How To Talk About The Heavy Stuff
Illustration by Mr Donghyun Lim
Some of us would rather have a tooth pulled than talk about our feelings. A lot of us men have been brought up to keep our difficult emotions under wraps and see opening up about things such as anxiety, overcoming an addiction, being made redundant or getting divorced as somehow unmanly.
Our reticence comes at a cost. According to the Men’s Health Forum, one in eight men is struggling with mental health issues such as depression or anxiety and three out of four suicides are committed by men.
It is a significant help to be able to talk openly to a sympathetic friend, your family or partner. Talking is important for our mental and physical health. When we carry unexpressed anger or fear, these feelings can overwhelm us like quicksand. Bottle things up and a part of our brain called the amygdala is triggered, which causes our anxious flight or fight response, which in turn interrupts our ability to think clearly and can disturb our sleep and digestion.
“Talking is important for our mental and physical health. When we carry unexpressed anger or fear, these feelings can overwhelm us”
Research from the University of California suggests that when we put our feelings into words, known as affect labelling, our over-stimulated brain starts to calm itself down, which allows us to process our thoughts and feelings more realistically. Imagine you have been in a car accident. The thought of getting into a vehicle again could be too much, but statistically, you are far more likely to be able to get back behind the wheel after talking about your trauma.
To help you feel more confident in sharing, opening up and being more emotionally vulnerable with the people in your life, we have assembled some tips that might help.
Know your audience
Having a meaningful conversation takes courage, which is why it is helpful to do some preparation first. Does the friend you intend to speak to make you feel safe? Is this someone whose opinion you respect? If you have doubts, think about approaching someone else, perhaps a member of your family.
The same applies if you are sharing difficult news, whether that be your work situation or health. Speak to those with whom you feel safest first. Take your time and go at whatever pace feels comfortable for you. This is your story.
“Emotionally revealing conversations are hard,” says Mr John-Paul Flintoff, author of Psalms For The City, a book about his own breakdown and recovery. “It’s important to make it as comfortable for yourself and for the other person as possible. Check first that they have the time to listen and, of course, that you’re ready to speak yourself.”
If you don’t feel comfortable with the people in your life, it’s OK. “Not everybody you know can sit with your vulnerability,” says wellbeing consultant Ms Sam Clarke. “It may be better to work with a professional, such as a therapist, if you’re doubtful you have anyone who makes you feel safe or is a good listener.”
It can be helpful to have a chat while going for a walk or even while driving or being driven. During lockdown, I found one-to-one conversations with friends while walking were often deeper and more emotionally revealing than meeting over coffee.
“By simply walking side by side you are lowering the emotional pressure, because you’re not intensely staring at one someone’s face as your story unfolds,” says Ms Sarah Stein Lubrano, faculty lead at The School Of Life. “Often with difficult conversations we rush to fill the silence with hasty words, but that means that our friend, who might still be thinking about what to say, doesn’t always get time to formulate their thoughts.”
“There’s so much more that is revealed when we allow our bodies to move, because that encourages our thinking to shift in potentially helpful ways,” says Clarke.
In the moment
Voice any difficulties you may be feeling, such as, “This is hard for me to say,” or, “I’m not quite sure where to begin, so please bear with me,” at the start of your conversation.
“By naming your difficulties at the very beginning you will help to calm your nerves,” says the conversation expert and author Ms Fanny Auger. “So be as clear and transparent as you can be.”
Your opening words flag the significance of the moment, says Auger. This means your friend is more likely to listen closely and take it seriously. This should help you to feel safe as well as encouraging a deeper, more meaningful conversation.
Talk about yourself
It is important to stick to “I” statements as much as possible says Mr Ali Ross, a psychotherapist and spokesperson for the UK Council for Psychotherapy. “I” statements are when you begin sentences from your point of view. “This helps you to keep on track with describing precisely your experience and how what you’re talking about is affecting your life right now,” he says.
Dr Brennan Jacoby, a philosopher and founder of Philosophy At Work, agrees. “Talk about yourself and your own feelings,” he says. “Don’t talk about the intentions of other people involved. After all, the sense you have of your feelings can’t really be denied, but it is near impossible to climb inside the minds of other people.”
Take a beat
It can be useful to ask if you can pick up the conversation again at another time. This takes the pressure off feeling everything needs to be aired or resolved at this moment. Complex life situations often take time to talk through.
Years ago, I went through a painful relationship split and feared I was overwhelming a close friend with my long, emotionally fraught telephone calls. She said one of the most helpful things I’ve ever heard: “You’re my friend. You can talk to me as often as you need to. I’m never going to say it’s too much. Call me any time. I mean it.” This was a priceless gift. Knowing I had this unlimited help was reassuring. It was like carrying an emotional comfort blanket.
“Friendships are in many ways one long conversation,” says Stein Lubrano. “It’s OK to break up the tricky bits, and easier to do this if we’re regularly nurturing our friendship with different types of interaction.”
Learn to listen
If you’re called on to help a friend, listening is a very good skill to have, and one we can all improve. “A good place to start is by not burdening yourself with the idea that you have to fix the person’s problem,” says Auger. By focusing on what you’re hearing, rather than offering solutions, you are setting up a safe space in which your friend can open up.
You can encourage someone to let it out by asking open questions. Be warm, curious and non-judgmental, and avoid rushing them. Being able to sit with silence as well as sharing your support and, if applicable, offering your help are all beneficial.
“If you feel out of your depth about what’s being shared with you, that’s OK,” says Ross. “The most important thing is your togetherness and your attempt at trying to understand.” And sometimes, just listening is the best support you can give.