Years ago, I used to believe my cruel thoughts wholeheartedly. One reason was because I assumed they were true blue facts. Another reason was because I worried that I was cheating if I didn’t agree with these negative thoughts.
I was somehow doing something wrong if I let them slip by without fully consuming them. I would be letting myself off the hook. I would be taking the easy way out. I wouldn’t be holding myself accountable or responsible. And this wasn’t the right thing to do, I assumed.
Today, is World Mental Health Day. In honor of this day, I’m talking about stigma and seeking professional support. Learn more about this day, and read other pieces here.
When psychologist Deborah Serani, PsyD, was diagnosed with depression, her initial relief turned into shame. As she writes in her book Living with Depression:
…I felt inadequate and embarrassed by my diagnosis. I knew that society feared anything that strayed from the norm, and the idea of being seen as different, disabled, or dysfunctional really frightened me. I didn’t tell anyone about my depression, kept my medication hidden in a bedside dresser, and kept secret my feelings of failure. I even went so far as to believe that I should hang up my shingle as a practicing psychologist because, clearly, I was incapable of taking care of myself as a person. How could I take care of others as a professional? Despite the fact that I was a psychologist educated in the mind, brain and body, the misconceptions about mental illness shoehorned themselves into my life.
Many people with mental illness internalize society’s negative attitudes and start feeling shame. Many don’t seek help. Because there isn’t just a stigma against mental illness in our society; there’s also a stigma against seeking help.
Author Tina Welling had no idea that she had an underactive thyroid. She was experiencing all the symptoms, such as weakness and frequent infections. She was canceling meetings and outings with friends. Her work schedule was getting tougher and tougher to keep up with.
But she hadn’t noticed any of this — until a blood test showed her levels were off the charts. She’d become numb to her own body.
Lately, my mind has felt very crowded. There are so many thoughts bumping up against each other in my brain.
You have sooooo much to do. Did you call this person? Pay that bill? Run that errand? You have to revise your book! And think of topics for this month’s articles. You have sooooo much to do. Is it time for grocery shopping? Did you bring that coupon? Nope! Forgot it like you always do. You need to budget better. You have to revise your book! Did you take out the laundry? You need to sweep and wash the floors. The bathroom is not looking good. Why aren’t you writing on your personal blog? You’re soooo behind on email. Did you call that person? Pay that bill? Run that errand? You have to revise your book!
In her piece on the power of story and the quest for our true selves, Justine Musk includes this poem by David Whyte (the last few lines are my favorite):
This is not
the age of information.
This is not
the age of information.
Forget the news,
and the radio,
and the blurred screen.
This is the time
People are hungry
and one good word is bread
for a thousand.
This weekend I took out my journal and wrote a kind of letter to myself. I started with these words: I forgive myself…
I wrote down the things I am ready to forgive myself for (and a few things I am not). Maybe you, too, want to focus on forgiveness, and write about what you’re ready to let go.
My whole life I’ve leaned toward all-or-nothing thinking. Black or white. Binge or restrict. Terrible day or terrific.
In my mind I was either the energizer bunny or a sloth. I was either beautiful or blah. And how could I be beautiful if I was only pretty sometimes?
If I ate too much, I’d think F that, my diet is ruined! and pile on the extra helpings. I didn’t ask myself if I really wanted more, if I genuinely wanted to enjoy extra bites. No. Instead, I was focused on the fact that tomorrow I’d need to be perfect.
Tomorrow would be the day. The day I’d follow that diet flawlessly. And then in a week, a few weeks, when I lost some weight, I could finally start taking better care of myself. I could show my face at the gym. I could finally appreciate my body. I could feel better about myself.
I think one reason we have an unhealthy relationship with food and ourselves — eating ’til we’re uncomfortably stuffed, restricting ourselves, hurling insults, not practicing compassionate self-care — is because of judgment.
Specifically, we judge ourselves for all sorts of things. We judge our appearance. We judge our mistakes. We cling to shoulds that fuel self-judgment and keep us stuck.
I should weigh less. I should wear a size 4. I should eat less. I should never eat dessert or pizza or pasta. I should be able to do this with zero help.
This week I talked about creating a safe space to listen to ourselves, without judgment or criticism. Because it can be scary to explore our needs and wants. Because for many of us we’re doing this for the first time.
For the first time, we’re shining the spotlight on ourselves. We’re asking questions like: What do I need to feel better? What do I want to do today? What makes me happy?
We’re exploring — territory that might’ve gone unexplored, abandoned for years. We’re putting ourselves third, second or maybe even first. We’re actually listening.
A few years ago, I was walking out of our then-house to meet Brian for his birthday dinner. I was distracted and looking down at my feet, walking toward my car. Suddenly, I saw a thick, long multicolored snake in the grass.
Anyone who knows me knows that I have a palpable fear of snakes. I can’t even look at their pictures. (Seriously.)
I stopped, and started walking, slowly, back toward the door. But I kept stopping and hesitating.
I remember trying to will myself to step to the side of the snake. I remember berating myself for being so silly. You’re scared of everything! It’s just a snake! The car is so close! Only you would react this way!