Learning From Royalty

Prince Harry recently shared about the grief he experienced when his mother, Princess Diana, tragically passed away. He participated in a refreshing interview conducted by Bryony Gordon for her podcast, Mad World, in which he confessed, “losing my mum at the age of 12 and, therefore, shutting down all of my emotions for the last 20 years has had a quite serious effect on not only my personal life but also my work as well.” His confession was in part to promote the Heads Together campaign, created to fight the stigma associated with mental health. Prince Harry’s primary message is that while he did not seek professional help for anxiety and aggression until he was on the verge of a breakdown, there are millions that could learn from his mistakes and walk through healing much more quickly.

This isn’t the first time public figures have come out regarding their personal challenges with mental health. Lady Gaga has shared about her battle with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) through an open letter posted on her Born this Way Foundation website, and her declaration gave permission to all her fans to express their struggles with PTSD and/or other mental health issues. When high profile individuals expose their personal challenges with mental health, it normalizes the experience for all who look up to them and encourages those who are suffering in silence to speak up and choose to stop suffering alone.

Why are we afraid to talk about our painful emotions?

We all experience them. We are bombarded by disappointment, fear, hopelessness, doubt, insecurity, and the list goes on and on. But many of us refuse to speak up, largely because this is what has been modeled for us either growing up or in the society around us. This way of coping leads to a false hope that depression; anxiety or grief will erode away over time. We may fear merely talking about our emotions or facing them because they could get out of control. And when they don’t go away, we may resort to self-medicating with food, drugs or relationships. For a moment, we may feel confident that we have our emotions under control, but, once we realize this approach isn’t helping, we might choose to talk to someone about it or to continue to suffer in secret until the situation becomes worse. In reality, the avoidance of emotions can only last so long, and as counselors, we often receive phone calls of desperation, when a person is fed up with their life course and truly believe their sole option is ending it all. Avoidance is merely a temporary fix, and true healing requires a deeper and more intentional approach.

So What Do I Do Now?

Family and friends are not always equipped to help with mental health concerns, although that’s a great first step. Sometimes talking about personal struggles with a trustworthy friend is all we need to feel relief. Other times, professional help is necessary to tackle more debilitating concerns.

We might believe that professional help for mental health is only for severe cases. The truth is, counseling is for anyone experiencing any mental distress, which can include: life transitions (good or bad), loss of a loved one or a job, difficulty making decisions, feeling overall dissatisfied with life or unhappy in a relationship or alone. I’ve had clients express concern that they’re not sure they even need counseling and others who call and ask questions about the counseling process but aren’t yet ready to schedule an appointment. This information gathering process is very healthy, and once they feel ready, they call and schedule their first appointment.

The initial step to get help is always uncomfortable and feels unnatural. Finding a counselor, with whom you can share, your deepest most personal concerns with can be daunting. If you’re not totally sure about what you need, it could help to find someone who could point you in the right direction, like a primary care physician. They usually have referrals available for their patients. Be honest about the symptoms you are experiencing, and if you are having suicidal thoughts, share it with your doctor or call 911 if you fear you’re in danger of hurting yourself. If you need to call or email a counselor to ask questions about counseling before meeting with them in person, do it. Psychotherapists are aware of the fear and hesitation that most clients experience before they make their appointment. If the counselor you meet doesn’t seem like a right fit, that’s okay too. Find someone who works for you.

Prince Harry and Lady Gaga are human just like us, but because of their very public lifestyle, it’s hard to imagine that they have hard days or that they struggle with their mental health. In reality, we all struggle, and now it’s our turn to break the cycle of avoidance in our own lives and choose healthy living.

Communication Styles that Kill Relationships

Recently a friend shared that she noticed a shift in her relationship with a good friend. She expressed concern that their once fulfilling friendship has become draining. She noticed that she feels on guard during their time together and no longer feels comfortable sharing her thoughts and feelings. She hates that the dynamic of the friendship has changed drastically but feels it would be too difficult to address. She decides to avoid her friend for a while until the awkwardness dies down.

How many times have we experienced a disagreement or a misunderstanding with a friend? If you have friends you have known for a while, you know this can often happen. When problems arise, communication is vital to reaching a solution. The ways we use communication reflect our goal in a relationship. Our goal could either be to foster connection or disconnection. Connection is developed through vulnerability. Disconnection is maintained through avoidance of vulnerability.

Deep down we all long for others to accept us, to choose us and to desire our friendship. Memories of rejection or manipulation by others could lead us to create strategies to protect ourselves from future pain. If we grew up in an environment in which others validated our thoughts and feelings or experiences, we are more likely to develop confidence that our view matters and that we are valued as individuals. This confidence allows us to be vulnerable with others and still feel secure in who we are. On the other hand, if we grew up in an environment in which our thoughts and feelings were invalidated or ignored, we are more likely to believe that our view does not matter and that we do not have value as individuals. If we believe that our thoughts and feelings are not important, we probably won’t value the opinions, thoughts, beliefs or feelings of others.

A critical environment creates a sense of fear of judgment and shame for who we are. We don’t feel secure to speak our mind and share what we think and feel. Fear and shame begins to motivate unhealthy communication styles such as: passive communication, aggressive communication and passive aggressive communication.

Passive Communicators keep their real thoughts and feelings to themselves. These communicators are extremely agreeable in an effort to avoid judgment. They can be described as people pleasers. They never allow others to see them upset and they may discount their own desires for the sake of others. They want to matter, but to risk trusting someone else with their thoughts and feelings is so scary that they choose to avoid it all together. It does not take long until this communicator begins to resent the other person for the one sided relationship they have created.

Aggressive Communicators desire to have all the power in a relationship. They maintain control by intimidating the other person and invalidating their thoughts and feelings. Any time they perceive their power is threatened, they become more aggressive. If a disagreement arises, aggressive communicators refuse to gain understanding but instead focus on getting the other person to agree with them.

Passive Aggressive Communicators avoid being vulnerable in relationships but still hold people accountable for any offense they perceive. They may withhold attention, affection, forgiveness or love in order to punish the other person for hurting them. The other person may sense something is wrong but because the passive aggressive communicator refuses to admit any hurt the other person has no opportunity to make amends.

The healthy approach to communication is Assertive Communication. Assertive communicators speak to gain understanding. They value others opinions and are not threatened by different points of view. They don’t tell people what to think, they ask people what they think and genuinely desire to know. A power struggle does not exist in this style of communicating since both individuals are secure in their worth as individuals.

As you read the descriptions of unhealthy communication styles, you may have had a few people come to mind. Maybe you thought about a friend or your parents that are unhealthy communicators. It’s easy to recognize these styles in other people, but I want to challenge you to see if you, intentionally or unintentionally, use one of these styles in your relationships. We cannot change other people but we can absolutely change the way we communicate.  If you notice that you are a passive aggressive communicator and your goal in relationships is to connect, something needs to change. The first step to change is to explore the ways that your communication style keeps you from intimacy in your relationships.