Knowing what to say and whether it’s worth saying at all it is a challenge I don’t think I’ll ever be done with. It seems a good place to start with on this post, as the things I navigate in life often give me a sense of external pressure to not speak up about them from my own perspective, especially in recent times. I’ve been out of a bad relationship for about three months now, and though it felt like I was done with it from the day after it was over, I still find myself with a lot to say about it, and not sure who I want to say it to.
Mostly they’re conversations with myself, but there is also a need for transparency with friends and family that I’m not used to. I’ve always felt a lot of pressure to present my life as best as possible; partly because of the all-too-human desire to be seen as interesting and likeable in a way that failure seems to undermine, and partly because I’ve been raised in a culture with a huge stigma against mental illness, around people who insist that one must always look on the bright side. I really got stuck on that last year, finding out the hard way that looking on the bright side of bad relationships often keeps you trapped in them, obscures your pains and struggles. I’ve frequently felt—though I believe that this is wrong—that making people around me comfortable is more important than acknowledging my own unhappiness.
It starts off being drilled into you in lots of tiny small ways throughout an entire lifetime before you finally notice it as an adult. I know all the different ways people shrink away from emotional conversations. I watch as people avert their eyes when I talk about depression and the ways it’s impacted my life, watch their bodies shrink away, hear over and over again people asking me to talk about something else because it upsets them to hear my unfiltered emotional experience. It’s frustrating, especially because I am never looking to upset anyone, but rather feel connected to people despite everything. I’ve become well-practised with shutting down my own attempts to connect with people before they even begin, with rationing out my unpleasantness amongst the right people and the right levels to not overwhelm anyone.
That rationing out of emotions is a process I know a lot of other people with mental illnesses are familiar with. I can’t completely throw it out, because emotional filters are important. But it does catch at my tongue a lot, throw me back into silence when I should probably be talking to people. There’s probably also something to be said, while doubling back to the situation of talking about a bad relationship, about the interplay here from the fear of being seen as a bitchy ex-girlfriend as a way in which we can be silenced, knowing how frequently women end up as pariahs for not giving him a second chance or for daring to publicly calling out his behaviour and risk turning a mob against an undeserving citizen.
For all the complicated reasons I’ve already named, and for the lack of emotional clarity I experienced to begin with, I didn’t want to talk about my breakup to a lot of my friends. But I ended up having to talk about it anyway when my ex overstepped my boundaries. At that point I publicly denounced his actions to my friends, and asked them not to facilitate his attempts to get back into my life. I won’t go into the details here, because it’s easy for me still to get caught up in them. More importantly was the fact that I opened up to others about it.
It was hard. I was afraid of so many things in taking that step: I was afraid that I was overreacting, or that I would cause others to overreact and respond more viciously to my ex than I wanted them to. I was afraid of being uncharitable and betraying my values as a person. I was afraid of having my relationship and my experiences branded by others in a way that I disagreed with and couldn’t control—after all, controlling the information I gave out was a way of controlling the image of what that relationship was (something that had occurred during the relationship too, and I’m still not entirely sure how much of that came from me self-censoring and how much came from my partner, although I suspect it was more of the former.) I was afraid of being wrong, and of losing the respect and friendship of others, and creating social divides.
There’s a certain point you reach as something of a social diplomat, though—or to be a little more harsh, a chronic people-pleaser—where trying to make room for everyone can damage your relationships with people rather than enrich them, and you just can’t make the perfect choice where everybody is happy. That’s the point when I realised that I had to actively choose who it was that I was going to let down instead of letting myself down as I already had been over and over again. I had been letting myself down for almost an entire year by isolating myself from my friends in my efforts to avoid saying bad things about someone I considered close to my heart. It didn’t seem fair or nice to talk about it, even though when it came to recognising my own valid emotional experience, neither of those actually mattered as much as I thought they did (and honestly, worrying that much about how my friends “wouldn’t understand” things that he did that were hurting me was a pretty big sign of how toxic it was, but it took me a while to admit that to myself.) I’d stopped using most of my friends as my allies and support network, and treated them like the general public to whom I needed to give a good PR spiel to, mainly so that I could entertain an unrealistic future in which my friends didn’t dislike that partner’s presence in my life. This created an artificial distance between me and others that simply didn’t need to exist, and wasn’t healthy.
Breaking past those walls I put up again is never as simple for me as just knocking one part over and watching the rest fall into place. Opening up to people takes practise and consistency. It’s no good just telling people I had a breakup and then falling silent about my life for another twelve months because I’m uncomfortable talking about my struggles with poverty and unemployment and admitting that’s what is dominating my life right now. I have to remember that it’s not about trying to unload my burden onto others, but more importantly, to unpack the shame that I attach to myself, so that I can lighten my own burden and hopefully also help others lighten theirs in the process.
That feels self-aggrandising to say, but I have witnessed constantly and heard it said often that openness gives others permission to be open. That’s something I want to do. Even if writing about it is ultimately just self-serving, I still need to practise giving myself that permission and keep on the journey of connecting with others.
So, this is the end of an emotionally indulgent little chat, and another little step on that journey (as well as another round of clichéd metaphors to unashamedly add to my trophy list). I don’t know how many times I’ve been at this same place on this path before, or how many times I’ll be here again, but I’m very lucky to have loved ones who are happy to walk it with me, time and time again, and always respond with open ears and hearts, no matter how dull, negative or shameful I feel.