53) Dissociation, Part 2

So, let’s talk about dissociation.  About how it takes over your life, without you completely realizing what’s going on.  About how other people conclude all sorts of bad things about you. About how your life spirals out of control until you hit bottom.

And about what happens when you do hit bottom.

I am not a world-class authority on dissociation.  So, let’s not pretend.  I’ve read some about it.  I’ve had some experience with it.  I’ve talked to some therapists about it.  That’s where my knowledge comes from, and that’s it.  So this ain’t no definitive statement.  But sometimes (always?) people can FEEL a connection to the personal and idiosyncratic more than the “definitive”.  Just think of how many BORING lectures you’ve heard that start with long monologues and dictionary quotations about the definition of whatever the speaker is trying to educate you about…

So, here’s what dissociation feels like to me.

— brain fog —

It’s kinda like getting high, only way less fun.  If you get high by smoking a joint or a bit tipsy by having a few glasses of wine, then you know what that feels like.  Or, if you get high by injecting heroine, or black-out drunk by drinking the better part of a 40-ouncer, then maybe you know what that feels.  All of these have similarities to “brain fog” as I am using the term.  

I’m sure there are many ‘degrees’ or ‘types’ of brain fog.  I don’t really know.  Go ask a dissociation expert if you want the definitive answer.  To me, there are basically three “levels”, so I’ll tell you about them, and see if that helps clarify things at all.

“Mild” brain fog:

At the ‘mild’ end, everything is kind of fuzzy.  Details aren’t so important.  Reacting to everything isn’t so important anymore.  It’s like, chillzzzz maaaan.  Is it Monday?  Tuesday?  Does it really matter?  Are you on time?  5 minutes late?  Does it really matter?  Did you use your words perfectly?  Does it really matter?  Is that the same shirt you wore yesterday?  Does it really matter?

So you forget things.  Lose track of details.  You can’t concentrate.  You work much less efficiently, because your thoughts keep wandering, you keep having to redo things because you made mistakes the first time.  Your thoughts race.  Then slow down like molasses.  Then race again.  You try to communicate to people, but you can’t even complete a sentence before you’ve made 7 different connections and feel the need to explain all of them, at once, while each connection quickly makes 7 more and the FULL MEANING of what you’re trying to say proliferates so fast, you can’t capture it all.  So, you have a hard time “making sense” to other people.  OR the opposite happens, and you make no connections, have nothing to say, can’t conjure up a single reasonable-sounding response.  OR they both happen at the same time — you get flooded with connections, with things to say, but it’s impossible to select what’s important from what isn’t, leading you to say nothing.  Or something irrelevant.  Or start to say something, then stop halfway through.  Try again.  Then just….give up.  

Or maybe you don’t give up sometimes.  You try.  You try as hard as you can.  But the other person doesn’t understand, or take the time to try.  Or simply doesn’t like you and thinks some version of bad thing about you.  And your EMOTIONS surge like a tidal wave, tears come to your eyes, you stammer, sweat, interrupt them, or forget what they’re saying, or TRY REALLY HARD TO BE CLEAR and they interpret it as “anger” or “aggressiveness” or whatever-the-fuck, and you know that’s not what you’re doing — you’re just trying your damnedest, but it all adds up to failure, and you know, you can see it in their eyes that “rejection” is not even inevitable — it’s worse than that, it’s already happened and you’re trying to communicate to someone who has already decided you are not worth listening to.

These experiences pile up.  They create anxiety.  Depression.  Embarrassment.  Guilt.  Despair.  For me most of all, shame.  You feel like a fucking failure.  Not “someone who failed”, but A FAILURE, like it is actually who you are.  Failure is your Essence.

Maybe you reach out for help.  But in my experience, the vast majority of people to whom you reach out, will turn away.  Or they’ll be interested enough to listen, sympathize, offer some advice, and then, if your shit isn’t together by tomorrow, or next week, or whatever, or god forbid if you make some positive changes but then backslide and have to ask for help again — then fuck you.  You’re not worth their time.  Maybe I’m just really good at reaching out to the wrong people, or really bad at reaching out to the right ones, I don’t know.  

But after some experiences of this, “reaching out” becomes practically intolerable.  It’s like someone telling you, “Here, drink this poison!”, and you decide maybe you’d rather not this time?  

But isolating yourself doesn’t help much either.  It does, in the short term.  You can even convince yourself that you’re “taking time to sort yourself out”.  Go watch some motivational videos, clean your room, and then challenge yourself to, metaphorically speaking, pick up the heaviest thing you can and carry it.  That way you’ll get stronger, right?  But….days turn to weeks pretty quickly.  And isolation becomes really damn “foggy” pretty quickly.  And soon, you’re not carrying anything.  The heaviest load you can carry is remembering to brush your teeth because you forgot to yesterday.  And man, that doesn’t get you far in life.  Or help you feel empowered.

Some people say, “hey, if all you can do is get up and take a shower, then do that!  Good for you!  You did it!”  And it feels like the most patronizing bullshit you can imagine.  I’m supposed to congratulate myself for having a shower?  Seriously?  …..It’s pretty easy to turn that kind of encouragement into even further shame, and convince yourself that, holy fuck, you really ARE a failure.  Right down to your core.  

(Now, I have to say, sometimes people DO benefit from advice like that.  I personally know people who say that learning to celebrate every accomplishment, even the most mundane, literally saved their life and got them out of depression.  So…that’s awesome.  But for me, that didn’t work.  At all.  And in fact, was counterproductive.  So, different strokes for different folks, right?)

“Moderate” brain fog:

At the ‘moderate’ level, all of this intensifies, until you’re not, in a sense, even asking yourself “Does it really matter?” anymore.  Things Just. Don’t. Matter.  Something comes up like, “Hey, my car is getting is getting towed!” or “I missed my doctor’s appointment!”, or “I have a job interview!”, and you think about it for a second and then, poof, it’s gone.  It’s like you decided, without even “intending” to make that decision, that “it doesn’t really matter.”  

I remember the last Tragically Hip concert not too many years ago, that heart-warming, heart-wrenching moment that something like one in every three Canadians shared.  I knew, vaguely, that it was happening.  I knew, vaguely, that it might be worthwhile to watch, to share in the collective experience.  But, actually watching it?  No way.  Not at that particular time.  I truly, truly, truly didn’t care.  

I felt guilty for not caring.  I mean, man, that’s fucking heartless.  …..so, I turned that into feeling even worse about myself.  “I’m the kind of person who didn’t even care about Canada’s collective send-off to a cultural legend who is dying, giving his last concert.”  Wow….what a terrible person I must be.

But at other times, you do care.  You have spikes of caring REALLY intensely.  Feeling REALLY guilty.  It eats you alive.  You desire REALLY badly to make it up to someone, set things right, Do The Thing, get your shit together.  You care so much that the distance between “YOU” and “who you should be” looks so far that it’s like standing on one side of the Grand Canyon feeling that, in order to be a good, tolerable, acceptable, lovable, worthwhile person, you have to jump that motherfucker.  Or else, you suck.  

You can’t tolerate feelings like that for very long.  And then, the well-meaning advice from all the self-helpers out there, the motivational speeches, the role models, the self-affirmers, the positive thinkers, the Law of Attraction-ers, etc., becomes even worse than intolerable.  It becomes simply incomprehensible.  The only thing you KNOW, is that those people don’t have a clue how far you have actually sunk.  They don’t get it.  They’re living in a dream world, in which THEIR actions matter, THEIR actions make a difference, but they cannot understand that YOUR actions don’t matter, YOUR actions simply cannot make a difference.  So all that well-meaning advice becomes, not encouraging, but utterly shaming.  You fucking loser, all you have to do is take a single step forward, and you’re on that thousand-mile journey to wellness, right?  You fucking loser, you just have to believe, and you will achieve.  Say nice things to yourself in the mirror every morning.  Try, try, and try again.  Think positively.  COMMIT to success.  And….what?  You’re not?  You’re stuck?  Well, you fucking loser.  

So, dissociation gets worse, because living in that kind of dissonance, for long, is just impossible.  

**INSERT ADDICTION HERE** — If you aren’t already an addict as a result of trying to cope when things were less bad than they are now, then oooooh boy, here it comes.  From drugs to porn to food to sex to entertainment to ideological extremism to all the other messed up ‘coping strategies’ that are so readily available — they’ll REALLY be calling you by this point.  You’ll be a sailor listening to the sirens’ song and saying, “Fuck it, I’m jumping overboard, bring on the ecstasy!”  Because maaaaaan, relieving intolerable dissonance, slipping into a more numb state, pressing the dopamine trigger and getting some instant gratification, will be awfully difficult to resist.  

If you do jump overboard and flirt with, then succumb to addictions, you might actually ‘help’ yourself, in the sense that you stop the slide into even further dissociation, for a while.  (Or you might not and it’ll just make it all worse that much more quickly).  You might find everyday life easier to engage in.  (Or you might just find it easier to avoid.)  You might hold the beast of dissociation at bay, a little more often than before.   (Or it might strangle you.)

The best case scenario is a short-term ‘gain’.   But the iron-clad guarantee of addiction, is long-term pain.  

‘Extreme’ brain fog:

At the ‘extreme’ end, this intensifies to a point that people will no longer understand you.  Because you no longer understand you.  Things “don’t matter” to such an extreme degree that they don’t even pop into your head in the first place.  

Let me draw an analogy.  On the one hand, you know how it FEELS when you’re, say, angry at somebody, and you’re deciding how much to say, how loudly to yell, whether you should slam the door or not….stuff like that?  Or say, you have an essay to write, a deadline to meet, but fuckkkk, you really don’t wanna do it?  So there’s some conflict in you.  You’re trying to do the right thing, you want to do the right thing, but then…..you also really want to do the wrong thing.  So, you have to MAKE a decision.  You know how that feels, right?

Now let’s contrast that to when you’re driving down the road, and there’s a pedestrian on the sidewalk.  Do you ask yourself, “Should I hit that person with my car and kill them? Hmmm….let me think about it for a second…”  I’m guessing (and seriously hoping) that your answer is no.  You don’t ask yourself that question.  Because it’s fucking crazy to be thinking about running people down and killing them.  It doesn’t even pop into your head!  You don’t have to exert any EFFORT to keep yourself from running them down.  You just drive on by.  The thought doesn’t even cross your mind.

This is what severe dissociation feels like.  Except, instead of it being about hitting people with your car, it’s more mundane non-decisions.  Like paying a bill.  Answering the phone.  Eating.  Remembering that it’s Monday.  Putting on socks.  Going to sleep.  It just doesn’t seem to cross your mind to do these things, to pay attention to these details.  When you’re in the severe dissociative “fog”, lots, and lots, and lots, and lots of things that are normal and mundane, just don’t cross your mind.  At all.  You don’t “make a decision” not to do them; they don’t exist.

This isn’t a permanent state.  At least not in my experience.  But it starts to happen more and more frequently.  It’s like being “triggered”, or if that sounds too Snowflakey for you, then let’s call it being “pissed off”.  You know how seemingly little things, like someone saying a word you don’t like, or getting red lights, or the way someone else chews, can “piss you off” sometimes?  Well, extreme brain fog gets “triggered” by more and more things.  It’s like how someone with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder just HAS TO check that doorknob 6 times or….or…..or I don’t know! AAAAAAHHHH!!!!  It’s like that.  The smallest, most insignificant things, become of galaxy-sized significance.  Life-or-death-sized significance.  

More and more of the time, you slip into “brain fog”, and you often don’t even know why.  It just happens.  Time just disappears.  Morning turns to afternoon turns to night.  Sitting down to ‘take a break’ turns into three o’clock in the morning and you have to pee so bad you finally run to the bathroom like those toddlers who leave it until they’re practically peeing their pants.  And you don’t know what you’ve been doing, except that you’ve been doing basically nothing.  What have you been thinking about?  How did the time pass?  You don’t know.  And really, really, really, you don’t know. 

Try explaining THAT to somebody, when they’re asking you why you forgot their birthday, or didn’t respond to their text.  

“Um, you see, I DID remember your birthday!  I was thinking about it just the other day and then, I sat down on the couch to make a list of possible presents to get you, and then…..uh….it was two days later and I hadn’t eaten anything except some stale Rice Krispies and I was laying in the bath-tub, trying to keep myself from spontaneously combusting.”  

Or “Um, you see, I DID mean to respond to your text!  I sat down with my phone, realized I needed to plug it in and…..now it’s two days later and….uh….yeah, I wasn’t really doing anything in particular.  No, I wasn’t “busy”.  No I didn’t “forget”.  I just stopped existing for a day and a half.  Yeah, it was weird.”

Trust me.  They’re almost certainly not going to understand, or believe you.  

Spiraling out of control

To me, “brain fog” is the central feature of what I think of as “dissociation.”  And when it starts happening, it tends to build, get stronger, ‘spiral out of control’ as the saying goes.  

Why might that be?  Well, basically because the more time you spend in “brain fog”, the less you spend attending to all the normal shit you’ve gotta do to be a functional person in the world.  And when you spend less time doing that stuff, the list of “shit I’ve gotta do”, gets bigger and bigger.  Which means, that all the consequences of NOT doing that shit, get bigger and bigger too.

For example, more people are bewildered, disappointed, angry, and resentful towards you.   Or just plain decide you’re an asshole and they don’t like you.  Now, assuming you aren’t a scum-of-the-earth-terrible-person, you will FEEL really fucking bad about this.  For a while, you’ll try to explain yourself to people.  But eventually, you’ll realize it’s all bullshit and you’re just making excuses for things that, in truth, didn’t happen for some other “mysterious” reason that you ALSO don’t understand.  Because the actual reason is that you were dissociating.  But the person you’ve been making all these excuses too will also get tired of them, and start to believe that you’re full of shit.  Or lazy.  Or irresponsible.  Or some kind of asshole who just doesn’t care about people.

This will make you feel worse.  And in all likelihood, you’ll dissociate even more.  **insert positive feedback loop here**  Result?  Life spirals out of control.  You feel terrible about yourself.  Everything bad piles up into a tidal wave.  Everything good disappears and becomes unreachable (or at least feels that way).  You find yourself OBSESSED with all the shit you haven’t done.  You’ll spend HOURS, maybe weeks, maybe months, writing apology letters, trying to get back on track, trying to ‘make amends’.  And it might work for a few days, few weeks, whatever.  But, you keep slipping into dissociation, and “one step forward, three steps back” can only go on for so long before you simply stop taking steps forward.

People who have never, really, hit bottom, won’t understand this.  What they understand is “one step forward, three steps back, so learn from your mistakes, work really hard, take responsibility for yourself, set goals and create a vision board and get your shit together and STOP TAKING STEPS BACKWARD and BOOM!  — the upward spiral to success will happen!”. 

But, people who have really, really hit bottom know that the upward spiral thing doesn’t always work.  That without the necessary support from people, without the necessary assistance, without the necessary compassion and acceptance and inclusion and forgiveness, and time — you will just shut down.  And once you’ve shut down?  What can you do about it?  Well, “nothing” is not entirely 100% true.  But it’s asymptotically 100% true.  It’s damn close.  So for all intents and purposes, you can’t do anything about it.  Your “first step forward”, your only possible step forward at some point, will be to call 911, or walk yourself to Emergency and mumble something incomprehensible to the person at the desk, and…”Get help.”  

Until “you” take that step, or are forced there by someone else, dissociation can hit the “extreme” end.  And soon, you’ll be lost in the maze, unable to find your way out.

And even once you do take that step, and enter “the system” and get help, and all that, you very likely won’t just “bounce back.”  It might take weeks.  It might take years.  This is also something that most people who haven’t been there, won’t understand.  You will feel like everyone thinks you are a liar.  Sometimes, you’ll think that too, and have to claw your way out of that morass of self-hatred, again.

You have to accept that about people.  You can’t expect people to understand something they simply have never seen, never felt, never experienced.  The “good ones” will try, will educate themselves, and will be there for you.  But man oh man oh man oh man oh man — those people are not normal.  They are rare gems.  Those people are blessings from the universe.  Thank your lucky stars for those people.  And everyone else?  Well….there really is not much you can do about that, except “let it go” and focus on taking the next step, learn to backslide less, and learn how to get back up more quickly.    

I lost about forty years to various degrees of dissociation.  And I’d say a solid three years to the extreme degree.  Even at the worst, it’s not non-stop.  It’s not like I was just laying under a sheet like a corpse for years being fed intravenously.  Maybe that happens to some people, I don’t know.  But that wasn’t my experience.  I would lay under a sheet like a corpse for a couple days at a time, maybe getting up to pee, walking through my apartment crouched over so nobody could see me through the window, “sneak” into the bathroom like if I didn’t there’d be a fucking ninja attack or something, and then, lay under a sheet again, body vibrating, sweating, everything on super-intense-crazy-about-to-explode-high-alert, like if I moved again, the universe would blow up, or I would spontaneously combust or something.  

Day and night become indistinguishable.  I mean sure, you can look out the window and figure out whether it’s light or dark. But you generally don’t.  You might be aware of it lightening outside and think, “hey, it’s a new day”.  Then you look out the window again and it’s dark, and you’re like “hey, it’s night now.”  But what happened in the middle?  Nothing.  Literally nothing happened, except you stayed paralyzed in order to keep yourself from flying apart in all directions at the same time.  You feel like Nebula (Marvel reference…) getting pulled apart-but-not-quite-completely.  Hanging together by a thread.  But don’t move!  Don’t do anything!  Don’t answer the phone, check email, answer the door, look out the window, go on social media, read, write, see anyone — nothing!  Or, your threads will snap, you will….be dead?  Obviously, you won’t ACTUALLY be dead if you do those things.  But, that’s what your body is telling you, and your body and “logic” are not exactly best buddies.  However, your body is WAY more convincing than logic, so….you stay paralyzed and “keep yourself together”, right on the knife-edge of splitting apart in all directions.


The final thing to understand about dissociation is how to heal from it.  I am not qualified to talk about that with any authority, even from personal experience.  I have some thoughts, some insights, SOME experience.  But one thing I learned very deeply from, ironically, teaching Positive Psychology for about 15 years or so, is that “deep” work is really subtle.  It’s hard to put into words.  It’s slippery, and idiosyncratic.  Much of it, probably most of it, is sub-cognitive, sub-representational, and not “short-term therapy.”  And so, until a person has done the hours, the hundreds, probably thousands of hours fully immersing themselves in the healing process, experiencing the journey, witnessing it, and knowing it inside out and upside down, forwards and backwards, then I think they really shouldn’t talk too much about it.  It’s too easy for them to do harm, when they are intending to help.  

I’ve had enough experience with people who SINCERELY want to help others, and have their spiritual training, or their 12-step course, or their Landmark certification, or their living room full of self-help wisdom, or their one year of training as a counsellor, or whatever, try to help someone do truly deep work.  And I would say, more often than not, it is harmful.  Or useless.  Which then becomes harmful, because the last thing a person needs when they are at the bottom, is another experience of failure.  

So, maybe someday I’ll write a post on “Healing from Dissociation”, and finish this arc off.  But not today.

Today, I want to leave you with one thought — if you learn more about ‘dissociation’, how to recognize it in someone, then when you SEE it, start with compassion.  Acceptance.  Love.  And sticking around for them.  When people slip away from themselves, what they need is others to help ‘ground’ them, bring them back to reality, help them feel safe, or at least Seen.  If you remember nothing else from all these words, please remember that.

Thanks for reading this.  I hope it helps you in some way.

  11 comments for “53) Dissociation, Part 2

  1. September 24, 2019 at 1:42 pm

    (I’m not sure how to address you. I know your name is Dan, but as a former student I also feel like I should still call you Prof. since that’s how I knew you.) Anyway.

    Hi Prof. Dan 😉 ,

    Thank you for your post.

    What if someone wants to help others. They really do. In fact, they care so much that it hurts. Literally. I know it sounds cheesy, but let’s say that’s how it is. It physically hurts them; it constricts their chest for example. So here they are, this very ‘caring’ person. They care a lot. But, with this one, little, issue, they’re also extremely sensitive in the sense that, any tiny perturbation shatters them completely. (This sensitivity and vulnerability fluctuates and sometimes the person is ‘stronger’ and able to not shatter completely, and other times they’re ‘weaker’).

    Now, along comes another person. This new person is slipping away from himself like you mention. The first person sees this, and recognises it.

    Naturally, they want to help him. And by help, I mean the things you mention at the end of your post – they want to help the other person feel safe and seen, and grounded. THEY REALLY WANT TO. But at the same time, seeing someone hurting so much, hurts them too, because of their ‘extra-vulnerable nature’ (if that’s even a thing). It’s almost like they absorb the other person’s feelings and add them to their own, but it’s all amplified times a million.
    At this point, it seems like the best option for the first (‘sensitive’) person is to withdraw completely, and pretend like they didn’t see the other slipping-away-person. Pretend like they don’t care. That way, they won’t start slipping away from themselves as well and get wrecked. This way, only one person will be hurting, instead of two.

    I guess what I’m trying to articulate (poorly) is what to do about this?

    You know, just asking for a friend…

    And another thing that my friend was wondering: Is the first person being a coward? Or even, is the first person evil? Or selfish? For protecting themselves from hurting. But maybe, protection is an illusion in this case? They think that they’re protecting themselves by not engaging as not to feel additional pain, but in fact, it hurts them just as much. If not more, because of the additional self-judgement. I don’t know. Uh, I mean, my friend doesn’t know.

    • dandolderman
      September 24, 2019 at 3:02 pm

      Hi Nadia, Thanks so much for the message, and the courage it took to send it. I really appreciate that and commend you for it! Being vulnerable ain’t exactly the easiest thing to do… 🙂 I hear the gravity of this situation, and the depth of your feelings around this, totally. So, I’m going to be completely honest with you here.

      First, I don’t know the answer to this. And I think it’s important to articulate why that is. And afterwards, I’ll give you a partial-guess-answer, which is the best I can do.

      I don’t know the answer, because of several reasons that, I think, are universal. And knowing this, I hope, is helpful, because it might prevent you from being unduly influenced by other people who more confidently give you “the answer” that they believe in. And there’s lots of those people in the world, and I’m sure it (usually) comes from a good place. But there are several factors that interfere with someone giving you ‘the answer’.

      1) I’m not a therapist, nor am I trained in counselling, nor have I gone through extensive psychotherapy and really unpacked my own shit. As a result, I am susceptible to lots of problematic things — projection, being a “rescuer”, imposing my own theories on a situation instead of being a good listener, counter-transference, etc. So, anything I say HAS TO be understood as being at least partly, and unknowably, biased.
      2) I don’t know the people in the scenario you’re describing, don’t have both sides of the story, don’t know the history, and all the complexities around all of that. This will, undoubtedly, increase all the potential problems from #1.
      3) There isn’t “an answer”, in the sense that humans are too complex for ANYONE to know, with really high confidence, what a person ‘should’ do. What is good advice in one situation might be totally counterproductive, even harmful, in another, or may simply be ineffective.
      4) You and I don’t have an extensive history of relationship with each other, and therefore, have had no time to build a bond of trust — the “therapeutic alliance”, as it might be called in therapy.

      So, take what I say with a grain of salt. And, by extension, please please please take what anyone else advises you to do with a grain of salt as well. (Except…errr, that advice I just gave you? To take my advice with a grain of salt? Yeah….that advice is rock solid.) . 🙂
      Get a diversity of viewpoints, if you can, from people you believe are insightful, trustworthy, and honest. And see what ‘converges’ out of that. There is an inevitable role to be played for your own intuition, your own ‘best guess’ and feelings of what resonates. Ultimately, you decide, and people’s advice is, at best, a suggestion, an educated guess.

      So I hope that helps a little.

      Now…..here’s my best guess, given what you’ve outlined. This is, for sure, a tough situation. One of the toughest things we experience in relationships is the need to set boundaries, to navigate one person’s needs & wants, versus your own needs and wants. It’s SO EASY to get off balance — either to sacrifice your own needs in order to ‘help’ the other, and feel that this is a good thing to do, OR to take care of your own needs and feel guilty about it and like you’re ‘not being there’ for the other person. Yeah….man….this is hard. Sometimes, you do have to sacrifice your own needs, at least for a while, and be the “stronger person”. Sometimes, you have to take a firm stance and take care of yourself first, even if it means the other person feels abandoned or whatever. There’s no one-size-fits-all answer. Even in a single relationship, at one point in time the “right balance” might be very different from another point in time. It’s bloody hard to know.

      I think the fact that you are so aware of this conflict, this self vs. other set of needs, AND that you are so caring and sensitive to the issue, is a really good thing. It means that, at the very least, you are staying open, you are staying aware of both sets of needs, and if the balance tips too far to one side, this very sensitivity and openness is a real strength that you seem to have. Which….is awesome. 🙂

      But I still want to give you something more tangible that will actually, maybe, help. The best I can do is draw an analogy to my own experience, because that’s what I know best of course. If I map my experience onto your situation, then I am the person “slipping away from themselves” that you describe. And some of my family members and close friends are the caring person who really wants to help. In my life, I have a VERY STRONG tendency to withdraw from people and turn away from their well-meaning intentions to help. It causes people no end of grief, and hurt feelings, and all that. And the crappy part is, the harder they try to help, the more abruptly and long-term I end up turning away. ….I’ve tried, and am trying still, to turn that around, be more open, be more responsive, and let people in. But whoa….it’s tough. My “unconscious” tendencies to turn away are often FAR stronger than my “conscious” intention to let people be there for me.

      Quite a lot of the caring folk do, in the end, turn away (or have no choice). And I don’t begrudge them for this, because I can understand, they are protecting themselves, they can also only handle so much rejection, etc. I do get it.

      So, I had one friend in particular, who made a phenomenal difference to me over the last several years. She’s one of my closest, lifelong friends. She listened, to the extent that I was willing to say anything about myself. And the real difference, the thing that really, really mattered over the long term (and that she deserves a freaking Nobel Prize for as far as I’m concerned), is that she kept reaching out. Not to try to get me to talk, or to come and see me, or to ask if I was okay all the time — but she just kept communicating with me. When I was at my worst, I didn’t even respond, usually for weeks, sometimes for a couple of months. And she kept reaching out anyway. Sending a text every couple of days. Telling me something about her day, or whatever was on her mind. Sometimes telling me overtly that she cared and kind of reminding me that, when I was ready to talk, she’d be there. Usually these were short — like a short text, a couple-line email, etc. She NEVER made me feel guilty, or asked me why I wasn’t responding, or asked me when I might be ready to reach out. She almost never told me she was worried about me. More like, “thinking about me”.

      In short, she did what a good therapist does. She let me know that our bond was safe. She wouldn’t intrude, but she also wouldn’t hesitate to respond if/when I was ready. She cared, but she wasn’t ‘nagging’ so to speak, at me to reassure her. Because, when you’re in the dark, one of the biggest things you struggle with (at least, for me), is knowing how much you are letting other people down. How much you’re hurting other people’s feelings. And how you can’t entirely explain why, AND you can’t give them the reassurance that you’re “turning things around.” I finally stopped pretending that I was getting it together, working on things, or that I had any kind of plan. I was just suffering, no clue what the hell to do, and if I did respond, I had nothing reassuring to say except…yeah, I’m in the fucking dark man, and….I don’t know if/when there’s a redemption part of the story. I would tell her that. And she would listen, share her own feelings, and let me know she cared. She didn’t ask or expect me to explain myself, to justify myself, OR to tell her some story about how I was “healing.” So, I didn’t feel like I had to lie to her. I didn’t feel like I had to take care of her feelings. She just let me know she cared, she was there, and if/when the time came that I wanted to talk, she’d be there. And if there was any practical way she could help, I could let her know and she’d try her best.

      This is, in therapy, the foundation of the ‘therapeutic alliance’. It’s knowing the person is safe, you can trust them, they are being sincere and genuine, and they accept you, even at your worst when you feel like an absolute piece of garbage that no human should ever interact with again.

      This was phenomenally helpful. Not in a week, not in a month. For me, not even in a year. But eventually, that lifeline was there, and I knew it, and I also knew that she cared so damn much for me, that she was willing to wait.

      Now, that takes a lot of commitment, strength, and ability to tolerate your OWN feelings that this relationship isn’t giving you what you need. You can’t do this for everybody. Realistically, you (that is, anyone) can only do this for a very, very small number of people in your life. Because it takes a lot out of you. And sometimes, YOU are the one who is hurting, and whose needs have to take precedence.

      So, that’s my answer. For a person who is extremely likely to turn away, and who responds to acts of caring with acts of distancing themselves, this kind of approach can work. Long-term. But you’ve gotta be honest with yourself about whether this is the right battle for you to be fighting, so to speak. YOu can’t fight them all. You can’t take on everything. Because you do have finite resources. Finite emotional energy. And some people WILL take advantage of you. But if you believe in them, have the right bond, and are willing to wait it out, then yes, this can basically save a life, in my opinion.


      Having said all that, there’s a cautionary note here too — because this is ALSO the kind of thinking that sucks people into abusive relationships — that belief that if only you can be there enough for the person, they’ll eventually turn themselves around. So, the OTHER part of this ‘approach’, in my case, is that this person who helped me also went on with her own life. Her “time investment” with me was mere minutes a day. We weren’t having long conversations about me. She wasn’t “meeting my needs” and taking that on as her responsibility. It’s NOT her responsibility to meet my needs. It’s mine, and only mine. So, her role was to let me know, in small, consistent ways, that she cares. And accepts me. And will celebrate with me when I come out of the dark. ….but, she maintained her own life, had her own boundaries, and was her own person. That’s what I was saying above about finding the right balance. You simply cannot swoop in and rescue people. It just doesn’t work. And burns you out. And makes them dependent. And turns your connection into a heavy-shit relationship, instead of actually helping them free and empower themselves. The last thing anyone needs is to be stuck in a rut of never-ending heaviness.


      With regards to your questions about “is the person evil” or “selfish” or whatever, again, I don’t know. But my guess is no. The person who decides not to get involved (or not to get “too involved”) may be practicing HEALTHY BOUNDARY-SETTING. It’s hard to do this, but SO IMPORTANT. Both for you, and for the struggling person.

      The person who turns away and isolates themselves probably (I’m guessing) isn’t selfish or evil or ungrateful or uncaring either. They’re suffering. And in their suffering, because of past hurts or rejections, or maybe shame, or trauma, or whatever, they are also just trying to protect themselves. They might even have convinced themselves that staying away from people is the “kindest” thing they can do. I definitely felt this way. If you feel like poison, then you convince yourself that it’s an act of compassion to isolate yourself in your own suffering. At least then, you’re not bringing other people down with you. This is definitely what happens to me sometimes. ….I think you can take that reasoning even to the point of suicide. People often say that suicide is a selfish act. And I disagree. Or at least, what I mean is that the person committing with or flirting with the idea isn’t (necessarily) being selfish. They might have convinced themselves that they are such a MONSTER, a terrible person, a cup of poison, that removing themselves from the people they care about is the NICEST thing they can do! Of course, they are wrong. But they’re not being selfish. They’re just terribly, terribly, terribly distorted in their thinking and under-appreciating themselves because of their shame & self-hatred.


      Final thought — sometimes (maybe often!) when you care about someone and don’t know how to help them, or they reject your attempts, or they won’t engage in therapy themselves, then if you have the means and opportunity, I think it’s very wise to find a good therapist yourself. Someone who can help you be grounded, help you navigate boundaries, help provide insight, and, when things get tough which they might, help plug you into the right resources. It’s like family — when someone is addicted or has other mental health challenges, it can make a huge difference for the other members, the ‘healthier’ ones, to have the support of a therapist themselves. So….maybe that’s something to think about too. 🙂

      I hope this helps in some way. This is what my own experiences have taught me, and I hope there’s some insight in there that is useful for you too. 🙂

      All the best to you.

    • dandolderman
      September 25, 2019 at 12:29 pm

      Hi again Nadia. I’ll keep this one short. I just had a friend offer me a better way of responding to your original post. Which is, you can always reach out and ask the person if you can be part of their larger support system, and then connect and coordinate your actions with theirs. Add yourself to the roster, instead of taking it on your own shoulders. It’s funny how obvious that is, and yet how easily overlooked. We have (or at least I have!) been over-conditioned to think of things individualistically. But “support” is a collective, not an individual responsibility. So I thought I’d pass that on. 🙂

      If the person says no, then I guess it’s a judgement call. There is definitely a time to bypass them, for their own good, and connect with others anyway. How to make that judgement call? I don’t know. I’ll give that some thought, and if you (or anyone else reading this) have any suggestions on that, I’d love to hear them. ….All the best.

  2. September 24, 2019 at 5:17 pm

    Thank you for writing back. I feel bad if I made you feel like you had to write a lot. But on the other hand, your writing flows well so maybe you liked writing it. Either way, I really, truly, appreciate everything you said! And the fact that you said it. And even though I probably haven’t replied to each point you made, I hope you know I read and re-read it several times, and will keep reading it, reflecting on all the things you said.

    I didn’t want it to feel like you had to give me advice like a therapist or something. I was just curious about your thoughts because I like your way of thinking from what I’ve seen from some of your posts and wanted to see what you thought about a situation like this one.

    Of course, I’m kind of disappointed that there’s no clear cut answer here 😉 . But I wasn’t expecting one either. I know there’s probably no magic fix, because we would all be using it, if only we knew what it was! But just the fact that you basically acknowledged that what I mentioned in my previous comment is actually a real thing. It’s a real thing, and I (and other people that also feel that way) aren’t crazy for feeling that way. At least, that’s how I understood your reply!

    It’s interesting that you mentioned sensitivity as a strength. I’ve always – and still do – view it as a weakness. Even if it’s just in the sense that it makes me physically weak, i.e. it drains my energy. But also if you’re sensitive you’re prone to more ‘breakdowns’ and people don’t view that as a good thing. I don’t view it as a good thing in myself either.

    Thank you for telling me/us about you and your friend. I have such a friend too, but in my case I’m your friend and you’re my friend (lol I mean that I’m the one that reaches out to him and he doesn’t respond often). I thought that maybe he was bothered by my sparse messages. But now that you shared this story, I wonder if he actually appreciates them even though he doesn’t say it. I shouldn’t be mad at him or feel rejected (not that I necessarily feel that way). And now that I think of it, the same is also happening with a family member. That’s interesting.

    Your friend was strong. She was strong because when you told her you were in the dark she seems like she kept it together. She didn’t break down from worry. She was ‘able to go on with her life’ as you said. Maybe because she feels secure, so no matter what happens around her she is still able to stay relatively stable and rely on herself. So if you’re weak and insecure, and you’re unable to do that, then I guess you shouldn’t really be there for other people because that’ll make things worse. Or as you said, you need to decide which battles to fight. These are mostly notes to myself. Stuff I should think about and then do my best at implementing.

    Something else that stood out was when you said that your friend would be there when you come of the dark. But that’s the hard part. Believing that it is a ‘when’ and not an ‘if’. Because if you’re worried – if I’m worried – that it’s an ‘if’, I’ll do anything to turn it into a ‘when’. And doing anything will probably include things that will cause more damage to the other person. So there is a certain amount of trust or hope? that they’ll come out eventually, whilst still being prepared for the flipside when they don’t come out. Then you’ll have to take care of yourself after the damage is done.

    It’s interesting that for some people it’s hard to let others in and it’s easier to withdraw. And for others it’s almost like a compulsion to always feel like they should be ‘saving’ other people. Like they have no choice and that in order to survive and feel safe and secure they must rescue everyone else.

    It’s weird that the brain makes us suffer like this.

    • dandolderman
      September 24, 2019 at 7:27 pm

      Thanks Nadia! But don’t apologize!! I wrote what I did because it was important to me. And also, working through ‘the logic’ with you is useful, not only for you (maybe?), but for me! It clarifies my own thoughts on this, and who knows, maybe the next time a similar situation/question/conversation comes along, it’ll be that much easier to articulate things, because of working through them with you. So, no, definitely don’t apologize for what was a moment of authenticity between two people! 🙂

      And no!! I Know you weren’t expecting me to give ‘advice like a therapist’!! Me tripping over myself to ‘explain’ all that was coming from my own need to make sure I wasn’t over-stepping my knowledge, or giving you false hope that there was more insight here than I have. I have, fairly recently, come to appreciate the truly transformative effects that a therapist, a good therapist who is a good fit with the client, can have on a person. It’s profound. It’s qualitatively different from simply gaining understanding or insight. So, I’m taking what opportunities I can to try and figure out how to articulate the difference between ‘gaining insight’ in a convo with somebody, versus what can happen during therapy. ….Maybe that came across wrong, I’m not sure. But I definitely know you weren’t asking me to play the role of therapist! 🙂

      I had a thought about what you said about feeling that sensitivity is a weakness. I think one of the deepest things I’ve ever learned about people is that weaknesses are strengths and vice versa. For example, sensitivity IS a weakness, in that it CAN make you fall apart more easily, be emotionally drained, get absorbed into other people’s shit, etc. But it’s a strength because it can help you empathize and connect with people, feel compassion, and perceive what’s going on with someone that others might be more blind to. The strength & weakness parts are just the flip-sides of each other.

      And then it goes deeper — because, if you work on the ‘weakness’ part, then you can tap into even deeper strengths. For example, if getting overly absorbed into people’s shit is the weakness part (leaving you drained, etc.) then, if you ‘work on that’, you will eventually learn to get better at drawing boundaries, being more comfortable with meeting your own needs, growing more assertive in healthy ways, etc. The ‘weakness’ part is like the fertilizer for greater strengths. (Now, whether those greater strengths then lead to greater weaknesses…..I don’t know, tbh. Have to think on that for a while….)

      This is what Jung was talking about when he gave us the idea of “integrating the persona and the shadow.” Your “shadow” isn’t bad, per se. It’s a catalyst for growth. Just like your “persona” isn’t good, per se, because it’s also your prison and the mask you hide behind. (NOTE: I’m using “you” in the universal sense, not YOU, Nadia, specifically….) 🙂

      Regarding the “when” not “if” comment — one thing I was thinking about after responding to you, is how much what I said might not apply if the person is truly in crisis. Like, mega-crisis, like on the verge of suicide or slipping into a major drug addiction, etc. At some point, presumably, it becomes necessary to “stage an intervention”, and NOT to just be patient and loving and all that stuff. But, to be honest, I don’t know when that point is reached. I think that is HIGHLY idiosyncratic, and therefore can only be determined case-by-case. But…..yeah….I don’t know. That is not something I have faced, and not something I know much about. But….that’s something to learn about, I suppose, especially if you think it might become relevant to the circumstance you described. Maybe that’s why the support-person seeing their own therapist or plugging into their own support system is so helpful, because other people can help you make that judgement call.

      Finally, “for some people it’s hard to let others in, and it’s easier to withdraw, and for others it’s almost like a compulsion to always feel like they should be ‘saving’ other people”……oh yeah…..totally true. I think this is part of the whole “self vs. other” dynamic that goes on in our psyches. It’s the same dynamic you see in attachment styles; e.g., “anxious ambivalent” vs. “dismissive avoidant”. Each is a different way of compensating for specific ‘lacks’ in a person’s feelings of security about themselves, vs. others. Cool eh? And yep…weeeeeeeiiiirrrrrrddddd that we do make ourselves suffer like this. 🙂

      I’m so glad we’re having this conversation. It’s helpful, for me anyway. And I really appreciate you sharing your thoughts like this.

  3. October 14, 2019 at 2:26 pm

    Hi! You don’t have to keep it short if you don’t want to. Long messages contain more information. I like them.

    I didn’t disappear, but life got in the way, as they say. Or maybe it’s the other way around – everything else got in the way of life 🙂

    Thinking of weaknesses as strengths is nice actually. I’ve heard it before, but never gave it any thought because I didn’t see how it could be possible. But the way you explained it makes sense. It actually does!

    Thank you for your insight, in both replies. That’s a good idea; to connect to the person’s larger support system. You’re right, it’s obvious and yet overlooked!

    In terms of making a judgement call, I’ve been thinking too. If the person ‘seems’ to be slipping into a crisis and I’ve tried to help as much as I could – talking to them, reaching out to their larger support system, connecting them to other resources, etc. Then there’s one final thing I would do. I know it might seem brutal, but I apply it when I feel like there is nothing else I can do.

    And that’s acceptance (or ‘radical acceptance’). I accept the fact that the other person might die. Again, it sounds harsh, but when I think of it, it’s just a fact. It doesn’t mean I just let the other person die, no!!! I apply it more as a way to push away or soothe my own anxiety. Useless worry. Worry that’s probably not based on reality. The person might be doing fine and getting help, but I might still be worried. So that’s when I would accept the facts. I don’t know if it’s the right thing to do, but sometimes it helps me move on a little bit. Even if it’s a tiny 1mm step forward. Still. Now, this doesn’t happen easily and I fail over and over. Because accepting your biggest fears is not easy. Who would’ve thought haha.

    Side note; how do you know you’ve actually tried everything? I don’t know. One probably never knows for sure. And it doesn’t really matter if you’ve tried every theoretically possible way of helping the other person. You just feel it in you. You feel like there is nothing else you can do. You might be wrong, but you wouldn’t know. You wouldn’t know because you don’t know what you don’t know. In your mind, you’ve tried everything. You don’t know if/that there is more you could do.

    It’s like parents that are so afraid of their children getting hurt, that their fear leaks out into their interactions with the child and makes more damage than good. For example, a parent that is afraid for their child maybe because they are doing something dangerous, might get angry and yell at the child for engaging in such ‘dangerous behaviour’. But the parent is yelling because they feel so helpless, they don’t know what to do and so they yell. I don’t know, that’s what I’ve observed. It might be wrong. But I just thought it applied to the situation above. The ‘helper’ is like the parent. What they also need to do is work on themselves and work on their emotions and insecurities and fears. Like you mentioned, seek out help for themselves too.

    In conclusion, we all need help 😉

    I’m also glad that we’re having this conversation. I don’t know why, but it makes me happy. (Not the topic itself. The topic itself is sad). But the fact that it’s helping me understand some things and form my own ideas, and see what other people think. That’s really nice. 🙂

    • dandolderman
      October 14, 2019 at 10:27 pm

      Hi Nadia! Thanks for this discussion. I have no in-the-moment response, so let me sit with that for awhile, and I’ll get back to you when I feel like I can add something worthwhile. 🙂

      • October 14, 2019 at 10:40 pm

        Haha that’s alright!

    • dandolderman
      October 16, 2019 at 2:22 am

      Hi Nadia! I was thinking about your comment about “radical acceptance”. It hit me hard, at first, which is why I didn’t reply. It was like I wanted to soften it somehow, like it seemed harsh or something, as you acknowledged. But upon reflection, I think I would encourage you to take it even further. Instead of applying it kind of at the end, when there’s nothing else you know to do, I think Radical Acceptance is a continual practice, right from the beginning. The way I see it, EVERYTHING you do has no guaranteed outcome. So if you’re doing things based on the outcome, like being successful, having a positive impact, being happy, helping somebody, then you are relying on the “ends” to give energy/motivation to “the means.” Which also makes you vulnerable to those outcomes then! It’s like, in psych classes I often talked with students about “extrinsic motivation”, and contrasted it to “intrinsic motivation.”

      When you are motivating yourself Intrinsically, your motivation stems from the deep value-congruence of the action with your sense of self, meaning, identity, authenticity. You no longer are doing things because of what they might lead to, but in the purest sense, you are doing things because they align with Who You Are. And this kind of motivation sustains itself long-term, even in the face of failure, setbacks, and immense adversity.

      It also made me think of the importance of “setting boundaries”, especially in relationships. The clearest example is the therapeutic relationship. Therapists do what they can, within the parameters of the therapeutic relationship. But, to keep this relationship healthy, to avoid themselves or the client getting over-enmeshed in the relationship, to keep themselves from burning out, to keep the client from becoming dependent, they need to maintain good boundaries. It doesn’t mean holding oneself back though! I think it’s the opposite! I think it means to give it your all, to be fully present, fully available for the client in the moment of therapeutic interaction. But then, when it’s over, to let them go back to their life, and trust that, from a long-term perspective, you have done what you can.

      I used to start my positive psych class with this quote from the Tao Te Ching, and I think it also captures this same idea very well.
      “Do your work, then step back
      The only path to serenity.”


      Thanks for the thought-provokingness! (And yes, I’m glad we’re having this conversation too!) Cheers

      • October 18, 2019 at 12:20 am


        Why did it hit you hard? I didn’t get it.

        I completely agree. Acceptance should be a continuous practice. Not to be applied only in extreme cases, but in everyday life, for big or small things. And as you said, when you’re intrinsically motivated, you’re no longer attached or dependent on external things to make you feel worthy, complete, or secure. You don’t rely on external things like other people to give you a sense of self. Yet, if acceptance is applied continuously, wouldn’t you become completely detached? You could even become numb going through the motions, almost careless. Hmm.

        Finding your sense of self/identity is hard. Is it a destination you reach and once you’ve reached it you know you got it right? You know what I mean? How do you even know ‘Who You Are’ and whether you’re right about it? That’s hard. Or maybe it isn’t. I don’t know. I wish there were some rules we could just follow that would tell us who we are hah!
        (But I guess that’s part of it. Finding it out for yourself. No one said it would be easy.)

        I know what you mean. I always thought that being a therapist is hard. I always wondered how they were able to detach themselves from their clients’ lives and split between the client’s life and their own. How they were able to set aside their ‘work’ after they left the office. I just didn’t see how that was possible. I always thought they were hiding something from me. I didn’t really believe that they could hold it all together, especially after the kinds of things they would listen to all day. I thought that they must secretly be falling apart every night after work. But then, why would they have chosen this career if they suffered liked this! I thought, you can’t just switch off your brain and stop thinking about the client’s life, or other stuff that’s worrying you. But I guess they don’t switch it off, they probably practise acceptance in the way you mentioned. They are more in tune with their sense of self so external things don’t shake them that much. Or if they do shake them, they’re able to ‘recover’ more quickly, and just, better. I don’t know. I thought it was a superpower for special people. But maybe anyone’s capable of achieving it. I’m not sure. Maybe it comes with practice.

        I like the quote you shared. It’s reassuring.

        The only thing that still troubles me, is the “do your work” part. It’s hard for me to grasp because it’s not clear cut. How do you know you’ve done enough, or if you’ve actually given it your all? It’s a thin line. But maybe that’s where having a stronger sense of self and knowing who you are would come in handy. You will know you’ve ‘done your work’ if it aligns with who you are and your values.

        By the way, I ask questions, but I don’t want you or anyone else reading this to feel like they have to answer. I’m just thinking ‘out loud’. I know that having time to think about stuff like this might be a luxury for many of us 😊

  4. Melissa
    December 6, 2020 at 1:36 am

    Hi Dan, Have you tried DBT skills/therapy?

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