Yesterday I was hanging out with my partner’s family having lunch and chatting. I generally like Partner’s family, and they’re very kind people. But I’ve only known them for a few months and I haven’t established a very close bond with them yet. That means they’re mostly unaware of my mental illness. It’s not uncommon for people with mental illnesses to be around others that have this level of acquaintance: you know them, you care about what they think, you respect their opinions, and you want the relationship to grow. But they don’t know about your mental illness.
Most of the time that’s totally fine, especially since it’s not too hard to decide that if someone is a total butthead about mental illnesses and runs around spewing stuff like “it’s all in your head” or “just smile more” you can decide that you simply don’t want to invest in the relationship and stop hanging around them. But sometimes you end up in a circumstance in which someone that you want and need to build a relationship with inadvertently starts triggering you.
So yesterday when the conversation turned to calories and weight loss, I really wasn’t sure what to do. These conversations are nearly always triggering to me, to one degree or another. Sometimes I can keep my reaction under control, but usually it means that I’ll spend the next hour to day thinking about calories and weight loss and fighting with myself over my own caloric intake.
What do you do when you’re in a situation in which you can’t disclose your discomfort without outing a whole other pile of things, but you can’t leave without harming a relationship? Are there tools available? Sure I could have set a boundary by just saying “Hey, I really don’t think weight is that important. Could we talk about something else?” or just changing the subject, but when you’re not in a position of power or comfort, that can be extremely difficult. There are all sorts of situations where it’s nearly impossible to set boundaries like that without risking social repercussions.
There are lots of distress tolerance skills that seem really applicable here, things like breathing exercises, soothing oneself with nice sensory experiences (finding the soft blanket in the room and cuddling it), taking a brief mental vacation until the topic of conversation is over, distracting yourself in some fashion (if there are kids around it’s always a good excuse to say you’re just going to go play with them). It’s hard, and it might require limiting time around people you’re not sure you can trust with your mental and emotional health, but as relationships get closer you can start setting clearer boundaries.
The problem in my mind is that it’s still considered socially unacceptable to discuss your mental health in a casual way. It creates situations like these where there will always be unspoken needs because we’re not allowed to speak of mental illness. While physical illnesses aren’t always treated much better, it isn’t considered totally weird or unacceptable to say “hey, can we not have nuts for dinner since I’m deathly allergic and will have a horrible reaction.” It’s considered healthy, logical, and reasonable, rather than oversharing, being demanding, or straining a relationship. For some reason saying “I have the equivalent of a mental allergy to this conversation, can we please stop talking about it?” is awkward and unacceptable, something that opens you up to questions about whether your problems actually exist, or even can lead others to purposefully trigger you.
This might be one of the smaller areas in which mental illness stigma exists. It’s the little times that you have to bite your tongue and just deal with other people metaphorically standing on your feet by discussing triggering or difficult things. But those little moments add up. Each time they happen you have to have an internal dialogue about what you’ll do and how you’ll cope. It uses up important resources. And it normalizes the idea that you don’t deserve to be able to ask for things, even if others aren’t directly sending that message. The unspoken rules of relationships say that until you know each other well, you act polite.
I’m going to try to make a promise to myself that I will attempt to be better at boundary setting, even in situations like these where it’s possible that it will harm the relationship. I don’t have to be rude, mean, or demanding, but letting people know what is harmful to me can go a long way towards normalizing the idea that it’s completely ok to have needs and wants, as well as openly express those needs and wants. It’s even ok to just say that you have a mental illness and invite no further discussion.
This kind of rock and hard place situation doesn’t have to exist. There is no logical reason that disclosing an emotional need should be inappropriate or unwise. So I am going to change something I don’t like by changing my own behavior.