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Relationships and Mental Illness

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.
Juliana Sabatello
Boundaries can be difficult for anyone in relationships, but emotional boundaries can be especially challenging for those of us who struggle with our mental health. I identify myself as a highly sensitive person (HSP), a term coined by Elaine Aron to describe people with sensory processing sensitivity. Sensory processing sensitivity involves processing sensory information more deeply and feeling emotions more strongly than the average person. Sensitivity applies to all experiences: Sound, sight, touch, smell, taste, internal sensations like hunger or pain, and both our own emotions and the emotions of others.
Juliana Sabatello
Apologizing when we wrong someone is an important social skill, but overapologizing, when it isn't necessary, can actually put a strain on our relationships. My anxiety compelled me to say sorry any time I felt insecure, guilty, ashamed, or worried in a social situation, and people would become annoyed and frustrated with me because of it. I would then apologize for annoying them with my apologizing, which continued from there in n cycle that was exhausting for everyone involved.
Juliana Sabatello
People who know me describe me as friendly, and it's funny for me to hear because I wasn't always -- I had social anxiety. Connecting with others is at the core of who I am as a person, but social anxiety held me back from belonging for the first two decades of my life.
Juliana Sabatello
Social comparison is a part of being human. Using other people as a reference to decide how we see ourselves is often an unspoken force behind so much of what we do. "Comparison is the thief of joy," an adage often attributed to Theodore Roosevelt, has been on my mind quite often lately. I realized I compare myself to others at the expense of my happiness. I have two chronic anxiety disorders and sensory processing sensitivity which interfere with my life in every way, and I find that I often don't consider these traits when I criticize myself for not working as much, having as grand of ambitions, or achieving as much as my peers.
Juliana Sabatello
Love is a powerful force, but when it comes to loving someone with mental illness, we have to think about how to love through a different lens. We all likely have seen this type of story before where someone with mental illness or trauma falls in love, finds happiness, and suddenly all pain and hardship disappears for good. These stories put the emphasis on the partner as some type of savior, valiantly rescuing a "broken" person through the power of love. These savior stories create unrealistic expectations of what it's like to love people with mental illnesses as if the right person can rescue them from their darkness and pull them back into the light.
Juliana Sabatello
Unsolicited mental health advice can contribute to the judgment and stigma we face as people with mental illnesses, even when it comes from a place of good intentions. Opinions about what we should or shouldn't do for our mental health can come off as judgmental, especially when those opinions minimize the time, effort, and research we have put into our choices.