In most cases, like most of us in the social and professional world, I am communicating a message learned from lived experience, sometimes understood, from observation, other times from research, as well as experiential knowledge. Regardless of the signal or role I am in or hat I am wearing in my job or professional work, or a friend I am speaking with, I am communicating an important message. In most cases, the message is received, and we get feedback. Sometimes people will like what we have to say, and other times, people will disagree.
How we signal, that is, send the message, depends on our skills as communicators. While everyone processes the same content differently, it is in our hands as communicators, regardless of the hats we wear, to communicate the message in a manner in which people will understand it. The person may disagree with the statement, but if we genuinely prioritise the act of communication over the importance of the reception of the message, we take one giant leap closer to getting over our own self-importance in our interpersonal landscapes. This includes our jobs, our social circles, and all things involving interacting with people.
In a world where diversity can sometimes be a scarcity, there is no reason to take further steps in limiting our ability to reach people. In my profession particularly, the helping field, and for all of us that simply enjoy time spent in others’ companies, there is an unspoken fear that the person we are speaking to won’t listen or isn’t listening. Even worse, we perhaps fear the listener, client, or friend will dislike us because of what we say.
However, I am suggesting that this fear is misplaced. If you are fearful of people disliking you because of what you have to say, think again. In fact, there is no such thing as a misuse of self-disclosure or the act of revealing your history to other people. Instead, there is only the possibility of miscommunication. What I mean is that the fear of people knowing more about you, at least in my opinion, shouldn’t be the priority in the helping profession; instead, the fear of not signalling or sending the right message needs to be the concern.
Why? In a world of increasing tragedy and unfortunate circumstances, we should be out there, helping people learn from our lived experiences. Instead, helpers, friends, family, and everyone are more concerned with people’s judgements and biases that we lose sight of our mission to share the message. People don’t have to agree or like you, but sharing the news is more important if they are listening. With this said, prioritising, the message’s clarity needs to be the primary concern for people in the helping profession. No question sharing the news and communicating it the right way needs to be what’s really doted upon by helpers if help is, in fact, the primary goal of what we are setting out to do.
Instead, our fear takes over, and we put these self-imposed limits on our communication that we feel people will respect more. I suggest that if people appreciate you, authenticity, honesty, and candidness are better qualities than just telling people what they want, or you think they should hear. In the helping profession, where authenticity is also scarcity and really needs to be a commodity, we are doing others a disservice that can learn from our lived experience.
What baffles me is that there are so many peers, people with lived experience, and those carrying a diagnosis uncomfortable with their lived experience. These are peers that limit and self-imposed boundaries around what they share about their history, depending on the hat they are wearing and how the person is communicating with might perhaps appreciate what they have to say.
I just want to say people appreciate honesty. People appreciate candidness, not artificiality or assumptions of their particular likes and dislikes. This is why my head spins when I discover, after speaking with other peers, friends, family, and all those involved with the helping process, a common fear of sharing particular aspects of their past. This is not to say that everything is relevant to go ahead and disclose or if the person listening will benefit. Still, the fear or primary concern of the person sharing should always be communicating their history accurately and effectively for the person listening to have the opportunity to benefit from it.
If you are a peer who has genuinely recovered, in recovery, or a person interested in having people benefit from your life’s lessons, then who cares if the person listening doesn’t like you or what you have to say. Not only did you put that person you shared your history within a better position to begin learning from your lived experience, but you also included them in your path to healing. The very act of having your peer, friend, or family member in your approach to recovery is healing. Including your peer in your path to healing isn’t just healing in and of itself. It is a simple step further in the way to sustainable recovery.
Indeed, recovery and our belief in experiencing positive change in our lives need to be authentic and real if we begin and stay healed. The omission of truth is a disservice to peers and those that run the risk of making the same mistakes. Share, feel free to disclose all aspects of your lived experience and mental health history. The moment we begin limiting the self-disclosed lessons, we genuinely put a roadblock on communication and the possibility of people learning from our lived experience.
Maxwell Guttman teaches social work at Fordham University. He is also a mental health correspondent for Psychreg where he shares his insights on recovery and healing.
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