Mental Health: It’s Okay Not To Understand Your Feelings
October 20, 2020
We, as a people, should be proud of the progress we have made in the realm of mental health. The conversations have begun, the topic is on the table, but sometimes it can still feel like being in a room with your racist Nan: you love them, but you’re fed up of hearing about the same topic and feeling awkward as a result. So you choose to not hear it, or offer polite and formulaic responses. Anecdotal, obligatory remarks: job done. This is not healthy.
Mental health is a vastly complex and volatile area that, despite our best scientific efforts, can’t always be rationalised. Of course, we do have brilliant minds working in the realm of academia and research who study the nature of our mental health and try understand triggers and causes. We also have psychotherapists and counsellors who are continuously updating their skillset to provide individuals with the support they need to take back control of their thoughts and emotions. Despite this, still, there are some gaps that simply cannot be plugged just yet because there’s a societal element to supporting those with poor mental health.
Allow me to use myself as an example: I am someone who has struggled with depression and anxiety since the doctor gave me a name for it in 2014. Realistically, I had it for many years prior, but I didn’t know what was wrong with me. I couldn’t find the energy to smile, or see positives, or even see a future. It felt as though I were walking around with an iron anchor chained to my heart (an analogy I often use.) My friends at the time, and the ones I have now, are all fantastic because they can pick up on my moods and will of course ask me what is wrong. The painful part for me, and I imagine this is true for a lot of people, is not being able to give them an answer.
“I don’t know”
My friends often ask me what has triggered me. Again, I have to tell them I don’t know. Not having an answer for them, or for myself, triggers (ironically) feelings of worthlessness and shame. “I must be broken” I think to myself.
It’s fine when this happens once in a blue moon, but when I am constantly battling with feelings like that, I begin to let my anxious mind take over. Escalation of thoughts, and auto-population of beliefs and facts begins to happen. Let me give you an example:
I endure a bout of depressive thoughts
I see my friends notice
I feel guilty that they’re turning their attention away from something positive to me
I remember that I am often depressed
I assume they must get sick of having that one friend who is always negative
I wish I could be ‘normal’
I don’t want to be here
I want to protect them
On paper, this seems like a straightforward conversation to have with myself, but actually it feels very loud and uncomfortable in my head. As that dialogue progresses, I feel hot and itchy and my breathing intensifies and I feel that familiar anchor starting to drop, and I want to escape my body but I can’t and I start to clench and unclench my fists or constantly tap my foot just so that I can feel something is under my own power.
Truthfully, I don’t know what my friends think about me still suffering the same thing for years on end. They may actually be fine with it, and just want to help, but I remember what it was like to have those feelings at age 16. Nobody I knew of spoke of depression, at least not outside of studying literary greats like Sylvia Plath. Even at University, the term ‘mental health’ was thrown around but I didn’t really understand what it meant and, more frustratingly, I felt like I didn’t belong in that category. I used to think ‘mental health sufferers’ were the really extreme ones: people who are suicidal, or suffer extreme bipolar, or PTSD. But what was happening there was I further reinforcing that idea of shame and not acknowledging my own pain and suffering. Equally then, I couldn’t justify to my friends why I was (in my own judgement) the ‘soul sucker’ of the group.
As I stated at the beginning, we’re in a very different era now. We actively encourage mental health conversations and platforms like Twitter, Facebook/Instagram and YouTube, as much as I hate our reliance upon them, has opened up a channel for sharing our experiences and feeling a little less alone. It’s brilliant and all good stuff, yet for some reason I still go through the motions. Every time I sink, I tell my friends reluctantly because I’m battling that inner dialogue that they’re fed up of hearing it. The flip side to social media (there always is one…) is that it allows for that benchmarking to be made. So I will see someone’s account of their mental health on social media seem absolutely critical and heartbreaking, and immediately invalidate my own by thinking ‘I’m not as bad as that, so I shouldn’t talk about it.’ It’s bizarre that I judge it this way, but it is the way it is for now.
I am happy to admit that as conversations have opened up and I’ve been on the other side of the table, listening to people talk about their struggles, I’ve felt helpless. I don’t know how to help myself most of the time, and I really feel like I’m unqualified to help friends who struggle. After a while of it, I do feel a bit hopeless about their hopelessness, because I just don’t know what to do. Perhaps my inability to help triggers my own feelings of shame and worthlessness and that in turn sets my own mental health off – which is a real conundrum! Ultimately, though, it means that I’m still not comfortable with supporting others with their mental health: as I’m not comfortable letting other support me.
I’m not sure where the mental health conversation is going to take us over the years, but I do know that we all have a responsibility to educate ourselves more. Yes, we’ve done well to acknowledge it’s a thing, but we can’t stop there: we have to push ourselves out of our comfort zones and be more confident in both talking about our own feelings and talking to others about theirs. We have to normalise the fact that we’re not going to have all the answers and, as much as that may initially feel horrible, learn to recognise and acknowledge our triggers. Much like I have to.
If you’re reading this and you relate to it in some way – either from a sufferer’s perspective or a friend of a sufferer – please know that we’re all in this together and the only way to make our support network stronger is to keep talking. Listen to what people are saying, and look at them. If you notice your friend is in a low mood, or is saying things that are a bit hopeless, don’t assume anything: always check in with them and remind them that it’s okay to feel rubbish and not have an answer. Sometimes just experiencing that feeling with them and not trying to ‘fix it’ is more helpful than we realise.