I’m on disability for mental illness and I recently moved to a new place. (I moved because the area I lived was rather toxic for me and I have a best friend here who is great support.) This means I’m meeting a lot of new people, and a lot of them open conversations by asking about work or why I moved here. I can only get by with “non-answers” for so long, and sometimes there are people who I would like to tell more to but not yet. I don’t know how to handle these questions. Suggestions/ideas?
- “I was dealing with some medical issues and moved to be closer to supportive friends.” (I don’t know if that line works well for mental health – I feel like it should, but I don’t actually *know*, and I hope that people who’ve dealt with disclosing that degree of psych disability will weigh in)
- “Things were really hard where I was living before.”
- “I’m out of work right now.”/“I’m not able to work right now.”
- “I’m between things.”
- “It’s a long story.”
Partial answers work best when you combine them with an immediate subject change. The most effective way to change the subject is by asking them an open-ended question about something they are likely to want to talk about:
- Them: Why did you move here?
- You: Things were really hard where I was before and I wanted a change.
- You: Do you know any good bookstores here? I’m always excited to learn where the new ones are in a new place.
Some kinds of questions that work well for changing the subject:
Asking them about themself:
- Most people like to talk about themselves
- If you get people to talk about themselves and listen to them, they will usually enjoy it and not mind that you haven’t told them much about yourself yet
- It also can be a way for you to find out more about them and get a better sense of what it might be safe or comfortable to tell them
- This works best if you ask them something specific but open-ended, eg questions like “How long have you lived here?” “What do you do?” work better than “Can you tell me about yourself?”
- If they ask you a question, it’s often particularly effective to ask them the same question after you give a partial answer. People generally ask questions in getting-to-know-you contexts that they are eager to answer themselves.
Asking them about the place you’ve just moved to:
- Most people like to feel competent and like they have expert knowledge
- So they generally like to explain things they know well to people who are eager to find out about them
- Asking about the area and listening to their answers is likely to make them feel happy and competent
- Which can lead to them feeling positive about the conversation and happy that they met you
- And, again, it’s a way to find out more about them and how they think
Pay attention to what people tell you:
- If you notice other people who seem nice and also give non-or-partial answers to common smalltalk questions, they might be good people to get to know a bit better
- (Not that it’s guaranteed; sometimes people are evasive because they’re hiding something that is actually bad. And even if they’re hiding something that isn’t bad, that doesn’t necessarily mean you and they will be good friends. But it *is* a sign that they might get it.)
- If people say awful things about psychiatric disability, exercise caution about trusting them. It’s likely that they mean it, even if they are otherwise nice.
- Listen for people who share your interests, even a little, and talk to them. Connecting around interests bridges a lot of gaps.
Ask your friend for help:
- If your best friend has been in the area for a while, they might have a sense of who they trust to treat you well if you disclose things to them
- Especially if they can introduce you to nice people
- It’s a lot less stressful to deal with this situation if you can identify some people who are likely to be nice to you once you’re ready to tell them things
All of that said: you may actually be better off just being open about things in a matter-of-fact way. That has a lot of downsides, but it also has a considerable upside:
- If you are open about something stigmatized, then you find out fairly quickly who is going to be a jerk about it and who isn’t
- This means that you get a lot more people being directly awful to you, but it can be a more bearable kind of awful
- Because if people you don’t particularly care about say horrible things to you, it can only penetrate so far.
- It hurts a lot more if it’s someone you’ve really been trying to build a friendship with for a long time.
- It is in many ways far less stressful knowing how people are going to react than worrying about how people are going to react
- And it also makes it *far* easier to identify people who get it and won’t be jerks
- In particular, if you are open about things, then people who *aren’t* open about things will be able to identify you as a trustworthy person, which means you’ll be able to find each other.
- Also, people often take cues from how you talk about a stigmatized aspect of yourself
- If you can talk about something stigmatized in a matter-of-fact way (possibly combined with an immediate subject change), people tend to react better than if you talk about in in a more cringing way
- This approach has a major downside too, but it’s worth considering
Short version: There are a lot of approaches to disclosing stigmatized things about yourself. You might be better off being really open about it. You might be better off disclosing more cautiously. It helps to give partial answers to questions people ask, and to change the subject. It also helps to ask people questions that they’ll want to answer, and to listen carefully to what they say.