In my experience putting on a brave face and pretending you’re okay can impact your wellbeing in polar opposite ways depending on how it’s handled and how you acknowledge (or don’t) the act.
Forcing a smile, and pushing yourself to keep going can of course have that placebo ‘fake it till you make it’ effect. You may find yourself shifting into a happier mindset as a result, but that relies on the fact you are still working on the initial stress that forced you to put on a brave face in the first place. If you don’t you may find this brave face is quite literally a permanent mask to cover what is actually going on inside or behind the scenes, and who wants to be living a lie, it’s exhausting and not exactly conducive to fulfilling and real relationships.
You do sometimes find you’re surprised at how well you coped when carrying on with work or social duties with the smiley face mask firmly cemented on. You coped… and more importantly to you in this moment, you fooled everyone in to thinking you’re perfectly fine. This can make you feel self assured and confident which can of course have positive impacts on your ability to move forward. You might feel bolstered by your ability to push through, but the root issues will still be lingering.
The problem with this is that if you’re not really fine, but your acting skills are convincing (you’re probably well practised), people’s expectations of you will be at a level where you’re getting unhelpful pressure which could take it’s toll on your secretly fragile state. People will expect you to stick to all work commitments and perform as if you had nothing heavy on your plate. Your friends might expect you to turn up to all the events in the social calendar, even though the thought of leaving the house might feel completely overwhelming. Your pals will expect your to be that perfect friend that’s always checking in with them and being there for them, even though all your energy is being zapped just surviving day to day. People might expect you to be able to afford to do things, completely oblivious to financial stains you might be experiencing. You might be asked to watch a film by a friend who has absolutely no idea contains content that is extremely triggering for you right now.
There’s different levels of brave facing it too. My most used one is being happy and chirpy when I see other humans outside of my home. Having the ability to go to events, do interviews, film videos, hang out with friends, but having the release by showing the reality of my wellbeing via social media, whether it be tweets or instastories. I don’t necessarily think I’m faking the smiles when I’m out, I think I just find a way to move the crappy stuff to the side for a few hours and pretend it’s not there. A bit like when you shove your dinner plate and discarded clothes under your bed when you can’t be bothered to actually clean up. It’s not something I’d be able to keep up for long but can definitely manage to have a few laughs in those small pockets of time. I do wonder whether it’s fuelled by my fear of bringing other people down though, the terror of acknowledging that I might be seen at the party pooper, or the negative Nancy.
For me being able to share that I’m stressed or sad via social media does help me to keep going. Working from home alone, without no one to vent to, sharing my day, my thoughts, my feelings, just gives me enough of a release of honesty and truth about where I’m at that it relieve some of the pressure.
I stopped myself doing it for a bit because I didn’t want to bring other people down, or be a negative presence online, but I also didn’t want to rely on the words of internet strangers to bring me back up. Internet strangers are so lovely and supportive, that they’re really rally round you if you express something that tells them you might need some kindness in that moment. But it’s dangerous if that becomes a crutch. We need to work on gaining the tools to do that without, in a sense, seeking temporary solutions from others. I’m not saying we can’t seek help from others, in fact I’d wholeheartedly encourage everyone to. But there’s something very different about speaking and opening up to people for advice, discussion, therapy to seeking adulation, love and ego massage.
I’m now happy to show the reality of my wellbeing on my socials, and don’t worry about what people think about it anymore, because you’re not ever going to be everyones cuppa tea, and they can just scroll through if it’s a bit heavy for them, thats their prerogative, just as much as it’s my choice what I post on my accounts.
But what if you’re dealing with secret stress? What then? Do you just let it bubble and under the surface until the inevitable blow up or burn out. This has been me over the last few months (although probably the last ten years to a degree).
When it became clear that I was at a point I could start house hunting I was very hesitant to post about the news, for numerous reasons. I didn’t want to assume it’d be information people would care to hear about – perhaps it’s a boring non-event unless it’s you who’s doing it, and perhaps it’s the last thing you wanna hear about if like me you’ve struggled financially and been unable to rent let alone get on the property ladder. But the main reason was that I wasn’t 100% sure I’d be able to pull it off, and I was right the be hesitant about making a big song and dance about my plans.
I had no idea what was in front of me when I naively celebrated the offer being accepted on this maisonette. I couldn’t predict the glaring holes that would arise in the lease, the frustrating and tense conversations I’d have to have with solicitors and estate agents, and just how monopolising of my time and emotional energy it would be. I also couldn’t have predicted that all my efforts to put money in a HELP TO BUY ISA would have been utterly pointless (don’t ask, I’m still fuming). It got to the point that there were so many unforeseen expenses (legal feels, extra insurance policys to make up for lacking in the ropey leese, electrical and plumbing checks, searches, environmental and flooding checks etc) that if this place fell through I wound’t be able to just find another place to put an offer on, I’d have to shelve the idea entirely and go back to saving just to make up for all the lost money (you don’t get any of that money back even if the sale falls through). The thought that these months of extreme ‘adulting’ and the build up of excitement about finally be fleeing the nest would be for nothing, was a huge stress to bare on my own, but I just didn’t want to do anything to curse it. I didn’t wanna post in jubilation only have to retract it. It would be hard enough to deal with othat a personal level let alone having to repeat it and share with everyone.
It’s been such a long and arduous road to get to this point. Basically sacrificing a lot of the fun I expected to live in my twenties – I blame F.R.I.E.N.D.S for my expectations of this chapter of my life. For me there was no renting in London with my pals, meeting at bars/coffee after or during work, bumping uglies with male friends, going on lots of mates road trips and holidays. Since uni I’ve been living out of my bedroom at my family house (for the last 5 years with my partner squeezed in there too). This isn’t a moan either, I’m one of the lucky ones. How fortunate am I that I have parents that would put up for us for so long, and be so incredibly understanding of our situation and how difficult it is for our generation to get on the property ladder. I’m pretty sure they didn’t envisage their retirement to include washing my boyfriends pants, and telling me to clear up my mess.
If you have family or friends battling mental or physical health condition they they want to keep under wraps, that can be a huge secret strain too. You want to be there for them, so probably having to hold a lot of emotions in to enable you to be be that pillar of strength for them. If you feel you can’t offload it anywhere something always will give. I talk about my own health issues a lot, but I rarely mention ones that my nearest and dearest are dealing with as it’s not my info to share and I’m sure that’s the case for a lot of you too.
Anyone who’s been in a bad or abusive relationship will probably know about secret stress too. If you’ve got to the point where you know you’re in a toxic and potentially dangerous situation but you also don’t feel you can tell your friends the extent of how awful it is. You worry that they’re think you’re stupid for not leaving, because you genuinely don’t think they’re understand why you’ve felt it impossible to escape. Your confidence might be so shot by then you’re already excusing or diminishing your partner’s behaviour and think they’re be overly harsh on them because they don’t truly know them or understand what may have led to their behaviours. You’re anxious because once they know what’s going on, you can’t take it back. What if your relationships gets lots better, but your friends will never forgive your partner for how they made you feel, you think to yourself. Perhaps you’ve created an illusion online about your relationships and you’re scared about what impact breaking that illusion will have.
Secret stress doesn’t just happen in ‘bad’ relationships either. As a partner, the confident, the support network, you feel the brunt of anything stressful that’s happening to your partner too. Sometimes just by proxy and feeling the tension radiating off them, and also just because you love them, you naturally feel at least a bit of pressure they are. As an empath that point is particularly relevant. But sometimes it’s because you also take the hit in terms of the mood swings, the sleepless nights and the angry outbursts. But unlike your own stress, where you can decide whether you share what your’e going through and where the feelings are stemming from, you might not be able to express it how you ideally would when it’s someone else story to tell/not tell. As the ‘listener’ in a lot of relationships I have, I’m managing a lot of deferred stress that I’m not in a position to vent about. Other peoples private stories that are not my place to share or tell. Sometimes you’ve been given strict instructions that this isn’t to be shared with your friends, and sometimes it’s an innate sense that this isn’t something that leaves this private conversation.
I don’t think people talk enough about the toll of being the amateur therapist. The untrained but emotionally invested person that’s got to keep things confidential and got to deal with the weight of making sure the loved one is ok, but also that you’re dealing with impact it’s had on your too. Not being able to have that release to a friend but also that light relief that a quick vent on social media can deliver can be incredibly hard.
Secret stress can be applied to your work life too. I can definitely pinpoint numerous times in my working life an a content creator where I’ve had to deal with stuff privately which has had a huge impact on my metal health. Last year I had multiple brands that were extremely late paying their invoices. I’m talking 5 months kinda late, yet still replying to my emails, which makes it weirdly even more annoying. It got to the point where I couldn’t afford to pay my bills or pay for medical treatment I needed, so as you can imagine it was very stressful.
I see lots of bloggers publicly out brands that behave badly, but that’s just not who I am and I fear it would just worsen my anxiety in the long run. At my size I guess I worry about giving brands a reason not to work with me. I don’t want to be seen as that difficult or outspoken blogger, and I guess they know that and use it to their advantage sometimes. I can imagine for those that have decided to speak up when brands haven’t be great whether that in terms of payments, diversity, tone deaf marketing materials etc, people have felt some sort of satisfaction and relief from doing so. Being a freelancer who deals with their own contracts, invoices, and finances it can feel a lot sometimes and when you don’t have colleagues you can vent to or have no internet portal you feel you can share it with.
When I referred to secret stress lasting a decade I was referring to a particular trauma/event. There’s some stuff that some of us our dealing with that we will never probably share. Some things we choose not to talk about or hide just to allow ourselves to carry on living. The stuff we have no desire to share online and open up to an audience of strangers (and friends and loved ones who don’t know either). I think if you’re someone that shares a lot online, and is fairly open and candid about their lives there’s this assumption you’re sharing everything and that you’re completely unfiltered. But I know in my case there’s still a hell of a lot I’ve held back and that I will never speak about online, and I’m sure that’s the case for many of the people I perceive to be open books too. So I guess this leads me neatly on to the overall message of this blog….
A lot of us our dealing with secret stress. We might be sharing about some of the stresses we’re facing, but you may very well not know the true extent, and how many layers of different types we may be dealing with all at one time. So if you ever think someone seems to be over-reacting to something, too emotional, too sensitive etc just take a moment to pause and consider that there might be a rather hefty battle going on that you have absolutely no idea about.
So what can we do about the type of stress which isn’t quite as easy to share?
I can only talk about what I’ve been doing. I did a bit of a social media detox the other day which may sound odd when I’m talking about really wanting to share on social media, but it did remove the layer of stress that Instagram etc consistently delivers to everyday life and pushed me to be more mindful about looking after myself and having a good Easter break. It also meant I wasn’t constantly reminded of the fact that I was having to hold back the realities of what I was dealing with on those days.
One day last week I decided to take a few hours out to paint a picture. It wasn’t one with an intended outcome it was all about the process and finding relaxation from it.
I’ve been ranting through blog posts like this, many of which will never be posted. Just getting the words out of my head and on to paper helped to reduce the intensity of the situation.
When things have got a bit too much I’ve gone for a walk. I don’t drive so haven’t been able to completely flee situations in dramatic fashion, but just getting some fresh air and walking round the block has successfully eased some of the tension. I know those of you who can exercise might find yourself pumping a bit more iron, hitting that treadmill or
I’ve used online therapy tools too. I’ve used a licences counsellor from Better Help and found it extremely useful. It’s not always possible or sensible to wait till you can book in with a face to face one, so this is an extremely helpful alternative.
Sometimes you might find that you’r able to share more easily with an acquaintance than someone very close to you or the situation you may be needing to vent about. You might find yourself spilling all your beans to someone sat next to you on public transport for instance.
There’s a few things that have helped me but if you have any let’s help eachother out in the comments.
Sending love to everyone dealing with secret stress.