Relationships & Mental Health
By Emily Jennings | Published on July 2, 2023
What is mental health
What emotions are and why we have them
Talking about your emotions
This post continues the Discovering Mental Health segment of the series and covers:
The importance of your relationships with others and yourself
What self-care is
The difference between self-care and processing
After a hiatus in June, we'll return to weekly posts this month.
The importance of your relationships (with others and with yourself!)
In our first two posts, we emphasized that quality relationships with others, and especially with yourself, are key to mental health. In this post, we breakdown why that is, and present ideas of how to work toward quality relationships with yourself and others.
Importance of community
Quality relationships are important for your mental health, because having a community who supports you ensures you are never alone. According to the Mental Health Foundation, “People who are more socially connected to family, friends, or their community are happier, physically healthier, and live longer, with fewer mental health problems than people who are less well connected.” According to the Samaritans, these relationships provide a feeling of connectedness and support, and can help you gain new perspectives, process your experiences, and validate your feelings. But just having relationships isn’t the key thing here. It’s their quality that matters, as studies in the US and Ireland have shown that negative social interactions and relationships can actually increase the risk of mental health problems.
Building healthy relationships
The first step to working toward quality relationships is knowing what they look like. This Psychology Today article provides a helpful description of what one looks like and mentions the importance of trust, communication, and openness and honesty. These are the ingredients to shared vulnerability, which we all need in order to feel close to others and understood. Sharing vulnerabilities does not make you weak: it makes you relatable and human, and is the key to quality relationships.
However, it is a risk to be open and vulnerable with someone. You take the risk of that person not understanding. You can minimize this risk by building trust in the relationship, effectively communicating, and starting small and then building up to sharing bigger vulnerabilities as the other person responds well to what you share and earns your trust. You otherwise tread too closely to a lack of boundaries and overexposing yourself, which will leave you feeling less likely to open up again.
Boundaries are therefore also important for quality relationships: you must respect other peoples’ boundaries and they must respect yours. Having healthy boundaries is important for helping you protect yourself and others from abuse. This is an especially important point for people who tend to be highly empathetic and overly responsible, and who might not have much experience in relationships, as these traits and life circumstances might make them more susceptible to abuse.
A large part of having boundaries is communicating them. You have to tell people how you’d like to be treated. Doing so does not necessarily need to be overt though. A lot can be said through your actions, and what you do or don’t say. This article from VeryWell Health provides some good advice on what healthy boundaries are and how to set them, and this Psych Central article provides helpful information on how to deal with people who repeatedly violate your boundaries.
Through trust, communication, healthy boundaries, openness, honesty and vulnerability, you can create a supportive community built on healthy, quality relationships.
Your relationship with yourself
How do you find people with whom to build these quality relationships? By first having a high quality relationship with yourself. That’s not to say that you can’t reach out to people for support when you’re feeling low. Absolutely do reach out for support! But you need to make sure you have a good relationship with yourself if you want to attract high quality relationships. This means you need to treat yourself the way you’d like other people to treat you.
So be open and vulnerable with yourself, and respect your boundaries. Admit to yourself when you are afraid, and accept when you lose control. Have compassion for yourself in those moments. Regarding respect, if you need to take lunch at 12pm every day, do so. Don’t let someone schedule a meeting at 12pm and then miss your lunch break. Your body needs food to keep going. Get into a good morning routine that lets your body know it’s a priority, rather than jumping out of bed and straight in front of your computer. It’s ok to be excited about work, but not at the expense of taking care of yourself, so make sure you wash your face, brush your teeth, eat breakfast, meditate, or do anything else that you need to do before starting your day, and throughout the day as well.
Another tip is to become acquainted with your insecurities rather than running away from them. Some people might find it helpful to do this by learning about their attachment styles and thinking about how that affects how they approach and relate to others, and what makes them feel safe. This can be a very helpful way to understand what one’s insecurities are, accept them, and work toward becoming more secure if desired. Even if you don’t want to change or work toward becoming more secure, learning about your insecurities is a good way to understand how you navigate relationships and work toward self-acceptance.
Finally, be kind to yourself if you want others to be kind to you. Practice self-care.
What is self-care?
Self-care can often be seen as something selfish, or self-indulgence, and that’s not the case. There’s nothing selfish about taking the time to take care of yourself. In fact, you must take care of yourself before you can take care of anyone else. So what exactly is self-care, and how can you practice it?
The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) says self-care is “taking the time to do things that help you live well and improve both your physical health and mental health. When it comes to your mental health, self-care can help you manage stress, lower your risk of illness, and increase your energy.” Their article goes on to provide tips for getting started with self-care, including staying connected, getting enough sleep, and practicing gratitude.
In order to understand what it means to take care of yourself, get to know and appreciate who you are. Take personality type quizzes to better understand what traits you have, and what your needs might be. Know what you want out of relationships and life in general. Understand what your values and interests are and what drives you. Know what about yourself gives you a sense of identity and makes you feel good: Is it sports?
A particular hair color? Taking time to read books you want to read but do not necessarily feel obligated to read? Discover who you are and what you enjoy.
Because we are all different, self-care routines vary from one person to the next. There’s no wrong way to do self-care, but it is important that you do take care of yourself. If you don’t believe me, maybe you’ll find these Forum posts inspiring:
The difference between self-care and processing
It’s important to understand that self-care is not the same as processing. Processing is self-work. We’ll go more into depth on what that means in a future post, but for the purpose of this one, it’s thinking about and trying to understand your experiences in order to learn from them and develop as a person. Too much self-work can, however, be exhausting and actually lead to a self-improvement burnout (which this Medium post succinctly describes well).
Self-care is the opposite of self-work: it’s taking the time to relax and do what you need to do in order to rest and recharge, so that you don’t burn out. It’s giving your mind and your body a break.
This blog post by Kate Hesse does a great job of comparing examples of self-care and self-work (and how they both differ from distraction). One example I found especially helpful is the comparison between self-care, self-work, and distraction when taking a bath. Drawing a bath, dimming the lights, and just soaking with some epsom salts and letting your tired muscles relax is self-care. Drawing a bath and not dimming the lights, but rather whipping out your notebook to work through some thoughts while sitting in the bath is self-work. Distraction is drawing the bath and watching a show on Netflix to distract yourself from your life. Self-care is relaxing in the moment, self-work is processing the moment, and distraction is escaping the moment.
Final post of the Discovering Mental Health Segment
Our final post of the Discovering Mental Health Segment will focus on well-being and mental health as a life-long commitment. We plan to release it this week!
 Thais Gibson’s Personal Development School provides courses and webinars on attachment styles that are helpful for identifying your own personal patterns and working with them. You can try out the webinars for 7 days for free. There's also a YouTube channel with shorter videos that, while not as in-depth, can still be helpful.