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Keeping up appearances

One of the most striking features about some of the clients I work with is how terrifically well they appear to be coping. Smart appearance; a good physical fitness regime; managing a busy home; holding down a demanding job: it could be easy to imagine this person hasn't a care in the world. And indeed, as we talk at greater depth, it often turns out that that's exactly what their family, friends and colleagues do think. Yet, behind the smart outward appearance, this person can be suffering terribly, and feeling very alone in their distress.

According to the most recent National Wellbeing statistics, 20% of the UK adult population reports some evidence of depression or anxiety. Yet the chances are, many of us are managing well enough to carry on with our lives, and hiding our distress from those close to us. That might be for a range reasons: at two ends of the spectrum, clients commonly tell me they don't want to burden loved ones with their troubles, or that they are afraid that if they allow themselves to appear vulnerable, they will be victimised.

The trouble with keeping up appearances and carrying on regardless though, is that the problems tend not to go away. In my own experience, what happened instead was that my stress levels became elevated; I became increasingly ashamed of myself, and worried that people might see through me; and so I worked harder and harder to isolate myself and prevent people from finding out how wretched I was feeling. Which only kept reinforcing a cycle of misery.

What I've learned over time is the importance of staying in relationship with the people that care about me. Even when I feel rubbish about myself and toxic to other people. That means allowing myself to be seen in vulnerable situations. Asking for kindness - advice - attention. Things that I would readily and easily give to someone I love, if and when they needed them; yet for some reason find it hard to ask for for myself. Because these good, dear people will share the load, if I give them the chance.

And so now, when I suspect people are working furiously to not let me see how hard life is for them (and ironically, we will go - will pay - to see a counsellor, and still fight not to let her see that), I try to give them a taste of the possibility that others can accept them, with whatever they're going through; that others think they're worth listening to, when they are tired of their own story; that others will help, if they can let themselves be helped.

This is a great privilege.

If you found this post thought-provoking, you might also like to read this article on high-functioning depression from The Metro this week. There's also a great animation from The School of Life on asking for help when we're in trouble.

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