Pauline's picture
JUS: Sharing is scary

The Challenge: 

The Question: 

How can we encourage the sharing of feelings in a way that fosters empathetic responses?

The Problem: 

Difficulties in communicating and comprehending emotions

Channels: 

Long before I was finally diagnosed with depression 1 year ago, I struggled with intense feelings of stress and self-loathing, feelings that were overwhelming me, because I could not really understand what and why I was experiencing. I consider myself privileged to be born into a comfortable middle class life, to have a supportive family and friends, no academic problems. In theory, I was supposed to be happy. So why was I feeling so paralysed and helpless? Considering there are so many people who have it much worse than me, feeling sad seemed irrational, unjustified and shameful.

Everyone around me seemed to manage just fine, effortlessly juggling scholastic and social expectations. So I thought it must be my fault that I was barely holding it together. I was ashamed to admit that I was struggling and ask for help. When I finally gathered enough courage to talk openly about my problems with my friends and family members, I was stunned how much it resonated. Once I had shared my troubles, many of them would admit some of their own. These were people that I had known for more than 10 years, people that I thought I knew inside out, suddenly telling me about insecurities of theirs that I never even suspected them to have. Such moments of connection were a very special experience.

However, at times it was also exhilarating. It's not easy for either party. Opening up, even to the people I trust most, took a great deal of mental effort. Then, I didn’t know how to properly express what I felt. And they didn’t know how to react. I didn’t know what kind of reaction I was hoping for. I didn’t want to burden or worry anyone. How often did I find myself alone in my room bawling my eyes out, finally calling my mother or my best friend, just to hang up 5 minutes later even more frustrated and miserable and guilty than before. They were only trying to help me to the best of their abilities, but somehow all well-meant compliments and advice only made me feel worse. I didn’t think they could truly understand me and it was so difficult to communicate what I wanted to say, when I didn't even really know what that was myself. When they tried to relate their own experiences to mine, it felt like they were comparing a broken arm to a papercut. When they were trying to give me tips on health and well-being, it felt patronizing, as if I didn’t know and try that already. This was nothing that doing a round of Yoga or 8 hours of sleep or being more social could simply ‘fix’. Just thinking such things added to my guilt and shame, because it was like I was taking their attempts of help for granted. Devils circle.

What helped me most in the end wasn’t necessarily talking about anything in those situations. Discussing these things with a neutral person such as a therapist was a much better framework for me to sort out my thoughts without the added complications of emotional attachment. The greatest help for me was just someone being there and giving me a hug. Telling me that they know it sucks and just sharing a little bit of the suckiness in that moment.

EDIT:

How do you deal with emotional issues? In what situations do you share your thoughts with others? How does this make you feel? What might prevent you from seeking support? 

Comments

You're really lucky

Noemi's picture

When I started reading your story I was already hearing the usual remarks people give - you know the worst thing to tell to someone who is depressed is "pull yourself together"; or "you have everything to be happy".

Yet it seems your close friends and family did find a way to reach out, however ineffective or patronising, as any advice can be after all, which is not to blame.

What made you share this, @Pauline? What design do you have in mind for the mutual understanding platform you see as a solution? One initiative I came across while researching the web for the mental health debate in OpenCare is BlueHackers - they have an IRC channel they use where anyone can drop in for a random conversation. It could be that sharing with strangers is sometimes easier than with closer people, so you could be on to something. But maybe you're not thinking of online platform?

Hi Noemi, 

Pauline's picture

Hi Noemi, 

thanks for getting back to me. I definitively consider myself lucky and realize that I have a very strong support system. The thing that struck me was that even in my comparatively 'good' situation, it was so difficult for me to communicate my feelings. For me, this was a huge added pressure and kept me from getting help for a long time. In our project group, we are investigating how young people, particularly in creative professions/fields of study, deal with issues of mental well-being, who they share their feelings with, or why they don't. 

As we are still in the research phase, I actually wanted to stay away from thinking of a very specific solution already. There is a similar site called emotionalbaggagecheck.com, where you can either submit your thoughts anonymously or help someone who submitted a text by sharing a song and some kind words. The platform I was thinking of was more an idea of improving the communication between affected people, so that there is a lower threshold of reaching out for support when you feel bad. I was hoping to hear what experiences other people have had, what sort of stressors they struggle with and how they handle this. This doesn't have to be a 'full-blown' mental illness, but any thing that has weighed on them emotionally. 

This was related to @NeleG post about how we are under so much pressure to function and to succeed, that we risk our emotional (and as a result, often also our physical) well-being. A question we were asking ourselves as a group was how to challenge the perception or stigma on mental health issues and perhaps encourage people to be more open and share their feelings, especially with their loved ones. 

Wording issues.

Noemi's picture

This doesn't have to be a 'full-blown' mental illness, but any thing that has weighed on them emotionally. 

@Moushira suggested yesterday in our community call that engaging people to share their issues shouldn't be put under headers of "mental health" but under something more like "emotional health". Similarly,  @Thom_Stewart is setting up an initiative for any person in distress - clinical or not; mental per se of not. I think this kind of inclusiveness can contribute to lowering the threshold as mentioned above.

Guys, next Monday we are hosting an online conversation about emotional care, feel free to join in at 4:30 PM.

PS Pauline I loved emotionalbaggagecheck.com, what a sweet project! thanks for sharing it.

Emotional Health

Pauline's picture

I think the wording is a good point. Mental health to me still carries very strong connotations that makes it an intimidating issue to deal with. It's very interesting to see what kind of care and support structures are available out there, how they are perceived and what causes what kind of people to approach them (or not). The note you made about it being easier to share something anonymously is also something we'll keep in mind and explore further.

I'm looking forward to the online discussion on Monday, thank you for setting it up!

Found it! Why strangers are better healers.

Noemi's picture

re: my observation above. I was just listening to one of my favourite podcasts Invisibilia, and their latest episode talks about mental health patients and alternatives to failing recovery systems all over the world. Like some here already intuit, meaningful help can come from supportive community environments (interesting examples from a town in Belgium called Geel where families host "patients" for decades!, or housing sites in NYC with 40% mentally ill people living among the others).

A key takeaway for me personally is this: in a lot of cases what breaks how we think about mental illness is the belief that it needs to be fixed, that patients need to go back to some initial state of wellbeing; families, through proximity and attachment, are most prone to exemplify this in the daily lives of someone recovering after treatment - through a way of expressing emotions like 1) criticism 2) hostility 3) emotional overinvolvement. The mechanisms seem complex (can be subtleties, or just body language..), but it turns out that all 3 point to how difficult it is for family to accept and empathize, and only load too much pressure on the person in question. Strangers, on the other hand, do not really care THAT much and can be better healers because they "don't see you as a bundle of problems that need to be fixed". 

But: they do become kind of like a second family, so not complete strangers after all.

I looked up some of the original studies attesting psychocultural effects on mental recovery - pdf here.

Highly recommended.

 

Long waiting periods for getting help

Pauline's picture

One important point I forgot to stress: actually getting help took long. Admitting to myself and to my friends that I had a problem took a great deal of energy, but nothing compared to the procedure that dragged on for months before I was able to get treatment.

As a first contact, the university counsellor was a good help. However, the number of appointments one can have with them is very limited. Getting a place in therapy is difficult. There are annoying regulations in order to get the insurance to cover it. I had to be rejected at 10 different therapists until I found someone who still had a space. I was lucky that we were a good match, but others search for a long time until they find someone they feel comfortable with.

I saw a doctor too, which did some tests to see that there are no physical causes to my symptoms. And then some more tests. And of course, appointments were only to be had 6 weeks in advance. The same went for seeing a psychiatrist about medication. 

When you are depressed and little things like getting out of bed take you a seemingly impossible amount of energy, this effort is incredibly draining and frustrating. It seems like an insurmountable pile of hoops to jump through. There is this turning point where you decide that something needs to happen, that you need some kind of help now, because you don't know what to do anymore, and then you are told that the next possible appointment is in 8 weeks. 

What am I going to do until then? Is it possible to somehow improve this process? What kinds of other temporary support structures might there be that could help people in distress? 

 

TwitterBanner_Stylised