Why We Shouldn’t Judge ‘Unfriendly’ People We Meet

Instead of judging, I’ve started to rid myself of an ableism I didn’t realize I was exhibiting.

Sometimes I don’t want to talk. This may seem weird to people who think they know me, as I’m rather prone to long stories and enthusiastically engaging in social situations. But while I might typically want to want to talk, I don’t always have the will power to override the messages my brain is sending the rest of my body.

Major depressive episodes are never convenient. My most recent one, however, couldn’t have picked a worse time: while launching a company and traveling to a conference to present about it. I didn’t even want to get on the plane, let alone run into people in the lobby or go to networking parties. And this is a convention a couple dozen of my favorite people — including my best friend — were sure to be milling around most of the time. The thought of having to speak to anyone had me vacillating between the edge of a panic attack and flat on my back under the covers.

The experience was acutely painful and difficult — but also proved to be revelatory. In my own history with meeting new people, I’ve often read others as unfriendly or closed off, interpreting their behavior as a sign of some fundamental character deficit. But now I realize that, perhaps, they simply didn’t want to engage with someone new, or with anyone at all. Maybe they were outside their comfort zones. Maybe they were battling chronic shyness. Or maybe they, like me, were grappling with depression or some other mental illness.

I don’t always have the will power to override the messages my brain is sending the rest of my body.

Taking these considerations into account will now be part of how I interpret the behavior of those around me. Instead of judging, I will rid myself of an ableism I didn’t realize I was exhibiting, and show courtesy and compassion to those I meet — especially if they seem like they’d rather be anywhere else.

Whether or not I believe the personality tests that all put me just barely in the extrovert camp (usually around 52–48% “E” vs “I”), they have nailed me: I definitely need alone time to recharge and I am definitely social when I do manage to leave the house. At times, the simultaneous desire to both stay put in my room and go be amongst people is a bit disorienting.

During depressive episodes, the part of me that wants to leave the house — or even engage with people on the phone or through my computer — recedes completely. It would be more of a problem if I worked in an office, but even working from home, it’s a hindrance for conducting interviews and engaging with the news cycle in a way that creates opportunities for published writing.

So instead, I often force myself to get to work, igniting my anxiety. I would love to be kinder to myself and take the sick days I advocate for on behalf of those of us with chronic illnesses, but my tenuous economic situation doesn’t typically allow for even necessary time off. And blowing off a conference was out of the question. “Besides,” I thought, “I’ve always rallied in these situations! I’ll be fine once I get there.”

On my way to the conference, I faked my way through airports and planes and cabs, and once I arrived, I even managed to be coherent checking in at the front desk of the hotel. But once I got upstairs, it hit me full force: I wasn’t going to be able to go to everything on my schedule and be in one piece. My brain immediately began strategizing how to get food without running into any people. If I went right away, would I need to go out again? Is there somewhere nearby that won’t be busy that I can run into quickly and slink back to my room, “Do Not Disturb” sign already affixed to my door knob?

I failed miserably, running into a friend in the lobby. As I sat down I wondered, “How long can I fake it?” With all the people arriving and saying hello, but not having time to really talk, I managed to pass convincingly for over an hour before running away with apologies about a looming deadline. I was relieved as I locked the door and stood there shaking my head. It had never been this bad before. I needed a strategy for the next four days.

If I could have walked around with a few of my diagnoses displayed in handy clothes from Wear Your Label, maybe I would have been less nervous about interacting with people. This was a progressive conference, after all. Even if attendees were carrying the typical ableist biases about mental illness, they would know not to make overtly shitty comments, for appearances if nothing else. Simply disclosing to people that I was having a rough week shouldn’t be hard, right?

As I sat down I wondered, ‘How long can I fake it?’

But the truth is, your professionalism is never safe from being questioned by colleagues when they find out you’re mentally ill. Most of us hide our diagnoses, leaving us without resources or compassion when we need it because it isn’t worth the risk of being seen as less capable or competent. In a public platform, mental illness is the sort of thing people will condescendingly congratulate you for dealing with. But in the professional realm, while people may be willing to overlook your mental illness to recommend your work to someone else, they’ll either consciously or subconsciously note that they wouldn’t hire you personally.

I decided I would only mention my condition to a couple of close friends who I knew would notice anyway. This meant I’d need to suck it up and pass as “normal” or avoid panels and gatherings with some excuse about work — an excuse that wasn’t completely untrue. The only reason I was supposed to be working was because depression fog was making it hard to put sentences together and everything was taking longer than usual.

The depressive episode also seemed to be kicking my new-ish PTSD nightmares into high gear. One night while I was at the conference, I literally went to hell in my dreams. And not Dante’s circles where you get what you mostly deserve; I mean, “hell” — like the kind in Constantine with the fire and torment on all sides. Several mornings, it took four hours or more to shake the emotional hangover that comes with stressful and/or terrifying dreams.

In the times I knew intellectually that I wanted to go to something or see someone even though I more than didn’t feel like it, I employed an occasionally successful strategy of drawing on my emotional memory when I know my depression and/or anxiety brain is lying to me. It’s basically my spin on visualization, and it works at times because I trust my memory; I believe that I know what I feel/felt and can evaluate which feelings are reliable. In this case, it pretty much worked. I drew on my memory of loving the Thursday night Planned Parenthood sponsored karaoke night — managing to be one of the first up on stage as usual. I also reminded myself how fun the This Week in Blackness cocktail party is, picturing last year’s conversations over bourbon with some amazing people. I even competently handled my presentation despite a lot of nerves.

But pulling it all off was exhausting. I was crashing for 10 or more hours a night and relying on a combination of caffeine, medical marijuana, and alcohol to temper my moods and shrink the knot in my chest as much as possible. At times, it felt like I was outside of my own body, watching my interactions with other people, wondering if I came off as distance or uninterested — or worse, uninteresting. As I overanalyzed my micro expressions and tone of voice, I had a flash to a time (okay, several times) that I interpreted other people’s reactions as cold and wondered: How many of them needed my compassion instead of my judgment?

Granted, much of my tendency to read people as dismissive or snobby stems from my own issues of feeling like an outsider; experiences growing up and through my twenties taught me to start from a place of assuming I wasn’t welcome. Now that — anxiety aside — I’m comfortable in my own skin, it’s easier to assume what’s going on with someone else is about them instead of me. I simply hadn’t been through quite the right situation to have this revelation.

My newfound approach is about more than just giving other people latitude for having bad days or remembering that not everything is about you. While those things are true and helpful to remember, needing people to be considerate during a mental illness rough spell made me see the inherent ableism in the way I’d judged others. Not every action denotes a personality trait, and not every personality trait should or can be changed.

My past judgments have almost all been in group settings — which I used to see as a supportive, easier place to engage with new people, but which I now definitely understand isn’t true for everyone. It’s not even always true for me anymore, now that my depressive episodes are more pronounced.

The one condition I know for sure I have misread because I’m now good friends with the person is social anxiety. I thought she was cold or only associated with people in our overlapping circle of colleagues and acquaintances with the proper pedigree — a serious problem in movement work, advocacy, and media. I don’t have the right degrees (not gender studies, etc.); I didn’t go to the right school (a good, but not well-known liberal arts college near Chicago); I’m not from the right place (small town Indiana) and therefore I don’t have the right connections. I had extrapolated a very real problem and added in a healthy dose of my lifetime imposter syndrome insecurity, which led me to assume I didn’t like this person.

Needing people to be considerate during a mental illness rough spell made me see the inherent ableism in the way I’d judged others.

But when we were both invited to a small work group with a great moderator who made sure everyone’s voices were heard, she asked for consideration for the room’s introverts. I immediately began reassessing my perceptions. As we built some trust over the day together and connected a few times in subsequent months for work-related things, I discovered I really liked her personality. Over time and after seeing me tweet about my own anxiety, she reached out when she needed someone and confided that she has social anxiety. Now, my mischaracterization of her seems jerkish and short-sighted, even though I know I didn’t do it on purpose and never disparaged her to anyone.

My experience a few weeks ago built on my newfound understanding of that good friend and allowed me to realize I may have done something similar with folks who are on the autism spectrum, have other anxiety disorders, have bipolar disorder, deal with varying types and levels of depression, are simply introverted, or are just having one or two — or several! — bad days. Not taking things personally is more than just shrugging off perceived shitty behavior; it’s about giving people slack in a way that’s truly caring and considerate of fellow human beings.

Pausing to ask people how’re they’re doing — really doing — and commenting on the size of the group or location can provide a glimpse into how comfortable they are. Making a self-aware observation about the room or event indicates you’re a safe space to some degree; I’ve had people let me in just enough that they visibly relax.

While this doesn’t go for dudes who get in my space without my permission (the guy I dressed down in the hotel bar the night I got to the conference will get zero apologies from me), giving people the conscious benefit of the doubt now goes for anyone who isn’t setting off my self-preservation instincts. I would rather be the person who makes space for folks with bad days, chronic illnesses, disabilities, etc. when it wasn’t specifically warranted, than be an ableist asshole.