‘I don’t need counselling! I’m much stronger than you think!’
Someone said this to me in response to my gentle suggestion that counselling might help her find a way of coping a little better through her crisis.
I’m much stronger than you think.
There are many reasons why someone might not want to go for counselling, but the implication with this response was that she considered that reaching out for the kind of support that counselling might offer was a sign of ‘weakness’.
This is still, sadly, a widely held view and misconception, not just around counselling but around a variety of other support options, and it’s the kind of attitude that continues to feed the ever-present stigma around all things mental health. In turn, that stigma makes it so very difficult for many people to take what might be vital steps towards seeking external support. Steps that could make the difference for many people between living a more contented life and, in way too many cases, taking their own life.
The fear of being judged as ‘weak’ can result in a hiding of vulnerabilities, or anxieties, or depression or emotional turmoil. Of course, rather ironically, many serious mental health issues have their roots in the murky pit that evolves from years of burying emotions, of a sense of societal shame, of cowing to the weight of other peoples’ expectations, of holding back our tears and of ‘being strong’ or ‘putting a brave face on it…’.
Putting a brave face on it.
Well-worn phrases like that feed the perception that showing our emotions equates to being weak, yet it’s been proven time and again that suppressing our emotions can be damaging to both our mental and physical health, and has an adverse effect on our own lives and the lives of the people around us.
Even when we’re brought up in the most loving, nurturing home environment that encourages us to express our emotions, reassures us that we can’t help how we feel, and provides us with the necessary compassionate space to talk about how we feel, we can still fall prey to the fallacy that talking about and expressing our feelings is feeble — especially when we’re bombarded with things outside the home like, ‘you’re weak if you cry, you’re weak if you take time off work because you’re feeling depressed, you’re weak if you can’t just get on with it, you’re weak if you need support in helping you deal with your emotional turmoil…’
We need more, many more, louder voices saying over and over again that it is not weak to express your feelings and it is not weak to seek mental health support.
Whether it’s just one phone call with an active listener to talk something through, or whether it’s a session with a counsellor to untangle your feelings, or whether it’s a course with a life-coach to help explore your self-confidence, or whether it’s long-term counselling for clinical depression, or whether it’s regular psychiatric support for such things as bi-polar disorder — it takes strength to motivate yourself to seek out, actively engage with and follow through that support. It can often take great courage to lift the lid off long-hidden feelings and be brave enough to dig deep inside yourself and search for some light at the end of what might feel like a very dark and, often, frightening tunnel.
I, who suffered from anxiety attacks when my children were young and went for CBT treatment, am not weak. My son, who suffers from clinical depression and regularly attends counselling sessions, is not weak. My daughter, who reached out to Samaritans to help her untangle her overwhelming thoughts and feelings after being sexually assaulted, is not weak. My friend, who takes her daughters to weekly bereavement support sessions after the loss of their dad, is not weak. My friend, who recently joined a group meditation class to help her cope with her severe anxiety disorder, is not weak. My friend, who uses CBT and massage to help cope with the mental distress and physical pain of her Fibromyalgia, is not weak.
And I — as a mum, wife, friend, colleague, practitioner — am not weak for acknowledging that the love, support, empathy and compassion I can give to my family and friends is not always enough. It can feel like a failing — especially as a parent — when we can’t ‘make things better’ ourselves, when additional help and support is needed. But encouraging the people around us to seek out other sources of support, alongside what we can offer, doesn’t mean that we’ve failed or we’re a weak parent, friend or colleague — it’s the very opposite. Think about it, we don’t feel like a failure when we can’t fix our child’s broken leg or our friend’s MS, or our parent’s dementia…
We all need to get better at ‘normalising’ our attitude to mental health, to approaching it in the same way we do our physical health. We don’t think of ourselves as weak if we’re referred to a specialist for help with our diabetes or asthma or arthritis. We understand that we need help to improve our symptoms or, at the very least, learn how to live better with them.
Just as we are with physical health issues, we need to become much more accepting and understanding of the fact that mental health issues are complex, affect us all differently, can’t always be easily resolved and can cause our premature death.
We need to do as much as we can to reassure people suffering from poor mental health that they are not ‘weak’ for opening up to a friend about how they feel, or for going to the GP, or for arranging some form of talking therapy, or for phoning a helpline or for doing anything else that might help them, ultimately, feel even just a little better.
We need to remind ourselves, and the people around us, that it takes courage to step out from behind our ‘I’m a strong person’ façades, to acknowledge our vulnerabilities and to be open to sharing them and accepting support.
Because, in doing that, in dropping the ‘I’m stronger than you think’ way of thinking and accepting that we might benefit from the help that someone might be able to offer, we might just find an inner strength that knocks the need for that ‘I’m a strong person’ façade right out of the park…
© Jane Milne 2017