When Talking Doesn’t Help
You know what’s one of the worst feelings in the world? When you are depressed and anxious and you finally follow the advice doled out by everyone and their brother and muster up the courage to talk to someone about it…
And. It. Doesn’t. Help.
You do the thing that everyone says will help and then it doesn’t. You talk and nothing happens. Nothing changes. You remain depressed and anxious.
I know that deflated feeling well, because it has happened to me on multiple occasions. And although I’m over it now – I eventually was able to figure out how to overcome anxiety and depression – this topic has been on my mind a lot lately.
More than a year ago, I wrote an article titled Why Talk Therapy Didn’t Cure My Depression And What Finally Did, which elicited quite a bit of commentary continuing to this day. Many commenters have said that I simply had the wrong therapist and I should have kept looking.
I don’t dispute that had I found a different therapist, my experience might have been more positive.
However, I don’t think this issue is as simple as that.
It’s not always feasible to just keep trying therapist after therapist. Many people have limited choices given their insurance plan or they don’t have insurance coverage for mental health services at all, which might make the search process (and therapy in general) prohibitively expensive.
Also, going back to my own experience with therapy… At the time, I had no idea what I should have looked for in a therapist instead. I had a vague sense that I wasn’t moving forward, but the therapist kept insisting that I was in the right place. I liked and trusted her plus I was a hopeless people pleaser who rarely “talked back”. I wasn’t able to articulate what exactly wasn’t working and why, so I kept going for a long time before I had the confidence to look for different solutions on my own.
By the time I knew what kind of therapist might have helped me and what kind of wisdom and support I actually needed, I had already figured out how to meet my needs on my own and no longer needed in-person professional help. I basically had to diagnose and cure myself in order to know why therapy wasn’t working and what would have worked.
And this is why I think advising people to simply keep looking for a different therapist is a misdirected effort. The problem is not with the patients seeking help giving up too soon, but with the mental health system we have in place today. It’s often too expensive and it shouldn’t be the depressed person’s responsibility to figure out what the best treatment option is. Depressed people seek help because they …drumroll please… need help.
But even if we put the difficulty of finding the right therapist aside, what I have realized as I have pondered this issue is that I’m ambivalent about all this generic “seek help” and “talk to a therapist” and “talk to your family and friends” advice in general. I understand that this encouragement is necessary and sets lots of people on the path to recovery, but every time I see it, I feel like there is a piece of the puzzle missing.
Yes, it works for some people. Some people seek help and immediately get the right kind of help. Some people have the means to seek out a therapist and they find someone who understands them and who they can connect with and who recognizes what they need in order to recover and who helps them get it. Some people have family and friends who are wise and understanding and supportive and will stand by them through a rough patch.
I’m not writing for those people.
I’m writing for the people who are in the same position where I once found myself… The people whose family and friends can’t even figure out their own problems, let alone someone else’s. The people who have tried talking about their problems, but don’t feel like they are getting anywhere. The people who have tried seeking help, but haven’t found the kind of help they need in order to fully recover.
The people who followed all the advice and did all the right things, but are still suffering.
What are they supposed to do?
If you fall into this second group of people, I want to share with you my hindsight. In hindsight, I’m now able to pinpoint the exact circumstances when “talking about it” didn’t help and when my efforts to seek support proved futile. I now know what I could have done and ultimately needed to do instead.
My hope is that some of my experiences might help you see why you have been hitting a wall and help you become a more informed and articulate help seeker. I don’t expect that you will be able to relate to all of my experiences, as they are just one person’s experiences, but maybe some of them will strike a chord with you.
I’m going to cover five circumstances when talking doesn’t help and offer some suggestions for overcoming these obstacles:
- When you are an overstimulated Highly Sensitive Person
- When you are an introvert talking to a person who doesn’t understand and/or accommodate introversion
- When your needs are different from most other people and you are talking to most other people
- When you are the one doing the talking but you actually need to be talked at
- When you need specific expertise and you are talking to someone without that expertise
A few of these points mirror what I discussed in my earlier article about talk therapy, but as I said, I’ve been doing lots more pondering so this is a much expanded and further developed version of that earlier article.
When Talking Doesn’t Help
1. When You Are An Overstimulated Highly Sensitive Person
Let me give you a couple of examples of how “talking about it” can play out for a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP).
Example 1: When I first started therapy in my twenties, I had a standing appointment every Wednesday evening at 7pm. In those days, I spent a combined three hours commuting daily. I would face busy traffic driving myself to a crowded commuter train that would transport me from the suburbs to the city, where I would stuff myself into a packed subway car to complete the final leg of my journey and reach my destination: the office where I would spend eight to ten hours managing the drama and crises du jour.
To an average person, this is just normal life, but to an HSP, this is a recipe for overstimulation and exhaustion. By the time I would sit down in the therapist’s office to talk at 7pm, I was completely spent from the day I had already endured. I had no brain power left. And I always walked out of the therapist’s office even more exhausted than I had been at the start of the session.
Example 2: Many years later, when I was first adjusting to life as a mother of three and not realizing that I had limits, I would just keep going with the day-to-day kid stuff, non-stop, with no breaks to take care of my own needs. Inevitably, these marathon care-taking missions would end with a headache and “a low”.
I would feel like shit and try to talk to my husband about it, but the conversations were always completely incoherent and unproductive (ie. end in an argument). Because again, I was overstimulated and not able to think clearly.
Back then, I didn’t know that I was a Highly Sensitive Person or what that meant.
Now I know.
Nowadays, when overstimulation creeps in, I avoid talking like the plague. Because I know it’s not going to get me anywhere. Because I know that when you are an overstimulated HSP, no amount of talking can cure what is ailing you, and as a matter of fact, talking can even make it worse. The “help” can just be a further drain on your already depleted resources.
The only thing that will cure an overstimulated HSP is rest.
Suggestions For Overstimulated Highly Sensitive People
- Make getting sufficient rest and recharge time your #1 priority in life. If this sounds drastic, remember that everything else in your life depends on it.
- When you need in-person help from other people, try to schedule it for times when you are likely to be well-rested and not already overstimulated going into the conversation.
- Try reading self help books or check out some of my articles for Highly Sensitive People. Reading is a relaxing activity for most of us. 🙂
2. When You Are An Introvert Talking To A Person Who Doesn’t Understand And/Or Accommodate Introversion
Introverts and extraverts process information differently. Like so:
- Extraverts prefer to think out loud, while introverts prefer to process things internally before speaking.
- Extraverts prefer to make sense of the world by interacting with it, while introverts prefer to make sense of things by analyzing in their heads.
- Many introverts have difficulty fully processing information in the presence of other people.
- In conversation, many extraverts have a tendency to keep bouncing from one topic to another, while many introverts prefer to stick to one topic until it has been thoroughly discussed.
Here are a few examples of how these dynamics have played out in my efforts to seek help:
Example 1: A long time ago, I learned that to get the most out of a 15-minute appointment with a doctor, I needed to go in with a list of questions prepared in advance. But even when I manage to present all my questions to the doctor, I can’t fully process the answers right away. I always think of follow-up questions I should have asked later that day or even days later. When it’s too late.
Example 2: I also ran into a similar problem with talk therapy. Because I’m not able to fully process conversations as they are happening, I ended up having lots of half-assed conversations, reacting to whatever the therapist was asking or saying without being able to really consider it or think about it until I was home. And then I would think of a way to say what I really meant. Except I couldn’t say it until a week later and by then I would have forgotten all about it and we would start the whole cycle all over again.
Example 3: Another reason why talk therapy wasn’t the ideal format for me is my preference for making sense of things by analyzing rather than by interacting. One of the goals of the kind of therapy I received was to gain a better understanding of my past experiences and how they were affecting me. The goal was a good one to have, but the problem was that I don’t learn by talking. It’s not that I didn’t learn anything in therapy, but given my learning style, it was a really slow and inefficient way for me to go about it. I gave it years and I still didn’t get anywhere near where I needed to be. Since then, I have reached that original goal, but I reached it by reading books written by psychotherapists rather than by talking with a psychotherapist.
Suggestions For Introverts
- If you have a choice, seek out helpers who understand and who are open to accommodating introverts. Usually you can just tell. 😉
- If you have a choice, seek out helpers who are open to written communication: “Are you available via text or email?”
- Tell whoever you are talking to that you need some time to gather your thoughts: “I’m going to need some time to digest all of this. Is it okay if I email you with follow-up questions later?”
- When you feel like a topic hasn’t been fully covered, but whoever you are talking to has moved on to something different, try to redirect the conversation: “Can we go back to what we were talking about earlier…”
- If you have a trusted extravert in your life who is better able to think on his/her feet, take him/her with you to important doctor’s appointments.
- Seek out self help resources that you can study at your own pace.
3. When Your Needs Are Different From Most Other People And You Are Talking To Most Other People
In order for me to feel well, I need to lead a very different lifestyle from most people around me. I need to eat differently. I need to work differently. I need to socialize differently. I need A LOT more quiet time. I need to be A LOT more regimented about sleep and exercise.
Most people don’t get this. It’s too far off from the mainstream way of living. Most people just don’t get it. They don’t see how anyone could possibly find happiness living the way I do.
So when I sought help, the helpers didn’t get this either. They wanted to help me fit into their way of life. And I didn’t know any other kind of life was possible, so I went along with it. Trying to fit the square me into a round hole.
When I finally saw that the solution was not to try to trick my brain into liking someone else’s definition of a good life, but to create a whole new life tailored to me, my recovery skyrocketed.
Suggestions For People Who Might Need Something Different From Most Other People
- Make it a priority to figure out who you are as a person and what your unique needs are. In what ways does your current life not serve you? What kind of life do you need to lead in order to feel well and be content?
- Expose yourself to alternative lifestyles. What kind of lifestyles appeal to you?
- Seek out books, courses, and other resources from people who are living the lifestyle you want to achieve. How did they get there?
4. When You Are The One Doing The Talking But You Actually Need To Be Talked At
There are times when talking about your feelings can be very helpful. For some people, getting it all out and receiving sympathy from another person can be a cathartic experience.
I’m not one of those people.
Over the years, I’ve realized that I simply don’t need to process feelings by talking. When I was grieving the loss of my first baby, I just needed space to cry and my husband’s presence and lots of time to heal. I just needed to feel my feelings. I didn’t need to talk about them. I didn’t need external validation for them.
I’m also not one to spend a lot of time talking about or analyzing past events. I realize that sometimes there are lessons to be learned from the past, but I’m future-oriented and I’d rather spend a majority of my time thinking about and talking about how to improve the rest of today and tomorrow.
So… When my life felt like shit to the point that I didn’t want to be in it anymore, I didn’t need to keep talking about how bad I felt and I didn’t need to keep rehashing past events over and over and over again to the extent that my therapist wanted me to. I now realize that endlessly dwelling on problems in therapy without any attempt to brainstorm solutions may have just added to my depression and made me feel more hopeless.
When I sought help, I didn’t need a shoulder to cry on. What I needed instead were strategies to help me feel better. I needed to learn what I could do now to stop feeling so bad.
Instead of me talking about my feelings, I needed someone else to do the talking. I needed teachers.
I needed someone to explain to me why I was feeling like shit and why nothing felt good. And I especially needed someone to tell me what I could do to fix it.
I needed advice.
Suggestions For People Who Don’t Need To Talk About Their Feelings And Just Need Someone To Give Them Advice
- If you have a choice, seek out helpers who are willing to take on the role of a teacher, advisor, or coach rather than a sympathetic listener or a shoulder to cry on.
- Note that conventional psychotherapy is all about exploring feelings and most psychotherapists do not like to give advice. However, there are many alternative forms of therapy. Click here for a helpful listing with descriptions. Although in-person psychotherapy didn’t work for me, I have learned Acceptance And Commitment Therapy (ACT) and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) techniques on my own and found them to be worthwhile tools to keep in my back pocket.
- Seek out advice via books or online.
5. When You Need Specific Expertise And You Are Talking To Someone Without That Expertise
With a couple of exceptions, I believe all the mental and physical health professionals I have sought help from have been competent people with good intentions. My best guess is that they simply didn’t have the right training and expertise to meet my specific needs:
- The psychiatrists I saw were trained to prescribe anti-depressants. They were not trained to investigate the root cause of my depression, and when years of experimenting with various drug combinations failed to make me feel better, they had nothing else to offer me.
- The general practitioners and gynecologists I saw were trained to provide routine care. They were not trained to spot the signs of my health problems that went undetected for many years and contributed to my feeling like shit. After declaring me perfectly healthy, they had nothing else to offer me.
- The therapists I saw were trained to explore a person’s past and feelings and to give sympathy. They were not trained to recognize what other needs I might have had or how to go about addressing them. When talking about my childhood failed to make me feel better, they had nothing else to offer me.
In the ideal world, one of the people I sought help from would have recognized what I needed and directed me to the appropriate resources. In the ideal world, I would have been a more outspoken advocate for myself and asked more questions. In the ideal world, I would have had unlimited time and energy and funds to try out several different kinds of therapies.
But this isn’t the ideal world. So I eventually gave up on seeking in-person help and went the cheaper route. I started consulting with experts via the books they wrote. Here are all the different experts I ultimately needed to consult in order to overcome both anxiety and depression:
- Experts in self care for Highly Sensitive People and empaths
- Medical doctors and psychiatrists familiar with the stress response and how it’s connected to hormones and a person’s overall well-being
- Running coaches
- Self confidence coaches
- Psychologists specializing in social anxiety
- Psychologists specializing in people pleasing and boundary issues
- Personality type experts
- Career counselors
- Life coaches
You may need a completely different set of experts, but I’m sharing my list to illustrate that sometimes you need more than just one or two kinds of help.
Suggestions For People Who Might Not Have Found The Right Experts
- Stop looking for a single “cure for depression”. Instead, start looking for the underlying causes of your depression and then look for the experts who know how to cure those underlying causes. Remember that your depression may have several underlying causes and all of them may need to be addressed in order for you to fully recover. See my posts How To Solve Depression and The Causes Of Depression Nobody Ever Talks About.
- Stop looking for a single “cure for anxiety”. Anxiety and fear are a normal part of human life. Instead, start looking for ways to reduce and manage stress and ways to manage and cope with anxiety symptoms.
- Realize that until you figure out the particulars of YOUR unique case, this will be a trial and error process. This means that there will be errors – experts offering something you don’t need – on the way to finding the right stuff for YOU.
Know That It’s Possible To Overcome Depression And Anxiety Even If The First Few Things You Try Don’t Work
If you take one thing away from this article, make it this:
The fact that your family and friends are clueless…
The fact that your doctor has no more drug combos left to suggest…
The fact that it didn’t work out with the first therapist or the second…
Doesn’t mean that your cure doesn’t exist.
A lot of the help available is one-size-fits-all and when you don’t fit that size, you may feel like you are screwed.
But there isn’t just one cause of depression and there isn’t just one way to cure it.
I want you to know that there are tons of different approaches and resources out there. There are many people conducting research and coming up with new insights. There are many people like me sharing what worked for us.
You are not at the mercy of just one doctor or one therapist. Or even two or three.
There was a time when I thought I was screwed and there was nothing else left to try. And you know what I did? I googled it. I typed in “I’m so tired” and “I don’t belong here”.
And I actually found answers. One article led to another and eventually I moved onto books.
Some stuff I found didn’t help at all, but some was exactly what I needed to know.
And eventually, after lots of trial and error, one tiny baby step at a time, I was able to implement what I had learned to the point that I no longer felt like shit all the time.
I had found help.
I sincerely hope you find some of the same on this website.
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