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Self Disclosure is the Hardest Work I know

Christmas gift

I have another guest post today! This one is from a former client who was different from the students I usually see–older and more worldly with lots of interesting life experiences. I am finally at the point where I feel like I have something to offer students in their 20’s, but not someone like her. She seemed so confident and poised. I was actually kind of intimidated by her in the first session. What could I possibly have that would be helpful to her?

It’s nice to be reassured that giving someone the opportunity to be authentic truly is a gift. And it is a gift to me, as well, to work with people who are willing to take the risk of being vulnerable.

***

I am like a Christmas present. Shiny, alluring; and, there for the taking. What’s inside is a mystery. All wrapped up, I look really good. All wrapped up I am…the full package.

If Christmas morning never came no one could open me and reject me. No one would know I can be snippy, selfish, anxious, needy, human. No one would learn sometimes I am distant, selfishly desirous of the solitude of the privacy of my own mind; sometimes I have anxious feelings about what is between us; sometimes shiny me has a complaint, sometimes there is navigating to do. If Christmas morning never came, no one would find out who I am. All wrapped up, I am the full package all the time. I would rather gird myself in duct tape than disclose my feelings to you.

Fortunately, therapy has given me the vast perspective it takes to find the reasons why doing the business of feelings is complex for me and why I work so hard to perpetuate the illusion of perfect satisfaction in my outward appearance. In lieu of being fully human I am a picture of calm. The pay-off from learning what I have learned through therapy is that this Christmas and in this New Year I will give myself the gift of feeling human through disclosing my feelings to others.

Why? Because packaging how I feel, and not outwardly acknowledging my feelings or your feelings, being preternaturally centered at all times, has started to take a toll on my relationships. Before now, my feelings were kept prisoner in a shiny box and I thought revealing them would doom my relationship with others. Now, I understand that I must practice self-disclosure and feel my feelings in order to thrive. And, in order to be fully engaged in my relationships.

Experiencing the full range of human emotions cannot be done alone. Until I disclose who I fully am to those who I love and who love me, I am an unfinished gift. Pretty on the outside, and such a mystery that it amounts to an unknown inside.

Christmas is coming. I will be under the tree at the end of the day, finally open. My wrapping no longer encumbering me, my many colors of tissue and my many mysteries will be out of the box. All of me open and on display under the tree I will be like any other Christmas presents—some of them pure treasure, some of them so-so, some of them needing alteration, some of them more perfect than anyone imagined, some of them forever gifts, some of them for consumption now. All unwrapped, I still look really good. I am the full package.

Elizabeth Barbour is a perennial student of Life, recent law grad, avowed Late Bloomer, proud Mother, and writer coming into fruition. 

I Don’t Want to Talk About It. (But I Really Do.)

I have always considered myself a fairly open person, but maybe I’m really not. Blogging has made me realize how little I have shared of my suffering with others. Even friends and family. Even when they ask me how I’m doing.

During the summer when I was depressed and my dad was depressed and I was contemplating ending my marriage, I was rushing to a tennis league match, barely able to suppress my tears. One of my players noticed and asked me how I was doing. I just said, “Oh, you know….” To which she replied, “No. I don’t know.” But I still didn’t say anything.

A few months before this I confessed to my parents that I was depressed because I was missing so much work and felt ashamed, weak, and irresponsible. My parents never missed work, and they had far more responsibilities than I did. During my dad’s depressive episodes he still went to work every day, even though it took him forever to do his job. I wanted them to help me with my depression, but I guess I also wanted them to tell me that it was OK that I was struggling. That I wasn’t a terrible person.

But I didn’t tell my brothers. Luckily my mom did it for me, and they each reached out to me and asked me how I was doing. I said I was fine, even though I wasn’t. Even though I had to will myself to go to work and to stay at work every day. It’s only because they read my blog and because I’ve been helping one of my brothers who has been struggling with depression that they now know what that time was like for me.

A few weeks ago I had a client make a public declaration to his friends that he wanted them to approach him if he looked like he was not doing well. And if they asked how he was doing and he said he was fine, he wanted them to push a little harder and make him talk. It terrified him to do this, because he has always valued stoicism, and he’d had a ton of traumatic experiences that he might have to talk about now.

I’m not even sure what possessed him to do something so brave. Even now, I’m not sure I would make such a declaration to my friends and family. I’m trying to make myself ask for help when I need it, and I am more honest now when people ask me how I’m doing. But I haven’t gone so far as to tell them to ask and to hold me accountable if I say I’m fine.

I imagine our work together contributed to his decision to ask for help, but it’s still surprising when clients take steps that are more courageous than anything I have done because of therapy. Sometimes I even use them as inspiration to do something courageous. Sometimes I wish I could tell them how much they inspire me to take risks in my own life.

Maybe I can tell them to read my blog. But I’m still not that brave…yet.

onions

Ending Stigma One Person at a Time

Pathologically Helpful

Last night I listened to a panel of students share their stories about their mental illness before their peers. Stories about the darkest moments that they have never shared with anyone else. Yet there they were, saying them out loud, often through tears, to a room full of people they didn’t know.

Every year Active Minds, the student group that I advise, hosts two panels: one on mental illness in general, and one on eating disorders. Even though it often ends up being harder than they expect it to be, they tell their stories because they hope that it will help to end stigma by humanizing mental illness.

The closest I’ve come to sharing my deepest, darkest secrets out loud is when I told students in one of my Abormal Psychology classes about my first depressive episode. I had wanted to do it for some time, and it probably took me 3-4 years of teaching to work up the courage to do so. At the end of the semester, one of the students in that class thanked me for talking about my depression. But at the time I was still so ashamed of it that the reminder that I had said it out loud and someone heard it was so mortifying that I never shared my story again.

I started this blog because I read that this is the kind of thing you needed to do if you wanted to get a book published. My vision of the book was initially much more “how to,” with some examples from my personal life thrown in to make it interesting. But when I was researching blogs, I realized that there were already a lot of  “how to” blogs. So I decided that my unique contribution to the blogosphere would be telling my story. I could be a mental health professional who shares those deep, dark secrets that she has never shared with anyone else.

I have written often about how therapists are taught to use self-disclosure with caution to make sure that the focus stays on the client, but also because you want to appear as though you have your act together. But based on the feedback I’ve gotten from readers, perhaps therapists have been wrong about self-disclosure. It seems that sharing our humanity is one of the most healing things that anyone can do to help another person.

I have pushed myself to share my experience in far more detail than I ever imagined that I would. But I know I can push myself further. I, too, could stand before people and share my story out loud, in front of anyone who wants to listen. So now that’s what I hope to do. If writing a book will help me accomplish that goal, then I still want to write one, but that is no longer my end goal. My end goal is to do what those students did last night–to humanize mental illness with my story rather than my expertise.

Do Something that Scares You

Decisions

Sometimes anxiety is a good thing.

The other night I gave a presentation on anxiety to Active Minds, the student organization whose mission is to raise awareness and reduce stigma about mental illness. I began the presentation by reminding everyone that anxiety is not always something we want to get rid of. It motivates us to act. It socializes us. And it warns us when we are about to do something scary.

But sometimes it’s good to do something scary.

When I started my blog, it never occurred to me to use an avatar, because the point was to get people to know me so that they would buy my book someday. Plus, anonymously blogging about vulnerability seemed hypocritical. But I have to admit, sometimes I wonder what the hell I’m doing, telling people all my deep, dark secrets, and I wish there were a way I could take it all back.

Some posts are scarier than others. The post that I wrote a few weeks ago, Undeserving, was one of the scarier ones, because what therapist admits to having the exact same fears that her clients have? Publishing it felt a bit like standing in front of people naked and saying, go ahead; judge my body.

Which nobody did, thank goodness. Not to my face, at least. Although the most vulnerable posts are always the most popular, knowing this won’t make it less scary to bare my soul the next time. Because anxiety has no memory. It does not distinguish between past, present, and future. It does not know the difference between reality and fantasy. In the moment, there is only fear.

Actually, I am growing accustomed to baring my soul before friends, family, and strangers. But the thought of standing naked before students and clients still terrifies me. Therapists are supposed to be blank screens. At minimum, they use self-disclosure with caution. They certainly don’t let clients know that they struggle with anxiety and depression and that they don’t think they deserve to be loved.

Last night a student from the school newspaper emailed me some questions about Seasonal Affective Disorder because she’s writing an article about depression. I realized this was an opportunity to publicize my blog, since my last post was on this very topic. But the thought of doing so gave me an anxiety attack, so I decided to sleep on it.

Plus it was midnight, and I promised myself I wouldn’t start working on stuff after midnight so that I don’t screw up my sleep cycle. Even though I ended up staying up until 1:30 a.m., anyway, doing pointless stuff like playing Sudoku and Minesweeper. What is wrong with me?!

But I digress.

This morning I answered the student’s questions and told her about my blog. Part of me hopes that it will lead to a thousand new followers, and a part of me hopes that she ignores the reference to my blog altogether. In any case, I did it; I pushed myself to do the thing I fear the most, as far as blogging is concerned.

And I have to say, it feels pretty good.

Declaration of Independence

I am working with a client who was sexually assaulted and is thinking about taking her case to our judicial board. We talked about the levels of awareness that she went through before she could be ready to take this step. How at first she didn’t want to acknowledge what happened. Then she opened up to a few people who felt safe. Now she wants to make sure he understands that what he did was not OK. To force him to think about it the next time. She hopes to eventually share her story at Take Back the Night so that other people can benefit from it.

She knows that there will be people who won’t believe her. Who will blame her for what happened. She prepares herself by reminding herself that as long as she knows what happened, that’s all that counts. But that’s a hard thing to do–to face the judgment within us and around us. It takes a lot of courage to face that kind of scrutiny.

I like to think of this process as a kind of declaration of independence–from our demons, from judgment, from fear. It happens every time someone goes to AA and admits they’re an alcoholic. Every time someone finds the courage to say I have an eating disorder. I struggle with depression. I live in fear. In making this declaration, they take away the power that their condition has to make them feel weak. Defective. Crazy.

To a lesser extent, I think of my blog as a kind of declaration of independence. I’ve tried to hide these things about myself all my life. I don’t want to be held hostage by them anymore. I want to be able to embrace everything that makes me who I am–especially the things that I am ashamed of.

The president of the student organization I advise, Active Minds, told me that he reads my blog, which kind of freaked me out at first. But he thought it was the most powerful way to fight stigma and to let other students know that they are not alone in their struggles with mental illness, which is the primary goal of Active Minds. So he is finding ways to give students the opportunity to make their own public declarations. It is a wonderful feeling to know that this has come out of my willingness to share my vulnerabilities.

I’ve always liked the expression that freedom isn’t free. You have to fight for it. Although blogging has been a surprisingly supportive and positive experience, I am well aware that there will be times when someone will judge me for what I say. I try to prepare myself for it by doing what my client is doing–to remind myself that ultimately, the only person who counts is me. Then I take a deep breath and hit Publish.

Declaration of Independence

Self-Disclosure, Part 2

self-disclosure part 2

Therapists are in that category of people who aren’t supposed to be real–right along with teachers, priests, and parents. They shouldn’t be at UVA football games talking smack with Tech fans. They’re not supposed to have divorces. Plural. (Usually one is acceptable.)  And they certainly aren’t supposed to struggle with anxiety and depression. Even my niece was surprised to learn that psychologists who treat depression can be depressed, and she’s only 8.

Freud is mostly to blame for this. He thought psychoanalysts should be a blank screen onto which patients projected all of their repressed sexual and aggressive urges while he sat behind them smoking cigars and snorting cocaine. And even though I wasn’t trained as a psychoanalyst, in grad school they discouraged us from using self-disclosure and from crying in session. (I really have a problem with that last one. I can’t help it. Sometimes I’m really moved by what clients say.)

But even Freud and my grad school supervisors did not say I should be a blank screen in all areas of my life. I guess it just felt safer to do so because I am terrified of judgment and criticism. That’s why I want to be perfect. That’s how my inner critic is able to manipulate me. That’s why I have developed such good empathy skills: if I can tell that the other person is upset with me, I can change my behavior before they have a chance to say anything.

I started this blog as a way to test out Brene Brown‘s claim that having the courage to share our vulnerabilities with others leads to engagement and meaningful connection. Some posts are still scary to share, but those seem to be the ones that people are the most thankful for because it makes them realize that they are not alone in their struggles. And it has made people who I don’t know very well feel closer to me. There’s this positive energy between us now when we interact. Sometimes they share their own vulnerabilities, which further strengthens our relationship. It really is a nicer way to be in the world.

After almost a year of blogging, I am finally taking the plunge by telling students about my blog. This is the one place where I have been reluctant to share my vulnerabilities because it could potentially undermine my credibility. But it will also serve as evidence that the people who they perceive as having their lives together are dealing with the same issues they deal with. Normalizing their experience, as therapists say.

But normalizing our experience takes practice. We need to be reminded over and over again. We need to repeat it to ourselves with every thought, feeling, and action that makes us worry that we’re crazy. And while everyone doesn’t need to blog about it, it certainly helps me to accept myself as is. So self-disclosure is as much a gift to myself as it is to anyone else who enjoys reading my blog.

 

The Courage to Be Vulnerable, Part 2

I’m humbled by the feedback that I’m an inspiration, but to be honest, I’m not quite sure what people mean by that. I can understand how people could read my blog and think, wow! I’m not so crazy after all! But I don’t see how it can be an inspiration. Unless it inspires people to be honest about the stuff they are afraid to share with other people.
In one scene in the book A Fault in Our Stars, (which I love!), Hazel and Augustus are in the Anne Frank House watching a video of Otto Frank. After reading Anne’s diary, he concludes that parents don’t really know their children.  I would venture to say that we never really know anyone unless we have the opportunity to read their diary–or blog.

Our inquiries about people’s lives are fairly superficial. We ask people how they’re doing when we greet them, but any response beyond “I’m fine” would be TMI for most. Recently I asked a friend how her husband was doing because I heard he had been sick. She said he has his good and bad days. I’m sure some people don’t want to go into more detail, but maybe some people do. Maybe they feel like the person is just asking to be nice. To let them know they care without really wanting to hear the details.

I am one of those rare individuals who likes to tell people everything that’s going on in my life when I greet them. Well, not everyone. Just the ones who will tolerate it. I’ll even do it before they have a chance to ask me how I’m doing.  I’ll just bombard them with the minutiae of my day the moment I see them. Because I spend most of my time alone with no one to talk to, I am willing to break protocol. Admittedly, this stuff isn’t particularly inspirational, but at least I’m consistent in my self-disclosure.

I do think the world would a better place if we could all risk being a little more vulnerable. If we could all admit that we are human, I think people would feel a lot better about themselves. It does take courage to put yourself out there, but taking that risk also requires good listeners. People who are willing to be present and bear witness to our humanity without judgment.

So I am thankful to all of the readers out there who are willing to bear witness to my humanity. You are the ones who make courage possible.