Psychotherapist Stella O'Malley: Why it's not always good to talk

So what are we doing wrong? Why is it that we are becoming more anxious and stressed than ever -before despite the fact that almost everywhere we go somebody somewhere is advising us to take care of our mental health? It doesn’t really make sense – unless, of course, all this emphasis on mental health is leading us even further down the rabbit hole?

I recently attended an event where a woman mentioned that she wasn’t sleeping well. The sheer number of well-meant, earnest pieces of advice this hapless woman received that night was extraordinary. No half-baked theory was left unstated.

But did all this advice do the woman any good? Probably not.

In a world where it only takes a moment to consult ‘Dr Google’ and where everyone seems to have done some sort of vague course that leads them to believe that they are an expert, pseudo-psychology is spreading faster than an unexplained rash.

The ‘illusory truth effect’ phenomenon means that repetition has an extraordinary impact on our minds and the more we hear even the most outlandish claims, the more likely we will eventually believe it is the truth. You might think that the familiarity of the message has no effect on you, but science tells us otherwise. This is why we need to resist repeating mindless phrases such as: ‘It’s good to talk’ as these glib, over-simplified messages can be unhelpful. Of course the basic point of this particular message is perfect; yes it is good to talk. But it’s good to listen too and there seems to be plenty of rubbish listeners out there. Sadly, in our busy culture, many people are too impatient, too self-absorbed or too stressed themselves to be able to listen properly.

The problem is that it’s only good to talk if it’s at the right time with the right person in the right way. It is true that if we to talk to someone who is kind, thoughtful and empathic, we will feel a million times better. But a difficult conversation with a semi-professional armchair healer can be disastrous and the speaker can be left feeling inadequate, misunderstood and isolated.

Take, for example a patient of mine called May. She was 22-years-old when she came to me for counselling. She had been feeling anxious and isolated for many years and she thought she’d try counselling as a last-ditch attempt to see if she could pull herself out of the hole. ‘I try to tell my friends about my feelings,’ May told me in that first session. ‘But they’re a bit weird about it – to be honest, I think they enjoy the drama of it all.’ These friends tried to be motivational by repeating phrases like: ‘Think positive thoughts!’ or ‘Get it all out and you’ll feel better!’ But May seldom felt better after talking with her friends, indeed she often felt a good deal worse. Over time May and I established a strong therapeutic connection and she no longer feels so troubled. Thankfully she has also found some more suitable friends who are better listeners.

Mental health slogans that we see plastered all over social media and on public walls are often inadvertently taken out of context, dumbed down beyond recognition, and assimilated as if they are the answer to everything. Slogans such as ‘listen to your gut’ and ‘focus on your feelings’ might seem great at first glance however, when we consider that the emotional part of the brain is the most powerful, the fastest and also the stupidest part of any person’s brain, we soon realise that it is often inappropriate to be excessively led by our emotions.

Do not, please, do not rely on your emotional brain to excessively influence your decisions – because, if you do, you will be using the least intelligent part of your brain to dictate your behaviour. It is much better to use our wise brain when we are making important decisions as this is the part of the brain that provides us with much more wisdom than our emotional brain.

Although we should always include and respect a person’s feelings in any given situation, it just doesn’t do to focus only on your gut feelings and ignore the facts. Our feelings seldom bring us to a higher level.

It is our feelings that encourage us to message an ex in a drastic, drunken late-night moment; it is our feelings that lead us to have an anxiety episode right before an interview, the very moment when we wish to be on top of our game; it is our feelings that seduce us into thinking that volatile arguments with strangers on social media are an effective and satisfying way to spend an evening.

Being led by your emotions, by your ‘gut instinct’ can feel very powerful and satisfying – in the short-term – but, in the long-term, reflection trumps feelings.

The phrase: ‘You wouldn’t tell someone with a broken leg to get up and walk’ is yet another mindless phrase that is often misused and abused. Well, no, we wouldn’t, but we would help our loved ones to engage in the recovery process and to attend the relevant appointments and if they refused to do this then we would feel understandably disheartened, dejected and disappointed about this.

Comparing a mental illness with Alzheimer’s is perhaps a better comparison than the usual, hackneyed broken leg analogy because, just for starters, Alzheimer’s is a condition in the brain so it’s closer to what is going on with the mentally ill person. It also contains the understanding that it can be almost impossible to penetrate the brain of a person with Alzheimer’s. We need to work around it, putting the keys on a ribbon around the person’s neck if that works, but equally, when their lives aren’t independently manageable, then others need to step in and help. So if the life of a person with mental illness has become unmanageable then it needs to be acknowledged, whether this is a person living with Alzheimer’s, alcoholism or anxiety. Continuing to pretend that it is up to the person who is experiencing the mental illness to seek help is sometimes, but not always inappropriate. Sometimes an intervention is appropriate when a person who has a mental illness refuses, for whatever reason, to get help.

I’ve no doubt that since we were living in caves, hackneyed, simple-minded phrases have always been uttered as if they contain great depths: I can easily imagine the cave-mother comforting her heart broken teenage daughter with: ‘What’s for you won’t pass you’ as she proffered her a bone to chew. But now that mental health has become a mainstream topic of conversation, now that we have semi-qualified personal trainers and life coaches mouthing simplistic ‘inspirational’ phrases at every turn, we need to develop this conversation towards a deeper and more thoughtful place.

Hopefully my new book – Fragile, (above) will be part of a new wave of more authentic and appropriate mental health discussions.

Existing slogan

⬤ Talk so someone.

⬤ It’s good to talk.

⬤ Ask for help.

⬤ Focus on your feelings.

⬤ Listen to your gut.

⬤ If it feels wrong, don’t do it.

⬤ There are no bad

feelings, just feelings.

⬤ It’s okay not to be okay.

Improved slogan

⬤ Find someone with whom you can connect and you will feel better if you open up.

⬤ It’s good to talk to the right person at the right time.

⬤ Ask for help, and keep asking until you get the help you need.

⬤Acknowledge your feelings and always consider the facts as well.

⬤ Listen to your gut, but also listen to your wise brain for even better counsel.

⬤ If it feels wrong, consider that we often have to suffer short-term pain for long-term gain

⬤ Bad feelings, when addressed, can change into good feelings.

⬤ It’s okay to try and feel better.


Stella O’Malley is a psychotherapist, writer and public speaker. For further information you can check out:

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