If there's one thing I wish all of my clients knew, it's that I regularly practice the skills I teach in therapy. In fact, every time I experience a bout of anxiety, a relationship conflict, or a strong punch of Imposter Syndrome, a part of me is bizarrely happy that the opportunity has presented itself to see how effective different mental health strategies are in the moment.
Since new years tend to bring new habits, I thought I'd share the main lessons and skills that have genuinely made a difference to my mental health. Know that it took years of practice for me to actually accomplish these tasks and that I'm still a work in progress, but I hope that some of these make a positive difference in your life somehow :)
I accepted that suffering is a part of life and stopped pursuing happiness.
To greatly simplify one of the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism, life is suffering. This might sound depressing to some people, but I actually find comfort in this. You see, Western society has programmed us into thinking that we can achieve eternal happiness... as long as we have a slim body. A fast car. A big house. A lot of Instagram followers. And we're taught that if we just. work. hard. enough. we, too, will find true happiness forever.
If endless happiness is our goal, we are setting ourselves up for failure. We're participating in a game where there's no winning. In fact, as I've mentioned in another blog post, studies have confirmed that placing excessive emphasis on happiness reduces our ability to savour positive experiences and makes us more prone to experiencing depressive symptoms.
Rather than pursuing happiness, I strive for being content—achieving a state of satisfaction and ease of mind. To use a metaphor, I don't expect or strive for every dish to taste like one from a Michelin-star restaurant; if I'm decently full at the end of a meal, I am content.
This links to the idea of radical acceptance, which is another concept that has enormously helped my mental health. Radical acceptance is about wholeheartedly accepting things as they are rather than using your energy to feel frustrated about how things ought to be. When you can radically accept that eternal happiness is neither possible nor sustainable, you free your mind up to focus on things that are simply more important and achievable. This also means you can stop putting so much pressure on yourself! If you're not happy all the time, it doesn't mean you're defective or "not trying hard enough." It means you're a human being, just like the rest of us :)
2. I stopped judging my emotions.
This one was HUGE for me. I've learned as a human being and therapist that so much of our suffering isn't due to our initial emotions, but from our reactions to them. Feeling depressed is hard, but it's not debilitating. Reacting to your depression by over-analyzing it, wondering how long it will last, dissecting it, calling yourself a "loser" for experiencing it, and the like is debilitating.
Another harmful myth that exists is that we can be in control of our emotions at all times. This is not only false, but a very problematic concept to perpetuate. The truth is that our emotions actually stem from the lower parts of our brain (specifically the limbic system), which are very automatic, fast, and illogical. Trying to control our initial emotion about a situation is also a losing game. Saying "I don't want to feel anxious any more" is no different than saying, "I never want to get a cold again." These things happen and are a normal part of life.
Once again, the only thing we can do is change our reaction to our initial emotions. Instead of judging ourselves for feeling depressed, we can show ourselves some compassion and take our depression for a walk outside. Instead of telling ourselves that we "shouldn't" feel anxious before giving a work presentation, we can acknowledge that these feelings are totally normal (and helpful), accept that we might sound a little shaky at first, but have faith that if we practice enough, it will get better.
Never forget that all emotions have useful functions, as I discuss in this blog post. It's important that we appreciate them rather than hating on them or wishing they didn't exist.
3. I learned that too much self-awareness doesn't do anyone any good.
Self-awareness is certainly a positive attribute, and it's even one of the five pillars of emotional intelligence. That said, there can always be too much of a good thing. There is such a thing as analyzing yourself, your relationship, your feelings, or your thoughts too much.
If you notice your mind constantly going round and round in circles and/or continually over-analyzing, the best thing to do here is a particular form of thought stopping. This involves quite literally stopping thoughts in their tracks. Does this sound overly simplistic and a little ridiculous? Yes. But is it shockingly effective? Also yes.
There are a few different ways to use thought stopping but the ones I use the most often are:
Straight up telling my mind to stop. I will literally tell myself, "We aren't going there." Or I will just say to myself, "Kristina, stop it, this isn't helping."
I picture a gigantic red STOP SIGN.
I imagine taking an off-ramp away from the road of thought I'm on. Yes, I actually imagine this and it actually helps.
Another important reminder related to this topic is that thoughts are not facts. They are ideas. They are hypotheses. They can be habitual. They can be based on associations. They can be unhelpful and totally ridiculous. Say it with me people: thoughts. are. not. facts. Many mindfulness practices revolve around this notion coupled with the practice of learning to detach from thoughts and simply learn to watch them come and go. This is different from many cognitive behavioural strategies that focus on pausing, looking at the thought, and correcting it. Instead, this is about saying, "Huh, I'm noticing that I'm having the thought that I'm unworthy" and going about your day rather than taking it so literally or dwelling on it.
4. I stopped caring about what other people think so much.
This one took years to learn and to be honest, I think a lot of it came with age as I started clarifying what I genuinely want out of my life and gained the independence and autonomy that comes with growing up.
There are several things that helped me learn this lesson:
People do not care about your actions or decisions nearly as much as you think they do (which I genuinely say to be comforting).
Everyone's a critic.
You're the only one who truly knows what it's like to be you—and the only one who has to live with the positive or negative consequences of any decision. Only you can decide what is tolerable or intolerable for you.
Caring about what other people think seriously has zero benefits whatsoever and stops you from living the life you want.
Disconnecting from social media helps tremendously when it comes to caring less about what others think or comparing yourself to others.
I once heard an interview from the woman who created Spanx wherein she said she didn't tell anyone about her idea until she had been working on it for an entire year. Not her family, not her friends, not her significant other. She didn't tell a single soul because she was aware that hearing any criticism at that time would have discouraged her from continuing. She now has a net worth of $1 billion, which would not be her reality if she had told people her idea too soon.
The point is, we have to be on our own team. We have to trust ourselves, and oftentimes this involves turning down the noise around us—the social media posts, the opinions of others (even if well-intended), the expectations in which we're seeped.
5. I started giving myself a God damn break.
This is a lesson I believe I will never not be learning. As I admitted in my other blog post, I've had a long history of perfectionism. And not in the "tee-hee-hee-I'm-so-A-type" way—it's more in a "oh-my-God-this-is-my-seventh-hour-researching-how-to-be-a-better-therapist-and-I-feel-like-I'm-losing-my-mind" kind of way.
Giving myself a God damn break mainly meant learning how to have self-compassion. It meant learning to speak to myself like a human being, even in the face of hardship or failure. It meant having reasonable expectations rather than holding myself to some ridiculous standard that no living person would ever be able to achieve. It meant valuing balance over perfection over and over again until it felt somewhat natural to do so. This is still something I struggle with, but now I reward myself for moments when I resist the urge to be perfect, not the moments where I feel like I've gotten pretty close.
6. I entered a healthy romantic relationship.
For the longest time, I genuinely believed that insufferable anxiety was just a natural part of being in a romantic relationship. Simultaneously, I attributed said anxiety to the fact that I was obviously just "bad" at being in relationships.
Once I started dating my current partner, I realized that it is possible to be with a heterosexual man who is not intimidated by my success, who can actually articulate his feelings, who values equality, and so much more. I learned that perhaps I was not although all relationships take work, they can actually bring a lot of joy. Shocker!
7. I prioritized my physical health.
When I say I prioritized my physical health, this took many different forms. Sometimes this meant eating cleaner and exercising more. Other times this meant actually doing less of these things—of not working out and allowing myself to rest instead and indulging and not beating myself for it. Again, I focused on balance, not perfection.
That said, after recently returning to working out after a very long hiatus, it's nice to remember how good it feels to move my body. The increased energy, the feeling of satisfaction, and the gratitude I have for being able to move are huge pros that have nothing to do with weight loss or my physical appearance.
Simultaneously, I have learned that I just genuinely feel better when I eat better and treat my body well, which is precisely why I sought to become both a psychotherapist and a nutritionist. A well-fed body is a well-fed mind.
The Bottom Line
While there are so many things that didn't make this list—and while I'm 100% still a work in progress—habits like engaging in radical acceptance, striving for balance instead of perfection, being mindful of my physical health habits, diffusing from my thoughts, and being in a healthy relationship are all things that have been game-changers for my mental health. I'd love to hear what has helped YOU in the comments below!
If you or someone you know is interested in individual psychotherapy virtually or in-person at our Markham or Vaughan office, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.