Today (Thursday 02 February 2023) is ‘Time to Talk Day’ across the UK, a day introduced by a coalition of mental health charities that encourages us all to talk to each other more openly about our psychological well-being.
For me, the existence of this day brings to mind some questions, like:
- Why is it that we need to create a day to encourage us to talk like this?
- What makes it so difficult to talk about our psychological health?
- Why is it so important to talk?
Be brave and tell it like it is:
I often feel that society expects us to constantly appear positive and confident, ‘just getting on with it and telling everyone we’re fine’, no matter what life throws at us.
If we believe that we should always be living up to these unrealistic expectations, we end up hiding the truth of the times when we feel sad, anxious, insecure, overwhelmed, or inadequate.
And while we’re busy not talking about any of these difficult thoughts and feelings, everyone around us is just as busy keep theirs to themselves as well.
The result is that we all go around assuming it’s just us that is secretly struggling under the surface, wondering why we alone are so weak and mixed up, while everyone else is showing how superhuman they are.
The truth though, is that our difficult feelings are as much a normal part of being human as the more pleasant ones. It’s all part of the natural weather of life. And, spoiler alert: everyone experiences difficult feelings.
So, what if, next time someone you trust asks you how you’re doing, you answered honestly? And imagine you then asked them how they were doing, and they answered honestly. Maybe you’d both finish the conversation feeling a little better, realising you’re not alone in finding that life can be difficult, and both feeling heard and cared for by each other.
Be brave and hear it like it is:
But here’s the catch: listening to someone share difficult thoughts, feelings and experiences can be harder than it sounds.
Have you ever tried to talk about something that was upsetting you, only for the person you were confiding in to respond in a way that actually made you give up trying to explain your feelings to them?
There are a few mistakes we can make that shut people down, including:
- Rushing in with hasty reassurances, like “You’ve just got to be positive,” “You’ll be fine, just focus on the good things,” “It’s not as bad as it seems, you’ve so much to be grateful for.” We might mean well when we jump in with these comments, but the effect can be to make someone feel that you’re not taking their difficult feelings seriously and instead you’re trying to make them seem smaller than they are. Trying to put a positive spin on someone’s problems usually doesn’t make them feel any better, it just causes them to feel unheard.
- Leaping in with advice or switching into ‘problem-solving mode.’ There can be times when some sage advice is useful, but this is rarely at the stage when someone has just started to open up to you. At that early point, what we need is to be listened to supportively and non-judgementally without the listener coming up with simple ‘fixes’ that we could have come up with ourselves. We need to be heard, not fixed, listened to, not solved.
Knowing that someone has listened to us and cares about our experience makes a difference. It is not a cure to difficult feelings, because there is no cure to the natural ups and downs of being human, but:
- Feeling heard helps us feel less alone.
- Putting our problems into words helps us make sense of them.
- Having our feelings accepted and cared for helps us feel valued.
Be brave and listen to the bereaved:
As a society, we often struggle to listen to the pain of the bereaved. We tell them: “Time heals, you’ll be ok, your loved one wouldn’t have wanted you to be sad.”
But sadness is a necessary part of the normal process of grieving, so putting pressure on people not to feel sad helps no one.
And while it is true that the passage of time is a necessary element of the healing process, it is also true that during that passing of time the bereaved need to talk, share, cry, rage, fear, and, eventually, to hold new hope.
For many bereaved people, one of the biggest challenges is that people start to assume that ‘they’re doing alright’ once a few months has passed. The reality though is that grief is a rollercoaster of ups and downs that can last a long time. The bereaved may find they are more able to ‘put the mask of being ‘fine’ on’ more easily after a few months. They often do this because they don’t want to keep imposing their continuing grief on their friends, and they may worry that if they do then they’ll drive their friends away.
The rollercoaster of grief can be a lonely place when the grieving come to feel that they’re no longer allowed to talk about their pain.
So, this Time to Talk Day, reach out to someone you know who is grieving and see if they want to talk. Maybe they will and you’ll make a difference for them today. Maybe they won’t, but at least you will have planted the seed of an invitation to talk, and maybe they’ll remember that for another day.
If you are open to hearing all that a bereaved person has to say, showing that you care for their pain even while you can’t fix it, then you will be a small part of their gradual, uneven healing, one conversation at a time.