Wednesday 25 October 2023

Communicate or Hide? The Creative Dilemma

Artists are people driven by the tension between the desire to communicate and the desire to hide. (Donald Woods Winnicott)

The above quotation describes a dynamic I know well. Publishing a new blog post every Wednesday means each week I need to identify a topic and then write a piece I’m happy to present to the world. Some are more personal than others, but whatever the topic there’s a balance to be struck between wanting to communicate and respecting my vulnerability.

The Desire to Communicate

As I’ve written previously, I can’t imagine a time when I’m not expressing myself creatively in some way. That’s taken many different forms over the years, including clay modeling, painting, woodwork, and photography. Mostly, though, I’ve sought to communicate through my writing. These days that’s primarily through this blog, but in the past it’s included poetry, factual articles, short stories, and books.

Friends have described me as having a passion for writing, or it being my purpose in life. Neither feels right to me. I do spend a considerable amount of time writing, one way or another. Apart from blogging, this includes personal correspondence, chatting online with friends, and the diary I’ve written ever day since I was fourteen years old. For all that, it’s not something I enjoy.

The book Fran and I wrote took four years of almost constant work, from original idea to publication. I don’t regret it. I’m immensely proud and consider it one of my greatest achievements in any field. But it wasn’t an easy road for either of us and there were times we came close to setting it aside. Blogging is no less demanding of my time, energy, and focus. There’s a sense of achievement when I complete a post, but my publishing schedule means there’s little time to appreciate my success before pressing on with the next article.

Why do it then? From my perspective, writing isn’t something I choose to do at all. It’s more like a need or compulsion that’s been a part of my life — a part of me — since my teens. If I try and rationalise it, I can identify three reasons for writing.

  • To explore my situation and experience
  • To share and educate
  • To invite input from others

Most fundamentally, writing is how I process and explore what’s going on for me. That’s especially true of my journal, but applies more generally. This blog post is a good example. It’s giving me the opportunity to examine what writing means to me, and my creative boundaries. I keep a “scrapbook” document within easy reach on my phone. I use this to capture ideas, notes, and thoughts whenever they occur to me. Some may be further expanded in my journal or blog posts, but many go no further. They exist as an informal appendix to my life, and I review them regularly for the insights and ideas they contain.

Sharing and educating were the motivations behind the book Fran and I wrote together. Recognising there was little material available for anyone wanting to help and support a friend who lives with mental illness, we wrote High Tide, Low Tide: The Caring Friend’s Guide to Bipolar Disorder to share what we’d learned through our own mutually supportive friendship. That same desire to share and educate underlies the content we publish on our blog and elsewhere.

Communicating isn’t all one way, of course. Whether it’s through our book or blog, social media, or private conversations, one of the key aspects of writing for me is receiving feedback and input from other people. We get fewer blog comments than I’d like, but those we do receive are incredibly valuable. For the same reason, we love having guest bloggers. If you’d like to guest here, check out our contact page for guidelines. Many of our posts include ideas and insights from other people. One recent example explored sympathy, empathy, and compassion and featured contributions from people who responded to my invitation on social media.

But these positive aspects don’t tell the whole story. In and of themselves, they’re probably not enough to keep me writing. If I’m honest, I write because I’m scared to stop. It often feels to me as though writing is the only thing I have that has any real meaning, value, or purpose. If I stopped writing, what would be left? At different times, I’ve thought about stopping my personal journal. I’ve certainly considered giving up blogging, or at least taking a break from it. In both cases, the very routine — daily journal entries and weekly blog posts — imposes an imperative to continue. Were I to interrupt either, I’d find it very difficult to pick up again at some later date. And so I continue, as much from fear as anything else.

The Desire to Hide

There can be many reasons for hiding, which in this context I’ll define as choosing not to communicate about something. We may feel inadequate to the task because we lack the skills or the experience to do so effectively. This is the reason I choose not to write about certain things, as I described in a post about blogging honestly.

There are topics I’d like to write about but haven’t yet found a way to approach them as I’d wish to. These include my perspective as a caring friend when someone I know has taken an overdose or harmed themself. I can’t imagine ever writing about abuse, addiction, rape, or trauma. Those are too far beyond my lived experience for me to do them justice.

It’s wise to be aware of our limitations, but it’s easy to become stuck in a mindset that keeps us from trying new things or exploring beyond the boundaries of our comfort zone. Those boundaries may still be relevant and useful, but it’s possible we’ve outgrown them. It’s worth checking in with the stories we tell ourselves, especially those that begin “I’m not the kind of person who ...” Maybe we are or could be, if we gave ourself permission to try.

I’ve written about things I’d once have felt uncomfortable sharing. These include open letters to my mother and to my father, and how I let a friend down when she was most in need. In recent years I’ve written about my physical and mental health for the first time, in such articles as My First Doctor’s Appointment in 30 Years, My Visit to Grey St. Opticians, Anxiety and Me, Return to Down, and This Boy Gets Sad Too. I explored what being a man means to me for International Men’s Day last year, and have described my self-doubt and feeling a fraud. This blog post is something I couldn’t have imagined writing in the past. It’s an example of how I feel increasingly comfortable being open and honest about myself.

That said, there are areas where I still feel the need to hide. For right or wrong, most of the reasons are fear-based. As I’ve previously described:

I would like to be completely honest, open, and genuine in everything I do and write, but honesty means admitting I’m afraid people might not like what I’ve shared, and won’t like me as a result. Who I am — who I really am, with my insights, experience, and wisdom; but also my faults, failings, and hang-ups — is all I have to offer. There are things I’ve chosen not to write about because of that fear.

I’m wary of discussing topics where I’ve not reached a clear decision or opinion, or where I feel unable to justify my position logically or respond adequately to the counter arguments. For these reasons amongst others, I choose not to write publically about religion, politics, gender issues, or war and conflict. With a few exceptions, I don’t write about my personal relationships, present or past. I don’t discuss sex, things I’m ashamed of or embarrassed about, or things entrusted to me by others. What are my fears, exactly? Several spring to mind.

  • Fear of embarrassment
  • Fear of ridicule, censure, or criticism
  • Fear of negative or hurtful repercussions
  • Fear of upsetting or disappointing people
  • Fear of inciting controversy or anger

How realistic are these fears? That’s difficult to gauge in advance, which is why the urge to hide can be so debilitating. I mentioned there were times Fran and I came close to setting our book aside. That wasn’t because of the effort involved, although that brought its own challenges. It was because Fran feared the negative repercussions of revealing so much about herself, especially her mental health. She had good reason to be cautious, having experienced a great deal of stigma and discrimination in the past. Her health and wellbeing were always my primary concern. On several occasions we came close to setting the entire thing aside. It’s a testament to Fran’s courage that we completed the project.

I had no such fears, but the situation was very different for me. I was mostly sharing caring and supportive aspects of myself which were unlikely to attract negative attention. The closest thing to criticism directed at me was a sense of incredulity that I could devote so much time and attention to someone outside my immediate family. I feel far less confident sharing other aspects of my life, personality, and behaviour. It’s scary to contemplate lifting the lid and exposing my inner self to the world. Hiding may be neither honest nor honourable, but it can be comfortable. Fear can also be healthy, in that it guards us against sharing too much or inappropriately. Maintaining healthy boundaries is important. We can be honest and genuine without sharing everything with everyone all the time.

You may have heard the injunction “write what scares you.” But why would you? Why would I? One reason is to help other people take an equivalent step. So much of what I’ve learned about mental illness is the result of reading, watching, and listening to people willing to share what it’s like for them. It’s one of the very best ways to educate yourself about your loved one’s mental health condition, or indeed your own. There are other benefits too. We grow by being open about ourselves. That doesn’t have to mean sharing publically, but however we do it, choosing to communicate rather than hide is an act of commitment to who we are. Knowing that something we’ve said or shared has helped someone is profoundly encouraging and validating. In simple terms, helping people helps you too.

But what about the dark bits? I was discussing some of my past writing with a friend recently. Specifically, the short stories written between 1996 and 2005 when I ran a Tolkien fan group called Middle-earth Reunion. I’m proud of many of those tales. I referenced a few in We Are All Made of Stories, in which I discussed storytelling as a vehicle for self-exploration. My friend asked if any of the characters in my stories represented me. Aside from a few tales in which I appear as myself — including this one — there are only two characters I identify with to any great extent. The first is Malcolm, the confused and largely inadequate antihero of “Playing at Darkness.” The second is dour widower William (Bill) Stokes in “And Men Myrtles.”

It’s neither easy not straightforward for me to admit this. I’m fond of Malcolm and Bill, and the stories in which they appear represent the best fiction I’ve ever written. Nevertheless, there are aspects of their personalities and behaviour that I strongly disavow. In these and other tales there are instances of sexism, classism, obsession, inappropriate behaviour, and aggression. Some of these are fundamental to the narrative, others arguably less so. They sit uneasily with me now precisely because I recognise echoes in my own nature, behaviour, and experience in the past.

These stories were written almost twenty years ago. It would be convenient to say that’s where I was at the time, but I’ve learned and moved on. In many cases I believe that to be true, but the fact they make uneasy reading today suggests not all of the work has been done. I may or may not make these pieces public, but these are important topics in their own right. I do no one any good, myself included, by hiding them away or hiding from them.

I’ll close with two quotations by therapist and coach Saadia Z. Yunus. The first speaks to the fear of wanting to speak our truth.

Your heart may race every time you’re about to speak up for yourself. This doesn’t mean it is wrong. It means it didn’t feel safe when you spoke up in the past. Have grace for yourself, breathe through it and speak. Your voice deserves to be heard.

I’m reminded of something I wrote myself, years ago: “Speak your truth. Whisper it. Scream it. You never know who might need to hear what only you can say. This stuff matters. You matter.” The second quotation by Saadia Z. Yunus asks a very important question.

When did you receive the message that everyone around you has to be OK and comfortable at the expense of your own comfort, autonomy, and self?

We may, with good reason, fear the repercussions if by speaking out we upset other people. No one, however, has the right not to be upset or offended. Other people’s comfort is not more important than our commitment to the truth as we perceive it or our lives as we live them. On my bookshelf is a copy of Susan Jeffers’ Feel the Fear And Do It Anyway. I think it’s due for a re-read.


Photo by Road Trip with Raj at Unsplash.


Wednesday 18 October 2023

Of Fellings and Feelings: An Exploration of Loss and Renewal

And now I’m just left with this stump — this space — which I want to also understand. (Andy Goldsworthy)

This post was inspired by a recent act of vandalism that resulted in the felling of the “Robin Hood Tree” at Sycamore Gap beside Hadrian’s Wall in Northumberland, England. Believed to have been planted between 1860–1890, the tree achieved international recognition in 1991 when it featured in the Kevin Costner movie Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. It was a favourite subject for photographers and artists. People proposed to their spouses there. Ashes of loved ones were scattered there. It was voted Tree of the Year in 2016 in a public competition run by The Woodland Trust. For a fuller account of the tree’s significance and the effect of its loss, check out this BBC News article. This post isn’t about the Gap sycamore alone, however. It’s something I’ve wanted to write since the unexpected — and unexplained — loss of a tree close to my home in May 2021. It didn’t have the sycamore’s pedigree. It never appeared in a blockbuster movie. But it lived. And it was loved.

I’m very much a city boy and trees didn’t feature much at all as I was growing up in Liverpool. I never climbed trees; never had a tree house in the back garden. Even our Christmas tree was a tinsel affair. The first trees in my life were literary. I remember the pathos I felt reading Hans Christian Andersen’s The Fir-Tree in the family book of fairy tales, as the tree languished in the attic, discarded and alone, until it was taken out and cut up for fire wood.

And the gardener’s boy chopped the Tree into small pieces; there was a whole heap lying there. The wood flamed up splendidly under the large brewing copper, and it sighed so deeply! Each sigh was like a shot.

In my teens, I was introduced to the fantasy writings of JRR Tolkien, in which trees play a mythic role characterised by loss and destruction. The Two Trees of Valinor, Telperion and Laurel, are destroyed by Melkor and Ungoliant. The Ents were created to protect trees from destruction by other creatures and races but are practically doomed to extinction in the process. Not even the Party Tree of the Hobbits was safe, as this passage from The Return of the King describes.

“They’ve cut it down!’ cried Sam. “They’ve cut down the Party Tree!” He pointed to where the tree had stood under which Bilbo had made his Farewell Speech. It was lying lopped and dead in the field ... As if this was the last straw Sam burst into tears.

In a more positive vein, I remember the tree at the conclusion of Tolkien’s short story “Leaf, by Niggle.”

Before him stood the Tree, his Tree, finished. If you could say that of a Tree that was alive, its leaves opening, its branches growing and bending in the wind that Niggle had so often felt or guessed, and had so often failed to catch. He gazed at the Tree, and slowly he lifted his arms and opened them wide.

“It’s a gift!” he said. He was referring to his art, and also to the result; but he was using the word quite literally.

Even the tiny trees on the maps of Middle-earth made an impression on me. I traced the maps from The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, painstakingly inking each line, each mountain, each tree, by hand. Trees featured several times in my poetry, most explicitly in “What happened to the Lovetrees?” written in 1984. The pain of that loss still resonates, after almost forty years.

Without a word we set our backs to oneanother, walked the slopes alone, our fields and hills pastoral: darker vales disdained, pretending not to see the forests moving.

Till one night unseen some secrets in the guise of willows crept into the stream we called our bed, took root, and in the morning we awoke to find between us woods impregnable.

From 1996 to 2005, I ran a Tolkien fan group called Middle-earth Reunion. Amongst the many pieces I wrote for our quarterly journal, two stories evoke the central role of trees in the Professor’s legendarium. Kindling tells the story of an ancient piece of timber and the artisan who discovers its secret.

A sudden spark of light caught his attention. He walked across and knelt in the dirt to examine it more closely. By chance the morning sun had struck upon what seemed to be a shard of silver buried deep in the heart of the wood and exposed only because of the ancient, time-wrought fracturing. What the thing was and how it had got there he could only guess. Heart racing now, he fetched the chain-hoist and canvas sling.

In “And Men Myrtles” dour widower William (Bill) Stokes encounters a group of Tolkien fans in the cemetery at Wolvercote in Oxford. Over the next two years, he immerses himself in the mythos Tolkien created. He grows tiny oak trees from two acorns — one stolen, one gifted to him — and finally comes to understand the nature of his role supporting his wife through her battle with cancer. One tiny oak tree is casually destroyed.

She had waited for him by the standpipe until it was clear he was not going to turn up. As she joined the ranks of the Tolkien Society at the graveside she overheard three thirty-somethings muttering in front of her.

“Doesn’t the plot look nice?”

“I know — the family keep it tidy.”

“Just as well someone does! You wouldn’t believe what some of those so-called fans get up to! Someone actually planted an oak tree a few months back — can you imagine? Only a little one it was, but honestly.”

“What happened?”

“They got rid of it, of course!”

“Some people have no respect ...”

The second tree clings to life on another grave, leaving the reader with the hope it might yet survive.

The rose chose that precise moment to relinquish its last petals. Most drifted across the plot like pink confetti, two or three catching in the branches of a tiny oak tree standing hard against the simple headstone.

So much for fictional trees. What significance have actual trees held for me? In one of my most treasured memories from university days I’m sitting with two friends at Alderley Edge, as night falls across the Cheshire Plain. The experience was almost spiritual in its intensity. It’s captured — and still evoked — by these few lines written at the time.

Beneath the trees
Beneath the stars
Cautiously we found each other
And a place for silence.

Like my fictional anti-hero Bill Stokes, I grew several oak trees from acorns in my garden. Rather than choosing a cemetery as he did, however, I planted them on land owned by one of the friends who’d shared my Alderley Edge experience. I’ve never thought of it as repaying a debt of gratitude to the natural world for that evening, but I can see it as such now.

In 2003 I sponsored the planting of a tree by The Woodland Trust to honour the memory of one of Middle-earth Reunion’s founding members, Reg Arnold. He was a pagan and held the natural world in high regard. I believe he would have approved. Two years later I attended a tree planting ceremony for one of my dearest friends from university days. I’ve not been back, but I can hope the tree still stands, in parkland not far from her home.

Closer to my home, I remember with affection the “Big Toe Tree” in Jesmond Dene, named for an exposed root that resembled a human toe complete with nail. It was felled years ago for reasons I never discovered.

Built around sixteen mature lime trees, the Tree House at Alnwick Garden in Northumberland has been the largest wooden treehouse in the world since the previous record-holder in Tennessee burned to the ground in 2019. The Tree House restaurant is a wonderful venue for birthdays and other special occasions and I’ve enjoyed many meals there in the past decade or so.

During covid lockdown, I took daily walks around my neighbourhood. I noticed, often for the first time, the little things — and sometimes the big things — I’d previously overlooked. These included a fallen tree in a secluded area beside the Ouseburn stream. I’d go there maybe once a week to chill by myself for a little while. My walks also took me along the old waggonway, where the trees turn beautiful colours in the autumn. Nothing to rival the richness of New England in the fall, but beautiful, nonetheless. I remember calls with friends along that path and beneath those trees.

And then there’s the tree no more than a hundred feet from my home. I don’t know how long it stood there or when I first properly noticed it, but in the autumn of 2016 I began taking a photograph of the tree every morning to share with Fran. It soon became a treasured part of my daily routine.

As I walk to the Metro station, I message Fran good morning for when she wakes later, and send a photo of the tree and path just outside our court. This is a new tradition, started a couple of months ago when the leaves on that tree were first turning towards autumn. It’s a nice way of sharing how the weather is here in Newcastle without getting all meteorological.

I didn’t keep every photo but I still have maybe a hundred, taken at all times of day, throughout the year, and in all kinds of weather. I never thought to discover what kind of tree it was while it was alive, but from a few of those photographs LeafSnap suggests it was a Norway Maple. It was cut down one day in May 2021. There was no warning, no explanation. Maybe it was diseased, and was felled to prevent it falling on someone. Maybe it was just in the way. Fran and I felt the loss immensely, and still do. Not knowing why, not understanding the rationale or reason, makes it all the harder. It was chainsawed a few inches above the ground. The stump of it is still there. I walk past it every day.

It’s in that context that I mourn the loss of the Gap sycamore, a tree I never saw and was unlikely ever to have visited. I knew it, though, through photographs and paintings, as a potent symbol of the region, set in silhouette against brooding skies, whirling starscapes, or the fluorescent whorls of the Northern Lights. It’s been described as one of the most photographed trees in the country. And now it’s gone. I’m not going to indulge in guesswork over who might have done it or why. It’s the subject of a criminal investigation, with two people currently released on police bail. There are discussions as to how the tree should be commemorated. Suggestions include using wood from the tree in some creative and meaningful way, planting a new tree in its place, or allowing the stump — which has effectively been coppiced — to regenerate naturally. The last option seems most fitting to me, but whatever decision is reached, and whether we ever learn the culprit and reason, the destructive act cannot be undone. The loss and the hurt remain.

How are we to make sense of such wanton destruction? In researching this piece I came across an interview by Terry Gross with English sculptor, photographer, and environmentalist Andy Goldsworthy. Goldsworthy discusses his creative response to the loss of a beloved oak tree in Scotland, which fell victim to high winds.

You know, if you’ve ever come across a tree that you’ve lived with for many years and then one day it’s blown over, there’s incredible shock and violence about that. And I worked with the tree when it was collapsed, before it was chopped up on the ground. And now I’m just left with this stump — this space — which I want to also understand.

Loss is an inevitable part of life, of course. There’s a difference, emotionally, depending on whether it’s natural or the result of deliberate human action. The former is harder in many ways, because there’s no one to blame. No one to hold accountable. But no matter how it happened, at the heart of it there is the loss itself. In Goldsworthy’s words, we are left with the stump. And the most creative and positive thing we can do with our loss is to understand the space, the gap, that is left behind.

I’m still learning about the gap that was left when the tree close to my home was felled. I’d like to do something with the many photographs I took over the years, but I’ll close here with a few that capture a little of what made it special to me.


All photographs by Martin Baker.


Wednesday 11 October 2023

The Empathy Factor: Exploring Sympathy, Empathy, and Compassion

In this post my aim is to explore how sympathy, empathy, and compassion relate to one another. I began with a quick search through the book Fran and I wrote about our friendship. I was surprised to discover the word sympathy doesn’t appear even once in the book’s 259 pages. Sympathetic occurs three times. Empathy twice. Compassion / compassionate appears thirteen times. It’s clear which feels most relevant to us, but that didn’t help me define or differentiate between them. I looked online next. Two definitions caught my attention. The first is from an article by Sara Schairer.

While these words are close cousins, they are not synonymous with one another. Sympathy means you can understand what the person is feeling. Empathy means that you feel what a person is feeling. Compassion is the willingness to relieve the suffering of another.

The second is from a post by Olivia Guy-Evans.

Simply put, sympathy is feeling for someone, while empathy is feeling with someone.

The idea of feeling for someone finds an echo in a quotation by Audrey Hepburn, although she equated it with empathy rather than sympathy.

Nothing is more important than empathy for another human being’s suffering. Nothing. Not a career, not wealth, not intelligence, certainly not status. We have to feel for one another if we’re going to survive with dignity.

It was then that I remembered the excellent short animated video on sympathy and empathy by Brené Brown. I can’t hope to capture her brevity, wisdom, and humour, so do take a few minutes to watch the video or read the transcript. There’s one part I find particularly relevant.

I always think of empathy as this kind of sacred space when someone is kind of in a deep hole, and they shout out from the bottom and they say, I’m stuck. It’s dark. I’m overwhelmed. And then we look and we say, hey, I’m down. I know what it’s like down here, and you’re not alone. Sympathy is, oh, it’s bad, uh-huh. No. Do you want a sandwich?

I love this description of empathy because it’s how Fran has spoken about our friendship.

[Marty] did not reach down a hand to pull me up from my dark hole. He came down and sat with me while I began rethreading, bit by bit, what could be mended. He let me baby step on his feet until I could dance on my own. To him it wasn’t about getting me to climb out. It was about being with me in all of it.

It’s tempting to think of sympathy as just a less intense form of empathy, but to me they’re fundamentally different. Rather than relating as equals, sympathy expresses sorrow or pity from a position of safety and disengagement. We might offer help or advice, but it’s likely to be on our terms and — like the sandwich in Brené Brown’s video — not necessarily what’s needed. Any sentence that begins with the words “Well, at least...” is an expression of sympathy. Brené Brown has some excruciating examples in her video, but it’s not hard to think of others. It’s something I catch myself doing, even though I know how insensitive and distancing it can be. If you find you’re about to respond to someone with an “at least” — stop and reframe what you were about to say.

In some ways, the difference between sympathy and empathy echoes the difference between worrying about someone and caring about them. Sympathy and worry are fear-based, disconnecting, and rarely helpful. Caring and empathy foster engagement and focus on the needs of the person sharing with us. In Brené Brown’s words, “Empathy fuels connection. Sympathy drives disconnection.” I found a great discussion of these concepts in a post by Jessica Schubert. It includes the following summary, attributed to Susan Davis.

I’m sorry you are suffering

I can imagine what this feels like

You are suffering and I will do everything I can to alleviate it
Connected and action oriented.

Keen to learn what these words mean to others, I posted a request on social media.Here are the responses, with minor edits for clarity.

To me, sympathy is when someone is hurting, like a loss of a dear one, and you feel for them. Empathy is when the hurt goes deeper and you actually feel it, too. That is when I am likely to say something along the lines of “I am so sorry. I wish I had the right words to comfort you, and I know I don’t, but I hurt with you and I’m here for you any way I can help.” Compassion is trying to understand the other’s viewpoint, why they act as they do, things like that. If you have compassion, I don’t think you can have judgement.
— Beth

I’d tend to agree with Beth, although I think to be truly empathetic I think it’s necessary for you to have been through something similar so that you know the pain the other person is going through. Compassion, I think means taking it to the next stage, actively wanting to do something to help someone you have sympathy “for” or empathy “with”.
— David

For me, empathy is when I can identify to feelings and unmet needs you have. Compassion is when I feel for you. Sympathy is when I feel pity for you. I do not enjoy pity.
— Cynthia

Sympathy is when you feel sorry about something that has happened to someone. Empathy is when it has happened to you too. Compassion is when you understand what a person does because they’re suffering.
— Janet

I’ve just got back from a North East Humanist talk about empathy. The speaker was a Durham University researcher and placed empathy within a teamwork idea, both how it evolved in primates and as it is expressed in humans. That made sense to me. Sympathy and compassion would be part of that empathy sense us humans have. She said that my problem solving because I care behaviour is empathy all the way.
— Paul

I don’t know, but I always thought it’s because of the bipolar disorder that I can feel when others are hurting and it causes me to hurt deeply. Because of our intense feelings, emotions and such. I think they are important for being humane. I believe sympathy, empathy, and compassion are different from each other, but connected maybe.
— Chris

Sympathy is feeling for that person’s unfortunate situation and expressing your concern to them. Empathy is putting yourself in the other person’s shoes. Compassion is having the grace to put others before yourself.
— Lisa

Empathy is when you can put yourself in the person’s shoes and you can relate and feel what the other person is going through. You express genuine care and love towards this person by what you say, and how you say things is important.
— Carol

The final contribution was from mental health blogger Aimee Wilson.

Since experiencing a trauma when I was younger and then having my mental health deteriorate so drastically, my eyes have really been opened to the importance of empathy, compassion, and sympathy.

Firstly – empathy – I’ve learnt that no one can completely, 100% understand someone else’s experience, no matter how similar what two people have been through might be. This was a hard realisation because it made it incredibly difficult to fight the notion that I was completely alone in the world. Through my mental health recovery, I’ve grown to appreciate that this also means no one has had to experience all the hardship you’ve gone through. For me, that brought enormous feelings of relief. Recognising no one will understand what I’ve experienced also means that some people (including professionals who should arguably “know better”) can still get things wrong. They can say or do the wrong thing. That might not happen if they were able to 100% appreciate my trauma and mental illness and symptoms.

Secondly – sympathy – in finally telling people about the trauma, some of the most frequent responses were completely centred around sympathy. I immediately recognised that this was a totally understandable response because it should (because it isn’t for everyone) really be human nature that if someone is upset and has experienced something horrible, you feel sorry for them. It’s the “nice” thing to do a lot of the time and is almost always considered to have no bad intentions behind it. I kept this in mind when I often felt someone’s sympathy was condescending or patronising. It’s helped me to avoid finding my relationships with others decline.

Finally – compassion – this is one of my favourite qualities for a person to have! I feel that it takes a lot of experience and a very genuinely thoughtful person to have the ability to show compassion, recognising that you can’t completely empathise with someone and will never fully understand what they have gone through, but wanting to reassure, support, help, and comfort them regardless.

I’m grateful to everyone who contributed. There’s consensus on many points, but some interesting differences too. Beth mentions sympathy in the context of loss. It’s probably obvious, but I’d not thought of it that way. We send sympathy cards (not empathy cards or compassion cards) to people who have been bereaved. In doing so, we acknowledge their loss without necessarily feeling it ourselves. I also agree with Beth’s statement “If you have compassion, I don’t think you can have judgement.”

I think judgement is the main thing that separates sympathy from both empathy and compassion. Consciously or not, with sympathy we are relating to the other person as different to or separate from us. Cynthia picks up on this when she equates sympathy with pity. We don’t feel pity for equals. Aimee agrees that sympathy rarely comes across as helpful. (“I often felt someone’s sympathy was condescending or patronising.”) She’s able to set this aside, however, reminding herself that there are rarely any bad intentions. Sympathy is the “nice” or socially conditioned response to someone’s pain or distress.

David and Janet suggest empathy is grounded in shared experience. This idea is echoed by others, including Lisa and Carol who express it as putting yourself in the other person’s shoes. I struggle with this (whilst not necessarily disagreeing) because I have little experience that compares with what Fran and many of my other friends have lived through. I used to feel it left me poorly equipped to offer help or support. It’s something I’m still working on. I’m reassured by Aimee’s take on empathy, which is that no one can fully understand what someone’s going though, no matter how similar their experiences might be. This could be seen as a get-out clause for someone like me; an excuse for messing up from time to time. On the contrary, I believe it calls us to focus on what we do have in common. I might never have experienced exactly what you’re going through, but I have been vulnerable, lost, and afraid. I can meet you in that place.

Most contributors expressed compassion in terms of understanding the other person at a deeply human level and wanting to help in ways that are meaningful to them. I’m reminded of a maxim of Fran’s that I find helpful:

Give people what they need. Not what you need to give them.

A sense of shared humanity is also important. Fran and I have a no pedestals rule that reminds us we serve ourselves and each other best when we relate as equals. The idea is expressed beautifully in a quotation by Brené Brown from her book Rising Strong.

Compassion is not a relationship between the healer and the wounded. It’s a relationship between equals. Only when we know our own darkness well can we be present with the darkness of others. Compassion becomes real when we recognize our shared humanity.

In this post I’ve explored my understanding of sympathy, empathy, and compassion. I’ve also shared what these mean to a number of people who responded to my invitation on social media. What are your experiences of sympathy, empathy, and compassion? How they relate to one another? Which do you like to receive, or feel most at ease offering to others? Fran and I would love to hear from you, either in the comments below or via our contact page.


Photo by Kenny Eliason at Unsplash.


Wednesday 4 October 2023

Mental Health Is a Universal Human Right

Organised by the World Foundation for Mental Health and observed each year on October 10, World Mental Health Day (WMHD) is an opportunity to raise awareness of mental health issues and mobilize in support of mental health. Fran and I have shared numerous pieces in the past to mark WMHD and other mental health awareness days and events. Last year’s post for WMHD focused on the power of the spoken word. This year’s theme — mental health is a universal human right — covers a lot of ground. I can’t hope to go into everything in detail in a single blog post. Instead, let’s explore some of the different aspects and see where that takes us.

Mental Health Is for Everyone

The first thing to assert is the right of everyone to the best mental health possible. This includes appropriate and accurate information, support, and treatment for all who need it, when and where they need it. “Mental health for all” sounds fine, but what does that actually mean? Some mental health conditions present in and affect certain groups of people differently. The situations in which we find ourselves also affect our health and wellbeing to different degrees. Poverty, homelessness, social exclusion, exposure to violence or trauma, addiction, and other health conditions can lead to or exacerbate mental health conditions and limit access to help. But no matter who we are, where we live, or what our life looks like, we all have the right to feel good about who we are, including our mental health. It’s as fundamental a right as clean air and water, safe housing, being able to express ourselves without fear, or choosing how to live our lives. Stigma and discrimination relating to people’s mental health is as abhorrent as any other form of discrimination and needs to be called out and challenged every bit as strenuously.

How Can I Help?

Thinking about this on a global scale can be a bit overwhelming but it’s important to keep the big picture in mind. No matter how good or bad support for mental health might be where we live, there are places and societies where it’s still very much a taboo subject. When we assert that mental health is a universal human right, we’re challenging that stigma and demonstrating it’s okay to talk about these topics. Wherever we do so, whether it’s close to home in our families, workplaces, and communities, or on the wider stage, we’re helping breach outdated cultural and societal barriers. At whatever scale we operate we are advocating for change. There are many ways to make a difference. Here are a few to get you started.

1. Share the Message

Start close to home by sharing the basic message that it’s okay to talk about mental health with your friends and followers on social media. Search for the tags #WorldMentalHealthDay and #MentalHealthIsAHumanRight and share any posts you find especially relevant to you. Share this blog post and other resources you find helpful. Remember that this isn’t just about one day in the year. Mental health affects people — including people you know and care about — every day of every year. Check out our list of articles for various mental health awareness days and events for information and ideas on how you can get involved.

2. Learn More

Commit to learning more about mental health. The more you know, the better you can support yourself and other people. Read our article on educating yourself about your friend's mental health condition and our resources page. I took the internationally recognised Mental Health First Aid course several years ago which is something I’d recommend if you’re interested in learning more.

3. Support Mental Health Organisations

Consider donating, fundraising, or volunteering for organisations that foster mental health awareness and support those in need. Fran and I have taken part in the annual NAMI Maine fundraising walk, with Fran doing the walk in person and me doing the equivalent walk over here in the UK. Closer to home, I’ve taken part in sponsored walks for the Alzheimer’s Society, zip-lined from the Tyne Bridge in support of homelessness charity Crisis, and volunteered with UK anti-stigma campaign Time to Change.

4. Talk About It

Being open to talking about mental health with the people around you is perhaps the most impactful thing you can do. Talking about mental health as naturally as we might talk about our physical health or any other aspect of our lives lets people know we’re there for them no matter what they might be going through. Talking won’t fix deep-seated mental health issues and isn’t a substitute for professional services and treatment, but as I know from my experience with Fran and other friends it can be profoundly helpful and protective.

5. Advocate for Change

As well as educating yourself about mental health conditions, take time to explore the quality and availability of mental health services where you live. Engage with local and national debates and consider lobbying your political representatives to support policies to make mental health services more accessible and affordable in your community.

The Role of Technology

There’s a wealth of material online that can help us promote greater mental health awareness, and support ourselves and others. Websites for official organisations, charities, and health providers; wellbeing apps; and social media platforms help us connect with one another and find the information and support we need. Online peer communities provide safe spaces where we can share our experiences and talk with people who understand what we’re going through because they’ve lived with similar challenges. Health practitioner apps and websites can make it easier to book medical appointments, order prescriptions, and access test results. Video conference platforms such as Skype, Zoom, and Teams let us attend appointments without the cost and difficulty of traveling there in person. Crisis and support lines offer a wide range of services using technologies including phone calls, e-mail, and text (SMS) messaging.

Technology can be very effective in promoting mental health and wellbeing but it would be wrong to ignore the limitations and dangers. It’s easy to assume everyone has easy, reliable, and affordable access to the Internet, and the technology, knowledge, and skills to find the information and resources they need. That’s far from the case, especially in a global context. According to UK charity the Good Things Foundation, almost three billion people are digitally excluded worldwide, with ten million people in the UK lacking the basic skills needed for the modern digital world. Digital exclusion “can have a huge negative impact on a person’s life, leading to poorer health outcomes and a lower life expectancy, increased loneliness and social isolation, less access to jobs and education.” It can lead to social and cultural exclusion, and makes it hard to engage with healthcare, financial, and benefit systems as society moves increasingly online. All these outcomes can affect our health and wellbeing, whilst at the same time limiting our access to the information, treatment, and support we need.

Access isn’t the only issue. Not everything online is conducive to good mental health. Misinformation and unhealthy — even dangerous — information, influences, and practices abound online. The dangers are real and should neither be denied nor ignored. That said, they mustn’t be allowed to outweigh the very real positive impact that online connection can bring to us as individuals and to society as a whole.

In October 2016, I was a panellist in Maine Behavioral Healthcare’s annual It Takes a Community forum discussing social media and mental health. Fittingly, I attended virtually from the UK, appearing on a big screen alongside the other panellists who were there in person. As I described in a post for WMHD that year, we discussed people’s use of social media to share their lived experience, to help others living with similar conditions, or to participate in the wider movement challenging mental health stigma and discrimination. Given that my best friend Fran and I met online twelve years ago, live three thousand miles apart, conduct our mutually supportive friendship almost exclusively online, and have written a book about supporting friends living with mental illness no matter where they live, it’s a topic close to my heart.

Connection Is Everything

Whether online or not, at a distance or local, with strangers or with friends and family, the key to good mental health is connection. Indeed, we can reframe the right to mental health as the right to open and healthy connection. I expressed something of this in my closing remarks to the ITAC forum.

It isn’t just about sharing the stories of those who have mental illness or are living with that themselves. It’s about the families, the friends, all the rest of us sharing our stories of what that means to us and those who are dealing with this stuff. Because in terms of countering stigma it’s not the responsibility of those living with mental illness to convert the rest of us. We are all in this together. It takes a community. We’ve all got to step up to this.

Like tossing a pebble into a stream, opening yourself to talking about mental health has a ripple effect on your life and the lives of those around you. It’s helped me pay closer attention to my own mental health, built stronger and more meaningful relationships, and given me a focus and purpose I’ve never had before. I’ve learned skills and strategies that have led to me being more patient, understanding, and compassionate with myself and others. It’s also helped me focus on how best to use my skills and experience, at work and in my personal life. More generally, it’s helped me feel part of a wider community of people and organisations working to support those who are struggling and counter the isolation that mental health challenges can bring.

This World Mental Health Day, commit to making a ongoing, every day of the year difference. Do whatever you can to challenge stigma and discrimination in all its forms, and foster a fairer, more compassionate environment in which we can all realise our right to mental health.


Photo by Louis Hansel at Unsplash.