“I’m Not Okay”

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Is that such a strange answer? Scary? Uncomfortable? Maybe you’ve sent that text before and were relieved you did it. Maybe you regret it.

Why then, does sharing ‘negative’ emotions fill us with so much apprehension, compared to a simple ‘I’m good’? (If you feel no apprehension, skip this part) The idea of the ‘stiff upper lip’ all Brits supposedly harness is defined by the legendary Wikipedia as one that ‘displays fortitude in the face of adversity’ or ‘exercises great self restraint in the expression of emotion’. That doesn’t sound too bad. ‘Keep Calm And Carry On’. Great stuff. Conquer your emotions, get the job done. In wartime Britain, yes, panic isn’t exactly conducive to battle strategies. Mental health, however, is an entirely different battle.

It’s incredibly vulnerable to send that message. The moment its gone, you’ve exposed yourself to the follow up- ‘why?’, and does anyone want to launch into all the reasons why? What if there is no reason? Mental illness, after all, doesn’t always need a specific event to show its face.

On the other hand, if we’re desperate to talk it can be hard to know where to begin and easy to overthink, and that’s all just from your end of the phone.  In the short term, sending that ‘yeah, I’m fine’ can seem a whole lot easier. Stronger, even, because while it remains our problem it remains under our control to fix, and when we’ve come out the other side no one else will have had to be bothered by it.

The problem, of course, is when we ‘fail’. Depression, anxiety, PTSD – none of them play by the rules that we might want them to. They’re involuntary, and pressuring ourselves to deal with it alone can lead to a very real possibility of feeling ashamed when we can’t simply ‘get over it’, having fallen short of the standard we imagined. A reaction might be that stiff upper lip, to repeat the mantra that we’ll try again next time, and next time we won’t fail. Except you’re not failing in the first place.

Opening up, while it can feel terrifying, is never selfish. It is not weak. Not if you’re the cheery one, the quiet one, the one who has it all together, or because of your gender. It’s incredibly brave. You are placing trust in that person, and not in a small way.

There might be times that we get it wrong. Sometimes, that chat might not be enough. Sometimes they might want space, because as hard as it is to share those feelings, it can be just as difficult to hear them, especially from someone you care about. This is not your fault, or theirs. We might feel scared that we’ve shared too much, or fail to follow up when someone confides in us. It’s easy to let that fear keep us silent again, to put on that stiff upper lip. It’s easy, too, to say that we shouldn’t let that fear hold us back, and instead we should focus on our next decisions and try to do better.

Of course, the reality is much more emotionally complex. What’s left, however, is your choice. No one is going to have all the answers or a quick solution to the situation, including yourself. If you feel safe enough to open up, take that step, even if it doesn’t feel the ‘right time’ in a conversation. Equally, if you don’t want to open up, try to be kind to yourself and don’t slip into feeling ashamed. And, perhaps most importantly, if someone opens up to you, listen.

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