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.

Self-Forgiveness

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.

Reading Nonverbal Cues Without Making Assumptions

Sometimes when I talk to people about the importance of reading nonverbal cues–in sexual situations and also in general–they tell me that they avoid doing so because they don’t want to “assume.” Paying attention to people’s nonverbal cues feels to them like making assumptions about people’s internal states based on very limited information.

Not wanting to leap to unwarranted conclusions about people’s thoughts and feelings is an admirable goal, but I think there’s a misconception at work here about what reading body language means in a practical sense, and I think that pop psychology is partially to blame. We’ve all seen those Cosmo and Psychology Today articles that are like “Ten Ways To Tell If He’s Into You Based On His Eyebrows” or “Your Kids May Be Lying To You: Just Check The Position Of Their Feet To Know For Sure.”

As exciting as it may be to literally read people’s thoughts and intentions based on the position of their feet or eyebrows, I’ve yet to see any actual research evidence for any of this.

Even psychology textbooks spread this false “mind reading” meme. I’ve seen sentences like “We are all expert mind readers! For example, this study shows that people can generally tell if a person in a photo is angry or happy.”

No wonder some people think that when I ask them to pay attention to things like body language and tone, I’m asking them to do the impossible and read minds. And no wonder some people also think that when I ask them to pay attention to things like body language and tone, I’m asking them to leap to wildly specific conclusions like “This person’s tone of voice suggests that they are sad and not really paying attention to our conversation because they’re thinking of their mother who’s in the hospital.”

Here’s how this works in a more practical sense. Yesterday morning I took an Uber to the airport. It was 5 AM. I had had about four hours of bad sleep. The following conversation ensued:

Driver: Where are you going?

Me: LaGuardia.

Driver: Which terminal?

Me: 3.

Driver: *laughs loudly* Oh, no, LaGuardia’s terminals are A, B, C, D. You’re thinking of JFK!

Me: Whoops. It’s C then.

Driver: Where are you traveling to?

Me: Ohio.

Driver: Where in Ohio? Cleveland? Columbus?

Me: [city].

At this point the conversation ended, and we didn’t speak again until we arrived at my airport and he wished me a safe trip and I wished him a nice day. I presume it ended because I was answering as briefly as possible and my tone was completely flat. I was literally only giving the driver the information he was asking for (whether because of social norms or because of a need to get me to my destination) and volunteering nothing more. I wasn’t reciprocating my driver’s cheerfulness and bubbliness at all.

Maybe I hate small talk. Maybe I’m exhausted. Maybe I’m sick. Maybe I’m feeling really anxious about flying. Maybe I’m on my way home to see a seriously ill family member (thankfully, I was not). Maybe I just personally hate this driver with all my heart and do not want to say a single word more to him than is absolutely necessary. Maybe I hate all people. Maybe I have depression.

The cool thing is, it doesn’t matter! The driver correctly picked up on the fact that, for whichever of many possible reasons, I wasn’t feeling like talking, so he stopped trying to talk to me after that brief exchange. No mind reading was necessary. All he had to do was pay a minimal amount of attention.

The conversation could’ve gone very differently. Sometimes when I am in fact less tired and physically miserable, I do engage Uber drivers in conversation because I like talking to people. It could’ve just as easily been like this:

Driver: Where are you going?

Me: LaGuardia!

Driver: Which terminal?

Me: 3, I believe.

Driver: *laughs loudly* Oh, no, LaGuardia’s terminals are A, B, C, D. You’re thinking of JFK!

Me: Oh, oops! That’s the one I usually fly out of. I meant C.

Driver: Where are you traveling to?

Me: [city], Ohio. I get to see my family this weekend!

Driver: That’s wonderful! Do you get to see them often?

Me: No, not too often, so it’s always special when I do. Does your family live nearby?

And so on. I’ve had a lot of conversations like this.

And for all the driver in that parallel universe knows, maybe I’m just in a cheery mood. Maybe I love small talk with strangers. Maybe I’ve been feeling really lonely and just want to connect with someone, anyone. Maybe I just drank two coffees and have energy that I just need to use somehow. Maybe something about this particular person appeals to me and makes me feel like chatting. Who knows? Clearly I’m interested in having a conversation, so he would feel comfortable continuing it.

Incidentally, many people would consider the way the conversation actually went to be a “failure”: either because I “failed” to respond to this person’s attempt to engage me in conversation, or because the driver “failed” to keep trying to get me “out of my shell” or whatever. I’m not exaggerating; some people really do think this way. Some people would ask me why I didn’t just have a friendly chat with the nice man. Other people would ask him why he’d just stop trying and let his passenger sit there in silence.

But I think that our interaction was a complete success. I was able to enjoy (insofar as I was able, at 5 AM) a nice, quiet drive. While I obviously can’t presume how the driver felt, his body language and tone when we said goodbye at the end of the drive suggested that it went just fine for him too. Nobody had to bend over backwards out of a sense of obligation or politeness.

Unfortunately, while this experience isn’t entirely rare for me, it’s not as common as it should be. I have had people who know me far, far better than this driver–enough to know that I generally dislike small talk and that I tend to be extremely fatigued, for instance–try to engage me in small talk despite monosyllabic responses, flat tone, and closed body language from me. Some of these people intentionally wanted to cross my boundaries in this way, but not all of them.

And I’m specifically talking about the ones that didn’t. I’m talking about the ones who on some level expected me to directly state, “I do not want to have a conversation with you right now” before they would stop trying to have a conversation with me. On some level, they thought that reading nonverbal cues is unnecessary because direct, effective communication means that I should have to verbalize “I do not want to have a conversation with you right now” every time someone tries to engage me in a conversation that I don’t want to have.

Maybe this seems like a reasonable assumption, but in that case, as an experiment, keep track for a day or several how often someone makes small talk with you (or something else in that vein) when you’d rather they didn’t and wish they would stop. Imagine if they never, ever stopped unless you either left their physical vicinity or said, “I do not want to have a conversation with you right now.”

It would be exhausting. It would be completely exhausting if every time I’m too tired, stressed, worried, sad, physically uncomfortable, focused on something else, or otherwise mentally occupied to have a conversation, I had to explicitly state this or else the person would continue trying to have a conversation with me.

And here’s the thing–you don’t have to have any idea at all what’s going on with me to pay attention to the fact that I’m acting like I don’t want to talk right now. You don’t have to read my mind. You just have to notice, “Huh, they’re not making eye contact and they’re answering monosyllabically.”

At that point, a number of things can happen. You can just stop, like the driver from this morning did. You can say, “Sorry, it looks like this isn’t a good time. Catch me later if you want to talk?/Should I leave you alone?” Often the response will be something like, “Yeah, I’m just really tired right now. I’ll talk to you later.” Or it might be, “Sorry, I’m just a little out of it. Keep talking, I’m listening.”

No discussion of nonverbal cues and the importance thereof is complete without an acknowledgment of the fact that some people have a lot of difficulty with this. That’s okay! That’s why it’s so important to provide resources that help people learn how to read nonverbal cues, because otherwise many people just assume that this is something we all “naturally” know how to do. But we don’t, for all sorts of reasons such as neurodiversity or cultural differences. For instance, if I grow up in Russia and learn how to read nonverbal cues as a Russian person, I may not be as effective at it if I suddenly move to the United States.

And it’s also important to note that we may misinterpret nonverbal cues from certain categories of people because of preconceived notions we have about those people. The nonverbal cues of disabled people may be inaccurately perceived as angry. The nonverbal cues of (white) women may be inaccurately perceived as insecure or uncertain. The nonverbal cues of Black men may be inaccurately perceived as threatening.

In general, if you know that you have trouble interpreting nonverbal cues in useful ways, you can supplement that with direct, verbal communication. That can look like, “I’m not sure if you feel like talking right now or not. It’s okay if you don’t, but can you let me know?” Or it can look like, “Hey, I have a lot of trouble reading nonverbal cues. If we’re ever talking and you don’t feel like talking anymore, can you please say so directly so that I don’t accidentally keep bugging you?”

I want to be careful and not hold nonverbal cues up as some perfect, ideal way of getting information about people’s needs and feelings. There’s a reason why people are cautious about nonverbal cues and wary of making assumptions based on them.

However, refusing to observe and respond to nonverbal cues also puts a lot of pressure on anyone who wants to exit a social situation or be given more physical space or be left alone or whatever. It’s reasonable to assume that someone who doesn’t make eye contact, closes their body off from you, answers tersely, and generally shows no interest in continuing a conversation probably has no interest in continuing a conversation. But if you’re unsure, you can always ask.

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.

The Importance of Self-Awareness for Men in Feminism

As I wrote recently, an inevitable consequence of certain communities or movements becoming more accepted and popular is that people will join them in order to feel accepted and popular. Having a sense of belonging is probably a primary motivation for joining all sorts of groups, and it makes sense that whenever someone is feeling lonely, we often advise them to join some sort of group that fits their interests.

Of course, most groups have goals other than “make people feel a sense of belonging.” Those goals may be “discuss books,” “put on a play,” “practice dance,” “critique each other’s writing,” “organize board game nights,” and so on. Even if someone is very invested in that explicit goal, their main motivation to join may still be that implicit goal of having a community.

Feminism–both as “a movement” and as individual organizations and friend groups–is no different. It has certain political goals (which vary from group to group) and it can also be a source of social/emotional support for its members. It can be a source of pride, too.

But feminism (and other progressive movements) differs from other types of groups in that its explicitly stated goals are sometimes in conflict with the goal of making its members feel welcome and accepted. Challenging injustice requires taking a long, critical look not just at society, but at yourself. Sometimes that means that others will be looking at us critically, too.

Self-criticism is never easy or pleasant, but what complicates matters is that people are not always aware of their motivations for doing things. I do believe that the vast majority of people involved somehow in [insert progressive movement here] are involved primarily because they believe in the cause and want to help make it happen. But for many of them, there’s a secondary motivation lurking in the background–they want to have friends. They want to feel liked and respected. They want a sense of purpose. They want community.

These are all normal and okay things to want; most of us want them. I wouldn’t even say that it’s wrong to seek those things from political groups and movements.

But you have to be aware that you’re doing that. If you’re not aware you’re doing it, you won’t be able to accurately interpret the negative emotions you might experience as an unavoidable part of this sort of work.

And that, I believe, is a big part of the difficulties we often have with male feminists and other types of “allies.”

I came across a piece by Mychal Denzel Smith about male feminists recently. In it, he wrote:

If you’re not going to challenge yourself to do better, why claim feminism? 

In part, it’s because there’s a seductive aspect to identifying as a male feminist. Kiese Laymon touched on this in an essay for Gawker last year. Remembering an encounter he had with a colleague, he wrote: “It feels so good to walk away from this woman, believing not only that she thinks I’m slightly dope, but that she also thinks I’m unlike all those other men when it comes to spitting game.” That you’re just out to get laid is one of the most common accusations lobbed at men who identify as feminists, and while I don’t think that’s true for all or even most, it’s definitely true for some. Enough so that my homegirl calls it predatory. That’s a scary thought. And even if you’re not out here attempting to use feminist politics to spit game and get laid, there’s this tendency to feel such pride about wearing that Scarlet F on your chest that you completely miss the ways you’re reinforcing the same oppressive dynamics you claim to stand against. You like the attention being considered “different” affords, but you’re not always up to the task of living those differences.

This resonates a lot with my experiences with men in feminism. While I doubt that most straight cis men join feminist communities primarily to find sex partners, I do think that most of them are hoping for some sort of approval and acceptance. Their opinions and values may make it difficult to fit in not only with other men, but with women who have more traditional views on gender. They may also be facing a lot of cultural pressure telling them that they’re not “real men” and nobody will ever want them. I don’t think it’s necessary or helpful to compare this with the isolation felt by women, queer people, and gender-nonconforming people. It exists.

When you feel like you don’t fit in anywhere because you’re too progressive, and you finally find a social group that shares your values, and suddenly they’re telling you that you’re still not Progressive Enough, it can be very painful. It can feel like rejection. And if you don’t have a conscious awareness of your motivations–of the fact that you feel rejected because you were really searching for belonging–you may interpret these negative feelings as resulting from other people’s behavior, not from your own (legitimate) unmet needs. You may be tempted, then, to lash out and accuse the person of being “mean” or “angry,” to warn them that they’re “just pushing loyal allies away,” to assert to them that you’re “a feminist” and couldn’t possibly have done what they said you’ve done or meant what they feel you meant, and so on.

Meanwhile, the person who called you out gets really confused. They thought you were here because you wanted to learn, to improve as a person, and to get shit done. And here you’re telling them that merely being asked to reconsider your opinions or behavior is enough for you to want to quit the whole thing. It would be like showing up at the hair salon and then getting furious when the stylist assumes you’d like to change your hairstyle.

No wonder many of us assume that many male feminists aren’t really that interested in feminism.

(While this dynamic seems much more pronounced for male feminists for a number of reasons I won’t derail with here, it definitely happens around issues like race, ability, etc as well.)

This isn’t even touching on blatantly abusive behavior, which men sometimes deny or excuse with claims of being feminists. Some male feminists do seem to hope that merely self-identifying that way, or make the cursory pro-equality gestures, will be enough to earn them the social acceptance they’re looking for. Sometimes it is.

But just like feminists are not obligated (and, in fact, are not qualified) to serve as therapists to men with serious issues pertaining to women, feminist spaces are not obligated to prioritize making everyone feel comfortable and included over doing the work that they were set up to do. Activist communities do have many overlapping (and, at times, conflicting) goals, but it’s not unreasonable for groups that were not set up to help men to prioritize people other than men.

(I would love for there to be more male-oriented feminist groups, but from what I have seen, they tend to dissolve into lots of mutual back-patting and not much personal change or action.)

I would like to see more male feminists move away from using the feminist label as a way to seek social acceptance and towards creating some separation between their politics and their search for belonging. It’s not that political affiliations can’t provide that–it’s that it’s dangerous to rely on them for it. It means you can never really question yourself and your beliefs, and you’ll have a lot of trouble accepting criticism (no matter how constructive) from others.

More broadly, I would like for male feminists to get more comfortable with becoming aware of their motivations, needs, and feelings. I would like for them to consciously notice that pleasant rush they feel when women “like” their Facebook posts about feminism, and to appreciate that feeling for what it is without prioritizing that feeling over everything else. I would like for them to recognize the unmet needs for community and acceptance that they have, and to be cognizant of the extent to which they ask (or simply expect) others to satisfy those needs for them. I would like for them to learn to notice these things without immediately rushing to judge them and shame themselves for them, because that’s not the way forward.

As for me personally, I no longer feel any increased trust or warmth towards men who declare themselves feminists. It does almost nothing for me. I need to see actual evidence that they are able to respect my boundaries, accept feedback from me, and generally act in accordance with their stated values. Many of the men I’m closest to have never explicitly identified themselves as feminists to me, but their every interaction with me exemplifies the traits that I look for in people.

By all means, call yourselves feminists to other men–it can open up useful conversations and upend established norms–or in order to filter people out of your life that you know you don’t want in it. But don’t expect a word to speak louder than your actions.

~~~

Caveats:

1. A lot of what I wrote here applies quite a lot to just about everyone, including feminist women. I know this. I focused on feminist men because this issue is particularly pronounced with them.

2. #NotAllFeministMen have such legitimate and good intentions as the ones I’m writing about. But I specifically wanted to write about the ones with the legitimate and good intentions.

For another example of how being aware of your own needs and motivations can make you a better, more effective person, see my previous post.

“That totally happened to me, too!”: The Urge to Relate

A lot of what happens in therapy should only happen in therapy. (I’m looking at you, folks who oppose trigger warnings because “exposure is very important for overcoming trauma.”) But a lot of other things that happen in therapy are very applicable to the rest of our relationships and interactions. One of those is the tension between normalizing someone’s experience and validating it.

Normalizing someone’s experience essentially means helping them feel that their experience is normal. Short of memorizing statistics, the easiest way to do that is to relate what they’re telling you to something that’s happened in your own life. This is a very common conversational move. Someone tells you about a bad breakup and you say, “Oh, I totally went through something similar recently. It can be really hard.” Someone tells you their NYC subway horror story and you respond with one of your own. (We all have an arsenal of those.)

Validating someone’s experience is a more complex conversational move. To validate means “to demonstrate or support the truth or value of.” In the context of therapy or supportive conversations between friends, validating someone’s experience means letting them know not only that you believe them when they say that it happened–which can be particularly important when someone discloses, say, sexual violence or mental illness–but also that you affirm this as an “okay” thing to talk about or think about. The opposite of validating is to say “That’s not that big of a deal.”

Obviously, you can both validate and normalize someone’s experience in the same conversation. Therapists frequently do both.

However, the way of normalizing that we most frequently use in casual settings–relating someone’s experience to our own lives and selves–can get in the way of that.

For instance, someone says, “I’m having such an awful time getting out of the house this winter.” If you immediately jump in to say, “Oh, me too, it’s so awful, I couldn’t even make myself go to my friend’s birthday party because it was so cold out,” you may succeed in helping them feel like it’s okay to be having this difficulty, but you may also miss an opportunity to affirm the fact that their own unique experience is legitimate and difficult for them.

I get this often with fatigue. I try not to talk about being tired very much because I don’t like “complaining,” but sometimes I do mention it, and people usually jump in immediately to talk about how tired they are and how they only slept four hours last night and so on. But the thing is…my tiredness is a little different. I sleep at least 8 hours almost every single night, and have been for years. If I let myself, I would sleep 10 or 11 or more hours. I don’t know what it means not to want to sleep. Every day I daydream about coming home and going to sleep.

Of course my friend’s experience is also legitimate, and it sucks to only get four hours of sleep and feel shitty. But for them, not feeling tired as often as simple as finding the time to sleep enough. For me, absolutely nothing I have been able to try without medical intervention has helped.

So when I mention being tired and people immediately jump in to relate, I feel like I can’t talk about how extensively awful it is for me, because everyone feels tired! Feeling tired is normal! That’s just how life is! (Deal with it!)

On the other hand, some things feel bad not just in and of themselves, but also because of the shame and isolation that surrounds them. Mental illnesses are often like this because few people know a lot of people who are open about it (though that may now be changing). When I was first diagnosed with depression, I didn’t know even one other person who was (openly) diagnosed with it. I thought everyone else had it together and I alone was a failure. I saw the statistics on how common depression is, but they did nothing for me. What helped was to start meeting other people who struggled with it. Depression still sucked, and still does, but I no longer had to carry the burden of Being The Only Person In The World Who Can’t Even Be Happy.

How can you tell what someone needs in a given moment? How do you know if it’ll be more helpful to normalize their experiences, or to validate them?

Often there isn’t really a way to tell. In sessions with clients, I rely a lot on intuition and previous experience. But there are some things that people say that can serve as hints as to what they might need from you.

For instance, when people say things like, “I can’t believe I’m having trouble with something so simple,” or “I’m such a failure; I can’t even find a job,” or “Nobody else has all these problems,” that can be a sign that normalizing might be helpful. It can reassure them to know that other people do have trouble with these supposedly simple things, or that other people do actually struggle a lot with finding a job, or that other people do have these same problems. Sometimes what the person is dealing with really is shitty, but it feels a lot shittier than it has to because they think they’re the only one who’s so pathetic and incompetent as to have that problem.

On the other hand, when people say things like, “I know it shouldn’t even be a big deal, but–” or “Everybody probably deals with this but–“, pay attention to those but‘s. The part after the but is the part they have trouble accepting as valid. Everybody deals with it! It’s not a big deal! Therefore, what right do I have to even complain about it?

When someone says things like this, sharing your own experience and relating to them might not be as helpful. What they really need to hear at that moment is that their unique version of that probably-common problem is worthy of paying attention to and talking about. They might know perfectly well that other people have similar problems, but it still feels bad and that’s the part they want to hear acknowledged. Yes, everybody hates winter, but here’s how it sucks for me. Yes, everyone is tired, but I almost passed out after climbing a few stairs. Yes, I know you probably miss your family too, but I just really really miss mine today.

“Common” problems are easy to relate to. Most of us have had bad breakups or manipulative family members or really exhausting days. But rushing to relate your own experience closes off the possibility of learning more about their life. When you feel an urge to share your own experience, instead, try asking more about theirs and seeing if your experience is still as relevant as you thought.

With certain types of issues, relating your own experiences can also easily come across as one-upping even when you don’t mean it to–although, to be real, sometimes that’s exactly how people mean it. Please don’t one-up people. There’s no need. There is not a limited quantity of sympathy in the world, so there is no need to compete for it.

You might also accidentally relate to only a very small part of what they actually said, leaving them feeling misunderstood or unheard. For instance, if I share a story about a classmate saying something very hurtful and ignorant about queer people, and you share a story about a classmate saying something very inaccurate about cell biology, you may have missed the fact that the relevant part of my story wasn’t “a classmate said something silly” but rather “a classmate made a homophobic comment in class that impacted me personally.”

The urge to relate to someone’s experiences comes from a lot of places, I think. It’s a common way of trying to show someone that you understand. Showing someone that you understand them is a common way of earning their trust, respect, and affection. It indicates that you have things in common.

In therapy, of course, things are different in that the focus should always be on the client and their needs. But therapists do sometimes share stories from their own lives, and the purpose is slightly similar to how it works in casual conversations between friends–it’s a way for therapists to signal understanding of their clients, and also to let them know that they are not alone in some of their experiences. Sharing a personal story can be more powerful than simply saying something like “You’re not alone in that,” because it gives something more than a reassurance: it gives evidence. (Anecdotal, but still.)

Yet both in therapy and in life, sharing one’s own experiences can get in the way of fostering a better, deeper understanding of another person. It can also make it difficult for them to tell you more about their experience, because you’ve now turned the conversation back to yourself. It can seem very disingenuous if it’s clear to the person that you don’t actually understand very well at all.

And while we often tell ourselves that we relate to others in order to make them feel better, there sometimes is some selfishness in it. We want to prove to others that we “get it” so that we feel better about ourselves and our ability to understand and connect with people. A natural impulse, but that doesn’t make it necessarily helpful or productive all of the time.

I see this often in conversations about injustice. A marginalized person shares an experience they have had with discrimination or prejudice, and a person who is categorically unable to have the same experience nevertheless tries to relate something from their own life. Sometimes they relate an experience of being treated badly in a way that has nothing to do with their societal position, and sometimes they relate an experience that has to do with another dimension of identity.

There are definitely some important similarities in the ways in which many different marginalized groups are treated, but that doesn’t necessarily always mean that we can relate. The presumption of understanding can easily get in the way of actual understanding when a white woman assumes that her gender helps her understand someone’s experience of racism, or when a gay man assumes that his sexual identity helps him understand a trans woman’s marginalization. I mean, maybe it does, in a few limited ways. But we should always strive to learn more before assuming we “get it.”

I think a lot of people experience the urge to relate. I’ve definitely felt it. For instance, once a friend of mine who is Black was sharing some experiences of racism they had had, and I suddenly noticed a little gear turning in my brain trying to generate similar experiences from my own life that I could share. I thought, wait a minute, I never told my brain to do that! That wouldn’t be helpful right now. How could I listen fully if part of my brain was so busy trying to connect my friend’s experience to my own? How could I even come close to understanding their experience if I was already biasing that understanding by thinking of my own interpretations of my own experiences, which had nothing to do with racism?

This, I think, is what drives a lot of the confusion and miscommunication that happens around issues like race and gender. For instance, suppose a Black woman is telling me about how her coworkers and supervisors always assume she is angry and hostile when she isn’t. I start thinking about times when I have been assumed to be angry and hostile, and how that hurt, and how I dealt with them. Maybe I dealt with them by adopting a more friendly and cheery approach, and that helped. Awesome! I’m going to tell my friend about My Experiences and What Worked For Me!

Except that What Worked For Me is very unlikely to work for someone who is not white. As a white woman, I am not automatically assumed to be angry and hostile no matter what I do, generally speaking. So adjusting my demeanor, even though I felt that I was behaving appropriately before, might help change others’ perceptions of me in a substantially helpful way. A Black woman can be as painfully polite and deferential as she possibly can and yet she’s still likely to face that sort of stereotyping. Maybe if I’d listened rather than spent all that brainpower thinking about my own life experiences, I would’ve understood that.

(See also: Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg.)

Likewise, when I talk about feeling threatened by a man in public and men jump in to tell me that I should’ve Just Punched Him or Just Told Him To Fuck Off, they are thinking of their own experiences and how they might’ve reacted in that situation (for better or worse). A man who decides to Just Punch a man who is being offensive to him may end up getting hurt in a fistfight, but the consequences would be much more severe for me if I tried the same thing.

(See also: “Just call the police!”)

So, what do you do when someone shares an unpleasant experience and you have no idea whether or not relating something from your own life might be useful?

Here are some scripts:

  • “Do you think it might help to hear about something similar I’ve dealt with?”
  • “I’ve gone through something that sounds a lot like that. Feel free to ask me more about it if you want, or to just talk about your own stuff.”
  • “I know this may not necessarily fix the problem, but something that helped me with that was _____.”
  • “That sounds really hard, but you’re not alone in dealing with that.”

Alternatively, it’s almost always a good idea to ask them more questions (with the caveat that they don’t have to talk about it more if they don’t want to) so that you can understand what they’re going through better.

In social work school, we learn a lot about the importance of being very aware of what’s going on in our own heads as we’re trying to help others. That’s useful for any sort of interpersonal situation. It’s a good idea to go into these types of serious conversations with an awareness of what you’re bringing to the table, including your own needs and desires and biases. Many of us want to feel competent when it comes to understanding and helping our friends. That’s commendable, but it too easily turns into a search for affirmation from people who are busy trying to share their own troubles.

Don’t let your need to demonstrate your understanding get in the way of actually understanding.

Four Better Ways To Prevent Sexual Assault Than Blaming Victims

My newest Daily Dot piece is up. It’s about Don Lemon’s inappropriate remarks to Joan Tarshis about her allegations against Bill Cosby, and how we can do better.

As allegations that Bill Cosby raped 15 different women continue to ripple through the Internet and the entertainment world—spurred, perhaps, by the fact that a man finally signal-boosted them—controversial CNN news anchor Don Lemon wants to know: Why didn’t accuser Joan Tarshis simply bite Cosby’s penis to avoid being coerced into giving him oral sex?

This, apparently, was the question on Lemon’s mind as he listened to Tarshis’s story.

Lemon later apologized, stating that he “never want[ed] to suggest that any victim could have prevented a rape.” While this is notable, unfortunately, that’s exactly what was suggested.

While Lemon’s question, which he claimed that he “had to ask,” stands out in its graphic inappropriateness, it’s a common practice to ask survivors of sexual assault why they didn’t “just” this or “simply” that. Whether it comes from prurient interest or supposed concern, many people who try to discuss sexual assault with survivors get caught up in the details of what the survivor could have theoretically, in a perfect universe, if they had thought of it in time rather than experiencing (as many victims do) too much fear or shock, done to prevent the assault.

First of all, it is not the responsibility of people targeted by sexual assault to prevent said assault. The fact that this still needs to be repeated, over and over, is disgraceful.

Second, there are many more survivors than there are rapists, and rapists get away with it because they are rarely held responsible for their actions.

Throughout history, the responsibility for preventing sexual assault has been placed on the shoulders of its potential victims. People like Don Lemon have probably been giving women these “tips” for millennia. Yet it hasn’t seemed to do any good. Isn’t it about time to try something else?

Maybe Lemon should be giving us some tips on how to hold powerful men accountable instead. Here’s a start.

1) Recognize celebrities have power.

In general, people seem to be pretty bad at thinking of social dynamics in terms of power. Many have trouble understanding the fact that white people and men have excess power in our society, for instance.

So do celebrities of any gender, and male celebrities especially. People who are so widely and strongly admired and valued wield a tremendous amount of influence without even intending to. When they do intend to, it gets even stronger.

This is especially true when a celebrity has something a non-celebrity wants—like fame, access, and opportunities. Many (if not all) of the women who have accused Bill Cosby of rape were young aspiring entertainers to whom Cosby offered mentorship. When people dismiss their allegations because some of them took a long time to come forward, ask yourself—what would it take to get you to destroy what might be your only shot at the career you want? Would accusing a famous, beloved man of sexual assault—and probably being dismissed, harassed, or even threatened as a result—really seem worthwhile?

Men like Cosby know this. They know that they have the power to make or break these young women’s chances in the industry. They know that they will be allowed to get away with it. And so they keep doing it.

Read the rest here.

How To Disagree on Twitter

I finally wrote another Daily Dot piece!

There are a few rarely-questioned Internet truisms. One is “don’t feed the trolls.” Another is that Twitter is a place where real conversations go to die.

It’s certainly true that there are things about Twitter that make it really difficult for in-depth discussion, especially if that discussion involves disagreement. Twitter is fast-paced, character-limited, and almost entirely public. Feeling pressured to respond quickly and fit complex thoughts into short bits of text, people may express themselves unclearly. Others may jump in, take tweets out of context, and misunderstand the nature of the conversation or the opinions being expressed.

However, having had many productive disagreements on Twitter, I don’t believe that it’s impossible to do. It just takes some thought and practice. Here’s how.

1) Figure out if you actually want to have a conversation

I say this because a lot of people don’t. They may not want to for all sorts of reasons—it’s exhausting, they’ve tried before, it’s triggering, they’re worried that the person will treat them badly, they’re just too upset, they’ve got other things to do. But often, people feel expected or obligated to discuss sensitive topics with total strangers because they think they “ought” to educate them.

But you don’t. You don’t owe that to anyone, no matter how much you know or how well-spoken you are.

Other times people do want to engage, but they don’t want to discuss. Sometimes they just want to express anger at the person or tell them to shut up and leave them alone. I think this can sometimes accomplish a lot of useful things, but it’s not the same thing as having a conversation with someone in order to understand their view and educate them about yours. When responding to someone on Twitter—or anywhere, really—it can be helpful to have a clear idea of what exactly you’re hoping to accomplish.

2) Assume best intentions

If you’re hoping to have a substantive conversation with someone, this is as important as it is difficult. Try to assume that, as wrong as they are, the person you’re talking probably means well. If you’ve ever tried talking to someone who seems to be convinced that you’re a terrible person who wants to hurt them, you probably know that that doesn’t usually go so well. It takes incredible patience and confidence to continue to calmly engage with someone who seems to think the worst of them, and, unfortunately, few of the people we encounter online (or anywhere else) will have these qualities.

Assuming best intentions doesn’t mean you have to keep doing so in the face of contradictory evidence. Once someone has shown that they do not have the best of intentions—for instance, by continuing to use words you have said are hurtful, constantly interpreting everything you say in the worst possible light, or expressing a belief that you find completely, destructively abhorrent—you can safely go ahead and stop assuming that they’re basically a decent person who just doesn’t get the message you’re trying to deliver. At that point, having a conversation might not be possible.

3) Learn first, teach later

When you see someone being wrong on the Internet, it can be tempting to immediately tell them why they’re wrong. I fall victim to this temptation all the time. However, it can be more useful to first try to learn more about the beliefs that led them to say the wrong thing. Not only does it build rapport with the person—which can be useful for influencing their opinions later—but it also gives you valuable information about why people believe the things they believe. Even if you think you already know, you might still learn something new by asking.

This is especially important on Twitter, where criticism often seems to come from nameless, faceless strangers who are easy to just ignore (or perhaps lash out at). Opening with a question to learn more about the person’s opinions might make it more likely that they’ll listen to you later.

Read the rest here.

On Facebook, my friend Wesley of Living Within Reason made this critique of a later part of the article:

My disagreement is with your instruction that “if someone tells you they want to end a discussion, respect that. End it. Stop talking to them. Say “Okay!” and stop trying to get the last word in.” Getting the last word is powerful psychologically. When someone is cut off in the middle of an argument without getting to finish their point or answer a counterargument, it can be upsetting and painful (and leave to all kind of intrusive thoughts later). Especially when a conversation is public, I don’t think people have a right to silence the people arguing against them by saying “I don’t want to talk about this anymore.” ESPECIALLY when the person ending the conversation makes an argument or presses a point before ending it.

I’ve written before: “If there are any ethical maxims to argumentation, this is one: you can’t both end the argument before it resolves AND have the last word. You have to pick one.” I think that if you want to end the argument, then ethically, you must allow the other person to have the last word. If you then continue the argument afterward, I don’t think there is any reason to blame the other party for answering your final point or wanting to finish their thought.

Most of the time, I see the desire to have the last word characterized as petulant or childish, but I really don’t see it that way. I think it’s a valid thing to want, and I don’t think it’s right to tell people they can’t have it because their opponent says so.

I’d also like to clarify that, of course, there’s a difference between giving a final thought and harassing someone. While I think it’s ok to answer an argument that the other person made, give a summation, or finish a point, it is NOT ok to flood a person with more than one or two tweets after they’ve said they no longer want to talk about it. I’m just talking about a very brief closing, not a bunch of harassing pings trying to goad the person into continuing the argument or calling them a coward or anything like that.

I think this is much closer to what I was trying to articulate, so I endorse it!

Therapists Can Be Wrong

Therapists, like many professionals who work directly with clients, need to present themselves confidently in order to be effective, even when they’re not feeling very confident. It can be difficult for therapists to admit that they have or could be wrong, or that they don’t know everything. Like doctors and teachers and others, therapists worry that acknowledging their own limitations will erode their credibility and trustworthiness. When your livelihood depends on people finding you credible and trustworthy, that adds to the aversion of being wrong and admitting mistakes that virtually all of us already experience.

Yet we have to learn how to admit and accept that we are sometimes wrong–not only because it’s a foundation of accountability and ethical practice, but also because clients can often see through that facade, and they won’t like what they see. It’s difficult to trust someone who will never–can never–admit that they’re wrong.

This was going through my mind as I read one of my required texts for school, Psychiatric Interviewing: The Art of Understanding“Psychiatric interviewing” is really just a term for the process of therapists asking their clients questions, so the book covers a lot of very important ground. While I’ve found it useful so far, a few things irk me about it.

For instance, the author has a strange preoccupation with labeling clients using the article “the” in a way that implies uniformity. The text is laden with references to what “the paranoid patient” may do or how “the guarded patient” may behave in an interview. This type of language is not only dangerously vague (who qualifies as “the paranoid patient” as opposed to “a person who has some paranoid thoughts”? Who gets to make that determination, and using which measure(s)?), but stigmatizing to therapy clients and a potential source of bias for therapists. If you’re a young therapist who reads this book and gets all these ideas about what “the paranoid patient” may do, you may project these assumptions onto every client you work with who struggles with paranoia or expresses thoughts that seem paranoid to you. Assumptions are not necessarily a bad thing–and may even be useful in some cases–but you need to be aware of them as you work. Thus far in my reading of this book, it has not provided any cautionary notes about making assumptions. Even in my classes, in which we are often told not to make assumptions, provide little if any guidance on learning to actually notice these assumptions in practice.

Shea also recommends a few other techniques that I find excessively presumptuous. Take this example dialogue from the book:

Pt.: After my wife left, it was like a star exploded inward, everything seemed so empty…she seemed like a memory and my life began to fall apart. Very shortly afterwards I began feeling very depressed and very tearful.

Clin.: It sounds terribly frightening to lose her so suddenly, so similar to the pain you felt when your mother died.

Pt.: No…no, that’s not right at all. My mother did not purposely abandon me. That’s simply not true.

Clin.: I did not mean that your mother purposely abandoned you, but rather that both people were unexpected loses.

Pt.: I suppose…but they were very different. I never was afraid of my mother…they’re really very different.

A lot of therapists, especially those in the psychodynamic tradition, are understandably attracted to the idea of making this sort of “insight.” As Shea points out, when you get it right, it can build a lot of trust because the client feels understood in a very special way. It feels good to feel “smart” and insightful, to be able to read people like that. It can remind us that there really is something special we can do as therapists that others cannot. It probably doesn’t hurt that this, the therapy-via-Sudden-Brilliant-Insight, is usually the only kind we see represented in the media.

But a lot of the time, there really isn’t enough information to reach this conclusion. Therapists may make these leaps based on hunches, but that doesn’t mean there’s data to back it up. Sometimes the client will tell you so, but I think that a lot of the time, they will say, “Hm, I suppose you might be right,” because you are an authority figure and they want to believe you have the answers.

From the information given, you can’t reasonably jump to the conclusion that the client felt similarly when their wife left them and when their mother died. Those are very different types of loss, and even similar types of loss–two breakups, two deaths in the family–can feel very different.

Certainly there can be conceptual similarities between losing a spouse to divorce and losing a parent to death. It might even be worthwhile to explore them, but the therapist need not assume they felt “so similar.” If I were the client, I would’ve liked the therapist to say something like:

Between this and your mother passing away, it sounds like you’ve been dealing with a lot of loss. I’m wondering if losing your wife is bringing up any memories of losing your mother.

This resonates with me; it might not with other clients. That’s why sometimes the more important thing as a therapist isn’t what you say, but how you respond once you realize you’ve said or done something that strains the connection between you and your client. In this case, a responsive therapist might say something like:

I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to make assumptions about how you’re feeling. Can you say a bit more about how this loss feels different for you?

The client is the expert on their experience.

But instance, in the dialogue, the therapist doubled down on the (mis)interpretation, attempting to justify their response to the client’s disclosure. This leads the client to double down as well, justifying to the therapist why the losses feel different. They shouldn’t have to justify themselves that way.

Here is the thought I had, as both a provider and a consumer of mental health services, when I read Shea’s example dialogue above:

The failure mode of Brilliantly Insightful Therapist is Arrogant, Presumptuous Therapist.

Now, I don’t know if Shea is arrogant or presumptuous; I don’t know him but I would hope he isn’t. I do know that refusing to acknowledge missteps and misunderstandings can lead one to across that way, though. And that’s exactly what Shea refuses to do both in the dialogue itself and when he analyzes the dialogue for the reader:

Needless to say, this attempt at empathic connection leaves something to be desired. The patient’s attention to detail and fear of misunderstanding have obliterated the intended empathic message, leaving the clinician with a frustrating need to mollify a patient who has successfully twisted an empathic statement into an insult of sorts.

This probably infuriated me more than anything else in this text. Here, the failure of the interaction has been blamed entirely on the client. Shea has assumed that the client has taken his statement as an “insult” when there is no evidence of this; the client is merely correcting the therapist’s misinterpretation. It reminds me of how, often when I tell people they’ve made inaccurate assumptions about me, they respond by shrieking about how “upset” I am and how I take everything as an “insult.” Correcting someone is not the same thing as being “insulted.”

If this situation is “frustrating” for the clinician, then, I can only imagine how much more so it must be for the client.

There is no room, in this approach, for any acknowledgment that the therapist’s interpretations might simply be wrong. No room for the possibility that it’s not the client’s personal characteristics (“paranoid,” “guarded,” “histrionic”) that made this interaction fall flat, but the therapist’s presumptions and subsequent refusal to step back from them.

I discussed this particular example because it’s what came up in my reading, but it’s hardly the most egregious thing of this type that happens. Therapists who cannot conceive of the possibility that they’re wrong not only fail to help their clients, but can actually hurt them.

Since there are probably a lot more therapy clients (or prospective therapy clients) reading this than there are therapists, I want to be clear about why I wrote this. It’s not to discourage people from seeking therapy, but to arm them with the knowledge and language to advocate for what they need from their therapists, and to find therapists that suit their needs.

That last part is important. Some people may want a therapist who makes bold interpretations and takes that authoritative, explanatory sort of role. Personally, I think conducting therapy in this sort of way opens practitioners up to all sorts of bias and errors, which is one reason I want to avoid it both as a client and as a therapist. But if that’s the approach that resonates with you, then it’s likely to work a little better for you, because the most important factor is the client-therapist relationship.

Aside from that, the reason I write about problems in mental healthcare is the same reason I write about problems in feminism or atheism–to hold my own communities accountable. Anecdotally, I know that this sort of thing makes it difficult for some people to benefit from therapy, or even to want to access it to begin with. I’m not the only person who dislikes having an authority figure tell me things about my life without bothering to find out if their assumptions are even accurate.

I trust people more when they admit their mistakes.