Talking things out makes us feel better and strengthens our relationships. But starting those conversations—and keeping them positive and productive—can be a challenge. Luckily, experts can help. Joicy Salgado, LMHC, is founder and psychotherapist at Salgado Psychotherapy. We spoke to her about what qualifies as a “tough” topic, why an intersectional approach is so important, and how to affirm and respect both yourself and your conversation partner throughout the process.
“What is ‘tough’ for one may be different for another person,” Salgado says. If you’re having a hard time, don’t compare or minimize your circumstances. And if someone comes to you saying they’re struggling, don’t diminish their experience or try to convince them it’s not so bad. “This can create space for empathy for ourselves as well as for others.”
When all the tough stuff is kicking around in your mind, it can take on a life of its own. And your mind can “trick you,” Salgado says. “Keeping things inside of you can even bring physical and medical issues: changes in mood, changes in appetite, panic-like attacks, rashes, muscle spasms, physical aches.” That’s why it’s so important to move on to the talking stage, which involves “processing the information by verbalizing it.”
“Mental health and substance use intersect with background, sexuality, gender, race, people with different physical and cognitive abilities,” Salgado says. “This intersectionality greatly affects resources and accessibility for education and treatment. If we are not aware that systemic issues exist, then conversations about mental health (including substance use) become erroneously skewed.” During tough conversations, seeing and respecting each other’s complete humanness is key.
Still, according to Salgado, “you might want to set a low-stress environment by checking in with the receiver and asking if they have the time and energy to talk. If you suspect that the receiver is busy, see if another time can be better.” This will reduce unnecessary stress and potential evasiveness or defensiveness. Salgado also recommends creating a distraction-free space. That means switching off the TV and putting electronic devices like smartphones and tablets in a different room. (For neurodivergent folks, keeping a small item in hand or using some other supportive tool during the conversation is of course fine.)
This applies to everybody involved in the conversation. It’s especially important to express love at the end of an unfinished talk so that both parties walk away feeling supported and can sustain interest in finishing the conversation later.
“Psychotherapy or mental health services can aid people in processing how to talk to their loved ones,” Salgado says. It’s just one tool in your toolbelt, but it can be a very powerful one.