Insight is awesome, but it isn’t magic

There is this interaction that I have versions of a LOT. In and of itself, it isn’t a bad thing (and so PLEASE do not feel guilty or weird if you have had a conversation with me that sounds like what I’m about to describe)… I largely find it frustrating because I have it so fucking often, and have yet to come up with a way to respond to it that feels satisfying to me.

Here is how this tends to go down.

It starts because I am having, or have recently had, a Bad Brain Day/Week/Month. What this typically means is that I have been experiencing some type of overwhelmingly strong emotional response–maybe I’ve been having panic attacks, maybe I’ve been getting disproportionately bummed out over some particular event, maybe my brain has been spinning off into depression-ish thinking for a variety of reasons. Whatever it is, it is significant enough to have been playing a big, big part in my experience of the world during whatever time period I have been dealing with it, and may even be causing me to significantly alter my behavior to compensate for it.

So this thing has been going on with me, and someone I am fairly open to about such things asks me how I’ve been, and I tell them. This could be a friend, a family member, even my therapist. I then explain, to the degree that I am comfortable doing so, the emotional issue I am having. I am able to be incredibly articulate about what I am feeling, and why I am feeling it, and to the extent that it is irrational, I explicitly describe it as such. Often, I explicitly state that part of what is distressing to me about this experience is that I understand that it is irrational, but I cannot stop having the thoughts/feelings.

The person I am talking to then responds with something to the effect of “well at least you’re aware that your thoughts are irrational, and are able to counter them/deal with them so rationally”.

*cue inarticulate aggravated noises*

Here’s the thing. The vast majority of the time when I am struggling mentally/emotionally, I AM able to cling to at least some small thread of rationality, and I am able to understand, at least partially, where my feelings are coming from/that they are not grounded entirely in reality. This isn’t to say that I always understand every aspect of my own psyche (no one has perfect self-knowledge), but I do certainly have enough understanding to be useful.

This IS a great thing, in that it has kept me from being more of a danger to myself or others, and in that it allows me to implement self-care strategies as needed in order to mostly pass as a not-crazy person in many of my daily interactions. It’s a huge part of what allows me to be a basically functional, self-supporting adult.

I also understand that there are lots of well-meaning reasons why people give me the “but at least you understand your craziness!” response. Sometimes they are genuinely surprised/impressed by my ability to articulate things so clearly/dissect my own motivations, either because they struggle with that themselves or because they aren’t used to hearing people with mental illness talk about it the way I do. Sometimes they don’t know what else to say, and are just trying to respond with something positive. Sometimes, as in the case of my therapist, they are trying to get me to “give myself credit” for using the coping mechanisms I have learned/countering the negative thoughts.

All that said… despite what the cliches about flashes-of-insight on therapists’ couches may have taught you, understanding your emotional responses does not allow you to magically turn them off. At best, insight allows you to apply strategies to manipulate those responses in more favorable directions, and that still takes significant effort, which is FUCKING EXHAUSTING. When I am explaining that I’ve been having a tough time lately, part of what I am telling you is that I have been working really hard to keep my emotions/negative thoughts from completely incapacitating me, and I am fucking TIRED and it SUCKS.

So when someone hears that, and turns around and tells me “well at least you are able to understand/control what’s going on in your head”, it’s hard for me not to hear that as “well, be grateful that it isn’t worse!” Which, as I hope you know, is not a particularly helpful response to anyone experiencing hard things.

I don’t have a great way to sum this up, so I’m just going to say this: when someone tells you about something they are struggling with, suppress the urge to immediately go to giving advice, praising how they are handling it, or trying to help them see that it’s “not that bad”. They may need/want one or all of those things, eventually. But maybe don’t start there. Maybe just start by making them feel heard.