After last week’s piece I had an initial pang of shame. It lasted about 24 hours and during this time I was nervous and anxious about how my article would be perceived. I was concerned about what people would think and I was worried about how I would be perceived as a result. It felt like what Brené Brown calls a ‘vulnerability hangover’, and I really and truly felt the weight of that! Most of us with anxiety will find it incredibly difficult to let go of that worry, the fear that can cause us to seize up when we think about how we are perceived by others. It can prevent us from speaking our truth, from being our authentic selves and from sharing what we are really thinking or feeling even with those we are closest with. As a result it may restrict our ability to have deep intimate connections with people. I’m on a personal mission to overcome this as best I can. I’m using my own version of exposure therapy I guess you could call it! I’ve pushed myself into situations and scenarios that I know may cause my anxiety to attempt taking the reins, but I’m doing my utmost to prevent that from happening by following the steps that I’ve learned over the years in various therapies. I’ve taken little bits from each therapy such as identifying negative thought patterns and reframing them, journaling, breath-work, happy place visualisation and I could go on and on, perhaps that’s an entire blog in itself, so watch this space! For now though I want to delve further into my experiences of what it is to be vulnerable; how I perceived it on an individual level and also what I observed at a societal level.
“Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage. Truth and courage aren’t always comfortable, but they’re never weakness.” — Brené Brown
I believe it to be an absolute truth that we cannot move on from stigmatisation of mental health concerns (including self stigmatisation) until we truly embrace talking about it. It doesn’t feel comfortable to talk about it, and often it doesn’t feel comfortable to hear about it either. That is because it is not something we are familiar with but what I’ve come to see as the honest truth: we do not heal from denying what has happened to us. We heal from acknowledging it and from talking about it. That requires being vulnerable and that is the epitome of strength in my books. I believe that we heal from having the space and the safety to share our stories, I believe that we heal when we have the freedom to process our trauma, grief, heartache, burdens, worries, whatever it is that we are carrying that is weighing us down. Now I’m far from saying that the way to heal is to start writing a blog and declare it to the world wide web! This blog is a way for me to channel my love of writing, which is something that has really helped me on my journey, into something that I hope will be relatable, and perhaps even helpful for someone. Over the years I struggled to find my voice and I often looked to others to help me find that. I would read books and articles written by people who had experienced similar issues to me and it really helped me to identify what I was feeling and it allowed me to access voicing those feelings too.
Anyone who has suffered with their mental health, anyone who lives with a mental illness will probably know how it feels to be on the receiving end of being perceived as weak, too sensitive or overly emotional! This isn’t just true for those of us who struggle with our mental health. The same is true for many people going through a difficult time, society tells us to “be strong” when we are standing at the graveside as we bury our loved one as if to suggest that an expression of emotion in that moment is an indicator of weakness. Or to “stay positive” when we are going through a breakup or divorce or any number of the awfully horrific situations we often find ourselves in. These terrible times are sadly a part of what it means to be alive. Unfortunately there isn’t one person among us who won’t suffer or experience hardship at some point in their life, while I don’t want to be all doom and gloom I also refuse to be positively toxic either. These events in our lives do not mean we are negative, broken or weak; it means we are human, and being human is hard! What I’ve come to believe is that while most people mean well when they use these broad sweeping statements it’s often because they are uncomfortable with the emotions being expressed and don’t know what to do. While I don’t think I am in any position to tell people how to behave or what to say in these scenarios I do believe that being listened to, and having someone acknowledge our pain or trauma can be powerful and transformative for everyone concerned. It can be awkward as hell but I do believe it’s worth it. Silence and feeling that we can’t truly talk about our story and our experiences is what will trigger shame and stigma and it’s time enough we moved on from that. This pandemic has isolated us enough, we do not need a feeling of further loneliness and desolation.
It is in the silence that the shame builds. This is where self stigmatisation thrives! It will fire up that voice in your head telling you “I am not strong”, “I am weak”, “I cannot say these things out loud”, “there’s nothing wrong with me”, “I’m just being emotional or dramatic”. These will in turn compound the anxiety and the feelings of loneliness and it can become a vicious cycle. I know that was certainly the case for me. It took me years to come to terms with my own self stigma and to understand that it was the very thing that was keeping me from talking and healing. I had internalised what I had heard so casually in society and I had absorbed it without my knowing. What I then began to feel was how exhausting it was to continue pretending to be ok. The weight of feeling unable to truly open up and connect with someone for fear of the response I would be met with. Never mind the exhaustion that comes with running over every single thing I’d said, and how I said it, and how would people react! God forbid they might find out I was struggling, or feeling anxious. For a long time it felt as though that would be the worst possible thing that could happen, because then I would be seen as weak and what was worse than that?
A key point in my journey has been in redefining what strength means to me. It’s a work in progress for sure and I have to catch myself on a regular basis when I head into self stigma territory. I have come to know that strength, bravery and courage are not about the absence of vulnerability but rather about embracing it and moving forward with it. It is my opinion that strength is not shutting out and never expressing or feeling our emotions. It takes the greatest amount of courage to go inwards and feel what you’re feeling and then to speak it out loud. We may spend our lives avoiding and distracting ourselves from those feelings, keeping them at bay. That is often required of us for survival, sometimes there are things that have happened to us that are too traumatic or too painful. Our brains and bodies will do what they can for us, to help us survive, to keep us alive but in the long run we deserve to heal and it has been my experience that it will happen through talking and sharing in a safe and trusted space. So if you are struggling or going through a difficult time my hope is that this will serve to remind you that what you are experiencing is difficult, it is challenging but it does not make you weak.
Real wellness, real self care cannot happen without vulnerability. It cannot happen without having the tough conversations and asking ourselves tough questions like “What is the reason I don’t feel feel deserving of it?”, “what needs do I have that are not being met?”, “how can I self care in a way that feels nurturing for me personally?”. These questions can only be answered when we dare to be vulnerable, first with ourselves and then with someone we trust and feel safe with. Self care comes from knowing our needs. It is born out of the vulnerability it requires to really get to know ourselves and our needs.
“Vulnerability is about showing up and being seen. It’s tough to do that when we’re terrified about what people might see or think.” — Brené Brown
So why share my personal stories and experiences? Why put myself through that? I don’t know that I have the answers to those questions just yet but I do know that silence and keeping things to ourselves does not do anything other than amplify the problem, worry, fear and can serve to leave us feeling further isolated, hurt and miserable. So my hope is that in my sharing of these things that it may help remind all of us of the importance of connection and reaching out to our loved ones, reassuring them that we are here to listen and be present with them, even if only virtually for now. We must consciously create spaces for the people in our lives to open up, including ourselves, we must encourage each other to talk about how we are really feeling and thinking and we must learn to embrace vulnerability with both hands; even if those hands are shaking!