Opening up can be deeply healing, but here we explore steps you can follow to ensure you take care of yourself when talking about hard topics
Many of us share difficult things we’ve been through, but it isn’t always easy – who hasn’t taken a deep breath while weighing up whether to tell a friend about an upsetting experience as you have coffee together?
Whether it’s opening up about mental illness to colleagues, or tweeting about first-hand experiences of discrimination, we’re encouraged to share our stories with others. These personal narratives help challenge stereotypes and raise awareness of different perspectives, as well as giving us a sense of ownership over difficult experiences and helping us feel heard. But as valuable as this sharing is, looking after ourselves when we do so is important to prevent us from feeling burned out, or adding to our anxieties.
For me, self-care when sharing is something I regularly think about. I’ve disclosed challenging times to those close to me on many occasions, and as a writer, I often write about difficult life events. I also work as an ‘expert by experience’ with a mental health social work charity, where I tell trainee social workers about what it’s like to live with mental ill-health. Sharing challenging times is an important part of my life.
The benefits of sharing
To better understand how we can look after ourselves when sharing, I spoke to counsellor Jenny Warwick.
“By saying out loud what has happened to you, you can help to start to process your thoughts and feelings,” she tells me. “You are engaging your thinking brain by working out how you say this, so that someone else can understand. This helps to get you out of your head and into the present.”
I find talking or writing about difficult experiences helps me make sense of what I’ve been through. There’s a feeling of reclaiming my story by saying it in my own words. It’s also an opportunity to highlight perspectives that others may not have heard before.
Sharing can allow us to find out that others have been through something similar. “You feel heard, and also you remember that you are not on your own,” explains Jenny.
It can work the other way, too: the person we speak to may feel less alone when they realise someone else has been through something that echoes their own challenges. When I’ve opened up about mental health at work, for example, colleagues then talk about their own experiences.
“One benefit to the person you speak about a difficult experience with, is that it creates a sense that you have a safe, supportive relationship with them,” says Jenny. “It lets them know that you feel safe with them, and that they are someone you can trust to hold what you are saying.”
Before I share, whether with a friend or more publicly, I take time to think about my boundaries. You should only share what you’re comfortable with, and thinking about it beforehand can help with making this decision.
When preparing to give a presentation to mental health social work students, I take a few minutes to write a list of what I feel comfortable sharing, and what I’d prefer to keep private. Perhaps you’re nervous about telling a loved one about a challenging time. Writing it down first, or rehearsing it, can help solidify what you want to say, and feel more confident saying it when the time comes.
Some of us share more widely, including on social media. Posting on social media can help us raise awareness of what we’ve been through, and potentially connect with others, which can make it a positive space. But it’s also worth being conscious of how much information you’re sharing publicly. “It can be helpful to think about what the purpose of sharing this is,” advises Jenny. “What do you hope to get from this and is it going to help you feel better?” Setting boundaries like this can help you manage sharing in a way that works best for you.
Self-care when sharing
It’s important to acknowledge to yourself that you’ve done well to share. “Recognise that it is a big deal to decide to trust someone enough to tell your story,” says Jenny. “Be gentle and kind with yourself before you speak, as well as afterwards. It is a big thing to open up and talk to someone like that. Once you have done it, you will usually find that the hardest part is over.”
Think about activities you can do either before or after that will help you. This could be going for a walk, baking, reading, painting – anything to unwind. It’s understandable that you may feel drained afterwards, as even if the conversation went well, it will have taken energy.
“Try to go easy on yourself,” says Jenny. “Take a couple of nice deep breaths and think about what you can do now, to make yourself feel a little better. Get outside, have a cup of tea, breathe, and let yourself settle.”
After writing about difficult experiences, I physically move away from the space I’ve been working in to give me distance from it. If you find yourself sharing regularly, consider whether you need to take a step back and give yourself time to focus on something else for a while, to reduce your risk of burnout.
The listener’s role
Jenny advises that it’s important we don’t offload everything on to the same person all the time. If you find this is happening, it could be the point when you consider speaking to a professional, who can give you the time and space to have these conversations.
Sometimes we can worry about the impact our sharing may have on the other person. Jenny says: “The chances are that they will appreciate and understand that you have told them something significant to you. It might seem at first that they have struggled to hold what you have told them. Keep in mind that it could well be that they need a little bit of space to process what you have told them.”
It can help to think about what you want from the other person. You may find that they try to offer advice, when actually you might just want someone to listen without giving practical suggestions. You could try letting them know at the start, perhaps gently saying: “I’m not looking for advice on this, but I really want to let you know about something and to feel heard.”
When I tell someone about a hard time, I feel a sense of ownership. There’s something powerful about putting difficult experiences into words and, most of all, feeling heard.
For for support when it comes to sharing personal experiences, or to find a professional to speak to in a safe space, visit counselling-directory.org.uk