I thought I knew all about how to manage mental illness. I’ve been in recovery 15 years (though I’ve been mentally ill for 27). I’ve been in counseling off-and-on for 10 years. I’m currently studying to become a counselor so I’m learning more about mental illness and how to cope. I’ve started counseling my own clients. I have an enormous list of coping skills and am very self-aware. I thought I was managing everything the best way possible.
Then one day I came into my mentor’s office in tears, overwhelmed by the stress of my life.
She studied me for a minute, and then stated emphatically: “The problem is that you think about mental illness 24 hours a day, between your classes, homework, the clients you counsel, the articles you write for websites, and your own mental illness. It’s not healthy.”
I looked at her slightly stunned. I didn’t realize I was that bad.
She smiled at me and continued, “How about… from 9-5 every day you don’t think about your mental illness at all. Don’t think about yourself. As if you were at work and unable to think about yourself.”
I said, “But I have to keep analyzing myself to be healthy – to notice if I’m rapid cycling or dissociating. My counselor says I have to watch myself all the time to see if I switch personalities.”
She continued, with a shrug, “I’m not an expert on dissociative problems, but I don’t see why it’s such a problem if you switch. It’s all parts of you.”
I left her office lost in thought. How would things be if I didn’t analyze myself so much? Is it really necessary for me to study myself all the time in order to recover?
It’s been two months now.
Taking her advice has completely changed my life.
Before, I thought that I had to constantly be studying myself so that I could report to my counselor if I was changing and so I would know which coping skills to use.
Now I believe there is such a thing as too much self-analysis. When I decided to “take a break” from thinking about myself and my mental illness, it opened up a whole new world for me.
I started reading for fun again. Since I wasn’t analyzing myself, my mind was free to be immersed in books.
Now I am able to be more present in the moment. In the past, when I was analyzing myself all the time, I couldn’t ever be fully present. My mind was always conflicted.
Now since I keep “taking a break” from thinking about myself, I’m able to be present in the events of my life.
When I’m with my husband I’m truly with him, not preoccupied with my own thoughts. When I’m doing something I love, I’m immersed in the experience.
Changing has been difficult. Some days are definitely better than others. I’ve practiced enough that these days when I start to think about myself, my head starts to throb. The pain jars me. I take a step back and try to focus my mind on something else.
I started out with the guideline my mentor gave me, “Try not to think about yourself between 9-5 each day.” That was a good starting point. But now I don’t follow it exactly. In general I just work on refocusing my mind on other things and thinking less about myself and my struggle with mental illness.
I especially work on refocusing my mind during the day. At night it’s harder so I let my mind wander. This new guideline has truly changed me.
I stopped seeing my counselor. He had kept trying to get me to analyze my behavior, speech, and thinking patterns constantly to see if I was switching personalities. It was causing me terrible anxiety, and it seemed like not analyzing myself and instead simply accepting myself was much more helpful.
So I stopped seeing that counselor. As soon as I stopped seeing him, I felt much better.
Rumination is a symptom of mental illness, especially depression and anxiety. It’s natural for us to ruminate about ideas as we work to manage our mental illnesses.
Self-analysis is also an integral part of therapy and the recovery journey. I’ve written about the benefits of self-awareness. Being aware of ourselves and our mental status is important. Understanding ourselves and finding new perceptions is important.
But sometimes there is too much self-analysis. Sometimes the path to recovery means taking a break from thinking about our recovery all the time, from thinking about our mental illness, and from analyzing the things our therapists tell us.
For me right now recovery means that for most of the day I try not to think about my mental illness. I still have to go to class and learn about mental illness and do homework related to mental illness. I still write articles. But I’m trying not to analyze myself nearly as much.
I can tell you that I probably rapid cycled recently between depression and hypomania. I was probably dissociating this week after a panic attack. But I don’t know for sure since I wasn’t paying close attention. If something extreme happens, I notice and focus on it so that I can deal with it. But the natural fluctuations of my mental illness – I’m not paying attention.
I feel more grounded. I feel healthier. My average anxiety level has changed from a 7 out of 10 to a 3 out of 10. I feel more “normal.”
All it took was a few simple words of advice: “Take a break from thinking about yourself and your mental illness.”