Thinking Outside the Box: Learning to love everyone…I mean EVERYONE

Trigger Warning: Self-harm, depression, suicide

 

Birds of a feather flock together, right? Or so they say (whoever “they” might be).

 

We as people like everything to be organized by any number of qualifiers, whether it be size, color, species, etc. – “the tendency to classify and categorize objects is a deeply ingrained aspect of human nature” (Kaufman, 2012). If it is so deeply ingrained, it must serve a purpose, right? If I didn’t know how to categorize colors, I wouldn’t know how to put a cute outfit together. If I didn’t know how to categorize animals by “safe” and “not safe”, I might bring home a poisonous snake as a pet instead of a loving puppy. If I didn’t know how to categorize food by “healthy” or “not healthy”, I might end up eating junk all the time. (We’ll ignore the fact that I do eat junk all the time. It’s an example, people!) The reason we have communities, clubs, churches, and work organizations is because unique individuals find something in common with others and they choose to build on those similarities. Countries are based on shared national pride. Support groups are based on a shared need that would otherwise go unmet. Categorization can be a very good thing!

 

However… “this fundamental skill can also be extremely damaging, especially when it comes to categorizing people” (Kaufman, 2012). A fact of human nature is this: people or things that are different scare us. Have you ever had someone come up to you who doesn’t speak the same language? It’s absolutely terrifying (maybe not for everyone, but certainly for someone with Social Anxiety like me). This person doesn’t communicate like I do. While I don’t see it as a bad thing, it’s still scary. It makes me uncomfortable. I start to panic and wonder how on earth this is not going to end in disaster. Are either one of us right or wrong? No. We’re just different. I should rejoice in those differences, but instead they make me shake in my boots.

 

That is a very literal way of saying someone scares me because I don’t understand them. I actually cannot understand the words coming out of their mouth. What’s the solution to this? If I am never going to interact with this person again (or anyone else who speaks that language), I might do my best to draw or mime until we get somewhere. Or I might just pretend I’m about to miss the bus and go running in the other direction as fast as I can. It’s hard to say. On the other hand, if I am going to spend time around this person (or others who speak this same language), it would be in my best interest to quickly devote some time to learning not only the basics of the language, but also build some general knowledge of their social customs and culture. Why are both important? First, learning the language will obviously foster communication and make interactions a little less scary. In addition to this, learning a bit about their culture will help me move forward with communication and interaction in a way that hopefully won’t come across as offensive or ignorant. The only thing I would ask from the individual(s) is that they have a healthy dose of patience and the ability to forgive as I inevitably make mistakes throughout the learning process.

 

I used to be very involved with the Deaf community. I was going to school to be a sign language interpreter, spent most of my time around Deaf people (including my then boyfriend, who was born profoundly deaf), and was planning a career around this beautiful language and culture. To become fluent in the language and comfortable with various interactions, I chose a total immersion approach. Besides interacting with my family and coworkers, I devoted all my free time to putting myself in potentially uncomfortable situations in which I would gain experience and exposure to the Deaf world. I put aside the idea that Deaf people need a hearing person’s help – I realized quickly that this perception would get me nowhere in such a tight knit community (never mind the fact that it is 100% false). Instead, I took on the mentality that I had a chance to grow as an individual and expand my comfort zone by mega proportions. Not only did I meet wonderful people (my best friend of 12 years is a perfect example!), I learned how to be comfortable with a form of communication that requires expressiveness to the extreme. Without dramatic facial expressions and big sweeping gestures, the meaning of some statements or words may be completely missed. This forced a very shy and introverted girl to become more comfortable in her own skin and with her own facial expressions. The amount of patience I received from Deaf individuals made my learning experiences far more positive than they could have been. This is a perfect example of how stepping out of our comfort zone can lead to incredibly valuable (even necessary!) personal growth. Although I did not complete the interpreter program, those experiences forever shaped my life and my ability to express myself in a more meaningful manner.

 

Now let’s take that concept and apply it to a different form of not understanding someone. Whether it’s because of differing faiths, cultures, health circumstances, political persuasions, sexual orientation, etc., there is no shortage of ways in which I may not understand someone’s experiences or their chosen lifestyle. Does that mean I should pretend they don’t exist or even demand that they change who they are so I feel more comfortable around them? No! If someone is different or I don’t understand them, it just means I have been given a wonderful learning opportunity. Instead of building walls and sticking within my very limiting comfort zone, I must learn as much as I can about whatever difference may exist between us. Hopefully they will return the favor, along with respect, patience, and understanding as I try to bridge the canyon that separates us.

 

I am specifically thinking about how we as a society and as unique individuals interact and react to individuals who suffer from mental illnesses. We all know there is stigma. We all know there are many mental health needs that go unmet or unnoticed. I’m sure we would all love to say that we would never treat someone with a mental illness any differently than any other person with whom we might cross paths. But if you think long and hard, this might not be the case. I struggle with Depression, Generalized Anxiety, and Social Anxiety, but even I react poorly to others with mental illnesses I don’t understand. I say this to point out that we all struggle, whether we have personal experience with mental illness or not. Let me give a few common examples – think about how you would likely react (not how you should react…how you would react). Think about the thoughts that would immediately jump into your mind.

 

  1. You are out to dinner and your server reaches for you glass to refill your water. You notice an abundance of scars on her wrist. She clearly was, or perhaps still is, a cutter.
  2. You just parked your car and noticed an individual kissing the roof of his car, walking away, then returning to do it again before finally entering the store.
  3. Your seemingly happy cousin attempts suicide.
  4. You invite a coworker to your Fourth of July BBQ, but they refuse to stay for the fireworks. They get sweaty and start acting strange when you insist.
  5. You overhear a girl who looks to be about 90 pounds complain that a certain dress makes her look fat.
  6. Your colleague brings their brother to a work-sponsored softball game. The man will neither make eye contact with you or shake your hand when you first meet, then later tells you that your hair cut is sloppy.
  7. You are at the store and witness a mother walking down the aisle while her child repeatedly kicks at her and tells her how much he hates her.

 

Are any of those scenarios similar to something you have experienced? If so, did you laugh or go home to tell your spouse or friends about the crazy person you saw or met? Do any of those examples make you feel uncomfortable by simply reading them? I’ll be the first to raise my hand. For the sake of conversation, let’s expand on each example.

 

  1. You are out to dinner and your server reaches for you glass to refill your water. You notice an abundance of scars on her wrist. She clearly was, or perhaps still is, a cutter.

When people see another person with cutter scars, it’s easy to jump to the conclusion that they must have gone through a broody phase as a teenager during which they hurt themselves for attention. In some cases this might be true, but not in most cases. Self-harm is an extremely common coping mechanism. According to Psychology Today (2019), “self-harm, or self-mutilation, is the act of deliberately inflicting pain and damage to your own body and can include cutting, burning, scratching, and other forms of injury.” That means a cry for attention, right? Not necessarily. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) explains that “hurting yourself – or thinking about hurting yourself – is a sign of emotional distress”  and that “when a person is not sure how to deal with emotions, or learned as a child to hide emotions, self-harm may feel like a release” (NAMI, 2019). You might be asking, “How on earth could cutting, burning, or any other form of self-harm be a release?” Speaking from personal experience, I can tell you that physical pain can go a long way toward relieving emotional pain. I thankfully never got into cutting, but I was a burner and have always been a skin picker. As someone who has always struggled with healthy coping mechanisms for emotional pain, I found relief in self-harm because 1) physical pain is something I can understand and 2) I was controlling what was causing me pain, which is typically not the case when it comes to emotional pain or trauma. I have found more socially acceptable forms of causing physical pain (i.e. tattoos), but that doesn’t mean I am not still tempted by other forms of self-harm. If you know someone or come across someone with scars, don’t judge them. Understand that they have been through things you can probably not comprehend and that they need kindness and support more than anything. Don’t treat them like they are lesser individuals. Encourage them to get help – therapy is a great way to learn healthier coping mechanisms. Sometimes even just providing them with a listening ear and a shoulder to cry on provides enough of an outlet that they don’t feel the need to hurt themselves. You may not understand it, but acknowledge their pain without being one more judgmental person in their life.

  1. You just parked your car and noticed an individual kissing the roof of his car, walking away, then returning to do it again before finally entering the store.

Lets talked about Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). It’s not uncommon to hear people say “I have OCD” just because they like their Tupperware organized or their piles of paper neat and tidy. This is not OCD. True OCD “is a common, chronic, and long-lasting disorder in which a person has uncontrollable, reoccurring thoughts (obsessions) and behaviors (compulsions) that he or she feels the urge to repeat over and over” (NIMH, 2016). I dated someone who had severe OCD. He was literally unable to walk away from his car without first holding his arms out to the side, leaning over, and kissing the room of the car. Likewise, he could not leave his apartment without kissing the door frame on the way out. When he would try to practice self-control and walk away from his car or apartment door without doing the kissing ritual, his subsequent anxiety was debilitating – he would either have to return to the car or return home to complete the ritual so he could continue with his daily life. He also struggled with obsessive thoughts about taking a large kitchen knife and stabbing himself. Look back at the NIMH definition, though – these behaviors and thoughts are uncontrollable. Can you imagine knowing how ridiculous you look kissing your car, but being unable to control the need to do so? Take care when flippantly saying you have OCD or laughing at someone who appears to be doing something bizarre. Remember that it is a truly life-changing struggle for many people – as many as 2.5% of our adult population have this illness (BeyondOCD.org, 2018).

  1. Your seemingly happy cousin attempts suicide.

How many times do you hear it said of people who attempt or commit suicide that “they seemed so happy and normal”…? Does this mean they were liars, really good actors, just seeking attention, or possibly so emotionally distressed that they couldn’t bring themselves to open up to anyone about their struggles? According to the World Health Organization, “close to 800,000 people die due to suicide every year, which is one person every 40 seconds” (WHO, 2019). Do the math. How many people have died just while you’ve sat here reading this blog post? They may be strangers to you, but it is still a devastating loss of human life. Here’s the deal, though – “people can be so quiet about their pain, that you forget they are hurting. That is why it is so important to always be kind” (Unknown). Seriously…telling someone who feels suicidal or has attempted suicide that they shouldn’t be so selfish or that they have a lot to live for will only make them feel guilty and put them into even more emotional turmoil. Suicidal ideation is a very real thing, whether you have been personally touched by it or not. My best suggestion is to look beyond someone’s outward behaviors and words. Really look them in the eye. When you ask someone how they are doing, listen to their answer. You might be thinking to yourself, “How the heck am I supposed to know someone is depressed if they don’t come out and tell me?” I have news for you – people who are truly depressed and suicidal likely won’t come out and tell you. That’s why we need to be so in tune with those around us and learn how to see the signs – withdrawal from social interaction, absences from work, extreme pessimism, maybe even frequent references to death. And remember: just because someone has started seeing a therapist or taking medication, this does not mean they are out of the woods. Always keep an eye on people. Your kindness might just be what gives them enough hope to carry on for one more day.

  1. You invite a coworker to your Fourth of July BBQ, but they refuse to stay for the fireworks. They get sweaty and start acting strange when you insist.

It may very well be that your coworker has severe Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) that is triggered by fireworks or other loud noises. This disorder “can occur in people who have experienced or witnessed a traumatic event such as a natural disaster, a serious accident, a terrorist act, war/combat, rape or other violent personal assault” (Psychiatry.org, 2017). Perhaps they are a war veteran who does not speak of his experiences because they had such a profoundly negative affect on his life. Perhaps he was a gunshot victim in a terrorist attack. Perhaps he was beaten by his father during a fireworks show. It could be any number of things. What’s important to remember is that people have a reason for declining invitations or saying they need to leave early. If they want to share those reasons, great. However, if they are clearly uneasy about doing something, don’t force them to do it if you do not know or understand their background or experiences.

  1. You overhear a girl who looks to be about 90 pounds complain that a certain dress makes her look fat.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), “there is a commonly held view that eating disorders are a lifestyle choice. Eating disorders are actually serious and often fatal illnesses that cause severe disturbances to a person’s eating behaviors” (February 2016). Let me drawn your attention back to the words often fatal. I was surprised to learn that “anorexia nervosa has the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric disorder” (NEDA, 2018). Instead of judging someone for being too thin or self-absorbed, remember that true eating disorders can be incredibly dangerous and life-threatening. If you have children or are around children, look for the signs early. The National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) reports that “the best-known environmental contributor to the development of eating disorders is the sociocultural idealization of thinness,” and lists bullying/weight shaming as a huge issue (NEDA, 2018). Teach your children to be kind to other children, regardless of how they look or how much they weight. Teach yourself to be kind. Yes, it is someone’s own choice to go down the road of an eating disorder, but if we aren’t teaching our kids to not bully others, aren’t we as much to blame as that individual? It is our responsibility to change the societal view that both women and men must be a certain pants size to be appreciated, valued, and loved. No one deserves to feel less than perfect.

  1. Your colleague brings their brother to a work-sponsored softball game. The man will neither make eye contact with you or shake your hand when you first meet, then later tells you that your hair cut is sloppy.

I came across this incredible meme about autism the other day:

autism

It moved me. It reminded me that just because I don’t understand what it’s like to have autism (or any mental health disorder or illness), doesn’t mean I should call someone weird or crazy for their exhibited behaviors. Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) “refers to a broad range of conditions characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech and nonverbal communication” (AutismSpeaks.org, n.d.). If you know or find out that someone has ASD, this doesn’t mean you should avoid them. This means you should pay close attention to their verbal and non-verbal cues. If they don’t feel comfortable shaking your hand, don’t force them to shake your hand. Also, remember that ASD is 100% unique to each individual – it’s called a spectrum for a reason. The Autism Speaks organization (n.d.) has this powerful quote by Dr. Stephen Shore on their website: “If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.” Read that again. Think about how that applies to ASD or to any other mental illness. You might know ten people with ASD, but that doesn’t mean the 11thperson you meet will have the same needs as any of the other ten. Doesn’t that apply beautifully to humans in general? We simply cannot generalize, regardless of the disorder – especially if it has anything to do with the human mind!

  1. You are at the store and witness a mother walking down the aisle while her child repeatedly kicks at her and tells her how much he hates her.

This example hits home for me for a number of reasons. I have witnessed this in the store before. If I hadn’t known someone who has a child with similar behavioral tendencies, I probably would have thought the boy was abused and/or the mother simply didn’t pay him enough attention. The mother I witnessed was simply continuing her shopping, despite the stares coming from all directions, and she kept telling him “I know” every time he stated that he hated her or that she was a horrible mother. So whose fault is this? Instead of jumping to the conclusion that the child is either spoiled rotten or completely neglected, could there be another explanation? I’ll give you a little hint: there can always be another explanation. Any number of mental illnesses could cause that kind of behavior. In this case, my heart goes out to both the boy suffering from something, as well as the mother, who has probably tried just about everything to get her little boy back – psychotherapy, psychiatric care, medication, cognitive behavioral therapy, occupational therapy, etc. Mental illness is particularly challenging with a child. How long should one experiment with medication dosages and combinations? How far should one push the child with therapy? How does one deal with the behavioral outbursts at school? How can one cope at home when there’s no escape for anyone involved? My point with this example is as follows: don’t assume the child is a spoiled brat and don’t blame the parent. You have no idea what they might be going through. You have no idea what measures they have taken to try to get any sort of behavioral issues under control. Show some grace. Show both the child and the parents that grace. They are trying and they didn’t choose this.

 

I hope you’ve learned something, as I did during my research for this post. I hope you remember that categorization and labels don’t always improve a situation. What improves already difficult circumstances is education. Learn about the disorder, illness, etc., and learn how to talk about it and interact with those affected. Putting yourself out there in a non-offensive way will result in more kindness toward others, as well as increased personal growth and understanding. I hope that next time you are in public and see someone “different,” that instead of pointing and laughing, you hold out your hand, an open mind, and a willingness to learn about what makes them special and unique. Think outside the box. Celebrate the differences and the light we each bring to this world.

“God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.” – Kurt Vonnegrut

“…every single person on this planet has their own unique combination of traits and life experiences” (Kaufman, 2012).

 

References

AutismSpeaks.org. (n.d.). What Is Autism? Retrieved from https://www.autismspeaks.org/what-autism

 

BeyondOCD.org. (2018). Facts about Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Retrieved from http://beyondocd.org/ocd-facts

 

Kaufman, S. (2012). The Pesky Persistence of Labels. Psychology Today. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/beautiful-minds/201210/the-pesky-persistence-labels

 

NAMI. (2019). Self-Harm. National Alliance on Mental Illness. Retrieved from https://www.nami.org/learn-more/mental-health-conditions/related-conditions/self-harm

 

NEDA. (2018). Statistics & Research on Eating Disorders. The National Eating Disorder Association. Retrieved from https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/statistics-research-eating-disorders

 

NIMH. (2016). Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. National Institute of Mental Health. Retrieved from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/obsessive-compulsive-disorder-ocd/index.shtml

 

NIMH. (February 2016). Eating Disorders. National Institute of Mental Health. Retrieved from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/eating-disorders/index.shtml

 

Psychiatry.org. (2017). What is Posttraumatic Stress Disorder? Retrieved from https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/ptsd/what-is-ptsd

 

Psychology Today. (2019). Self-Harm. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/basics/self-harm

 

WHO. (2019). Suicide Data. World Health Organization. Retrieved from https://www.who.int/mental_health/prevention/suicide/suicideprevent/en/

 

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