Depression and Empathy: A Confusing-Ass Prisoner’s Dilemma ~ emmi

by emmi bevensee

Cw: manipulation, suicide related topics, and ethical neuroticism

If you’re empathic, depressed, clever, and care about consent you’re liable to have a fuck of a time slogging through your shit, much less actually communicating with other humans. The levels and questions of agency alone are labyrinths that even a clear mind should have trouble with. But depression is not a clear mind. It is, if nothing else, a concerted hyper-focus on a limited set of truths and perspectives, much to the detriment of true complexity. Don’t get me wrong, you can be depressed and have nuance, it’s just that truly holding the vastness of possibilities and angles is near impossible when there’s a black-hole perverting every thought train into it’s most violently distorted forms. From there, it’s easy to play in the shadows of nuance but that isn’t really clarity.

The most obvious example of this is hope. Hope can be a vulnerability and a dangerous myth but these qualities can overshadow the plethora of other more beautiful iterations when a wounded nihilism creeps in disguised as a tool. It’s easy, then, to re-hash every dead-end and substitute that for an understanding of dynamic possibility. When the reality is usually that, as bad as things are, there are dynamic variables. Hope is fucking scary when you’ve been chronically depressed, poor, or mentally ill if only because getting let down and disappointed is brutal. All this to say, when you’re depressed, you’re the one who needs clarity about your situation most and yet you are often the one to which it is most cruelly denied.

This is definitely NOT some argument in favor of “Depressed people just don’t understand how good things are! It’s in there head alone! Just manifest happiness.” Those people are devils and demons who fortunately whither from avoidance. Let them manifest abundant space from me. Often, depression manifests not just as a form of neuro-divergence, but also as astute recognitions or healthy reactions to fucked up circumstances. But the tunnel-vision of depression is important in recognizing basic things like, “Hey, I may not be in the best mindset to determine whether or not I should end my life right now because that is kind of a #bigdecision for a 4am cry-fest over my cocoa pebbles during which I’ve determined several compelling tautologies.”

Without going off the deep-end into the mess of opinions and weird ideas about suicide and suicidality, it’s worth first mentioning that it would be a better world if people could talk as openly about suicide as they could about anything else. Taking away the taboo and acknowledging personal agency would do wonders for helping people sift through whether they actually want to commit suicide or just feel like they want to. That difference is a tricky one. However, we don’t live in a fantasy world of awesome boundaries, deep emotional maturity, cherishing of agency, and clarity of purpose. We live in a messy world where consent is asymptotically imperfect and empathy plunks along like a confused, confusing, occasionally very wrong, but ultimately heartening and beloved puppy.

There is a lot you can figure out on your own. Much of the emotional work surrounding depression can, and in the end, must be done in ourselves. However, there’s only so much to be done in isolation. The well-worn paths are neurologically impossible to escape from without some form of external stimuli. Feedback-loops and neural columns are powerful things after all— even if our psyche and brains do possess incredible plasticity. One of the most useful forms of feedback is *drum-roll* other people! We generally need help getting out of our shit or in just feeling heard and understood at the most basic level. Unfortunately though, many, if not most, people are woefully unequipped to be productively present either in themselves or for the sufferer.

When you tell people how you really, actually feel, they often fuck it up by taking on more than they realized they could process or just fumbling the interaction and causing greater harm to the sharer. Many of us have horror stories ranging from complete denial of the possibility of our experiences (“That hasn’t happened to me so it didn’t happen to you.”) to co-dependent hyper-investment in manipulating us into feeling better (“I will now commence operation- fix you!”). Obviously, this all sucks.

Occasionally we are so lucky to find a friend or trained professional who can skillfully be present or even guide us through the process of being seen and pinging our psychology off of another sentient node. However, professionals have legal obligations and people that care about us have personal obligations. There’s only so much you can tell a therapist about suicidal ideation before they are legally obligated to use state violence to involuntarily institutionalize you for “your own protection” (note: some therapists are really better than others at straddling that line). A friend on the other hand, is personally invested in your well-being. This is awesome but can also present certain dilemmas. For one, they’re more likely to be personally negatively impacted by your suffering. For another, they’re more likely to bypass (consciously or accidentally) their own boundaries if they see that you have a great and sincere need. To a depressed empath, these are terrifying and paralyzing realities.

The reality is that people often fuck up their own boundaries and that is a scary and confusing one to the person debating expressing deep felt experience or self-harming ideations. At the surface level, no one wants their loved ones to know how bad they suffer because of the fear that this will cause them suffering as well. At a deeper level though is a playground of baggage that differs person-to-person but nonetheless impacts the ways we both share and with-hold.

Of course there is more than meets the eye in these strict dilemmas. In many cases, a friend feels honored or even deeply validated, by our honest and intimate sharing. It can also serve to help someone escape temporarily from the hell of their own psyches. It can bring people closer in both healthy (solidarity and support with boundaries) and unhealthy ways (codependency and trauma bonding).

From the perspective of the receiver of information though, this can all be a huge slap to autonomous agency. “How dare you decide for me whether I can handle your truth!” they might cry in reasonable defense. The depressed are wont to find and cultivate ways to stay depressed after-all and denying the agency of our friends by keeping everything inside is as good a way to do that as any other. For me at least, if it’s other people, I generally (although truthfully not always) want to know what the fuck is going on although this level varies according to my available spoons, personal investment and love for the person, their level of empathy, and my sense of their meta-process around the consent of sharing. I don’t want to be emotionally blackmailed (“I’ll commit suicide if you leave me!”) or held hostage against my will (“Don’t leave until I finish gorily describing all of the sources of my PTSD!”).

These are the initial levels of the prisoners dilemma– that of “to share or not to share” and the associated risk and reward profiles to either person involved. However, empathetic people who care about us will often know that we’re going through shit long before we tell them no matter how well we think we hide it. It can actually feel gas-lighting to have someone constantly insist they’re fine when you can feel in every bone of your body that they’re definitely not. It’s no doubt a form of dishonesty (not that everyone is entitled to our honest experience). Empathy breaks down some of the initial conundrums of consent such as, “How can I ask for consent to share my pain without first describing my pain so that their consent is informed?” It does this by skipping the verbal communication altogether to some extent, such that people get a sense of what they’re signing up for and have the ability to make good choices about how much emotional labor they want to set aside either to risk sharing or receiving.

But of course, just banking on empathy to do our communication for us is a failed strategy. We have to figure our shit out, however limited the tools at hand may be. Empathy is amazing but people also aren’t mind readers. For me, empathy usually provides the shades, not details, of things (although sometimes it provides an excess of detail) and as such, hearing the context for what I’ve been feeling from someone can actually be super refreshing and clarifying. But empathy doesn’t stop before the point of communication. Of course, for people who’ve done reasonable internal work and possess the neural circuitry for it, empathy can continue to add subtlety and depth to the constant re-negotiation of consent throughout a deep emotional sharing event. Ongoing consent is a cooperative strategy in a game-theoretic prisoners dilemma of feelz.

These are all first level dilemmas though. I wouldn’t be a proper neurotic ethicist if I stopped there in my bastardized approach to connection would I! On to the meta-manipulations! Once you’ve realized a type of manipulation could theoretically exist, you must then be wary of your own ability to inflict it even as you learn more about guarding against it. For example, talking about my feelings can bring someone closer to me. Knowledge of the intimacy mechanisms around sharing can create an incentive for manipulation–ie non-cooperation strategies (snitching in a traditional prisoner’s dilemma). Why stop at a meta-manipulation though? After all, our friends are smart people! On to multi-tiered fractalicious meta-manipulations! For example, if I know that the other person knows that sharing can lead to chemical intimacy and that this could be used as a form of manipulation, I could be a good friend and add that to the consent negotiations. But, just talking about the possibility for unintentional manipulation could itself be an iteration of the initial level of manipulation. Like a proper prisoner’s dilemma, it’s also all an infinite recursion where perfect communication and coordination is impossible. And if your brain is smart enough to create this load of rubbish then you’re almost certainly capable of convincing yourself that you’re not manipulating someone, in order to bypass your hesitations, and move onward to manipulating them! I could emotionally blackmail or take someone hostage even if I’m trying really hard not to. Aren’t halls of mirrors fantastic?

The reality of real-world consent is that we all knowingly take-on a level of commitment to risk when we connect with others at any level. From a practical lens, all of these dilemmas I described here are almost silly as they are somehow baked into the unspoken contract of friendship (or paid relationship of therapy). Many would look at this essay, dumbfounded about how people could get themselves so wound up about what seemingly amounts to nothing. But, at least to me, it’s not nothing. It’s real shit it just takes on bizarre proportions and iterations if my brain is being a jerk. Sharing yourself with another person is always admitting a willingness to risk hurting them and yourself on some level. We lack the faculties for perfect communication of boundaries or expectations, not to mention we are but mere mortals and doth do stupid shit from time-to-time just to keep life spicy. But people do sign-up for that and it’s usually easier to remember the ways in which we are down as fuck to be there for others and then apply that logic to the potential of some other being giving a shit about our sad sappy ass. So if someone has already committed to being there for you in a reasonably healthy way, then you’re lucky. The hardest part is out of the way. Now it’s just on to figuring out how to actually describe your feelings in a way that makes sense to another human lacking in your frames.

Most importantly though, imperfect and haunted-castle level trap-filled as it may be, empathy and sharing often holds the key to breaking out of the mental traps of depression. Even if it can’t fix us, it can do wonders to our process. Empathy helps us to break out of the illusion of hardcore separation that can make us feel so goddamn lonely in the first place. At a certain point I know the answer to all of this is just building trust in myself and others but that is super hard and I don’t think the delicacy ever ends, we just maybe get better at showing up for it and giving ourselves the gifts we’d just as soon give others. A little bit of empathy for the self. Easier said than done. But definitely within the realm of dynamic possibility.

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