Talking about your mental health can be scary. When you’re having a bad day, have you ever felt too afraid to tell someone you’re feeling less than OK? Have you ever worried that talking about your mental health will make things worse?
Hands up if you’ve heard one of these before:
Why don’t you talk to someone about it?
You’ll feel better if you talk about it.
What’s so bad that you can’t just tell me?!
Often, people with mental illness can find talking about what they’re feeling and thinking far from easy. Being open about bad days and negative emotions can be hard for anyone, with or without an added, diagnosed stumbling block. Let’s face it, when someone asks how you are, the go-to answer on any day is ‘I’m fine’, the ‘let’s move on and talk about the weather’ response that we Brits are so adept at!
This week, talking was hard for me. I was gut-wrenchingly afraid to talk. So I didn’t. I kept quiet and that did not end well. Not talking – for me, in this particular instance, at least – was worse than talking.
But talking about your mental health is important. So what can you do when you’re scared to talk?
Why Are People Afraid to Talk About Their Mental Health?
Why is talking about your mental health a scary thing? Why is saying, ‘I’m feeling really low today’ such a worrisome thing?
Fear of Rejection
Let’s be honest here: we all fear rejection. For some, it’s a tiny fear that’s easily beatable. For others – my fellow, anxiety-ridden depression warriors, I’m looking at you here! – it’s a huge, numbing fear. We are human and we are ultimately built for connection, and as such we want to be loved and accepted and embraced by others. Being rejected by someone isn’t fun for anyone and the fear of that can be so much of a barrier that it stops us taking any risks that might cause it – including talking about less-than-happy feelings.
“They’ll Just Think I’m Being Over-the-Top.”
Ever had anyone tell you, ‘Well, there’s people worse off than you’? Yeah, it’s not helpful is it! Here’s the thing, our own fears and doubts and feelings of sadness are ours – we can only ever know how they feel to us and will never be able to compare that to the doubts and fears and sadness of someone else. Our feelings are the worse thing we experience. When you’re dealing with a chemical imbalance in your brain – because that’s what depression is, an actual medical, scientific thing – those feelings are genuinely bigger and scarier. Sadness can be overwhelming. And who are we to say that isn’t true?
‘It’s all in your head’, you’ve probably heard. Yes, yes it is. Our brains control pretty much everything we do – all pain stems from that clever organ in our heads, so there is no difference between physical pain and emotional pain; it’s all real and valid.
Protecting the Feelings of Others
Honest confession: this is the sh*t for me. If anything stops me from being honest and vulnerable, it’s this. I don’t want other people to feel bad. I’m such an empath, if my No.1 is sad, I cry right along with him because when his heart is hurting it’s like mine is too. I avoid telling someone they hurt my feelings, because I don’t want them to feel guilty. I am not honest about a stress of a relationship, because I don’t want them to take any blame. I will say sorry for someone else’s mistakes, because I want to shield them from any sadness.
So I’ll tell you want I need to hear too: put on your own oxygen mask first! You know how that goes on flights – even mothers are told to put their own oxygen mask on before they put their child’s on. The very thought of putting myself before others makes me all kinds of anxious, but it is necessary. You have to look after you, in order to look after the people you love better.
Not Knowing How to Put It in Words
I have depression. I have tried describing how that feels in a hundred thousand ways, but none have truly encompassed the pain, darkness and hopelessness it feels like for me. Some things are just unutterable. Or, if you like beautiful words like I do, ineffable. Sometimes, it’s hard to even know where to begin talking about something that is difficult or scary. And sometimes, it’s hard to even understand how you’re feeling – or the why of it – yourself. Perhaps we need new words for when ‘sad’ isn’t enough.
“Who Would I Even Tell?!”
Not everyone will understand. Not everyone stands by you. Not everyone will take the time to listen. It’s hard to know who to turn to with the big and bad stuff. Think about who has earned the right to hear your story. Tell them. Believe me, the right people will carry on loving you while you speak and for a long time after.
So… How Can You Make Talking About Your Mental Health Less Scary?
Simulate the Scenario
It’s an old saying, but things are rarely as bad as they seem. Your very worst fears are, when thought about logically, unlikely to actually happen. So you’re afraid the person you share your story with will walk away… First, how likely is it that they will, because chances are if you truly thought that would happen you probably wouldn’t be choosing them to tell your sadness to. And then secondly, if they did walk away, what would that mean? Well, it certainly wouldn’t make them much of a friend, would it? Either way, you would survive their leaving.
Imagine what the worst case scenario might be and try to think of it as someone else looking in might. Prepare yourself for the worst, and you’ll most likely end up surprised with much better. Heck, act it out in front of a mirror if you like. You’ll be better prepared to face whatever does come.
Talking can be hard. Try writing instead. Write a letter and don’t send it. Write a letter and do send it. Write in a journal; fill pages with words, sentences, paragraphs that make sense or that don’t. Try out different words until you find the ones that fit. Let your pen capture the stream of chaotic consciousness and make sense where you thought there was none.
Speak Without Words
If even written words don’t seem to come, you can still speak. Speak through art. Spreak through movement. Speak through music. Speak through food. Spreak through a paintbrush or a knitting needle or a wire cutter or a needle and thread. Express yourself with colour and texture and sound and taste and smell.
Take Your Time
However you choose to tell your story, and whenever that might be, the terms are yours. Don’t ever feel rushed or pressured to say what is hard to say. Mental illness can make you feel like you have no control, but you do. It’s your story, your emotions, your worries and fears – own them and express them as you choose.