Join CARE Counseling and My Talk’s Mom Show as we work to connect Minneapolis Mom’s to Mental Health and Counseling Resources. Special guests this week on The Mom Show includes staff members Shannon Henry and Heidi Bausch as they discuss the concepts of grief and loss.
Like many who have social media accounts, I regularly check my timelines and feeds for intriguing articles, updates and happenings. Two years ago, I was mindlessly scrolling through one of my accounts before going to bed and one post immediately stood out among the rest: It was a suicide note.
Frantically, I read my friend Mark’s post. It detailed his internal suffering over the years, which he no longer wanted to endure. The comment section grew at an alarming rate. People asked questions, both directly to Mark and to each other. Some people were pleading with him to reconsider. Others offered comments of hope.
Over the next few days, I saw something I did not expect. Hundreds of comments on Mark’s post evolved into a community of people coming together to help find Mark, who had gone missing. People used his previous posts on other social media platforms to piece together his possible location. Some contacted the authorities—and thankfully, those authorities located him before he took his life.
Social Media On The Rise
We live in a world driven by technology. We see the media regularly report on new apps for our smartphones and the latest trending celebrity tweets. Whether we’re commuting to work, studying in a coffee shop or spending time with our family and friends, being connected digitally is part of our lives. An entire generation of young people is growing up with devices in their hands, regularly engaging in social media.
According to the Pew Research Center, in 2005 only 5% of American adults used at least one social media platform. That number has since grown significantly: Today, 70% of the public uses social media, with many people using more than one platform.
Some researchers are beginning to identify connections between online social networking and mental health concerns. Among these concerns are varying levels of self-esteem and addiction to social media, as well as the internet. However, it is uncertain whether signs and symptoms of mental health conditions are the causes or effects of using social media. Since each platform is different and new platforms continue to be introduced, future research is needed to assess the true effect of social media on mental health.
Identifying Mental Health Concerns Online
When used responsibly, social media can be used in positive ways. It can be used to promote mental health to a large audience. I’ve seen individuals share their personal stories of recovery, like those on NAMI.org at You Are Not Alone and OK2Talk. I’ve seen mental health writers connect with one another on Twitter. And as with my friend Mark, during times of crisis, social media can even save lives.
On platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, users now have options for getting a friend help. If a user thinks a friend is in danger of self-harm or suicide, they can report their concerns by going to the social media websites’ Help Centers. These online Help Centers have dedicated content about suicide and self-harm prevention, which include online resources and phone numbers for suicide hotlines around the world.
The most helpful feature I’ve seen instituted recently is on Instagram. Users can anonymously flag posts by other users that have content about self-harm and suicide. That user then receives a message encouraging them to speak with a friend, contact a helpline or seek professional help. The same message appears for people who are regularly searching self-harm- or suicide-related content on Instagram.
Recent research by the Department of Defense Suicide Prevention Office notes that personal social media accounts “can provide an important window into a person’s state of mind.” At the Secretary of the Army Symposium on Suicide Prevention in mid-January 2017, military leaders, mental health professionals and companies like Google, Facebook and LinkedIn came together to see how social media can be used to connect those in need to care and resources.
How Can I Help?
With social media giants like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat dominating our screen time, it’s wise to assume that social media will continue to be a primary method of communication. Therefore, it’s up to us to look out for mental health warning signs while on social media so we are better prepared to assist a friend in need.
If you see any of the following behavior online, it may be time to step in and contact your friend directly to see how you can help:
- Cyberbullying, which includes:
a. harassing messages or comments
b. fake accounts made to impersonate someone else
c. someone posting unwanted pictures or images of another person
- Negative statements about themselves, even if it sounds like they are joking, such as
a. “I’m a waste of space.”
b. “No one cares about me.”
c. “I seriously hate myself.”
- Negative leading statements with little to no context that prompt others to respond, such as:
a. “You wouldn’t believe what I’ve been through.”
b. “Today was the worst day ever.”
c. “It’s like everyone is against me.”
If someone you know is in immediate danger—for example, they talk about a specific plan for harming themselves—contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255. This lifeline can support the individual and their family members, and has the ability to connect with local law enforcement, if necessary. If a person has attempted self-harm or is injured, call 911 immediately.
If the threat of physical danger is not immediate, here are some things you can do to help:
- Report the content on the social media website’s Help Center;
- Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255; or
- Reach out to the Crisis Text Line by texting the word “NAMI” to 741741 (standard data rates may apply).
As you scroll through your social media feeds, be mindful of what others post. Being educated about available resources is important for those of us who promote mental health, but knowing when to reach out to a friend who may be experiencing a mental health crisis is even more important: You just might save a life.
Ryann Tanap is manager of social media and digital assets at NAMI.
People often ask me: “What can I do to boost my happiness?”
I tell them that there are tons of things you can do, but then I can only recall a handful of practices in the moment. So I decided to create this complete guide for how to be happy, according to science. If you use these 23 practices consistently, you are very likely to increase your personal happiness:
1. Find out what to do first.
How are you supposed to build the right happiness skills if you don’t know which ones you are struggling with in the first place? This is why it’s helpful to take a quiz to explore your happiness strengths and weaknesses. Get a better understanding of what these skills are all about, and learn how to improve upon your weaknesses and build your “happiness strengths.”
2. Give yourself a confidence boost.
Why would you bother increasing your happiness if you didn’t think you could be successful at it? You wouldn’t. That’s why it’s so important to build your self-efficacy — to prove to yourself that you can increase your happiness. The best way to do this is by starting with easier skills — skills like gratitude or prioritizing spending time doing fun things. Get a quick win, and you’ll be more confident that you really can change your life.
3. Fuel your progress by learning how to feel better about yourself.
You wouldn’t practice math to get better at cooking. And you wouldn’t learn another language to lose weight. To be happier, you’ll likely make more progress by focusing on the skills that are most closely linked to happiness. In my research, the skill that usually turns out to be most closely linked to happiness is: positive self-views. Learning how to feel better about yourself — for example, by imagining your best possible self, noting your positive qualities, or identifying your strengths — can go a long way to increasing your happiness.
4. Create balance and overcome burnout.
How are you supposed to have the energy to be happier if you’re exhausted and miserable from work? It will be really hard. Building new skills, skills that will help you be happier, will take time and energy. So it’s helpful first to create better work-life balance.
5. Build a growth mindset for happiness.
A growth mindset refers to the belief that we can change ourselves. When we build a growth mindset for happiness, we believe we can change our happiness. This is super important, because if we don’t believe we canincrease our happiness, we won’t even bother to try.
6. Make positive memories.
Every region in our brains can be strengthened through practice. If our brains are really good at remembering negative things that happen, it can be useful to strengthen the regions of the brain responsible for remembering positive things.
7. Find those silver linings.
Everything we experience can be a bummer if we choose to see it that way. But when you search for the benefits or silver linings in your life, you may be surprised to discover a lot of good. Keep practicing to increase the positive and decrease the negative to cultivate happiness. Also, this skill has been linked to a better ability to cope with stressand be more resilient.
8. Take breaks from social media.
Facebook tends to have a negative effect on our happiness. By choosing to take breaks from Facebook — or changing the way we use social media — we can boost our happiness.
9. Spend smarter for more happiness.
How we choose to spend our money impacts what we can do and how we live in ways that impact how happy we are. When we choose a less fancy house or car — things that don’t bring us much happiness — we have more money to spend on adventures or on gifts for friends: things that actually do make us happier.
10. Communicate kindly.
When we are kind to others, we feel better about ourselves. We can do nice things for others, be empathetic, or we can just treat each other with respect, communicating kindly rather than assuming the worst.
11. End your negative patterns of thinking.
Let’s face it: Sometimes we are what’s making us miserable. We just can’t stop thinking about how so-and-so wronged us, or how our life didn’t turn out as we hoped. Negative thought processes — like worrying, ruminating, self-judgment, and fearing rejection — just keep us miserable and unable to move forward. When you find yourself thinking negatively, pause and refocus your thoughts. In time, your brain will be able to do this more easily on its own.
12. Find clarity.
How are you supposed to move your life forward when you don’t even know what you feel or why you feel it? To become happier, try to gain clarity on your emotions; find out what you’re feeling and what caused those feelings.
13. Live your values.
When you start to explore yourself and your values, you may discover that you’ve known all along what would make you happy, but you’re just not doing it. To be happier, get clear on your values, so that you can live your life autonomously, according to your own principles and values.
14. Pay attention to the good.
Sure, sometimes life is hard. But by paying attention to the good, you can rise above it and be more resilient. When you find the good, savor the moment, and bring it with you to maintain happiness even during hard times. Or try thinking about a time in the future when you’ll feel better.
15. Use your imagination to create the life you seek.
Did you know that your brain has a difficult time differentiating between things that happen in your imagination and things that happen in real life? So when you imagine something — even happiness — your brain acts as if it’s real. We can use imagination to help create happiness out of thin air and enjoy our experiences more.
16. Stay mindful.
Sometimes we want to escape. The world seems dark and scary, but by practicing mindfulness we experience more fully both the positive and the negative — we are more fully engaged in our lives.
17. Explore what happiness means to you.
We all define happiness in different ways. When you know what happiness means to you, you’ll have an easier time finding it. So explore happiness — what it means, what it looks like, and what it feels like — to more easily create it.
18. Go after life.
How are you supposed to change your life by doing the same things you’ve always done? It’s pretty tough. Instead, push yourself to overcome fearand approach life with enthusiasm. Try “doing the opposite” to see how it feels and to make your brain more flexible.
19. Speak up and be yourself.
When we let people walk all over us, we’re unhappy. But when we advocate for our own needs assertively and express ourselves, we feel more in control of our lives. Learning how to express yourself can help you overcome interpersonal challenges, which can make you unhappy.
20. Find your purpose.
We all want to feel like we made some sort of positive impact in this world, but sometimes we are uncertain of the type of impact we want to make. Explore exactly what gives you a sense of purpose and how you want to pursue this purpose to give your life a greater sense of meaning.
21. Build meaningful connections.
Did you know we enjoy just about everything more when we do it with others? This is why one of the best things you can do for your happiness is to build meaningful relationships and social connections. To strengthen these relationships, practice kindness and gratitude towards the people you care about.
22. Get off the hedonic treadmill.
The “hedonic treadmill” refers to the tendency for us to return to our original happiness level over time. To boost your baseline-level happiness, you can try changing your physiology through nutrition and exercise. To maintain your happiness, you have to get out of your comfort zone and keep adding variety to your happiness plan.
23. Hold yourself accountable.
We are more likely to do the things we say we’re going to do if we schedule time in our calendars to do them. We can also more easily stay on track if we get accountability from others. So if you really want to be happier, don’t let yourself get away with being unhappy.
My last depressive episode left me completely isolated. I didn’t respond to messages for months. Since I didn’t know how long I would be depressed, answering the question “how are you?” became emotionally draining. Actually, that one question was why I stopped talking to people entirely.
“How are you?” is such a knee-jerk opening line to a conversation; most of us don’t even realize we’re saying it, or pay much attention to the typical response of, “I’m good.” But I wasn’t good, or even okay, and saying it just to get past that question felt like a lie I didn’t want to explain.
I never would’ve guessed that I could go such a long period of time without talking to anyone. I know now how painful it was for those who cared about me not to hear anything despite their repeated attempts to reach out.
Peer support—“peer” defined both as friends and as those who identify as having mental illness—can be profoundly helpful to the recovery process and to help keep symptoms at bay. I could’ve really benefited from this kind of support during my depression, but my lack of communication with my friends and family led me to struggle in silence.
Feeling Empathy For Those Who Are Trying
When that dark cloud finally lifted, I was intrigued by how difficult it was for me to communicate with the people I cared about during my episode. I didn’t want to go through that again. I wanted to learn how to be better at communicating, especially in the thick of a depressive episode.
So I read the book, “There Is No Good Card for This: What to Say and Do When Life Is Scary, Awful, and Unfair to People You Love.” It includes many wonderful examples of how and when to say or do something, and when it’s best to say nothing at all and just listen. It’s a relatively short, easy read considering the depth of knowledge it contains about difficult conversations. Some of the scenarios included made me cringe as I reflected on things I’ve said that were less than ideal.
This book was immensely helpful in learning empathy for those trying to make a connection with me during my episode. I learned that my negative reaction to my friends asking me how I was doing was because depression had changed my perception. The book helped me understand that people might say uncomfortable or insensitive things—“how are you doing?”—when they are genuinely trying to connect but don’t know what to say or what may negatively impact someone.
Learning Essential Communication Skills
I also learned how I could be a better support system for my friends facing adversities, because we all end up being the supportive friend at one time or another. Conversations are a two-way street, even if one person is doing most of the talking. How you listen and respond can change the tone and outcome of a conversation. In “There is No Good Card for This,” you can find out what type of listener you are and what you can do to improve or change the way you respond. This can help build confidence during a difficult conversation.
Here are a few tips from the book to start working on:
- Don’t judge or assume. People deal with life’s hurts in various ways. It’s easy to say how we would behave in a friend’s situation, but trust that your friend is doing what’s best for him/her, even if you don’t agree with it.
- Listening speaks volume about how much you care. It can be much easier to listen than to find the perfect thing to say. Try to avoid asking clarifying questions or offering suggestions and anecdotal stories in an attempt to connect unless you know this is what your friend wants. If unsure, ask if he or she would prefer for you to listen for support or brainstorm helpful next steps.
- Small gestures make a big difference: Some people are better at showing they care than expressing it in words. Clipping coupons for everyday essentials, preparing and delivering their favorite meal, or gifting a massage are just a few examples.
Realizing Mistakes Are Just Learning Opportunities
At the end of the day, just knowing my friends cared enough to reach out meant the world to me. I isolated myself because I felt emotionally fragile and didn’t want to be asked how I was doing. I still wanted to cheer and root for them, and to tell them how proud I was of them despite my depression; I just didn’t want them to ask how I was because I was still trying to figure that out. I now know that I could have expressed that sentiment, and my friends would have understood. It sounds so easy in hindsight, but I couldn’t even get past “how are you?” to tell them.
Please know that you are not alone if you’ve ever felt like this, and if you would like to talk to someone without fear of judgment, please call the NAMI HelpLine for references to mental health resources—including support groups—in your area or online. If you’d like to speak with a trained peer support specialist, the NAMI HelpLine can also give you a local number that you can call 24/7.
Traditional classrooms do not include courses with the sole purpose of teaching emotional intelligence, sensitivity and empathy, so those lessons tend to come from life experience. It’s important to remember to be kind to yourself and others as you navigate through difficult situations. Look back on mistakes as learning opportunities.
I have learned through this experience that if someone is reaching out to you, their heart is probably in the right place, even if they can’t find the “right” words.
Keiko Purnell is a NAMI HelpLine Volunteer.
Few opportunities in life allow one to feel as if you’ve made a meaningful difference in another’s life. For me, serving as a NAMI HelpLine volunteer is one of them—and this is why I do it.
With an eye to return to school for clinical social work, last year I sought out volunteer opportunities that would allow me to work with people in the mental health community. I learned of NAMI by sheer coincidence, when a friend introduced me to a fellow volunteer. I had never heard of NAMI, and although she spoke enthusiastically of her experience, the idea of manning a phone line to provide “information and resource referral” seemed less than the intimate, learning experience I was seeking.
I couldn’t have been more mistaken. Not a shift ends that I don’t sit back, reflect and thank my lucky stars for having had the chance to help someone that day; to share their frustrations and fears; to ease their pain; to point them toward hope, even if it’s just a little. As a NAMI HelpLine volunteer, I will often be the only voice of hope in the mental health resource chain who treats a caller with kindness, patience and respect.
On the NAMI HelpLine, we act as a compass to begin navigating a complex system of mental health resources—a process that moments before most likely seemed unnavigable and hopeless for the caller. And the calls are endless. You think an hour will go by and the phone lines might be slow, but they never are. There is always a need somewhere. And the needs are as personal as each human. Each call requires intense empathy, compassion, focus, patience and creative problem-solving, within a moment’s grasp. What we do is personal, and I love it.
We live in a world where listening is a dying art. Our callers need to be heard, not merely “listened to.” They need to know their situation matters. Often when I ask a caller, “How can I help you today?” I hear, “I don’t know if you can,” because prior attempts for help have been met with a lack of compassion and/or respect. Often, our callers have complex circumstances and the stakes are very high.
As a NAMI HelpLine volunteer, at the very least I need to listen and be kind; to let callers know I’m not going anywhere, and I’m going to do my very best to figure things out with them. I genuinely care to go the extra mile, by making sure the caller is okay and that they feel they’ve been heard before I say goodbye.
Almost every call closes with the caller sharing, “I can’t thank you enough. Before I called you, I didn’t know where to start. You’ve helped me so much.” I cannot fully describe how good it feels to be able to speak with a caller—who at the beginning of a call feels helpless and lost—and help empower them with a sense of dignity, calm and hope by the end of the call.
Each volunteer comes to the NAMI HelpLine with “lived” experience. Either we live with, care for, or have cared for a loved one with a mental health condition. We know personally the challenges, heart ache, devastation, helplessness and hopelessness. We are both compassionate and passionate about helping others who call us and are seeking help, because we’ve been there.
I have lived with clinical depression most of my life, and more recently, with anxiety and panic attacks. I understand all too well the loss of vitality, the desperation, the fear, the self-imposed shame and isolation, the fatigue of living each day bearing the weight of “okay-ness,” the frustration of losing weeks, months and even years to mental illness.
Worse, I know the frustration of working with psychiatrists who seemed to be little more than “dispensaries,” and what it is like to live with the denial that I didn’t need medication (only to finally give in and accept that I couldn’t live well without it). I know the impatience one experiences while waiting for a new medication to kick-in and what it’s like living through the side-effects. I know the desperation when a medication doesn’t work, and the ultimate relief when one finally does work. I know the incredible fortune of having the resources and resilience to find those gifted practitioners who were empathetic, caring healers who worked patiently with me to help me live a fulfilling life in every way. All of this has made me a more empathetic HelpLine volunteer. I field similar concerns every shift. And I am willing to share my story if it helps to alleviate fears.
Prior to my affiliation with NAMI, I had no knowledge of the many resources, both public and private, available to our callers. After almost a year on the NAMI HelpLine, it still amazes me how many resources there are, yet how little is known to most people. I wish I had learned many years ago of some that I now share with callers. It would have made my journey that much more bearable, or at the very least, to know that I wasn’t alone. And that I was heard.
Quinn Anderson is a NAMI Helpline Volunteer.
One of the worst feelings in the world is feeling like you’re all alone. Feeling like nobody could possibly understand what you’re going through or identify with the deep, drowning pain you feel. Throughout my life and journey with mental illness, I’ve felt this way more times than I’d like to admit. With help from my mom, friends, therapy, medication and working in the mental health field, I’ve always managed to come out of those dark moments and even help others who’ve felt the same.
When my father died by suicide last year, I was thrown into a new kind of deep pain. I had helped countless others over the years who had experienced suicidal ideation or lost loved ones to suicide, but actually going through it myself left me feeling confused and unsupported. I’ve heard that mental illness is “not a greeting card illness,” and I think that rings true for suicide survivors as well. There is no card in existence offering condolences to family members who lose someone to suicide.
Fortunately, at the time of my father’s death, I was working for NAMI and my coworkers and supervisors throughout the organization offered empathy and compassion. I imagine others don’t experience such understanding at other organizations that aren’t so well-informed about mental health and suicide. Still, I found myself unsure of who to go to for support. I felt awkward, as if people weren’t sure what to say to me or what kind of condolence to offer. Again, mental illness isn’t seen as a “greeting card” or “casserole” illness; although, a well-meaning neighbor did leave a shrimp platter on my mother’s doorstep.
While I have been immersed in the mental health field—both personally and professionally—for over ten years, my mom had never seen a mental health professional or spoken openly about mental health before my father’s suicide. Almost immediately after he passed, we both began to research support groups and ways to connect with others who had gone through a similar experience. My mom found a support group for survivors of suicide, and through it, met other women who had unexpectedly lost their long-term partners to suicide. At a time when she was feeling most alone, she found peers who could relate to her story and throw her a life vest when she felt like she was drowning in an ocean of isolation.
For me, the most powerful support came from a friend and former NAMI HelpLine volunteer who had also recently lost a parent to suicide. Knowing that there was someone who could relate to my experience, and not judge me for my messy tangle of confusing feelings, made all the difference in the world. That’s the power of peer support. Talking to mental health professionals and receiving various treatments can be an important piece to one’s recovery journey, but there is a special power in talking to others who have been in and through similar situations.
Now I work for an organization that highlights the importance of peer support as a key piece to mental health recovery. At 7 Cups, I work with thousands of volunteers all over the world who both give and receive peer support for their mental health. It shouldn’t be difficult to access and connect with someone who can relate to your struggle. That’s what my friend did for me, and that’s what I hope to be able to do for others who have mental health conditions or lost loved ones to suicide. All it takes is one person to say “I get it” to know that you are not alone.
Kate Mallow works with 7 Cups as their Group Support and Teen Community Manager where she combines her passions for mental health and working with volunteers. She has experience working as a crisis counselor with suicide prevention hotlines and has worked with national mental health organizations such as NAMI.
We all know what taking care of our physical health looks like: eating right, exercising regularly and getting plenty of sleep. But do you know how to take care of your mental health? Neglecting your mental health can be easy, especially since it’s not something we are always taught or reminded to prioritize. However, taking a step back and examining your mental health is key to a happy and healthy life.
If you think you might be neglecting your mental health, here are a few reasons why—and what to do about it.
You’re Too Busy
It’s all too common to put your mental health on the backburner. Between family responsibilities, work obligations, and social situations, it’s no wonder why very few of us actually find time in the day to take care of our mental health. But in the end, if taking care of your mental health is a priority, as it should be, you will find the time.
You can take small breaks throughout the day to do what makes you feel good. Have a standing appointment with your therapist on the calendar. Turn off your phone for a little while. Hit the gym. Or pour yourself a warm bath with a cup of tea. No matter what your version of self-care looks like, make sure to do it routinely.
It’s Taboo To Talk About Your Feelings
So many of us, especially men, are taught to not talk about our feelings. From a very young age, we’re told to “just suck it up” and that showing any kind of emotion is weak. But this is an extremely detrimental thought, both to our relationships and our mental health. Emotions are a key aspect of connection and connection is a key aspect of mental health.
To fight this common misconception, start having more conversations about mental health. Depression, anxiety and other mental health conditions are not a choice, but rather a state of being. If you live with mental illness (or not), you shouldn’t be afraid to talk about your feelings and experiences.
You’re Not Sure Who To Talk To
Should you talk to a friend about how you’re feeling? A family member? A professional therapist? All of these are good options, depending on your needs. For example, if you think you have a mental illness, it’s best to consult a mental health professional.
If your mind is full of thoughts that keep spinning around and around, talking it out and discussing your fears, anxieties, ambitions and goals, can help you to slow down your thoughts. With the help of your confidant, you can tackle them in a practical way.
You Can’t Afford To Care
Maybe you’re one of the many people who wants professional counseling but can’t afford it. Mental health care can be expensive. However, you should know there are options.
If you have health insurance, there are many mental health professionals who offer counseling at a discounted rate depending on your financial need. This is referred to as “sliding scale” and you can inquire with the provider what the adjusted rate would be. If you don’t have insurance, you can start by reaching out to your local social services agency by dialing 211. If you’re a student, you can talk to someone at your school’s student health center.
There are also options to talk to others about your mental health beyond professional counseling. You can join a free support group or call a warmline: a phone line where trained volunteers offer support.
There are many reasons why we continue to neglect our mental health, but what really matters is how to end that behavior. Take a second to check in with yourself and if you feel like you are neglecting your mental health, develop an action plan to change that!
Trevor is a freelance writer and recovering addict & alcoholic who has been clean and sober for over five years. He is currently an Outreach Coordinator for Sober Nation. Since his recovery began, he has enjoyed using his talent for words to help spread treatment resources, addiction awareness, and general health knowledge. In his free time, you can find him working with recovering addicts or outside enjoying about any type of fitness activity imaginable.
When Susan had breast cancer, we heard a lot of lame remarks, but our favorite came from one of Susan’s colleagues. She wanted, she needed, to visit Susan after the surgery, but Susan didn’t feel like having visitors, and she said so. Her colleague’s response? “This isn’t just about you.”
“It’s not?” Susan wondered. “My breast cancer is not about me? It’s about you?”
The same theme came up again when our friend Katie had a brain aneurysm. She was in intensive care for a long time and finally got out and into a step-down unit. She was no longer covered with tubes and lines and monitors, but she was still in rough shape. A friend came and saw her and then stepped into the hall with Katie’s husband, Pat. “I wasn’t prepared for this,” she told him. “I don’t know if I can handle it.”
This woman loves Katie, and she said what she did because the sight of Katie in this condition moved her so deeply. But it was the wrong thing to say. And it was wrong in the same way Susan’s colleague’s remark was wrong.
Susan has since developed a simple technique to help people avoid this mistake. It works for all kinds of crises: medical, legal, financial, romantic, even existential. She calls it the Ring Theory.
Draw a circle. This is the center ring. In it, put the name of the person at the center of the current trauma. For Katie’s aneurysm, that’s Katie. Now draw a larger circle around the first one. In that ring put the name of the person next closest to the trauma. In the case of Katie’s aneurysm, that was Katie’s husband, Pat. Repeat the process as many times as you need to. In each larger ring put the next closest people. Parents and children before more distant relatives. Intimate friends in smaller rings, less intimate friends in larger ones. When you are done you have a Kvetching Order. One of Susan’s patients found it useful to tape it to her refrigerator.
Here are the rules. The person in the center ring can say anything she wants to anyone, anywhere. She can kvetch and complain and whine and moan and curse the heavens and say, “Life is unfair” and “Why me?” That’s the one payoff for being in the center ring.
Everyone else can say those things too, but only to people in larger rings.
When you are talking to a person in a ring smaller than yours, someone closer to the center of the crisis, the goal is to help. Listening is often more helpful than talking. But if you’re going to open your mouth, ask yourself if what you are about to say is likely to provide comfort and support. If it isn’t, don’t say it. Don’t, for example, give advice. People who are suffering from trauma don’t need advice. They need comfort and support. So say, “I’m sorry” or “This must really be hard for you” or “Can I bring you a pot roast?” Don’t say, “You should hear what happened to me” or “Here’s what I would do if I were you.” And don’t say, “This is really bringing me down.”
If you want to scream or cry or complain, if you want to tell someone how shocked you are or how icky you feel, or whine about how it reminds you of all the terrible things that have happened to you lately, that’s fine. It’s a perfectly normal response. Just do it to someone in a bigger ring.
Comfort IN, dump OUT.
There was nothing wrong with Katie’s friend saying she was not prepared for how horrible Katie looked, or even that she didn’t think she could handle it. The mistake was that she said those things to Pat. She dumped IN.
Complaining to someone in a smaller ring than yours doesn’t do either of you any good. On the other hand, being supportive to her principal caregiver may be the best thing you can do for the patient.
Most of us know this. Almost nobody would complain to the patient about how rotten she looks. Almost no one would say that looking at her makes them think of the fragility of life and their own closeness to death. In other words, we know enough not to dump into the center ring. Ring Theory merely expands that intuition and makes it more concrete: Don’t just avoid dumping into the center ring, avoid dumping into any ring smaller than your own.
Remember, you can say whatever you want if you just wait until you’re talking to someone in a larger ring than yours.
And don’t worry. You’ll get your turn in the center ring. You can count on that.
Susan Silk is a clinical psychologist. Barry Goldman is an arbitrator and mediator and the author of “The Science of Settlement: Ideas for Negotiators.”
When you take your car to the car mechanic, you know what’s going to happen: Your car will get repaired.
When you break a bone and visit your doctor, you know what’s going to happen: Your bone will be set in a splint or cast and eventually heal.
But when you make an appointment to see a therapist, do you know what’s going to happen? Many people aren’t quite certain. Will you just talk? Will you have to discuss your childhood? Will you be “hypnotized?” And what’s the “point” of seeing a therapist, anyway? Why not just talk to a friend?
There is a great deal of uncertainty in our society about what actually happens during a therapy session, what types of issues and problems are suitable for therapy, and what benefits a therapy session can provide. I’d like to address a few typical questions—and misconceptions—about what therapy is, what it isn’t, and how it really works.
Q: Do I have to be “sick” or “disturbed” to go see a therapist?
A: No. Thinking that one has to be “seriously disturbed” in order to see a therapist is a myth.
While some therapists do specialize in severe emotional disturbances—including schizophrenia or suicidal thoughts—many focus on simply helping clients work through far more typical, everyday challenges like mapping out a career change, improving parenting skills, strengthening stressmanagement skills, or navigating a divorce. Just as some physicians specialize in curing life-threatening illnesses, while others treat “everyday” illnesses like flus, coughs, and colds, psychotherapists can serve a wide range of clients with a range of needs and goals, too.
In fact, most of my clients are successful, high-achieving people who are quite healthy, overall. Most are challenged by a specific, personal goal—like losing weight, creating more work-life balance, finding ways to parent more effectively, or feeling anxious about dating again after a rough break up.
Q: How can I choose the right therapist for my goal/situation?
A: Choosing a therapist is like choosing any other service provider—it’s a good idea to visit the practitioner’s website, and read client testimonials or reviews (if they have any—many do not, for confidentiality reasons). It’s also good to ask friends and family members, or your physician, for referrals (and of course, check to see who is covered in your health insurance network).
If you are hoping to work on a specific issue—overeating, smoking, making a career change—try to find a therapist with expertise in that area. Many list their specialties or areas of focus on their websites. There are therapists who specialize in relationship issues, parenting issues, anger management, weight issues, or sexuality—pretty much any issue, goal, or situation you can imagine. If you’re not sure about someone’s expertise, just call them and ask. If they can’t be of assistance with your issue, they may be able to refer you to someone who can.
Q: What actually happens during a therapy session?
A: Each session is, essentially, a problem-solving session. You describe your current situation, and your feelings about it, and then the therapist uses their expertise to assist you in trying to resolve that problem so you can move closer to having the life you wish to have.
At the beginning of a session, the therapist typically invites you to share what’s been going on in your life, what’s on your mind, what’s bothering you, or whether there are any goals you’d like to discuss. You’ll be invited to speak openly. The therapist will listen and may take notes as you speak; some, like myself, take notes after a session. You won’t be criticized, interrupted or judged as you speak. Your conversation will be kept in the strictest confidentiality. This is a special, unique type of conversation in which you can say exactly what you feel—total honesty—without worrying that you’re going to hurt someone’s feelings, damage a relationship, or be penalized in any way. Anything you want—or need—to say is OK.
Some therapists (like myself) may give clients some homework to complete after a session. That homework might be to set up an online dating profile and reach out for a first date, or to exercise three times a week. It may be to spend some time each day pounding a pillow to safely release pent-up emotions, make a nightly journal entry, or any number of “steps” and “challenges” relevant to your goals. During your next session, you might share your progress and address any areas where you got frustrated, stuck, or off-track.
Of course, every therapist is different, every client is unique, and every therapist-client relationship is distinct as well—which means that there is nouniversal description of a therapy session. Some therapists employ dream interpretation in their work. Others bring music or art therapy into their work. Others incorporate hypnotherapy, life coaching, meditation, visualization, or role-playing exercises to “rehearse” challenging conversations. The list goes on and on. Ultimately, regardless of their approach, a therapist will listen without judgment and help clients try to find solutions to the challenges they face.
Q: Will I have to talk about my childhood?
A: Not necessarily. Many people think that visiting a therapist means digging up old skeletons from your childhood, or talking about how awful your mother was, etc. That is a myth. What you talk about during a therapy session will largely depend on your unique situation and goals. And depending on your goals, you may not actually talk about your past that much. The focus of your therapy is as likely to be your present-day reality and the future that you wish to create.
That being said, if you REALLY do NOT want to discuss your childhood, the intensity of your desire NOT to talk about it might suggest that you should! When people have strong negative emotions—about their childhood or any other topic—it’s typically worth doing some excavating to figure out why that is. Whatever is causing them to feel such strong emotions about the past is more than likely impacting their present-day life in some way, too.
Q: How long will I have to go to therapy?
A: This varies from person to person. I’ve had clients who booked one session, we worked out their issue(s), and they were all set: They marched out and didn’t need a follow-up session. Sometimes, one brave, honest conversation is really all you need.
Other clients have booked sessions with me over a period of several weeks or months, focusing on one issue, resolving that issue, then perhaps moving on to a different challenge. Then there are other clients who I’ve been working with for some time—they appreciate having a weekly, bi-weekly, or monthly “check-in.” They may share their feelings, sharpen their life skills as needed, or perhaps enjoy a deeply nourishing guided meditation or hypnotherapy experience to de-stress. As one client put it, “Every two weeks when I meet with you, I leave your office feeling like you pressed my reset button.”
Q: Is meeting with a therapist over the phone—or through video chat—just as effective as meeting in person?
A: That depends on your personality and preferences. In the state of Hawaii, where I live, at least one insurer that I know of covers doing therapy virtually via video chat (like Skype or Facetime). This makes it a convenient option for people. Many of my clients do enjoy having some, or all, of their sessions via video chat because it means they don’t have to take time out of their busy schedules to drive, park, and so on. They can just close their bedroom or office door, pick up the phone or log in, and away we go—very convenient.
Where feasible, I suggest trying out both ways—do a traditional, in-person therapy session and then try a video session—and see which format is the best fit for you.
Q: Why see a therapist? Why not just talk to a friend or someone in my family?
A: If you are blessed with caring, supportive family members and friends, by all means, share your feelings, goals, and dreams with those people. They are a big part of your support network, and their insights and encouragement can be very helpful. However, people who already know you might not always be completely objective when listening to you. For example, you may want to change your career, and you confess this dream to your wife. She may want to support you 100%, and try her very best to do so, but she may also be dealing with emotions of her own—such as anxietyabout how a career shift will change your lives, not to mention your income. These emotions could make it difficult for her to listen and support you objectively.
This is why working with a therapist can be so valuable. It’s a unique opportunity to share everything you’re feeling, and everything you want to create, without anyone interrupting you, imposing his or her own anxieties onto the conversation, or telling you that you’re “wrong” or that you “can’t.”
A therapy session is a space where you don’t have to worry about hurting anyone else’s feelings—you can be totally honest. It also means you have the potential to solve problems faster and with greater success. In the long run, that’s better for you and everyone else involved in your life, too.
To sum it up:
Therapy is a valuable tool that can help you to solve problems, set and achieve goals, improve your communication skills, or teach you new ways to track your emotions and keep your stress levels in check. It can help you to build the life, career, and relationship that you want. Does everybody needit? No. But if you are curious about working with a therapist, that curiosity is worth pursuing. Consider setting up one or two sessions, keep an open mind, and see how things unfold. You have very little to lose and, potentially, a lot of clarity, self-understanding, and long-lasting happiness to gain.
Suzanne Gelb, Ph.D., J.D, is a clinical psychologist and life coach. She believes that it is never too late to become the person you want to be: Strong. Confident. Calm. Creative. Free of all of the burdens that have held you back—no matter what has happened in the past. Her insights on personal growth have been featured on more than 200 radio programs, 200 TV interviews and online at Time, Forbes, Newsweek, The Huffington Post, NBC‘s Today, The Daily Love, Positively Positive, and much more. Step into her virtual office, explore her blog, book a session, or sign up to receive a free meditation and her writings on health, happiness and self-respect.