Curating my mental health: what I learned next

At the end of April, after a tricky couple of months, I wrote about some things I was going to do to take better care of myself. While I wasn’t unhappy, I wanted to maintain good mental wellness and make myself more resilient to life’s knocks. And I felt (still feel) two things: that talking about mental health should be normal, and that working on your mental health isn’t just for people who are unhappy or depressed. A few people asked me to write an update on what I learned: here it is.

The things I said I would do were:

  • eat more healthily, slowly and mindfully
  • exercise regularly
  • do things which make me happy and calm
  • reach out to people I love, and tell them why I love them
  • do random acts of kindness as often as possible.

That was six months ago. Looking back at the list, I did some things more consistently than others. Eating well — hmm, patchy but ok. Exercising regularly — yep, but mainly focused on yoga. Happy, calming things — hell yes, and I really must blog about my reading list. Reaching out and being kind — well, more of that below.

But the actual things I did have turned out to be less important than the things I discovered while doing them. Since the spring, life hasn’t got any less complex, though it has been a joyful time in many ways. And I’ve learned so much along the way; here are a few highlights.

Having compassion for yourself is far harder than having it for others

Some of the reactions I’ve had to myself this year — the way I’ve treated myself, the things I’ve said to myself and about myself — are far harsher than I’d ever have about anyone else, enemies included. Why do we find it so hard to be compassionate and understanding with ourselves — to try to understand why we behave the way we do, to accept our own flaws and forgive ourselves for our inevitable mistakes? We afford all those privileges to people we love, but we don’t point the same attitude inward. I’ve been working — am still working — on being as compassionate with myself as I am with others, and it’s slowly starting to make me feel more peaceful and accepting of being a flawed, messy human.

It’s hard, but essential, to tread your own path

It’s all too easy to do things based on others’ expectations of you, and it’s easy to forget that you don’t have to do something because others think it’s right for you. Ultimately, the only judge of what’s right for me is me, and I’ve found that listening to my own narrative and dampening the noise of other’s desires for me (even though they want the best for me), is the only way I can be happy. Teasing out the strands of which bits are you versus which bits are them is so important, but so hard, and ultimately involves sitting inside your head and hearing what comes out of your own silence. I’ve been practising that lots recently, and I’m getting better at it slowly.

Choosing joy

I’ve learned that you can choose to increase the joy in your life, to a certain extent, whether you’re having a great or a hard time. There’s a fine line to be struck here — it’s not good to deny your feelings if you’re really down. But whatever the situation, I’ve learned that there’s always some emotional wriggle room — a little blessing to be counted, someone you can make happy, something you can do to make your day a little brighter. You have to want to see it, but it’s there to be found. And the harder you look, the more you find.

You can choose to emit joy, too. If I had one ambition for myself, it would be that when I go to bed each night at least one person in my life is a tiny bit happier than they were when I woke up, because of something I’ve done or said. It doesn’t have to be anything huge, but I love the idea of giving the people I love as much joy as I possibly can, and I’ve found that when things are very complex or weighing on your mind, one of the quickest ways back to peace is by making someone else happy, even if you can’t do that for yourself right now.

The harder you lean, the stronger the wall

During these months I’ve trained myself to reach out and lean on people who care about me, far more than ever before. It’s been humbling and uplifting in equal measure. I’ve learned that the people who love you show that they care in very different ways — taking you out drinking, mocking you mercilessly (a speciality of my friendship group), hardcore sympathy, just checking in by text when you’ve been quiet for a while. It’s not about how they show it — it’s that they show it at all, and that all those ways help you stay strong and happy. And this year I’ve found some new friendships as well as strengthening some existing ones; this all makes me happier than I can say.

In summary, it’s been an eye opener to look more closely at myself over this period. Whatever else has happened, I have learned. And learned and learned and learned. I’m going to end the year a calmer, more humble, less judgmental and more rounded person than I started it, and that’s something I can’t be anything but grateful for.

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