How Do You Empathize?

How mental health awareness can be one sided

Posted Feb 28, 2016

Benjamin Combs//Unsplash
Source: Benjamin Combs//Unsplash

There is a meme going around Facebook that originated from Tumblr. 

It says:

everybody is all "I support people with mental illnesses" until these people start showing symptoms lmao

to elaborate, yeah people will understand the basic symptoms such as sadness and or being nervous but once someone starts having random fits of rage, inconsolable panic attacks, no energy or motivation to do shit, hallucinations, paranoia, mood swings, etc. everybody is suddenly like "woah what the fuck just stop..."

I was shocked when I went on Facebook this morning to find some of my friends - some giants in the mental health movement - sharing this meme like it was acceptable to put down those who don't understand what it's like to have a mental illness or be close to someone who does. 

I've opened up a lot of discussions about empathy because I believe that it is a misunderstood topic. I believe that it is misunderstood that people need to know that there is someone in this world that understands how they feel in order to feel better about themselves. I believe that it is misunderstood that empathy always, always works both ways. 

I don't blame you, or anyone reading this who doesn't thoroughly understand the concept of empathy. I did not have a full grasp on the ideal of empathy twelve years ago when I began my career in customer service. Lucky for me, at the age of twenty-nine, it has been forced upon me during those years in my career and I have had time, and a positive environment, to study it, and make it my own. 

Someone who takes customer service calls for a living is a perfect example. When someone wants to complain because they feel they have been wronged by a company, they want to know that someone understands what they are going through. That someone cares. That someone is sorry. "How would you feel if this happened to you?" Anyone who has ever been a service agent in a call center would agree that they are asked this question by customers ten times a day, at least. And they will answer. If they are a good agent, they will say, "I'm so sorry that happened to you. That must be so frustrating." And of course, most customers, when they get irate and raise their voice at you, will apologize by the end of the call. "I'm sorry," they will say. "It's not your fault, I'm just upset. It must be difficult to take calls from angry people all day."

Everyone wants the other side to try to understand where they are coming from. It's human nature to be with people and relate to the elements of life with them. Empathy is a two way street, and if one side wants the other to contribute, then they should practice what they preach. We, as the people with mental illnesses, who are asking not to be stigmatized against and who are asking for people to empathize with what we go through in order to humanize mental illness, should never stigmatize those who have never been exposed and have never been taught how to deal with someone who is experiencing symptoms of a serious mental illness. It is a double standard and unfair to a society who doesn't teach others how to deal with it. It is your job, as the advocate for mental illness to, instead of putting people down, to educate, in a constructive way.

If you don't, you are no better than the people stigmatizing you