When I first moved back to Arkansas, there were facts about my life I didn’t want others to know. I’d grown up in a small town in southern Arkansas, where everybody knew everything about everybody. And I wasn’t relishing moving from Dallas, where there was a certain amount of anonymity, to the much less populated Fayetteville.
My own inner voice chided, “You’ll be judged if people know you’ve been divorced twice.” I was scared of revealing my own vulnerability.
So, my plan was to keep that information close to the vest. I wouldn’t lie about it if someone asked, but I wouldn’t freely offer those particular details of my background. I was afraid of what others would think. I was coping with shame and I was nervous about not being seeing as a successful person — and certainly not a competent psychologist.
“What does she think she’s doing, trying to help others when her own life has been so messy?“
Sometimes life hands you the lesson you need to learn…
But something happened the first month I moved here that brought the reality of small town America laughingly into focus. And I had to sigh and accept that my vulnerabilities were out there for all to see.
My husband and I had gone out to celebrate something from his work — his first big account or something like that. We were at a local steak place — and I unfortunately began to choke and couldn’t breathe. A waiter rushed over, performed the Heimlich maneuver, the threatening piece of steak flew out of my mouth and onto the floor, and the other diners cheered.
I was more than embarrassed, although immensely grateful to the waiter.
The next morning, I was out walking, and someone who looked somewhat familiar was coming up the hill as I traveled down. We knew no one when we moved to Fayetteville, but had been casually introduced to a few people by our real estate agent. I said, “Good morning” and she replied with, “Hi. How are you?” I said, “Great, thanks.” Then she repeated, “No, how are you?” I then realized what this conversation was actually about — the dreaded steak incident.
I had to chuckle. I was definitely back in a small town. News was news. And I needed to learn the lesson that I couldn’t stay in total control.
Dealing with the fear of being judged…
But what if your struggle is mental illness, whether it’s your own, your partner’s or your child’s? What if it’s depression, problems with alcohol or drugs, struggles with panic and worry, restrictive eating or bingeing and purging? You can fear that others will “talk” — and make a judgment.
Of course it’s true that some people are black and white thinkers. For them, there’s good and bad, right and wrong. No gray area.
Yet this kind of black and white verdict can be hurtful and painful to receive especially when you’re already dealing with feeling the shame you put on yourself; potential judgment or rejection from others can feel like too much to bear.
So you hide.
And yet, everyone around you — people you respect and turn to for help — may also be struggling.
Struggles don’t define you any more than competencies do…
Maybe your family doctor struggles with insecurity and depression from abuse he experienced as a child. Perhaps your yoga instructor has fought for control and esteem by eating very little or working out too much. Your accountant may be overly perfectionistic and constantly worry over minute details even when home, or your auto mechanic may have severe dyslexia and bear the emotional scars of being bullied when younger.
None of us are immune. All of us are managing some kind of pain. And that pain doesn’t define us any more than our competencies.
That very doctor is empathic and diagnosed your diabetes before it got out of hand. That yoga instructor has helped you connect with your body and your breath in a way that’s been healing. Your accountant has saved you so much on taxes, you can take a vacation. And that mechanic? He always has a smile for you, an explanation of what went wrong, and how he can fix it.
So how do you confront your fear of judgement? You have to believe that the one thing you want to hide about yourself doesn’t define you; you’re far more complex than that one issue. Fear of rejection has to be overcome, because it keeps you from seeking the treatment, help and simple support that’s available for you.
Plus? Hiding is lonely.
The gifts of vulnerability and openness… and taking the risk…
Since moving here, I’ve definitely moved in the direction of being quite open about my own struggles. It’s been immensely freeing and I’ve discovered something truly important.
No one I’ve told that I developed panic disorder when I was in my 20’s, and still deal with anxiety, has walked out of my office, claiming I should heal myself before attempting to help others. No one who hears that my senior year of college, I ate around 700 calories a day, barely weighed 100 pounds and have had to work on self-esteem, has informed me that I’m obviously incompetent. No one who’s told me that they’re trying to cope with the sense of failure around a first or second divorce, has ever rejected my help when I tell them I personally understand the path they’re on.
In fact, quite the opposite. When you’re honest with others and allow them to see who you really are, how you actually think and feel, you personally benefit because you’re known for you. There’s nothing to hide.
So I ask you, “Can you think of at least one person that you could be absolutely truthful with, someone that your intuition or gut tells you would be supportive?” What do you think would happen if you shared your vulnerability?
This is what others I’ve told me who’ve taken that risk.
“When I began talking to my best friend about my sadness and my fight to even get out of bed, sure enough her husband had felt the same way years before.” Or, “I had no idea that his brother had been hospitalized. We sat, had coffee, and talked about it.” Or, “She so got my story, because she told me she’d been to therapy due to what happened to her as a child.”
The risk is worth it. If people judge, let them judge. So be it.
The freedom you find is worth that risk.
You can hear more about mental health and many other topics by listening to my podcast, SelfWork with Dr. Margaret Rutherford. Subscribe to my website and receive one weekly newsletter including my weekly blog post and podcast! If you’d like to join my FaceBook closed group, then click here and answer the membership questions! Welcome!
My new book entitled Perfectly Hidden Depression has arrived and you can order here! Its message is specifically for those with a struggle with strong perfectionism which acts to mask underlying emotional pain. But the many self-help techniques described can be used by everyone who chooses to begin to address emotions long hidden away that are clouding and sabotaging your current life.
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This was originally published on January 21, 2017 and was updated on March 23, 2019.