• Kim Johnston

R U OK: Why is it difficult to answer sometimes?

Cute picture, but this response can be pretty common.

Whether it’s you who struggles to give an honest answer, or whether you’ve been the question-asker and sensed someone wasn’t able to tell the full story, here are four possibilities to consider:

Time and place

We need to feel safe in order to share, and a number of things can contribute to this, other than our relationship with the question-asker. Are either of you in a rush or is there time? Will you feel comfortable with hugs or tears? If possible, choose a time and place that can allow for whatever is needed. A very different response might be given at school pick-up time or in the supermarket, compared to in someone’s home or on a walk for example. It might be different when it’s just two people, versus a group setting, and it depends on the person. Might a phone call or texting be preferred over a face-to-face conversation?

Past experiences with help-seeking

I frequently hear people start their story with, “This is going to sound really stupid/weird/crazy, but…”, and add “It’s not that bad though” or “I’m probably being ungrateful/unfair/silly though”. Exploring comments like these during counselling often reveals a history that may include one or a combination of the following:

· having thoughts or feelings dismissed by a parent, partner or friends

· being assigned a label such as “sensitive” or “dramatic”

· having a parent, partner or friend imply that you were at fault

· being told that others “have it worse”

· a family where sharing feelings was not the norm

Consider whether there have been negative experiences that may have caused feelings and experiences to be minimised. Particularly if these negative experiences were with someone important to us, we might go on to wonder whether our feelings are valid, feel guilty about the feelings we have, and hesitate to share them.

Anticipating the aftermath and fear of judgement

Many of us have experienced that awful feeling after a social interaction, of wondering what others thought of us. If this feeling is familiar, wanting to avoid it might stop us from engaging in difficult conversations, even with close friends. Past negative experiences with sharing can make this fear worse. A quick check-in after conversations where something was shared, even if trivial, is a great habit to develop between friends. This may provide validation and reassurance that acts as a safety net for when more significant things need to be shared.

Difficulty explaining

Even if other factors are ideal, we can get stuck if things feel too overwhelming or complicated to put into words. This is especially so if there has been a lot building up since we last spoke with someone. Where to start and how to explain it? What if it doesn’t make sense? Whether you’re the asker or the answerer, expecting and allowing a messy offload may help. It’s like dumping a jigsaw puzzle out of the box. You’ll figure out how to piece bits together sooner or later. Its ok if it takes time or a few attempts.

Please reach out if you are wondering whether counselling or another form of professional help would be beneficial.

For some signs that someone in your life may be struggling,

To read about the impact of suppressing upsetting feelings,

To read about how counselling can be different from speaking with a friend,

Disclaimer: This post was written in the context of sharing everyday challenges, or challenges associated with mild to moderate distress, with friends or acquaintances. This post is not intended as a substitute for any professional support required, and is not a complete list of factors that may impact help-seeking. This blog is for personal rather than academically researched writing. The views expressed are based on anecdotal professional and personal experience at the time of writing.

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