Monday, April 14, 2014

The Courage To Be Vulnerable

Consider this article, which discusses how men, because of societal gender expectations of being stoic, strong alpha-males, often hide their mental health difficulties from others in an attempt to appear in control, and in doing so fail to reach out for the support that they need, and see their mental health deteriorate as a result:
One of the things I've found is that men have a difficult time talking about and getting help for their mental health or if they're feeling suicidal. There seems to be some societal pressure that says "You're not a true man if you don't have it all together, all the time."
I would argue this is true, but that it goes beyond men. I would argue that everyone feels that pressure to hide their mental illness from others, along with other perceived deficiencies in appearance, our health, or our character.

There are reasons for this. Mental illness stigma is very present in our society, and we fear we will be rejected or misunderstood by others we care about because of that stigma. More than that, it seems simply human nature to want present ourselves as the best possible version of ourselves. We are inclined to hide our own flaws and issues, partly because in doing so we believe we make others more affable towards us, and perhaps also because in hiding them from the public eye we are able to, in some degree, deny to ourselves that we have them.

Hiding one's personal struggles is not always a bad thing. In some situations, we do need to keep our problems, mental health or otherwise, hidden from other people. We feel little to no compunction to hide family stresses or financial difficulties at work, in a business meeting, or when we are giving a speech, if for no other reason than that we would expect the same of anyone else in such a situation. Too often, however, this is stretched to our friends and loved ones, and we feel we have to hide our struggles from them as well.

Time and again I have seen people, even those who have experienced mental illness in the past and gotten help for it, afraid to disclose their current struggles. I myself have been guilty of that sometimes--if I think that I have been generally improving, and then I have a bad depressive episode, there is a powerful fear that my recovery has stopped, or that I will go back to feeling worse. Never mind that I've had such feelings numerous times before--and that very often every depressive episode can feel like the worst one--I feel like I can't let anyone know, for fear of frightening them, or for fear of admitting to others and to myself that I wasn't doing as well as I thought I was, or that by simply talking about it, I will make myself worse by acknowledging it.

The result is that I keep my struggles balled up inside of me, trying to fix them myself so that no one else can see what I am struggling with. Sometimes I end up managing whatever problem I'm having and get better. Other times the problem continues to gnaw away at me until I have no choice but to make the problem becomes visible on its own--often in the form of a breakdown.

But when I do open myself up to others, very often I find the reaction is not a pushing away from me (though sometimes that is the case), but an understanding, an acceptance, and a willingness to help. I think something we forget about a lot of times when we are considering hiding our problems from others is that our loved ones do want to help us. They want us to feel good and be happy, and they want to contribute to that. While we might be worried about burdening them with our own problems, often times it can make them feel good because we've exposed our problems to them, and let them into our inner world so that they can help us.

Obviously, this does not apply to everyone. For people who have unhealthy relationships, relationships where the other person routinely demeans them and makes them feel bad about themselves, or otherwise constricts their ability to live a healthy life, telling such people risks causing more harm than good. The very foundations of those relationships aren't built upon a desire to help us in the first place. And of course, there is the recurring fear that even if we do reveal our problems to people who love us, that they will dismiss our problems and, though they do not intend to do so, nonetheless hurt us.

And unfortunately, they might. There are no guarantees. Some people may believe that we are overreacting, or being self-centered, or whatever the myriad of other reasons people give for why mental illness isn't mental illness, or why our problems don't matter. To some degree it's fear of thinking of someone they love as being one of those oft-maligned stereotypes they see in the media, as well as numerous other reasons I don't feel I have the understanding to talk about. They may turn away from us, or dismiss us, or even think less of us. We can't control that.

Nonetheless, very often letting others in to our own issues provides a way for us to get better. It allows others to understand how we are struggling, and understand how their own behavior affects us, and try to better accommodate us.  It allows others to give us advice, and opens us up to new perspectives which we may not have thought about, either because it was simply something we hadn't considered or because we were so distressed we didn't have the breathing room to consider other options. Sometimes just knowing that others know, and understand to some degree, is comforting and therapeutic on it's own, making us not feel so alone.

In the end though, we can't be certain how another person will react. And since most of us are used to hiding our problems inside ourselves for quite some time, it can be very difficult to open ourselves up, to show ourselves at our most vulnerable and able to be hurt, and ask that others help us.

Some may consider keeping one's internal problems wholly inside themselves a show of strength, but I would argue the opposite--hiding one's troubles is a sign of fear. Fear of appearing weak. Fear of having loved ones think poorly of you. Fear of thinking poorly of yourself.

A greater show of strength is one which emphasizes that we are not nearly as strong as we'd like to be--that we are flawed human beings, and we need other human beings to support us.

I am talking about the courage to be vulnerable.

I am talking about the courage to open oneself to other people, flaws and all, and risk being hurt by them. Not because you will be hurt, but because by doing so you allow them the opportunity to help you, and to connect with you in a deeper way. You show to yourself that you are willing to take a risk, in the hopes that you will get better.

It is not easy to say to another person, "I have a problem", but it is so crucial for us to do that. There are some battles we cannot always fight on our own, where we need the love and support of someone else to get us through it, and the only way they can give us that love and support is if they know what we are going through.rld

No comments:

Post a Comment