1. The underpants rule
A lot of people have other terms for this like “boundaries” but I love the way Ragen Chastain explains it. I can’t find the specific post where she outlined it, but she often refers back to the idea that “I can be the boss of my underpants and you can be the boss of yours”. This functions in two main ways
Firstly- other people are not my problem. It is not my problem what my ex does or my sibling does or whether they are happier than me or less ethical (in my perception) and even with partners they can choose not to let me into their underwear. So it is letting go of my emotional over-investment in things that are neither in my control nor should they be. This is hard to do of course and I am not trying to minimise that but I do see far too many people bemoaning the shortcomings of a former lover and thus holding themselves back from being open to life in all sorts of ways (and I have done and thought comparable things at unhappy times of my life). I don’t mean that we don’t assert ourselves in relationships, don’t have an ethical framework or can;t be critical when calling out abusive and toxic behaviours.
I do mean we have to let go though and understand that the part I do have control over (mostly) is my level of engagement and that if I am able to walk away then that walk away is best done on an emotional as well as geographical level (be kind to yourself and take your time if you can;t do it instantly- but do acknowledge that the object is to step away).
Conversely- I don’t have to let other people into my underwear. Other people may criticise me, may read me as “lazy”, “fat”, “attention seeking”, “boring” or whatever label they are putting on me. Their labelling of me probably reveals something about themselves (but it is best not to look too closely I suspect) but what it does NOT do is truly define me. They DON’T know about me and they don’t experience the world from my perspective. At times people offer useful criticism, but this is usually when we have asked for it and in a positive and safe context- unsolicited “advice” usually means they are having trouble with the underpants rule and we are within our rights to refuse the advice (actively or passively), resist the overt or implicit labelling AND we should remind ourselves internally that they do not rightfully belong in our underwear and therefore we do not have to take their opinions seriously.
Another aspect of my underwear is the non-need for me to live up to other people’s expectations or view of me. There are times when I enter into some form of commitment (of time, effort or money) to another person or group for a variety of reasons and in these cases their expectation of me is valid. But when they think I “should” do this or that about my career, body, family or in reference to what they want then it is quite likely that I have a right to push them OUT of my underwear and disregard their expectations. I decide how to be me and what to prioritise. As a mentally ill person I am often too full of guilt or self-hate to see clearly whether they are “right” or “wrong” but if I remember to be wary of letting people into my underwear, and to specifically not allow unsolicited advice then I am likely to stay saner.
As I start to feel well there will be some people and relationships I can trust and take advice from, or there will be some situations where I actively seek advice. But noone belongs in my underwear without invitation- not my parent, my lover, my friends. NOONE!
Again this has two halves. Before all the cool hipster people had “gratefulness journals” and “gratefulness rituals”, a wise friend of mine suggested that a good thing to do is find a “daily awesome”. So you can do the gratefulness thing, not a problem if that is for you but I like to keep it even lower key and literally just spot myself once a day enjoying the inherent beauty of something- a almost perfect rose opening, a song I enjoy, a delicious meal, the company of a friend, the purring of a kitten- some tiny thing that would be easy enough to miss. A crap day will still be a crap day and a good day will still be a good day but there is that noticing of something awesome that gives you at least one tiny second of joy in where you are. I think well people do this without knowing they are doing it. I think children do it a lot until we hurry and pressure them out of it 😦
Do it with your child, friend, psych, Facebook group, elderly neighbour or whoever. Note it down in your journal (or in response to this blog). Just hold it secretly in your own heart.
The second part of awesomeness is harder. It is the need to acknowledge (without irony or minimising it) that “I am brilliant and amazing”. I learned that one from a blog post by Thalia Kehoe Rowden, who says a lot of useful and supportive things in her posts. I recommend you check out the post and write your own brilliant and amazing list- it seems embarrassing to post it publicly but it is best to be affirmed in saying positive things about yourself (Thalia will do it if you comment on her blog, or make a “brilliant and amazing list here and we will all like it to show approval).
I will do it too, to show what I mean (and because it is good to do it).
- I am brilliant and amazing because I have worked hard to be more mentally healthy and made much progress.
- I am brilliant and amazing because I am motivated to use my mental health experience to help and support (but not judge) others
- I am brilliant and amazing because I drove my son to school today in time for him to go on camp
- I am brilliant and amazing because I am genuinely good at my job
- I am brilliant and amazing because I am tackling some of the hard stuff today in terms of dealing with a rejection and moving on.
See? That wasn’t so hard was it? But now you try 😛
3.Permission to be half-arsed and contradictory
You’d be surprised how many apparently dysfunctional people are perfectionists inside. Or maybe you wouldn’t be surprised. What often paralyses me from doing any thing is the fear I will fail or fuck it up or not finish it. So I need to give myself permission to fail or fuck up or not finish things as a necessary part of becoming someone who does things. So for example if I don’t feel able to clean the kitchen (or even wash all the dishes) then I tell myself I will just wash 20 dishes (and be kind to myself if I literally stop after 20, because the idea is to make it a little less harder to start next time). Instead of being unhappy that I can no longer do 200 stomach crunches, I will do 10 (yes only 10) today because it is more than 0. Instead of worrying that I can’t write a perfect thesis I do some real work on my proposal today. Instead of beating myself up that I can;t take my kids for a ski-trip or overseas I do a one night get-away in a cheap pub or tent (or couch surfing). Sometimes I will write a draft and it will be complete shit and I will have to do it over. Sometimes I will cook a meal and it won’t work out. Sometimes I will dance badly and some insensitive moron may laugh at me. The aim of life is not to eliminate these experiences, it is to come to terms with them and affirm myself as neither defined by actual failures not help back by potential ones.
Being contradictory can fit this too. I might be “mostly vegetarian” or “neat at work and a mess at home” or believe in reduce, reuse and recycle but sometimes have an off day or be an excellent public speaker but not reach anyone on this occasion, or a kind person but get grumpy. I might both believe and not-believe the same thing, or I might both identify and not identify with a group I am part of or a lifestyle choice I (perhaps partially) embrace. I can disagree with the people I admire. I can be mistaken. Two things that have helped me come to terms with the contradictions I find in myself are exploring the concept of multiplicity, I have linked to a blog by Sarah K Reece that I have found helpful with this. For me here, like elsewhere the point wasn’t whether I wish to “label” myself this way but an entry point into understanding the way my personality and the “real me” is not static and consistent at all. At first, because I have had trauma and stress and resultant mental illness I saw this as symptomatic of my illness, but over time I came to see that contradiction is not only brokenness, it is also insight and ability to have a broader mind in dealing with diverse others.
Then through studying I discovered the post-structuralists, the most famous of whom might be Michel Foucault (but I preferred feminist post-structuralists frankly). Within post-structralism all aspects of our identity are performed and shifting, co-constructed moment to moment rather than stable and set. This explains why I can’t be the same person in every situation and in every group, though perhaps mental illness has something to do with the times when I get my performances mixed up and act “wrong” for my situation, or am unable to fit in. Still, it has helped me hold down work despite still being a complete mess on the inside because I just dress up in work clothes and “perform” the capable professional, safe in the knowledge that other people are doing the same thing whether or not they are aware of doing it.
It does not make things easy, far from it but it removes some barriers to know that it is not “fake” to be different sometimes to other times.
4. Non-judgemental people
Sometimes people give the impression that mental health is an individual thing that you and only you are responsible for. This is in some ways true (you can’t unfortunately find someone to heal and rescue you- or at least in my experience that is so) but it ignores the fact that none of us is an island and that what people around us say and do DOES affect us. This year marks 30 years of my friendship with two “girls” I went to school with. 30 years is a long time and it makes me think of some of my other friends- a woman I studied theology with in the 90s, my sisters who have known me literally forever, my ex. Not all the friendships of my life have lasted so long but some have.
The ones that have lasted, are people who have seen me at my worst. Their ability or desire to engage with me at my worst might have varied but their acceptance that I am more than my episodes has been crucial. I have also had to overlook or forgive things they may have said and done that irritated or really devastatingly upset me at the time- so in that sense non-judgement goes both ways. But at the end of the day when I feel insecure now I can look at those long-term friends that have seen the worst I can be and remained my friends and have some level of trust for the people who appear to “like” me in the here and now. I neither need a particular person to like me unconditionally, nor need to fear that people will stop- there are some people I can very safely interact with and that makes other interactions also a little safer.
I also have experienced times (not often but sometimes) where people I really admire who seem far too excellent to bother with me give me approval, friendship or encouragement. This provides an important counterpoint to all my self-doubt and experience of dysfunction.
I don’t know the secret to how you find non-judgemental friends, but I suspect part of it is not judging the friends you have. If someone is constantly criticising you then you may need to get some space from them (and maybe or maybe not move back toward them when you are stronger to set boundaries). If you have close friendships it might be worth being honest about your vulnerabilities and asking not to be judged (your honesty and genuine care might make it seem easy for them not to judge you in return). It may be worth joining online or real support groups (I started a Facebook group based on an ethic of not judging and just supporting and have drawn a lot of good from that as well as hopefully given some). If you are lucky enough to have anyone in your life who does not judge you then I hope you will see their worth.
5. Respect for my body
This is in some ways an obvious one, but surprisingly counter-cultural.
It can mean different things to different people but for me has meant making sure my eating patterns, sleeping patterns, exercise, indoor and outdoor time and work/life balance are as far as possible designed to honour the needs of my body. Sure yoga and smoothies will not “cure” your depression, you are not sick just because you have too much screen time and playing music will probably not replace the role of medication in keeping you sane and balanced.
But on the other hand if I want to get more depressed then I know a few weeks of surviving on chips and alcohol, staying awake all hours and never even looking out the window is a pretty good way to achieve that. Vitamins, rest and fresh air DO make my body feel stronger and a strong body helps my mind deal with whatever it has to deal with. I don’t beat myself up for being “fat” (correction I constantly DO beat myself up for being fat and flabby, but I aim to change my thinking nor my body shape), nor do I deny myself a block of chocolate or a bottle of wine at times (maybe too often, maybe not often enough). I can have a pyjama day, a TV day a dessert for dinner day or a night out dancing with my belly-dancing girls and I shouldn’t feel guilty about that but I can also take pleasure in a hike, a coffee date, doing my job well, eating a delicious crisp salad or having a dream-date (literally) with my pillow and the lights out. There is a balance in there and while I don’t always get it “right”, it helps to care for myself in all those ways.
You are not me, now would you want to be. Not everything I say will equally apply to all people and in any case some people are already doing all these things “right” and still not magically “cured” (I am in that club). My problem with “5 things you need to do to get better mental health” articles is they make assumptions about the reader and as such often are not as helpful as they think they are.
The assumption I will make if you have read this far is that something I say has struck a chord in some way. The links I have posted may be more helpful to you than my writing and if so then please go and follow them. If you wish to tell me five things that have helped you then I will look forward to reading your comment. If you wish to talk about how one of my five things has looked in your own experience then that is also something to comment.
But I really hope most of all that you will give us five (or more) ways that you are brilliant and amazing. Because you are…and the pain does not define you.