Hey, all! On the last episode, I had my wife on to answer your relationship communications. We got SO many awesome questions that I wanted to tackle some more on the podcast today. This is a solo Q&A episode and I take questions directly from the private Hardcore Self Help Facebook group. If you aren’t yet a member of the group, you can request access at http://facebook.com/groups/hardcoreselfhelp
How do you deal with family dismissing your emotions/concerns? Especially when they don’t understand anxiety.
First off, if you haven’t yet, consider checking out my letter. In my book F**k Anxiety, I wrote a letter to those that don’t understand anxiety. You don’t have to get the book to see the letter though, I also have it as a printable for free at duffthepsych.com/letter. It’s designed to tell people in your life a bit more about what anxiety is, how it affects you, and what they can do to help. In doing so it will hopefully let them know what it’s like to have anxiety, that you’re not just being difficult, and help them to have a bit more empathy for you.
HOW TO EXPLAIN ANXIETY TO SOMEONE WHO JUST DOESN’T GET IT
To whom this may concern,
You are an important person in this individual’s life. That’s why you are getting this letter. My name is Robert. I am a therapist and the author of a book about anxiety that this person has recently read. This means that they are trying to find resources to help pull themselves out of the crappy feelings that you have seen them struggling with. It can be immensely hard to explain what anxiety feels like. If you have never had significant issues with anxiety, you are exceptionally lucky because it really sucks. I want you to know that the person who gave you this letter is not trying to be difficult. If they had a magic wand that could help them suddenly stop struggling with these issues, I 100% guarantee that they would use it without a moment’s hesitation.
Have you ever felt the “fight or flight” response? Maybe you’ve stepped out into the street without looking both ways and nearly missed getting hit by a car or perhaps you’ve had to speak in front of 1000 people and felt like you were going to puke, cry, and hyperventilate all at the same time. That’s what anxiety feels like except it’s not just a fleeting state of discomfort that happens once. It is something that can come on without much warning and it makes it very difficult to function. Trust me when I say that this person feels sad, guilty, and exhausted due to difficulties that anxiety causes them and the people around them. You don’t need to know how to make them feel better and that’s okay because it’s not your responsibility.
If you want to be awesome, I have a few tips that can help you be the best support possible for this person when they are enduring a hard time. Firstly, don’t take it personally. They might act very differently when they are having a “peak” in their anxiety. Take the things that they say and do in context. I’m sure you’ve been through a hard time before and acted in ways that aren’t quite in line with your normal self. Asking them if there is anything that you can do to help is great, but don’t always expect to get a clear response from them. Things can be confusing when the anxiety monster is hitting hard, so knowing what would help is not always clear. One question that most anxious people can give you an answer to is “do you need some space?” If they say yes, please give them a little room to breathe and let them know that you will be around if they need you. Try not to tell them it’s all in their head, because they know that already. It doesn’t make the pounding in their chest, the pain in their head, the hyperventilation, the sweating, or the racing thoughts any easier to deal with. There’s no way that I can put you in their shoes, but I hope you believe me when I say that it’s not as easy as just taking a breath and getting some fresh air.
Having anxiety does not mean that this person gets a blank slate to do or say anything that they want. You still have a right to be upset if they do shitty things but like I said before, try to take it in context. if you want to address the way that they are acting or the things that they are saying, maybe consider doing it when things have calmed down a bit. I also want make it clear that you don’t have to understand them or agree with everything that they do to be supportive. This person’s world feels chaotic and a good portion of their unease probably comes from feeling like they have no control over their environment and the things that happen to them. If they know that you are a constant that will be supportive no matter what happens, it can make a big difference.
Lastly, I’d like to tell you good job! If you are still in this person’s life, then you aren’t like the others who have run away or disappeared on them so far. They need supports on this journey and they really want you to be on their team. If you want to learn more about what this individual’s experience with anxiety is like then I encourage you to ask them. I’m sure that when things are at their least crazy, they would be more than happy to sit with you and help you understand.
Robert Duff, Ph.D. on behalf of the awesome anxiety warrior that gave you this note.
That’s the letter itself and there will be parts of it that are more or less relevant to your situation, but that might give you a good starting point on how to address it with them.
It’s not your fault or responsibility
It can be really hard to deal with the guilt that comes along with your family being ignorant or in denial of your mental health issues. But I want to tell you that it’s not your fault that you feel this way. It isn’t something you did to deserve this nasty emotional experience that you have to contend with. And you are doing your best. Obviously, you are trying to make some positive changes for yourself since you are writing into this show.
It’s also not your responsibility to make them understand you need to worry about your own health. Ultimately, you will need to do whatever you need to do to keep yourself well and functional. That’s most important. Obviously, having family on board with this can be super helpful, so I understand wanting to get them to understand, but just remember where the priority needs to be. It’s not your responsibility to educate them. If they care about you they will educate themselves at some point. But if they continue to put up a wall or are unable to put in the effort to try and educate themselves and understand what things are like for you, just remember that your responsibility needs to default to keeping yourself okay.
Tips to promote understanding
Having specific examples of behaviors that they have seen and how your anxiety played a role may help. For example, say you left a family get-together early because there were so many people there you were starting to feel panicky. Helping them understand in that specific example that this is what your anxiety was causing you to do, and challenging their natural assumption that you just left because you were uninterested or had better things to do, can help them to ground their understanding of it.
You can also find videos or other content that captures your experience well to show them and help them to understand your experiences better. You can try to educate them and show them these resources, but if they’re unable or unwilling to do anything with that information, then you have to default to yourself – it’s about keeping your own healthy boundaries. If they say things to you that are hurtful because of their lack of recognition, you are allowed to call them out on it or not accept it from them. In extreme circumstances, this might mean less contact with them or limiting what activities you do with them. If you’re curious about whether your family members might be toxic in general, check out my episode with Dr. Sherrie Campbell (episode 152).
In general, you may need to draw a line in the sand and explain that you’ve tried to help them understand but there is only so much you can take, providing a little bit of an ultimatum to enforce the severity of the situation. This might just give them that final nudge they need to look at the situation and open their mind to understanding your anxiety. You can also consider seeing a family therapist with your parents or key members of your family – they can help you explain it and help frame your family’s questions better. And if you haven’t yet gone to a doctor and gotten a diagnosis, that might give legitimacy in their eyes. It’s unfortunate, but sometimes families don’t believe in a problem until it’s diagnosed by your doctor. So if your family is like this, perhaps it may be worth doing this if you want to. However, they don’t have to believe you for it to be true.
It’s your choice
Any of this is totally your choice. Living with anxiety can be exhausting and it can be hard to put this much effort into something that has to do with other people. If you don’t feel you have the capacity to do this right now, then maybe you don’t have to. You are allowed to back off and focus on yourself and maybe come back to it when you feel up to it, or maybe come back to it when they’re more receptive to it. But it’s your choice.
You don’t have to accept poor treatment, but it can be helpful to also be empathetic of their lack of perspective. Try to understand that they may only have their own experience to go off of so they are trying to interpret things through that lens. Although it doesn’t excuse their behavior, it might help you understand how to get through to them by relating it to their experience.
All of this may be exhausting and frustrating, so it’s your choice as to how much to try. And remember you haven’t done anything wrong and it’s not your fault. I know it sucks to not have your family on-board, but maybe you can push a little bit more in these ways and hopefully breakthrough. If not, look after yourself and do what you need to do, and remember you can always revisit it later if you don’t have any luck right away. Step back, let things settle, and you can always try again.
Where is the line between healthy boundaries and being controlling/ manipulative? Example: let’s say my boundary is that I want to be talked to with respect. If my husband talks to me disrespectfully I walk away, or ignore him. But if I enforce my boundary by doing those things he tells me I am being controlling/manipulative or I am crossing one of his boundaries (he doesn’t want to be ignored) and will take things to another level by saying he wants a divorce or something else he knows will hurt me. Then I back down and have no boundary.
Very good question. The problem here is not necessarily the boundaries themselves, but the need to repeatedly enforce them without any change. That worries me that there may be a deeper problem going on. Keeping your boundary and honoring your husband’s desire to not be ignored are not mutually exclusive. I think there are ways of doing both. It seems like there are definitely some communication kinks to be worked out though. A couples counselor would definitely be beneficial here. They would help you mediate the discussion and help you focus on your personal experiences of it and keep it balanced.
The thing that concerns me is this doesn’t sound like a healthy acknowledgment of one another’s boundaries, but more like an explosive, nasty communication pattern that has you both going to extremes to regulate. I will say that intentionally saying something to hurt you or saying that he wants a divorce is not an acceptable way to get you to do something. That is manipulative and you’re allowed to not be okay with that.
It’s hard to totally judge the situation given only one perspective (yours). From the information that you’ve presented, it does seem a little one-sided. Presumably, he is being mean and disrespectful while talking to you and when you try to say that you are not going to accept that through your actions, he elevates, acts out, and threatens to leave you. If those are the facts of it, that is unhealthy and not normal for a successful relationship. If there are factors on your side as well that you are not mentioning of you being similarly nasty to him and this is a mutual reaction to one another, that is still problematic but more of a general relationship issue rather than you simply being mistreated.
Seek outside help
Either way, I think that you probably need to get some outside help in this equation. If you haven’t talked to close friends or family members yet, you may want to do so to get some perspective about the situation. Talking with a therapist is going to be important to hash out whatever is causing the tension and explosiveness in your relationship in a way that is more controlled and productive.
With all of this, I want to back up and say that if you feel unsafe for any reason, I want you to practice caution in what you are pushing or suggesting. That doesn’t mean keep quiet, it means you may need to be more discrete if you feel like there is a risk to your safety. Not sure if this is relevant to your situation, but in episode 88, I talk a lot more about recognizing the pattern of abuse in a relationship. It may help to recognize whether you’re dealing with relationship dysfunction, or whether we’re seeing some form of abuse or controlling behavior.
Agree rules of communication
If I’m overinterpreting here and this is simply an issue that you guys need to adjust and hash out, then you will want to talk about how you can address each other’s needs without being so explosive or dramatic on both sides of the equation. For him, that means agreeing to certain rules of engagement in communication such as not yelling, swearing at you, or slamming things around the house. On your side, that means you can’t just shut off and entirely ignore him. BUT you can still enforce your boundary. Rather than simply turning your back and walking away, the first step might need to be saying that you don’t like the way that you are being talked to (be specific) and that you are going to have to walk away if you guys can’t dial it back. If you do need to walk away, let him know that you will return to the conversation when things are calmer and that he won’t go unheard. Again this is all within reasonable limits. If you are being straight up verbally attacked and you are not going to stand for that, then, by all means, walk away if you can do so safely.
One other thing is that your husband has repeatedly threatened or mentioned divorce. Is he done with the relationship and looking for an excuse? Are you guys happy otherwise? If this is a symptom of an underlying resentment toward one another or both of you being done with the relationship, that might need to be considered as well and maybe something you need to talk about. Again, bringing in some mediating party to discuss whether the rifts in your relationship can be repaired and whether you want to may be very helpful.
So, in terms of whether you’re being controlling or manipulative yourself, I don’t necessarily think so. I think you’re trying to reinforce your boundaries. There are different ways of doing that and sometimes in a relationship, people do get into a pattern of intentionally trying to get a rise out of each other. But you trying to keep yourself stable and from not being hurt is not manipulative. Your first step is definitely to try and work out what’s what and bringing in some outside help will really help here. I’m sorry that you’re going through this and that I don’t have a simple answer. However, I do hope my tips are helpful and I really hope things work out alright.
We are uprooting and moving in 10 days to a place where I have no friends and no job, for my husbands job. I have a slew of anxiety disorders and depression, and a “mood disorder NOS (not otherwise specified)”. I’m freaking out. Any advice on how to navigate this shit show?
Moving is always tough, especially when you have mental health issues to contend with. First off, I want to address the no friends part. I know it sounds silly, but Facebook is a great resource here. In particular, local Facebook groups.
For example, let’s say that you are into hiking and walking your dog and you are going to be moving to say Portland, Oregon… if I go to FB and search “portland hikers” in the search bar and then select groups, I can see a group with 15,000 members in it and even better, I see Hiking with Dogs – Portland OR with 3,600 members. I totally didn’t plan this, but in this hypothetical situation, if you were to join that hiking with dogs group now and start seeing the kinds of activities, meetups, and interests that people have, you might have a little community already set up for when you get there.
I could see you posting something like “Hi, everyone! I’m going to be moving to Portland soon and I have no friends at all, but love taking my dog for hikes. Looking forward to getting to know you guys!” And then people would comment welcoming you and inviting you to their hiking days. Boom. Friends.
Let’s try another hypothetical – let’s say you are moving to San Francisco, CA – just plug San Francisco into the search bar, then click groups. There is everything from buy, sell, trade to current events, to EDM enthusiasts to photography to the whiskey society! Local Facebook groups are a super underrated tool for making local connections and friends.
Research Mental Health Resources
It also might make sense to identify mental health resources in the area. Even if you don’t set up an appointment ahead of time, looking at what individual providers in your area may be good candidates or looking into whether there are any support groups in the area for your particular issues could give you some peace of mind since you know that there is a support network in place should you need it. You can look these up online and use resources such as the National Alliance on Mental Illness, which we have in the USA, to find local resources in the are that you’re moving to.
It’s okay to be nervous and scared about the prospect of moving. It is scary! You will have a lot to do in the lead up to the move and when you arrive, so I want to reassure you that it’s okay to let your robot take over and go on autopilot while you plow through some of the things you need to finish up like packing and unpacking.
Preparation is key – Map your monsters
You are likely to have a bit of a spike in your symptoms, so that could be good to plan for. On a few episodes of the show, I’ve talked about the “map your monsters” exercise, which is when you draw out a timeline of your move and then identify the most likely sticking points or areas that are going to give you trouble due to your mental health. Then you develop some options for dealing with them or getting through them. For instance, you might know that sleep is going to be very hard the night before the move and you are going to be in bad shape if you are unrested the next day. You could make sure that you wake up early the day before, get some exercise, spend some time in the sun, maybe take some melatonin, and do all the things you can to set yourself to sleep really well that night.
Maybe you could prepare yourself for the trip by installing Calm or Headspace on your phone to listen to during the drive or make yourself some reminder cards to keep in your pocket describing your most effective coping skills that you may need to use during the hardest moments. Anything you need to remind you that you already know but maybe forgetting while you’re all worked up. You don’t need to plan for everything, that’s not going to be useful, but you can predict certain specific things that you know you might have trouble with. So having a plan to cope with those aspects is going to be helpful.
Upon arriving at your new place, it could also be helpful to give yourself a little road map of what you need to do. This could be made beforehand. So instead of getting there and going “well shit, what am I supposed to do now?” you could look at your list and know the first few things that need to be taken care of to help you get the ball rolling.
Don’t forget that the world is also much smaller now because of the internet and such. While you may be moving away from friends and family, that doesn’t mean that you can’t talk with them on the phone, facetime with them, or message with them to keep you company. Your support network is still there, you are just more spread out now. So maybe you need to ensure you make time to keep in touch with friends and family so you still feel supported even if they’re not in your physical location.
There’s no rush
Take things one step at a time. You mentioned no friends and no job. Do you need to get a job right away? If not, then let that be on the back burner for a bit. Focus more on getting the house settled and establishing some contacts in the community. Then later when things settle a bit more, you could look into getting some work. If the opposite is true, then focus mostly on looking for work opportunities right now and then deal with the other stuff later. Basically, I’m just saying get your priorities straight so you don’t feel like you need to address everything all at once.
Last thing I will say is embrace the craziness! Moving is always crazy and some things will go right, some things will go wrong. But embrace that. Laugh with your husband about how wild life is. Know that you guys are probably going to have mixed feelings about it all and that it will take time for things to stabilize. In the meantime, be good to one another and splurge on things like eating out or other conveniences if you are able to and recognize that things will stabilize and get better. This is a big change but it’s going to be okay. You’ll get through this!
That’s it for this week!
As always, thanks for all of your questions. If you’d like to do me a favor please do leave a review of the podcast on iTunes – it really helps people to understand what the show’s all about and who it might be good for. And if there was a part of the show you really enjoyed, be sure to take a screenshot and share it on social media to show your support! Thank you for listening and if you have questions or topics you’d like me to cover on the show, send them into firstname.lastname@example.org!
This episode of Hardcore Self Help is sponsored by BetterHelp.
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