Do Compliments Undermine Conversations About Mental Health?

Recently – or more specifically, since giving birth – I have experienced a strange phenomenon.

I keep having conversations with well-meaning people, both friends and strangers, that leave me feeling quite confused and frustrated.

The general structure of the conversation goes like this:

[Friend or stranger coos over my baby]
Friend/Stranger: How old are they now?
Me: About X weeks/months
Friend/Stranger: How are you feeling?
Me: Ok…quite tired…
Friend/Stranger: [interrupting] Well you look great, not tired at all!

So what is wrong with this exchange?

Well, I’m not really the type to talk about my feelings readily – certainly not with strangers – but I will be a bit more open with very selective friends. However, as these conversations keep happening, it has struck me how much harder it is to be honest about how I’m feeling after such a comment. The compliment is almost dismissive of concerns that may have been expressed before it; presenting as ‘happy and well’ is all that matters, not how you actually feel.

I don’t know about you, but over the years I have really perfected my facade of emotional stability. I am lucky enough to have remained quite functional even in some pretty dark times, but presenting as something you are not to be more socially acceptable is generally not a good thing.

Today I met up with a friend from work for the first time since my little one was born and we had a very similar conversation to the example above.

While it was nice enough to see them, I felt that their compliment totally undermined any potential discussion of my mental health. They were aware that I have been struggling lately (in fact, this was the reason for them meeting up with me) but when they told me that I looked well, I felt like I couldn’t really contradict them. I felt that to do so would be akin to rejecting their well-intentioned compliment and may cause offence. I mean, how should I respond to that? – “Well thanks, but actually I feel like crap and hate myself like 90% of the time”??

I don’t think that would go down too well.

So, the effect of the compliment is essentially for me to not speak up about my mental health issues. Which is bad, right?

Don’t get me wrong, this is very much one of those ‘first world problem’ scenarios, but our society is currently experiencing a perceived mental health crisis, so maybe it’s worth considering?

Is it just me? Or am I actually making a valid point here?

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