When you feel stressed, anxious, or sad do you share your related thoughts and feelings with others? If you do, have you ever thought about why it is that you are able to open up and be vulnerable? If you don't have the tendency to do that, then I encourage you to ask yourself why. Why do you think it is so hard to share your challenges or struggles?
You may be afraid of sharing because you fear that you'll be thought of as someone with a disorder or with problems. You might worry that others will think something is wrong with you and perhaps you don’t want them to worry. You might not want the negative attention on you because you believe others view you in a certain way. Often times, we feel anxiety about sharing our most vulnerable challenges because we don't want our "perfect" image to get stained.
A very bright young woman I work with had a big realization when she came to my office today, stating, “I realize that the best way for me to overcome my fears and anxieties is to face them and do the opposite of what I usually do.” This might not make sense to some of you, but basically this has translated into allowing herself to be uncomfortable and vulnerable. The best way to overcome the perceived stigma and embarrassment associated with mental illnesses is to join the movement of the millions of people who are being vulnerable and sharing their stories and experiences.
According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, about 16 million adults in the U.S. suffer from depression each year. The National Alliance on Mental Health reports that one in five adults experiences mental illness each year. Even more concerning, suicide was the second leading cause of death in people ages 10-24 in 2019. We’ve all seen the statistics at this point, and the truth is, you probably don’t need to see those numbers to be alarmed. How many of us struggle with our mental health or know people who are struggling? Unfortunately, most of us deal with the effects of mental illness in some way, shape, or form on a daily basis.
As a licensed therapist, it is obvious to me and other mental health professionals that while it might be challenging to open up about things that you are dealing with, once you do it you feel better. However, I recognize that it’s easier said than done. I’ve listed out some concrete steps you can take to help yourself open up and begin your journey toward vulnerability.
Step 1: Know the facts.
Dr. Brene Brown spent many many years researching the concept of vulnerability. I encourage you to watch this amazing TED Talk, where she breaks down the idea and explains how vulnerability separates people who feel a sense of worth and belonging from those who don’t. After interviewing hundreds of people, she discovered that vulnerability leads to concepts like worthiness and whole-hearted living. Research shows a connection between vulnerability and mental health, which is important to keep in mind if you are someone who is skeptical about the idea of therapy or even just expressing your feelings.
Step 2: Understand why you don't share or allow yourself to be vulnerable.
If you are not the type to share your thoughts and feelings with others, do you wonder why? I used to refrain from sharing my thoughts and feelings because I thought that if I did, it would make me feel worse. As a result, I continued to suppress my emotions. I was also never taught to share my feelings as a child and therefore I internalized them. In reality, today, when I share my thoughts and feelings, it might be hard at first, but I always end up feeling a sense of relief.
Step 3: Ask yourself: What will happen if I share with others?
Think about something that you are going through that you wish others knew but instead you held it in. For example, for years I struggled with an eating disorder (ED) and I never wanted to share out of fear that others would think that I wasn’t a skinny, perfect person. I feared this would tarnish people’s view of me forever. I also didn’t want others to worry about me. On a deeper level, I thought that if I shared my struggles with my ED, others would put a lot of pressure on me and I would have to give the ED away, which, in my mind, equaled gaining weight or being “fat.” On the other hand, I sometimes thought if I told people about my ED, I would have to continue with it — I would feel pressure to look like I still have an ED.
These are all thoughts that spiraled through my mind and you can see just how easily it is to convince yourself not to share with others. Writing down these thoughts is a good first step in vulnerability. Acknowledging these thoughts is enough for you to take a step back and realize that they are not good reasons to keep your thoughts contained. Other times, seeing them in plain sight can get you to start opening up slowly to one person, or perhaps a therapist.
Step 4: Think about another way or perspective of looking at the situation.
Encourage yourself to think of another possibility of what could happen when sharing your true thoughts and feelings with others. For instance, let’s say that you have decided to get a divorce and you are embarrassed to share the news with others because you are worried about them judging you or feeling sorry for you. Is it possible that others would be supportive and loving when you share the news? Is it possible that they wouldn’t judge you at all and instead, support you and tell you that you are doing the right thing?
Step 5: Be aware of the domino effect caused by vulnerability.
The domino effect is one of my favorites and I am finding this over and over again when I share my own struggles. It might take some practice, but after not expressing myself for so many years, I am now at a place where I am able to share without feeling bad about it. I realize I am just one example, but I am confident you can do it too. What I found with myself and my clients is that when you open up and you are real and authentic with another person, incredible things happen. Even if the other person doesn’t necessarily share their vulnerability with you, you are demonstrating that there is no shame in sharing your struggles. The ripple effect creates patterns in your relationships and lead to an overall healthier self.
Sometimes it takes a trained professional to help you or your child work get to a more vulnerable place— I did not get here on my own! If you’re looking for help, it can never hurt to reach out.
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With much love,