Life can be strange sometimes. Oh hell, who am I kidding? Life is pretty strange all the time. For instance, I never thought that I’d have a conversation about mentally unstable people with my kid, nor did I think that doing so would change the way I looked at mental health so much. But as it turns out, it has.
What spawned the conversation was that my son and another youngish person in his life began researching mental health when someone they know had a meltdown recently. They decided to look up some mental issues to see how they could be a support.
To his surprise, as he went down the list of mental illnesses and personality disorders, he came across a lot of terms I’d never discussed with him before. Terms and explanations of behaviors that he was quickly able to say, “Hey, that’s like so and so. And this is like so and so…” As he went down the list, he was able to pinpoint each person in our lives—both diagnosed and those that are likely ill but refuse to be evaluated—and their specific issues. The part that I found intriguing, was that each time he was right (or likely right for those refusing help). All without being guided by anyone. If I was going around saying, “So and so is a borderline,” then it would be easy for him to make that conclusion. But I don’t do that. His observations were based solely off of what he’s heard from these people or witnessed with their behavior.
What I found the most beautiful about his observations is that he had no judgment. He simply saw the illness and was able to pull himself back from it enough that he didn’t take certain behaviors personally. He did admit that for some people, he wouldn’t feel safe being alone with them. But that still wasn’t a judgment. Just smart thinking.
This led him to wanting to know how to deal with these sorts of people. Whether it’s a mental illness and minor, or a much more complex personality disorder, he didn’t want to know how to avoid but instead how to deal. We did discuss that some people are just unsafe. Period. And those reasons vary depending on who the person is and what their issue is. But he really wanted to focus on this person he knew that was needing support.
What we did was go down a list of options. Methods. Because he certainly didn’t want to feed someone’s delusion. To avoid using a situation with someone else, I’ll use a thing that happened to me.
About five years ago I was driving down the freeway when I looked to the car to my right and saw a Klingon. Yes… A Klingon driving a convertible. Since traffic had stopped, I got a good look at the alien driving and my head kept racing with, “Holy shit! Klingons are real!”
Of course, I also knew this wasn’t true at all. But it caught me so off guard that it took me a couple minutes to realize it was a man dressed as Klingon. Once I realized, I laughed hard over it. But my brain still went where it went, and that was, aliens are real!
While that was all good fun, imagine if that Klingon wasn’t actually a human dressed up as a Klingon? What if it was a woman heading to work, but my brain saw a Klingon? Then, what if that Klingon terrified me? My heart would race, my temperature would fluctuate, and I’d be going into a state of shock.
The Klingon wouldn’t have to actually be there. All that would matter is that I thought the Klingon was there. I’d be reacting to what I thought was transpiring. And even though it’s not real, my feelings around seeing this alien would be real in that I’d be in a state of reaction.
What talking about this did for kiddo and I was allowed us to see that even if something didn’t happen, if the person thought it did, their feelings would still be painful. Unless they thought something good happened, in which case the feelings may reflect that. But all in all, feelings do not mean fact. Feelings do not mean what we think happened actually happened.
There are many things that play into how we feel. No matter what mental issues we may or may not have. This is something that affects everyone.
After we talked a bit more, we decided that what might be really helpful is if we validated the person’s feelings without validating or saying that we agreed with what they think happened (or is happening). That way no one is feeding a delusion, but the feelings that come with the delusion are being addressed and acknowledged without judgment.
I can’t stress enough how important I feel this last part is. Especially for people that do have mental issues/challenges because so often those folks respond from a place of past trauma or a lack of being able to process and understand what’s actually transpiring.
Judging people when it comes to mental health—in anyway—is about as low as someone can go. Be upset if someone’s mental issues have hurt you, sure. Be angry. Be sad. You might even be afraid of the person. I certainly have felt all of these emotions around others’ mental health affecting me negatively. But what I don’t do is judge them. Because most of the time—even for the ones refusing help and denying they have issues—the person can’t help it. If they could, they’d probably not be mentally ill.
It’s illness for a reason.
And this includes things that seem lesser on the scale. Like depression. High anxiety. PTSD…
It was such a beautiful thing to be talking to my kid about all of this and not have him be judgmental toward any of the people he’d connected to mental issues. It was also wonderful to be able to discuss how validating the way someone feels isn’t the same as validating that their perceived slight actually happened. And after talking, I think I’m going to apply this to everyone no matter what’s happened.
Because our feelings matter, even if they are based on things that didn’t happen how we think they did.
And this has been a hard understanding to come to because when someone abuses me or someone I love because of their mental illness, it’s still abuse. When I wrote the other day about people screaming in my face, well, sometimes that’s happened in my own living room. And when I asked for that behavior to stop, the person got even louder and more aggressive.
I had every right to be angry and hurt. Because that treatment was wrong. But I didn’t need to judge the behavior or the person. And that’s where validating feelings and having healthy boundaries is helpful. Not validating lies or delusions, but the feelings themselves. “I understand how you might feel afraid right now,” but not, “Yes, you are being sabotaged by the entire community and you should be afraid.”
I think by validating feelings we create a scenario that enables us to talk through issues rather than have the person jump to the defense.
When I was a much more paranoid person, I used to think everyone was gossiping about me. I didn’t really have a reason why I thought that. I was simply paranoid. And when I’d share that fear and someone said, “No one is doing that. Get over it.” Or the like, I’d think they were part of it. But when the person (the very few times this happened) said, “Wow, thinking everyone is talking about you must feel awful.” In fact, these were exact words used with me. And notice there’s no, “This is happening…” The word used was thinking. Then a validation of my feelings around it. This method helps.
I share because I see so many people passing judgment on mental health issues. If someone is in therapy, there’s often an assumption that there’s something wrong with that person. When they may just like having an outside person to bounce ideas off of. Judging anyone for their mental health is pretty fucking low. Just as judging because of physical issues is too.
This isn’t a difficult concept here.
Once the kiddo and I talked, he felt good about how to help his friend. And all it took was him thinking about how terrified he used to be of the doctor. He didn’t have a conscious understanding or reason. It didn’t make sense to him. But he knew his fear was real. Even at his young age, I validated that he was afraid but didn’t validate that doctors were scary, terrifying people. Only that he felt that way and that I wanted to help him to get around that fear so he could get a checkup.
Going forward, I’m going to work on my approach with others that have mental health challenges. And this includes those that constantly project. Because in their minds, if they’re doing it, surely you are too. Validating the fear that person is dealing with isn’t acknowledging it’s happening.
I wish I’d realized this many years ago. It would have saved me a lot of anger and hurt. And who knows, maybe part of why people get so paranoid is because too often their feelings aren’t validated. It’s a slippery slope when you don’t want to validate an experience the person has imagined. But the feelings have to stay separated because feelings are feelings and don’t often make sense or align with reality. Unless, of course, you’re a gazelle about to be eaten by a lion. Then, your fear may be valid! But since we aren’t gazelles, we are humans, this isn’t really an issue.
From now on, I am going to work on methods of validating how someone feels without validating what they perceived happened. This isn’t always going to be easy, but life isn’t easy. Seeing others, I mean truly seeing them, is a beautiful thing.
I’m thankful for the lovely and unexpected conversation with my child. It helped me see a lot about how I respond to those around me and how I can choose different responses in the future.
Mental health, seeking help, acknowledging that someone has mental issues, should never…ever…be shamed.