“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.

Feminist Bloggers Cannot Be Your Therapists

[Content note: mentions of sexual assault and suicide]

I’ve been thinking more about Scott Aaronson. Specifically, I’ve been thinking about what he struggled with during adolescence, and about the (in my opinion, misguided) notion that feminism could have possibly been of any help to him.

The battle cry I’ve heard from men since Aaronson’s now-infamous Comment 171 was published is that feminist writers and activists need to be more mindful of situations like Aaronson’s when we choose our language and strategies. There seems to be a collective yearning for acknowledgement that the usual feminist rhetoric is not only unhelpful for people in the teenage Aaronson’s frame of mind, but actively harmful to them. There is one piece of this that I fully agree with, that I will get to later. But for the most part, I continue to feel a sort of frustration and exhaustion, and I think I’ve finally figured out why.

I wrote in my previous post on the subject that I feel that we (women) are being given all these male traumas and struggles and feelings to soothe and fix, as we always are. But now I understand why exactly I feel like we’re such an inadequate receptacle for these things.

Let’s look at some of the most salient parts of Comment 171:

I spent my formative years—basically, from the age of 12 until my mid-20s—feeling not “entitled,” not “privileged,” but terrified. I was terrified that one of my female classmates would somehow find out that I sexually desired her, and that the instant she did, I would be scorned, laughed at, called a creep and a weirdo, maybe even expelled from school or sent to prison. And furthermore, that the people who did these things to me would somehow be morally right to do them—even if I couldn’t understand how.

You can call that my personal psychological problem if you want, but it was strongly reinforced by everything I picked up from my environment: to take one example, the sexual-assault prevention workshops we had to attend regularly as undergrads, with their endless lists of all the forms of human interaction that “might be” sexual harassment or assault, and their refusal, ever, to specify anything that definitely wouldn’t be sexual harassment or assault. I left each of those workshops with enough fresh paranoia and self-hatred to last me through another year.

[…] Of course, I was smart enough to realize that maybe this was silly, maybe I was overanalyzing things. So I scoured the feminist literature for any statement to the effect that my fearswere as silly as I hoped they were. But I didn’t find any. On the contrary: I found reams of text about how even the most ordinary male/female interactions are filled with “microaggressions,” and how even the most “enlightened” males—especially the most “enlightened” males, in fact—are filled with hidden entitlement and privilege and a propensity to sexual violence that could burst forth at any moment.

Because of my fears—my fears of being “outed” as a nerdy heterosexual male, and therefore as a potential creep or sex criminal—I had constant suicidal thoughts. As Bertrand Russell wrote of his own adolescence: “I was put off from suicide only by the desire to learn more mathematics.”

At one point, I actually begged a psychiatrist to prescribe drugs that would chemically castrate me (I had researched which ones), because a life of mathematical asceticism was the only future that I could imagine for myself. The psychiatrist refused to prescribe them, but he also couldn’t suggest any alternative: my case genuinely stumped him. As well it might—for in some sense, there was nothing “wrong” with me.

[…]And no, I’m not even suggesting to equate the ~15 years of crippling, life-destroying anxiety I went through with the trauma of a sexual assault victim. The two are incomparable; they’re horrible in different ways. But let me draw your attention to one difference: the number of academics who study problems like the one I had is approximately zero. There are no task forces devoted to it, no campus rallies in support of the sufferers, no therapists or activists to tell you that you’re not alone or it isn’t your fault. There are only therapists and activists to deliver the opposite message: that you are alone and it is your privileged, entitled, male fault.

It’s worth reading the entire thing, and reading it carefully. (Aaronson’s defenders are correct that some people have been making accusations of Aaronson that are directly refuted by things that he said in the very same comment. Let’s not do that.)

Here’s what I thought. If someone came to me and said that he earnestly believes that he will be “expelled from school or sent to prison” if a woman finds out that he finds her attractive, and that he has “constant suicidal thoughts,” and that his daily existence is characterized by “crippling, life-destroying anxiety,” I would not recommend that he read Andrea Dworkin or attend a sexual assault prevention workshop. I would recommend, gently and tactfully, that he go see a therapist.

I would do that because these are very serious issues. They are serious enough that, when a client tells me that they have “constant suicidal thoughts,” there is an entire protocol I’m required to follow in order to ensure that they are safe and receive appropriate care if they accept it.

I will not speculate about what mental illness Aaronson could have theoretically been diagnosed with in his adolescence; I oppose such speculation and it’s actually irrelevant. I don’t need to diagnose him to say that he had serious issues and could have really benefited from treatment. (However, I may reference some diagnoses in what follows, not to suggest that Aaronson had them but to show how mental illness can interact with other life circumstances.)

Maybe Aaronson didn’t think to seek therapy as an adolescent, because therapy and mental illness are still quite stigmatized and would have been even more so when he was younger. Maybe nobody close to him noticed or cared what was going on, and therefore did not encourage him to seek therapy. Maybe the psychiatrist he asked to prescribe castration drugs did not pause to consider that a teenager seeking castration is a red flag, and that maybe he should refer him to a colleague who practices therapy. Maybe, maybe, maybe.

But why aren’t we talking about it now? Why are people blaming feminism–the feminism of the 1970s or 80s, no less–for failing to cure what appeared to be a serious psychological issue? Why are people claiming that the solution now is simply for feminist writers and activists to be more compassionate and considerate towards male nerds like Aaronson, as though any compassion or consideration could have magically fixed such a deeply layered set of deeply irrational beliefs?

This troubles me. If I ever start claiming that, for instance, I’m a terrible person and deserve to literally die because I’m queer, or that I cannot be in the same room with a man without literally having a panic attack, I sincerely hope that people advise me to seek mental healthcare, not to read feminist literature.

Lots of helpful things can harm a small subset of people because of that subset’s individual traits. For instance, there are a lot of PSAs about washing your hands to prevent the spread of disease and things like that. But some people have OCD and wash their hands compulsively, to the point that they’re hurting themselves physically and having trouble accomplishing daily life tasks because they have to wash their hands so much. I can imagine these PSAs being extraordinarily unhelpful to them.

We also often hear about the importance of donating to charity. Most people could probably donate more to charity if they wanted to. However, some people compulsively donate so much to charity that they harm themselves or their families. I can imagine this being exacerbated by someone telling them how important it is to donate to charity. Perhaps they feel they are never good enough.

I can see how feminist literature might have functioned in a similar way for Aaronson. The truth is that most men are about as far away from his mindset as you can get. Some are even the opposite extreme. Most men spend very little time thinking about how their behavior impacts women. Most men need to spend more time thinking about it. But how could he have known that these feminist books were not for him? If they were to put on the cover, “If you’re a great guy who does not hurt women, you don’t need to read this,” well, no man would ever read it. They all think they’re great guys who do not hurt women, even though some of them rape women.

Neurodiversity is an axis of privilege/oppression. People who suffer from mental illness or whose brains are set up differently from what is considered the “norm” (such as people with autism) lack privilege along this axis. They have difficulties because our society is not made to accommodate them. However, if these people are white, or male, or straight, or cisgender, or so on, they still benefit from the privileges afforded to people in those categories.

For instance, despite all his other fears and anxieties, Aaronson did not have to live in constant fear of being sexually assaulted, because he is male. He did not have to live with a significant risk of being harassed or brutalized by the police, because he is white. He did not have to deal with having people constantly refuse to identify him as the gender he identifies as, because he is cisgender. He did not have to struggle to physically access places he needs or wants to go, because he is able-bodied. Of course, he still faces some risk (in some cases fairly negligible) of all of these things, because having privilege doesn’t shield you from everything.

However, as a person who was (apparently) neuroatypical, Aaronson did have to live with “crippling, life-destroying anxiety.” He did not appear to have access (even if it’s just because he didn’t know to ask for it) to mental healthcare that could have helped him. He was forced to spend years feeling horrible. If he told people how they felt, they may have blamed him for it, because victim-blaming is a key component of our society’s oppression of neuroatypical people. Had he lacked some of the other privileges that he had, such as race and class, he may not have been able to access the apparently-useless psychiatrist that he did access.

Aaronson claims that he did not have “male privilege” because he did not feel that he had it. I’ve addressed arguments like these before. He presumably did not feel privileged because on one very salient and relevant axis, he certainly was not.

But otherwise, having or not having privilege isn’t actually dependent at all on how you feel. You have it or not. Men on the street hurl sexual obscenities at you or they do not. Cops stop you and slam you to the ground for no reason or they do not. You are allowed to marry someone of the gender(s) you’re attracted to or you are not.

Aaronson might be interested (or not) to know that many feminists are busy fighting to ensure access to mental healthcare for everyone, and an end to the stigma that prevents people from seeking help. But maybe that’s irrelevant now.

As I mentioned earlier, I am taking one piece of Aaronson’s (and the many others who have echoed him) criticism to heart. Namely, feminist materials need to be better at specifying what to do rather than just what not to do. Now is a good time for a reminder that I offer a workshop on this exactly, with a light-hearted tone and lots of audience participation and definitely no yelling at men that they are horrible awful creeps no matter what they do. I am far from the only person who offers such materials, but it would be cool if there were more. That said, anyone claiming that feminism does not offer this at all has quite clearly not done their research. Andrea Dworkin and some random shitty college sexual harassment training are not the only resources feminism has to offer.

(Some things that I have read along these lines [“these lines” meaning, roughly, “affirmative resources that help men and others conduct their sexual/romantic lives ethically without shaming them]: Charlie Glickman, Doctor Nerdlove, Yes Means Yes (the book and the associated blog by Thomas Macaulay Millar), Pervocracy, Franklin Veaux. If you don’t like any of these, create your own!)

But even then, your average casual feminist blogger or columnist cannot take responsibility for fixing the problems of someone who apparently sincerely believes that speaking to a woman will get him sent to prison. Or someone who is literally unable to talk to a woman because they have so much social anxiety. These are issues for professionals to deal with. Professionals can affirm. They are there to hold your feelings and make you feel comfortable and supported. They can teach social skills. They can help you examine maladaptive and irrational thoughts. They can help you learn how to cope with anxiety. That is what therapists are for. They are imperfect, but they are trained for this. I worry about placing this responsibility on every feminist with a blog.

Aaronson claims in his comment that “there are only therapists and activists to deliver the opposite message: that you are alone and it is your privileged, entitled, male fault.” I’m not sure if this comes from experience or is purely the creation of his mind with the biases that it had at the time. If Aaronson went to see a therapist and that therapist shamed him, then that therapist is wrong and does not deserve the title. (I’m not trying to do a No True Therapist fallacy here; I’m just pointing out that shaming people is against our ethics and if you cannot not shame people then you should not be a therapist.)

If Aaronson did not see a therapist, perhaps because he was afraid that they would shame him, then that’s unfortunate. And I don’t blame him. But I still think that we should be encouraging people with such pronounced irrational beliefs to seek therapy, not feminist literature.

No wonder I was so frustrated when I wrote that earlier post. I felt like feminist writers are being asked to do the job of a mental healthcare professional.

~~~

A few relevant points that I did not have time to expand on here, but may in the future:

  • Part of the reason that a lot of what Aaronson read/watched was so shaming towards men was probably because it was shaming towards sex and sexuality in general. Especially those college sexual harassment trainings, some of which are woefully retrograde. It’s important to remember that stigma/shaming around sex is something that is so entrenched in our culture that it’s bound to show up all over the place, even, yes, in feminist literature.
  • Aaronson claims that all the feminist literature he read confirmed his belief that straight men are awful and violent. While this may be so–I haven’t read Dworkin and don’t intend to–I have also personally watched men respond to materials that were not at all whatsoever shaming of men by claiming that they were being shamed by those materials. This seems to be a very common bias. They expect to be shamed by feminist materials, so they feel shamed by them.
  • I have seen dreadfully few discussions about how everyone–especially non-/anti-feminist men and women–perpetuate toxic ideals about masculinity. It’s usually not feminist teenage girls slamming shy nerdy boys into lockers and publicly humiliating them, is it? We should talk more about that. Unfortunately, most men dislike talking about toxic masculinity, because they think that “masculinity” is synonymous with “men,” and perhaps also because they have bought extensively into this ideal and appreciate the privileges it affords them.
  • There needs to be a space where we can say, “Wow, that is really awful, I’m sorry you felt that way and had to live with that, but I need to point out that your interpretation of things was inaccurate.” Because right now, it’s looking to me like anyone who includes the latter part of that sentence is accused of hating men or lacking compassion. If I read a Richard Dawkins book, came away with the idea that Dawkins believes that all religious people should be put to death, and therefore started to fear for the lives of my religious relatives, I would want someone to try to explain to me that I had misinterpreted the book. It would not be compassionate at all to allow me to continue believing that Dawkins was calling for my relatives’ deaths. It is not compassionate to allow Aaronson to believe that feminists want him to never, ever so much as kiss a girl. (A moot point now, but it wouldn’t have been earlier.)
  • It is also entirely possible that all the feminist literature that Aaronson read was woefully inadequate. (I disagree, and wish he had picked up bell hooks, but let’s grant it.) Feminism is, like every other field of study, constantly advancing and finding new ways to analyze and advocate. The feminist literature of the past decade or so focuses a lot more on helping men than the feminist literature of the 1970s and 80s. But feminist activism still consists mostly of women, and when men join in, they often try to speak to us about our own issues than to other men about men’s issues. And women, naturally, will focus first on issues we primarily face, some of which are life-threatening. Men, please, don’t stand around and lament the fact that feminists are not addressing your problems. Familiarize yourself with feminist principles and join in.

Opening Up, Closing Down

[Content note: depression, suicide, self-harm]

The truth about mental illnesses that many of us have learned is that they change you for good. Even after the symptoms are gone, the medication gradually reduced to nothing or stabilized at a dose that works, something remains. (And for many of us the symptoms are never entirely gone.)

Depression left my scaffolds–indeed, my very foundation–cracked. I’m okay, even joyful, much of the time. But it feels a little flimsy.

One of the ways this plays out in my daily life is that I have problems with intimacy. I don’t mean the sexual euphemism, but rather the ability to be vulnerable, to let people in, to be seen as you are, to be comfortable with closeness.

I am intensely uncomfortable with all of this.

I hate talking about myself, whether it’s positive or negative. I hate feeling like I need someone’s help to deal with emotions. I hate wanting someone’s help to deal with emotions even when I know I don’t need it. I hate the first time I tell someone I love them and I hate many of the subsequent times too. I hate it when people know that I miss them. I hate being visibly upset around someone, which means that if it’s at all possible to leave, I leave. I hate expressing any emotion besides joy and anger (which I rarely feel) to anyone. I hate it when someone says things to me in an attempt to build intimacy but I don’t know what to do so I say nothing. I hate when people notice emotions I didn’t intend to share. I hate when they tell me this as though it’s going to somehow endear them to me. I hate that there’s nowhere I can cry without being seen or heard by someone.

So relationships, whether platonic or romantic or sexual or some combination, are difficult.

Some people have difficulties like these for their whole lives, but for me, it happened as a result of depression. And, ironically, depression is also the thing that’s hardest for me to share with people.

During my nine years of depression–in fact, probably my whole life up to and including that–I was very different. My experience of mental illness was that it triggered a sort of leaking of thoughts and emotions. I literally lacked the ability to hold them in. They spilled out of my hands, like when I try to move a big pile of laundry from the washing machine to the dryer and little bits and pieces–a sock here, a tank top there–keep falling on the floor. I remember crying apropos of nothing on the band bus in 10th grade and telling my boyfriend that there’s no way to be happy when you hate yourself. Fifteen is old enough to know that this is not an appropriate thing to say. It didn’t matter. It just came out.

It’s not like I didn’t try to plug the leaks. In 6th or 7th grade, I decided to keep a record in my journal of “things left unsaid.” Each day I intentionally tried to shut myself up at some crucial juncture, and rewarded myself for it by writing it down in the notebook later–the thing left unsaid, the person I didn’t say it to, and the reason I didn’t say it.

Years later, what I learned about psychology and behavior change suggested that this could be quite an effective strategy for some people. But it didn’t help me much, because my problem wasn’t purely behavioral. When I looked at those entries later, I noticed how many of them had to do with hurt feelings. “Thing left unsaid: that I was upset about what _____ said about my outfit. Reason: because it wouldn’t make a difference.”

I tried so very hard, but everything hurt. If they couldn’t read it explicitly in my words, they read it implicitly in my face, my body, my tone. I couldn’t hide it. I gave up writing the entries within weeks because it was already too late, everything was leaking out and I couldn’t patch the holes fast enough. In college the dam broke completely, and everything from those little hurts all the way up to wanting to kill myself became common knowledge for those who interacted with me a lot.

For a while it was okay. I thought that being so open was keeping me going–and, as I’ll get to in a moment, it was important in some ways–but what it ultimately did was it completely broke me. It destroyed any sense of self-respect, independence, and competence that I had. When I confided my depressive feelings to someone, usually a partner, I felt like garbage. I felt so much more shame about the act of confiding than I ever did about the feelings I confided themselves.

If you’ve ever had to call the last person you want to speak to right now because they’re the only one available to talk you out of slashing your own wrists, then maybe you know what I’m talking about.

You have to reveal. You have to open up, in order to live. You have to tell it to the therapist and the psychiatrist and your parents and your partner and anyone else who is in any way responsible for your well-being.

You tell people the darkest most horrible things not because you trust them and want to let them see this part of you, but because you have no fucking choice.

And so the concept of “opening up” has been totally ruined for me, because I didn’t get to save it for those special, bonding late-night conversations with someone I feel ready to show myself to.

I had to do it.

Now I don’t.

And not having to feels like freedom. It feels like victory. It feels like independence, finally. It feels like adulthood, although it shouldn’t. It feels like maturity, although it shouldn’t. It feels like wholeness. It feels like safety.

It feels like recovery.

So now I sit at the computer with words typed into the chat box–“I feel sad,” “I can’t stop crying,” “I miss you so much”–and I can’t send them. I want to send them and I don’t want to send them. Not wanting to send them almost always wins out.

In a way, intimacy was easy when I was depressed. I wore it on the outside and it created a sense of intimacy with many people almost instantly. New partners saw my neat little red scars so early on, too early on. “We’ll work on that,” said one, an aspiring psychologist. “I wish you wouldn’t do that,” said another.

Now nobody has to see, and it’s almost impossible to want it any other way. Intimacy has gotten much harder. Perhaps mirroring my own style, new partners disclose little and so I lose interest in them quickly, convinced we have nothing in common besides politics.

Instead I write. The stress of work, the rush of falling in love, the little depressions that come and go, the grief of losing my old lives, the fear of the future–they sink into paper and that’s where they stay.

It’s lonely and isolating as hell, but it beats feeling opened up and exposed.

And now, although I’m known as someone who talks about depression a lot, I don’t really talk about it. I speak obliquely of it, the way someone might mention the passing of a loved one without ever speaking openly of their grief.

I can say that there is fatigue. I can say that it feels sad and numb and dark and hopeless. I can say that I wanted to die. I can say that my head was–still is, much to my constant disappointment–fuzzy and slow, memory useless, words perpetually at the tip of my tongue but left unspoken. I can write this blog post about how depression has affected my ability to desire, build, and feel intimacy.

But I do not ever, not anymore, tell you how it really feels. I will not make you listen to me tell you I hate myself I hate myself like I’ve never hated anything before and I wish I could rip my body and my mind to shreds–

No, I stay on a meta level. I’m comfortable talking about it conceptually.

But the feeling of depression itself? That is a dark room into which I want to go alone. I don’t want anyone knocking on the door trying to get me to let them in. I don’t want to have to hold their hand and guide them around the sharp corners they can’t see, because when I’m in that room, I need to be caring for myself. Not for anyone else.

Of course, it always starts out with them hoping to care for me, but that’s never how it ends up. People end up needing my support to navigate the nightmares in my own head.

Well, I’m sorry, but I just don’t have the mental fortitude for that. Caring for one person–me–is enough.

Presumably, I don’t have to be stuck this way for my whole life just because I have/had depression. I’m hoping to start therapy again soon, for this and for other reasons. But for now, as I reflect on myself and my life at this very special (for me) time of year, it’s hard not to feel hopeless about all the little things I can no longer do, at least not without lots of anxiety and fear. Like tell someone how the stress actually feels. Or talk to someone about how powerless I feel in my work. Or ask someone if they can talk to me for a while to help me get my mind off of things.

In this way, and in many other ways, mental illnesses may never end, or may take much longer to end than we expect, and there is no hopeful cheery note for me to end this on.

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.

 

Before You Speculate About Amanda Bynes’ Mental State

[Content note: mental illness, ableism]

I wrote a piece for the Daily Dot about the gleeful speculations about Amanda Bynes’ supposed mental illness.

Former child star Amanda Bynes hasn’t been having a good month. After being arrested for DUI in California, Bynes left her family and made her way to New York City, where she’s attempted to shoplift clothing twice, which she claims was a “misunderstanding.”

Bynes also gave an interview to In Touch magazine in which she apparently said that she believes there’s a microchip implanted in her brain that allows people to read her thoughts. She later made a series of tweets claiming that the interview was fake and that she will sue the magazine for calling her “insane.” Celebrity gossip websites have, of course, taken this story and run with it, speculating about Bynes’ mental health and diagnoses and treating the situation like a spectator sport.

Even if Bynes really did tell In Touch that she believes she has a microchip implanted in her brain that allows people to read her thoughts, that doesn’t mean it’s okay to call her “insane” or “crazy,” and I’m not surprised she’s angry about it. Words like that don’t just mean “displaying symptoms of a mental illness.” They connote ridicule, ignorance, and sometimes even hate.

They also place people with mental illnesses in a category apart from the rest of us, the ones who aren’t “crazy.” In fact, mental illnesses exist on a spectrum. Some people have a a few hallucinations or delusions during a time of extreme stress (or perhaps sleep deprivation). For others, psychotic symptoms are a struggle they must manage for their entire lives.

Are all of these people “crazy?” Is everyone who has ever had a random and totally irrational thought “crazy?” Is everyone who takes medication for anxiety, depression, or bipolar disorder “crazy?” Words like “crazy” and “insane” do not refer to any specific set or level of symptoms. They refer to someone we wish to hurt, ostracize, or laugh at.

How do you report a story like Bynes’ without perpetuating the stigma that people with mental illnesses face?

For starters, recognize that some things are newsworthy whether the person who did them is a celebrity or not; others are newsworthy only when they’re done by someone we’re already paying attention to—or used to pay attention to. People get DUIs and shoplift all the time, but when a famous person does it, that suddenly becomes a reason to write an entire news story. Someone having delusions is also not in and of itself interesting to the public—although, in a way, I wish it were, because maybe then people would know more about it and stigmatize those who struggle with it less.

Obviously, journalists have to make money. Sometimes that means writing stuff that sells, whether or not you personally think that this information is important to collect and provide to the public. However, oftentimes journalists—especially those who cover celeb news—shrug off all responsibility for choosing their subject matter by claiming that it’s “just what sells” or “what the people want.”

Read the rest here.

A Flare-up of a Chronic Illness

[Content note: depression]

This is a personal post, not an advice post or a big societal problems post. But past experience has shown that some people appreciate and benefit from it when I describe how I try to think about things.

“Reframing” is a term we sometimes use in mental healthcare (and elsewhere) to basically refer to changing the way you think about something. While therapists sometimes suggest ways to reframe things to clients, it’s ultimately up to the individual to decide whether or not they want to reframe, and if so, how.

For some people this concept can hit a nerve because it can sound a lot like the well-meaning but ultimately useless (and even hurtful) advice we get to “look on the bright side” and “think about the positives.” But that’s not what reframing means to me. Here’s an example.

In one of my classes, we are required to meet in pairs for ten weeks to administer and receive counseling. Not as a roleplay exercise, but as an actual attempt to disclose one’s struggles or work with someone else on those struggles. Many students in the class expressed strong discomfort with being one of the “clients” in this exercise, but I’m already accustomed to sharing very personal and intimate details with thousands of strangers online, so I had no qualms about signing up to be counseled.

During our first session, my student-counselor asked me a question: “What, to you, would be an ideal or perfect day?”

It didn’t take me long to think about my answer, which turned out to be sort of a non-answer.

“There isn’t one,” I said. I explained that after eleven years of depression, there is no longer such a thing as an ideal or perfect day and it feels like there never was. That sort of thing is so far out of the realm of possibility for me that, in my view, there’s no point in sitting around hypothesizing about it*.

The reason is that hypothesizing won’t bring me any closer to experiencing it. The things that stop me from being able to have perfect days, those days you spend the rest of your life wishing you could relive, are not surmountable things.

As an example, I told them about the previous weekend, when my roommate and I had gone to visit friends in the suburbs of Philly and then went to a steampunk-themed dance in the city proper. I’d been looking forward to it for a while. It was supposed to be one of those awesome nights. We got all dressed up, and I was wearing my friend’s spectacular dress that I felt amazing and sexy in, and I was with my friends, and it was going to be awesome.

Until, of course, it wasn’t. Not long after we got there, I experienced one of the things I refer to as a depressive trigger, for lack of a better term. It’s whatever the depression version of getting triggered is–specifically, it brings on acute depression symptoms–and it happens to me periodically. I heard it and I felt every metaphorical gear that keeps my brain working properly grind to a halt. It was like driving down a beautiful country road in the sunshine and suddenly finding yourself in a thunderstorm.

After that I couldn’t make myself function. I felt an uncomfortable combination of numb and sad in a very “deep” sort of way. I was constantly on the verge of crying, and knew I would if I let myself think about the thing that had triggered me. I couldn’t talk to anyone, at least not in any socially appropriate way, and I couldn’t dance or pretend to be happy or do much of anything else.

So I left my friends, sat in a corner, and spent most of the rest of the night writing in my notebook (good thing I carry it everywhere) and messaging with one of my partners on my phone. (Situations like this, by the way, are one of the reasons I’m so adamant that it should be socially acceptable to be on your phone at social events. Because my options at this point were: cry in front of my friends, be on my phone, or leave and somehow find my own ride back from Philadelphia to New York at 10 PM on a Saturday night.) I was eventually more or less okay, but it took a long time, and I spent most of the night on the effort to make myself feel more or less okay.

This is not atypical for me; it’s been happening for almost as long as I can remember, and while the triggers have changed a little over the years–as has my ability to manage them–the fact that they happen in the first place has not.

I used to hate myself for it. I’d berate myself endlessly for “ruining” everything or “wasting” good times away, especially since the triggers were as predictable as they were unavoidable. Surely I could learn to stop doing this? (But I see nothing about “acute depression triggers” in any of the scholarly material I read and I don’t even know if this is a typical aspect of the experience of depression or if anyone has ever reported it at all. I just know that that’s how depression works for me.)

Now, I told my student-counselor, I think about it differently. Of this specific incident, I think: I had a flare-up of a chronic illness, but I was able to manage it.

And because I’ve learned to think about it that way, a lot of other things start standing out–the things that went right. I had a great, relaxing day with my friends before it happened. I got dressed up and felt good about how I looked. At the event itself, during the times when I was feeling more or less okay, I met some interesting new people and took some great photos that I’ll have to look at and reminisce. While I was feeling triggery, my friends noticed and checked in on me in ways that demonstrated their concern and care but did not step over any of my emotional or physical boundaries. (Most significantly, I don’t like to talk about the things that cause me to feel bad, and nobody asked or expected me to.) While I was feeling triggery, I managed to disclose a little bit of it to my partner online–not something I am often able to do–and my partner was supportive. I was able to stop it from getting any worse.

Reframing is not the same as its distant cousins, “looking on the bright side” and “finding the silver lining.” I didn’t choose to look on the bright side or find the silver lining. The silver lining found me, after I had reframed the situation in a way that didn’t make me look like a horrible wretched failure of a person. And when I reframe, I don’t attempt to dilute or ignore the reality of the situation. It is not preferable that things like this happen when I’m trying to have a good time with my friends. There is no “silver lining” to getting triggered. I’m not going to wax poetic about what this teaches me about myself or about the human condition. I’m not going to gush about how situations like this really bring out the wonderfulness of my friends and partners, because my friends and partners are wonderful a lot of the time, whether or not I’m currently feeling like crap.

When I think back to that night now, I don’t feel sad, because I’m remembering the good things along with the bad. Previously, the distortion that my brain engages in would’ve made that impossible. I’ve tried to somehow force myself to think about the good things before and failed. It could only happen once I found a way to look at the situation realistically.

I didn’t fail. I didn’t ruin anything. I didn’t choose for this to happen. I had a flare-up of a chronic illness, but I was able to manage it–with the help of some of my friends, but also by drawing on my own strengths and resources.

~~~

*That said, the question the student-counselor asked is typically a pretty good one to ask, as it helps the therapist understand what their client hopes to change about their life. But I already know that I want something impossible. I want to be cured. I won’t be, and that’s okay.

Venting About Your Problems Is Therapy’s Failure Mode

At least, it was for me.

The more I learn about how to conduct effective, evidence-based therapy, the more I understand why none of my attempts at getting therapy helped. (It is true that my depression is “in remission” or whatever you want to call it, but I don’t credit the few total months I spent in therapy with that development.)

Many people think that therapy is about paying a person to sit there and nonjudgmentally listen to you vent about your problems. Some of this might come from the prevalence of psychoanalytic thought in our culture, including in stereotypes about therapy and mental illness. Freud and his ideas are still very dominant in the many laypeople’s opinions about psychology. Specifically, I’m thinking of free association, a technique used in traditional psychoanalysis in which the client is asked to just say whatever happens to be on their mind, however silly or irrelevant it may seem. Free association is meant to inspire the client to reveal previously-repressed thoughts or feelings that both client and therapist are then able to learn from and understand.

I suppose that sometimes this can be useful, but other times or for other people, it may not be. The problem is that therapists operating from this perspective will be biased towards finding some sort of hidden meaning in the client’s free association whether it is there or not. If you asked me to free associate, I would probably just rant incoherently about how cool the buildings downtown are or cute things the children in my family say or how frustrated I am that whenever I enter a building I am always very cold because people use excessive air conditioning in this country.

And I’m sure an unscrupulous therapist could just assume that this means that I am obsessed with phallic-shaped objects or I am desperate to have children or I find that this world is too cold and unwelcoming and I long for the safe, warm environment of my mother’s womb. Sure. My own perspective is that the things that I happen to randomly think about when I am not directing myself (or being directed by someone else) to think about something in particular are rarely relevant to the major issues I have in my life. I will survive despite the prevalence of freezing-cold rooms in my day-to-day experience.

So it is with venting about my problems, which is somewhat similar to free-association in that one is asked to simply say whatever they want to talk about or are upset about at the moment. Yes, obviously, it can sometimes be very useful. I do not deny that whatsoever. A therapist may ask, “What’s been troubling you lately?” and a client might say, “My mother is sick.” Or they might say, “My children won’t listen to me and it’s making me mad,” and then the therapist probes a little more and the client reveals that the client and their partner are constantly fighting and contradicting each other and the children don’t know who they’re supposed to be listening to anymore.

The trouble starts when venting about their problems is all the client is ever asked or allowed or encouraged to do. Then you have a therapist who’s doing nothing more than what a trusted, patient, empathic friend could do. And while, to be fair, such friends aren’t as easy to find as we may wish they were, these are not skills that you need at least six years of higher education and at least one (possibly more) professional licenses in order to administer.

And that’s about all I recall doing when I went to therapy. Of course, because I was depressed, the things I vented about frequently had to do with depression in some oblique way. But the key thing on my mind as I headed off to my weekly appointments wasn’t necessarily, “I have depression.” It was, “I just had a fight with my partner and now I’m convinced they’ll dump me and I’ll be alone forever.” Or “I’m terrifying about this exam and if I don’t do well then I am a failure.” Or “I hate myself.” Or whatever.

And my therapists, for the most part, did succeed in creating a space where I felt slightly comfortable with sharing these things, and so I shared them. They would say, “What would you like to talk about?” and I wanted to talk about my conversation with my mother or how much I miss my siblings or my fears about my partner leaving me. The therapists would attempt to understand why I felt the way I did, but they did not seem to do much to change the way I felt, even though I continued seeing the same ones for a few months at least. By then, the real work of therapy should have begun.

Whereas what I’ve now been taught to do as part of my own training in mental healthcare goes more like this: A client comes to you. You ask for some basic information from the client about their life, family, history, cultural/ethnic/religious background, reasons for coming to therapy, and so on. You ask the client what they would like to accomplish in therapy. You tell them a little bit about your own therapy practice and what they can expect from it, and see if there’s anything that makes them uncomfortable or that they feel wouldn’t work for them.

Together, you set some concrete goals for therapy that are as measurable as possible. For instance, “I would like to stop having panic attacks when I leave the house.” Or “I want to find ways to deal with feeling very upset that do not involve self-harm.” Or “I want to learn how to approach people and make friends with them.” Or “My partner and I would like to find ways to manage jealousy.” If the client suggests goals that the therapist thinks are too vague, unrealistic, or dependent on factors beyond the client’s control (“I want to find a partner”), the therapist can discuss this with the client and help them adjust the goal so that it’s more manageable (“I want to get over my anxiety about asking people out on dates” along with “I want to learn ways to deal with feeling lonely”).

Then, the therapy progresses towards these goals. Every few weeks or so, the therapist and client assess how the therapy is going so far, and the client can weigh in on whether or not they think it’s helping, what concrete progress they feel they have made, and so on. The therapist may periodically administer scales or questionnaires that help gauge improvement in a slightly more objective way. The client and the therapist together can decide to adjust or change the goals if they want to, or introduce new ones as older ones are achieved. Being able to assess and adjust therapy as it’s going on, not just when it’s about to end, is very important.

Eventually, depending on the therapist’s style and the needs of the client, they may discuss termination, which is a word I hate that refers to the process of ending one’s work with a particular client. The client may feel that they’ve accomplished the goals they had, or that they’ve gotten as far as they think they can with a therapist and will be okay on their own now, or that they need to find a different therapist who may be able to help them better. Therapy should not continue indefinitely. The therapist and the client may agree to check in again in a certain number of months to see how the client is doing and whether or not they need to return to therapy.

Of course, this is just a template; everyone does it differently and not all clients may want or need all of these steps, but this is consistent with an evidence-based approach. This process holds therapists accountable by encouraging them and their clients to evaluate the therapy.

When I look back on my time in therapy, I wonder if I could’ve done a better job of making it work for me. Maybe I should’ve offered up specific changes that I wanted to see to the therapists, such as “I want to stop crying several times a week” or “I need to learn to be okay with being single.” (Both of these things happened without the help of a therapist, by the way.) But…I didn’t really know that I needed to do that. I saw my therapists as authority figures. I assumed they knew what they were doing, and that they would ask me for specific things if they needed to. I had only the vaguest ideas of how therapy is “supposed” to work, because my psychology classes mainly focused on theories and not on practice.

If you find yourself doing nothing but venting about your problems in therapy–without necessarily then developing any sort of plan to help resolve or cope with the problems–that’s a red flag. Venting can be therapeutic in its own right, but you shouldn’t have to pay for the opportunity to do it. Therapists have a responsibility to provide the best treatment they can; it’s literally in our code of ethics. You deserve that from your therapist.

The Sad Girls of Tumblr

[Content note: mental illness, depression, self-harm, suicide]

I’ve written before about the potential dangers of presenting depression and other mental illnesses as somehow attractive or appealing or more “real.” In a blog post dealing with the same issue, Spencer writes:

We love to romanticize depression. On Tumblr, browse the “#soft grunge” tag and you’ll find artfully edited photos of scars and Instagram-filtered pictures of cigarette cartons with phrases like “You’re going to die anyway” superimposed. “Soft grunge” treats depression and suicide like beautiful black roses–twisted, painful romantic ideals. We do it off of Tumblr too, like when we associate our favorite comedians’ or authors’ mental illnesses with their genius. Half the time, it seems, “tortured soul” is uttered in awestruck, not empathetic tones.

That post also links to another post, called “On Tumblr’s Romanticization of Depression,” by a blogger named Sarah:

Every time you reblog pictures of a computer screen that says “stupid sad girl” or Marlboro cigarettes with sticky notes pasted on them saying “because you broke my heart,” every time you contribute to a culture that makes depression seem like a quirky thing to add to your “about” section instead of a serious disorder with one of the highest death rates of any illness, you are actively making it okay for people to ignore their health problems and just be sad. That’s enablement.

People need to stop posting pictures of pills and tagging them #death, #suicide, #self hate, #soft grunge, and #pale. Trust me on this one, overdosing on pills: not really a good time. It’s nothing like the pictures of parties that are scattered all over your dashboard. A pretty blue-eyed boy will not come up to you when you’ve been lying in an ER bed for four hours because you can’t walk and tell you how beautiful you and your sadness are. Maybe that’s because you won’t be wearing pants at the time (I wasn’t), or maybe that’s because you’ll barely be able to speak because your mind is so distorted by the drugs. He won’t kiss your fucking scars. In fact it’s likely that nobody ever will, because seeing the mutilated flesh of someone you love is terrifying.

In a general sense, I agree. Spencer and Sarah make the point that seeing depression presented as sexy and alluring may discourage people from viewing it as an issue to work on, and while it should always be an individual’s choice whether or not to consider themselves “mentally ill” or to seek treatment for a mental illness, normalizing such pain and suffering probably doesn’t help.

But then I started thinking–how many of the people posting these things are depressed themselves, and how much moral responsibility should we assign to a person in the depths of mental illness to avoid presenting their own condition in a way that may encourage others to follow suit?

Sarah allows for this possibility, including a caveat:

Which isn’t to say that no girl with a soft grunge blog is actually diagnosed with depression (or any other mental illness), because I’m sure many are. And I think I can kind of understand the appeal. Feeling like you’re a part of something can be comforting, and so can seeing that other people feel the same way you do. When you’re in the healing stages of a mental illness, having support isn’t just important, it’s a necessity. But the soft grunge subculture doesn’t support the “Sad Girls” it idolizes, it enables them.

However, I’m not sure that really answers my question.

First of all, I take issue with the term “enablement” as used here. Professionals and others usually use this term to mean doing things that encourage someone else to behave self-destructively. For instance, someone may “enable” a friend’s problem drinking by constantly offering them alcohol or inviting them out to bars; a parent may “enable” a child’s preoccupation with getting high grades by grilling them about their grades and expressing disappointment at anything less than an “A.”

But I’m not sure what exactly Sarah thinks is being “enabled” here. If it’s depression itself, then that doesn’t make sense, because depression is not a risky or maladaptive behavior that can be enabled. It’s a mental illness. It could also be not getting treatment for depression, but I’m not sure that makes sense as a behavior that can be “enabled,” either. Not getting treatment for depression is, sadly, the default. True, if people’s Tumblr feeds were filled with age-appropriate, compassionate advice about seeking help for emotional distress, they might be more likely to do so. But in that case, the entire way the dominant culture approaches mental illness qualifies as “enablement.” In that case, every time a friend told me to “just cheer up!” or “just come hang out with us!” when I was feeling sad, they were “enabling” my behavior of not seeking treatment, because they were suggesting that depression is something that can be fixed by choosing to “just cheer up” or go to a party.

More to the point, I think that this view somewhat discounts the very realistic possibility that the people posting these “soft grunge” images are themselves depressed, and what this means about “enablement.” Who are they enabling? Themselves? Each other? Others who are more or less depressed than they are? Younger Tumblr users?

It’s complicated to me because I view this type of self-expression–the romanticization, the preoccupation with death, the attention-seeking (which I do not mean pejoratively)–as part of the mental illness itself. As a symptom, even. I haven’t seen any studies about this and have no idea which Google Scholar keywords could possibly help, but anecdotally, my experience with people who suffer from mood disorders is that some of them cope with the illness by viewing themselves and the illness in this way. Not all, obviously, but almost no mental illness symptom is shared by everyone who has that diagnosis, so to call something a symptom is not to imply that it’s a universal symptom.

It is sometimes comforting, especially when you’re scared and don’t know what’s happening to you and lack the knowledge to label it “depression,” to think of it as something special and even positive. This is especially the case when you’ve been steeped in a culture that glorifies a certain type of disaffected sadness, and ties it causally to greatness in art, music, and literature. So, even if the girls of the soft grunge subculture are enabling others, that’s only because they were first enabled themselves.

Some of it is a sort of sour grapes thing, too. You try to be happy, you can’t, everything hurts, and you think, fuck it, who wants that boring shit, anyway?

When I was in high school, I didn’t have a Tumblr (I don’t think it existed yet), but I definitely found these types of images appealing in some way. Maybe if something like Tumblr existed I would’ve even shared them. The reason they appealed to me was because they made me feel like the way I felt was a way of being more alive, not a way of missing things that other people got to have–joy, security, optimism, hope, self-esteem. And even if I didn’t meet the diagnostic criteria for depression at the time, I certainly did just a couple years later when I was diagnosed with it.

I don’t think that any of this necessarily makes promoting such memes and images ethically okay. Most of us have no problem condemning pro-ana/-mia blogs and forums, for instance, and this is really the depression/bipolar disorder version of that. (I suppose, though, you could argue that pro-ana/-mia materials are more dangerous than “pro-depression” materials, if you could even call these Tumblrs that.)

But it does mean that it’s not as simple as telling people to stop doing it.

I think the first step would be to start taking adolescent mental health seriously. It’s a serious issue. Most people know this, I think, on some level. But we still don’t take a preventative approach.

It’s expected that parents start taking their children in for dental checkups as soon as they have teeth. It’s expected to start seeing an ob/gyn for checkups as soon as you become sexually active. Why not taking that sort of proactive approach to mental health in adolescence–or even in childhood?

(Of course, all of that is bound up in issues of privilege and access, but even teenagers whose parents can easily afford and access mental healthcare often fail to receive it until things become very bad.)

So, yeah, in short, I don’t disagree with either of the perspectives I linked to. I just think it’s a little more complicated than I ever realized before. It’s easy to say, “Don’t romanticize depression! It encourages people to view depression as normal and healthy.” It’s harder to say, “Don’t show symptoms of your depression! It encourages people to view depression as normal and healthy.”

Towards A Better Conversation About Mental Illness

This is my latest for the Daily Dot, about how we can discuss mental illness more accurately, productively, and compassionately, particularly in the wake of tragedies like Robin Williams’ suicide.

After comedian Robin Williams committed suicide two weeks ago, fans took to the Internet to express their grief, as well as their admiration for his work. Whenever a beloved celebrity passes away, regardless of the cause, social media temporarily becomes a sort of memorial to that person, a chronicle of the ways in which they changed lives.

However, when the cause is suicide, a celebrity’s death also brings out lots of dismissive, inaccurate, or even hateful statements about people with mental illnesses. According to some, Williams was “cowardly” and “selfish” for committing suicide. Last week, Musician Henry Rollins wrote an op-ed for L.A. Weekly (for which he apologized over the weekend) in which he said that he views people who commit suicide with “disdain,” claiming that Williams traumatized his children. There was plenty of rhetoric about suicide being a “choice,” the implication being that it’s the wrong choice.

Comments like these not only misinform people about the nature of mental illness, but they are also extremely hurtful to those who struggle with it. As the Internet continues to respond to Robin Williams’ death, here are some suggestions for a better conversation about mental illness and suicide.

1) Do your research.

We all have a “folk” understanding of psychology, which means that we experience our own thoughts and feelings, interact with other people, and thus form our opinions on psychology. Obviously, noticing things about ourselves and the people around us can be an important source of knowledge about how humans work.

But it’s not enough. If you haven’t had a mental illness, you can’t really understand what it’s like to have one—unless you do your research. Depression isn’t like feeling really sad. Anxiety isn’t like feeling worried. Eating disorders aren’t like being concerned about how many calories you consume. Your own experiences may not be enough.

Before you form strong opinions about mental illness and suicide, you need to know what mental illnesses are actually like, what their symptoms are, what treatment is like, what sorts of difficulties people may have in accessing treatment or making it work for them. If you can make tweets and Facebook statuses about a celebrity’s suicide, you can also do a Google search. Wikipedia, for all its drawbacks, is a great place to start. So are books like The Noonday Demon and Listening to Prozac.

2) Never engage in armchair diagnosis.

Now that you have a good idea of what different mental illnesses look like, you should try to figure out who has which ones, right?

No, please don’t. Armchair diagnosis, which is when people who are not trained to administer psychiatric diagnoses try to do so anyway, is harmful for all sorts of reasons that Daily Dot contributor s.e. smith describes in a piece for smith’s personal blog:

The thing about armchair diagnosis is that it mutates. First it’s a ‘friend’ deciding that someone must have bipolar disorder because of some event or another. Over time, that’s mutated into an ‘actual’ diagnosis, repeated as fact and accepted. Everyone tiptoes around or gives someone sidelong glances and makes sure to tell other people. Meanwhile, someone is completely puzzled that other people are treating her like she’s, well. Crazy.

Whether the person you’re talking about is a celebrity or not, it is up to them whether or not to make public any information about their health. Mental health is part of health. While having a mental illness should never be stigmatized, unfortunately, it still is. People deserve to decide for themselves whether or not they are willing to disclose any mental illnesses they may have.

Even if someone commits suicide, that doesn’t mean we can come to any conclusions on which mental illness they had or didn’t have. First of all, not everyone who commits suicide could have been diagnosed with any mental illness just prior to it. Second, various mental illnesses may lead to suicide. Many online commentators, including journalists, simply assumed that Williams had depression. However, he may have also had bipolar disorder, in which depressive episodes are interspersed with manic ones. Williams himself never stated which diagnoses he had, so it’s best not to assume. Whatever he had or didn’t have, it is clear that he was suffering.

Read the rest here.

“Twitter Psychosis”? I’m Skeptical

[Content note: mental illness & delusions]

Over at the Daily Dot, I did some mythbusting about this alleged “Twitter Psychosis.” For whatever reason, it’s hard for me to pick out an excerpt, so I’ll just go with what I think is the most relevant part of this story, but you should go read the full thing to get the background:

Unlike most other published psychological research, the study about Mrs. C and “Twitter psychosis” is a case study— a type of research in which researchers study one particular person, or case. Something you should know about case studies is that they’re the least scientifically rigorous experimental design possible. There’s obviously only one subject or participant, and a particular person’s psychology is so idiosyncratic and impacted by so many factors that we may or may not even notice that it’s difficult to draw any firm conclusions. Unlike other studies, that compare some group to some other group, case studies don’t allow us to see what happens if certain conditions are different.

This study was further an observational case study, not an experimental one. In experiments, researchers change something or do something to the participants and see what happens. In observational studies, they can only observe what’s already going on. This means that it’s impossible to tell what causes the observed phenomena to occur.

That said, case studies are useful sometimes. When researchers are first discovering a new phenomenon, or when people with a particular condition are very rare, there might be no choice but to study a single individual. Observational studies in particular are useful when it’s unethical or impossible to tweak some variables to see what happens. Twitter psychosis, if it’s a real thing, is probably quite rare. We would have to study thousands of participants to find cases of it. And if Twitter really can cause psychosis in certain people, it’s clearly unethical to purposefully expose them to it to see what happens. So, case studies, including observational ones, are often the first step of studying something new.

My main concern with this type of research—and with other recent warnings by mental health professionals that the Internet (and social media in particular) can cause or aggravate mental illnesses—is that people dealing with mental health problems may be pressured by friends, family, or doctors to stay offline. Of course, sometimes staying off the Internet (or off social media specifically) can be a wise choice for someone for any number of reasons. However, the general trend of anti-tech alarmism makes it likely that “stay off the internet” will be a piece of advice too often and too easily given.

People with mental illnesses can be vulnerable to persuasion and even coercion by those with authority over them, including therapists and psychiatrists. If a person with a Ph.D. says, “I think you need to stay off Twitter,” they may take their advice without any grains of salt.

You might ask why this matters. It matters because the Internet can also be an incredible source of support and information for people with mental illnesses. Tumblr, in particular, is known for its supportive community, but it’s not the only one. Reddit has subreddits dedicated to every major mental illness where users can post stories, ask for advice, and support each other. Twitter’s hashtags make it easy to find tweets about your illness, and mental health organizations and professionals are very active there, posting supportive messages, advice, and news about clinical research.

And Facebook is where many people “come out” about their mental illnesses for the first time, finding it easier to share with many people at once rather than with individuals—but without having to show it to the whole world. (Incidentally, Facebook is also where I run a support group for atheists dealing with mental health problems, which many of the participants have told me has been really helpful.)

It’s possible that Twitter can trigger psychosis in some people with other risk factors, and researchers should conduct more studies to find how whether, how, and why this happens, and how it can be prevented. But we should be careful not to cut suffering people off from a potentially vital source of support.

Read the rest here.