Talking to each other is so important for our mental health. It helps us express our feelings and connect with the people around us. With the continuing pandemic and need for social distancing, many of us have become more conscious of this fact than ever before. However, in the same breath as acknowledging how powerful it is to talk, it is also important to acknowledge that it is not always easy to open up and express vulnerability.
We thought about this as a team and made some interesting discoveries about what helps us to open up about our feelings, and what we try to do to support others when they need to talk.
We learnt that short messages and even pictures or videos, can be helpful for maintaining connections and opening up conversations:
“My sister is really good at picking up when I might be having a tough time and sending me a WhatsApp message that shows me she is attuned to this and is available to talk if and when I need it. Both of us are good at sending Instagram videos (usually of the feline variety), which we know serves the same purpose”
“I like a good gif. There’s something about an animated, moving picture that I like, but any visual image is good as a conversation starter I think. That, plus a short message to remind someone that you are here to talk to, that you understand and are happy to listen.”
When we know people well, sometimes we can feel able to be direct with them:
“I always phone my Dad and tell him that I need to talk to him about something important. He always listens and offers support and advice.”
But, sometimes a subtle change in language is all that’s needed:
“I have a few close friends that I talk to regularly on WhatsApp. We’re all very straightforward and open with our feelings, so when we ask each other how we’re doing and the response is simply “I’m good” or “I’m fine”, nobody bats an eyelid. However, if the response is “I’m okay”, I know something is definitely up. In our chats, “I’m okay” directly translates to “I have something that’s weighing on my mind” and that’s my signal to probe.”
Meaningful conversations can take time and energy. So, it can be important to check in with the person beforehand, to see if talking now is a good time:
“Before I talk about my mental health, something I am trying to do more often is check in with the other person beforehand: do they have the headspace to hear me right now? Especially if I know that they too are experiencing some difficulties.”
Offering brief but timely interim responses can help offer reassurance until you can find a good time to talk:
“If someone begins to open up, I tend to respond promptly even if I can’t give it my full attention at the time because I am working or with family. Give that person the recognition they deserve for initiating something that can often be hard due to stigma and revealing vulnerability. Don’t leave them hanging. Then when I have the time to give the message my full attention, I respond in a way that gives space. Ask questions, offer validation of where they are at and kindness.”
During conversations about our feelings, we learnt that actively listening, being understanding, and showing kindness were qualities that we found important. In addition to this, sometimes, specific responses can be especially helpful:
“When I have conversations with my boyfriend about my OCD, I advise him on what would be helpful for me to hear. In other words, I ask him to avoid offering me reassurance, which is a common compulsion for OCD! For example, with OCD I worry about particular outcomes ‘what if they do not like me?’ or ‘what if I get really sick?’. If I voice these worries to my boyfriend, I ask him to avoid reassuring me at- all costs- that these outcomes will not happen. Instead, he encourages me to accept the uncertainties by understanding that whilst these outcomes are possible, it does not mean that they are likely.”
Even though words can be extremely powerful, at times physical presence alone is enough:
“When a close friend was severely depressed. I visited every day and tried to make small talk to take his mind off the sadness. One day he told me that the small talk wasn’t helping. I realised then that visiting and being there was enough, I did not need to say anything.”
It’s clear that we are all unique. We find our own ways to connect with the people around us. Often, this is a language that we develop together, too. So, when trying to figure out what’s best – for us and the people around us – perhaps it’s helpful to quote this mantra, shared by a colleague:
“Sharing is brave. It is a privilege if someone chooses to share with you.”
Maybe this can be a guide.
Many thanks to the McPin team for all their thoughtful contributions
Kathryn Watson is a Communications Officer at McPin