The Supposed Virtue of Not Being Offended

Alternate title: YEAH WELL I’M NOT OFFENDED SO WHY DO YOU HAVE TO BE OFFENDED BECAUSE OBVIOUSLY IF I’M NOT OFFENDED IT’S NOT A BIG DEAL AND WHY CAN’T WE JUST HAVE THE EXACT SAME FEELINGS ABOUT EVERYTHING

I often encounter people who are Not Offended by bigotry or microaggressions and are very proud of that fact. In fact, because they’re Not Offended, they think that nobody else should be offended by the thing they’re Not Offended by, either.

It’s difficult for me to criticize those people because, often, they’ve been through a lot. They’re survivors of sexual assault who don’t see a problem with rape jokes. They’re people with mental illnesses who don’t care if you tell them to “just snap out of it.” They’re women who don’t care if they get catcalled on the street. They’re gay men who don’t care if you call them “f****t.”

Sometimes the way people cope is by growing a thicker skin. While that’s not something I’ve ever really been capable of, it’s none of my business how other people cope. It’s also none of my business what other people are and are not offended by.

When it becomes my business, though, it when such people start implying that because they’re not offended, nobody else should be, either. That’s when they lose me. It seems like some people haven’t really learned that 1) everyone is entitled to their feelings, whether those feelings are “rational” and “logical” or not, and 2) your feelings don’t have to be everyone else’s feelings too.

The other issue with this is the sense of superiority that such people often have. Being Not Offended becomes somehow morally better, or a sign of strength or “maturity” or “perspective.” It’s also assumed to be the “healthier” option, because being offended means you’re “holding a grudge” or something equally ridiculous.

Of course, even if being Not Offended were healthier, that wouldn’t really matter because it’s not a choice. While we can choose whether and how to act upon our feelings, we can rarely choose which ones to have. It’s not really your choice whether to be upset by something or not, and I believe the technical term for considering yourself superior to others because of things they can’t control is Being A Dick. (If you’d like to change the feelings that you automatically have in response to things, you could try therapy, but that’s not available to everyone and the stigma associated with it is still significant. So at best you’re shaming people for not going to therapy.)

To some people, being offended also means you’re wasting your time nitpicking people’s language as opposed to working on Real Issues, which is an argument I often come across but have yet to see proof for. Is there actually an activist out there who does nothing but police people’s jokes and language? If you run across someone who criticizes your jokes or language, how do you know they don’t do anything but that with their life? You don’t.

None of this means that you have to be offended by something just because others are. For instance, I have no problem with casual usage of the word “crazy,” but many other people with mental illnesses do. I understand why they do, but for some reason hearing that word thrown around just doesn’t provoke any emotional reaction from me. I also occasionally use that word to describe myself. However, I never use it to describe other people, and I try to avoid using it casually in public because I’m mindful of the fact that others find it offensive. (Also, it’s just such an imprecise and lazy word to use.)

But I would be wrong if I said that because I’m not offended by the word “crazy,” nobody else should be, either. I would be wrong if I considered myself more mature or healthier than those who find that word offensive.

Speaking of imprecise word choice, “offensive” and “offended” are prime examples. When people speak dismissively about those who get “offended” by “politically incorrect” jokes or comments, they make it sound like those of us who dislike such jokes and comments are just choosing to take righteous offense because we’re so sanctimonious and more-liberal-than-thou. While that might be how it works for some people, for many others it’s a very different sort of emotion that it evokes. These comments hurt. They make people feel pigeonholed and objectified. They make them feel like the butt of a joke they never asked to be the butt of.

It’s telling, I think, that whenever I see discussions about how “being offended” is a waste of time/a sign of immaturity/not compatible with Real Activism/a “character flaw,” I never see any compassionate advice for those who find themselves inordinately upset by bigoted comments. All I see, really, is self-indulgent gloating about the virtues of Not Being Offended.

Nobody’s taking your freeze peach away. If you’d like to offend people, go for it. But prepare to face criticism for that choice. Personally, I’d like to live in a world where if someone hurts someone else with an ill-considered comment that serves no actual purpose, they’ll apologize and seriously consider not making such comments in the future rather than lording their Thick Skin and Maturity over the person they’ve accidentally hurt.

Microaggressions can actually have pervasive negative effects on people, and research backs this up. They activate stereotype threat, which is a process in which people underperform based on stereotypes about their race or gender when those stereotypes are made salient for them.

If you’ve managed to overcome that, good for you! Now stop looking down on those who haven’t.

The Problem With “Teen Angst” and Why You Should Take Teens’ Mental Health Seriously

[Content note: depression and suicide]

There’s a disturbing and pervasive idea out there that the psychological troubles of teenagers are inconsequential and unworthy of attention because they’re just a part of “teen angst” or “growing up” or whatever.

I’m thinking about this now because last night I ran across this Facebook page. It’s called “No Respect For Suicidal Teens,” and please don’t click on it unless you’re prepared for the hateful victim-blaming that it promotes. (If you can, though, you should go and report it.)

First of all, it’s completely false that teens can’t “really” be depressed and suicidal. Although the age of onset for depression and bipolar disorder is most commonly in the late teens and 20s, many people report that their chronic mood disorder began when they were teens. (Count me among them.) Left untreated, mood disorders often get progressively worse, or they remit on their own but then keep recurring.

Painting all teenage mood problems in a single shade of “teen angst” can prevent teens with diagnosable mood disorders from seeking help, because they either second-guess themselves and conclude that what they’re experiencing is “normal” (read: healthy) or they try to get help but are rebuffed by well-meaning adults who tell them that this is just what adolescence is and that they’ll grow out of it.

And then, of course, they find that it doesn’t get better after adolescence, and sometimes they tragically conclude that they must simply not have “grown up” yet. (Again, count me among them.)

Second, mental issues do not need to have reached clinical levels to be unpleasant, troubling, and inconvenient. Any time you’re unhappy with some aspect of your emotions, moods, thoughts, or behaviors, that’s a good enough reason to seek help from a therapist. Seriously. Either the therapist will help you accept aspects of yourself that you’d been bothered by, or they will help you change those aspects. Whether or not those aspects have a fancy name in the DSM isn’t really relevant.

So a teenager whose emotional experience is characterized by “angst” can benefit from seeking help even if they don’t have a “Real Problem.” All problems are real; the fact that they can vary dramatically in scope and magnitude doesn’t make them any more or less so.

And what if every teenager needs help managing their mental health during adolescence? Doesn’t that mean we’re making mountains out of molehills and inventing problems where none exist?

Nope. Nobody thinks it’s weird that virtually every teenager (who can afford it) goes to a dentist and has their wisdom teeth checked and probably removed. Nobody thinks it’s weird that virtually every female-bodied teenager (who can afford it) starts seeing a gynecologist when they become sexually active. Nobody thinks it’s weird that people of all ages regularly get physicals and get their eyesight and hearing checked.

It is expected that everyone will need (and, hopefully, receive) treatment for some sort of physical ailment over the course of their lives. Yet the idea that even a sizable minority of people will need treatment for a mental problem still gets many people ranting about how we ought to just “snap out of it.”

Are some teenagers actually “over-dramatic” (whatever that even means)? Probably. But it’s hard to tell who’s being over-dramatic and who isn’t, which is why that’s a decision best left to a professional. I was constantly accused of being “over-dramatic” when I was a teenager. Not to put too fine a point on it, but everyone changed their minds very quickly once I became so depressed I could barely function and thought about suicide constantly. Perhaps that could’ve been prevented had I gotten help earlier rather than taking everyone’s analysis of my “over-dramatic” personality to heart.

If a teenager mentions or threatens suicide, take them seriously and help them get treatment. If they turn out to have been “over-dramatic,” a therapist can help them figure out why they threaten suicide hyperbolically and find a way to stop. That’s a therapist’s job, not a friend’s, teacher’s, or parent’s.

The belief that the thoughts and feelings of children and teenagers are not to be taken seriously is widespread and dangerous, and goes far beyond just mental health. It is far better to take someone seriously and get them help when they didn’t really need it than to ignore someone’s call for help and attention when they do need it.

Living With Depression: Openness

Earlier I decided to write a series of posts about depression beyond the DSM diagnosis. The first post was about trust. Here’s the second.

Throughout my life, I have been exposed to two diametrically opposed views on openness–how much people should share with their partners, friends, and acquaintances about themselves.

The first view, which my family taught me and which various traditional views on interpersonal relationships tend to promote, is that people should reveal as little of themselves to others as possible. Openness is at best a sign of naiveté because ultimately people will misuse any personal information you give them if they have the opportunity.

Furthermore, people should not “burden” their friends and partners by telling them about their problems. Until a partner has literally married you, they may leave you at any moment if you talk about your feelings too much, so it’s best to avoid it until you’ve got them safely ensnared in matrimony. If you must tell someone, tell your family.

The other view was the one I discovered among my progressive friends. In this view, openness is a virtue. You don’t merely have the option of being open about your feelings–in fact, you should be.

You should tell your friends when they accidentally do something that hurts you. You should be open with your partner(s) about how they make you feel. You should use “I” statements. You should, as Captain Awkward wisely advises, “use your words.”

Of course, I agree with this second view, not the first one. Or, at least, I agree with it in theory.

The truth is that when you have depression, your feelings don’t fit into the boxes they’re supposed to fit in. Sometimes, with enough patience on your part and enough openmindness on your friend’s part, you can bridge that gap of understanding, but it’s hard. I’ve been able to do it to some extent because I happen to be a great writer. But not everybody is, and neither are we always able to relegate these things to writing. Sometimes you have to have these difficult conversations in person, and in those situations, trust me–I flail and grasp at words just as much as anyone else.

What happens when you try to be open about your feelings, but your feelings are so alien and “wrong” that they don’t make sense to anyone?

Lots of frustration.

When my feelings involve only myself, it’s not so bad. I don’t think my friends truly understand what I mean when I say that seeing pictures of my family frequently makes me extremely upset (not in the trigger-y way, but more in the “fuck, I haven’t seen these people for months but I don’t want to go home and see them I am a terrible person fuck fuck” kind of way? See, it’s hard.). They probably wouldn’t understand if I told them that sometimes I grieve for random old memories as if they were people, even though I didn’t even enjoy those moments at the time, and that sometimes I feel as though I would give up years of my life just to go back in time and relive a single day of high school, even though I hated high school.

But that’s not such a big deal, because ultimately those feelings involve only me, or people that my friends will likely never meet. I can talk about them without feeling like my current relationships hinge on my ability to make myself understood.

Where my feelings involve the people currently in my life is where things get difficult. Sometimes–generally when I’m already having a bad day–something someone says bothers me a lot for no apparent reason. Sometimes I get jealous of things I shouldn’t. Sometimes someone gets a bit snappy with me and rather than assuming that they’re just stressed, I assume that they hate me. Sometimes I get another “sup” IM and I get furious because I’m already so busy and stressed and why can’t people just leave me alone unless they want to have a real conversation. (Welcome to introversion.)

I am aware that the Correct Thing to do in our sort of crowd is to Talk About It and be open about my Needs and all those other cliches. I am quite aware.

If I were a neurotypical person, maybe I would feel like I have that option.

But the burden of trying to explain my mental quirks to everybody I interact with regularly is one that I can’t even fathom, let alone take on.

For starters, people get defensive. I’ll say something like, “This is not your fault and it’s probably just because of my depression, but when you sign off in the middle of a serious conversation, I feel hurt,” and they hear “YOU ARE HURTING ME YOU TERRIBLE FUCKING PERSON.” Or they hear, “I expect you to change your IM habits to conform to my needs.” And they respond accordingly.

Furthermore, the more I talk about Feelings That Don’t Make Sense, the more I make myself sound like, well, a crazy person. Most people aren’t used to the idea that you don’t need to understand something to respect it. (Damn, I link to that article a lot.) They want to know about my feelings, but they also need to understand them. Sometimes I can’t explain them. Sometimes they can’t understand them.

So, more often than not, I choose not to disclose my negative feelings, not even when they involve another person I’m very close to. The likelihood of being understood is so low and the likelihood of starting an argument is so high that it’s not worth it, even though I feel like I “should” be open about how I feel.

And all of this is very confusing for me, because I obviously do feel that openness in close relationships is a good thing. And maybe someday I’ll discover the magic combination of words that will allow me to be open about how I feel without causing defensiveness, hurt feelings, and confusion.

But for now, living with the remnants of depression ensures that there is a sort of chasm between me and everyone else that can’t really be crossed no matter how open I am.

Living With Depression: Trust

I’m going to do a series of posts on what it’s like to live with chronic depression, beyond the DSM symptoms that you always hear about. I want to help people understand.

I’m in a particularly good position to do this now because my depression is technically in remission, which means that I no longer fit the diagnostic criteria for it. I’m fine. I’m even sort of happy. However, the complex effects that nine years of depression has had on my thinking style, beliefs, and personality are still there, as are (probably) whichever genetic and neurological risk factors caused this whole mess to begin with.

However, not having a depressive episode means that my thinking is clearer and it’s easier for me to talk about this calmly.

A caveat–none of this is meant to generalize to everyone with depression. Don’t read this and apply it to your friends and loved ones who have it. Instead, perhaps, use it to start a conversation.

So, trust. In one way or another, it’s the backbone of all human interaction. You have to trust that your friends won’t share your secrets, that your partner won’t cheat on you, that your colleagues will pull their weight on the project, that your babysitter will take good care of your kids, that the clerk will give you the correct amount of change, and so on.

People who haven’t studied much psychology might think that trust is based on a conscious, logical appraisal of the person you’re interacting with. But in fact, trust is based on emotional responses to others, and a lot of the time we’re not even aware of those responses.

Although emotions get a bad rap for being “illogical” and for interfering with people’s lives, they–more so than conscious, “logical” cognition–are what help us make good decisions. Fear, of course, is the best example, since it helps people stay out of trouble. So does disgust.

But positive emotions are important in that way, too. For instance, we don’t really choose our partners based on how much money they make or how attractive they are or how many children they want to have; we choose them based on how they make us feel.

So, mood disorders like depression cause emotions to disconnect from experiences, so to speak. As Andrew Solomon wrote in The Noonday Demon, “Grief is depression in proportion to circumstance; depression is grief out of proportion to circumstance.”

When I was depressed–and, to a much lesser extent, now–feelings happened to me in a completely arbitrary way. The changing leaves made me feel grief. Being unable to talk to my family made me feel shame. Relatively minor inconsiderate actions, which would merely annoy a healthy person, threw me into a rage.

I learned not to trust my feelings. Often people made me uncomfortable and I’d chalk that up to depression, forcing myself to keep them in my life. This led to continued discomfort at best and abuse at worst. Then, infuriated at the situation, I would overcompensate and kick people out of my life who had merely messed up, as everyone sometimes does.

I learned not to trust others. Even the most well-intentioned person could–completely accidentally–send me into a depressive funk with a single teasing comment. Once a guy misjudged his feelings for me and led me on for a few weeks, and I was depressed for a year and a half after that. And I can’t even count the number of people who argued with me a bit too forcefully for me to avoid jumping to the conclusion that they must hate me from the depths of their souls, and so I cut off contact.

I can’t trust people anymore because I know that anyone–even the most kind, considerate, good person–can unintentionally make me cry for hours or hate myself for months.

And not everyone I meet is a good person.

I learned not to trust myself. If my brain lies to me all the time, how can I? Cognitive distortions make it nearly impossible to know when I’m thinking clearly and when I’m not. I used to keep a list of the most common ones in my binder to remind myself, but it didn’t really help.

Without emotions that are more-or-less based on reality, trusting myself and others is nearly impossible. I can’t tell whether a certain situation is bothering me because it’s a bad situation or because I’m freaking out over nothing. I can’t tell if I don’t want to get a PhD because I really don’t want to get one, or because I feel like too much of a failure to even try. I can’t tell if someone is really lying to me, or if I’m just assuming the worst because that’s what you kind of do when you have depression.

Difficulty trusting others is usually considered a character flaw or weakness. For me, though, it’s a symptom of a mental illness. It’s also an adaptation, because I’ve been too trusting in the past and I’d rather be safe than sorry–that is, than risk a relapse because I let the wrong person in.

The important thing to remember is that people who experience depression this way aren’t distrustful because we’re cynical or misanthropic. It’s because without healthy and adaptive emotional responses, it’s nearly impossible to know who to trust. It is also impossible to trust ourselves.

My Facial Expression is None of Your Business

I am not a cheerful person. I don’t wear my happiness on my face, and I do not consider it my moral duty to brighten the day for perfect strangers.

I am an introvert despite the fact that I’m usually pretty friendly and sociable when spoken to. Most of the time, I inhabit a world that nobody really knows. When you see me sitting still with a facial expression that is technically neutral but that many would characterize as “glum”, I’m actually anything but. Usually I’m making up music, writing my next blog post, planning out my love life or my career, or analyzing people I know, all silently in my mind.

But most people don’t bother to ask what I’m doing that’s taking up so much of my attention that I haven’t bothered to plaster a smile onto my face for others’ benefit. Instead, they assume.

And so it begins. “What are you looking so miserable about?” “What’s wrong with you?” Or, simply, “Smile!”

Some of these responses are passive-aggressive attempts to chastise me for not doing my womanly duty to keep everyone around me happy at all times. Others are genuine attempts to understand me, or genuine concern that I might be in a bad mood.

What they all have in common, though, is the shared assumption that underlies them–that there is something “wrong” with my facial expression and that this fact is anybody’s business but mine.

It’s not only people that I choose to associate with who claim the right to dictate what should be on my face. What woman hasn’t walked down a city street, perhaps on the way to work or to run errands, and encountered a random man yelling at her to “Smile!” or “Put a smile on that beautiful face!”?

Such remarks, which feminists call “street harassment” and most non-feminists call “a compliment,” represent the most glaring and offensive of non-physical intrusions into a person’s private self. My facial expression is even less the business of a total stranger on the street than it is of a person who does know me.

(Speaking of feminism, my inner feminist compels me to ask: how often are men publicly berated for the arrangement of their facial features? Quite the contrary, moody, brooding men are often considered very sexually appealing in that mysterious way. A moody, brooding woman, on the other hand, is usually called “difficult” euphemistically, or just “a bitch” if we’re really being honest.)

This issue is intimately related to something I wrote about just recently, on the concept of Debbie Downers and how sad or negative people are constantly accused of “bringing people down.” In contrast, this situation is even more absurd because the facial expressions in question usually aren’t even negative; they’re just neutral. They’re just missing that socially mandated smile. But if you read my argument for why people shouldn’t allow themselves to be “brought down” by “Debbie Downers,” you’ll see that it applies just as well for those of us who, for whatever personal reason, choose not to go about grinning like maniacs.

Furthermore, lest anyone attempt to feed me platitudes about how people who concern themselves with my facial expression are just worried about my mental wellbeing, let me ask you this: when you’re concerned about someone, do you ask them privately if everything’s okay, or do you draw attention to them in a group setting and demand to know why their face looks the way it does?

(For the sake of your friends, I hope you choose the former.)

What strikes me as most ironic about all of this is that, for all the constant blather I hear about how the unappealing configuration of my face means I’m “selfish” and “don’t care” that I’m “upsetting” people and whatnot, I’ve chosen a life that’s infinitely more helpful to those around me than many other possibilities. I’m going to be a therapist, which means that, yes, it’ll be my actual job to help people feel happy. If that’s not more important than my transient facial expression, I honestly don’t know what is.

Moral of the story (or tl;dr, for my fellow internet nerds): If you don’t like what my face looks like, don’t fucking look at it.

An example of my neutral facial expression. No, it is not a personal insult to you.

Death to Debbie Downer

Made famous by SNL.

I propose a moratorium on the term “Debbie Downer.”

“But whyyyy?” you might argue. “Those negative people are so annoyinggg!”

Perhaps. But I think we need to stop using that phrase, for several reasons.

The first thing I think of when I hear the phrase “Debbie Downer” in one of the contexts it’s most commonly used (i.e. “Oh, don’t mind him, he’s just a Debbie Downer”; “Why are you being such a Debbie Downer?”; etc.), is that it’s a reflection of our culture’s dismissal of anyone who doesn’t have a smile plastered all over their face at all times.

After all, isn’t that such a dismissive thing to say? When one calls someone a Debbie Downer, they’re implying that this person’s thoughts and opinions aren’t to be taken seriously. It means that rather than taking the time to figure out why someone’s saying all these negative things, they’re just going to write them off with a convenient alliterative term.

Second–and if you read this blog regularly, I’m sure you know where this is going–”Debbie Downer” is often used as a disparaging term that basically means “person with a mental illness.” In that context, it’s not only insulting, but inaccurate. Depression and related disorders don’t simply make people “negative.” They make them hopeless, joyless, and, at times, suicidal. You don’t really know if the frustrating person making pessimistic comments all the time is actually a pessimist, or actually struggling with a debilitating illness. So why assume?

~~~

“But wait!” you might say. “How dare you tell me how to talk? Free speech!”

Absolutely. Unlike certain more Leftist people, I would never argue that one should “ban” words just because they offend people. But look at it this way–if your friend or family member is being negative and you call them a “Debbie Downer,” all you’re doing is shutting them down and making them feel like you don’t really care about how they feel. Is this really what you want them to think? No? Then choose your words more carefully.

As for how I think one should respond to overly negative people, it’s not the way we’re used to doing it. Many people respond by trying to argue with or counteract the negative statements with positive ones, or sarcastically asking “Don’t you have anything nice to say?”, or snapping something like, “Stop complaining.”

(Our culture places a huge stigma on anyone who expresses anything even closely resembling a complaint. What else would explain the proliferation of special purple bracelets given out by various groups that members are required to wear until they have stopped “complaining”? My high school band used them. Rather than feeling free and happy in all this new-found positivity, I felt shut up and silenced, like my opinions–negative or otherwise–don’t matter.)

You’ve by now probably gathered that I think all of this is not only an exercise in futility, but actually quite damaging to relationships. Unsurprisingly, people don’t like to feel belittled and rejected.

Next time, try this simple question: “What makes you say that?”

You may be surprised at the response you receive.

~~~

The last point I wanted to make regarding this phrase is that it reveals something very interesting about our culture. We view others’ negative emotions as some sort of personal insult or attack, and we respond accordingly. Rather than either addressing the person’s issues or ignoring them, we instead allow them to bring us down–hence the term “Debbie Downer.” The response that many a depressive (or simply a sad person) has encountered is, “Why do you have to ruin my mood all the time? Why do you have to bring everyone down all the time?”

My response to that is, why are you letting someone else’s problems ruin your mood?

One might argue that it’s “impossible” to be in a good mood if someone around you is not. This is pure bullshit. In fact, I’m going to propose something radical–what if it’s entirely possible to be in a good mood despite the presence of “Debbie Downers?”

I believe that unless you yourself have a psychological problem that keeps you from being in control of your own emotions, nothing can keep you from being in a good mood if you want to be. So perhaps we should stop blaming our own bad moods on other people and acknowledge that we have control over them instead.

The great irony here is that the people bitching and moaning about “Debbie Downers” are usually those very same people who tell those of us with mental illnesses that we just have to “look on the bright side” and “stop letting the little things bring you down” and all those tropes. Perhaps they should take their own advice.

A sad person isn’t a personal insult to you, nor an insurmountable barrier to your own happiness. Next time you encounter one, try a little compassion instead of sarcastically putting them down with a cliched phrase.

On People Who Think They're so Damn Funny

[Snark Warning]

Like many depressives, I have a love-hate relationship with humor. A well-crafted joke, anecdote, or cartoon can cheer me up during the worst times, but because of the various cognitive deficits associated with depression, I have a lot of trouble processing humor when it’s directed at me or my life.

Enter another thing I have a love-hate relationship with: Facebook. As one of those rare people who’s “out” about having a mental illness (to shamelessly borrow terminology from the LGBT community), I occasionally post something related to my current troubles on my Facebook. Most of the people who bother reading it are fairly good friends of mine who know what’s going on and often stop by and leave a nice comment or a simple “<3″ on those posts.

But then there are people who insist on trying to force a joke about the situation. These well-intentioned but insufferably clueless people are the bane of any depressive’s life. They’re our friends, sometimes even pretty good ones, and as much as we know that they mean well, it can be very painful to have a really difficult aspect of your life reduced to a dumb joke like that. And it’s nearly impossible to find a way to respond–any suggestion that the joke was out of place is inevitably met with “but I was just trying to lighten the mood” or “I just wanted to cheer you up.”

Here’s the thing, though–you can’t fix a depressed person anyway. (Sometimes, you can’t even fix a depressed person if you’re a psychiatrist or psychologist.) The most you can do is offer a message of support and refrain from trying to turn a depressed person’s misery into a big huge joke.

Honestly, I doubt that even healthy people are actually “cheered up” by jokes made at their expense. I can’t imagine that’s pleasant for anyone who’s already in kind of a bad mood. But it’s especially unpleasant for a depressed person and can trigger all sorts of nasty stuff.

I think people have a huge fear of others’ unhappiness. The moment you see a sad person, you immediately want to drag them, kicking and screaming, out of their sadness, whether they asked you to or not. This is understandable, but it should be avoided, not only because there’s so little you can really do, but because you should try to understand people before you try to help them.

If anyone ever bothered to ask me what they could do to help me feel better, you can guarantee I wouldn’t say “crack a dumb joke at my expense.” And, don’t worry, I wouldn’t say “sit here for hours and listen to me cry,” either. I would probably ask you to have a conversation about something interesting, like politics or culture, with me. Or I’d ask you to come over and bring a good movie. Or I’d ask you to bake some cookies with me. Or, I’d say, “Nothing, but thanks for asking.”

What people don’t understand about depression is that it’s different from normal sadness not only in quantity, but in quality. To put it more simply, it’s just a different kind of sadness. When someone has a depressive episode, they go to a really dark place that healthy people don’t go to ever. Not even when their significant other breaks up with them or something like that. It’s a darkness that can’t be lit up by a stupid joke. Really, it can’t be fully lit up by anything. But human connection, love, and support can sometimes help.

Obviously, not everybody is willing to provide that for everybody else. That’s fine, and that’s how it should be. But if you can’t give me what I need to feel better, don’t give me something that makes me feel worse, either.

Like many problems that I come across in my life, this turns out to be something that’s actually a much larger issue. I believe that the reason people are so desperate to immediately try to “lighten the mood” the instant they see something unpleasant is because our culture has an extreme fear of negative emotion. We avoid it like the plague, and it comes as no surprise to me that most of our culture’s solutions for achieving happiness seem to focus on eliminating things like fear, sadness, and anger entirely, rather than incorporating them into one’s life in a normal, healthy way. Clearly, what I have isn’t healthy, but it’s only the extreme end of spectrum. I see this sort of blind and terrified avoidance of anything that’s sad, whether it’s severe like depression or totally normal, everywhere I look.

If you’ve just read this and realized that what I’m describing sounds exactly like you, I hope you’re not offended. If you are, my apologies. But I hope you trust that behind all this snark is a lot of pain.

And, if you’re still reading, I have a challenge for you. Next time you come across a post from a friend that’s unhappy in some way, don’t rush to make a joke about it. Don’t try to drag your friend away from what they’re feeling. If you absolutely need to comment on it somehow, say “I’m sorry, that really sucks,” or “I hope you feel better.” I guarantee that unless you happen to be Jon Stewart, that’ll work better than any joke.

I’ll leave you with a quote by Dutch priest and writer Henri Nouwen:

“The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion… that is a friend who cares.”