Visible vs. Invisible
I'm going to use terms like, "overload," "overwhelm," "exhausted," and others - I understand these words mean specific things in specific contexts, so please bear with me as I inevitably stumble through a sticky topic.
Say I'm a student in your classroom. One Monday morning I hobble into school on crutches wearing a cast on my leg. You ask what happened and I'm able to tell you, "You'll never believe it! A snowboarder ran me over while I was skiing and broke my leg. Ugh." You show compassion by asking how you can support me - "Do you need a chair to put your leg on?" "Can another student help get materials so you don't have to stand up?" "What are you going to at recess?"
The injury was obvious - my physical body was damaged and the type of support I needed was clear. You felt badly for me and reached out to help.
On another day, unrelated to the broken leg, I enter your classroom quietly, looking down at the floor, avoiding eye contact with anyone. Unlike my usually talkative self I go straight to my desk, putting my head down and closing my eyes. You approach me, asking if I'm okay. I don't answer, keeping my eyes closed and head down. You're not sure what to do so you walk away.
Later that week you learn from my family that my dog died and I engaged in a lot of socializing over that same weekend. I wasn't able to tell you that I was both sad and exhausted - I didn't know how to ask for support and you didn't know what to offer.
The next time I'm feeling overwhelmed you might not be able to tell - instead, you might see me as not paying attention, not caring, or not being motivated. You might feel frustrated and not know how to engage with me. This might lead to me being labeled with attention challenges, being "emotionally disturbed," and/or other diagnoses.
This topic came to mind as I recently experienced back-to-back physical injury and mental and emotional exhaustion. I felt a great deal of compassion from others regarding my physical pain, and far less for my mental overload. I understand this is partially because what happens internally is invisible, and for me it hurt just as much if not more than my bodily injury.
Instead of seeing my spacy, unfocused self as needing support, a loved one said they felt I was ignoring them. Thankfully I have the vocabulary to share what was going on inside; many others do not have the words, access to communication, energy, or confidence to share these things. We must be better at asking questions and expanding our understanding of the many ways a person can appear when they're having a hard time.
How are injury and overload different?
What might support look like in each situation?
What can you do as an educator, family member, service provider, or friend to show compassion and understanding when the challenge isn't obvious?
What are the dangers of labeling someone as "not paying attention," "not caring," "not being motivated," or another seemingly choice-based judgement?
What could we learn from NOT labeling someone in a negative way?
"You may feel as if you don’t have the energy to get out of bed, let alone be in a room with other people. In some ways, it feels as if you’re running on an empty gas tank, and the nearest gas station is hundreds of miles away." - PsychCentral.com