As someone who is almost completely deaf in one ear, I understand what it is like to have a disability that no one knows about unless I tell them. Mental health issues such as anxiety, depression, and grief often fall into that same category of invisibility. It’s a two-edged sword: I like no one knowing of my deafness unless I tell them, yet they can’t make any allowances for my hearing loss unless I share my disability.
When someone has a visible disability, like needing a walker or being blind, everyone knows they are dealing with certain challenges. While we are all familiar with the litany of unkind and insensitive comments they may have had to endure, at least there is the option of being considerate and thoughtful. With unseen disabilities, there is no way others can offer extra help, or sensitivity, unless you mention the problem. This is true not only for physical disabilities, but for psychological ones as well.
I remember being on an especially scary flight once where the plane was running out of fuel. The woman next to me shared how frightened she was, which enabled me to go into therapist mode and soothe her nerves. If she had stoically resisted telling me out of shame or wanting to keep up appearances, she would have had a much rougher trip.
For those with invisible disabilities who typically keep things close to the vest and have been anxious, depressed, or grief stricken, this can feel like a very lonely place. In addition, it puts the onus of deliberately sharing your situation and asking for help on you. In a society that prizes people who look and act as if everything is OK, it is extremely challenging to deal with a visible disability. For those with invisible disabilities, the societal pressure to look just fine often results in not sharing any information to the contrary.
As a holistic psychotherapist and yogi, I am all about being one’s true self and sharing that authenticity with the world. If you are anxious, tell someone. Still disturbed by a death that happened years ago? Let your friends or family know. Feeling blue after a breakup or divorce? Join a group where you can support each other. Make a point of looking for conversations in which you can open up about your experiences.
As long as keeping up appearances is paramount, you have a greater chance of feeling isolated and alone. Yes, it is tempting in the short run to do what you can to fit in; however, in the long term it can create a feeling of disconnection. People see you one way, while your internal life feels diametrically opposite. That dissonance can create a boatload of stress. Aside from freeing you to be your true self, sharing the truth of who you are sets an amazing example to others and gives them what I like to call a “cosmic permission slip” to be their authentic self.
Allow yourself to start small. Tell one person what is going on with you. I recently had a conversation with a friend about some health issues she and I had experienced in the past. Because she was so open with me, I felt free to share more with her than I had with anyone. Even though the problems had passed, it was incredibly liberating to say those things out loud, and it made me feel closer to her.
If you decide to enter this initially scary territory of sharing, it may help to remember there’s nothing to be ashamed of once you realize we all have disabilities, even though some are not discernible to the naked eye.
The only way society will change is if, as Gandhi said, we become the change we want to see. Sharing your true self honestly and openly, including the issues and conditions you may have kept hidden, is the path to a better relationship with yourself and the world.
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