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Back in my teenage years and early 20s, I didn’t talk about my feelings, because subconsciously I thought if I didn’t acknowledge them then maybe they’d subside. So true for difficult feelings. I merrily papered over the cracks until in my late 20s, I went through a really stressful event and questioned everything I knew. I began chatting more openly to friends, colleagues, family – simply because I couldn’t not – I couldn’t think or talk about anything else except this stressful thing. And it taught me absolutely loads that I am thankful for.
One step to becoming ok with being open was getting a counselor – private, because the NHS (who are legends, shout out to you all) had a 3-month waiting list and I felt like I’d implode if I waited 3 months. The counselor helped me to speak my truth, bit by bit. I’m not sure what I was scared of, everyone has feelings, this is human? Maybe it was part of being a perfectionist and creating a shiny outer shell no matter what was bubbling underneath.
Once I began to give more honest answers to “How are you?” it was energizing. I felt more connected to people, close friends, colleagues and just humans I met and felt way more authentic. But how do you start opening up, in a world where social media makes us portray our best life?
When talking to someone (who is not the cause of your angst – if they are, we’re coming back to them!), try answering their question with a short but truthful response… “I’m ok thanks, having some difficulties with xyz, but am getting there and doing things that make me smile.” You can safely check if they are open to talking a bit more by their expression. I found keeping it shortstops the whole story exploding out of you like Pandora’s box on fire. Continue with a bit more detail, if you feel safe and happy to. Often, people respond with kind and helpful words, or share that they have experienced something similar which makes you feel less alone.
If you’re thinking, yeah fine, but what if they look really uncomfortable? Don’t stress about that either – you’ll tell from their facial expression and body language, and if they’re not able to engage, that’s cool. Try not to feel rejected or embarrassed and remember everyone is fighting a battle we know nothing about. They might not be in a place where they can talk deeply at the moment. No worries.
If you are trying to talk deeply to the person you hold responsible for your grief – it’s about framing it. Saying “You made me feel angry/sad” encourages a defensive response. Try (calmly) “When xyz happens, I feel angry/sad/disappointed.” They can’t deny your feelings – your feelings are valid and the outcome you want is to discuss the xzy. Hopefully they’ll listen and acknowledge your feelings even if they have a different perspective. It also encourages you to consider your reaction. Let them bloody hear how you’re feeling and cry if you need to, but don’t say things deliberately to hurt – it’s pointless. Saying “you’re a dickhead and I wish we’d never met” doesn’t really get either of you anywhere, a) you did meet and can’t go back in time and b) even if you apologise later you can’t undo the insults.
In a moment of unexpected maturity, I realized early on that for difficult conversations, we should start out by thinking about what we’re trying to achieve. What’s the objective of what you’re saying, are you saying it because you want love, attention, to hurt the person or express frustration? And think about your reaction if you were them – what would make you give the desired reaction, and follow that path?
The added bonus of communicating clearly and being sure of your objective is that both positive and tricky conversations in the workplace become easier. Before making a sarcastic remark (my autopilot) think about the most productive way to express your points.
All good, but what if someone opens up to you? Generations are changing and finally, we encourage people to talk about feelings, mental wellbeing and not suffer in silence… but how do you cope if you’re the one who’s listening, especially when you don’t know them well? My advice is not to say much. Try not to interrupt, and at a suitable pause, say “I can understand that” or “That must have been difficult”. You don’t need to solve it. Just try to be a kind, listening ear, and wish them well with it. If you’re asked for your opinion, either give it, or if you’re not sure say “I don’t really know what to say, but I know you’ll find a way forward, and I’m here if you wanna talk”. It’s all good communication.
I’m so glad we’re finally encouraged to say how we feel rather than ‘good’ or ‘fine’, and to break that bloody notion of the English stiff upper lip. That’s part of connecting with people. And don’t worry about being depressing or killing someone’s vibe, you never know, they might have similar thoughts in their head but aren’t comfortable expressing it. My favourite quote about sailing over stormy waves to calmer water is by L. R. Knost:
“Life is amazing. And then it’s awful. And then it’s amazing again. And in between the amazing and awful it’s ordinary and mundane and routine. Breathe in the amazing, hold on through the awful, and relax and exhale during the ordinary. That’s just living heartbreaking, soul-healing, amazing, awful, ordinary life. And it’s breathtakingly beautiful.”
― L.R. Knost
I love this quote as it reminds me life isn’t always going to be awesome, it’s up and down for everyone. The crap bits make you appreciate the good bits so much more!