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Relationships and Mental Illness

Juliana Sabatello
When we aren't at our best emotionally, it can help on a nervous system level to just have someone be with us to co-regulate our emotions. I was definitely one of those children who needed a hug when I was upset. I have always responded strongly to the negative and positive emotions of others. I also respond very well to a calm person comforting me when I am anxious or stressed. I work mostly with children, so I am used to hearing the term "co-regulation" as it relates to parents and caregivers helping children calm down when they are upset, but it can be just as powerful for adults in relationships.
Juliana Sabatello
Fulfilling social connections can provide a feeling of belonging and a support system that benefits our mental health, but mental illnesses often cause us to isolate ourselves from others, making the mental illness worse by depriving us of the basic human need for connection. I talked about my experiences with social anxiety in a previous article, "How I Overcame Social Anxiety by Acting As If," and I want to talk a little more today about how, although mental illness and isolation go together, connection is a path toward mental health.
Juliana Sabatello
Whether or not we like it, we live in a world made for extroverts. Life demands so much of our social energy, and while extroverts feel energized in the company of others, introverts like me feel drained when they spend too much time around other people. Neurodiverse people and those with mental illnesses might feel even more drained in social situations than neurotypical individuals. If we don't recognize when we're socially overwhelmed and do something about it, we can end up coping with it in other less healthy ways.
Juliana Sabatello
Many people are much more open to the idea of mental health counseling nowadays, but I still encounter people who don't understand the point of paying someone to listen to them when they have friends who will do that for free. They might make jokes about their friends giving them "free therapy" or call therapy a pointless waste of money. Not only is that opinion based on misinformation, but using a friend as you would a therapist can put an unfair burden on the relationship.
Juliana Sabatello
You've probably seen that quote floating around the Internet, often attributed to Marylin Monroe: "If you can't handle me at my worst, then you don't deserve me at my best."1 People who like this quote might take it to mean that people who walk away from us in hard times don't deserve to be in our lives during the happy times. I agree with this sentiment, but the wording doesn't quite sit right with me.
Juliana Sabatello
Past traumas affect the way we live in the present, whether we like it or not, especially affecting the way we communicate in relationships. One way our past affects us is by clouding our reactions to present events with emotions based on similar experiences in our pasts. A conversation happening in the present can stir up memories of the past, even if we don't realize it, and we often don't. For people who have been through trauma, these trauma reactions can be even stronger and more frequent, and they can come between us and healthy communication in our relationships.
Juliana Sabatello
Despite all of the progress we have made in society toward mental health awareness and understanding, mental illness is still a taboo topic in many circles, and many people continue to struggle alone. The stigma surrounding mental illness adds an extra layer of shame to an already difficult problem, and that shame can lead us away from relationships, deep connections with others, and fulfilling social lives with people who might truly understand, accept, and value us if we gave them the chance.
Juliana Sabatello
Let's talk about this scenario: You meet someone new, you're hitting it off, and you think you want to get to know this person better. Your mental illness is a big part of your life, and if they are going to be a part of your life, you know you want them to know about it eventually, but you don't know when or how to bring it up.
Juliana Sabatello
Many people have negative feelings toward mental health groups. Maybe it's intimidating to think about sharing your story with a group of strangers. Maybe you don't see a point in it. You might not know the difference between group therapy, psychoeducational groups, and support groups when one might fit your needs better than another. There happen to be many benefits of a group setting in treating and coping with a variety of mental illnesses.
Juliana Sabatello
Trust is important in any relationship, but it is especially critical in your relationship with your therapist, and it can be hard to recover from a bad therapy experience when that trust is broken. Therapy requires allowing someone we barely know to access our deepest fears and insecurities and trusting that they will treat this information with respect and sensitivity. When we allow ourselves to be vulnerable and receive empathy and understanding from our therapists, therapy can be healing and fulfilling. When we feel unseen, invalidated, or misunderstood after sharing deep parts of ourselves, it can open emotional wounds and make us feel even worse. A bad therapy experience might even turn us off to the whole idea of therapy, but if we never try again, we might miss out on a transformative relationship that allows us to achieve our goals and live happier lives.