Today is World Mental Health Day. In honor of this day, I’m talking about practicing self-compassion when you have a mental illness. Learn more about this day, and read other pieces here.
When you have a mental illness, you may feel shame. A lot of it. You might beat yourself up for being “lazy,” for getting anxious easily, for needing to take medication, for needing to take breaks. You might beat yourself up for being “broken,” for not being “normal.” (But what is “normal,” anyway?)
You might think you don’t deserve care or respect. Because of societal stigma, you might feel like a second-class citizen, like you don’t belong or fit in.
Please know that you do deserve compassion and care. You do deserve to be treated with dignity, whether someone else thinks so or not. It’s hard to live in a society that still holds many myths and misunderstandings about mental illness. But we don’t need to wait for someone — or an entire society — to treat us with respect. We can start by treating ourselves (and others) with respect. We can start by treating ourselves with compassion. Lots of self-compassion.
Here are some ways to start:
- Remember that you have an illness. You don’t have a character flaw or a weakness. You aren’t lazy or stupid. You have an illness, which has a set of symptoms, which affects all areas of your life. For instance, depression distorts your thinking and sinks your self-esteem. It batters your body. You’re likely exhausted, so exhausted that some days it’s hard to get out of bed. You might have migraines, stomachaches and even chest pain, joint pain and back pain. So the next time you get frustrated with yourself for not doing something, remind yourself that you’re struggling for a very good reason — you have an illness. And try to be gentle with yourself instead.
- Remember you’re not alone, even if it feels that way. Mental illness is common. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, in 2013, 18.5 percent of American adults had a mental illness (and this didn’t include substance use disorders). So as you’re feeling anxiety inside your bones, someone in your city, someone in your state, someone in a completely different land is also feeling anxiety inside their bones. Many, many someones are feeling it, too.
- Acknowledge how you’re feeling. If you’re feeling hurt, anxious, angry, or frustrated, acknowledge it. Name the feeling (e.g., “Right now, I feel really upset.”) Try not to judge or criticize yourself for whatever feeling arises. Every feeling is OK. Every feeling is valid. You aren’t ridiculously sensitive or stupid or weak for feeling a certain way. Criticizing ourselves only makes things worse. If you’re struggling, honor that. Try to sit with it.
- Advocate for yourself. The good news about mental illness is that it’s highly treatable. You can get better. You can lead a fulfilling, healthy life. Advocating for yourself means becoming an active participant in your treatment. That means speaking up, which I know is really hard to do, especially if you have people-pleasing tendencies. If you’re taking medication, talk to your doctor about how you’re feeling. Talk about your concerns and questions. Talk about troubling side effects. Do the same with your therapist. Talk about what’s on your mind. What’s really on your mind. Keep track of your symptoms on a daily basis (such as keeping a mood journal or diary). Research your mental illness. Read books on different treatments. Try workbooks (like this one for mood; this one for bipolar disorder; and this one for anxiety).
- Explore your needs and respond to them. Check in with your brain and body on a regular basis. What aches? What hurts? Where do you feel tension? Are you thirsty? Do you need to rest? Do you need to eat foods that boost your energy? Are you struggling with deeply negative thoughts? Honor these needs. Get a massage. Stretch your body. Drink water. Drink tea. Take a nap. Take a walk. Take a yoga class. Eat more protein and fruit. Schedule another session with your therapist to explore your thoughts.
- Know what’s OK and not OK with you. Practice setting good boundaries. Again, I know this is hard. But start small. And remember that setting boundaries isn’t about screaming or being rude. It’s simply being honest about your needs, and being firm. You can be kind when telling someone that something simply doesn’t work for you.
- Surround yourself with supportive people — people who respect you, who want the best for you and who treat you with compassion. Join in-person or online support groups or forums like this one and this one.
Having a mental illness can be overwhelming and frustrating. Try to be gentle with yourself. Acknowledge that you’re struggling. Acknowledge that it’s hard. And do one thing today that supports your well-being. One thing that’s nourishing, meaningful, calming, energizing or fun. Just one thing.
This might be taking a walk in nature, taking a hot bath, going for a rejuvenating run, savoring lunch with a friend, watching a hilarious movie, rereading your favorite book, listening to a guided meditation.
Remember, you deserve it. And, if you don’t think you do, do something wonderful, anyway.