Digital Fantastic: Aftercare – A reflection on cognitive empathy, self-care and sadposting

– aka mental illness visibility

Trigger warnings: this blog contains themes including mental illness, self-harm, suicidal ideation and death. Please engage with this content responsibly and if you are here for the acknowledgements then I encourage you to skip to the end!

Part one: reflections on reader reception

My writing about cognitive empathy received some really great feedback and generated some interesting discussions that partially prompted this aftercare post.  After reading a draft of my last blog, some of my loveliest and wisest friends told me that the content was concerning and rightly asked me what I wanted to readers to get out of it: did I want to worry people? Had I thought about what people might think? For someone who studies reader reception theory, I am painfully ignorant of how my work might be received beyond ‘#mood’. But, it wasn’t that I hadn’t thought about my readers – I just hadn’t factored in that people that I know might care. Then when they told me, I went ahead and did it anyway.

So, did I want to worry people?

The answer is no… worrying people is just an unfortunate side effect of attempting to cultivate honest and meaningful relationships with new people when you are mentally ill and experiencing a relapse.

Hollyhock | Tumblr | Bojack horseman, Horseman, Hollyhock

As much as I appreciated the advice, to listen to it on this occasion would have been to do myself a disservice.

After so many years negating myself and trying not to have an opinion, I finally feel confident enough to express myself loudly, live unapologetically and to be myself in public. The amount of pain I’m carrying around hasn’t changed, I’m just expressing it.

Sometimes the truth doesn’t fit into the comforting narratives of self-improvement that people want to hear – those narratives tell us that there is a solution. I’m not here to perform the emotional labour of reassurance, to wear a mask or to negate my experiences. I want people to know that if I can be myself in public that they can too. I want to be visible: if that hurts, avert your gaze. If it helps, then stay with me – you’re my reader. I’m here to tell you that you are not alone.

Thank you to everyone who comments on my posts, shares them and expresses their support: each message is a little miracle.

An even bigger thank you to everyone that has the AUDACITY to care about my wellbeing. Please stop (jk), but also, I’ve written you a little something in the last part of this blog because I really do deeply appreciate everything you do for me, though I’m still not sure why you do it.

If you are one of the people who is going to *do a big concern* please feel free to skip to the end to recieve your well deserved applause! Please don’t punish yourself with my writing if you don’t want to.

I love you whether you like my work or not. My writing is just a small part of who I am, even though it often feels like the only thing that matters.

This case study doesn’t show an upwards trajectory – which of course is what I hoped for. It shows that even though I do practice what I preach, my progress isn’t linear. You can do all of the right things and still feel like shit sometimes. 

We try, we fail, we try again, fail worse and then and remember that sometimes that one good day can make all the shitty days worth it.

Until it doesn’t.

My cognitive empathy diagram and my current lifestyle are the culmination of years of trying. I do the things: eat right, sleep, take meds, stay in contact with people, work out, do creative things, try and help people. So, does it work? 

I guess? I’m still here to post this, but also things are just difficult – such is life. 

Part Two: new academic year, same volatile me

As I said, I kept delaying this post in the hope I could show you real progress. But, after coming out of a particularly dark patch, I realised that I was waiting for something that may never come, so I’ve chosen to mark the end of my first academic year as a PhD researcher instead. To make a new start – well, another new start. 

With a new start comes a new notebook for the year: 

– it already got rained on, which is fucking typical. I wanted to throw it away, because it felt ruined. I bought it to start something new. I wanted something fresh, untarnished: a blank slate.

This is black and white thinking, a habit which has dominated my life: if something isn’t perfect, then what’s the point? I’m either good person, or I’m a bad person. No in-between.

This is neither healthy, nor realistic. What it is, is a contributing factor to the pattern of increasingly severe suicidal ideation I live with. The urge is fairly common which is both sad and reassuring – it sucks, but we’re not alone. I can’t speak as to why others feel this way, but a small part of my own struggles with the desire to end my life stems from black and white thinking. I often feel that I’ve left it too late to be the person I want to be, that I’ve wasted too much time. Sometimes I want to die because life feels meaningless and sometimes it’s because everything feels too meaningful. Every little mistake I’ve made feels like one mistake too much. There are times when my desire to die is rooted in the sincere wish for a new start.  

I’m always trying to feel fresh, untarnished: a blank slate. To go back. Sometimes I feel like if I can’t attain the perfection I’m reaching for then I may as well throw it all away, like that journal. All I want is something that doesn’t feel ruined.  

What I should have realised, and what I’m coming to accept, is that we can’t wipe clean the experiences we’ve had. Not only is it impossible, but though starting over would rid us of all of the bad things that have happened, it would erase the good ones too. People aren’t blank slates by nature: we’re palimpsests and each new inscription makes up who we are and helps inform our experiences.

This feels like the kind of trite, inspirational insta-garbage I wish I could angy reacc to: I am suspicious of optimism, I hate being preached to and I hate getting unsolicited advice, so I don’t want to do that to you with this post. I’m not going to patronise us by spouting off ‘all the pain is worth it’, ‘beautiful things grow out of shit’ or ‘all hardship is just good backstory’ – ‘good damage’. Fuck that.

We are not all in the same boat. There is a social element to mental illness which is vast, complex and intersectional – some scholars within the medical humanities argue that mental illnesses are rational responses to the societal contexts which shape us, but that’s a topic for another time, or perhaps scholar. I’m just checking in.

I’m also not going to bullshit you by saying something like ‘scars are beautiful’ because they are an ugly reminder that I have covered with ink:

No description available.

It’s a pretty tattoo, but it doesn’t erase the scars. They will always be there. The lyrics speak to that. It’s Emilie Autumn quoting Hamlet (sooo meta, right?). Without digging into the intertextuality of the quotation and just looking at the lines themselves, the lyrics are there to remind me that even when I’m at my worst I’m still capable of being good. The good may not erase the bad, but it can inform it. I am still capable of learning, but that learning takes struggle – some of it meaningless and unnecessary.  

My old notebook is a tribute to that. It’s the first notebook I used to record absolutely everything without tearing out a page. It’s full of what seems like useless information – things I tried that didn’t work, the good days and the bad. It’s full of calories I should not have counted, schedules I scrapped, projects I started and never finished, ideas for my thesis that I eventually threw out, and the seeds of what would become a formalised structure of coping mechanisms that have helped me restructure my life.

These pages and accompanying social media posts are also a case study for the theory of cognitive empathy I’ve been using on myself.

It’s never fun to get a null result

– but that’s the black and white thinking.

It only feels like a null result, on a bad day.

I can’t claim an upwards trajectory, but I’m learning that progress is not linear.

I want you to know that I’m trying. I am ok, but I also want you to know the truth – you can try and try to do everything right and you’ll still have a crappy day.

No description available.

All of this effort makes the bad days feel even worse: what’s the point of trying to hold it together so much if I still malfunction and fall apart? But, even though the bad days are dangerously bad, at least there are more good days now.

I try and think of my journal as a way of editing myself: any writer will tell you that it takes many bad drafts to create one piece of good work. That’s one of the reasons I’m a shitty writer – I’m still writing through my bad drafts in the hope that one day I’ll get to a good one. I’m still learning to edit.  

Part Three: Acknowledgements

It’s always good to have a second pair of eyes – or more if you’re lucky!

I never wrote acknowledgements for my dissertation, during which I felt very much alone. But now, I would like to write some acknowledgements, not for my writing (which I’m woefully short on), but for those who are facilitating my ability to work in the future. I want to thank the people who have really made a difference to my life in the clusterfuck of the last academic year.

It’s difficult for me to express how I feel, because I don’t want to imply that I need people. I want you to know that I’m quite capable of getting through this alone, but I am extremely happy that you’ve been here.

Thank you for your support, advice and company.

I love you all, unapologetically.

Charlie: You are persistent, smart, patient and giving. You always offer me a level-headed perspective and are an inspirationally strong woman. Thank you for talking about everything and anything with me. I’m proud of this friendship we’ve built together: my relationship with you is the healthiest and most enduring of my life (no pressure lol). Thank you for helping me maintain this ‘delicate system’ of a person.  

Dr Miller: One of the only healthcare professionals who has recognised my struggles and has actively advocated for my well-being. You have helped me find the best medication I have ever been on. I’m not exaggerating when I say that your help has saved my life. Thank you.  

Francis: Thanks for being a reliable and diligent colleague and an excellent friend. It would have been easy to ‘nope out’ of our friendship, but you’re always good for a chat and a laugh. Cheers for reminding me of home m8. I owe you a drink and about one million cigarettes. 

Grace: Thank you for taking me in over Christmas and for accepting a ridiculous amount of boundary-crossing oversharing. I liked you from the first time we spoke and like you more as time goes by! You are one of the best DMs I have ever had – you can master my dungeon any day!

Llarna Llama: You have always been a wonderful friend and it has been a privilege to see you become an amazing mother. Thank you for never forgetting me, including me in your journey and letting me be a flighty wine-aunt to my beautiful nephew Jack. ❤ You are a talented artist and a beautiful person. I am so proud of you. (P.S. I will always have a crush on you, my sea turtle!) 

Maude: I can’t believe I’ve had to do this without you. I miss you and will always remember you. 

Marita: Thank you for not giving up on me, even when I was distant and reclusive to the point of being a dickhat. You are one of the warmest, most giving, kindest and fun people I have ever met.  You always show up and I always notice. Thank you for reading all of my shitty writing and making me feel both seen and heard. Glasgow felt so much emptier without you, Marita. You are a big nerd. (Please don’t bite my nose.) 

Matt B: Your hard work building the Game Studies community at Glasgow has given me opportunities I never knew were possible. The fact that you started something that can be of such lasting use to others is extraordinary. Thank you for your help, expertise and support in navigating both my thesis and difficult circumstances. You have so much on, but you always manage to find the humour in everything! 

Matt S: You help your supervisees in a way that goes above and beyond your remit. You are so busy, and not only do you make time for everyone – you notice them. You support so many people, but you have never made me feel like just one more student on your schedule. We all appreciate you so much. Working with you is a privilege.  

To both Matts: You are incredible supervisors and were my first and only choices. Thank fuck we got the funding because I wasn’t planning to apply anywhere else! I said that if I couldn’t work with the right people, I didn’t want to do this work at all. The sentiment still stands, but you’ve taught me so much that I have much better foundation as a researcher now, even if things change! 

Ollie: Ever since we first met at the Game Studies reading group I wanted to get to know you more, but I couldn’t. I’m so glad I took a chance and started messaging you – I had no idea we would have so much in common and click so well. I would have been happy with your friendship, but you’ve given me so much more. Your kindness and dedication are inspiring me to become a better version of myself. You are an excellent influence. I’ll always be better off for the pleasure of your company. Don’t tell anyone I’m such a big sap. It’s a secret.  

Simone do Carmo: An amazing, holistic personal trainer. You are everything you advertise yourself as and more. Thank you for helping me cultivate a positive mindset, be kind to myself and change my relationship to food after years of struggling with it! 

Steph: It feels like I’ve known you forever – even though we’ve only met in person once and I was too shy for my own good. You are talented, hardworking and so very loveable. You showed me that people can live how the fuck they want to live, have good sex, present however they want and that I don’t need to be ashamed of the weirder parts of my personality. You’ve always accepted me as I am. You were the first person I told when I made the big change and you encouraged me every step of the way. Thank you for helping me be strong and (I hope) a little like you.  

Ruth: I emailed you with a few questions and you responded with a tailored mentorship plan! I can’t believe that I get to work with you. You have been a source of excellent support and advice; you’re teaching me so many excellent things and I am incredibly lucky to have such a wonderful person not just in my life but spending quality time with me. I want to make you proud one day!  

I also want to mention the old friends kind enough to reconnect with me this year and the new friends I’ve been privileged to get to know: 

Alex, Amber, Ben, Calvin, Frankie, Kate, Kenny, Meg, Meghan, Maddie, Ting Ting and Toby ❤  

Thank you everyone. I hope that I’m here enough for you too.

Digital Fantastic: Kindness as Praxis

On managing grief, mental illness and orienting oneself towards kind research practices.

Trigger warnings: this blog contains themes including mental illness, self-harm, suicidal ideation and death. Please engage with this content responsibly and although I appreciate kind thoughts, please do not @ me with ‘you ok hon’. This post may display incorrectly on mobile devices.
W. H. Auden, The More Loving One

If you follow me on social media, you’ll know that my grandfather died. That’s the objective truth. The emotional truth is that my father died: he was the one man in the world I could always rely on, the one man who loved me unconditionally, who supported me without expecting anything in return. The one man in the world that gave me hope that kind men exist.

It was the 11th of July at approximately 2am when he passed away whilst my grandmother and I slept at his bedside. I like to think he waited for me to make the long journey from Glasgow to Essex to reach him. If only I’d been a few days sooner, I might have got there whilst he was still awake. I held my grandmother and told her that it was OK to cry, that it’s a perfectly normal and healthy response to grief. Even as I held her close, I felt nothing.

It must be the shock.

Maybe it hasn’t hit me yet. Perhaps it’s such a colossal loss that I haven’t yet begun to comprehend it. It’s only recent, it makes sense that I’m still processing it – at least that’s what everyone tells me. I try to listen to them; it would be easy to dismiss this disconnect as a response to grief, but I can’t because it’s not an irregularity, it’s normality. My life is a series of extreme highs and lows punctuated by nothingness, the loud silence: the void.

The day my grandfather died, I performed the role of a dutiful and caring daughter. I did everything I could to raise people’s spirits: I encouraged them to tell stories and played our favourite songs. I asked how everyone was feeling. No one asked me; everyone thinks I’m strong and that I’m putting on a brave face – smiling through the sadness. What they don’t realise is that there’s no sadness to smile through. I passed through the arms of my family like a ghost, performing love and care without feeling it. I do this most days, with most people: I repeat patterns of social behaviour not because it’s what I feel, but it’s what I’ve learned is expected from me. I feel like I’m standing outside of myself, controlling my body like a meat puppet that is slowly rotting from the inside out. I jokingly compare myself to a corpse, but no one realises how serious I am. We laugh it off, say that I have cold hands because I have a cold heart, but the truth is that I feel like I died a long time ago. If only – lol jk (but not really tho).

When I’m in the void, it feels like forever, but it’s not. For there to be a noticeable absence, there had to have been something there.

F e e l i n g s.

But feeling is vulnerability and in a world like ours, vulnerability invites heartache.  Far better then, to retreat into apathy and anesthetise myself. But even when I’m numb, there’s a part of me that remembers that the numbness is where love should be. Even when I don’t feel love, I act as if I do in the hope that it will come.

And sometimes it does. On a good day I get an ecstatic high, I pet the dogs, I smile at babies, I ask people about their days and care about their answers. I say ‘I love you’ and actually mean it. I want to teach, I want to take part, to make love instead of fuck. I want to be kind and trust that others are kind too, even when I’ve been so consistently proven wrong. The high can be just as dangerous as the low that follows. I deal with my feelings by negating them with alcohol, binge eating and isolating myself, or heightening them by indulging in intense emotional connections, sex with strangers, starvation and self-harm. I zigzag between extremes in fits of emotional vertigo.  I’m always dizzy, always trying to catch my breath and sometimes I fall. Each time I get up it becomes a little bit harder. The more I neglect myself, the more I resent spending time with people. I isolate myself, try and reduce the emotional burnout I feel, tell myself that I’m happy alone, but it never lasts. I can’t help but love, care and take care of people.

But caretaking isn’t valued, nor recognised for the skill it is. Some of our worst paid professions are the caring ones: crafting human happiness is just not productive. You can’t quantify a smile. Kindness is viewed as something that people just are and do, rather than something which should be learned and practiced. During my PGCE we all joked about the Teachers’ Standards (Department of Education, 2020), which is an outline of the kinds of qualities a teacher should embody in order to be considered a professional. It includes points about upholding public trust, treating pupils with dignity, and behaving in a professional way. We took great pains to gather evidence to meet the standards and joked about how pedantic it was.

“Surely some of this about NOT being a dick, right? Just common sense?” (Giles, 2018)

If only.

Maybe we need a set of standards across the board to recognise that kindness isn’t innate: it’s a skill that must be encouraged and developed.

As I went about the day-to-day of bereavement admin and looked after my family with numb compassion, I realised that I had been so isolated (during lockdown and before) that I had almost forgotten how to nurture. Even at the best of times researchers often feel so disconnected from everything and everyone that it’s easy to forget how to be kind, especially when there is no perceived benefit. Taking time out of our packed schedules to make someone else happy can feel like an unnecessary distraction. But what if kindness was a standard that we were encouraged to aspire to? Is there a way to orient our research practices towards kindness so that when we don’t feel like being kind, we have a theory to fall back on?

I was recently listening to a Psychology of Video Games (Madigan, 2019) podcast for my research and ended up learning something about myself (because making EVERYTHING ABOUT ME is one of my greatest talents).  In that podcast, Kelli Dunlap PsyD, outlines a model of empathy which is used to inform game design. Dunlap divides empathy into two types: affective (or emotional) empathy and cognitive empathy (12:11 onwards).

Dunlap describes cognitive empathy as “the mental ability to project yourself into the experience of somebody else and to understand what’s going on and why they might be thinking or feeling what they’re thinking and feeling”. Put simply, cognitive empathy helps us to “walk a mile in [others’] shoes and see the world through their eyes”. On the other hand, “emotional empathy are the feels”. If we see someone else experience strong emotion, we may feel these emotions mirrored in ourselves and this “gives us the motivation to care or to act, because it’s uncomfortable for us and we’re trying to decrease our discomfort”.

Dunlap explains that empathy works optimally when the two aspects are integrated:

“-because if you’re all cognitive empathy and zero emotional empathy, you’re basically Hannibal Lecter where you understand what everyone is going through, but you don’t care … and if you’re all emotional empathy, you’re a weepy mess and you have no idea why”.

Let’s break it down with some simple examples:

Acts of emotional empathy
(action compelled by feeling)
Acts of cognitive empathy
(action guided by perception of others’ needs)
Acting emotionally during an argument.
Stepping back from an argument to manage the situation.
Physical or verbal affection driven by feelings of connection, desire or to comfort.Phatic exchanges, etiquette and hugging people (if you’re not a hugger).
Cleaning up after yourself because someone made you feel bad about your mess. Cleaning up after yourself because you know not doing so will cause someone inconvenience.  
Apologising because someone made you feel bad about your actions and you want to feel better.Apologising because you understand why your actions may be hurtful, then acting to rectify the problem.
Improving social situations because you feel awkward.Defending someone verbally, even when they aren’t present.
Romantic spontaneity.Thinking of gifts/dates.
Initiating text conversations because you miss someone.Checking on loved ones when you’re busy/not craving their company.
Wearing a face covering because you’ve seen the effects of COVID on a loved-one, or refusing to wear one because of your personal feelings.
Wearing a face covering to prevent the spread of COVID because you know its potential effect on others, or not wearing one because you believe bullshit conspiracy theories.
Doing an activity someone you love likes because it makes them happy, which makes you feel happy.Doing an activity someone you love likes because you want them to percieve you as a suitable partner.
Sending emails in the heat of the moment.Crafting communications in advance.
Expressing your emotions to share them with others and help you understand each other.

Modelling emotional processing by simulating and/or talking about feelings, even if/when you don’t feel them.

Extremes of emotional empathy may include:
– Oversharing
– Lack of boundaries
– Being a ‘mood sponge’
– Negating or minimising others’ pain to reduce your own discomfort.
– Acting without consideration of others’ circumstances.

Extremes of cognitive empathy may include:
– Policing others’ boundaries
– Attempting to control others’ perceptions of you using social tactics.
– Gaslighting.
– Faking emotional empathy to help others feel better, or to manipulate their perception of you.
– Assuming someone’s feelings and acting based on those assumptions.

Though I’ve separated them out, the same action can be motivated by a combination of both cognitive and emotional empathy. I will emphasise however, that being motivated by combined factors isn’t the same as faking emotional empathy – one skilled enough at cognitive empathy may not feel emotion at the time, but can use their understanding of others to perform emotion either in the service of others (altruistically) or themselves. This has can be termed “feeling with your head” (Thomson, 2020).

Dunlap’s explanation of cognitive empathy resonated with me. I realised that I often default to cognitive empathy in an attempt to control people’s perceptions of me, or focus on their needs to nuture them whilst neglecting my own. I experience a strange kind of amnesia that makes me forget who I am, what I value and why it’s important. I negate my personhood and allow myself to be defined in relation to others. But, because I do have feelings (ew), repressing them takes up a lot of energy, which results in emotional burnout and self-neglect. When it gets too much, I end up feeling all those feels all at once, to an almost unbearable extent.

But how can one avoid this? How can we go about integrating cognitive and emotional empathy after a life of swinging between extremes?

What if I was to treat myself like I’m someone I care about? Is it possible to use my cognitive empathy to take care of my emotions?

I know ‘self-care’ is a staple millennial cliché, but I’m late to the trend and I’m still figuring out how to turn my nurturing side inwards. The whole thing feels counter-intuitive; it seems so ridiculous to be doing so many things that will increase my lifespan when I spend so much of my time wanting to die, but I have to do it for the days when I remember how much I want to live.  I’ve been trying to figure it out for years and never managed to get suitable help, so I’ve done what I do best: paperwork. I’ve made a diagram to refer to when times get rough, to try and keep track of how I’m feeling, what behaviours I want to avoid and which I want to encourage myself to aspire towards. Although it might not always be possible, the aim is to use my cognitive empathy in the service of my emotions and to treat myself how I would treat someone else in distress. The creation of the diagram is itself an act of self-directed cognitive empathy.

Whilst this specific exercise is perhaps only relevant to me, is demonstrative of one of the ways that we as researchers can put our capabilities to use in a way that benefits us as people, not just as professionals. I propose that we practice kindness as praxis. Use our creativity, apply the analytical and critical thinking skills we’ve developed; take the best we’ve learned about humanity and APPLY it to our lives. But, how?

Here are a few simple things we can do to enact kindness as praxis:

  • Establish self-care habits and routines to provide yourself with structure during more challenging times.
  • Monitor your mood and check-in with yourself as if you were a friend in order to better understand how your emotions may impact your workload.
  • Use your understanding of others to present your research in a way which is engaging to your audience, rather than one which serves your ego.
  • Think about how those outside of academia may perceive you as a researcher. Is there a way that you can make impact in a way that genuinely serves the wider community, rather than as part of a box-ticking exercise?
  • Consider how you interact with others in a professional setting and use cognitive empathy to temper your emotions in order to treat people kindly.
  • Use cognitive empathy to consider if there are any social/emotional/moral lessons to be taken from your research and think about how to implement them.

Of course, we’re not perfect. We’ve probably all fucked-up and are going to again, but using cognitive empathy to learn from our mistakes can help us course-correct and be better people, as well as more effective researchers. Be kind with your head, even if you don’t feel it in your heart. Use your skills to make someone smile – there’s a little impact for you.

I’m sure I must be feeling the loss of my grandfather. I’m sure that that one day the realisation will hit me. The loss. Until then all I can do is look after myself so that I can best support others. I just hope that when the emotions hit, I’ll be better equipped to manage them.

Maybe I can’t diagram my way out of grief, but I have tried to deal with everything as well as I can.

I am trying.

I promise.

References

Assets.publishing.service.gov.uk. 2020. Teachers’ Standards. [online] Available at: <https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/665522/Teachers_standard_information.pdf&gt; [Accessed 28 July 2020].

Dunlap, K and Madigan, J., 2019. Empathy In Video Games. [podcast] The Psychology of Video Games. Available at: <https://www.psychologyofgames.com/2019/07/podcast-50-empathy-in-video-games/&gt; [Accessed 28 July 2020].

Giles, D. 2018. The Teachers’ Standards: a rant.

Thomson, R. 2020. Armchair Psychology for Dummies

Armchair Psychologist in session: to meme, or not to meme, that is the question

A disclaimer:

Before we proceed, I would like to remind everyone that as an unprofessional I have adhered to the strict unethical code of armchair psychology. As such, in response to the serious and important topic below, I have provided an answer that is both lacking in substance and facetious in nature.

As I don’t want to get sued care about my readers, I found it prudent to include further resources regarding support and suicide prevention at the end of the post. I would also like to advise anyone who is struggling with such thoughts to speak to someone who knows what the fuck they’re talking about.

Trigger warnings: death, anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation.

Now, let us begin before we all succumb to the inevitability of decay.

*****

Dear armchair psychologist,

Ever since the beginning of the year I have had an unhealthy relationship with death. I turned 30 this year and I feel like my life is over, all of these years wasted. It has certainly helped me re-evaluate my priorities and I’ve spent less time on social media and more time with my family, but it also sends me into existential spirals filled with feeling of overwhelming dread. I guess I don’t really have a question, per se, but I struggle with keeping these thoughts in check and any help would be appreciated. Mortality is just such a heavy topic and I have no idea how everyone walks around with this weight without talking to other people about it.

Yours faithlessly,
The influential existential

To the influential existential,

Thank you for your question (even though it was really more of a comment). Before we dive into the listicle, let’s break down your problem.

‘I have had an unhealthy relationship with death.’

Out of all of the unhealthy relationships to be in, this one is a real doozy because you can’t break it off. Death is the morbid spouse you never asked for. However, you haven’t consummated the marriage yet, in fact, you haven’t even met. Your relationship with death is an inexpertly arranged marriage. Really, you’re in an relationship with the idea of death, rather an death itself. As death is an abstraction, rather than a reality, therefore, you may be able to improve your relationship to it by changing your perception of what it means. But how?

Not to worry! All will be revealed in the listicle below: point 11 will CHANGE your LIFE.

I turned 30 this year and I feel like my life is over, all of these years wasted.

OK. Let’s assume that you’re being honest and not overly critical of yourself. Maybe you have wasted time – but, don’t lose hope! In our youth-centric society, a ‘quarter’-life crisis is only natural, but you (probably) still have many excellent years ahead of you (excluding traffic accidents and terminal illnesses). Some people are late bloomers. There’s still time to turn things around, if you’re willing to put in the effort.

If a strong dose of personal responsibility doesn’t help, then try picturing yourself as one small part of a larger whole: the un/intelligent and spectacular/ly useful/less human race. If you think you’ve made mistakes pal, take a glance at the 200,000 years that humans have inhabited/destroyed the planet. Like your shitty decisions, our shitty decisions are what got us to this point. Flawed as we are, we tried our best under the circumstances. Could we have made better choices? Yes. But it’s too late to worry about it now. The Titanic is sinking: listen to the violins, have a scone and enjoy yourself while it lasts mate.

‘Mortality is just such a heavy topic and I have no idea how everyone walks around with this weight without talking to other people about it. ‘

In my unprofessional opinion, the reason that we are (mostly) able to cope with our impending extinction is because as a species, humans have repressed the shit out of it. We have distracted ourselves via displacement. To paraphrase A Critical Dictionary of Psychoanalysis , displacement is the process by which someone shifts their emotional energy from one thing, to another. All of us know that death lurks behind every corner, so we distract ourselves by doing other things (like making listicles)… If you’re unsure about how to silence the crushing knowledge of your mortality, why not select something from the veritable buffet of distractions below. (Number 9 will SHOCK you…)

11 Ways to Ghost Your Existential Anxiety

1. Religion

Religion was CREATED to solve this very problem. People find comfort in religion for a reason. Some people enjoy the community it fosters, others relish the sense of purpose that scripture gives them and are consoled by the idea that life after death is more than just oblivion, others just enjoy being told what to do to give their minds a break. If you’re too much of an atheist edge lord to admit that you’re capable of faith, just watch some Jordan Peterson and he’ll tell you what to do instead. Clean your room bucko.

2. BDSM

BDSM was CREATED to solve this very problem. People find comfort in BDSM for a reason. Some people enjoy the community it fosters, others relish the sense of purpose having a sub/dom relationship gives them and are consoled by the idea of being fucked into oblivion, others just enjoy being told what to do to give their minds a break. If you’re too much of a prude to don your gimp suit and call your Master ‘daddy’ then just watch some Jordan Peterson and he’ll tell you what to do instead.

Image result for contrapoints daddy

3. Nihilism

Admitting that life is meaningless can unburden you from the responsibility of having to live a meaningful life (which is such a lot of effort). So just chill the fuck out, because nothing matters anyway!

4. Cardio

Related image

Bro, have you tried walking it off?

Medical professionals and medical unprofessionals agree that exercise CURES ALL MENTAL ILLNESS, so ignore that crippling anxiety, remember that fatigue is an illusion and get on your bike you lazy shit.

5. Yoga

Image result for yoga meme

Worried about death? Well try stretching in a silent room full of people without farting! That’ll take your mind off it.

6. Essential Oils

Just rub some lavender oil on it babe, it’ll totally cleanse those chakras! And if, like me, you want to be your own boss and set your own schedule, you can join my essential oils marketing team for the low, low price of a starter set (£300). Start your journey to self-actualisation today!

7. Join a Cult

Image result for creed cult gif

If you’re down on cults, then you obviously haven’t seen Wild, Wild Country. I mean LOOK AT HOW HAPPY THEY WERE. Being a part of a tight-knit community can really help with what ails ya (if you can ignore casual acts of domestic terrorism).

8. Catch ’em all

Image result for catch em all meme

If joining a cult is a bit too sociable for you, then you’re in luck! Playing Pokemon, or similar creature collection games, may be the key to reducing anxiety surrounding death.

Terror management theory, as summarised by McIntosh & Schmeichel suggests that people can reduce death-related anxiety by collecting things as these collections allow for the collector live on symbolically via their contribution after their demise.

There’s good news for stamp-haters! Game Studies researcher Sonja C Sapach suggests that this feeling can be digitised, as by collecting creatures, players obtain a feeling of immortality by ‘contributing to a fragmented database of collective knowledge’ destined to outlast them (at least until someone deletes their save file).

There’s no better reason to catch ’em all than to evade the fear of one’s inevitable demise. Though, it might be best to avoid Lavender Town if you’re maudlin.

9. Meme it

There’s no greater proof that many of our generation are existing under the rapidly gathering storm clouds of our impending personal and planetary demise than memes; death memes, depression memes, suicide memes.

Poor taste?
Yes.

Hilarious?
Also yes.

Though depression memes aren’t to everyone’s taste and may look like idiocy at worst and insanity at best to ‘normies’, you have to admire the creativity of the movement surrounding them. They’re part of a special form of displacement psychoanalysts term sublimation which is the process of channelling negative emotions into a productive activity: like music or art. It’s 2019. Memes are art now. Make a meme page and sublimate the shit out of it.

10. Make a plan

One thing that has helped me cope with my mortality is that knowing if I die, then at least I won’t have to worry about anything any more. However if you’re a Type A asshole considerate person and worry about what will happen to your loved ones after you pass away, try alleviating this anxiety by getting your affairs in order before you go. Make a list, check it twice, seek professional help.

11. Personify Death

Image result for grim reaper meme

OR Maybe you don’t like death because you haven’t got to know them yet. If you’re still having a tough time, why not try having a chat with death and see what happens? Turning death as an abstraction into something more concrete by personifying them might make the idea easier to deal with. You could write a letter, a short story, or a play. What would you say to death? What do you think death would say back? Read your conversation aloud, or leave it in the comments below. It might be cathartic.

Conclusion: death is millennial culture

If you think that you’re the only one walking around thinking about death all the time, then THINK AGAIN sunshine. You must be talking to the wrong people or visiting the wrong parts of the internet (or the right places, depending on your perspective). I’m sure that members of prior generations had equally bleak mindsets and equally difficult anxieties (don’t flame me boomers), but growing up with the internet has intensified millennials’ existential angst by giving us a never ending supply of depression porn (instant news) and a plethora of terrifyingly dystopian echo chambers where we can all gather together and masochistically bitch about it.

Speaking of dystopian echo chambers, come for a chat in my discord server!

Kind regards,

The armchair psychologist

*****

Aftercare:

Mental Health Resources

List of international suicide crisis lines

NHS List of Mental Health Helplines

Samaritans Contact Details

The University of Warwick Counselling Service’s advice on existential anxiety

Academic disclaimer ***

I realise that in this post I’ve misused theoretical frameworks and left a lot out for comedy/convenience.

If you’re interested in a more thorough look at the topic, try the below resources which give a better overview of the psychoanalytic views on death anxiety and signpost more appropriate primary literature.

Freud on Death (an overview)

Freud (1856–1939).  Reflections on War and Death.  1918.

On ‘the fear of death’ as the primary anxiety: how and why Klein differs from Freud.

Armchair Psychologist in session: a prescription for waifus

Mystic Messenger, Visual Novel, Android

Dear armchair psychologist,

I’m struggling to move on from my ex, not because i don’t recognise that the relationship was dreadful for my mental health, but because I don’t find myself physically attracted to people very often and i am still very attracted to this ex. It is upsetting and frustrating because I can see that they are not right for me, but I haven’t been attracted to anyone since so I am finding myself thinking about them a lot. It isn’t healthy, I know. I am nervous that I will never be physically attracted to anyone ever again. Long shot but do you have anything that might ease my concerns?

*****

Dear anon,

Thank you for your question.

First of all:

YOU CUPCAKE, HONEYBUNCH, SUGAR PLUM, PUMPY-UMPY-UMPKIN

AWESOME HUMAN YOU

This was me trying to tell you (in the most patronising way possible – sorry) that I am so happy for you. I’m so pleased that you’re not in this toxic relationship any more. One way, or another, you are out of it. The situation may be painful, but being free of this relationship, and recognising how shitty it was for you, may be one of the best things that has ever happened to you.

So again, my congratulations! 

Boku no Hero Academia

…I realise however, that knowing this doesn’t make things any easier.

‘not because i don’t recognise that the relationship was dreadful for my mental health… It is upsetting and frustrating … It isn’t healthy…’

It sounds like you consider your feelings irrational, and you’re giving yourself a hard time about that. Thing is, emotions aren’t rational and you can’t logic them away.

WE CAN TRY THO.

Let’s ACTIVATE armchair psychology mode and start making some assumptions…

armchair-psychologist

‘I don’t find myself physically attracted to people very often…’

If you don’t find yourself attracted to others very often, let’s assume that you might not have felt emotions like the ones you’re experiencing much before. We won’t assume that you haven’t had relationships, because romantic relationships ≠ attraction, but you might not have experienced this particular type of relationship before.

Like anything, feeling things and processing emotion takes practise. Your unconscious mind may not be used to handling things like this, so what you’re feeling could be a result of its imperfect way of dealing with things. You might want to consider engaging in some kind of therapy, or getting a therapy workbook to complete as this will help these emotions become conscious and perhaps enable you to practise processing them more efficiently. However, I’m NOT a therapist and this is a pretty boring answer, so it’s not something we’ll go into in detail about – it’s just something benign you might want to check out. If you’re not into therapy, at least forgive yourself for having feelings. Emotions are shitty and it’s not your fault that you feel them. Hopefully, in time, you’ll get used to it – or when the singularity comes we’ll all shed our human meat-cases and become flawless virtual presences living immortal lives w/o having to deal will this bullshit. Until then, we’ll always have emo.

‘I’m struggling to move on from my ex… i am still very attracted to this ex… I am finding myself thinking about them a lot’

This again, is very normal. Even Freud wrote about it. We may not agree with all of Freud’s shit, but I find that his work functions nicely as a metaphorical framework that makes emotions easier to understand. So, let’s cherry-pick some of his theories, take them out of context and use them in the most simplistic way possible BECAUSE THAT’S WHAT US ARMCHAIR PSYCHOLOGISTS LIVE FOR.

Freud, Sigmund

First, let’s talk about cathexis, a term created by Freud’s translators from the German  ‘besetzung’ which means investment (Rycroft 1995: 19). This is basically a representation of the process of putting energy into a relationship, and has become synonymous with the modern term ’emotional investment’. By having relationships with people, you are effectively giving them a part of yourself – I’m not talking about spitting in their food or secretly feeding them your fingernails, but sharing things like your time, your energy, your body and perhaps even your love. Gifts such as these are more impactful than anything material, yet they are much harder to quantify. If you bought someone an expensive box of doughnuts you’d see the effect on your bank balance, but when you give your emotional energy to someone else, the effect is intangible. Yet, it’s something you can feel – especially if you don’t receive an equal of amount of doughnuts emotional investment in return.

Undertale Heart, Toby Fox

When you break-up with someone, you may feel like you have given them your dignity. It can feel like you made a poor decision – you invested in stock which crashed. Instead of dealing with material consequences (though, that’s a possibility too) you have to deal with the social and emotional consequences of this decision and find a way to recoup your losses. It may not be your fault that this happened – all relationships are a gamble – but the losses are real and so are the feelings that come with them. The process of withdrawing your emotional energy (decathexis) is bound to vary depending on both the intensity of your emotions and how efficient your unconscious is at processing them.

‘i am still very attracted to this ex. It is upsetting and frustrating’

It seems like you have contradictory emotions which can make it difficult to understand them. It’s even more challenging because a lot of what you feel is probably unconscious – the feelings have been repressed because they’re difficult and confusing. Unconscious emotions are a little like mice living in your wall: you probably don’t know they’re there until they start making weird noises, and you might not even realise where the noises are coming from until the mice start leaving enough little shit pellets for you to notice them. These manifestations of your unconscious shit pellets can come in various forms: they could be neurotic symptoms, or obsessive thoughts.

In your case, it looks like the shit pellets you’re finding are evidence of ambivalence, a term coined by psychiatrist Eugen Bleuler in 1911 (OH YES LOOK HOW UP TO DATE MY RESEARCH IS *SO NOW* AND NOT OUTDATED AT ALL).  Basically, ambivalence is different to having mixed feelings for a person – which is normal because people  can be wonderful, shitty, sexy and horrific all at once (Rycroft 1995: 6) – it’s about having contradictory emotions which are so extreme that they’re confusing.

Perhaps when you became attracted to this person, you put them up on a pedestal to bask in their sexiness because you weren’t used to experiencing the kinds of thing they made you feel.

Surely a person who could make you FEEL things like that must be GREAT – right?

But, they’re just a person after all. They’re not David Hasselhoff.

David Hasslehoff, pants, underwear

When you realised that they are imperfect, it hurt even more because you let yourself be attracted to them, and maybe they weren’t worthy in the first place. Maybe it made you hate them just a little bit. Maybe they deserved it, maybe they didn’t. Who knows?

‘I am finding myself thinking about them a lot’

Anyway, the shit pellets can take the form of obsessive thoughts which may be the result of your unconscious trying to balance out the extremes of what you’re feeling (Rycroft 1995: 6). It’s such hard work that you don’t have enough energy left to repress your emotions, so they keep surfacing. Maybe you feel guilty because your unconscious is doing a shitty job and it knows it. So it’s time to stop trying to repress things. Stop ignoring the shit pellets. You need to clean them up and give the mice in your wall some cheese and some goddamn attention. Maybe then they’ll stop squeaking so fjucking loudly.

Be kind to the mice to be kind to yourself.

mouse instrument.gif

There’s a lot more that we can’t go into here, but I’d recommend checking out Mourning and Melancholia  – reading the terms in context situates them within a more sophisticated framework of meaning than I can provide here.

Rick and Morty

Now we have a slightly better understanding of your feelings (well, the flimsy construction of your feelings we’ve made up)

cards falling.gif

and we should think about a possible solution to what you consider to be your current problem.

‘I haven’t been attracted to anyone since… I am nervous that I will never be physically attracted to anyone ever again.’

Before we get into this, I want to mention that when it comes to attraction, everyone is different – not being attracted to people isn’t a problem unless you consider it a problem. I’m making suggestions in the hope they will alleviate some of your discomfort, rather than change who you essentially are.

OK SO.

The stereotypical advice would be to TAKE SOME TIME FOR YOURSELF. FIND YOURSELF BEFORE YOU FIND A PARTNER. LEARN TO LOVE YOURSELF. DO SOME YOGA. RUB SOME COCONUT OIL ON IT.

yoga fail.gif

Of course, as an armchair psychologist I’m going to give you this shitty advice.

BUT BEAR WITH

bear with.gif

We’re going to mix things up a bit.

My advice is essentially to take some time for yourself and to date yourself  (candles, chocolates and all) but

BY FINDING A HUSBANDO/WAIFU !!! ❤

Translation: have a romance with a fictional heart-throb.

Mystic Messenger, Visual Novel, Android

For some people (especially late bloomers), letting oneself feel attraction can take practise. One of the ways we can practise is by engaging in fantasy. Perhaps crushing on a fictional character might help reignite the spark you felt when you met your ex, or at least get you back in ‘the mood’…

FOR LOVE

IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE YOU PERVERT

Jeeeze

this is a WHOLESOME blog, I’ll have you know

blushing

(until someone asks me cosmo-style question – I’d be fine with that)

Anyway, having a fictional romance can help you feel emotions again without all of the bother of dealing with someone’s imperfections. Some activities you could try include:

  • Playing visual novels (find one with pretty people and a good story – I won’t recommend any because idk what you like)
  • Playing a dating sim (Mystic Messenger is GREAT because it’s on your phone and is designed to feel like a real relationship – it also lasts a long time and has a lot of different paths to choose from which make it great distraction – sadly it’s just husbandos though).
  • Write a story/fanfic for the sole purpose of creating someone you can ‘fall in love’ with.
  • You could even read a book  (IKR – CRAZY) but it might not give you the same feeling of agency.

Taking part in imaginative exercises could help you feel accustomed to the idea of being attracted to someone again. You were hurt the last time you felt physical attraction, so it’s natural that you might feel reluctant (even unconsciously) to feel that way again. Getting a waifu is a much safer way of accessing your romantic side until you’re ready to share it.  Just remember that the deep backstories of fictional husbandos/waifus you spend time with are likely more glamorous than a real person’s baggage: try and be aware of that when you begin to make the transition to feeling something for a real person again.

HAPPY HUSBANDO HUNTING

Kind regards,

The armchair psychologist

*****

Aftercare: Would you ever engage in a fictional romance or do you think the idea is kinda creepy?

Let me know in the comments!

*****

If you’d like to leave the armchair psychologist a question then please do after reading the health warning, and if you enjoyed this content then please consider leaving a donation.

Armchair Psychologist in session: Why the fault is not in our fucking stars

Dear armchair psychologist,

When I find myself in times of trouble I dive headfirst into astrology, tarot, and other forms of cheap affordable divination because the idea of predestination makes me feel calmer and more focused. Why am I so against my own freedom as an individual? How can I outgrow this crutch?

Yours,
Astral Confusion

*****

Dear Astral Confusion,

Thank you for sending in your question.

Let’s begin by engaging with one of the most important traditions of the school of armchair psychology – making some broad, and possibly offensive, assumptions about you by deconstructing your question.

Kati Morton, Shane Dawson, Psychology

Your question shows a divide between your fatalistic attitude and your empowerment as an individual. We’ll look at your fatalistic tendencies first.

‘When I find myself in times of trouble… dive headfirst… the idea of predestination makes me feel calmer and more focused…

The explicit message here is that you find the idea of destiny comforting. You ‘dive headfirst’ into the murky waters of divination as if you’re trying to escape from something. Have you thought about what is it that you’re escaping from?

What kind of sinking ship are you abandoning?

Is the ship just doomed?  Even though you did the health and safety checks and cracked open a bottle of champagne on its hull, somehow, the fucker still caught fire and sank?

Saying that you ‘find yourself in times of trouble’ suggests a lack of control. Indeed, sometimes accidents and bad situations happen and there’s nothing we can do about it. Depending on your belief system it could be that the fault IS in your stars, or the world is just a shitty place full of shitty people who like to set fire to your motherfucking ship. (Or maybe someone just left their straighteners on.) There’s no denying that there’s just some things we can’t control, and need to escape from.  If we can’t physically escape, perhaps we can at least emotionally escape by engaging in a pastime we feel may offer answers.

But let’s go back to my first question: what is it you’re escaping from?

Proceed with caution: this T is hot.

Addams Family, Spooky, Spoopy, Halloween

Maybe it was your fault the ship started sinking. Maybe you didn’t put enough lifeboats on the ship, then you steered it into a motherfucking iceberg.

Sometimes we fuck ourselves over. We might like to think that we just happen to ‘find’ ourselves in trouble when we, in fact, have been human and imperfect and have actually contributed to the shitty situations we find ourselves in. Denying our part in the hardships we experience can be a defence mechanism – a way of preserving our fragile egos. The idea of predestination may appeal to you because it helps you minimise your part in the trouble you ‘find’ yourself in. It’s tempting to repress that imperfection allllllllllllll the way down into our unconscious – where it belongs (jk). However, repressing something doesn’t make it go away – and I don’t think you need me to tell you this, because babes, it looks like you already know.

Let’s remember that diving isn’t falling. Maybe you’re ‘diving headfirst’ into the oceans of divination, because that’s where the treasure is.

‘Why am I so against my own freedom as an individual? How can I outgrow this crutch?’ 

I don’t think you are against the idea of your personal freedom, I think you’re trying to find your empowerment, but you’re afraid of it. By saying you want to ‘outgrow’ your divination habit and that it’s a ‘crutch’, you’re suggesting that it’s something that you shouldn’t be doing. But, crutches are useful things! Crutches help you get around, but, they might not be a permanent solution. Maybe don’t be so quick to discard something that helps you (especially something relatively benign, such as divination) and instead look at it as a prosthetic extension of self – understand why you need it and how it became part of your experience. Don’t see it as limiting your freedom, but an expression of it.

Now, let’s get mystical!

Sybil Trelawney, Harry Potter, Divination, Magic, Tarot

Divination, in general, is interesting because its origins aren’t quite as mysterious as you might think. The Ouija board was marketed as a toy, and tarot cards began as playing cards (Farley 2009: 3). They became tied to ‘divinatory interpretation’ in the 19th century when the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn adapted them (Farley 2009: 2). This isn’t to say that it’s all bullshit. Although they weren’t intended for divination, this doesn’t mean they can’t be used as such (Farley 2009: 6). Just because something isn’t meant to do a thing, doesn’t mean it can’t do a thing. The importance is the context in which they are being used – The New Age movement even used Jungian psychology in an attempt to understand the cards’ symbolism (Farley 2009: 2).

And WE ALL KNOW JUNGIAN PSYCHOLOGY IS LEGIT SHIT. LOBSTER DAD SAYS SO.

ContraPoints Jordan Peterson LobsterALL HAIL LOBSTER DAD.

Jordan Peterson Meme Marxism Father Daddy

One way of engaging with divination is by taking a structuralist approach. You might want to consider that you’re engaging in a tradition of people who are attempting to find meaning, to find order in the chaos of the world. You’re trying to find where you fit in as a part of something bigger than yourself and by the very act of divining you are participating in a collective act and putting your individual spin on it. It can be nice to have structure, nice to have rules, and if they help you live your best life then that’s cool.  Just don’t get obsessed with it. To avoid becoming insular, you can share this interest with others. Assuming you’re giving and receiving tarot readings for free – let’s not get into critiques of the way that such artefacts have been commodified and used to exploit people –

Marx Communism Meme

then you can use the tarot cards as a way to displace your emotions and talk about your feelings more easily and figure out where you stand in relation to the society you’re participating in.

If you’re getting annoyed at this post, you might be less of a structuralist and more of a postmodernist.Foucault postmodernism

Since the rise of post-structuralism, divination has taken on new significance. The emphasis has shifted from interpreting symbols as static archetypes, and has become more about what they mean to the individual. A tarot card, for example, need not even have a fixed meaning.

SO EVERYTHING IS MEANINGLESS? What’s the point of living? We need to return to simpler times, to grand narratives, to binary gender, to rescue our fathers, to-

Bucko Jordan Peterson Toronto

NOT NOW DAD. I’M BUSY

Actually, if nothing has a *fixed* meaning, then its meaning depends on perception and is therefore more meaningful to each person.

If we consider tarot cards in this manner, then their origins are less significant, as is their association with ‘ shoddy soothsayers and confidence tricksters’ (Farley 2009: 1) and their connection to a divine power. As the context of tarot shifts, so do the meanings of the cards. Since 1971, tarot readings have been more about coming to one’s own conclusions rather than being interpreted by someone else.

Considering the significance of divination as a means of self-expression and exploration, perhaps your fear of your ‘freedom as an individual’ isn’t being expressed by your use of divination itself, but your desire to outgrow using it. What you’re escaping from, or what you’re repressing won’t just disappear.

It’s calling to you.

Using divination is a way of understanding yourself. You might think you’re chatting with a spirit, but perhaps you’re communicating with someone closer to home. Maybe you’re really having a conversation with the parts of yourself, or your experience, that you’ve repressed. Perhaps the ‘higher power’ you’re in conversation with is your unconscious mind.

And if you ask me, that’s much more terrifying than any ghost.

Kind regards,

The armchair psychologist.

*****

Aftercare: I hope you enjoyed this post! I find divination fascinating and I have my own pack of tarot cards. Let me know how you engage with (or avoid) divination in the comments!

If you liked this post and would like the armchair psychologist to solve all of your problems, please post a question anonymously or,  if you feel more comfortable contact me some other way.

But, don’t forget to read the health warning!

*****