I spent so much of my life just hiding the truth from everyone that the lies themselves became more hurtful than some of my actual actions. Mental health is not something anyone ever talked about in my childhood. Even in high school, we had home economics, tech classes, sex education, but never once did a teacher address mental illness and what it looks like. I am grateful that many schools now teach in a style that uses social-emotional learning, a method that teaches kids at a young age to recognize feelings and emotions in themselves and others.
These days, at the high school level, teachers have been trained to recognize students who need guidance with mental health and have specific protocols to follow. Even with these standards in place at so many schools, there is still a whole generation of adults who have never once discussed mental health in an educational setting and are conditioned to hide their struggles from society.
When I gradually started talking about my anxiety and other issues, the floodgates of those who were listening just opened up. I began to learn how many of my friends, coworkers, and fellow moms were struggling. I may not have told my full story to everyone, but it became essential for me, anytime I found a person in my life who I fully trusted and was in my inner circle, to be fully transparent with them about what I had been through.
A part of knowing who I am as a friend is understanding where I’ve come from in my life. I’ve had many hard conversations. Every time, I was embarrassed a little, ashamed a little. Yet, every time I opened up to someone, it was freeing, and it felt as if a major weight lifted off my shoulders. The more I was honest with someone, the closer we became as friends. I now define a friend differently than I once did in my life. I now value my friendships more than I ever did before. In the past, I was always a fun friend, but I wasn’t exactly an honest friend. The relationships in my youth were not as strong because of my false front.
This does not mean I tell everyone I meet my story—well, until now, I suppose—but with each person I talk to about challenging topics like this, it gets easier and easier. I think and hope that we may be getting to the point in society where talking openly about mental illness is finally becoming acceptable. It’s just time. It’s time.
One of the benefits of discussing your challenges with those around you is that you will quickly develop a network of others dealing with similar issues. Even more than that, by being brave and opening the conversation, you open the door for someone else to now feel comfortable talking about something they may have been holding in for a long time.
A few years back, I mentioned in a group that I struggled with an eating disorder. Not more than a few minutes passed before at least four other women opened up and admitted that they also had struggled with eating issues at one time in their life. I was shocked. Based solely on stereotypes, these were women that I would have never pegged as having eating disorders. Suddenly, it became almost a group therapy session about how everyone had dealt with it and overcome it. A few of the women even admitted that they still struggled to this day.
After a long conversation, at least one of those women decided it was time she got back into some sort of therapy or treatment because her eating disorder had gotten pretty bad in recent years. But until this group, she hadn’t ever told anyone. My wavering but brave step of admitting my own issue helped someone else figure out they probably needed treatment.
Allowing the fear of being judged or shamed is the easy path. It’s easy to convince yourself that people won’t love you or accept you if you’re honest. If we go on with life allowing ourselves to stay silent due to fear or shame, we miss out on so many opportunities, relationships, and successes. We cut ourselves off because we perceive our challenges are too scary to talk about. We choose not to speak, and we miss out on joy.
It was not that long ago that I interviewed for the position in my current company. The interviewer, who became my boss, asked what I thought would be the most challenging part of the position. He asked what I usually struggled with most. One of the biggest struggles in my past positions is that sometimes job stress gets to be too much for me; I often break under pressure. That answer was pretty scary to admit to a future employer, especially when you’re trying to convince him to hire you for a position that comes with a lot of stress. I had a moment in my mind where I quickly debated coming up with some sort of a fake answer, one that wouldn’t scare him away. Then, from a new habit I’d recently adopted, I told the truth.
I told him that I had previously come to a breaking point with the stress of a job. I may have even used the word anxiety—scary, I know! Much to my surprise, he almost immediately agreed that he struggled with stress and anxiety in the past, as well. Mid-interview, he even began to open up a little about some of the specifics of anxiety he had dealt with in the past. Rather than scare him away, I had immediately become relatable and real.
He didn’t just view me as someone who had occasionally gotten in over her head in the past. Instead, he saw me as a person who was truly honest with my answer. As far as getting the job, he even mentioned to me later on in the process how relatable I had been. He said he appreciated the raw honesty in my answers. He even admitted that they specifically look for people who can be honest, even if it’s not the answer that other employers may view as the right answer. They would rather hire someone vulnerable, who knows their flaws, can identify them, and learn from them to get better.
Wouldn’t you rather have someone working for you who can learn from their mistakes rather than someone stuck in their ways? Sometimes being vulnerable and real is one hundred times better than someone perfect and without flaws.
Even now, in this current position, most of my team knows that I am a workaholic. I put way more pressure on myself than any of them will ever put on me, and I am a perfectionist and am constantly fighting to outperform myself from the month before. In a past life, I can see where sharing information about my flaws with people would almost be frowned upon.
How could I tell them my weaknesses? How could I share that I am going to stress myself out in this job? Maybe they would fire me because they would think I couldn’t handle it. But instead, it’s exactly the opposite. I often have members of my team who will remind me that I need to give myself a break or go easier on myself.
It is through my ability to be honest with them that I can, in turn, receive help with some of these areas when I get too stressed or anxious about something going on at work. Not only that, but this complete honesty is mutual, and so it’s just very common that someone else is just as comfortable sharing their own weaknesses with me in that same place of vulnerability.
Maybe you’re the type of person who doesn’t necessarily have something you’re embarrassed to admit or ashamed of, but perhaps you’ve held back because you don’t think anyone will care, or you fear people will reject you or look down on you. I have a good friend who struggles with a really hard life experience. Her daughter has some pretty severe special needs, and even though she is one of my closest friends, she often used to say things like, “You won’t understand,” or “I feel so lonely because I have nobody to talk to about it.”
This friend and I talk all the time, and I cannot tell you how many times I used to reply, “Who cares? Just talk to me. I don’t have to understand, but I want to listen.” And it’s true, I don’t always understand and certainly don’t always know the right thing to say in the moment, but I can empathize with the pain she’s facing. By allowing her to talk, all I have to do is listen; and with just that, I’m helping.
After a while of inviting her to let down her guard and open up to me, she finally did and now often confides in me things that I don’t always have advice for. She knows that, but she also trusts that I will be there for her regardless without judgment. In fact, I rarely actually have advice to give her. I’ve never had a child with special needs, and I don’t know the daily trauma that they face in their family, but I know how to listen. I know how to say, “I’m sorry you’re dealing with that,” when she’s struggling.
Because I choose to listen, she continues to call and talk about stuff. Even though I don’t always have the right words to say, she simply wants to be heard. She knows that I’m part of her tribe, and I may not be a fellow special needs mom, but she knows that when she’s struggling, I’m a safe space and an ally. That’s all people need is a safe space and an ally. You don’t need to find someone who has gone through exactly your same journey.
Sometimes it feels difficult, but if you look, you can find an ally—someone who will listen, refrain from judgment, offer advice only when asked. Sometimes being heard is what people are looking for. When I’m struggling, and I choose to talk to people, I often say, “I don’t even need you to respond. I just need to talk.” Everyone needs an ally, and even more importantly, everyone needs to learn how to be an ally.
When someone comes to you for advice, you don’t always need an answer. Sometimes answering makes it harder on the relationship. Take my friend with the daughter with special needs, for example. There were so many times years ago when she would talk and cry about what was going on, and I found myself continuing to tell her that she needed to go into therapy because I thought this situation was just too much for her to handle on her own. I said it out of love and because of my own personal experiences. I must’ve said it ten times. Eventually, I realized, maybe that’s not the advice she needed. What service am I giving her by telling her something repeatedly with no result?
So I stopped telling her the same thing over and over. That’s not what she needed to hear. It wasn’t helping her, and if I would have continued to say it, all that does is put a wedge between us, which isn’t helpful either. Being an ally for her didn’t mean giving advice. In fact, if you listen, people often don’t spill their problems and follow it up with, “What do I do?”
Therapy wasn’t what she needed at the time. Many times, people just need to vent. They need to express their emotions, get it out, and move on. Unless you hear a “What do I do?” question, just listen. Empathize. Be present. You don’t have to solve their problems. Just be an ally.