Many voice-hearers find that thinking about, and planning for conversations about their experiences can make them easier to manage.
1. Why do you want to tell someone?
This may sound obvious, but a good place to start can be asking yourself – why am I thinking of telling someone? Do you want understanding and emotional support, a sounding board to help you figure things out, access to mental health services or changes at university or in the office to help you work more effectively? Being able to answer these questions can shape what type of conversation you have and with whom.
“Understanding what you need – whether it’s a listening ear, a cuddle, practical help at home or adjustments to your environment at work – could help someone better assist you.
For instance, if you’re experiencing critical voices that say you’re worthless or unloveable, which are undermining your confidence in a romantic relationship, you may consider confiding in your partner about what the voices are saying, the impact of their words, and think together about what you can do to counteract their negative messages.
If you’re finding your voices becoming overwhelming at work, causing difficulties with concentration or confidence, you may wish to have a more practically-oriented conversation with your employer (perhaps sharing fewer details about what the voices say or how they make you feel), to explore support options such as flexible hours or working from home.”
However, not every disclosure is made with a purpose in mind. It’s OK to tell someone you just want to let them know about it, but that you don’t need anything from them. It’s also OK if you need help, but you don’t know what that help is. You can figure it out together.
2. Who can you tell?
Once you know why you want to talk about your voices, it can be helpful to think of who you could talk with to achieve your aim. Depending on what your needs are, this could be a close family member, partner or friend; an employer, teacher or tutor; or a GP or mental health professional.
When thinking of someone to talk with, it can be it useful to consider each possible person and think about what might make them a good (or not so good) person to talk with. Some questions you might consider:
- Are they trustworthy?
- Have they been supportive in the past?
- Have you seen them support others?
- Are they empathetic and a good listener?
- Do you find them easy to talk with?
- Are they good at finding practical solutions?
Different people in your network will have different strengths and skills. Many voice-hearers vary the level of disclosure – how much they choose to share and what they say – depending on their relationship with the person and what they need.
If you’re feeling unsure about who to talk to, or you’re worried there isn’t anyone in your life you could talk with about your voices, it might be helpful to contact a support service such as the Samaritans, or a counsellor or psychotherapist.
Many people find joining a Hearing Voices Group helpful, as it provides an opportunity to connect with others who have similar experiences.
You might also consider joining an online forum designed for voice-hearers, such as the Hearing Voices Network for England’s online forum for adults, or Voice Collective’s online forum for young people up to the age of 25.
If you feel judged, don’t keep talking to that person. Choose safe people – open minded, kind people.
I have found it helpful to talk to my parents, but most helpful was attending a hearing voices group. Going to the group being able to say something which was normal to me as a voice-hearer, and the other group members will also see it as normal. If I told friends there would be shocked responses.
3. What do you want to say?
If you know who you want to talk with and why you want to open up, deciding what you want to say is the next step.
‘Selective disclosure’ is when a person actively chooses how much to share about their experiences, their tone of voice and what words they use, depending on the situation and the person they’re talking with. It can be a good idea to ‘test the water’, checking out someone’s responses before going further.
Remember that you get to choose what you say and don’t say about your experiences, even when the conversation has already started. You can say ‘no’, ‘I’d rather not talk about that right now’, ‘can we come back to that?’ or ‘this is getting a bit intense for me, let’s talk about something else’. It’s OK to change the subject, postpone or end the conversation if you start to feel anxious or uncomfortable.
Learn more about how to decide what’s okay to share here.
How do I decide what’s OK to share?
There are lots of different ways to answer this question, but here is one idea that might be useful.
1. Imagine the person you’re going to speak with is completely understanding, that you’re completely comfortable with them and there is no risk of stigma or discrimination, and the voices are OK with you speaking about them. In this ‘ideal world’ what would you like to say? You may wish to write this down to keep a record of it.
2. Have a look at what you’ve written and
3. Are there any parts that feel definitely or mostly OK to talk about? These can be a good starting point.
4. Have a look at what’s left. How do you feel about these bits? What is it about them that feels difficult to share? Is there anything that is essential to help you get your point across, or can you leave it till later?
5. Some people choose to do the same process, thinking about their voices. Are there any things that your voices would definitely react negatively to you saying? Are there any bits that they don’t mind you saying? You get to choose what you say, or don’t say – but having an idea of how your voices might react could influence what you want to say or what you put in your backup plan.
If everything you’d like to say feels impossible to talk about with the person you want to disclose to, that is not a failure. It’s natural to be cautious. You might want to consider whether this person is really the right person to speak with, or whether you feel equipped for the conversation. It may be useful to take a step back and think whether there is anyone else you could speak with (including
If you’re finding it hard to think of what to say, it can be worth spending a little time noting down your hopes and fears for the conversation. Sometimes naming your fears can help you work out whether you want to listen to them, fight them or plan around them. For example, if someone is worried that talking about hearing voices might lead to
This level of planning is not for everybody. Some people prefer to just ‘jump in’ and disclose, even if it feels very scary. That’s OK too. There is no right or wrong way to talk with people about hearing voices. We all have different styles, different situations and different concerns.
4. Finding the words
Many people find that the risk of a negative reaction from others is reduced if they talk in a normalising way about their voices – using facts, figures and examples to illustrate just how common hearing voices really is, or explaining how the association with mental illness doesn’t reflect every voice-hearer’s experience. Sometimes using examples of experiences that are similar to voices can help someone understand what it means. This might include having a conversation when the radio is on, talking to a friend when your children are running around, screaming, arguing and causing chaos, or trying to work in a shared office.
I talk about it as a spectrum of experience – everyone has some experience on this spectrum, but not all are equally loud or developed.
I always emphasise that there are loads of people out there that have these experiences. It’s just not talked about in everyday life, so people think it’s this really horrible secret that if it’s known will infect everyone. If we don’t start to talk about it more it’ll remain this awful stigmatising situation.
Have you discovered any books, articles or films which address some of the stigma attached to voice-hearing that could do some of the work for you?
If you’d like to bring information to your conversations, or ask people to read something before you talk with them, here are some suggestions:
Thinking carefully in advance about the language you’re going to use to talk about voices might also be helpful. Some people use the term ‘hearing voices’, others prefer ‘hallucinations’ or ‘hearing things’. Others talk about having people inside them, their subconscious getting carried away, being telepathic or being able to hear things that other people can’t. Sometimes it’s useful to think about what words you want to use when disclosing the experience to someone new – balancing what you feel comfortable saying and what you think the person is able to hear.
Remember that you don’t have to talk to someone initially if you find it hard to speak. Some people choose to write down what they want to say and give it to the person. Other people bring an article that’s relevant and say ‘I have that’ as an opener. Others take an artwork with them and use that as a starting point.
Think carefully about how you describe your experiences to others. I find ‘loud thoughts’ can be more palatable to the easily squeamish.
Using phrases like ‘hearing voices’ is much easier for me and other people to engage in. Not medicalised words like ‘psychosis’.
5. Having a back-up plan
Even if the conversation goes well, talking about voices can feel like a big thing – especially if you’re speaking out for the first time or are telling someone who is important to you. If you can, set aside some time to do something that usually helps when you’re stressed out. Having a back up plan of what you can do if things don’t go well can be a lifeline.
If talking with someone has made your voices more disruptive or left you feeling distressed, you may wish to try one of the safety strategies here. If you find yourself in a crisis, you can call emergency services on 999, a listening service like The Samaritans, or follow the suggestions here.
What might a back-up plan look like?
Find out more
Talking to friends about my mental health, Time to Change.
How to positively disclose mental ill health at work, Shaw Trust.
Telling my employer, Mind.
Our section on Hearing voices at work or while studying might also be useful.