Ever felt like you needed to talk to someone, but you didn’t quite know how to express yourself? Or – maybe you had the right words put together in your mind, but struggled to find the courage within to say it out loud. We’ve all been there. It’s not healthy. Your mind and body can only hold in those bottled up emotions for so long until you feel like you are going to explode!
The hardest step is often the first: initiating the conversation and opening up. That’s why this year, in recognition of “Time to Talk Day” on 7 February, we thought it would be helpful to ask our friend and therapist Emma Browne for some advice on how to approach these tricky conversations and open up about how we feel.
Q: Do you have any tips for helping people to open up and talk about their feelings?
A: “Being willing to open up and allow yourself to be vulnerable with others is one of the kindest and healthiest things you can do for yourself. However, it takes great courage.
We are fearful of not being heard, understood, or of being rejected by others; and, when we are distressed, our bodies and brains go into survival mode and we tend to want to withdraw, avoid, push down, or numb out those difficult feelings in an attempt to get back to feeling okay. This fear of rejection can be so powerful that sometimes we wear it like armour. However these other strategies we adopt rarely work over time and we end up repeating often unhealthy patterns of trying to cope. Our relationships can suffer and often we end up feeling even more isolated and disconnected from ourselves and from others.”
To help avoid this, here are a few ways we can all practice opening up with others:
- Accept that you are worthy
“In order to become ok with vulnerability, the first thing we need to do is accept that we are worthy to get a positive response back. Brene Brown, vulnerability researcher explained in her famous TED talk “There was only one variable that separated the people who have a strong sense of love and belonging and the people who really struggle for it. And it was that the people who have a strong sense of love and belonging believe they’re worthy of love and belonging. That’s it, they believe they are worthy”
“This may feel really hard for some of us but my advice would be practice this, take risks with others and give yourself positive affirmations about the fact you are worthy”
- Tune into yourself/know when you’ve been triggered
“Try to avoid the natural and automatic tendency to withdraw, avoid or numb those difficult feelings by becoming aware and tuning into how you are feeling. This takes practice and being more aware of yourself and your feelings.
You can try this helpful practice I use with my clients, RAIN:
R – Recognise the feelings when they arise
A – Accept and allow them to just be there
I – Investigate (with Kindness), try to make sense of why these feelings have come up
N – Nurture and sooth these feelings with self-care and compassion and then reach out to others and let them know what’s going on for you
Sometimes writing these things down in a journal can help you to recognise those times when you may miss an opportunity to open up to someone.”
- Chose who to open up to carefully
“Keep in mind also that being completely open with everyone in every situation may be very inappropriate. You may want to be more open with your boyfriend/girlfriend, close friends and family members but not with people you don’t know as well. You may choose not to be open with people you don’t fully trust because you don’t fully know how they might use that information about you. Also, some people struggle or might feel uncomfortable with too much openness and you may not want to be as open with them. Have a think about those people in your life who have earned your vulnerability – it is a gift and should be shared and offered carefully.”
- Practice being congruent
“Openness is making your outer world as similar to your inner world as possible. When you’re feeling jealous, happy, anxious or sad and you share this with other people, you are being real, authentic and congruent and this also will help you to process difficult feelings and have a positive impact on your emotional health and wellbeing. That is letting what shows, your expression, words represent what you actually feel and think. That takes hard work and a lot of honesty and practice. People like being around people who are real though and as long as you are sensitive to other people’s feelings, being authentic and congruent will allow you to have deeper and more meaningful relationships.”
Q: Do you have any tips for how to approach tricky conversations?
- Focus on feelings
“It’s usually easier to share opinions or thoughts about something. Everybody has an opinion. It’s harder to share feelings. Be in touch with how you feel. Share openly the feelings as much as you can. Some feelings cover or come from other feelings. Anger may come from hurt. We might find it easier to show the anger. However, if we work really hard and try to understand the hurt, if we share the hurt and are open about the hurt, we are actually being more open at a deeper level.”
- Try to change your questions into statements
“Sometimes, we have an attitude or feeling about something and we’re afraid to share it, we’re afraid to be open. Instead, we ask a question. For instance, we might say “do you really care about me?”, when instead we want to say “I really care about you and sometimes I worry or question if you feel the same.” Change your questions into statements you can make about yourself wherever possible.”
- Communicate in the first person
“Begin sentences with “I” instead of “you”. You might say, ” I’m feeling hurt that you didn’t answer my phone calls yesterday. Its made me wonder if you really care.” Rather than “ You have really hurt me by ignoring my calls yesterday. You don’t care about me at all”…. This allows the other person to be less defensive about their answers. They will be more able to see things from your perspective and be more receptive to understanding and owning their potential part in the situation.”
- Try not to say, “I don’t know”
“This generally means I don’t want to think about it anymore. You’re probably getting to a level of being open that makes you anxious. Try and let the person know you are struggling to answer because of feeling worried about rejection or judgment etc – this will keep the line of communication open and help the other person to stay connected to you.”
“Finally, openness and vulnerability is often a two-way process. If you want a deeper and more meaningful connection with others, practice being open and they are likely to respond with openness and vulnerability with you in return.”
Q3: How can parents help their children to talk about feelings?
“When the stigma that surrounds mental illness is still so prevalent in today’s society, it’s no wonder so many parents feel uncomfortable discussing the topic with their kids. They might have had their own struggles, or be too afraid of ‘opening a can of worms’ or just wanting to avoid having to have uncomfortable or difficult conversations. But mental health shouldn’t be a taboo subject, and the sooner children learn this the better. Talking openly about feelings and emotions and helping kids to normalise what might be going on for them is so important.”
“It is much better to raise the topic of mental health before an episode occurs, since talking or accepting help can be especially hard when you’re in the grip of depression or anxiety when feelings of shame can become further barriers to communication. This isn’t easy for parents though. Every parent must know the desperate feeling of not being able to help their child in pain. So anything you can do to educate a child about issues that may occur, increasing their chance of communicating if they do have trouble, is positive.”
Be available for your children/teenagers:
- Notice times when your kids are most likely to talk — for example, at bedtime, before dinner, in the car — and be available.
- Start the conversation; it lets your kids know you care about what’s happening in their lives.
- Find time each week for a one-on-one activity with each child, and switch off your phone during these times!
- Learn about your children’s interests — for example, favourite music and activities — and show interest in them.
- Initiate conversations by sharing what you have been thinking about rather than beginning a conversation with a question.
- Lead by example – let them witness you being vulnerable with them and with others. Give them the message its ok to show and share feelings
Let your kids know you’re listening:
- When your children are talking about concerns, stop whatever you are doing and listen.
- Express interest in what they are saying without being intrusive.
- Listen to their point of view, even if it’s difficult to hear.
- Let them complete their point before you respond.
- Repeat what you heard them say to ensure that you understand them correctly.
“Listening and talking is the key to a healthy connection between you and your children. But parenting is hard work and maintaining a good connection with teens can be challenging, especially since parents are dealing with many other pressures. If you are having problems over an extended period of time, or you are worried about your child’s emotional wellbeing, you might want to consider consulting with a mental health professional to find out how they can help.”
Written by: Emma-Jayne Browne
Edited by: Shelby Hale
Emma-Jayne Browne has over 15 years of experience as a qualified child and adult therapist. Possessing a Bachelor of Science with honours degree in Human Psychology along with postgraduate diplomas in both Play Therapy and Cognitive Analytic Therapy, Emma has used her academic background to help people struggling with their mental health. If you have a question for Emma, please reach out to us at: firstname.lastname@example.org.