Generally, when someone asks “How are you doing,” you don’t actually tell them how you’re doing.
Without this piece of common etiquette, we would be pinned in place for hours by vague acquaintances spinning monologues of crushing ennui. We would entrap cashiers, bank tellers, parking attendants and coworkers with tales of our deepest fears and most minor bodily ailments. The world would come to a standstill as we shed our carapaces to stand naked and vulnerable in our truth.
When Elmo posted a kind-hearted check-in this week on X, formally known as Twitter, he may have assumed he’d be shielded by these social mores. But he comes from “Sesame Street,” which is no place for lies.
“Elmo is just checking in!” he wrote. “How is everybody doing?”
Thousands of replies and a few interventions from his “Sesame Street” pals later, and it was pretty clear: The people are not doing well, Elmo!
It’s not surprising. The world is experiencing a grinding war in Ukraine, potential famine in Gaza and a seemingly endless drumbeat of mass shootings in the US. Many young Americans are struggling with anxiety and depression as the country faces a well-documented mental health crisis. And in many places we’re in the middle of a cold, dark winter.
The tenor of the responses to Elmo reflect much of that — and some welcome dark humor in unburdening ourselves to a fuzzy puppet. Elmo’s query also led to some heartwarming conversations about emotional health and the importance of checking in with friends.
We are not OK, thanks
The responses to Elmo’s innocuous question should be etched into stone so future generations can know exactly how we felt in 2024.
“Elmo each day the abyss we stare into grows a unique horror. one that was previously unfathomable in nature. our inevitable doom which once accelerated in years, or months, now accelerates in hours, even minutes. however I did have a good grapefruit earlier, thank you for asking.”
“Every morning, I cannot wait to go back to sleep. Every Monday, I cannot wait for Friday to come. Every single day and every single week for life.”
“Elmo I’m depressed and broke.”
“I’m at my lowest, thanks for asking.”
“Elmo I’ve got to level with you baby we are fighting for our lives”
And, one of the most brutally honest replies:
After a few hours of people trauma dumping on the Muppet, the official “Sesame Street” account called time with a follow-up post directing people to — yes, really — mental health resources.
Or, as someone else on X said, “Elmo sorry but this above Elmo’s pay grade.”
Likely sensing the situation had equal chances of improving or dissolving in rapid order, other members of the “Sesame Street” gang chimed in. Big Bird, Cookie Monster, Snuffleupagus and others thanked Elmo for being a good friend, and offered their own fuzzy listening ears to anyone who needs to talk.
“Wow! Elmo is glad he asked,” Elmo posted less than two days later, employing the most rhetorically loaded “wow” imaginable. “Elmo learned that it is important to ask a friend how they are doing.”
The real issue behind the humor
It could sound like a joke. Look at us, laying our fears at the furry feet of a beloved children’s character! Surely there is nothing else to examine here.
Except, after the clouds of irony and dark humor had passed, something remarkable happened: People started thanking Elmo and his pals for asking, and talking about what it means to feel safe and understood in a time when so much is dangerous and confusing.
Katherine Tarleton, a licensed therapist in South Carolina, says trusted characters like Elmo create an environment of safety in which difficult conversations feel a little easier.
“There’s a sense of emotional security to them because there’s a perception of innocence,” she told CNN. “They bring us back to childhood, when at least some things were easier. Even if you had a difficult childhood, parts of it were still easier because you didn’t know everything that was going on.”
Beloved children’s shows like “Sesame Street” also focus on emotional wellbeing in a way that may feel uncomfortable or foreign for us to do as we get older.
“I see a lot of adults gravitate to children’s shows because they can teach adults about dealing with their emotions in a way they may not have been exposed to when they were younger,” Tarleton says. “I love that this exchange with Elmo has created a cultural space where it’s OK to say you’re not OK.”
How to get help if you need it
While access to mental health resources is a critical part of emotional wellness, sometimes the best thing one can do in the moment is simply talk to a friend. They may not be a compassionate puppet, but they can help.
Tarleton has some advice for approaching difficult topics and being a good listener:
Do something together. If simply sitting down and unloading sounds too intense, Tarleton suggests doing some activity together, like playing a game or cooking. “That gives you a secondary action, and it gives you the space to measure your responses and recover if things get to be too much,” she says.
Be all ears. If someone comes to you with an emotional burden, Tarleton says it’s a good idea to set aside your own concerns so you can be 100% attuned to them. “A lot of people tend to want to exchange their emotional concerns, but it helps to make things very focused. Sit down and say, ‘I see you’re opening up to me. Let’s do this for you.’”
Be brave. “The first step is the toughest part,” Tarleton says. “If you are afraid of being judged, try to examine it from the other side. If you were in the opposite position, and your friend was coming to you, would you want them to be scared? No.”
Resources for when you’re ready to talk
If you’re facing insurance or financial barriers, several organizations have people like you in mind — including Mental Health America.
If you think you or someone you know is at risk for suicide, trained counselors with the 24/7 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline could help. Call 988 or 800-273-8255 (TALK). The International Association for Suicide Prevention and Befrienders Worldwide provide contact information for crisis centers around the world.
If you’re ready to find a therapist, here are some tips on choosing the one that’s best for you, including a list of specialized databases.
And remember, it’s OK to feel bad. It’s OK to cry, too — it’s healthy even. As Elmo’s journey into our collective emotional wellbeing proves, a little bit of courage and a little bit of trust can lead to healing conversations.
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