious, possibly morally bad, and a barrier to being a good person–a belief I’d associate more with religion (specifically, Christianity) than anything else.

But there’s nothing inherently bad about doing things because they feel good. In fact, we can harness this feature of human nature and use it to do more good! But in order to do that, we have to learn to be aware of our motivations, whether we like them or not.

Before I get into that, I also want to note a practical aspect to this: if we allow activism or charity work to make us feel bad rather than good, we’ll burn out, lose hope, and stop trying. It might be prudent to encourage each other and ourselves to feel good about altruistic acts. Of course, self-care is really important anyway, even when it means taking a break from activism or quitting it altogether. But that’s a topic for another talk.

Let’s look at some research on altruistic behavior. Keep in mind that these are just a few examples of a vast number of different studies and methods; studying altruism scientifically has become very popular.

Empathy, which is the ability to see things from someone else’s perspective and imagine how they might feel, is a predictor of altruistic behavior. However, as we always say in the social sciences, correlation is not causation. The fact that it’s a predictor doesn’t necessarily mean it causes it; maybe engaging in altruistic behavior also enhances our ability to empathize, or something else is impacting both variables. But it does seem that the two are related.

Relatedly, brief compassion training in a lab can increase altruistic behavior. Compassion training is basically just practicing feeling compassionate towards various targets, including people you know and people you don’t. Even after a short session of this, people were more likely to do altruistic things.

People who perform extraordinary acts of altruism, such as donating a kidney to a stranger that you’ll never see again, may have more activity in their amygdala, which is a brain region that (among other things) responds to fearful facial expressions. It’s difficult to say for sure what this means, but it could mean that altruism is driven in part by automatic neural responses to someone else’s fear.

People who volunteer for “selfish” reasons, such as improving their own self-esteem, tend to keep volunteering for the same organization for a longer period of time than those who say they volunteer more for purely ethical reasons. Keep in mind, though, that this doesn’t necessarily mean that the “selfish” volunteers volunteer more overall. It’s possible that the ethics-driven volunteers have less of a motivation to stay with the same organization–after all, many people and causes need help.

Unsurprisingly, spending money on others makes people feel happier, and the happier they feel as a result, the more likely they are to do it again, creating a feedback loop.

It works similarly with donations to charities, even when they involve a simple money transfer without much of a human element. Donating to charity activates brain regions linked to reward processing (usually associated more with getting money than giving it away!), and in turn predicts future giving.

What does all that mean?

Basically, seeing people suffer may make us more likely to engage in altruistic acts to try to help them. Seeing people suffer is painful for most people, and helping them is a way to ease those negative emotions. Doing nice things for people can make us happy, which can make us even more likely to do nice things for people again. The implication of brain structures such as the amygdala suggests that it’s not all about higher-order values and beliefs, but also basic, automatic brain processes that we can’t necessarily control. But of course, our values and beliefs can in turn influence our brain processes!

If we do altruism for “selfish” reasons, like having a sense of belonging or feeling good about ourselves, we may choose things that feel best rather than the ones that do the most good.

One example is voluntourism–when people travel for the purpose of volunteering to build houses, for instance. I have no doubt that many of these programs do a lot of good, but they have also been criticized, including by the communities they’re trying to help. For example, sometimes houses built by college students who have never done a day of manual labor in their lives aren’t necessarily very well-built. And often, these programs don’t actually empower the target communities to thrive on their own, leaving them dependent on charity. But these programs feel very rewarding to the volunteers: they’re intense, they build strong social bonds, they involve traveling to a cool place, and they make people work hard physically and get stronger. No wonder so many people love them.

Another example is in-kind donations. Again, sometimes very helpful, but often not. Organizations that do disaster relief often ask for money instead of goods, because then they can use it for whatever’s most urgently needed. They may desperately need medicine, but keep getting t-shirts instead. Giving them money rather than clothes allows them to buy what they need. Donated goods may also not be practical for the area in question–for instance, TOMS shoes, which is where you buy a pair of shoes and another gets sent to an impoverished child overseas, may not actually be very practical in communities where people walk miles each day over unpaved roads. While they’re very cute and comfortable, they may not last long. But, of course, organizing a clothing drive or buying a pair of shoes probably feels a lot more rewarding than sending a boring check.

Here’s one more study to help illustrate how this plays out. In this experiment, researchers showed one group of participants a story about a starving girl and asked them to donate to help her. Meanwhile, another group of participants saw the exact same story, but this time with accompanying statistics about the broader implications of starvation and how many human lives it takes. You might think that the latter group would give more money–after all, they have even more of a reason to donate.

Instead, they donated much less.

Why? From the NPR article:

The volunteers in his study wanted to help the little girl because it would make them feel good and give them a warm glow. But when you mix in the statistics, volunteers might think that there are so many millions starving, “nothing I can do will make a big difference.”

The participants in the second group, the ones who saw those dismal statistics, felt bad. They felt so bad that they no longer wanted to give money.

And likewise, we may choose forms of giving that feel best, which means “sexy” causes, issue affecting people emotionally or geographically close to us, and causes our friends are doing. We may not even realize that’s how we’re choosing. A little self-awareness can go a long way.

It’s difficult to hear criticism of one’s activism or charity work. It’s especially difficult when our motivations include social acceptance and self-esteem. This is especially important in social justice activism, where you may be working with or on behalf of people who are directly impacted by things you’re not.

I often get angry responses when I try to constructively criticize men who are involved in women’s rights activism. They’ll say things like, “How dare you tell me I’m being sexist, I’m totally an ally!” Their need to feel accepted makes it impossible for them to hear even kind, constructive criticism.

There are other, smaller-scale ways in which we help people all the time–listening to a friend who’s going through a hard time, giving advice, or, if you’re a counselor or therapist like me, doing actual counseling.

Sometimes, people–even therapists–do these things because they want to “fix” people. Seeing people in pain is hard and we want to make their pain go away–not just for their sake, but maybe for our own, too.

But if that’s our motivation and we’re not aware of it, we may give up in frustration when people don’t get “fixed” quickly enough. We may even get angry at them because it feels like they’re refusing to get fixed out of spite. As someone who’s struggled with depression for a long time, I’ve lost friends and partners this way.

As I mentioned, I’m also a therapist. Most therapists, especially at the beginning of their careers, have a supervisor. A supervisor isn’t just a boss or a manager–it’s a mentor we meet with regularly to process the feelings we’re having as we do our work, and to make sure that our motivations and automatic emotional responses don’t get in the way of that work.

Most of you aren’t therapists, but you can still learn from this practice. Supervision is therapy’s version of checking yourself before you wreck yourself. If you’re supporting someone through a difficult time, it might be helpful to talk through your own feelings with someone else.

[Here we did a small group exercise, though I also made sure to give people the option of just thinking about it by themselves if they don’t like discussing things with strangers. The exercise was to think/talk about these three prompts:

  • Think about a time when you volunteered, donated money, or did some other altruistic act, and found it very rewarding. What made it feel that way?
  • Think about another time when you did an altruistic act and didn’t find it very rewarding at all. Why not?
  • Think about a time when you were trying to do something altruistic, but your own emotions or personal issues got in the way. What was that like?

Afterwards, I asked for audience members to share their experiences with the larger group and we talked about how all of those experiences relate to the themes I’ve been talking about.]

In conclusion: Selfish motivations can inspire a lot of good actions. There’s nothing wrong with that! However, being aware of those motivations rather than denying their existence can help you avoid their potential pitfalls.

If we truly care about helping others, we should try to do so in the most effective and ethical way possible, and that means being willing to ask the tough questions about what we do and why.


Here’s the blog post this was partially inspired by.

Some Advice on Supporting Friends with Depression

This Captain Awkward post about supporting friends with depression has been bouncing around in my head ever since I read it when it was first posted last August.

Since I’ve been having my own little depressive episode since December or whenever that was, I’ve been wanting to shout this entire post from the rooftops (except, of course, I don’t have the energy). I’ll highlight this part in particular:

I think one thing you can do to help your friends who are depressed is to reach out to them not in the spirit of helping, but in the spirit of liking them and wanting their company. “I’m here to help if you ever need me” is good to know, but hard to act on, especially when you’re in a dark place. Specific, ongoing, pleasure-based invitations are much easier to absorb. “I’m here. Let’s go to the movies. Or stay in and order takeout and watch some dumb TV.” “I’m having a party, it would be really great if you could come for a little while.” Ask them for help with things you know they are good at and like doing, so there is reciprocity and a way for them to contribute. “Will you come over Sunday and help me clear my closet of unfashionable and unflattering items? I trust your eye.” “Will you read this story I wrote and help me fix the dialogue?” “Want to make dinner together? You chop, I’ll assemble.” “I am going glasses shopping and I need another set of eyes.” Remind yourself why you like this person, and in the process, remind them that they are likable and worth your time and interest.

Talk to the parts of the person that aren’t being eaten by the depression. Make it as easy as possible to make and keep plans, if you have the emotional resources to be the initiator and to meet your friends a little more than halfway. If the person turns down a bunch of invitations in a row because (presumably) they don’t have the energy to be social, respect their autonomy by giving it a month or two and then try again. Keep the invitations simple; “Any chance we could have breakfast Saturday?” > “ARE YOU AVOIDING ME BECAUSE YOU’RE DEPRESSED OR BECAUSE YOU HATE ME I AM ONLY TRYING TO HELP YOU.” “I miss you and I want to see you” > “I’m worried about you.” A depressed person is going to have a shame spiral about how their shame is making them avoid you and how that’s giving them more shame, which is making them avoid you no matter what you do. No need for you to call attention to it. Just keep asking. “I want to see you” “Let’s do this thing.” “If you are feeling low, I understand, and I don’t want to impose on you, but I miss your face. Please come have coffee with me.” “Apology accepted. ApologIES accepted. So. Gelato and Outlander?”

I think it’s a natural impulse to assume that the only way you can help someone who’s in a lot of pain is to try to address it directly, that maybe if they Vent to you and Get It Off Their Chests then they’ll feel better, and maybe sometimes they do, but I never did. I’ve written before that a lot of unnecessary pain and drama happened in my life because people thought they were willing to hear me vent and I thought it would be a good idea to take them up on the offer.

I truly believe that all of these folks mean well, but I truly believe that they don’t really understand depression, because they treat it like it’s just a LOT of sadness. Like it’s just like getting fired from five jobs at once, or being dumped by five partners at once (hey, if you’re poly, it could happen), or having a Really Bad Day where literally every single thing that could go wrong goes wrong, from getting humiliated in front of the whole office by your evil boss to losing your keys to walking into the subway station just as the express train pulls away to realizing you’re out of toilet paper right when you need the toilet paper.

Those things are not like depression. Those things are just really shitty.

One thing about depression is that it makes it really difficult to access the parts of your life that are genuinely good. For some people, this takes the form of anhedonia–losing pleasure or interest in things you used to enjoy. Not necessarily completely or all of the things, but sometimes completely and all of the things. For some people, this can mean that watching their favorite show or playing their favorite game is suddenly not fun anymore. For some, it can mean that trying to socialize with their good friends feels like reading a really boring story and not being able to actually interact with the story in any way. For others, it can mean not perceiving food as tasty anymore.

Another way this plays out is that you may still enjoy things, and know that you enjoy them, but lack the motivation to make those things happen. This seems very common. It’s a big part of depression for me. I do still enjoy spending time with my friends, but it usually doesn’t occur to me to invite them to do anything or to chat with them online, and if it does occur to me, I immediately come up with a bunch of reasons why I can’t do it and then I forget about it and end up reading for hours instead. Sometimes writing is this way for me too. But if I can just find a way to do the thing, I almost always find that it was worthwhile and wish I’d done it sooner.

So Captain Awkward’s advice about connecting with friends with depression is very on-point. If you just plop the ball down in their court, they’re probably going to look at it in confusion for a little bit and then toss it off into the bushes (possibly with a lot of shame and guilt). If you walk over, offer them the ball, and let them know how they can throw it back if they choose to, they’re much more likely to throw it back.

So here are some well-intentioned but not very helpful ways that people try to do this, and some better ways.

Less helpful: “We should hang out sometime!”*

More helpful: “I’d love to hang out if you’re up for it. Want to do that on Thursday night?” [if no] “Ok! Should I ask again next time I’m free?”

Less helpful: “Let me know if you need help with anything.”

More helpful: “Is there any way I can help?”

Even more helpful: “If it would be helpful for you, I’d love to [cook you a meal once a week/help you find a therapist/watch TV with you when you need a distraction. What do you think?”

Less helpful: You can talk to me if you need to.

More helpful: What helps you feel better when you’re feeling depressed? Is that something I can help with, and that you’d want me to help with?

Sometimes a friend with depression will say no to a lot of things and decline all or most of your invitations. This can make you feel like you’re overstepping boundaries and should immediately leave them alone until they reach out to you themselves. Pay attention to this feeling: it’s true that when people keep saying no to things you ask, it’s probably a good idea to stop asking. However, depression can also cause people to say no while wishing they could say yes.

The way to deal with this is not to assume, but to just ask directly: “You’ve said no the past few times I’ve invited you to do something. That’s okay, but I just wanted to check: would you like me to keep inviting you?” I’ve done this before with other people dealing with depression and found that they often respond that they do want me to keep asking, and they hope that one of these days they’ll be able to say yes.

For many people, depression causes a pervasive sense of disconnection from the world and from other people. When I’m having a depressive episode, I feel like I’m not part of anything, like I’m just one person and I don’t matter, like I could disappear and nothing would even change, etc. I feel like there’s a glass wall between me and everyone else. I feel like I can’t do “normal” things like laugh at a sitcom or make someone happy or fall in love. I feel like an alien sent here to try to learn how to act like a human being only I’m completely failing.

So for me, the most helpful thing that someone can do is to help bring me back into connection with others. This is why I find venting mostly useless. When I’m venting, I’m still only talking about my depression, and while the person I’m venting to may be very kind and a very good listener, this isn’t something we can connect over, you know? It’s not the same as a two-sided conversation about difficulties we’ve dealt with in our lives. It’s totally one-sided. It’s just me, talking about the exact thing I need to learn how to stop ruminating over.

Helping a depressed person feel more connected to others is a tall order even for the most empathic friend, but there are some things friends can do that might be helpful, some of which Captain Awkward mentioned.

One is to ask for their help with something they’re good at. Make it clear that you really value this person’s skill or experience with this thing. This helps them feel that they have something to offer others, which is a feeling that’s pretty thin on the ground when all you can think about is how sad you are.

Another is to talk to them about some of your own struggles. I’ve always found that hearing about other people’s problems gets me out of my head a little by activating my empathic or problem-solving sides (depending on whether they’re just sharing, or asking for advice). It’s also a reminder that everyone struggles, even if the magnitude of that struggle varies for different people at different points in time. This may be somewhat specific to me, but seriously, the kindest thing someone can do for me when I’m depressed is to talk about their problems–it means I don’t have to talk about myself (hard to do when all I can say is “yup, still sad”) and I also don’t have to pretend to be happy while they share happy things (as much as I wish I could just be happy for others when I’m depressed, that is basically impossible).

Another is to plan fun things with your circle of friends, if you share one, and include them in that. While not everyone is up for group things, especially when they’re depressed, I personally find it more helpful than hanging out with someone one-on-one. When I’m with a group of friends, there’s inside jokes and lively discussion (that I don’t have to personally initiate!) and it makes me feel like part of something again. Seriously, last month I spent a week in Minneapolis (where I have a shocking number of close friends) and my depression was basically on hiatus that whole week, because I was just always surrounded by great people that I trust and care for, and they were being interesting and/or funny all the time, and it was great.

Remember that no matter how patient you are, and how much your friend may want to be able to spend time with you, sometimes it’s just going to be impossible. Some people disappear for weeks or months at a time when struggling with depression. It’s legitimate to feel sad that you’re not getting to see your friend, but please don’t take it out on them or make them feel guilty. Believe me, they already feel like human garbage, because that’s how depression tends to make people feel. Remember the ring theory and find someone else to talk to about your legitimate feelings about not getting to see your friend who has depression. If not being able to see them for a long time causes you to no longer feel close enough to them to consider them a friend, that’s also legitimate. Accept that nobody’s at fault and move on. They didn’t get depression as a personal slight against you.

The most important thing about supporting someone with depression is to be really self-aware. Make sure that you’re really doing it because you care about them and want them to feel better, not because you need the validation of Fixing Someone’s Problems. Depression isn’t going to be fixed by someone’s friends, no matter how kind and patient they are. You may invite them to a thing and they may appear and seem totally happy and then later that night they post another Facebook status about how awful they feel, and you may feel like you Failed and you might as well not have bothered, but trust me–it’s more than just in-the-moment feelings. I may feel like shit, but I’ll remember somewhere in the back of my mind that I have friends who love me and who make an effort to get me out of my room, and that matters.

Besides that, stuff like friendship bonds can be a protective factor against future depressive episodes. Your friend will eventually recover from their current episode, and now that they feel better, they may be able to fully internalize how much people care about them and how connected they are to others. That can help prevent a future relapse. That matters.

So don’t do it because you’re hoping to see obvious and immediate results. Don’t make a person with depression carry that burden for you.


Now that I’ve reached the end of what I have to say, I just want to note that it’s almost impossible to even write about this (especially given that I am currently depressed) because the response is always immediately “Yeah well you don’t speak for all depressed people, my partner/best friend/I are totally different!”

Yes, I don’t speak for all depressed people, but I speak for more depressed people than just myself. If you already know for a fact that this doesn’t apply to the person you’re thinking of, just ignore it. (Or write your own article that describes your own experience.) But you probably don’t know that, and you can open up a conversation about it by showing them this article and asking if they feel that it applies to them.


*I just want to state for the record that, depression or no, I have no idea what to do with “We should hang out sometime!” Are you merely expressing a preference for the sake of expressing it? Are you asking me if I also want to hang out? Are you asking me to plan/initiate the actual hanging out? In practice, I just respond, “Yeah, totally!” and then nothing ever happens.