Relationships and Mental Health,  Support

Open Book: Lessons from Vulnerability and Mental Illness

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Have you ever been there?

You meet someone new and say “oh wow they’re really cool, I could be friends with this person or even more.”

So you get closer and closer with your new love interest or your work friend or the people in your hobby group.

Everything is going good, except they don’t know all of you. See, you’ve hidden the mental illness part very well so far. Nobody suspects a thing. You could probably even keep it a secret indefinitely.

But the problem is this awesome new friendship is only skin deep because you’re afraid of ruining it with your mental illness. So you keep your friend at a comfortable distance.

And this works just fine for a lot of your relationships, but not really for this one. This person wants to know you- the real you. It frustrates them to be out in the cold and they don’t understand why you won’t let them in.

A Typical Scenario

This is a pretty typical scenario for those of us struggling with mental illness. It comes from good intentions- a desire not to hurt others with the behaviors associated with our disorder or to be hurt by people who just don’t understand.

I get it and I want you to know, you don’t have to let anyone in if you don’t want to. You don’t owe anyone anything. If at this time you feel it’s healthier for you to stay at a distance then do so.

But if you do want to open up just know it takes a lot of courage and practice. It’s difficult but it can be done!

Read on to hear my from my experience about learning to form close healthy relationships even when I struggle with mental illness.

I Had to Learn Who to Trust

A lot of times the reason we hide our mental illness is because we’ve been so hurt by others in the past we can’t tell who to trust.

For me, I just assumed everyone was trying to hurt me, even if they appeared kind or caring. Well into my late 20’s I remained unable to distinguish who was a friend or an enemy because guess what – I’d had a lot of frenemies and even close family that said they were there for me but acted otherwise. Very confusing.

So how the heck was I supposed to know who I could and couldn’t trust to accept me as I was, mental illness and all?

Well the answer wasn’t simple, fun, or fast. It took a tremendous amount of trial and error, research, and failed friendships until I eventually sussed out the traits of a good friend vs. a bad friend vs. someone who doesn’t really care either way.

Here’s what I’ve come up with so far in case you’re interested.

Traits of the Trustworthy Friend:

  • They listen to you and accept your feelings instead of always giving advice
  • They’re considerate of your feelings
  • They’re responsible with your time and theirs – i.e. not making you wait on them, not flaking or overcommitting, etc.
  • They tend not to gossip about other people
  • They communicate reciprocally (they return texts, accept bids for attention, they reach out to you to set up plans as much as you do for them)
  • They pay attention when you’re speaking
  • They set effective boundaries and tell you when you’ve crossed them

Traits of the Surface Level Friend:

  • They listen but listen to respond rather than understand
  • They are unsure of how to react in times of trouble since they don’t know you well, they resort to trying to give advice
  • They can be friendly but they don’t really invite you places often or if they do, they flake easily
  • They sometimes seem kind of uninterested in what you’re saying, even if it’s important to you
  • They don’t always set great boundaries and won’t necessarily tell you if you’ve crossed any lines with them
  • They don’t communicate very regularly or deeply

Traits of the Toxic Friend:

  • Instead of listening, they cut you off
  • They often give unsolicited advice
  • They don’t have personal boundaries and don’t give a hoot about yours (i.e. getting in your business, borrowing things without asking, disrespecting your time)
  • They gaslight – as in they do something upsetting or unkind to you and then put the blame on you “Omg you’re soooo sensitive. Get over it, it’s just a joke!”
  • They invalidate your feelings or tell you not to feel a certain way like sad or mad

So there you have the traits that signal who’s a friend, who’s a foe, and who’s ambivalent. I use these to determine who I’m open with about my mental illness and other deep parts of my personality.

Not everyone gets to know the real me because opening up like that requires a tremendous amount of energy, I’m not going to waste it on someone who’s not ready or capable of listening.

I Had to Separate my Behavior from My Personality

“No one’s going to stay with you if you keep acting this way.”

That’s a direct quote from my Mom when I was a teenager having an epic meltdown. Probably not the best thing to say to an emotionally unstable child with severe abandonment issues because I immediately internalized it and believed she meant: “no one is going to love you because you’re a dramatic awful mess and if you act this way in a relationship your partner will leave you.”

Ah!

Now that I’m older and a lot more stable I understand why she said it. She was trying to tell me my behavior was very difficult to be around, which was absolutely true. But unfortunately for a long time I couldn’t separate my behavior from my personality.

What do I mean by this? Well the thing that was pushing my close ones away was the behaviors I used to cope with difficult feelings like loss, rejection, and anger (all normal things in a relationship that I reacted very extremely to).

It wasn’t me. It wasn’t the lovable, wonderful, sweet, caring, smart person I had always been that was pushing people away, it was my actions that people didn’t like.

Once I figured out that distinction, it was a lot easier to be close to someone. Heck it was easier just to have regular relationships. Things were just a lot better.

Why? Because I had short circuited the guilt spiral. Instead of falling apart because I’d had a bad behavior, I could just say “I’m sorry I acted that way, I’ll change my behavior next time” which was a way less monumental task than thinking I had to change my whole personality in order to be loved.

I Had to Let My Loved Ones See Me at My Worst

The hardest part of forming relationships and being open is letting someone else see you at your worst. It’s also the most important part of the whole process.

Ugh. I know. Dumb isn’t it.

But it’s true.

In order to really connect with a person, you have to be vulnerable and the ultimate expression of vulnerability is letting someone be there when you think you’re absolutely the most awful version of yourself.

For me that meant letting my husband (who was my boyfriend at the time) see the tantrumy grumbly gremlin I turned into when I had a mood swing. I mean we live in a one room apartment, there’s no hiding A N Y T H I N G.

My Mom’s infamous words echoed in my head every time I made a normal relationship mistake. This would throw me into a shame spiral that often lasted for hours or days. A super unhealthy behavior that had pretty much destroyed all of my relationships to date.

But this time was different. Not only does my husband have the patience of a saint, but I was also bound and determined not to ruin our beautiful partnership.

Couple that with living in such close quarters and this time I had no choice but to show him the feelings underneath, as much as I didn’t want to. The sadness, the anger, the mood swings, the tantrums, the flashbacks, the abandonment issues the whole shebang. He was subject to it all.

Once I wore myself out with my regular fits, curiously, he was still there willing to understand what was underneath all that.

He’s a brave, brave man y’all!

Anyway, his kindness and stability helped me to start expressing my feelings. The more I did that, the less fights happened. The less tantrums occurred, the less harm we did to each other.

We became so close because of those experiences and we wouldn’t have been able to do that if he hadn’t seen me and accepted me at my worst.

Final Word

Vulnerability and openness are hard especially when you have a mental illness. It’s up to you to decide when and who to open up to, if ever.

It’s always a risk to open up to someone with something so personal, you could lose them, yes that’s a possibility. But I know from my experience you will D E F I N I T E L Y lose them if you try to hide.

Just some thoughts to think about. Have a great day and love yourself <3

Much Love,

MB

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Mad as Hell Mental Health Rights Advocate. Likes margaritas, long walks on the beach, and JUSTICE.

4 Comments

  • kachaiweb

    That is so true. Weird thing my mother said comes close to what you described: ‘No one will ever love you for more than 6 months. That is how long you can hide that you’re not a good person’. oops! And I reacted like you did. And found a man who is THAT patient, yes! It’s wonderful. But it’s hard to really open up, you need to be very honest with them and with yourself. Thank you for sharing this.

    • mmorran1

      Thanks for reading! It’s seriously amazing to me the crazy stuff parents say to kids without thinking realizing kids internalize that stuff.

      I’m sorry your mom said that to you and I’m glad to hear you have found a patient partner, that’s a big big help! It is still really hard for me to open up sometimes too, but I’m getting there, one vulnerable step at a time! Good luck to you on your journey 😄

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