Resilience… for whom?

Over the past few years, there has been an important rise in awareness of mental health issues, and related support for people to help them cope and help others. I think this is very important, a gradual reduction in the stigma of poor mental health and this trend has been helpful to people I know for which I’m grateful. A friend of mine, 20 years ago didn’t know where to get help, and I can remember being at the other end of the country for work whilst he cried his eyes out, on the phone to me for over 2 hours. I didn’t know how to help him much either, other than staying on the line, listening, and he definitely felt some shame from the perceived stigma of asking for help.

I’m not any kind of expert on mental health, nevertheless, in supporting people with stress, depression and anxiety related issues, I have now read a bit of the advice. Endless leaflets and online web advice such as from the excellent Blurt Foundation, and have thought about my own health and personal resilience. (I might have missed much better things to read, and be misinformed, in which case, I apologise). Whilst much is helpful in my reading, there is a little bit of it, related to personal resiliance development, that is just nagging at me a little and I thought I’d write about it here, to try to work it out a little bit and I wondered what others may think. (Other problems related to the ongoing panacea du-jour of personal resilience training and bounce-ability are detailed in this excellent blog).

In many ways, to me, the general theme within the stress and related issues like anxiety and depression advice could probably be summed up as ‘talk to someone‘. A family member, a friend, a work colleague, a teacher, your GP, someone on the phone, someone else on the railway platform. And much of this advice to says, (again summarising) ‘we know it is a really, really big step to talk to someone, but if you can, do, just blurt it out’. There seems to be a big acknowledgement that when you are suffering, particularly with stress and depression and so on, it can be a big deal to open up, and admit help is needed. There follows further advice for family members supporting those with stress, depression and anxiety, etc., and signs and symptoms are often described including: withdrawal from social activities and friends, aggression, anger, frustration, rudeness, sadness, reduced interest in appearance, isolation, numbness, sleeplessness, and so it goes on. The gift that keeps on giving.

So, it strikes me, anyway, that for some, not only might asking for help be challenging and a big step, but also having someone to ask might also be challenging. Because some of the symptoms, like aggression and anger, may mean that some of the very people you might pick to talk to, may well now be alienated from you, and be more difficult to talk to, resulting from the stress or depression etc. related behaviour.

They say, you know who your friends really are, when the going gets tough.

For those seeking advice and support either in response to an episode or for preventative purposes, or just for empathetic reading, much is offered by way of help, again I refer to the Blurt Foundation for excellent resources imho. I can’t write about medical help. But, there is a wide range of potential preventative advice often related to diet, hydration, sleep, exercise, mindfulness, gratitude, self-care and compassion and so on, sometimes badged under titles like personal resilience. Some of this advice is excellent, healthy living advice. But one bit nags me, because it seems to me anyway, to contradict some of the other advice that seems to be given to those suffering. The advice I’m thinking of, is that about ‘avoiding people who sap your energy‘. The advice goes something like this: ‘Try to avoid people who are are negative and sap your energy. Cut them out of of your life if you can, if they are ‘moaners‘. Find out who the ‘bright stars’ are in your ‘supportive constellation‘ and identify your ‘black holes’. Try to reduce engagement with the ‘black-holes‘ as those ‘mood-hoovers’ and will sap you, and that will impact your resilience’. Hardly, an inclusive action imho. (I’m summarising, and maybe that is too much, so I’m sure there is a little more nuance that I have missed).

Whom might these people be? I can imagine most of us can think of someone who could be stereotyped that way, maybe we even recognise some of that in ourselves. I might have even described my friend on the phone 20 years ago, as mostly negative. And at times that for me was very emotionally draining. When I am working with people who are indicating a lot of frustrating and irritating (to me) problems and of obstacles to improvement success and reasons why some things can’t be done, and the people that will stop it, very occasionally in quite challenging, and even rude or derogatory ways; I like to think that they might be intentionally or otherwise just playing devils advocate, in order to help improve better. Or they feel like no one is listening to them and are frustrated and angry, or they are wearing De Bono’s black hat. And we most definitely need more of these people to help us develop better critical thinkers and problem solvers, so this helps me frame this interaction into a positive and I want to explore more, rather than less.

But what happens, if for what ever reason, these people with what can be perceived as more challenging or negative views become isolated and labelled as ‘never looking at the positive’ people, say because people are avoiding ‘black-holes‘? Where looking after one’s own resilience potentially sets unhealthy conditions for others. Closing down space to vent and emote and share the frustration and issues, and just feel heard. It strikes me that it is a bit ‘Mean Girls‘ isn’t it? To label people and to then exclude them, just because you don’t like something about them. They are not popular, sorry I mean positive, enough. (The phrase mood-hoover seems to have come from this cited research, it is quite possibly now being used out of context in the advice to avoid ‘mood-hoovers‘. I note when searching now to put links in the blog, that I can’t see this kind of personal resilience advice on sites such as Mind, but I can see it on loads of training websites).

Sometimes, we all need a bit of calm, self-compassion and me-time to help us to cope and look after ourselves. But I’m not sure anyone wants to become labelled and judged with the stigma of a ‘moaner‘ or a ‘energy vampire’ or a ‘black-hole‘, or a ‘mood-hoover‘ and thus potentially become deliberately isolated by others in pursuit of personal resilience. In some work, social or educational situations, I have noticed that isolation can become contagious, and cliquey, and even harmful.

Now, here’s the nagging thing, and I’m not suggesting that all people whom appear negative to others, are stressed or depressed and so on. But, what if the ‘moaners‘ are not just being ‘negative‘, but actually trying to make that big first scary step in asking for help? Or even have been trying for quite some time? What if the perceived negativity is actually that person really struggling and not quite knowing how to articulate it, and that rudeness, disrespectful, moaning or aggressive behaviour is just a coping mechanism for them, and their ‘never joining-in‘ is actually their unhealthy coping strategy?

What if, in that attempt to help yourself and improve your personal resilience by avoiding ‘black-holes‘, you actually make it harder for others to approach you and take that big big scary step? Would it not be better to be more inclusive and hear the negative views, and understand them and be a listening ear? I haven’t met many people who deliberately set out to become ‘difficult‘ or ‘moody‘ or ‘negative‘. Instead, I feel quite strongly that the people I have have helped, just want to be heard, and know that someone will listen. Many people will just be having a bad day, or week, or maybe even month, and have no health issues at all, we can surely help them too. I’m glad I didn’t label my friend 20 years ago as negative and cut him out of my life in my own self-interest of personal resilience. Who knows where that may have led.

I listened to a podcast from a former colleague and friend of mine recently who had a sad episode of suicidal thoughts after a series of difficult personal and work related events. I think she was very brave in recording that, and in some ways has made me write this blog, (thank you for sharing your story, you know who you are). When I worked with her, she was pretty outgoing, energetic, vivacious and a tough cookie. And was interested in all the things, we are told about to help us reduce stress and related issues, like mindfulness, lunchtime walks, gratitude and so on.

In the podcast, the interviewer asks her what could have prevented her from reaching the railway line where her suicidal thoughts became very real? What could work colleagues or friends and family have done? And her answer was simple. ‘They could have talked to me. Asked me to lunch, insisted even. Got to know me a little better. That is listen, see me‘. And in the interview she goes on to say that, with great self awareness and insight, that (summarising, hopefully adequately), ‘Yes, I know I was perhaps difficult and I kept shutting my office door, symbolically shutting everyone out. But, despite that, I really did want to be seen and heard and to know someone cared. Cared enough to notice, that I was struggling and not myself. I know that is probably really hard, as maybe I was pretty negative and maybe even grumpy and maybe they didn’t know what to say, or want to get involved and were looking after themselves, everyone is busy. But, I was just finding everything a bit difficult, and that meant asking for help was difficult and I needed someone to ask me, to see me.’

I’m sad, I wasn’t nearby to have noticed or at the other end of a phone.

All of us need a little help from time to time, some more than others and more often than others, and following self help and expert advice for personal resilience and health seeking behaviours on what can be done can be very helpful. Again, I stress, I’m grateful for the help for the people in my life. Nevertheless, I do wonder if sometimes, just like in improvement, there may be inadvertent consequences in some of the advice in improving personal resilience, and that perhaps, this could come at a cost of the personal resilience, or even harm, for others.

Resilience, for whom?

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