Geek Mental Health: Therapy & the Art of Learning No

“You treat a disease, you win, you lose. You treat a person, I guarantee you, you’ll win, no matter what the outcome.”

 - Robin Williams

Where to begin a story with such a heavy title is always a little daunting. I thought for a long time about publishing this in a more private space, but I feel it's necessary to do it here, where people can read and identify with my struggle and their struggles as well.

I can't say that I've been successful over the years dealing with emotional issues and relationships with coworkers. They have been some of the hardest relationships to deal with all throughout my professional career. A lot of this has to do with upbringing, schooling, and my own personal baggage about what I perceived about myself and what I perceived the other person thought about me.

Life has not been easy. I don't say that to garner sympathy. I say it simply to set my perspective. I know, rationally, others have suffered much more than I have. I know rationally that I can acknowledge that suffering, and my own and find that really, it was not the most tragic or horrific of what the world has available for experiences. But, this experience is my own, I finally understand more about how I got to this point than I ever did at any other age of my life.


There are at least two types of codependent people. The first in the constant victim state. It's the state someone lives in where everything happens to them whether it actually happened to them or not. It's a state of need that never gets filled, always feels empty and can't seem garner enough love and attention to feel valued. 

The second type is the fixer, the white knight, the people pleaser, or simply the "yes" person. I am the second type, the more passive, the less willing to say no, the gal that does it all, the one that will volunteer first no matter what is going on in my personal life. I have to fix things, rescue the fallen, swoop in and save the day. It is what I've always done best.

It's built up from a lifetime of learning a reward/response system, where in my head, cutting off my own arm is rewarding and I shouldn't complain about it, I should just do it, regardless of the damage to myself. My brain literally gets off on this kind of reward, a kind of self-harm, where my own physical and mental needs are second to someone, or to anyone else and what they need.

This can be reinforced in so many different ways, from the jobs you take, to the friendships which are formed, and even the intimate relationships you involve yourself in. These all feed into the reinforced notion that to give everything is what makes us the best, most perfect self we have. In giving we prove to everyone that we are worthy of that relationship, or job, or paycheck. Our worth is not focused on ourselves but only how much of ourselves we sacrifice for the cause, whatever that cause may be.

Mental Health & The Tech Industry

There are a lot of jobs were your mental health comes second to the job on a daily basis. Doctors, lawyers, nurses, teachers all have to deal with this in several ways. I'd like to add a large number of tech workers to this as well. The IT industry used to allow for a set pace and measured out progress. Once the computer game industry sped delivery up to a breaking point, the industry started to look for ways to develop at a much faster pace. 

This now leaves us with terms like Continuous Development and Continuous Delivery.  It's promising to a hungry tech world that there will be a constant 24/7 stream of new, shiny code just waiting for us to use, misuse, hack and then drop for the next release of bigger and better things. 

While many companies are taking a decent amount of time to get their products to market, they still release  with a lot of patches, a lot of updates which usually happen immediately after the initial download of the product. The market is flooded with mobile games which can be downloaded, played and uninstalled in a matter of minutes. 

{ If you doubt the affects the gaming industry had, watch the documentary called Atari: Game Over. The developer of the E.T. game, Howard Scott Warshaw wrote the game code in less that six weeks. The game was blamed for Atari's eventual demise. Not long after, the industry blamed Atari's downfall on E.T. and Warshaw. Warshaw later became a licensed therapist and now councils many who work in the tech industry.}

It's awesome in a lot of ways, but the downside is the cost to some of the people involved who are brilliant but become burnt out way too quickly and leave IT for other industries less demanding of their time and allow for a more creative pace. If you don't leave, there are other harbingers waiting for you, especially in the mental health department

The industry has made strides in trying to balance the work load and life, but in some corners, there is still a lot further to go. Depression and substance abuse are not the only mental health animals we should be worried about in the IT industry. The industry should also be worried about the more subtle problems, sometimes easier to hide problems many of us have like anxiety, OCD, autism, ADHD, ADD, social awkwardness, social dysfunction, eating disorders and even codependency. Many of us with these traits have figured out coping mechanisms do deal with the worse episodes. Sometimes they involve owning too many pets, other times they can involve more self destructive habits.

For me, learning skills of how to say no and protecting myself from pushing past a breaking point were not easy things. I still don't like saying no to people. I don't often think of myself first. What has been a good crutch for me are my dogs. I find it easier to tell people I can't do something because I have another responsibility. They keep the "yes" me in check at times. I can also compromise better because of them. I can say things like "I can do that, but I will need time to make sure my dogs are OK, is that OK?" Often, that small amount of time to check on them gives me the space I need to recharge, keep worries at away and do an effective job.

What my dogs can't help with is the "yes" part that pops out during meetings and in conversations where I constantly have to try to solve the problem at hand, even if I'm not the best person to do that. I blurt out the first thing in my mouth or my head. I have an extremely hard time stepping back from that instinct. I have to constantly monitor myself to make sure I'm not stepping on someone else's voice, or that I'm not just talking to talk. I empathize too much. I listen too well. I hear the pain in someone's voice and my first instinct is to offer help instead of helping them help themselves.

 It's the constant need to want to please and help people which made me a great customer service person and makes me really good tester, but sometimes it's annoying to teammates and other folks in meetings. I've learned to wait, repeat what I'm going to say in my head and if it doesn't make sense or the moment's past, then I let it go. Or I can ask for a redirect in the conversation to get back to that point if what I think is really important and I want to talk about it.

The other side of that "yes" trait is the ability to speak up and speak out. I don't stay quiet, I call out issues when I see them. I make it known when I'm not happy and when others aren't happy. I track down problems. I try to track down others who can help with those problems and work with people to get to the root and figure it out. It lets me be a very effective problem solver and someone that likes to get things done. Those are all very positive traits from codependency. I try very hard to keep those while mitigating others that are more troublesome.

The Challenge Is Ongoing

When you live with any issue, whether it's physical or mental, and you finally get fed up with what it does to you on a daily basis, you seek out help. For me, it was somatic therapy which helped to put me in a better mental balance. It helped me understand why I say "yes" to so many things and how my "no" was broken by circumstances mostly out of my control.

It taught me to recognize my emotions instead of bottling them up in a dark, safe place until the space was too full to manage and something broke. The emotion didn't matter. It could have been anything. 

It has taken several years and a lot of work to figure out what exactly I needed to understand about myself and what I need to work on which would allow me a better balance in my relationships with myself, with my work, coworkers, friends, and family.

There are moments of excitement I still blurt out things without organizing my thoughts, where I say "yes" in the moment rather than thinking my answer through. I've  gotten a lot better at catching myself when I do this. It all takes practice to re-frame your wants and needs to be center and in focus rather than keeping them barely in the picture. I still struggle with feeling selfish for the smallest things which most people don't have qualms over in the least. Hopefully I will get to the point that it doesn't seem weird to me to say "no". With any challenge, as most people know with mental health issues of any kind, you take them one day at a time.

The Tech Industry Takes Notice

If you weren't aware of it, starting on October 3rd, there was a whole week for mental health in the IT industry called Geek Mental Health Week. There are a bunch of great articles, hashtags, and events during the week to highlight mental health in the tech industry. It's the third annual Geek Mental Health Week held for the industry.

I recommend checking out the articles at Geek Mental Health, and even checking out the community and podcasts at Geek Therapy. Also check out Open Source Mental Illness online or on twitter @OSMIhelp. These are great organizations that work in the tech community to bring awareness to the struggles the industry has with mental health issues.

If you are struggling with thoughts of suicide please contact your national hotline:

                                       International List of Suicide Hotlines


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