HOW NOT TO ENCOURAGE SOMEONE’S SELF-DESTRUCTION
Updated: Nov 6, 2022
I once did a rant in which I raged against people who respond to the mental difficulties of other people by posting or sending clichéd platitudes and aphorisms in a lazy attempt to help. To quote myself (pardon the pomposity):
“Posting optimistic aphorisms with the philosophical substance of a sieve doesn't do shit. In fact, it is selfish and ignorant and shows that you don't give a flying toss about other people's well-being. It is the easy way out. It doesn't address any problems or gives any reason to be positive, it simply states "be positive", which is just fucking meaningless.”
Admittedly, I was a bit harsh in my rant and my anger ignored the fact that a lot of the people who post this kind of material don’t do it out of laziness, but genuinely believe that these type of quotes will help. And for some people they do help. Not everyone wants to talk about their dark inner feelings, and posting these quotes might be considered a proof of care without a breach of personal space by some people. So, I apologize to any people who at the time felt that my comments were attacking them.
However, I recently realised the source of my anger. A lot of these quotes and aphorisms are illustrative of different ways of thinking that are guaranteed to damage the self-image of the person in need, and ultimately worsen this person’s mental conditions. I think it’s time we take a good look at the fallacies and dangerous patterns and at their potential danger. Most of these are intertwined and often can’t be separated from each other, but I think it’s more beneficial to look at them separately so when can see their individual level of nonsense.
Here are a few tips on what not to do when talking to people who are generally troubled or have mental health issues:
DO NOT deny and downplay someone’s feelings:
We begin with an easy one. To assume that the someone’s mental issues are made up or exaggerated because they want attention or are just drama queens or whatever is NOT FUCKING OK. Whether or not it’s as bad as the person says it is, it doesn’t matter. The fact is that in every case the person in question needs help. To go out of your way to ‘disprove’ the genuineness of a person’s feelings just so you don’t have to care is one of the most harmful things you can do to a person; to give them this patronizing bullshit of ‘you’re just exaggerating, get over it’. Can you image the pain of having someone tell you to your face that something that is constantly overshadowing your life is just a fad, just a temper tantrum? To downplay or to deny the genuineness of a person’s mental suffering is more than just ‘a dick move’. It’s fucking immoral and it shows a true lack of empathy. Don’t fucking do it.
DO NOT oversimplify the workings of another’s mind:
The mind is an extremely complex thing. And many fields of science have ventured to explain its workings on different levels. Philosophy has often considered mental activity to be inherently connected to reason and the faculties of critical thinking. Therefore, it has often been assumed that one’s mental condition is to be controlled by reason and by reason alone. Psychology has somewhat expanded this view, and has illustrated that the ‘control’ of one’s mind isn’t as simple as some would assume. However, the old rationalistic view of the ‘self-made mind’ is still prevalent and is sometimes a problem.
Some people still assume that Reason is in control of emotions. They think that simply by having a positive worldview and self-image that the potency of depression and self-hatred will fade. To illustrate this, they use the example of the self-fulfilling prophecy (i.e. a prediction that directly or indirectly causes itself to be fulfilled). Of course, there’s some truth in this; constantly believing that you don’t have any friends will most likely fuck with your ability to have any friends.
However, when this reasoning is applied to mental health problems it simply neglects the emotional and sometimes compulsive underpinnings of emotional distress. In other words, pessimism isn’t always damaging, and if it is damaging, it usually has a cause of its own. The perception of the world is both influenced by emotions as it is confirming them. And if one has little control over one’s emotions, then the ability to separate reason from emotions becomes nearly impossible. Ultimately, brain chemistry cannot be altered by positive thinking.
One needs to be in a suitable mental (read neurochemical, psychological and also often social) climate to be open to optimism and its effects. If one doesn’t have that kind of climate and people try to convince you that the problem is that you’re not trying hard enough to change your worldview the potential damage is clear: a failure to become optimistic and happy will lead to more disappointment, self-hatred etc.
So, be very careful when you use this kind of reasoning. The effectiveness of it depends on the nature of the issues in question, and the way in which you present this kind of change. If you underestimate the complexity of the issues, you will oversimplify the solution. And when you present the solution as ‘simply wanting to be happy and being optimistic’ then you’re bound to cause a lot of damage. In effect, you’re doing something similar to victim blaming; The person’s problems are simply caused by his/her inability to be happy. It’s their fault, and they don’t deserve any sympathy, cause if they wanted to be happy, they would be. For fuck’s sake, please don’t.
DO NOT Reinforce society’s stupid bullshit
For thousands of years, dangerous ideas and expectations have damaged the way in which people are supposed to feel about themselves. Women have suffered a lot from this: unrealistic standards of physical beauty, ideas of social and biological inferiority, expectations of sexual and social submission, unrealistic and damaging portrayals in art and fiction, the downplaying of misogynistic phenomena such as catcalling and groping…
Then we have the stupid stereotypes about the LGBTQIA community, or black people, or poor people or people with disabilities… the list goes on and on. The judgement of society has fucked with people since the beginning of our species. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not just talking about offensive humour. Humour is tricky and everyone’s taste is different. I personally do enjoy some offensive comedy. I think it’s important we look at the context of offensive material and find out what its purpose is. Every thinking mind will find the difference between Frankie Boyle and Kathie Hopkins, or George Carlin and Donald Trump… You don’t have to like offensive jokes, but at least look at the underlying point and the intended audience before you shout blasphemy.
Generally, I would say jokes are the least of our problems. There are some seriously fucked-up beliefs that are held by a lot of people: Trans women can never be women, marriage is only for straight people, gay people are paedophiles, sexually active women are sluts, being a man means being a bully, men who are open about their feelings are inferior and not real men, black people are inherently criminal etc.
All of these statements are absolute, malicious bollocks, and yet they are not likely to go away. A lot of these are still being held by a lot of people. Bigots, fanatics, morons and generally shitty people. And I’m not talking about jokes. I’m talking about people who have seriously bigoted opinions and unacceptable behaviour and consider it their duty to share their bile with other people. All of this has palpable influence on the self-image of a lot of people, and many of them are struggling with depression because of the constant social pressures that are placed upon them. I believe it is time we worked to subvert the social expectations the patriarchy enslaves us with, so that no one has to feel like they are not good enough. Anyone who clings to the outdated stereotypes of gender, race and sexuality is directly causing damage to the mental well-being of their fellow human beings. This has nothing to do with culture or religion. Culture in itself is a human construct, and every cultural phenomenon which systematically causes physical or mental damage does not deserve to exist. So don’t be a dick and leave people be.
DO NOT let your ego undermine your empathy
In the end, it all comes down to empathy. You may not fully comprehend the nature of someone’s mental issues, but that does not mean you cannot understand the basics. Some people seem to be so egotistical that their ability to feel for another human being ends when that person does not mirror their own sense of self or view of society. I’ve forgotten how many times I’ve seen people judge others for the most ridiculous of reasons:
I don’t travel, therefore people who do travel are easily bored and waste their money.
I don’t need the comfort of religion, therefore all religious people are weak and gullible.
I’ve never felt depressed, therefore depression doesn’t exist.
I’ve never liked smoking, therefore no one should smoke.
I can go on like this forever. A lot of these lines of thinking have the same characteristic: a refusal to accept and condemnation of difference. A simplistic, small-minded way of looking at the world and one that seriously needs lose its right to appear in grown-up discussions. It’s time a lot of people learn to look past their own self-righteousness and start wondering if they would like to be judged in the same manner.
IN CONCLUSION, I would like to say that I do know that, unless you have had some experience yourself, mental health issues are often very hard to understand. There are loads of different phenomena and symptoms and the diversity of people’s personalities often makes it impossible to fully grasp another’s suffering. Thus, I do understand that, to some people, sharing slogans and aphorisms may seem like the only thing they can do. But, in truth, it’s not. Talking and listening are a better alternative, as long as you remember the following:
It’s not about solving their problem, it’s not about being their psychologist. It’s about showing you care. It’s about showing you want to understand. There are some great people out there who understand that to help someone with mental health issues is about standing by them and helping them fight the darkness they are facing. Kindness is the greatest way to fight someone’s insecurities, self-hatred and dark thoughts. Give them a reason to be hopeful, don’t simply tell them to.