Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Lying Brain and The Limits of Empathy

I don't really mind getting older, but I have to admit, I am hating perimenopause.

Ever since puberty, I've known women whose monthly cycles have a profound effect on their moods and mental states, but I've never considered myself one of them. Until now. I'm not sure why this has changed for me, but perimenopause seems like a plausible thing to blame, so I'm blaming it.

Sure, I got a little irritable for a day or two, but honestly, the strongest mental effect of my cycle was a powerful craving for cookies for a few days. (I still get that, by the way. I always love cookies, but for a few days each month I basically transform into Cookie Monster.)

Now, though, something much more profound happens. For three specific days of my cycle (and I'm on the pill, so I know it is always the same three days), I feel like a failure. I feel like everything I'm attempting to do is doomed to fail. I am sure I should just give up.

The first couple of times this happened, I was completely unaware of any reason, and I actually started searching job ads for a full time position. This despite the fact that my contract work is bringing in enough to meet my financial targets for the year, and so I have decided not to start to look for full time work until November, at the earliest, and then only if I can't convince myself that I have a chance of making my financial targets next year.

After a couple of months, I caught on to what was happening, and to be honest, it sort of blows my mind. I strive to be empathetic to what other people experience. I thought I was being empathetic to what my friends who experience powerful emotional effects from their cycles were telling me. But clearly, I didn't really understand. I was thinking of it as "oh, they get really sad." No, this is much worse than that. Honestly, I have started treating it as if my own brain is lying to me.

This week happens to be the week in which my three monthly days of feeling like a failure fall. So starting on Sunday, I had to keep reminding myself that this feeling was an illusion, that the objective data indicates I still have a chance of pulling this new career thing off. (To be fair to my three days of pessimism- I'm not doing so great that the idea that the venture will fail is ridiculous. It very well might fail. But it is not failing yet.) Since I was in the grip of Lying Brain, I didn't really believe this pep talk, but I told myself to just go through the motions anyway. I'm pretty good at going through the motions despite crushing self-doubt, it turns out. (A hidden benefit of my years in a male-dominated industry! Or perhaps the reason I've lasted so long in a male-dominated industry? Hard to say.)

Today was the day my brain stopped lying to me, and I felt so much better that I can't describe it. I had one of those days in which there is an unfortunate confluence of a bunch of different work and home things, so the day was a tough one. But I sailed through fine until after dinner, when I went to make scones for the kids' lunches and accidentally cooked the pumpkin instead of defrosting it. Then I melted down. If only I'd remembered to take the pumpkin out of the freezer earlier, I self-flagellated. But that sort of emotional response is more inline with what I'm used to from my monthly cycle, and after a brief time feeling sorry for myself, I got my act together, opened a can of pumpkin, and made the damn scones. At no point during the day did I think "I'm a complete failure and I should just give up on all my goals now." Whereas yesterday, which was a pretty uneventful day, I thought that at least 30 times.

So anyway, I now have a little bit of personal experience with my brain lying to me, and it sucks. And I have just about the best scenario of lying brain I can imagine: there is a physical cause I can identify and the effect is time bounded and predictable. I am trying to imagine what it must be like to have your brain lie to you like this in unbounded and unpredictable ways, and I can't really do it. I have even more respect for people dealing with illnesses like depression and anxiety than I did before.

And I have a new appreciation for the limits of empathy. Empathy is not the same thing as understanding.


  1. I had this realization a few years ago when I had my first run-in with depression. It was a stark and startling revelation that I could sympathize with friends going through a difficult time, and perhaps empathize, but that falls far short of understanding what it's really like to be in the grip of your own brain gone rogue.

    It's an entire world of difference when it's back on the rails again, and the first time I came out of that fog, I couldn't talk about it for months. As you say, I have a profound new respect for people who are dealing with this on a more constant basis.

  2. Oh, I know that lying brain. 'Jerk brain' the cool kids call it.
    Evidence is my best defence. Also, blaming other people's judgement. As in, my boss thought I was the right person for the job- I just have to trust that he was right. It's not my responsibility to choose who does this role.
    Sometimes it helps. Other times, not much.

  3. This is really thought-provoking. I always believed I was extremely empathetic, but you are right, you don't know what you don't know. In honesty, I think I've been a bit dismissive/skeptical of PMS mood symptoms (in part because I didn't want to give the patriarchy an angle with which to defend their "women are unstable/moody" or "she must be on her period because she is angry with me" stance). But this sounds really awful and really hard to have to go through even if it is self-limited. I have had depression before, and I absolutely remember the crushing hopelessness.

  4. I don't think my PMS symptoms are at all this bad. . . but I notice that they've been getting worse with age, too (just one more great thing about getting older). And yeah, it's scary to realize how your mental well-being and function is tied up with hormones and biology. I like to think of them as separate--of my mind as something separate from my body, subject to my control--but of course, that's an illusion.

    I'm sorry you're going through this, but glad you've realized that it's a temporary physical thing and that your self-doubts aren't rooted in reality. Yeah, there are situations in which we really *can't* know what others are going through.

  5. I know this sounds a little nutty, but vitamin supplementation (especially D and B12 for me-- D for the sad, B12 for energy) help me immensely when I'm feeling "down for no reason" which tends to happen at specific times in my cycle. Maybe there's something similar that your body needs more of during your cycle?

    1. Eh, that's not nutty. There are vitamin D dependent proteins in your brain (I studied a relative of one of them!) and B12 deficiency causes anemia... which is a plausible reason you might need more for energy.

      I'd be shocked to discover I have low vitamin D given my complexion and my location. But maybe there is something else that would help? I'll think on that.

    2. You know my complexion (pale to bright red) and usual geographic location.

    3. Alexicographer9:20 PM

      You can easily get your vit. D tested next time you're at your GP, to check. I fit the "pale to bright red" description also, and mine was lowish before I started taking a regular supplement.

  6. I have never really suffered with significant period related mood swings either (although I do get period related migraines) but I think about the lying brain all the time.
    My brother has a very bad case of medically resistant schizophrenia, and I really do think that having your own brain mess with your reality so fundamentally is one of the worst things that can happen to you. I am desperately hoping they find new effective treatments soon.

  7. I didn't know that perimenopause could have that effect. I live in a sunny area but was recently found to have low Vitamin D, so you never know. Definitely get it checked.

  8. I've also noticed in the last 4-5 months, that my brain goes into 1) MUST HAVE SALT and 2) ANXIETY/PANIC mode for 2-3 days at the same time during my cycle. The anxiety/panic mode is always related to how much I suck at things, or shouldn't be doing them, or everyone else is doing better. Hoping to be more mindful of it like you so I can at least get through that time without it affecting it me too much.

  9. The funny thing is that even though you know what's happening, the logical part of your brain can't quite overcome the hormones' emotional effects, right? I know that I sometimes become irrationally angry at a certain point in my cycle, and if I get mad at my husband, I can actually tell myself, "It's not a good idea to bring this up now because you're not at you're rational best," and yet I'll still pick the fight 4/5 times. I feel like a slave to the hormones. It's stupid. And funny if you're able to laugh about it.


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