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How To Share With the World, Even About Mental Illness

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How To Share With the World, Even About Mental Illness

My hand jerked back, as if the computer mouse had turned into a real mouse. Would they think I am crazy? Would they whisper behind my back? Would they never trust me again? These anxious thoughts ran through my head as I was about to make a post revealing my mental illness to my Facebook friends.

Whenever the thought of telling others about my mental illness entered my mind, I felt a wave of anxiety pass through me. My head began to pound, my heart sped up, my breathing became fast and shallow, almost like I was suffocating. If I didn’t catch it in time, the anxiety could lead to a full-blown panic attack, or sudden and extreme fatigue, with my body collapsing in place. Not a pretty picture.

For 6 months, I had been suffering from a mood disorder characterized by high anxiety, sudden and extreme fatigue, and panic attacks. I really wanted to share much earlier. It would have felt great to be genuinely authentic with people in my life, and not hide who I am. Plus, I would have been proud to contribute to overcoming the stigma against mental illness in our society, especially since this stigma impacts me on such a personal level.

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My Own Anxiety

Ironically, the very stigma against mental illness, combined with my own excessive anxiety response, made it very hard for me to share. I was really anxious about whether friends and acquaintances would turn away from me. I was also very concerned about the impact on my professional career of sharing publicly, due to the stigma in academia against mental illness, including at my workplace.

Still, I did eventually start discussing my mental illness with some very close friends who I was very confident would support me. And one conversation really challenged my mental map, in other words how I perceive reality, about sharing my story of mental illness.

My friend told me something that really struck me, namely his perspective about how great would it be if all people who needed professional help with their mental health actually went to get such help. One of the main obstacles, as research shows, is the stigma against mental health. We discussed how one of the best ways to deal with such stigma is for well-functioning people with mental illness to come out of the closet about their condition.

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    Well, I am one of these well-functioning people. I have a great job and do it well, have wonderful relationships, and participate in all sorts of civic activities. The vast majority of people who know me don’t realize I suffer from a mental illness.

    Forcing Myself to Think About It

    That conversation motivated me to think seriously through the roadblocks thrown up by the emotional part of my brain. Previously, I never sat down for a few minutes and forced myself to think what good things might happen if I pushed past all the anxiety and stress of telling people in my life about my mental illness.

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    I realized that my mind was just flinching away, scared of the short-term pain of experiencing anxiety and stress of sharing about my condition. This flinching away prevented me from really thinking clearly about the long-term benefits to me and to others of sharing my story of making the kind of difference I wanted to make in the world and being authentic with people in my life. I recognized that I might be falling for a thinking error that scientists call hyperbolic discounting, a reluctance to make short-term sacrifices for much higher long-term rewards.

    To combat this problem, I imagined what world I wanted to live in a year from now – one where I shared about this situation now on my Facebook profile, or one where I did not. This approach is based on research showing that future-oriented thinking is very helpful for dealing with thinking errors associated with focusing on the present.

    In the world where I would share right now about my condition, I would in the short term be anxious about what people think of me after they find out. Anytime I saw someone who found out for the first time, I would be afraid about the impact on that person’s opinion of me. I would be watching her or his behavior closely for signs of distancing from me. And this would not only be my anxiety: I was quite confident that some people would not want to associate with me due to my mental illness. However, over time, this close watching and anxious thinking would diminish. All the people who knew me previously would find out. All new people who met me would learn about my condition, since I would not keep it a secret. I would make the kind of difference I wanted to make in the world by fighting mental stigma in our society. Just as important, it would be a huge burden off my back to not hide myself and be authentic with people in my life. This would be a great benefit to me in the long term.

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    Imagining the Alternative

    I imagined a second world. I would continue to hide my mental health condition from everyone but a few close friends. I would not be making the kind of impact on our society that I knew I would be able to make. I would always have to keep this secret under wraps, and worry about people finding out about it. I would always be stressed about hiding my true self, always worried about people somehow finding out, always and feeling like a hypocrite. Always regretting the chance to make the kind of impact I knew I could make. Moreover, likely people would find out about it anyway, whether if I chose to share about it or some other way, and I would get all the negative consequences later.

    I shuddered when I imagined that kind of life. With that shudder, I knew that the first world was much more attractive to me. So I decided to take the plunge, and made a plan to share about the situation publicly. As part of doing so, I made that Facebook post. I had such a good reaction from my Facebook friends that I decided to make the post publicly available on my Facebook to all, not only my friends. Moreover, I decided to become an activist in talking about my mental condition publicly, as in this essay that you are reading. I also published articles about my condition in prominent academic media channels (Inside Higher Ed and Diverse: Issues In Higher Education) to challenge the stigma against mental illness in academia. I also shared my story with a local newspaper, to raise awareness of mental health and deal with stigma against mental illness.

    What can you do?

    So how can you apply this story to your life? Whether you want to come out of the closet to people in your life about some unpleasant news, or more broadly overcome the short-term emotional pain of taking an action that would help you achieve your long-term goals, here are some strategies.

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    1. Consider the world where you want to live a year from now. What would the world look like if you take the action? What would it look like if you did not take the action?
    2. Evaluate all the important costs and benefits of each world. What world looks the most attractive a year from now?
    3. Decide on the actions needed to get to that world, make a plan, and take the plunge. Be flexible about revising your plan based on new information such as reactions from others, as I did regarding sharing about my own condition.

    Featured photo credit: Coming Out via flickr.com

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    Dr. Gleb Tsipursky

    Cognitive neuroscientist and behavioral economist; CEO of Disaster Avoidance Experts; multiple best-selling author

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    Last Updated on November 18, 2021

    10 Proven Ways to Judge a Person’s Character

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    10 Proven Ways to Judge a Person’s Character

    We all fall into the trap of judging a person’s character by their appearance. How wrong we are! All too often, the real character of the person only appears when some negative event hits them or you. Then you may see a toxic person emerging from the ruins and it is often a shock.

    A truly frightening example is revealed in the book by O’Toole in Bowman called Dangerous Instincts: How Gut Instincts Betray Us. A perfectly respectable, charming, well dressed neighbor was found to have installed a torture chamber in his garage where he was systematically abusing kidnapped women. This is an extreme example, but it does show how we can be totally deceived by a person’s physical appearance, manners and behavior.

    So, what can you do? You want to be able to assess personal qualities when you come into contact with colleagues, fresh acquaintances and new friends who might even become lifelong partners. You want to know if they are:

    • honest
    • reliable
    • competent
    • kind and compassionate
    • capable of taking the blame
    • able to persevere
    • modest and humble
    • pacific and can control anger.

    The secret is to reserve judgment and take your time. Observe them in certain situations; look at how they react. Listen to them talking, joking, laughing, explaining, complaining, blaming, praising, ranting, and preaching. Only then will you be able to judge their character. This is not foolproof, but if you follow the 10 ways below, you have a pretty good chance of not ending up in an abusive relationship.

    1. Is anger a frequent occurrence?

    All too often, angry reactions which may seem to be excessive are a sign that there are underlying issues. Do not think that every person who just snaps and throws his/her weight around mentally and physically is just reacting normally. Everyone has an occasional angry outburst when driving or when things go pear-shaped.

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    But if this is almost a daily occurrence, then you need to discover why and maybe avoid that person. Too often, anger will escalate to violent and aggressive behavior. You do not want to be near someone who thinks violence can solve personal or global problems.

    2. Can you witness acts of kindness?

    How often do you see this person being kind and considerate? Do they give money to beggars, donate to charity, do voluntary work or in some simple way show that they are willing to share the planet with about 7 billion other people?

    I was shocked when a guest of mine never showed any kindness to the weak and disadvantaged people in our town. She was ostensibly a religious person, but I began to doubt the sincerity of her beliefs.

    “The best index to a person’s character is how he treats people who can’t do him any good, and how he treats people who can’t fight back.”

    Abigail Van Buren

    3. How does this person take the blame?

    Maybe you know that s/he is responsible for a screw-up in the office or even in not turning up on time for a date. Look at their reaction. If they start blaming other colleagues or the traffic, well, this is an indication that they are not willing to take responsibility for their mistakes.

    4. Don’t use Facebook as an indicator.

    You will be relieved to know that graphology (the study of that forgotten skill of handwriting) is no longer considered a reliable test of a person’s character. Neither is Facebook stalking, fortunately. A study showed that Facebook use of foul language, sexual innuendo and gossip were not reliable indicators of a candidate’s character or future performance in the workplace.

    5. Read their emails.

    Now a much better idea is to read the person’s emails. Studies show that the use of the following can indicate certain personality traits:

    • Too many exclamation points may reveal a sunny disposition
    • Frequent errors may indicate apathy
    • Use of smileys is the only way a person can smile at you
    • Use of the third person may reveal a certain formality
    • Too many question marks can show anger
    • Overuse of capital letters is regarded as shouting. They are a definite no-no in netiquette, yet a surprising number of  people still use them.

    6. Watch out for the show offs.

    Listen to people as they talk. How often do they mention their achievements, promotions, awards and successes? If this happens a lot, it is a sure indication that this person has an over-inflated view of his/her achievements. They are unlikely to be modest or show humility. What a pity!  Another person to avoid.

    7. Look for evidence of perseverance.

    A powerful indicator of grit and tenacity is when a person persists and never gives up when they really want to achieve a life goal. Look for evidence of them keeping going in spite of enormous difficulties.

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    Great achievements by scientists and inventors all bear the hallmark of perseverance. We only have to think of Einstein, Edison (who failed thousands of times) and Nelson Mandela to get inspiration. The US Department of Education is in no doubt about how grit, tenacity and perseverance will be key success factors for youth in the 21st century.

    8. Their empathy score is high.

    Listen to how they talk about the less fortunate members of our society such as the poor, immigrants and the disabled. Do you notice that they talk in a compassionate way about these people? The fact that they even mention them is a strong indicator of empathy.

    People with zero empathy will never talk about the disadvantaged. They will rarely ask you a question about a difficult time or relationship. They will usually steer the conversation back to themselves. These people have zero empathy and in extreme cases, they are psychopaths who never show any feelings towards their victims.

    9. Learn how to be socially interactive.

    We are social animals and this is what makes us so uniquely human. If a person is isolated or a loner, this may be a negative indicator of their character. You want to meet a person who knows about trust, honesty and loyalty. The only way to practice these great qualities is to actually interact socially. The great advantage is that you can share problems and celebrate success and joy together.

    “One can acquire everything in solitude, except character.”

    Stendhal

     10. Avoid toxic people.

    These people are trying to control others and often are failing to come to terms with their own failures. Typical behavior and conversations may concern:

    • Envy or jealousy
    • Criticism of partners, colleagues and friends
    • Complaining about their own lack of success
    • Blaming others for their own bad luck or failure
    • Obsession with themselves and their problems

    Listen to these people talk and you will quickly discover that you need to avoid them at all costs because their negativity will drag you down. In addition, as much as you would like to help them, you are not qualified to do so.

    Now, having looked at some of the best ways to judge a person, what about yourself? How do others see you? Why not take Dr. Phil’s quiz and find out. Can you bear it?

    Featured photo credit: Jacek Dylag via unsplash.com

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