Brains Lie, But So Do People

[CN: mental illness, gaslighting, abuse]

For those of us with mood disorders to manage, learning and understanding the fact that brains often lie was a revelation. Suddenly we had an explanation–and not a BS, pseudoscientific explanation–for why we think and feel things that don’t make sense and that make life unbearable. We learned that feeling like everyone hates you isn’t actually a feeling; it’s a thought, and the thought isn’t based in reality. We learned that we have a much easier time remembering the bad than the good, which leaves us with the skewed impression that everything is awful and must always continue to be awful.

And so we adopted a new language. We talk about jerkbrains and depression!brains and all sorts of other brains, and we teach ourselves to constantly question and second-guess the negative things we tell ourselves.

For the most part, this is how mood disorder recovery happens. Once you develop the awareness that many of your depressive or anxious thoughts are not based in reality, you are able to develop coping skills to stop these thoughts or minimize their impact. This is CBT, in a nutshell. CBT is not a panacea–some people, especially those whose disorders started early in their life (or seem like they’ve been going on forever) don’t find this sufficient to actually stop the thoughts. But recovery can’t happen until you internalize the fact that brains lie.

Here’s where I worry, though. When I start hearing this:

“My friends are always making jokes at my expense and it makes me feel hurt. But that’s just my depression, I know they don’t really mean it.”

“I know I should be ok with my partner wanting us to be poly. It’s just my anxiety, it’s not a rational thing.”

“It’s not that I don’t want to have sex with him, it’s just that I don’t really have a sex drive because of my medication. So I do it anyway because I mean, I don’t mind.”

Sometimes we overcompensate. We get so used to these tropes–depression makes you feel like people hate you, anxiety makes you freak out that your partner’s going to leave you when there’s no evidence, medication makes you lose your sex drive–that we assume those causations. If you’re diagnosed with depression and your friends are making mean jokes and you feel hurt, it’s because of your depression. If you’re taking medication and you don’t want to have sex, of course it’s the medication.

Obviously these things are all true in many cases. It could very well be that all evidence suggests your friends love you and assume you’re be okay with some good-natured teasing. It could very well be that all the evidence suggests that your partner is committed to you, poly or not, and that your anxiety contradicts your other beliefs about the relationship and your preferences. (For instance, polyamory often makes me very anxious, but I’ve decided that it’s nevertheless what’s best for me and so that’s what I’m doing.)

But sometimes, your “friends” are being callous assholes and don’t care that their jokes hurt you. Sometimes, your partner is pressuring you to try polyamory even though it just doesn’t work for you, and everything about this is (rightfully) freaking you out. Sometimes, meds or no, you’re just not attracted to someone and haven’t internalized the fact that you don’t owe them sex. Sometimes the reason you don’t want to have sex with someone is because they’re giving off a ton of red flags and you should pay attention to them.

This gets even worse when close people, well-meaning or not, start pulling out these sorts of phrases in order to “help” you: “Oh, that’s just Depressed Miri talking.” “That’s your jerkbrain.” “This isn’t who you really are, it’s just your illness.” “Did you take your meds today?”

The message? “That’s not based in reality.”

Don’t get me wrong. When used by a kind, perceptive, absolutely not abusive person, these responses can be incredibly powerful and helpful. Sometimes we really do need that reality check: a partner who helps you draw the connection between skipping meds and feeling bad; a friend who patiently reminds you that sometimes depression feeds you lies.

When used by someone who wants to control you, though, they become very dangerous.

Upset that your partner keeps canceling your plans to see their other partner? That’s your depression, of course they still love you, it’s only natural that they’d want to see their new partner a lot. Scared to have sex without a condom? That’s just your anxiety, they already told you they’ve been tested, so what’s the problem? Annoyed that your friend keeps cutting you off in conversation? You know that irritation is a depression symptom.

I’ve written before that attempting to treat your depression or anxiety by invalidating your feelings can lead to a sort of self-gaslighting; even more harmful, I think, is when others do it to you. I have to admit that I start to get a queasy feeling when I see someone trying to manage their partner’s mental illness for/with them. As I said, sometimes this can be a great and healthy situation, but never forget that in a relationship between a person with a mental illness and a neurotypical person, the latter holds privilege. With privilege comes power, and with power comes responsibility.

The problem here, obviously, is not with CBT or the term “jerkbrain” or even the idea that thoughts/feelings can be irrational; the problem is abusive people learning this terminology and taking advantage of it. To a lesser extent, too, the problem is with ourselves over-applying these concepts to situations that are legitimately unhealthy, unsafe, or just straight-up unpleasant.

I don’t have a solution to this, but I do have some suggestions if you worry that you might be in this situation:

1. If you have a therapist, ask them to work with you on (re)learning how to trust your gut when appropriate. Most of us have a spidey sense when it comes to abusive people and dangerous situations; the problem is that our culture often trains us to ignore that sense. “But he’s such a nice guy, give him a chance!” “But it’s not your friends’ job to make sure none of their jokes ever offend you!” and so on. For many people, especially marginalized people, a crucial task is to remember what that sense feels like and to feel comfortable using it.

2. When an interpersonal situation is making you depressed or anxious, ask for a reality check from more than one person, and make sure that none of those people is directly involved in the situation. If you’re sad because your partner hasn’t been spending as much time with you as you’d like, that’s obviously an important conversation to have with your partner at some point, but the reality check part has to come from someone else, because your partner probably has a vested interest in keeping things as they are. (Not necessarily a bad thing! Maybe your partner has already patiently explained to you many times that they love you and wish they could see you more, but this year they need to focus on completing and defending their dissertation. Or maybe your partner is neglectful and stringing you along in this relationship that they’re only in for the sex and not being clear with you about what they actually want.)

It helps to find people that you can trust to be kind and honest. In many social circles I’ve been in in the past, there was a tendency to support your friend no matter what, and “support” meant agreeing with them about all interpersonal matters. If I’m upset at my partner, my friend agrees with me that they’re a jerk who doesn’t deserve me. If another friend is angry at me for missing their birthday party, my friend agrees with me that they’re obviously overreacting and being so immature. That’s not helpful for these purposes. You need someone who will say, “That sounds really rough for you and I’m sorry, but the fact that your partner has been busy lately doesn’t mean they hate you and don’t care if you live or die.”

3. Remember that feelings don’t have to be rational to be acted on. While it’s good to treat feelings with some amount of skepticism when you have a mental illness, that doesn’t mean you have to just ignore those feelings unless you can prove to yourself that they’re rational. There are many interpersonal situations that trigger my depression or anxiety for reasons I’ve determined aren’t rational, but I still avoid those situations because, honestly, life’s too damn short to feel like crap all the time, and I can’t will myself out of my depression and anxiety.

For example, here’s a meme I come across often:


Yes, rationally I know that sarcasm doesn’t mean you hate me, that that’s a perfectly valid way of expressing yourself and interacting with people, that for many people that’s part of their family culture/subculture, etc. etc.

But this interpersonal style interacts really badly with my depression. It makes me feel insecure and small. It is disempowering. It makes my brain go in circles about What Does This Person Really Think Of Me Do They Hate Me Or Not Did I Do Something Wrong.

(A part of me wonders if the reason people do this isn’t so much because they enjoy feeling relaxed enough to just be their snarky, sarcastic selves, but because they enjoy making people feel the way I just described. I’m not sure.)

So I decided at some point that I just wasn’t going to put up with it. When someone treats me this way, I remove them from my mental list of people I trust or want to get closer to. I minimize my interactions with that person. I prepare myself to set specific boundaries with them if that becomes necessary, but it usually doesn’t because distance does the trick.

At no point do I have to convince myself that, yes, all the available evidence suggests that this person hates me or is a cruel, bad person. I’m sure they don’t hate me. I’m sure they are a decent human being. For my purposes, though, it doesn’t really matter.

You are allowed to act in ways that minimize negative emotions even if those emotions are mostly being caused by mental illness.


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Brains Lie, But So Do People

9 thoughts on “Brains Lie, But So Do People

  1. 1

    This is the thing: over the years I’ve come to believe that CBT is flawed *because* it treats every thing as stemming from thought. My system doesn’t work that way. My mood disorder affects my feelings, not my thoughts. I have a feeling in my gut of hopelessness, or sadness, or insecurity that comes from nowhere (or from learned response to early trauma, but that’s somewhat different). The feeling comes first, and THEN I think something about it as an attempt to anchor the feeling in something concrete. “I feel bad” leads to “because no one likes me” rather than the other way around. CBT tries to say that the thought comes first, but learning the thought isn’t necessarily accurate doesn’t change the root feeling, because that feeling is a chemical reaction. And in my experience, trying to make everything about flawed thought processes leads to *more* self gaslighting and *less* trust of gut reaction and personal experience.

    TL;DR: CBT is a good tool, but it can perpetuate the mind/body split too prevelant in western culture.

    1. 1.1

      This is precisely my problem with CBT, and why I did waaaaaay better with DBT, which teaches mindfulness skills to help cope with intense emotions. Didn’t cure me, but made me waaaaaay more functional. CBT just made me really hate my brain for tormenting me with illogical bad feelings–DBT made me be able to go “that’s an alarm going off for a reason, but I don’t have to respond to it. I can let it be.”

  2. 2

    I usually assume someone linking that meme is just a jerk. Their friends are unlikely to need that notification because they already know what the person is like, and are thus likely to take the sarcasm in good humour, so the only purpose seems to be to advertise that they are frequently sarcastic. No thanks.

  3. 3

    Yes, rationally I know that sarcasm doesn’t mean you hate me, that that’s a perfectly valid way of expressing yourself and interacting with people, that for many people that’s part of their family culture/subculture, etc. etc.

    But this interpersonal style interacts really badly with my depression.

    I’m one of those who both love and employ sarcasm/irony. I’m not sure why. Is it about aesthetics? Maybe, to some degree, but can it be aesthetics only? Well… no, I’m afraid that it can’t. Self-defence is a part of it, that for sure, and perhaps there are some other factors at play. Usually when I do it, it’s accompanied by the feeling that it’s pretty innocent, general and directed against no one in particular. Nothing like the meme you quoted. Still…

    I would be grateful if someone – not necessarily Miri and not only on Miri’s blog – just told us (I mean, people like me) in plain words that we are overdoing it whenever it happens.

    1. 3.1

      I definitely try to do that, but in my experience, politely asking the person to stop immediately elicits “What so you can’t even take a joke” and “why do you hate humor” and “OMG calm down I’m just messing with you.”

      Since you’re asking people to give you that feedback, I have no doubt that YOU wouldn’t say those things, but too many people do, unfortunately.

      1. Ok, I understand – I was naive and it’s not that easy. Please, treat it then as nothing more than an individual plea, directed both to you and to the other people on this blog.

  4. 4

    in my experience, politely asking the person to stop immediately elicits “What so you can’t even take a joke” and “why do you hate humor” and “OMG calm down I’m just messing with you.”

    Those people are arseholes. If your sarcasm is genuinely good-humoured, then the only sensible response when someone tells you it’s not coming across that way, or that they don’t like it, is to apologise, and make a mental note to be more careful in future. Some people just don’t like sarcasm, and that’s fine. One of the things about humour is that you need to calibrate it to your audience – you can’t just demand that people find you funny, or that everybody should react to your humour in the same way.

  5. 5

    This gets super-complicated when the thoughts and feelings you cannot trust your brain or other people with is the thoughts and feelings that you cannot trust your brain or other people about this.
    Invalidating my emotions and gaslighting me into believing that the problem was just me being unreasonable was my mother’s favourite form of emotional abuse, sometimes combined with physical abuse “so I knew what I was crying about”.
    Over the years I internalized her perspective. I am perfectly able to supply her side in an inner dialogue AND to believe that side because that side is the reasonable one. Then I found out that side is actually the monkey brain, so I can’t trust my brain.
    And who do you trust now to give you some perspective when the person you trusted the most is actually the one who fucked you up? And of course as soon as you doubt other people your brain kicks in automatically reminding you that not all people are abusive liars.
    No, I haven’t found a very good solution to this. I fortunately have a few people I do trust enough to check with them…

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