Going Down: In my previous blog post I mentioned some mental health problems, most notably severe anxiety, I developed after my sister was almost run over by a car. After these problems developed and began to take a toll on my life, I noticed some of my friends begin to distance themselves from me after learning of my diagnosis. What I noticed more were those who attempted to connect with me on an empathetic level and not just try to sympathize with my diagnosis.
I was able to notice the differences between those who tried to be empathetic compared to those who were simply sympathetic. Those trying to sympathize would say things like, “Oh yeah, my uncle has that,” or, “At least you’re not in a mental hospital.” These comments stood out from friends who attempted to see me immediately and wanted to just spend time with me and empathize with me in a time of confusion, depression and darkness.
Setting Boundaries: When people were able to effectively empathize with me, they were able to set good boundaries. One boundary was that they did not need to know the exact details of the mental health problems I was going through and discussing such topics would have been out of bounds. They understood that being compassionate, friendly, and helpful were more important than trying to understand my diagnosis.
A large problem with mental health problems is the stigma attached to such problems. Many people chose to avoid me after my diagnosis because, I assume, they either did not want to or did not know how to communicate compassionately and empathically. It is pretty difficult to be compassionate and empathetic with someone going through something so unfamiliar to them so I can’t really blame them.
Alternative Boundaries: The boundaries I applied to my social life were much different to the boundaries I applied when speaking with therapists regarding my condition. In social life, you do not have to completely open up about what you are going through. Usually a friend or family member can tell you are going through something difficult and do not need every detail to empathize. They can typically understand the boundaries through their familiarity with your personality if they have known you for a long time.
Attending a therapist is much different. You have to change the boundaries significantly in order for them to empathize and help you understand and deal with your mental health problems. Changing these boundaries requires opening up much more and becoming more specific about the problems that are occurring throughout your life.
If I was not able to completely change the boundaries when I began seeing a therapist, it would have been much more difficult for them to empathize and help me deal with anxiety. Therapists can not effectively help identify your mental health problems if you are not able to open up and set wider boundaries with them than your social life. Adjusting these boundaries can be difficult but necessary in creating human-to-human empathetic interactions.
What I Have Learned: Through my experience of mental health problems, I have witnessed sympathetic and empathetic or compassionate responses and interactions. Through these interactions, I have learned how important it is to be empathetic with someone when they are down and can not get up.
Being able to empathize and connect with them on a human level goes so much farther than simply trying to just familiarize yourself with what they are going through. Being able to do this requires you understand the boundaries, whether explicit or implicitly implied, through the person who is feeling down. Overstepping these boundaries can make it much more difficult to reach that connection acquired with an empathetic interaction.