empathy hurts when you’re doing it right

Vice just published How Do You Help Someone You Love When They’re Depressed? I’m crazy, and my friends are mostly crazy. My family is crazy. It’s really easy to forget that abnormal psychology is abnormal. My mom was depressed, and I’ve always been depressed, and my dad was a social worker, so I never had the thought “How do I talk to a depressed person? This is soooo uncomfortable.” For me, talking to a depressed person is like living in a foreign country and then meeting someone from your home city. Finally someone whose behavior makes sense! For normals, I guess it’s like never leaving their home country and then meeting a foreigner who keeps being difficult.

I didn’t like the Vice article, but it illustrates a kind of clueless self-absorption that’s common.

There was a time, earlier this year, when my girlfriend and I were lying in bed talking about her depression. She was in the middle of her second bout, six years after the first. She was describing how she felt and mentioned she had been having “suicidal thoughts.” Trying to untie the sudden knot in my stomach and remain calm, I asked her what this involved. She said, “Knives. Mainly fantasies about knives.”

My initial thoughts were as follows:

“It’s good she can be this honest with me, that’s an improvement.”

Hide all the knives in the house

“What am I supposed to do with this information? Why has she given me this information?”

Hide the knives right now

“What can I do to help solve this problem?”

Yeah but the knives, though…

“Why would she want to kill herself? Doesn’t she love me enough? Why am I not enough to make her happy?”

My ego took a serious right hook. I felt completely useless. I spent the rest of the night wide awake worrying about knives, love, depression, and my role in the whole sorry mess. The following morning I texted my sister, Katie: “Charlotte’s hitting depression again. I don’t know what to do. I feel totally inept.”

Katie, whose husband also suffers from depression, texted back immediately: “Oh bro, I know exactly how you feel. Call me whenever you want.”

The problems are this person’s ego and the widespread belief that you should freak out and call 911 as soon as someone says anything about self-harm. That introduces massive uncontrollable stress into the person’s life, which is The Wrong Thing. Only normal people and their attorneys could come up with advice like that.

The way this guy describes things, his first thought is to treat his girlfriend like a child, hiding the knives away. “Why has she given me this information?” Because she trusted you.

I’m 32 years old, and I’ve had “thoughts of suicide” for 20 years (Jehovah’s Witness children’s literature puts the idea in your head). Throughout that time, I’ve lived in proximity to tall structures people jump from. I’ve live in a home full of sharp objects, and worked in labs full of toxic chemicals. I was around my dad’s gun when I went home to visit. I could walk to nearby train tracks. I drive an automobile. Suicide is a possible choice we have. You’d be remiss not to consider all of your choices periodically. It can give you a feeling of agency in otherwise uncontrollable situations, knowing you have the option to quit. It’s precisely why we take away the ability of people to commit suicide when we’re torturing them.

The ones afraid of their own thoughts are the normal people. They can’t imagine allowing themselves to really consider committing suicide, then deciding to hold out. They project their panic onto the depressed person whose tone might even be matter-of-fact. This person’s girlfriend has presumably been around knives while depressed for a long time. She’s talking about it in a reflective way. The normal person is acting like an overwhelmed, self-absorbed child. It’s all about sustaining his feelings of usefulness and reassuring him that he’s worth living for. Instead of tuning out his girlfriend and worrying about doing something, he could have listened and asked questions that showed he was listening and that whatever she said was ok because he loves her. Right? Because if not, it’s appropriate to be depressed when your partner doesn’t treat you like a person.

Empathy hurts when you’re doing it right. The way to show that you care is to let yourself be affected by what they’re saying, so that you feel sad, too. Maybe you could cry together, and you might give someone the gift of being understood for the first time in their life! If you don’t do this, you aren’t really there for someone. You’re pushing them away so they don’t harsh your buzz.

The article goes on to explain that you should pawn your loved ones off onto strangers:

Emer O’Neill, the CEO of Depression Alliance, told me that the best thing to do was help your partner get a referral to a doctor or professional. “Fundamentally,” she says, “there is not a lot you can do on your own.” She recommended “increasing your own understanding of what depression is so you don’t say harsh things or something that is inappropriate.” By understanding more, you “feel more equipped to deal with it.”

Yes. Depression is like leprosy and should definitely be left to the professionals. Preferably wearing masks and gloves. You should feel incapable of providing the social support humans have provided to each other for hundreds of thousands of years. This person needed to contact the CEO of something to be told that he should understand his partner’s mental life. The lack of insight is amazing, or amazingly common:

You have to learn to put your ego aside, basically. One of the ways you can do that is by talking to other people. Your ego won’t feel so bad if you know other people are going through similar things. Since chatting about Charlotte’s depression to friends of mine, I discovered many of them have experienced the same thing, we just never got around to talking about it.

But Charlotte is an Other person and it’s completely different for her.  It hurts when your partner won’t go through it with you even in their imagination.

There are obviously cases where small gestures are simply not enough. After hearing me talk about the knives conversation, O’Neill said, “When someone talks to you about suicide, then you have a duty, a responsibility, to act on it. That’s too much for you to have to hold in. It’s more than anyone should have to hold in.

Depressed people hold it in all the time every day, so idiots don’t call the police or otherwise take their freedom away. This person appears to be experiencing empathy, but it’s unfamiliar and he doesn’t know what to do with it. He imagined what it’s like to be depressed, and it was so upsetting that he panicked and needed social support. He felt better every time he did this.

For him, life is rewarding support-seeking on an FR1 schedule. Every time he does it, he feels better. He’s complaining to normal people about what a pain in the ass abnormal people are. On the other hand, support-seeking for abnormal people is rewarded on a DRL schedule:

We evaluated the effectiveness of full-session differential reinforcement of low rates of behavior (DRL) on 3 primary school children’s rates of requesting attention from their teacher. Using baseline rates of responding and teacher recommendations, we set a DRL schedule that was substantially lower than baseline yet still allowed the children access to teacher assistance. The DRL schedule was effective in reducing children’s requests for assistance and approval, and the teacher found the intervention highly useful and acceptable. The possible mechanisms that account for behavior change using full-session DRL schedules are discussed.

You open up to the normal people often enough to make them feel special, but no more. Don’t complain so much! You’re being so negative…Your friends and loved ones would appreciate it if you STFU.

In other words, depressed people isolate themselves as a natural consequence of the way they’re treated by normal people.

It’s not that depressed people work so differently. It’s that normal people treat them differently, and they adapt to the environment actually provided by normal people. They’re expected to spare normal people the pain of empathy, or else:

It may feel like a breach of trust or confidentiality, seeking outside help for someone, but believe me, your mind can run to wild places unless you talk to a volunteer, professional or friend. Charlotte didn’t act on her thoughts, but I’m not sure I would want to take that risk again. This is partly because keeping her suicidal thoughts to myself was exhausting, but also because if something did happen, it would be hard not to shoulder some of the blame myself, no matter how misplaced.

This article makes me depressed for the author’s girlfriend. The way he’s describing it publicly, he’s failing to be there for his girlfriend in her time of need.  Is the blame misplaced?  Is he blameless?

If he has children and parents them this way, they’ll have narcissism problems, perpetuating the cycle.

Pain exists for a reason:


Pain is as much a part of human motivation as pleasure. We organize society around hedonism. Imagine if we organized society around reducing pain.