Sometimes I don’t want to talk about it. Not to anyone. No one. No one at all. I just want to think about it on my own. Because it is mine. And no one else’s.
— Michael Rose
Falling this year on February 2, Time to Talk Day is one of several awareness days and events dedicated to countering the stigma surrounding mental health. We’re encouraged to open up to family, friends and colleagues about how we’re feeling, and to be there for others wanting to tell us how they’re doing.
These are laudable aims, and fully in keeping with the message Fran and I share in our book and in other writing here and elsewhere. We believe that keeping the channels of communication open is the single greatest contribution we can make to improving the acceptance of mental health issues, and keeping ourselves and those we love as well and as safe as possible.
But what if you don’t want to talk about what’s going on for you? What if our friends and loved ones don’t want to talk to us?
I consider myself a good listener and a supportive friend, but I’m far less adept at sharing my problems and issues. Even with people I trust and feel safe with, I find it hard to open up. It’s easier for me to express myself through my writing. Over the past year or so I’ve explored more of how I’ve been feeling in my weekly blog posts than ever before. Nevertheless, there are things I choose not to share publically. I discussed some of these in an article titled Write without Fear, Edit without Mercy: Eight Questions for the Honest Blogger. There are valid reasons for not sharing publically, of course. I recall mental health writer and coach Julie A. Fast counseling against writing about intensely personal issues and situations while you are in the middle of them. It’s wise advice.
A friend invited me recently to choose a song from my past that meant a great deal to me, and blog about how it made me feel. It was an invitation to be vulnerable and she offered to do the same, but I felt utterly unequal to the task. It wasn’t that I didn’t trust her. I did and do. More fundamentally, I realised that I didn’t want to go there, either publically in a blog post or even with her privately. As I explored my feelings about the request, I realised that part of the reason I didn’t want to share was that the memories were intensely personal, and that part of their value to me was precisely that they were private.
I think we’d all agree there are things we want to keep to ourselves but where do we draw the line? Who gets to decide what we “should” share, and what we’re permitted to keep private? And what about the people we trust? Aren’t we supposed to open up to those we hold closest and most dear? Isn’t that a good thing to do? A healthy thing?
The premise of Time to Talk Day and similar initiatives is that sharing is good for our mental health. It can help to talk things over, and it allows us to ask for support, or to offer support to those we care about. If we don’t know our loved one is struggling, how can we help? If we keep our struggles to ourselves, how can anyone help us?
Talking is only one way of handling things, though. It can be an important tool in our wellness toolbox, but it’s more important that we have tools — and use them — than feel we must ask for help every time we start to struggle. My Wellness Recovery Action Plan (WRAP) includes a number of strategies that work for me. Keeping in touch with friends is crucial to my wellbeing, but when I’m starting to struggle I’m more likely to go for a walk or explore what’s happening in my personal journal than discuss it all with friends. It’s good knowing there are people I can talk to, but that’s not always what I want or need to do.
There might be any number of reasons why we’re unwilling or unable to talk about what we’re going through. The same is true for our friends and loved ones. Unless we know the person well, those reasons may be unknown to us. And that’s okay. That has to be okay.
We might feel that what we’re going through is too dreadful, shocking, personal, embarrassing, or shameful to share with someone else. On the other hand, we might feel we’re stressing over something too mundane or important to bring to someone else’s attention, especially if they’re struggling themselves. This is something I often feel. I hold back from sharing with others because I imagine they have enough to deal with, without me adding to their burdens.
If it’s something we’ve struggled with repeatedly or for a long time, we might feel our friends will be bored at hearing the same old story. We might be bored with it ourselves, or sick of talking about it. If we discussed it with friends in the past and nothing changed, or we’ve found ourselves back in the same situation, it might seem there’s no point going over the same ground again.
Initiatives such as Time to Talk Day can give the impression that asking for help or talking about our problems is easy. As I wrote in a post for Time to Talk Day 2022, “[o]pening up to someone can be a scary thing to do. It requires a great deal of trust, and there’s no guarantee of a helpful or supportive response.”
We might be too low in energy — physically, mentally or emotionally — to reach out, even when we recognise it would be helpful to do so. This can be the case if we’re depressed, but other conditions can leave us incapable of reaching out, including chronic insomnia, stress, anxiety, or fatigue. Someone who scarcely has the energy to keep going may lack the resources to risk opening up to the wrong person.
I’m used to processing things over long periods of time, either in my own head or in my personal journal. My thoughts and feelings can seem too complex, diffuse, or vague to put into words so that someone else can understand what’s going on for me. The very effort of attempting to do so can put me off trying, especially if the situation seems one without any specific resolution or fix.
Paradoxically, a fear of clarity can also hold us back. Telling someone our problems and issues makes them real. We can no longer deny or ignore them. It’s like Schrödinger opening the box and discovering whether the cat inside is alive or dead. Discussing a situation can crystallise it out in ways that might not have happened if we’d kept things to ourselves. It’s false — and unkind — to suggest that talking things over will always lead to a positive or desirable outcome.
Telling someone brings the other person into our situation, so that they’re now also involved. That can be helpful and reassuring, but it’s also scary. We may be unsure of their reaction. Will they understand, or at least hear us without judgment? Will they jump in with fixes, or bombard us with stories and advice based on their own experience, without checking if that’s what we want?
Can they handle what we tell them? Will they keep the information to themselves? Years ago, a friend told me she felt unsafe talking to me about how badly she was doing. She feared I’d escalate things by alerting her family or emergency services. I explored some of these topics previously in A Friend’s Guide to Secrets.
Even when we trust the person to handle what we tell them, we may worry it will change our relationship permanently, over what might be a temporary problem or situation. We can’t unsay what we have said. Sometimes, I prefer to keep things to myself and deal with them in my own way, in my own time, rather than risk damaging a friendship by opening up.
That brings up another issue, which is having the right person to talk to at a given moment. Depending on what is going on for me, I might feel able to talk to this person but not that person, not because I trust them differently but simply because one is more likely to understand or help me than the other.
It’s important to recognise that a situation or topic may be too personal or triggering for someone to discuss. I once needed to share my concern about a friend’s situation, but had two people tell me they were unable to hear it because it was too triggering for them. I understood completely, but it’s another aspect of the “talk to someone” message that — ironically — is rarely talked about.
All these considerations raise questions of honesty, openness, and trust. Don’t we have a responsibility to be honest about what we’re going through? If we don’t talk, how will anyone know what we need? How can they help make things better if they don’t know we’re suffering? How can we help other people if they won’t talk to us?
In encouraging our friends and loved ones to reach out, we need to avoid pushing them into sharing more than they want or feel able to. The line between encouragement and coersion is subtle and can become blurred. It’s right to want the people we care about to be okay. It’s also natural to want to feel we’re doing all we can to help. It’s easy to cross that line, however, and push people to seek help in ways that appear valid to us, but may be unhelpful or inappropriate to the person concerned.
I can only imagine the pain of losing a loved one to suicide, but I do know how it feels when friends have hurt themselves or put themselves at risk. It’s natural to wish we’d been able to do more, but it’s easy to slip into believing we could have stopped it happening if only we’d known. And from there it’s a small step to blaming them — implicitly or explicitly — for not telling us what was going on or allowing us to save them.
The conversations I’ve had over the years with Fran and others who know the reality of living with mental health issues, including suicidal ideation, lead me to believe that pressure and guilt-tripping is only ever counterproductive, and may be counterprotective. It certainly wouldn’t encourage me to open up, if I found myself in that kind of situation.
With all that said, you might wonder why I choose to mark Time to Talk Day at all, or why Fran and I promote the value and importance of keeping the channels of communicating open. Talking is important, whether it’s talking with friends and family, or with doctors, therapists, counsellors, and other professionals. Having someone there we can open up to when we need to is powerfully protective, as is holding space so that others feel safe sharing with us, when they choose to.
It’s important to recognise, though, that talking isn’t always enough, and isn’t always what we most need. I’d like the message of Time to Talk Day to include a reminder not to put undue pressure on people — ourselves included — to talk if they don’t want to. Nor is it helpful to judge people if they can’t, if they choose to talk to other people instead of us, or if they have other ways of handling what they’re going through.
I’m going to close with a conversation I had with one of my friends in March, which in many ways inspired this post.
Martin: My latest blog went up today, about keeping secrets. I was pondering what to write about next. Possibly about some of the reasons someone might not want to talk to friends and others about how they are doing or feeling.
Roiben: There are lots of those.
Martin: Maybe too many to explore in a blog post.
Roiben: No, it’s a great idea. Especially if you can group them to enable people to stop and think. That can be a good thing to do sometimes, from both sides. Because if they are a friend, then that stop and think may help the friendship develop.
Martin: You mean from the perspective of the person sharing (or not sharing) and the person who might be there to listen?
Roiben: Yes. From the side of the listening friend so they understand why they may not be the go-to person right now, and that the space needed doesn’t mean they are not a friend. Also from the side of the person who is struggling, to help them understand why they are finding it hard to open up, as sometimes the reasons are automatically implemented as a reflex. If both sides can understand and respect the other side then their friendship will be stronger and more enduring for it.
Martin: You have given me a new perspective. Thank you.
I’m grateful to Roiben and the many other people whose thoughts and insights have contributed to my understanding. It’s an important topic, even if it has taken me ten months to bring my treatment of it to fruition.
Here are links to a few related posts which discuss supportive friendships, communication, and openness (or the lack of it).
For more information about Time to Talk Day, check out the Time to Talk and Rethink Mental Illness websites. If you or someone you know is struggling right now, we list a number of international crisis and support lines on our resources page.
Over to You
In this article I’ve explored some of the reasons we might have for not talking about what’s going on for us. I’ve endeavoured to include the perspective of those on the outside, who are willing to listen and to help but who may not be aware of what’s going on.
Have you ever wanted to talk to someone but felt unable or unwilling to do so? What were your reasons and how did you resolve them, if you did? How do you feel if you realise someone you care about didn’t confide in you about how they were feeling? Where does the responsibility lie for taking care of ourselves and others?
Fran and I would love to hear from you, either in the comments below or via our contact page.
Photo by Priscilla Du Preez at Unsplash.