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.


  1. Wow, yeah, I super relate to this. Sometimes being consciously aware of just how crazy your brain is being is actually scarier than not realizing that you’re being irrational. Like, it does help me cope, too, but holy crap being able to look at myself form the outside like that can be disorienting, even.

  2. Thank you, Keely.

    Yes. It’s good to understand what the jerkbrain is up to. Sometimes it’s helpful in coping. But you’ve captured the thing that is MOST important here, which is how much effort is involved, how tiring it is, and how much of your energy it sucks away.


    Well, isn’t it a positive thing to KNOW there are no spoons, and be able to deal with it on that level?


    Yeah, whatever.

    So, thanks for this. I’m passing it on.

    • I’m glad the post was helpful, and I feel you on there sometimes being no goddamn spoons left. It’s really depressing to think about how much of my willpower/energy/spoons supply goes just to keeping my stupid brain in check, and how much more I would be capable of if that were not the case. And when you add in the fact that many of the things I do to maintain my spoon supply (yoga, doctors appointments, writing, etc) in themselves require spoons, you have the sometimes-unbearably-frustrating balancing act that is my life.

      • Exactly. You raise an excellent point about the spoon supply. Sometimes the work required just to keep any spoons in the drawer at all seems to take more spoons than it yields.

        And yes, I keep doing the meditation, walking, healthful teas, etc., anyway, spending what seem to be the last spoon on any of those supposed “spoon building” activities, because if I don’t I know full well I’ll slide over into “negative spoon” territory, whatever the hell that is. If there even is such a thing.

        So, yeah, the equation has an added factor hidden in there, that reduces the net result. I don’t want sympathy, I don’t want “understanding” (which rarely is.) Connection is okay. Being heard is okay.

        Sometimes even having to say “thank you” for someone else’s good wishes or whatever is an intolerable burden. Which doesn’t mean it’s not MY burden, and part of what I deal with, and will continue dealing with, and don’t need extra credit for bearing. Just… don’t add anything more.

  3. Hi Keely,

    I just found your blog because of your jerk brain post. This post really reminded me of the quote from Nora Ephron: “I think you often have that sense when you write – that if you can spot something in yourself and set it down on paper, you’re free of it. And you’re not, of course; you’ve just managed to set it down on paper, that’s all.”

    I think this applies to how just understanding something about yourself, whether you express it in writing or verbally, does not mean you’re magically cured of that issue or that you know how to handle it. I understand why people may respond with the, “Well, at least you recognize what’s wrong!” because I often give myself those same brownie points just for realizing I have a problem and articulating it well.

    As you said, it’s very hard work to go about treating an issue and it all happens after you’ve identified what the issue is and why you have it (which seems like hard work enough) so lots of people are content to stop there…because they honestly don’t know how to go about that second part. Most of the time I don’t!

    I try to practice not offering advice at all unless specifically asked for my opinion, because most of the time I think people just want to feel heard and understood.

    Looking forward to following along with your blog!

  4. I have caught myself responding with straight-forward strategies to other peoples problems. And have then given that a thought or two, because I should know how it feels. Maybe It’s ’cause I’ve been pretty tired of myself whining about my misery and struggling. And realized that doing something is the only way to get anywhere. In the long run. Or maybe I just have run out of empathy-spoons.

    But You are totally right, of course. No advice should be given, when somebody is actually lacking hugs.

    About this idea of not magically changing, though you know you are “wrong”. So true. For myself the most annoying or irritating or unfair response seems to be, when people are questioning you. Saying that “Hey – you are not right. You CAN’T need that or think that way or feel the way you do. That is not normal.” No shit Sherlock. I do know that needing this maybe causes that, witch can be challenging to others in relation with me. But I CAN. In fact I do not seem to have much of an option, at the moment.

  5. Hi again. I was thinking about this, and came up with this other angle. And this is not an accusation to anyone in anyway. I just wonder why we tend to tell people about the problems we have, when we actually want them to hear how we feel. I at least do that very often. Probably it’s just so much easier than expressing feelings. Or maybe we are not actually aware of how we feel. Or maybe people would get scared and run away. =D But if I just told that I’m tired or worried or anxious, and that it sucks, others might find it easier to come up with a response to my feelings, instead of targeting on the “secondary” problem? I don’t know.

    But yes, it sucks sometimes. That is true. Take care. =)

    • I think you’re right that sometimes we give people the wrong information to help us, as in “xyz happened today” instead of “it was a long rough day and I’m tired and frustrated and I need a hug.” But sometimes you need validation of the reasons for your feelings too, you know? So I don’t think there’s any getting away from the fact that the person listening always needs to have empathy and think about what would really help the speaker in the moment.

      But yea. Glad you enjoyed the post!

  6. Pingback: My Frustration Gap | a touch of grey

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