Several years ago, a college counselor told me I would qualify for disability due to my mental illnesses and encouraged me to apply. Surprised, I refused. “I can do everything fine; I don’t need help.” She studied me intently, then nodded her head, explaining, “You manage everything so well because you’re a genius.” I wasn’t sure how to respond. I’m not a genius.
These days I know the real reason I function so well: self-awareness. My therapists, psychiatrists, supervisors, and even friends all remark on how self-aware I am. Self-awareness has been the key for me to manage my mental illnesses.
I encourage everyone to work on developing self-awareness in order to receive all the benefits I do. Self-awareness can be developed through therapy and also on your own.
Self awareness has helped me:
- Be aware of my mental states so I know which set of coping skills to use. I have several chronic mental illnesses so my mental state changes a lot. I have a group of coping skills for each one. But I have to constantly assess myself to know which to use. Am I manic? Am I depressed? Am I dissociating? Once I notice a change I go into action and use coping skills to deal with it. It works best when I detect the mood early.
- Notice trends over time. Due to my self awareness, I can take a step back and see how I am changing. I take a step back and see how I am recovering from trauma. I take a step back and notice that my bipolar moods change more quickly in the fall and level out in the spring. This information encourages me and helps me cope.
- Notice what is helping me. Recently I’ve noticed that it helps me to keep busy and have a routine. I’ve also realized that it helps me to check in with a safe person when my thoughts get destructive. Confessing wild thoughts helps me stay grounded. Since I see how these things help me, I can continue them.
- Notice what is harmful for me. Recently I realized a new friend was triggering me when he was talking about his experience of assault. The next day I had flashbacks to assaults I experienced. I finally communicated with him that I can’t talk about this topic since he triggers me. He understood. Through noticing how I was triggered, I was able to take action and communicate my needs.
- Accomplish growth in therapy. Since I’m aware of how I am doing, how I am changing, and what is working, in therapy we can quickly move to finding ways to solve my problems. It makes therapy more efficient and effective.
- Have a shorthand to explain my mental state. It’s helpful to be able to describe my experiences with the proper terms. Instead of describing my recent feelings and actions, I can use the right names. “I’ve been cycling this week between depression and hypomania.” “I just had a panic attack.” It’s a shorthand to explain how I have been.
- Be able to communicate with psychiatrists. Since I’m self aware I can list the symptoms I’m experiencing and how they have been changing or staying the same. Since psychiatrists are impressed with my self-awareness, they usually ask for my insight when they decide which medications to prescribe.
- Manage friendships. I can see whether I’m interacting with friends in a healthy way. I notice when my moods are volatile and I might damage a friendship. On my bad weeks, I do “check-ins” with friends to make sure we are ok.
- Be appropriate at work. Due to my self awareness, I can see how I am acting and compare it to work expectations. I am able to keep good boundaries. Since I know how I act in the workplace, I can assess whether I am acting appropriately at work.
- Communicate my needs. Since I know myself and what helps and hurts me, I can tell others what I need. Recently a professor asked us all to write about our learning style. I wrote that I have difficulty concentrating due to a medication I take and explained what I need to manage the class.
- Create meaning out of my life. I can take a step back and look at the big picture of my life to make meaning out of it. Since I am aware of myself and how I’ve changed, I’m able to create a story from my life, then share that story with others.
- Understand others. My understanding of how my mental illness works and how it affects me helps me understand others who have the same mental illnesses or some of the same symptoms. My self-awareness can help them become more self-aware as well.
- Raise awareness about mental illnesses. It’s only through understanding myself that I’m able to speak about what mental illness is like and what it feels like to experience it. Self-awareness is the key to being able to raise awareness.
I didn’t become self-aware overnight.
I’ve developed self-awareness through years of therapy, from writing out my thoughts and feelings, and from doing “check-ins” with people to see how I am.
It is a skill I am continuing to develop. It has helped me immensely.
I am thankful that I am seeing a psychologist right now who continually helps me to increase my self-awareness. Through him I discovered the extent of my dissociative problems and have been able to discover my personalities. My growing self-awareness is my greatest asset in managing my mental illnesses.