own your awkwardness
Mental Health

“How ‘owning my awkward’ helped me deal with burnout and depression”

Michelle Morgan is a Mental Health First Aid England Ambassador, trainer and speaker. Building on her years of professional experience, her new book, Own Your Awkward, is a guide to understanding the awkwardness that often comes with talking about mental health and reframing it as something powerful, joyful even.

“It’s a bit awkward when you talk about your mental health, Michelle.”

Crushing, embarrassing, silencing… And just like that, as a result of one careless and stigmatising remark, I stepped out of the creative studio and consultancy I had cofounded 16 years earlier under a cloud of immense shame and an even greater sense of self-loathing than I was already experiencing.

My departure was communicated through a mysterious, vague and almost chipper-sounding message to my dear work family:

“Hi everyone, I hope you’re all having a brilliant start to 2017! It’s going to be a good one, we have a great plan, great people and a great purpose. Here’s to a great year! I wanted to let you know that I will be out of the office for a short while addressing some health matters. I’ll be really looking forward to catching up with you all soon! Big love, Michelle.”

I will never forget the way my cheeks burned as I received that remark and I immediately stopped talking about my mental health. My “mask” was slipping, and I needed to escape, which I did, but the problem was that cloud of shame followed me all the way home.

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The words that make up that note are the mask of mental illness, my mental illness. It’s amazing how long we can pretend to be “just fine”, when the truth is we’re really not fine at all. What I was actually experiencing was a violent physical and mental burnout, which had fast developed into a terrifying combination of as-yet-undiagnosed clinical depression and anxiety. I wrote to the team, utterly believing that I’d be back to the day-to-day of the business in next to no time. “I’ll be really looking forward to catching up with you all soon!” In fact, I never returned.

It was interesting to me that it was far easier to talk to my board about the physical health issues I had also been experiencing – my heavy periods, my anaemia, my upcoming hysterectomy – than it was to talk about my mental health. And let’s face it, talking about periods around the boardroom table, well, we’re not quite there yet, are we?

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Looking back, I suspect what I call the “dirty duo” of depression and anxiety had been quite comfortably disguised and hidden in the day-to-day of my life for a good part of that year, and far longer, as I later discovered on my journey to recovery. Mental ill-health comes in many different forms. Alternating between depression and anxiety was exhausting and terrifying. For me, in short, anxiety was characterised by feeling everything, while depression was feeling nothing.

Fast forward to a place of recovery and, as a business leader, an ambassador for Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) England and a Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) instructor, and as a wife, mother, daughter, sister, friend and woman, I’ve now shared my experience of burnout, depression and anxiety hundreds of times, to thousands of people, usually wearing a pair of pyjamas. And what I’ve discovered is that actually, yes, it is almost always awkward, but there is also potentially a joy and a gift to be found in that awkward moment. You know, that moment when either I’m about to tell you (or a whole bunch of people) about my mental health or ask you about yours.

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What I’ve learnt (and it’s taken a long time and a bucket-load of pain and support to get there) is that if you can push on through those few awkward moments, push on through the fear and uncertainty of how someone is going to respond. More often than not, it’s a good thing, a helpful thing, maybe even a lifesaving thing, to be able to talk honestly about how we are feeling in both our bodies and minds.

When you own your awkward, it helps others own theirs. By transforming that feeling of panic into my power, I build deeper and more meaningful relationships with people. Doing uncomfortable and difficult things builds our resilience, flexes new muscles, makes us stronger. And the more we do it, the more we get out of it. We grow, we learn and we potentially give and help more.

We are experiencing a global mental health crisis. The World Health Organization has deemed “burnout” a recognised workplace phenomenon and depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide. More than 800,000 people die by suicide every year and suicide sits among the top 20 leading causes of death. On top of that, the pandemic is fanning the flames of the crisis.

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Now, let’s step back into that moment when either I’m going to tell you about my mental health or ask you about yours. What’s happening to trigger these tricky feelings and how can we more easily recognise and manage our awkward, rather than it managing us?

In those moments, we’ve most likely triggered our fight, flight or freeze response, the survival instinct that stems from the days when our body and mind would work together to give us a shot of hormones to either fight, run or hide from the bear. These days, the perceived threat may occasionally be as dangerous as the bear (heck, it might still be the bear in some places far beyond London). But as the world has evolved, stress levels have risen and mental health issues are made up of all kinds of contributing factors. Some of those factors trigger our natural survival instinct in a way that is disproportionate to the actual threat facing us.

What’s useful to know is that true fear is a survival signal that sounds only in the presence of actual danger. Yet “fear” has become an often unwarranted and unhelpful part of our daily lives. But if we fear all situations all of the time, there is no signal reserved for the times it is really needed. So, next time you notice it emerging, try using my four steps to owning your awkward.

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1. Stop and notice

Observe what is happening to you physically, mentally and emotionally. Do you have sweaty palms, a lump in your throat, negative and anxious thoughts racing? Let your thoughts come and go. No need to change anything. You are pausing, making space and not rushing. You are preparing yourself and fine-tuning your awareness and ability to communicate.

2. Acknowledge and name

Begin acknowledging and naming your thoughts and feelings e.g. “I’m feeling nervous” or ‘I’m worried”. By doing this, you are switching on the more rational part of your brain.

3. Move and breathe 

Gently begin to move areas of your body – wiggle your toes and fingers, relax your jaw. Loosening your body unlocks your brain.

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4. Transform and reframe

Ask yourself transformative and compassionate questions: “How can I grow from this experience?” “Is this truly fear and danger?” “How is the conversation I’m about to have caring?”. This helps reframe your neural pathways and the way you’re seeing the situation.

With better knowledge and the frameworks I’ve created for owning my awkward and talking about mental health, I’m not only better equipped to support other people and myself, but I also have clearer boundaries. And that helps and protects both me and others, all of which means I have greater capacity to help more people.

Out of terrible times, good things can come. Today? I’m good. Really good! How I’ll be tomorrow, goodness knows. Do any of us really know? I do know this though: PJ days are okay! And if I need one, I’ll take one. If I need to talk to my psychologist or psychiatrist, I’ll book an appointment. If a chat with a friend is what is needed, that’s what I’ll do. Life isn’t perfect, it isn’t black and white, let’s embrace the “and” in life. I am joy and pain. I am happy and sad. I am elegant and awkward. And I am most certainly brilliant.

In accepting and embracing all of this, I am more able to be myself than ever before. Because without sadness how can I truly know what happiness is? Without the pain of my experience, I wouldn’t have such gratitude for the joy I now know. Had I not taken ownership of my awkwardness, I’d have never discovered the elegance and authenticity in helping others own theirs.

Without a little bit of anxiety, maybe I’d have never embraced the brilliant moment when I realized I could make mental health an everyday conversation by starting up Pjoys, a pyjama and wellbeing business, or written a book! And without any of the above, I wouldn’t have found a new purpose and chapter in life.

Michelle Morgan is an ambassador for Mental Health First Aid England and the author of Own Your Awkward: How to Have Better and Braver Conversations About Our Mental Health, out on 1 January 2022.

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