Why it's so hard to reach out
When I shared my story about my journey with mental health, I expected to get a range of reactions. The reception I received was overwhelmingly positive, but there was one kind of reaction from a few people that I really hadn’t anticipated: they were surprised that I hadn’t said something sooner.
Their messages were along the lines of
I had no idea you had anxiety, I wish you’d said something or
If I knew [you had anxiety], then I’d have been able to help you. From the perspective I have now, I don’t think they’re wrong. But at the time for anyone else to know what I was going through was the last thing I wanted.
Why I didn’t speak up before
The idea of somebody else knowing I was struggling absolutely terrified me. I saw myself as weak for having anxiety. I believed that to struggle with aspects of life that “normal” human beings were coping fine with made me a failure. These thoughts were reinforced by some particularly toxic behaviour from people in my past. They were cemented in my mind. So how could I possibly tell someone else that I was struggling, if they were going to know how weak I was, and what a failure I was?
I don’t believe these things anymore. I know that it’s brave to speak up. It takes real courage to ask for help, it’s an act of strength. I have great respect for the people in my life who have done this. I know that everyone has their own struggles, or goes through difficult times. Mostly, I don’t get to see their pain, so I thought it wasn’t there. There is no such thing as a “normal” human being.
It takes real courage to ask for help, it’s an act of strength.
I’m in a much more positive place with my mental health right now. But at times, I still find it really hard to speak up. When I’m struggling or having an off-day, that’s exactly when the older, more negative ways of thinking start to creep into my mind. From time-to-time, I will worry what people might think of me if I tell them what I’m going through.
A lack of understanding
The other side of it is: how? How do I explain something to somebody else, if it doesn’t make sense to me? Because so much greater than the fear of being judged, was the fear of not being understood. To open up and be vulnerable, by giving an insight into what I was going through, and have the other person turn around and say
I don’t get it or worse
That doesn’t make any sense. These responses are such an invalidating experience, and left me feeling even more isolated and alone than before. Thankfully I’ve only had this experience a couple of times, but I’ve worried about getting that response hundreds more.
I’ve also had the experience where the person I told simply didn’t know what to do with the information. They had no frame of reference or clue on how to respond, because it’s not something they could understand at that moment. These experiences have really sucked, but I want to be clear that I don’t blame these people in any way. They weren’t being malicious, and they certainly weren’t choosing to misunderstand me. They just weren’t equipped to be able to deal with the situation. They either hadn’t had the experiences themselves, or the stigma around the subject meant they were paralysed by the fear of doing the wrong thing.
People will generally avoid or reject situations that make them feel uncomfortable. It takes a conscious effort not to.
People sometimes feel uncomfortable in conversations about mental health. I know I have before. It might be around the awkwardness of not really knowing what to say, or feeling uninformed. Maybe they can really relate to what’s being said, but aren’t ready to confront that yet. Or quite possibly people just aren’t used to being around strong displays of any emotion (stiff upper-lip and all that). People will generally avoid or reject situations that make them feel uncomfortable. It takes a conscious effort not to, and is something I’ve put quite a bit of work into.
Attempting to explain
After a year-and-a-half of therapy and working on being more open, this is my best attempt at explaining the low points of my own mental health:
Some days it feels like there is a person living inside my head who hates me. This person has a very loud voice, they know all of my insecurities, all of my deepest, darkest fears, and they know exactly how all of the lowest points in my life scarred me. I’m trying to concentrate on what I’m doing, but everything I’m afraid of being true is being shouted at me from the inside so loudly that I can’t hear myself think. It is taking all the energy I have and more just to make it through the day. I’m so exhausted that even the idea of something as small as picking up my phone to reply to a message feels so incredibly overwhelming right now that I can’t move.
But that still doesn’t quite cut it. It doesn’t really capture it in a way that I can’t quite put my finger on. So to answer my question from earlier
How do I explain something to somebody else, if it doesn’t make sense to me?... Quite simply, I can’t. But also, I don’t have to.
Whatever you feel comfortable with
When it comes to my well-being and mental health, I don’t owe anyone more of an explanation than I am comfortable with, ever.
These days, I’m a big advocate for being open, honest and authentic. I try to be forthcoming and share whenever the opportunity arises. If you feel able to, I would encourage you to speak your truth too. But if you don’t feel comfortable or safe sharing, elaborating, or going into detail, you do not have to.
Setting and enforcing boundaries can be challenging, but here are a few examples of how you can share while still being assertive about where the line is:
I don’t want to go into detail, but I’ve been finding this second lockdown quite tough
Sorry for the slow reply, how have you been?
Apologies for the radio silence lately, things have been getting on top of me a little bit
I’m not ready to talk about it yet, I need a little more time. Thanks for understanding.
I don’t really want to go into detail, but I appreciate you asking
I don’t know how to put the way I feel into words right now, if I figure it out I’ll let you know
I don’t want to talk about it right now, but it means a lot to me to know that you’re there if I do
Do you mind if we talk about something else instead?
Say as much or as little as you feel comfortable with, but say something. Saying absolutely nothing will only compound the stigma in your head.
Say as much or as little as you feel comfortable with, but say something. Saying absolutely nothing will only compound the stigma in your head. It will reinforce the idea that you have something to hide, or to be ashamed of. You don’t. We all go through different things. Everyone goes through something difficult at some point. The more you speak up about what you go through, the more you normalise it both for yourself, and for others going through similar things. Every time you speak up, it gets a little easier.
Now more than ever
So why am I writing about this now? While I may have largely adjusted my own behaviour, I’ve seen this paradigm playing out all around me lately. The Covid-19 pandemic has been a crash-course in mental health for so many people.
Since I posted about my own journey, I’ve had people start to open up to me, saying they’re not ready to talk more publicly, but figured I’d understand after being so open about my own experiences. I’ve seen friends withdraw from the world, because they don’t know how to talk about what they’re going through. I’ve seen the other side of things too, where people don’t understand why someone has withdrawn or why they’re not able to speak up when they’re struggling. I’ve seen people take it personally or feel frustrated with someone for not communicating or for shutting them out. I’ve also, on occasion, still been the one to withdraw and just go quiet on others.
I’m hoping that by sharing my own experiences and insights, it may help to further the understanding of people on both sides of the situation, making the process of reaching out (or understanding when someone doesn’t) a little easier.
Being understanding, even when you don’t understand
You don’t have to understand what someone is going through, to be understanding. If someone tells you what they’ve been going through, it doesn’t have to make sense to you, and you don’t have to be able to relate to it in order for it to be real. It doesn't make it any less valid just because you haven't experienced it yourself.
Simply sayingI’m sorry to hear you’re going through that, it sounds really toughcan make a huge difference.
A little empathy goes a long way. Simply saying
I’m sorry to hear you’re going through that, it sounds really tough can make a huge difference. Try to imagine what it might feel like for that person, even if it’s not something you’ve experienced before. The more understanding you are when someone does open up, even just a little bit, the more likely they are to open up to you and others in the future. Congratulations, you’ve just helped lower the stigma!
If someone isn’t ready to open up to you yet, try to be understanding there too. It’s not usually personal. It probably says far more about where that person is in their journey than it being anything about you. You could be the most empathic listener, or the closest friend a person has had for years, but if they’re in a really dark place, they still might not be able to open up to you. Just try to imagine how bad it must be for them, not to be able to open up to you.
Asking is better than assuming
If you find yourself responding with
have you tried... or
why don’t you just… stop, please. When someone shares something that’s difficult for them, there isn’t a simple, quick fix. If there was, they would have done it already. Don’t insult their intelligence by assuming you know the solution before you’ve taken the time to fully understand the problem. It’s great that you want to help, it’s commendable. But please, please ask first.
What’s the best way I can support you right now?
Is there anything I can do to help? or
What’s the best way I can support you right now? are amazing responses that will work in just about any situation. They show that you care enough to make these offers, and that you respect the person enough to tailor the help to their needs.
If a person is looking for suggestions, they will tell you. They’ll literally ask
what should I do? or
what would you do if you were me?. If you really do believe that the best thing to do is to jump right in with some advice, make sure you recognise the way they feel first. But if you can’t clearly state the emotion they are experiencing, it’s probably best to ask.
Compassion is key
When it comes down to it, we’re all just doing the best we can with the hand we’ve been dealt. Life is hard sometimes, really hard. People might not react in the way that you hoped they would. Try to show them some compassion, in all likelihood, they’re just doing the best they can in their current situation.
We’re all just doing the best we can with the hand we’ve been dealt.
Have compassion for yourself too, for the times when you don’t have the capacity to speak up or aren’t equipped to handle what you, or someone else, are going through.
A parting recommendation
If you’d like to learn more about responding compassionately and the impact of the words we use, I highly recommend the “Empathetic Listening” section of Nonviolent Communication by Marshall B. Rosenberg. I got huge amounts of the whole book, but that section in particular was really useful for considering how I respond when somebody is sharing something difficult with me.