Managing your mental health: Finding your voice

Mental health blogger Fiona Kennedy discusses why it can be so damaging to ignore what we're feeling

Managing your mental health: Finding your voice

By Patrick Maloney (Flickr Creative Commons)

There were many factors over the years that came together in a perfect storm to create depression and what was classed as borderline personality disorder.

I’ve touched on quite a few of them over the last few months – lack of self-compassion, inability to take responsibility for my own needs, lack of understanding of what mental health actually means, fear of change and a deeply entrenched belief that everything that goes wrong around me is my fault, to name but a few.

This is far from an exhaustive list but even typing it has reminded me how under those circumstances depression was all but unavoidable.

Compounding all of that was another issue – for most of my life, I’ve had an almost pathological inability to speak my mind, to say how I really feel. 

It links quite closely with the belief that every time I come across someone in bad form, it must be my fault. My inability to cope with intense emotions from other people led to a fear of creating those emotions, and so if there was something on my mind that was potentially contentious or could cause anger and upset, it seemed far safer to keep it to myself.

I was so, so wrong.

It may have been safer in the short term, in that arguments were avoided and difficult conversations could be skirted around or minimised. But there was a huge problem with that strategy. I was lying to the one person I could not get away from - myself.

Lying to ourselves is so damaging. I spent many, many years with a profound disbelief in anyone who told me we can control how we feel because when I was severely depressed that felt like an insult, an accusation. How could I possibly control that?

What I’ve come to understand, painfully slowly, is that a lot of the time, we can control what we feel, but, the crucial first step is to acknowledge that feeling. Then begins the work of doing something about it.

"I was literally choking on it"

I met a therapist recently who urged me to find my voice. I believe she knew exactly what it was I had to say, but I could not bring myself to admit it out loud, because that made it real. That made it something I could no longer avoid, something I couldn’t pretend my way out of. 

It had become such a problem that I was literally choking on it – for months I had an almost permanent lump in my throat that had no physical cause whatsoever, and the more I tried to ignore what I was feeling, the bigger that lump got. 

The other scary part of admitting something to ourselves is that once it’s out there, we need to act on it.

Admitting a problem but then doing absolutely nothing to change it is a pointless exercise. There is temporary relief in acknowledging a difficulty, but until we act, we will continue to struggle in exactly the same way as we did before, only this time we have the added bonus of a giant stick to beat ourselves with – we know what the problem is, but we also know we’re not doing anything about it.

Change can be terrifying. For years, everything in my life stayed exactly as it was, because I was safer that way.

Unfortunately, I was also deeply unhappy which ultimately led to depression. This was a depression that no medication in the world was ever going to cure, because no medication could possibly bring about real and lasting change in my life.

I recently found my voice. It was every bit as hard as I thought it would be, but I’m still here. The world didn’t come crashing to an end, and the changes that have come about as a result of that conversation are quite extraordinary.

The relief of not carrying the weight of such a huge secret is immense. The lump in my throat is gone.

We can manage change

Believing myself to be responsible for the thoughts and subsequent actions of others kept me in damaging situations for far longer and far more often than it should have over the years.

My history of not speaking my mind for fear of how other people will react and how it will make them feel didn’t do me, or those around me, any favours at all.

I said it last week, and it’s worth reiterating. One of the greatest gifts we can give ourselves is freedom from the belief that we are directly responsible for how other people feel.

For sure, we can influence it – words and actions can really hurt. But we cannot control their response.

If there’s something on your mind, something you’re holding back for fear of the change it may bring about, ask yourself 'what’s the worst that could happen?' And know that whatever change comes, you can manage it, and come out stronger.

We have an incredible capacity to learn and grow, once we give ourselves permission to make it happen.

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Fiona Kennedy writes regularly about mental health issues on her blog sunnyspellsandscatteredshowers.org. You can also find her on Facebook and Twitter

If you are affected by any of the issues raised in this article you can contact Samaritans free anytime from any phone on 116 123 or visit www.samaritans.ie to find details of your nearest branch. You can also find online information at www.yourmentalhealth.ie