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The Great Pretenders

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Rachael is a professional woman and mother living with a chronic health condition.

She describes it as isolating and lonely in a society that values perfection. Despite the fact even getting to work is becoming increasingly difficult, Rachael describes her public persona as a façade.

“Because I have a chronic condition I think a lot of people have become bored with hearing how I am. So if someone asks how I am, I just say fine, fine.”

Similarly, Anna, a former teacher, says, “ For most of my life, my habit was to smile and pretend I was happy, but inside I was struggling.”

Rachael and Anna are not alone. Responses like theirs fall habitually from the lips of women everywhere as they hurry and juggle, project manage and deliver.

For many women, balancing home, family, work, their own needs and health is becoming an almost impossible quest. And at what cost?

The answer is becoming clearer thanks to ongoing research. Women are not always ‘fine’. They are not always ‘great’. Especially where their mental health is concerned. So why aren’t they speaking up?

According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW), one in two women suffer from a chronic disease, and the highest ranked condition is mental and behavioural problems.

Beyond Blue Australia reports that “Around one in five women in Australia will experience depression and one in three will experience anxiety during their lifetime.” A recent author initiated survey of 250 women found that almost 65% of respondents have suffered or are currently suffering a mental health condition.

However, it appears women aren’t talking openly about this. They aren’t talking about their day-to-day struggles and perceived imperfections. They are trying to live up to unrealistic expectations, many of which are ironically placed on them by other women.

Despite 80% of women surveyed saying that they would benefit from hearing others’ challenges, 40% admitted to automatically saying they are fine when they are not. 70% said they are only completely honest with between one and five women. 5 % can’t be honest with anyone.

So why are women the great pretenders?

Author and columnist Kerri Sackville believes that women simply don’t value themselves enough to think that others care about what is going on for them.

“We are so used to being polite, and doing the right thing, and prioritising being polite and worrying about the other person over ourselves. We don’t want to burden other people.”

In the context of gender roles, stereotypes and a culture which rewards self-sacrifice, this is hardly surprising.

Liz Tilley, Executive Coach, believes the fear of being vulnerable has a lot to answer for. “It doesn’t always feel safe to have honest conversations,” she observes. Morag, a Beyond Blue Speaker, agrees.

“Many of us have no confidence in having difficult conversations with each other. We’ve lost respect for listening without judgement, opinions or solutions.”

Women also judge themselves against other women, particularly in the context of countless media platforms where perfection is shoved in their faces daily.

Mia Freedman, writer, author and co-founder of media company Mamamia, is outspoken about how women represent themselves. Her book ‘ Work Strife Balance’ uncovers her as a fierce advocate of being honest.

“Because if anyone is going to compare themselves to me, I must not represent myself as a lie. That’s deceptive and unhelpful and a betrayal of women.” She says no one wins the comparison game, yet women continue to do it.

Is there a solution?

Dr Brene Brown says in her TED Talk ‘The Power of Vulnerability’ that the fear of being vulnerable and separated from others ironically keeps women disconnected and alone.

“Connection is why we are here. It’s what gives purpose and meaning to our lives,” she says.

So a woman would rather hide her authentic self but connect with an illusion? If so, it’s a cruel paradox. Rachael and Anna agree.

“I don’t need people to fix anything or offer their opinion. I think people are really just wanting to connect with somebody, for someone to hear what they are saying. The gift, or the help is in the hearing. The loneliness and isolation is often because you’re not being heard,” explains Rachael.

“If I was completely unafraid, and feeling completely non-vulnerable, I think I would say I’m frightened. And in pain.”

Will feeling connected actually help? According to Beyond Blue, “Social connectedness is an important protective factor for women against developing a mental health condition.”

Anna agrees and no longer subscribes to a ‘grin and bear it’ approach. She believes that when women present an illusion of their life they are shortchanging themselves and each other.

“That’s the thing we don’t get. It’s the reward that comes after the truth. The moment you speak your truth you’ve liberated your own emotions. You’ve also given yourself the gift of listening.”

There’s clearly some truth in that. Honesty has always been the best policy, so it might be time to adopt that for the sake of women’s mental health. Who knows? It might lead to a time when women can say ‘they’re fine’ and always mean it.

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