05/21/2020 Mind-Body Health
Communication is key. Especially during these trying times, communication is more important than ever. Here are some general tips for communicating your mental health needs with a loved one.
As the world faces the pandemic of COVID-19, and you do your part to stay safe and protect each other, you may find yourself feeling a range of emotions. While your physical safety is of utmost importance, the facts of unemployment, financial instability, personal loss of a loved one, changes in long-anticipated celebrations, and general uncertainty can wreak havoc on your mental well-being. You may be experiencing solitude and loneliness. Alternately, you may be spending a lot more time than usual with your children, partner, or extended family. These changes can lead to changes in your ability to feel prepared to cope with life.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), mental health is, “a state of well-being in which the individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community.” Living through a global health crisis of this proportion is bound to have an impact on our mental health. That being said, we will each have unique experiences—some negative, some positive—based on our intersectional identities. Where you live, your religion, race, gender identity, sexual orientation, age, and many other factors, and how these aspects of your identity interplay, play a role in how you will experience life during this time.
Whatever your current situation or mental state, it’s possible you have reached a point in which you have decided to intentionally focus on your mental health needs. Your well-being is paramount. Mental health is sometimes a matter of taking some time for yourself to relax and rejuvenate; mental health is sometimes a matter of crisis intervention, a matter of life or death.
Managing mental health is a life-long practice. Healthy communication, too, is a life-long practice. Your mental health needs change (sometimes daily!); therefore, your communication about them will be ongoing. You may make the choice to share your needs with a loved one or seek the help of a trained professional. Expressing your needs for well-being will most likely not be a one-time discussion. Considering the shame and stigma sometimes surrounding mental health and well-being, it takes immense courage and vulnerability to express your experience. Even considering letting someone in on your struggles, pain, or progress, is a huge win.
Before you go blasting your struggles for all to see on social media, consider who may be the best, safest, and most significant person with whom to share your mental health needs. Who is a loved one you trust? Why does this person need to know what’s going on with you? What is it about this person that invites your vulnerability? Does this person deserve to know what’s going on with you? Your story is sacred, and though you may not always receive the support and help you desire, it is important to consider why you want to share and what exactly you want to communicate.
Set a Clear Intention
As you prepare to share your experience with a trusted loved one, consider your reasons for sharing.
- Are you disclosing this private information because you want to connect?
- Are you revealing something about yourself because you want to apologize or make amends for your behavior?
- Are you hoping to receive some help from this person?
When you get clear about your purpose, your words will be clearer. When your words are clearer, you are more likely to be better understood and to have your needs met.
It can be helpful to share your intention at the outset of the conversation. Let your loved one in on the reason you have chosen to bring this up at this time. You may say, “I just needed to get this off my chest; it was eating me up inside” or “I am feeling alone in this and I wanted someone to know” or “I have something going on that I think I need some help with.” Sharing a secret, such as a mental health challenge, can have lasting health benefits. Once you are clear on your intentions, prepare yourself with calming techniques such as restorative yoga, breathwork, or a grounding walk around the block.
Make a Specific Ask
As you prepare for your conversation, brush up on how to effectively use nonviolent communication (NVC). This technique for open dialogue, in which you listen empathetically and express yourself honestly, is also called conscious communication. Essentially, you should decide what you truly think would help you during this time and ask for it clearly. If appropriate, share what you are already doing to take responsibility for your mental health. Let them know what help you have already sought, what you are currently working on, what resources have you already used, or are planning to use.
Though you may be asking for something from your loved one, use “I” statements to communicate your needs, desires, or the boundaries you are expressing. If possible, differentiate between needs and desires. You may say, “I am experiencing a lot of loneliness lately. Would you be willing to talk on the phone with me more often? Would a phone call three times a week work for you?” or “I notice I’m feeling irritated a lot more lately. Would you mind if I spend an hour each morning doing my own thing while you watch the kids?” or “I’m feeling unsettled and I don’t know what to do. I’m wondering if you could help me brainstorm healthy ways to cope for when I feel overwhelmed.”
And finally, as much as possible, release expectations that your specific request will be met. You might prepare your ask and wish it to turn out a certain way, but the person you share with cannot always meet your needs.
Let Go of Expectations
Though you are welcome to state your needs, no one is required to meet them. You may make a mindful ask of someone else but, ultimately, you are responsible for taking care of yourself.
Though it may sound counterproductive, as you prepare to share your mental health needs, also prepare nonattachment to the outcome. If you have hurt the person you are sharing with in some way, it is very possible that they, and you, will have their own reactions, emotions, and needs to contend with. This is to be expected, and if possible, planned for. Allow the person you have shared with time to process what you have said, to do their own research, and to come back to your discussion later. You may say, “I realize what I have asked for is a lot. Let me know when you are ready to talk about this again, okay?” or “I know it may sound scary that I am asking for more space. I appreciate you considering doing this for me.”
You may believe this person can be of some help to you, and they very well may be, but it’s also possible that they do not know how or cannot help you in the ways you seek. It’s possible they will come back to you with a counteroffer: “Thanks for sharing that with me. I am managing my own well-being right now and although I want to be there for you, I cannot commit to talking on the phone three times a week. Would once a week be acceptable to you?” or “I can tell you have been irritated lately, and I support you having time for yourself, but mornings are really busy for me with work right now. Do you think I could watch the kids in the afternoon for an hour while you have time to yourself instead?”
Of course, if someone meets your vulnerability only with dismissal, judgment, or extreme defensiveness, or if their counterterms are unacceptable to you, remove yourself from the situation and seek help elsewhere. Perhaps there is a trusted friend or confidant who would be better suited to listening to you. Some other resources include the National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI) and the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255). There are also local resources in your area for mental health support, many of which are low-cost or free.
Mental health and well-being are essential aspects of life. During this time, and always, remember that you are not alone. It takes bravery and strength to create and maintain boundaries, to make changes to long-held relationship patterns, and to ask for help. It can be challenging to share of yourself. And as author Glennon Doyle says, “You can do hard things.”
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