The older I get, the more I have been starting to realize and accept that nothing is really predictable. As people, we are constantly looking at and assessing patterns in the world and then applying them to situations in order to try and expect what will happen in the future. This is often unconscious, but constantly occurring. But we’ve all had those mind-blowing moments when we are so sure that something is going to happen a certain way, and then it doesn’t. But what never ceases to astound me is how unpredictable people are. There are a lot of things in this world that can’t necessarily be controlled or understood, and that’s a given. But between human beings, how can we really be that different? I have my own set of emotions that make sense to me in a certain way. Some things make me unhappy or anxious or scared. So shouldn’t I be able to understand and predict the people around me? Don’t I have enough insight, being a person myself?
Ok, ok… obviously we are all very different, and everyone reacts differently to certain situations. That’s something that we learn as soon as we start interacting with other people. But it’s not so much the vast array of different emotional responses among people that interests me—I’m more interested in those times when you already think you know someone and then they genuinely surprise you. This can happen in a good or bad way, depending on the situation. I’ve seen friendships fall apart over the idea of, “You’re not who I thought you were.” I’ve seen people get crushed when a close friend can’t offer the support that he or she is expected to. But this kind of “I had no idea who you were” surprise can also happen in the most amazing ways.
I have made it pretty obvious that mental health and mental illness are held very near and dearly to my heart. But I realized a couple of years ago that I had surrounded myself with so many people who struggled from mental illness that it became the norm for me. I began to expect everyone to have some deep dark secret lurking in their past. I sometimes felt like everybody had a big traumatic event that explained all of their behaviors. And then it got to the point where I was almost disappointed when someone actually, genuinely seemed to have a really nice life without a hitch along the way so far. It seemed unreal and unfair. But I very quickly realized that it was not healthy for me to keep subconsciously wishing that everybody understood “the dark side” of mentality. So I put some effort into going back to my old ways of thinking: expect that nothing has gone terribly wrong in anyone’s life until you have a reason to believe otherwise! Sounds kind of silly, I know, but it actually worked. I just enjoyed the company of all sorts of people and didn’t focus too much on whether they had ever been depressed or suffered from any other manifestation of mental illness. But I still kept an eye out for symptoms, in case I could help anybody.
And so time went on and sometimes it would turn out that my friends were struggling, and I would pick up on it and try to help them through the tough times. But after everything, I guess I developed a sort of ego when it comes to detecting mental illness, because I really thought I could read people and gauge their mentality very quickly. And yet, no matter how many times I make a misjudgment, it always happens again. Except now, instead of assuming that everyone has deeper problems than they actually might, I find that I keep being surprised by my “normal” friends who (seemingly out of the blue) confide in me about some really difficult issues in their lives.
There’s a girl at school who I have known since my freshman year (I am now a senior). I always thought she was one of my friends who “just doesn’t get it.” I never felt that I could go to her with any of my problems when I was struggling with depression freshman year, because she would always become very condescending and offensive when I tried. She had a sort of “get over it” mentality, which rarely goes over well with depressed people. At the time, being around her made me feel like I was stupid for struggling with my mental health. I never would have guessed that she could relate. But then a few months ago, there was a traumatic event that she and I both had to deal with, and we ended up talking a lot. I had maintained a friendship with her over the years, but just accepted the fact that she was not the person I should run to if I need help. But I still always cared about her and thought I knew her pretty well.
Anyway, she and I went for a walk. We just ended up pacing back and forth through a parking lot for hours, because there was really nowhere else for us to go outside of her apartment. It was chilly out, and we were shivering after about 20 minutes, but we couldn’t pull ourselves out of conversation. She told me all about how difficult things had been for her in the past few years, and then more recent months specifically. She confessed to having suicidal feelings, and I could hardly believe it. I just walked by her side, dumbstruck under the clouds and stars. How had I never seen it? I never once, even for a second, would have guessed. And I knew that I had changed from who I was a few years ago, because I didn’t get excited when she told me. I didn’t think, “Yay, we can relate; she understands me!” I just felt really disappointed. If she, of all people, could be affected so heavily by depression and the weights that press down on our mental health, who couldn’t? Is everybody secretly depressed?
Those feelings eventually faded and I went back to realizing that some people do have mental illness and some don’t. But that night in the parking lot was still an important experience to me. You really never know who is going through what. I’m realizing that I really need to stop making assumptions and then holding onto them so tightly. Recently, I met someone who I instantly dismissed as someone I couldn’t be close to, thinking he was just a “regular unmotivated college kid who doesn’t take school seriously,” or something to that effect. But over the past few months I’ve learned a lot about this person and I know that I was wrong. I’m embarrassed by how convinced I was that there was nothing going on below the surface.
I’ve needed to accept some things. Most people are not extremes. And just because somebody does not have an abnormally horrifying experience does not mean they don’t struggle. And having a mental illness or not having one does not make you any more or less awesome or justified or legitimate or lovable. And you never know who is or is not suffering from certain things, so don’t assume that your initial assumptions are correct. Now, I no longer think “Everyone has a dark past,” and I don’t think “Everyone has a good life, until proven otherwise.” I just try and NOT think. What does it matter who has dealt with what? It can be great to relate to friends, and it can also be great to have friends who have never experienced anything like what you have. Friendships should be based on how the person makes you feel when you’re together, and how much positive stability they can supply, based on what you need. Love and mentality don’t have to be intertwined. But more importantly, I just keep in the back of my mind, “Anybody can surprise you. They can and they will.”
This is an important message to consider if you see yourself as a leader or future leader. You cannot always accurately guess at what someone is going through or how they will handle a particular situation. People will surprise you. And you have to be prepared to not only deal with possible changes in your perceptions, but to also be supportive of people who may need you. Don’t let things fall apart if you realize you were wrong about somebody. Just take in what you know and do the best you can. Sometimes people will disappoint you unexpectedly, but more often than not I find that people are so much more wonderful, and have so much more love in their thoughts and in their hearts than I ever imagined. You may never know how much someone really cares about a cause or about another person. So, when working with others, always be prepared to reassess. Always be prepared to be surprised. Life is exciting and it can be so great if you decide to embrace the unpredictability that comes with it, instead of letting it scare you.
LeadHer™ Intern, Campus Calm™
Learn more about Allie here.