One of the more difficult choices humans face every single day is whether being vulnerable is something they can do in front of family, friends, co-workers, strangers, or even themselves. It is hard for most people at some time, but if you suffer from depression or anxiety or both, then you can be frozen with fear at the mere thought of exposing your thoughts, your experiences, your values, and who you really are. Depression and anxiety already tell their victims, “You are not enough. You are weird. You don’t fit in…” Brené Brown said, “If we share our shame stories with the wrong person, they can easily become one more piece of flying debris in an already dangerous storm.” I should have remembered that this week, because I forgot to duck when it was flying!
I just had that experience…again. This time I shared my struggle with mental health, with depression and anxiety, with someone who should have been a safe person to share with. Should have been, but I knew I was taking a risk before I opened my mouth. If there was no risk, I would have talked about it years ago with him. He didn’t react in a way that shamed necessarily. There was no “You’re crazy” that came with the information. I can defend against those. My anger will often put the words in my mouth. They may not always be pretty, but at least they carry a conversation forward and can lead to being heard.
Instead of any of that there was something worse for me. There was silence. Dismissal. Being unheard. *NV*S*B*L*TY. He kept eating his lunch as if I hadn’t said anything. I can’t do anything with that. I had just been told through his silence, as assuredly as if he had been screaming, that I don’t matter enough and it wasn’t important. Is that the message he intended? I don’t know, but that is certainly the one I heard inside myself
I felt the need to talk about this and to be vulnerable about this because I am in the depths right now. Last night I had said that I needed him to be nice right now because I was having a tough time. He had the same response as most people. “Why?” I explained that there doesn’t have to be a “why,” that sometimes it just is, and that even with medication and counseling, it still happens. He asked how long this has been going on and looked genuinely surprised when I said that it has plagued me since I was a teenager. But then he turned back to what he was doing and said nothing.
Today I tried explaining how the depression progressed and worsened. I talked about how it isn’t about being sad but more about not being enough – not smart enough, not talented enough, not worthy enough. And he went back to his lunch again with no comment, no question, no anything. I sat there feeling very much not enough.
Luckily I have some tools that I can use when I hit a wall like this. One that I learned from a counselor is to reframe my reaction, to ask myself questions about the accuracy of my perception. What else could it possibly have been? Instead of his silence being dismissal, could it be that he didn’t know what to say? Could his failure to engage in the conversation be because he is just uncomfortable discussing mental health issues whether with me or with anyone else? Perhaps his reaction had more to do with him than with me. This tool sometimes works. I’ve been trying to use it through this and another situation that are both happening simultaneously. As I said, sometimes it works; this week not so much.
Another set of tools that I use often include reading, researching, listening, and watching. I turn to TED Talks and other videos that have proven helpful or inspirational. I reread books and articles that I have highlighted and saved for such a time as this. My go-to is usually Brené Brown. I feel like she read my heart and has some insight in how to help me fix it.
I had a counselor who started me on a road to working through these times. He knew I liked to read and research. He took that knowledge as an opportunity to suggest various books and authors. He’s the one who first suggested that I watch Brené Brown’s TED Talk that went viral. I felt that she was speaking to me!
Tonight I’m still trying to pull myself up. I’m doing better than I was two days ago, but I haven’t made it out of the hole yet. I can’t find my own words to express what I know but can’t make myself believe and feel right this moment. But I know where to find Brené’s words so I’ll share some with you just in case you need to have them at your finger tips someday.
After feeling that I really lost in my effort to share my heart, I’m trying to remember that, “Vulnerability is not winning or losing; it’s having the courage to show up and be seen when we have no control over the outcome. Vulnerability is not weakness; it’s our greatest measure of courage.” I know how true this is because of the years and years I spent hiding my struggle from almost everyone or at least never, ever speaking about it. It’s scary to put your heart and soul out where someone can stomp on it or laugh at it or belittle it. If you do it anyway, that is courage. I know that since I started sharing this struggle, I have found many people saying: “You too?” or “I wish I had know back when I was in your class, I would have found someone to talk to when I felt that way.” As Brené says, “Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage. Truth and courage aren’t always comfortable, but they’re never weakness.”
“It’s crazy how much energy we spend trying to avoid these hard topics when they’re really the only ones that can set us free.” Writing and talking about where I am and what I feel is still extremely awkward and difficult; however, I know that having put it out here into the world in such a public way has made it easier and easier to deal with the experiences. The more I have the courage to write, the more I am given the opportunity and the words to talk. Even now as I take the time to grapple with the topic in writing tonight, I know it is changing something within me. It is helping to lift me up.
“Vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, and creativity. It is the source of hope, empathy, accountability, and authenticity.” One of the people I hid the truth from for the longest time was me. Oh how I wish I had stepped out from behind the walls I had built up and gotten counseling years ago! Being willing to go to another person and admit that I’m not as strong as I try to appear, that I mostly seem to be holding it together when inside I don’t even know where the pieces are that need to be held together, has truly changed who I am.
I started by talking to a professional. It was trial and error until I found the best one for me, but it was worth the effort! After a few unsuccessful matches, I found the counselor who helped me crack the surface. He seemed to know that studying and learning would work for me. He’s also the one who got me to try reframing an interaction or the stories I am telling myself. I think it was important work that we started.
Circumstances led me away from him. But maybe it was divine intervention, because I have landed with a counselor who has helped more than I could have imagined possible.
I know that my depression is part of a chemical imbalance in my body that I am using medication to stabilize. It is just part of who I am. My anxiety is a different animal. I think that is where I have been really able to make breakthroughs. As she asks questions and we talk, I see more and more of how my past experiences, the choices I have made, or the events that have just happened all contribute to what I tell myself in response to things.
There are times that she has figured out something but just lets me talk and asks me questions until suddenly my eyes grow wide and I go quiet. At that moment I am able to put words to what I am contributing to the problem – it’s my (as Oprah would say) ah-ha moment! Understanding myself, being honest with myself, and seeing why I react the way I do are huge. I can change things that I thought were immutable facts in my being.
One of the biggest things I am learning is a very hard lesson for me. I was raised on “what will the neighbors think” and “you have to go to the [insert any social event like homecoming, prom, etc]…everyone does that and you’ll be disappointed if you don’t.” I was raised on “don’t embarrass us” and “fit in and don’t be weird – be like everyone else.” So I am learning to escape those messages. I’m am trying to convince myself that what other people think of me doesn’t matter as much as being true to myself and being authentic do. I want to get to where I can have the experience I had this week, adjust my sails, and just move on. To be able to say as Brené Brown does, “Nothing has transformed my life more than realizing that it’s a waste of time to evaluate my worthiness by weighing the reaction of the people in the stands.”
I’m grateful for words of wisdom I can grab as needed.
And the journey continues.