Post No.: 0409
When someone is trying to express their feelings of depression, generalised anxiety, schizophrenia or bipolar disorder or to other people, one of the worst attitudes and responses they can receive is, “Yes but…” The word ‘but’ means that they deny or dismiss that the sufferer is feeling the feelings they’re feeling, or they deny or dismiss that the sufferer is justified in feeling what they’re feeling.
Another crummy response to give when someone is trying to open up to others is immediately saying, “Yeah, I’ve felt that before but I was alright” with a sense of self-congratulatory smugness or, “Yeah I get that too” with the aim of trying to make it sound like they have or had it worse or the same. But they logically cannot be feeling the exact same thing or be having it worse if they feel fine. They obviously don’t or haven’t experienced the same qualia otherwise they wouldn’t be so blasé about it, and their life would be similarly affected if given the same (lack of appropriate) support or resources. According to their response, they’ve not truly had depression, generalised anxiety disorder, schizophrenia or bipolar disorder before.
Also bad is if people start going on about their own stories and feelings and try to bring all the attention and conversation onto themselves and their own life and problems, related or otherwise (e.g. they might start to think their own problems are greater), without listening to the sufferer – who had finally built up the courage and found the best time for him/her to reveal his/her story of mental health to somebody at last. (Post No.: 0239 explained how they might’ve needed to muster a lot of courage before they could talk about their private concerns to anyone.) This isn’t generally helpful or emotionally and socially intelligent.
Yet another dismal type of comment is, “What have you got to be depressed/anxious/stressed about?” Presumptions are made that the sufferer simply isn’t as strong as others, when these others haven’t actually faced the same combination of stressors in the same combination of circumstances as them. It’s like how can anyone credibly comment on what giving birth feels like, and therefore how easy it is compared to something else, until they’ve given birth to a child? (It’s not just about the raw physical pain but the hormones, and maybe other things, too.) Even then, with different-sized babies, different-sized pelvises and so forth, different mothers experience giving birth differently too. The universe doesn’t revolve around us personally – our own experiences don’t amount to the sum total of all experiences by everyone.
You might assume someone has an intrinsically fragile lower back because he/she has experienced several back injuries… until you learn that he/she weighs 72kg and can deadlift 100 reps and hack squat 100 reps (so 200 reps in total) with a 100kg barbell in sessions of under 60 minutes with no weightlifting belt, no dropping the weight onto the ground per rep because the gym is a piece of cardboard on a concrete floor hence no bouncing the weight off the ground between reps either – and it’s really this routine that places huge stresses on his/her core. So, similarly, we won’t automatically know what another person is experiencing that places huge stresses on their mental health (that isn’t necessarily self-inflicted in this case) without truly listening to them or enquiring. And well even if someone has an intrinsically sensitive disposition, that’d be at least partly genetic and no one chooses their own genes hence it’d be folly to judge people based on their bad fortunes.
So a major problem when trying to explain to other people that one doesn’t feel right – either mentally or physically – is that some people, in a blasé, dismissive, trivialising or arrogant ‘know-it-all’ way, claim to know what you’re talking about and that they sometimes experience it too yet they’re okay. Or possibly even worse, they claim to know what you’re talking about and although they’ve never experienced it themselves, have read/heard about it somewhere or from someone else, and apparently ‘know’ that it’s not a big deal.
They self-evidently don’t know what you’re talking about – what they’re thinking about is something different, something evidently not as serious. They very likely mean well but they don’t properly listen, they may dismiss you or they may talk over you when you’re struggling to tell your story of traumatic events and feelings (the slightest pause is not a cue that one has finished speaking, especially when one is trying to utter something that’s so sensitive and personal). They assume, dismiss, continue to judge, think they know the answers and are trying to pass advice but they don’t even understand the problem. They occasionally come across as primarily caring about themselves sounding clever (when they’re not, but they’re not clever enough to realise this). They may plainly dismiss your feelings of pain as not real or a problem when you’re explicitly and directly saying it is.
If someone feels mental distress then there’s likely a mental distress that shouldn’t be riskily dismissed. Please don’t push a person to kill him/herself before you finally, properly wish to listen to and take them seriously about the way they feel. Feelings happen in the brain, and that feeling of pain or anxiety itself is a signal that something isn’t right about the brain or some other part of the body. Chronic pain is common and real, even though it doesn’t appear to have any correlation with tissue damage, which should’ve healed after a few months according to conventional ideas of pain. (It’s currently thought that chronic pain, even after a bodily injury has apparently healed, is because the pain signal somehow gets stuck and replayed in the brain?)
So who are we to deny or dismiss that someone is suffering?! It’s like trying to deny or dismiss that someone who likes to eat cheese actually likes cheese(!) If someone has a phobia then it’s naïve to dismiss that they don’t on the basis of us not experiencing the same phobia when faced with the same stimuli. Feelings like pain or happiness can only really be measured via self-reporting because a feeling can only be expressed by the bearer of that feeling. Therefore if someone feels pain, even if they’re not bleeding, then they’re in pain; or if someone feels happy, even if they’re bleeding, then they’re happy. Even if it’s ‘just’ a psychological or psychosomatic problem – it’s a real problem. All our world is, is inside our minds. Whether a person has a healthy and normal mind or not, our own realities are never objective or completely objective (e.g. we all have our own personal internal models of the world).
With any type of non-externally-obvious, invisible-on-the-surface health problem – whether mental or physical – it’s horrible when even friends and family don’t understand what you have or are going through and so lack enough empathy with you. It’s also terrible when even medical professionals cannot diagnose what’s wrong because it’s something incredibly rare. People start to not believe that you’re feeling the pain you are. Medical professionals are still human so can make mistakes, and different professionals have different levels of experience and expertise, different specialisations, feel different work pressures and have different levels of conscientiousness; hence a second or third opinion can have value.
Moreover, medical science barely has all of the answers yet. Even with the combined knowledge of every doctor in the world right now, there are still massive holes in that knowledge when it comes to the human mind and body. (Human genetic evolution hasn’t stopped either to potentially introduce new conditions, and there are always new environmental pathogens too.) And so medical professionals, as well as laypeople, should always bear that in mind. Qualified doctors will know better than laypeople, but even they don’t know everything and so should maintain humility when faced with a patient who is experiencing symptoms that they cannot personally explain the causes of.
Medical science trends towards more understanding of sufferers over time. For example, we now know that migraines aren’t just regular headaches, chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS/ME) isn’t just regular tiredness, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) isn’t just being a regular child. The understanding of chronic pain is advancing. Laypeople should continually catch up with this updating understanding too. Culture also advances, such as acknowledging the concept of domestic abuse or sexual harassment, in large part because of better understanding as time goes by. It’d therefore be wise to withhold judgements about any current or future complaints people have or will have that we have even less understanding of.
Even hypochondria, where one has an anxiety about illness and interprets normal bodily functions or minor abnormalities as major health problems, is a dreadful thing to live with – here, the fear of illness becomes an illness itself. Munchausen’s syndrome (and Munchausen’s by proxy) is on the one hand manipulative, for a person pretends to be ill or deliberately induces symptoms of illness to play the ‘sick role’, be the centre of attention and have other people care for them, but on the other it’s a mental disorder and isn’t the same as malingering (faking illness to avoid a duty or to gain a material benefit, such as compensation/damages).
Some people do attempt to free-ride on the goodness of others by faking their illnesses but you’ll know when they are because they’ll lack suffering in private and overall their life looks great or fine because their ability to do the things they want to do appears unimpeded. If their life isn’t enviable, if it’s stuck, if they aren’t living a life of luxury or taking liberties demanding or expecting various things from everyone with an air of entitlement, and if they’re trying to tell you they’re suffering, then they’re extremely highly likely genuinely suffering. And to dismiss them would only add to their suffering and sense of loneliness, thus a naïve society is an exacerbating factor for their suffering and is a part of the problem itself.
Malingering is a problem for medical services but giving up on genuine patients is far worse. People should be presumed innocent unless proven guilty with evidence anyway. And even if someone is malingering to avoid something, we must query if they have a fear or embarrassment of that something, they’re getting bullied at school or work, or something else that’s nonetheless problematic like that? If they’re doing it to try to gain something and if they’re poor and desperate then that’s a factor, or if they’re not poor but still want it then we must address their insecurities to want something so badly that they’d cheat for it. In other words, we should sustain compassion and think laterally to search for the root of the problem (while looking after ourselves and others if a patient is dangerous, but most patients aren’t).
A smart detective understands that there are causal reasons for everything. As bunches of matter, everyone (including dangerous people) has a reason(s) for being or behaving exactly the way they are or do from a genetic and/or environmental history and present circumstances standpoint. The problem sometimes with expertise though is that it’s too narrowly focused on one’s particular field and so one only ends up searching for problems and solutions that fit into what one already knows. A trainee can thus often think more laterally than someone who’s become set in his/her way of thinking. We sometimes need to take a scientifically holistic ‘God’s eye view’ (sort of analogously like when playing SimCity, yet God is also in the details like in The Sims) on humans, life and the world to get on the right track to understanding what’s actually going on.
Woof. So please don’t automatically dismiss people’s feelings or concerns, especially if you do get specially selected and ultimately trusted as someone to confide in.