For any new readers out there, welcome to my blog and thank you for taking the time. I spend my professional time in different settings, as I’m someone who needs variety in my working week. Half of that time, I’m based in a primary school where I manage a therapy and counselling service, which supports not only children at the school, but also their parents and the staff who work with them every day. There is a team of 4 counsellors on placement, whom I manage and supervise, and it’s an environment filled with learning opportunities. It’s a big change from the work I used to do with adults in substance misuse services, but it’s also fascinating and humbling to work at such early stages of development. The rest of the time, I run a small private practice online, and deliver the odd workshop or lecture on the topics of addiction/substance misuse, sexual health/HIV, or LGBTQ+ wellbeing, as those are my specialised areas in adult mental health and wellbeing.
Last week, at school, I was having a chat and trying to support one of the children under my care, when they said that they have been feeling sad and frustrated for a very long time. I asked why they hadn’t shared that with their counsellor, and the response was that they didn’t trust adults to understand their feelings. I thought this was interesting, because in that moment, they had actually just shared how they felt with me, an adult. I continued to be curious and reflected that it is indeed hard sometimes, to share our feelings with other people. Not only that, but sometimes, it’s hard to even know what we’re feeling in the first place.
Even though I’ve trained as a therapist, I don’t claim to have any authority on knowing why people are or behave a certain way. I know that I have strong instincts when it comes to communicating and relating to others who are in need of support, and I often find myself saying things that make me stop and think “Where did that come from?” They feel like bursts of inspiration, and then they go away. I feel they are the effect of attuning to the person in front of me, their needs, their verbal and non-verbal languages. They are often based on my own personal experiences of the feelings clients share with me. And so, in that moment, I remember what it was like being a child and feeling like adults wouldn’t understand my feelings, and how sometimes I still feel this way as an adult. At the same time, as an adult and a therapist, I also know that the cause of that difficulty often lies within our upbringing.
Were you taught to share your feelings with family and friends? Did you see adults in your environment sharing their honest feelings with each other, and with you? Or did you perhaps witness a careful dance of sharing some things, but not others, or the ultimate problematic pattern: the expectation that others should know how we feel, without we having to share our feelings? I sensed that the child I was speaking to fell in this latter category. They were certainly feeling something that they were able to identify, but they were expecting me, and the other adults at school, to know exactly what those feelings were. Without telling us. It can be exasperating and extremely obvious, but most people live their daily lives like this. Why is that? I remember an adult client once complaining that their sons would never share anything with them, and I asked whether they had been taught to do so from an early age. The answer was no. It is quite unrealistic to expect adults to share feelings with you, if you never taught them to do so as children. Or if you never shared feelings with them!
I shared with this child that adults feel the same way too, sometimes. That even though it looks like we know everything, that there are many things that we don’t know, and many things that make us feel sad, angry, and frustrated, just like they were feeling in that moment. But then I said: “I know it’s very hard to share our feelings with others, sometimes. I feel that way too. But do you know how I’m feeling right now?” Their answer was “No.” “Because I haven’t shared my feelings with you. And so, when you don’t share your feelings with the adults at school who want to help you, then it’s really hard for them to know how to help you.” I could have said that straight away, but what we therapists do is often go around a topic for a little while to facilitate a successful insight. I could tell this child understood what I was trying to say, which was great. I walked them back to class and wished them a great day. And then I went back to my office and emailed his teacher, his counsellor, and the headteacher about ways in which we can collectively support this child in being more consistent with their sharing of feelings. The more they share, the more we can help, and the easier it becomes to alleviate emotional health difficulties, and to prevent potential mental health difficulties. One thing is to have an insight about something, another very different thing is to incorporate specific actions and tools which will enable us to be consistent and repetitive enough to create a new healthier pattern of behaviour, to replace an old and inadequate one.
People around us can read and detect some signs of how we might be feeling, but if we don’t actually say it clearly, it’s very difficult for people to know and guess. Even for us, therapists. There is always an assumption that we can read into people’s minds, but unless something is clearly and explicitly shared, all we have is an assumption, which may or may not be correct. This is not to say that you should now go out into the world and share everything with everyone. Find a trusted person with whom you can start practising this. For many people, that might be a therapist. One of the most powerful things we can offer in the therapeutic space is the opportunity to practise difficult interactions with others. I often tell friends who are struggling with relating with their therapists: “Use them. Use the space to say all the things you can’t say in your daily life and see how it feels. Use the space and the therapist to learn about tricky social interactions. They can handle it.”
Share wisely, but always find a way to share. It’s the healthiest option.