Updated: Aug 14, 2019
Is there a 'right time' to start your journey towards greater self-awareness? Towards emotional and mental good-health? And why do we often treat these things (and ourselves) as an afterthought? It's time to take charge- and here's how you do it.
A colleague shared this meme on her social media page today and it inspired me to write about some of the reasons we avoid making the leap required to look after our emotional selves:
Fear is a powerful beast. Fear keeps us stuck- immobilised and unable to think clearly or consider a better future for ourselves. The very nature of depression, anxiety or trauma (and all of its related impact) is that we feel powerless to take action. We believe that happiness is something that belongs to other people- a members'-only club to which we will never belong. Often, our efforts to avoid our own emotional pain see us becoming addicted to work, alcohol, food, drugs or people. Our efforts to keep emptiness at bay can mean that we throw ourselves in to helping others- after all, they deserve help and we don't, right?
Our avoidance comes from a fear of confronting ourselves and of truly being seen by another person. What if the reality of us, stripped bare and exposed in all of our vulnerability, is too awful, too damaged and too unlovable? That's a terrifying thought and it's often the process behind keeping ourselves hidden. However, hiding ourselves away like this strengthens the idea that we are unacceptable- it hands power to the fear and, in turn, our fear takes away our voice.
Perhaps you have identified that, in spite of your best efforts, you aren't happy. This can come as a sudden realisation- as heavy as a skyscraper that lands on your chest as you lay down to sleep. Or it may have trickled in over a period of months or years- drip feeding your consciousness with a nagging feeling of emptiness or melancholy. Maybe it feels more like the persistent tug of a small child on your trouser leg, saying 'hey, you up there: I'm sad.'
So what do you do? What is your next move when the tactics you've employed to lift your mood simply aren't working any more? Where do you start?
As a therapist, my response is always going to include seeking support from a professional. This isn't a decision that most people find easy- I am always in awe of the strength of my clients when they arrive in my therapy room for the first time (and every single time after that). I have written other blogs about how to find a therapist and about the importance of choosing the right 'fit' for you, above any credentials or modality offered. I haven't met a single client for whom I haven't felt deep compassion, connection and empathy, however dimly they view themselves or their life situation. Making that initial phone call or sending that first enquiry can feel daunting- and it might be the single most important thing you can do for yourself.
As an amateur practitioner of mindfulness, I would always gently suggest this route for anyone- particularly anyone that feels overwhelmed by critical thoughts and painful emotions.
Mindfulness, when practiced for just a few minutes each day, helps to cultivate a curiosity about ourselves and sparks self-compassion, while un-blending us from the noise in our heads. There are a plethora of available videos and articles online; there are countless books about the practice of mindfulness. You are not required to be spiritual or enlightened; you don't even need to work hard or be particularly open-minded to start with. Put simply, the very act of observing ourselves without judgement begins to strengthen the part of our brains that lies relatively dormant in depression and trauma-related psychological issues. A natural progression from this strengthening is that the other part- the fear, emptiness and self-loathing with which we have become so identified- begins to lose its power over us.
What would you say to someone you love if you knew they were suffering the way you are? Can you honestly say you would tell them to suck it up? That they deserve to feel this way and to feel it alone? That sharing their story is pointless- that people will laugh at them or be disgusted by them if they knew how weak they are? That they are beyond help?
I suspect that you would instead want to help this loved one in any way you could. It can be helpful to listen to the way you talk to yourself and begin doing so in a more compassionate and understanding way. You need to start being on team YOU.
You don't need to change everything all at once. The very thought of that seems overwhelming and can stop you from changing anything at all. On a professional development course recently, we were set the challenge of doing one thing differently each day. This could be as simple as brushing your teeth with your non-dominant hand or taking a different route to work in the morning. The complexity of change is irrelevant; the purpose of this simple yet powerful exercise is to train your brain in to understanding that change is possible. Rigidity of thought is detrimental to your recovery- taking baby-steps towards change is the antidote to black and white thinking and can be the spark that lights your way to healing.
You don't need to be stronger or happier or less afraid than you are RIGHT NOW in order to start taking back control. A lot of us wait and waste a lot time for this to be the case- but what if it never happens? Is this a risk you're willing to take? If not, then no matter how scared you are feeling- no matter what that critical, belligerent inner voice is saying- you are worthy of happiness. No matter how shaky the start of your journey- no matter how hard it is for you to start: Start.