I’m often struck, when talking to people about their mental health, how they think they are the only person in the world who has ever thought or felt the way they do. I certainly have felt that, in the midst of my struggles, I’m the only person in the world who could possibly understand my experience of it and that no one else can have ever felt, or thought, the way I felt or thought then. It's incredibly isolating.
As I write now, I think “how grandiose and arrogant of me to think I was the only person out of the billions who have ever lived, to think that way". But then I have the benefit of a lot of hindsight. I have 18 years of experience living with and talking about mental health – something many of us don’t have. And one of the biggest discoveries I’ve had is this:
We’re all the same. We all have ‘screwed up’ thoughts. But we all like to keep them secret.
A privilege I have in my role is that people open up to me about their problems and often, private thoughts. This is a result, maybe, of the amount I’m willing to disclose about my own experiences and vulnerabilities. Often this means that people tell me things they have never uttered a word to others about. When people tell me these things I often notice two key emotions:
Relief, to have been able to tell someone else about their experiences and thoughts without judgement.
Surprise and amusement, to discover that they’re normal and that someone else experiences similar things
It’s quite nice, really, to be in receipt of these emotions and to be able to support people in letting go of a big hang-up they’ve been holding onto for, often, years. But really, it’s a symptom of the fact that people experience huge amounts of shame, anxiety, guilt or fear about the things that go on in the privacy of their own minds. The fact that we are all ashamed means that the cycle continues as my shoddy effort on 'SmartArt' attempts to illustrate, below:
So, I think, wouldn’t it be great if we were able to acknowledge and accept that many of the anxieties and thoughts we have are quite normal, rather than view them as a sign of weakness, incompetence or weirdness? Could it mean that that many of us wouldn’t have to struggle against our anxieties or doubts, since we’d all just see them as normal? I think so, and I reckon the best way to tackle this is to start talking about it:
So taking a deep breath, here goes: A list of 7 things that I’ve either experienced first-hand or heard others say they regularly experience, which are actually, quite common:
1. Feeling guilty that you’re not enjoying the company of family or loved ones.
I always get this feeling on holiday. “Why am I not having fun, I’m on holiday – what’s wrong with me”. I also sometimes get it in my relationship:"I'm not really into this today - does that mean we're not right for each other?". I’ve heard the same from other people in loving relationships with their partner or family:"Why am I not enjoying the company of my kids or family, I’d much rather read a book”. This is just a normal thought. We can’t always be happy on command. And just because we’re not happy when we want to be doesn’t mean something is wrong with us, or the people around us. It’s just life.
2. Thoughts about losing control of your bodily functions in public.
I've spoken to lots of people, especially those with social anxieties, who get concerned about whether they will suddenly need to go to the toilet and not have anywhere to go. The anxiety people often have about this creates a need to ‘void’ – to get rid of bodily fluids and prepare them to defend themselves (a classic fight/flight response), and so, makes the anxiety all the more real and difficult to deal with.
3. Thoughts about suicide*.
This could mean imagining throwing yourself in front of a train. It could mean struggling to cross bridges, stand on balconies or go near cliff edges in case you throw yourself off. It could mean thinking about taking an overdose, or driving into oncoming traffic. The number of people that have thoughts like this is staggering. They are, usually, quite terrifying thoughts. But if people knew that, although terrifying, these thoughts are actually quite common and relatively harmless (so long as we don't want to, intend to, or plan to act on them) it might make having them a little easier.
4. Worrying about public speaking.
Here’s one that people do talk about a bit more regularly. A lot of us fear the dry mouth and botching our lines in front of a group of people. And who could blame you? No-one likes to look like a dick in front of an audience except from Boris Johnson who seems to have made a career of it. Rest assured that even the most talented public speakers have to rehearse their lines to make sure they don’t screw up. And if they don’t practice? Yes, they worry about it too.
5. Lying awake worrying.
If I had a pound for every night I’ve been awake in the night worrying I won’t get to sleep… For many people this goes something like this. “If I don’t get to sleep I’ll be rubbish at work tomorrow. What if I never get to sleep again? I’m going to get sacked, lose my income, my house, my partner and my life will amount to nothing”. It’s amazing what happens in our imaginations in the dark of night sometimes. So next time this is you, just remember, someone else you know well will be doing the exact same as you, right at that moment. At least, I probably will be. Maybe it won’t be so lonely and scary then.
6. Worrying about harming others*.
This can be highly distressing for people. For example they might worry that they are going to stab a family member with a kitchen knife. A highly unpleasant thought to experience. Like suicidal thoughts, however, the good news is, these thoughts are actually quite common and again, relatively harmless so long as we don't want to, intend to, or plan to act on them. Remember this - thoughts don’t make murderers. Actions do.
7. Feeling like everyone else has things under control and you don't.
This is classic imposter syndrome and people who think it imagine everyone else ‘has their shit together’. This is very common in leaders in organisations and the story I always tell when people tell me this is as follows: I always thought I’d be an adult when I ‘had the answers’ and ‘had my shit together’. In fact, the moment that defined adulthood for me was when I realised adults don’t have all the answers. We’re all just trying to figure it out and no one has any idea what they’re doing. And those that think they do are either deluded or lying. You’re the normal one, not them. So stop pretending you have it together. It sets a bad example to others. It sends the message that ‘It’s not OK not to be OK’. It stops people having real conversations about how they are and creates unnecessary stress and expectations for you and others.”
*I really need to stress the difference between 'fleeting, unwanted thoughts' and a 'desire to act' in relation to my points on suicidal or murderous thoughts, above. Of course, murderers often think about murder before committing the act, and people who commit suicide also think about suicide before committing the act. The critical distinction I have learned is this: Fleeting thoughts which come out of the blue are quite common and normal. Sometimes they are highly disturbing, but they are OK if we don't have the intention or desire to act on them. If, on the other hand, you find yourself wanting to or planning to act on thoughts about harming yourself or others, you should alert the people around you and find help as soon as possible.
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