Many high functioning individuals who outwardly seem successful and confident are internally struggling with inner battles, often juggling their anxieties with the strain of maintaining external appearances.

If this sounds like you, or someone you know, read on. Help is at hand!

[Sadie Hopson is a global trainer and strategy consultant specialising in the field of occupational health psychology. Sadie is founder and director of Euthenia Touch and We Work Well, both #ORBMembers. Sadie and her colleague Abbie Norbury, media, health and wellbeing professional with a varied background, have launched Black Dog, White Swan to empower and inspire others who know what its like to live like a white swan with the black dog looming.]

Exposed – Revealing The Truth Behind The Mask

by Sadie Hopson

• Do you often feel like you are living a lie?
• That nobody understands the real you?
• Or that you will be judged if you revealed how you really thought and felt?

The assumptions about poor mental health

There are many assumptions made about poor mental health and mental illness. Despite the increased levels of awareness about mental health and encouragement for people to speak up, there remains a large amount of stigma attached to the subject. It is shrouded in misconception and, as such, there are often assumptions made about what certain disorders ‘should’ look like and how people are expected to behave if they are psychologically struggling.

Poor mental health is often associated with an inability to get up, to get things done and to generally function on a day to day basis. And whilst these symptoms are certainly indicative of someone mentally struggling, poor mental health doesn’t always take this form. In fact, there are many people who are deemed to be high functioning yet who are still struggling behind the scenes. They go to work, have successful careers, raise a family, socialise with friends and essentially, they appear to be ‘normal’. Yet inside they harbour a secret truth; that underneath the façade they are often struggling to cope and keep it all together.

Maybe you are one of these people? Because I know I am.

High functioning mental illness.

Perhaps you haven’t heard the phrase ‘high functioning mental illness’ before, but it is certainly a reality for a lot of people. It is generally used to describe people living with an invisible mental illness or condition.

‘High functioning’ could relate to a profession, the perfect family life or simply appearing confident, calm and composed; it is generally anything that suggests a person is succeeding in life. Yet this success and these achievements sometimes conceal the inner battle fought within, the war that is waged between maintaining the illusion and managing the mind. And it is exhausting.

And the biggest problem with this?

Creating an illusion creates assumptions

People can often fail to understand the depth and intensity of these struggles. You might hear phrases like:

“What have you got to be unhappy about?”


“You’re so confident, how can you ever get anxious.”

They fail to understand the truth behind the outward appearance.

I have experienced this many times in my own life, particularly in recent years.

As someone who is a qualified specialist in workplace mental health and who regularly speaks at large conferences to hundreds of people, I am often met with cynicism, doubt, shock and a raised eyebrow when people discover that I experience quite crippling anxiety, panic attacks and have to actively manage my mental health to cope.

It feels like the impact of my struggles are somehow invalidated because of the assumptions people make about what they perceive to be the truth about me.

If you are also someone with high functioning anxiety, you may be quite a perfectionist in your work, setting extremely high (and exhausting) standards and have a strong aversion to perceived failure. You may appear to be hard working, helpful, outgoing and dedicated.

And whilst such traits have positive elements, they are often driven by a compelling desire to please others, an overwhelming tendency to overthink and an inability to say no and set boundaries, all of which leaves you extremely prone to chronic stress , emotional exhaustion and even burnout.

Yet all of this is suppressed out of desire to maintain the illusion of perfection and a fear that you won’t be understood.

This puts you in quite a lonely place and unfortunately, this means that a lot of people don’t feel able to speak up. Instead they remain suffocated by the self-adorned mask they are wearing, day in and day out.

Does that sound like you?

So, if you are reading this thinking, “that’s me!”, what can you do?

Well the most important thing is to remember that there are things you can do that will make a difference and it starts with accepting yourself and embracing your own vulnerability.

There is a large amount of power and strength in acknowledging every part of you and genuinely feeling comfortable in your sense of self, not perceiving any parts as good or bad.

As Brene Brown (2010) says:

Let go of who you think you’re supposed to be; embrace who you are.

Surround yourself with people who believe in you and appreciate you for all that you are and who encourage you to openly speak up when you are struggling. Think about the people in your life that provide you with a psychologically safe space to open up and talk honestly without fear of judgement. If you find it difficult to open up initially, try journaling your thoughts first to get comfortable with the outward expression and practice mindfulness to help you start to understand yourself and slow down from the usual frantic pace of life. Absorb yourself in positive messaging about self-acceptance; listen to podcasts, read books and watch videos of people openly and honestly sharing their own struggles to help normalise this in your own mind. Remove toxic influences and remember, if your social circle doesn’t support the real you, then you need to find a new circle.

Make the time to prioritise your own wellbeing and remember that you cannot pour from an empty cup. Demonstrate kindness towards yourself and manage those expectations. It is likely that you might be prone to being your own biggest critic, so take the time every day to reflect on at least three things that you have achieved and are proud of. Always bear in mind that you do not need validation, approval or acceptance from anybody but yourself.

And lastly, remember, being high functioning doesn’t make you any less human or any more able to cope than anyone else, so try to avoid putting pressure on yourself or feel you should be able to cope. With a bit of practice and support, it is possible to live a life without the mask.

Black Dog White Swan podcasts

If you are interested in finding out more, my colleague and I have just launched a podcast series called Black Dog White Swan, part of a movement to inspire, educate and enlighten society about mental health issues amongst high functioning individuals.

After years of wearing a mask and feeling the pressure of portraying an illusion of perfection, we wanted to expose the truth. We want the world to know that despite our seemingly confident and successful image, behind the scenes we are often battling the shadow of our own black dogs and frantically trying to manage the endless anxious thoughts to keep our swans afloat without breaking our composure.

The series features a number of special guests talking about their own struggles and the ways that they cope.

Guests include Chris Brooks, ex Capital and current Virgin radio presenter, Chris O’Sullivan from the Mental Health Foundation and ex England footballer Chris Kirkland.

Many people are finding the series of real value, especially given the current challenges, so have a listen as we are sure it will help you and others you know too.

If you do enjoy the series, please don’t forget to subscribe and rate.

You can find us or by searching Black Dog White Swan on Apple Podcasts.