I’ve been spending the additional time this last year has afforded me to step back from some of my unconscious behaviours and witness them as a spectator for the first time. While it has felt uncomfortable at times I can honestly recommend it. Like a workout for the brain, it’s felt exhausting yet ultimately enhancing and cathartic. It’s like I’ve kind of known me for years, but only to chat about the usual top level stuff. I’ve finally taken that next step and invited me over for dinner, then stayed up all night talking about what really matters. I’m finally trying to get to know myself properly and understand some of what makes me behave the way I do. For me this has been primarily working out why my coping mechanisms failed me, why anxiety and panic has become such a part of my life lately, and how can I ensure that this does not impact the way I will parent.
What is it about our minds that makes us wait until something goes wrong before we learn how to look after them? Our species tends to err on the side of caution, it’s what has kept us evolving for millions of years, but for some reason many of us neglect looking after our minds and instead accept coping over thriving; repression over ownership. Why is it, for example, that diet and exercise to keep our bodies in shape is so normalised, but articulating how we really feel can still be so uncomfortable?
Perhaps not all of us need to reach breaking point to push the fix. What if we just need to have the right conversation or consume the right content? Maybe there’s the perfect formula of words to help each of us realise that we are all worthy of allowing our mental health some TLC once in a while. This idea is what has spurred me on to talking and writing more about my thought processes. With the hope that if you can relate to what I’m trying to convey then we might be able to make some sense of it all. Then perhaps, between us, encourage others to do the same.
It’s stigma that makes us believe having these conversations shows weakness. At some point in history male vulnerability began being mistaken for, or reframed as, weakness and this has kept many men from discussing their struggles. It’s this stigma that has us creating realities and coping mechanisms around us to help us hide the tough bits away. Conditioning ourselves to keep our own needs at arm’s length and hold back what’s really going on. Silencing important parts of who we are for fear of failure and judgement or, perhaps even more frighteningly, success and self-actualisation. It’s hard to unlearn the idea that you’re a burden and that you have to pretend to be OK all the time for everyone else’s sake, especially when you’re struggling. Be honest, what would you be like if you took off all the different masks you wear for the different roles you play? What would your truth be?
It’s a slow process but I’m gradually learning that being validated a bit for who we truly are is infinitely more affirming and rewarding than being validated a lot for who we’re burning ourselves out trying to be. I know it’s not going to be easy, but I do think we can change if we have the right motivation. So, who’s with me?! It’s OK if you’re not, or if you can’t relate to anything I’m saying. I appreciate you taking the time to read this all the same. For the first time I actually feel like I can travel this path on my own. It’s genuine progress for me to accept that people don’t have to agree with the things I say. Just knowing I can put honest things out and have a go, without it being perfect or knowing if it’s going to work is a step in the right direction.
I’m coming to terms with the fact that some of my relationships have diminished as I deviate from my usual path. Perhaps Covid can be blamed; perhaps it was just the right time. As I’ve pulled back from certain people and situations which seemed to compound my anxiety, I’ve realised that perhaps I was doing much of the heavy lifting anyway. Undoubtedly this was from that part of me that needs to know people are always happy with me. Even though I still feel it in there somewhere, I know I don’t need that validation anymore. Of course, like anything addictive, there can be withdrawal and relapse. For me, this comes in the form of seeking reassurance, assuming people’s motivations, avoidance, guilt, shame etc. At least though I now recognise that these things are not grounded in reality. They are not the fault of any other person, nor do they need to be a permanent feature of me. They are patterns and scripts which I have unknowingly developed over a long time. Mechanisms which keep me hyper-aware of what I need to do to keep the semblance of ‘happiness’ going. Now I can see that they don’t serve me well, I can no longer justify spending my limited time and resources on them. If I’m to be truly effective and of service to the world and as a parent, then I must start working on delaying gratification, writing more positive scripts and holding onto healthier habits. The more I commit to these improvements to my mindset, the more I seem to connect with the right people and action. And as this cycle (hopefully) continues, I’ve found myself ever more fascinated by the wellbeing of myself and those around me. I want to understand our motivations and goals and try to learn more about what’s holding us all back from talking about where we want to be.
I know the subject of ‘mental health’ can put some people off. It can be triggering and it can direct conversations deeper down the iceberg to places people aren’t comfortable opening up about. Plus it’s always seemed to me like people are either all about it, or not about it at all. I know these are my own previous misjudgements coming to the surface, but that’s my point – It is possible to change those judgements. The reality is that once you realise there are undiscovered parts of you that need work, and that discussing those parts can encourage those around you to do the same, it can become paramount. Of course I don’t commit to this being my only topic of discussion, but I do hope that I’ve shown we can talk about our difficult times, without it being too upsetting or self-deprecating. I’d like to think that as we continue to tackle the stigma, we can approach the subject on a much more natural and conversational level. As well as it feeling less upsetting, being casual about mental health if we can, allows us to include those who may otherwise feel they must avoid the subject. Maybe because they can’t find the words or they don’t have the experiences from which to draw the presence required to be there for someone in their hour of need.
We all have mental health. It affects us all. Granted some are in such a good (or perhaps oblivious) place that they genuinely believe we’re all just a making it up. There are also many who still think that people should just ‘get a grip’ or ‘man up’. Or that mental health is just some distant problem that their weird uncle had. Or something that only those in asylums need to worry about. But as I’ve found out, any of us can join the 1 in 4 people in this country affected by a ‘mental health problem’ each year. I went from a sociable, albeit overthinking, extrovert to a socially anxious panic attack waiting to happen, all within a matter of months. Surrounded by people who care, I still initially chose to hide my struggle due to the stigma and that deep-seated need to appear strong and happy. I am not alone in this, men failing to talk about their mental health remains a silent emergency – Only 36% of referrals to NHS talking therapies are for men. Men are nearly three times as likely to become alcohol dependent and three times more likely to take their own lives.
We don’t wait until our cars break down, we MOT them. We’d have no problem talking to a doctor or a friend about a broken leg. The same should be said for mental health. The truth is I didn’t practice what I’m now trying not to be too preachy about. I can’t say I was blissfully unaware, I should have noticed how hard I was working. How much I needed everything to be under my control and everyone to be happy with me or my day or week or month would be consumed by what people were thinking and how I could fix it. Or how I accepted the negativity of certain individuals because, well, it’s a small price to pay for their validation. But I didn’t see it or if I did catch a glimpse, I didn’t slow down long enough to acknowledge it. I was too busy on the hamster-wheel holding out for that next weekend, or trip, or gadget. Holding out hope that the next ‘thing’ would bring that elusive inner peace to me. I realise now all that burying this stuff does is give it chance to grow roots and come back stronger. It’s hard to have gratitude for any of the incredible opportunities life affords us while we’re using all our energy just to go through the motions and pretend we’re alright.
It’s a sobering realisation to arrive at: that if external validation, or the increasing acquisition of ‘stuff’ was ever going to resolve our inner angst it would have done so by now. And yet so many of us carry on regardless, without considering if there’s a better way. Jim Carrey said, ‘I think everybody should get rich and famous and have everything they ever dreamed of, so they can see that it’s not the answer’.