Social illness

Mental Health: When People Tell You How They Feel, Believe Them.

Telling someone how we feel can be daunting. Getting to a place where we feel able to speak to someone can take an awful lot of courage. It’s so important that when we do share, we’re believed.

We cope with feelings differently

People cope with things differently. Some are talkers, and it comes relatively easily to us. Sharing our thoughts and feelings feels natural.

For others, communication is an awful lot harder, especially when it comes to talking about feelings. Reaching a place where we feel able to share our feelings can take days, weeks, months, or more, of mulling the words over, overthinking absolutely everything, and mentally going around and around in circles.

It’s imperative that when we do share how we feel, we’re believed.

The guilt of sharing feelings

When we’re unwell, many of us feel guilty for all manner of things, many of which are beyond our control.

If we share how we feel and someone doesn’t believe us, the guilt intensifies. We question ourselves. Are we really unwell? Should we be pushing ourselves more? Do we even need medication? The overthinking spiral gets faster and faster until it’s all a blur.

We might feel dejected, rejected, lonely, misunderstood, unhappy, invalidated, guilty, frustrated, hateful towards ourselves, and hopeless.

Sharing feelings isn’t attention seeking

One of the more-feared phrases, when we’re building up the courage to share our feelings, is “attention seeking”.

Attention seeking is a phrase used to ignore, dismiss and invalidate; whether said to our face, or behind our back. Worse than that, it also tells others not to believe us. It tells them that we’re making it up or exaggerating things.

Not only is it an unhelpful response… but is attention-seeking such a bad thing? We all have needs, and we all need attention from others sometimes. The stigma surrounding the need that we all have for attention from time to time is misguided. If we’re sharing our feelings, then actually, yes, we do want your attention while you listen to us. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that.

Different baselines

We all have different baselines because we all have different ways of processing things, feel things to different intensities, have different histories and life experiences, and have differing amounts of other ‘stuff’ going on in our lives.

If two people experience a bad situation, but one has experienced a huge amount of adversity in their life up to that point, and the other has experienced very little adversity, then each person will probably rate the bad situation differently on their mental ‘badness’ scale. This isn’t because person A is any better at coping than person B (or vice versa), it’s just that as humans we use our prior learning to or compare judge the situations we’re in.

We also learn coping skills throughout life. So, not only does our rating of how comparatively ‘bad’ our situation is differ from others’ ratings, but we each enter the situation with a different set of coping skills, which will affect how much of an impact the current adversity we’re facing may have on our lives.

Intentional or accidental lack of belief

Some people consciously and explicitly choose not to believe us when we share our feelings. They might even say ‘I don’t believe you’, ‘you’re making it up’ or even ‘stop lying’. In these instances, we have to prioritise our safety, and it may not be worth challenging the person. It’s awful and it can tear us up, especially if they’re someone we’ve previously considered a close friend. But when someone is dead set on not believing the things we’re sharing, we’re unlikely to change their mind.

Others show their disbelief subtly, and possibly accidentally. They may not even realise that they’re doing so. Language is complex and the stigma surrounding health and illness is deep-rooted within many societies. We might choose to challenge what they’ve said. We could share articles that we’ve found helpful or videos that have spoken to us because it might be a lack of education rather than a lack of belief.

Ultimately, though, we are our priority. We need to put ourselves and our limited energy levels first. It is not our job to educate other people, and we deserve to be, and crucially, to feel, believed.

Oh but you don’t look…

One of the most frustrating sayings, when we share our feelings, is when someone tells us that we don’t look that way.

People who use the ‘you don’t look’ phrase are sometimes well-meaning. Often, they’re trying to be reassuring or positive. But unfortunately, it feels really invalidating and often comes across as ‘I don’t believe you’.

It’s tempting to answer ‘what does a depressed person look like?’, ‘oh sorry, do I have the wrong haircut?’, or ‘well, you don’t look like a “feelings-non-believer” but here we are’ (or something equally sassy!). If we know someone really well then a sassy response can break the ice and open up a conversation, but if we don’t know someone well it can make things awkward or feel unsafe. Some of us might be okay with awkward social situations, others less so. There’s absolutely no shame in deciding that, for us, challenging it in that moment isn’t the right thing to do.

We will shout it from the rooftops and then some: Depression does not have a “look”. You will not find it in any fashion magazines. Anxiety doesn’t come with a specific “image”. When diagnosed with a mental health condition, we are not handed an outfit to get changed into. We do not have to cry all the time. We are allowed to laugh. Our age, skin colour, hair colour, hair length, clothes, jobs, family, house, finances, skills, eye colour… none of it is a sure sign that we do or do not have poor mental health at a particular time. We are all different. We cope differently, we look different, and not one of us is immune from times when our feelings challenge us.

Encouragement vs. Invalidation

There can be a fine line between encouragement and invalidation.

If we say something like ‘I’m so anxious, I can’t get on public transport at the moment because every time I try I have a panic attack’, a common response is ‘come on, you’ll be fine!’.

It’s a lovely sentiment. Support to do these things is absolutely vital, and challenging things we find difficult is often an important part of recovery. However, comments like the above shut down any discussion or conversation, and gloss over the difficulties we’re having.

Rather than sweeping over the feelings we share, take a moment to stop, process, and really listen to what we’re saying. Talk to us about why we’re finding it tough, and what’s going on for us at the moment. Problem-solve with us. Help us to find a way to cope with our challenges, or to find an alternative option until we’re ready to cope with them.

Listening to us and really taking in what we would find helpful at that moment in time, is encouraging. Invalidating, generic comments that totally gloss over our valid feelings and concerns, are not.

Toxic Positivity

Toxic positivity is something increasingly common. Again, it usually comes from a good place, but can feel invalidating, or as though we’ve gone unheard. It can sound as though you don’t believe us – you think that we can just choose to be okay.

Toxic positivity sounds like: ‘everything happens for a reason!’, ‘just smile’, ‘you have to choose happiness’, ‘look on the bright side’, and ‘it could be worse’, ‘chin up, it might never happen’.

Instead of brushing off the words we share with a comment like this, stop for a moment. Create the time and space needed to really listen to us. Don’t just hear us, listen.

Sometimes, the most helpful thing we can hear isn’t, ‘it could be worse’, it’s ‘it’s rubbish, isn’t it?’. That validation can give us the space to accept how we feel, to take the pressure to “be okay” off our shoulders. It can be the biggest relief.

When you don’t believe a celebrity

Celebrities are perhaps more open about their mental health than they have been in the past. In some ways this is undoubtedly a good thing; it can increase awareness and help to normalise discussions about thoughts, feelings, and emotions.

Unfortunately, people often choose to judge them. A daytime TV host might say that they think a celebrity is making things up for sympathy, likes, or popularity. A newspaper column might rip them to shreds. Many non-celebrities start to weigh in, adding their ill-informed opinion to the noise.

These discussions often take place on social media, but sometimes creep into day-to-day conversations, too. One thing that many don’t realise, is that though their judgement of whoever is in the news that day is unlikely to reach that celebrity, it will be seen by friends and family. If one of our friends publicly shares that they don’t believe a celebrity, then that becomes a red flag to us. It tells us that if we were to share our feelings then you wouldn’t believe us, either.


Misaligned words and actions

Some people say they believe us, but their actions suggest otherwise. Often, this is because we are asking them to change their behaviour.

We might ask our friends if we can meet for a picnic instead of going to a busy, noisy cafe which is likely to prompt a panic attack. Our brain fog might be bad, so we ask a colleague to send us bullet points instead of walls of text. Maybe we ask a friend to help us with the school run for a bit because our medication makes us groggy until about 11am.

People can appear very empathic when we share our feelings with them. ‘If there’s anything I can do’ is a go-to phrase. But when we share something we’re struggling with and ask them to do something for us or change their behaviour in response, problems can arise. They might minimise our struggles, say things like ‘but you could do it last week’ or ‘well you can do X so why can’t you do Y?’. They might guilt-trip us: ‘eurgh I have so much extra work since you reduced your hours’.

Comments like these may not explicitly say “I don’t believe you”, but they show a lack of belief and understanding. They imply that we have a choice and that we can “just sort ourselves out”. They imply that we’re taking liberties.

The person whose actions say ‘I don’t believe you’ may not realise that that’s how it comes across. They may not intend to dismiss or invalidate. They might not realise how it erodes trust. But unfortunately, intended or not, the result is that we’re left feeling guilty, isolated, and misunderstood.

Useful phrases when someone shares feelings

Some phrases that are useful when someone shares their feelings with us are:
‘I hear you’
‘Do you want to talk about it?’
‘Is there anything you’d like me to do?’
‘Do you have everything you need right now?’
‘Would you like me to listen, or would you like to problem-solve together?’
‘Is there anything it would be unhelpful for me to do?’
‘Would you like me to help you to access some professional support?’
‘This isn’t your fault’

It’s dangerous not to believe

Unfortunately, when people don’t believe us, it can have significant consequences.

We might miss out on early intervention, something that can dramatically improve the prognosis of some illnesses. It could lead to us spiralling – our feelings intensifying and thoughts worsening. We might have to find a way of coping by ourselves, and that way of coping might not be healthy, but it might be the only way we can manage. Feeling rubbish can be an utterly desolate place to be, depression absolutely does not need any help to make us feel totally alone.

To those who haven’t been believed

To anyone who hasn’t been believed, we’re so sorry. We know what it’s like. We know how much courage it takes to be honest about our feelings, and understand how vulnerable that can be. How scary.

We know how distressing it is when we’re not believed and how deeply, painfully, achingly it can burn.

We also know that this isn’t the end. There are other people. There are always other people you can speak to. In reaching a place where you feel able to share how you feel, you’ve done so well. So well. Someone not believing your words doesn’t diminish that or make any of those feelings untrue. It’s a reflection on them, not on you.

Please hang on in there. Reach out to a professional. Keep talking, writing, journaling… whatever it is you need to do to express those feelings. We’re by your side every step of the way. You are not alone.

Please help us to help others and share this post, you never know who might need it.

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