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Thank You, Elmo

Last week, a social media post by a fictional, non-human, television character opened up the floodgates and sparked what is possibly the most open and honest public conversation about mental health and well-being since the events of 2020. It started with this seemingly innocuous question:

Screenshot of Elmo's social media account, which says: "Elmo is just checking in!  How is everybody doing?"

The responses confirm what I think most of us have felt privately, but few have ventured to share publicly: We are not okay, Elmo. We. Are. Not. Okay.

A few examples:

Hi, Elmo. I’m honestly really sad. My daughter passed away this month, and we miss her so much.
Not great, but it’ll be 50 days since I’ve done anything to myself on thursday.
Elmo. I just need a hug. I’m tired and full of heartbreak
not great. life feels heavy, I feel confused and lost. seen better days.

Where do we go from here? The way I see it, we're at a pivotal moment. We can collectively feel the vulnerability hangover and tap out of the discomfort, or we can notice this moment of interconnection and get curious about it. I'm pretty sure we all know what tapping out looks like -- minimizing, numbing, toxic positivity, and so on -- so I'd like to imagine what it might look like to get curious. What was it about Elmo's post that resonated so strongly that more than 208 million people have viewed it, tens of thousands have responded, and news outlets from CNN to the Today Show have interviewed Elmo about it? What can we all learn from Elmo to better equip us to connect with and support our fellow humans?

Elmo/Sesame Street has built trust.

Why did people respond so openly to this social media account? I'm not sure, but I think it has something to do with trust. As a quiet, awkward, Gen-X kid, I spent a lot of time alone with library books and public television, especially Sesame Street. Elmo is after my time, but he and his friends have been a steady presence in so many lives for generations now. They may not (usually) make headlines or fill packed stadiums, but they are always there in the background. Dr. Brené Brown uses the analogy of the marble jar to describe how trust is built in small, seemingly insignificant moments of interaction. We deposit marbles and build trust through interactions like practicing non-judgment, creating a generous narrative about others, keeping a confidence, or holding someone's vulnerability with kindness. We take marbles from the jar through behaviors like disengaging, not devoting time and effort to a relationship, breaking a confidence, or being untruthful. It's not hard to imagine that many of us have marble jars that are overflowing from a lifetime of experiencing the characters of Sesame Street.

Elmo asked a question with sincerity and then listened with empathy.

Elmo posed an open-ended question in a sincere and inviting way, and then witnessed the responses. How many times has someone asked how you're doing and not even stopped to hear your response before they are on to what they really wanted to say about themselves? How often have you done that to others? I know I have been on both sides of that situation.

Screenshot of a tweet, with a photo of a friendly dog.  The tweet says, "Putting on my active listener face when I'm actually knee deep in the dissociation pool."

I don't think whoever manages Elmo's social media accounts had any way to anticipate the flood of emotion that was unleashed, but the way they responded was a master class in listening and holding space. They didn't put on their pretend active listener face, panic and close the comments, ignore them and pretend they didn't happen, or gloss over them.

Screenshot of Elmo's social media account, where he posted: "Wow!  Elmos is glad he asked!  Elmo learned that it is important to ask a friend how they are doing.  Elmo will check in again soon, friends!  Elmos loves you. Red heart emoji.  #EmotionalWellBeing."

Being on the receiving end of someone's pain can feel overwhelming; the instinctive reaction can be to feel like we have to have the perfect response to make things better. Elmo's response demonstrates that we don't have to have all the answers; maybe there isn't an answer, or maybe we can find one together. But first and foremost, Elmo did these things:

  1. Recognized the experiences of others: Wow! Elmo is glad he asked!

  2. Validated that those experiences are important: Elmo learned it is important to ask a friend how they are doing.

  3. Maintained connection without judging or fixing: Elmo will check in again soon, friends. Elmo loves you.

Then, after acknowledging the hurt and establishing connection, Elmo shared some resources that are available if people need more help. He didn't take on responsibility for fixing everyone's pain; he showed up with compassion. For more on what an empathic response looks like, check out this video from Dr. Brené Brown.

If you're still reading, thanks for sticking with me. What lessons have you learned from or been reminded of by Elmo and his friends at Sesame Street this past week? How do you think we can collectively keep the conversation going? How can we stay curious together and add marbles to each other's jars? We're not okay, friends. We can't think our way out of it, but can we feel our way out of it together? I'd love to hear from you.

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