I’ve found it’s usually much easier to talk about things that happened in the past; especially mental health. As time goes on, the stigma around mental health is reducing — even in the last 5 years alone, it’s been amazing to see the transformation.
But there’s something I’ve never been comfortable with, and that’s talking about it in the present tense.
I’m open about my experience, although, I always seem to asterisk it with “but I’m okay now” — satisfying the need to reassure people that I’m not crazy, that I am both capable and worthy of my job. But the truth is, it’s present tense.
I have depression and borderline personality disorder. I have bad days. I still have days where I wake up, wishing I hadn't. And that’s okay. It doesn’t make me any less worthy or capable of my career.
So in case anyone else is feeling a similar inner conflict, I’d like to open up and share some of the things I do that help me not just survive, but thrive.
1. Check-in With Your Emotions.
Mental illness is tricky — it can totally consume and augment our thought patterns. The biggest step for me was learning to recognise when something I was thinking or feeling was a result of mental illness, or when it was a legitimate response.
Taking BPD (borderline personality disorder); the most troublesome symptom for me is emotional instability. The way I like to describe this is as if my emotional receptors are amplified by 100 — a small thing (positive or negative), can feel monumental. I only really experience this scale with things like joy, or despair, but others may feel it across the entire emotional range.
It took a lot of practice, but I’ve developed enough emotional awareness to check in with myself and at the very least understand whether the emotions I’m feeling are a rational response to the situation. If I realise that they’re not, I won’t try to banish them, but instead do three things;
- Check the Situation —What are the things I can do to help me ride the wave right now? For example, In this scenario I know I’m in an emotionally heightened state, so I’ll try to avoid responding to the stimuli immediately and take some time to process my thoughts.
- Note my feelings — How am I really feeling right now? Why did I have this reaction? Is there something underlying that’s contributed to the exacerbation of this particular situation? Taking some time to work through my emotions helps to settle my thoughts, and find a path forwards.
- Accept it— I try not to beat myself up over feeling this way; instead, I try sit with the feeling and accept it. Journaling, meditation, and exercise are all things I’ve found to really help settle my mind and settle the wave of emotional turbulence.
The steps above are written through the lens of dealing with an aspect of BPD, but I could apply the same criteria to days where I’m feeling very down. The key I’ve found to be most important is noticing when it’s happening and then taking steps to help navigate it.
2. Have Difficult Conversations Ahead of Time.
As I called out, it’s often far easier to talk about these things when they’re not currently happening — so taking advantage of this, and having the “difficult conversations” when feeling okay can be a huge help.
I make a point of setting some time aside with my manager or HR when starting a new job and talking through some of the challenges I know I may face as a result of mental illness. For me, these are things such as not feeling able to come into the office due to anxiety, or having days where I struggle to work at all.
By having these conversations ahead of time, it allows us to work through a plan of action to help mitigate some of the more difficult challenges, and develop a shared understanding of things that may pop up. The most advantageous part though is not having to try and explain it when I’m struggling most.
3. Figure Out What You Need to Thrive
Ultimately, everyone is different; no two people will thrive in the exact same schedule or environment, so taking some time to connect with what you need can make all the difference in the world. For me, some of the top things I need from a job are;
- Remote Flexibility — I don’t mind working in an office, but there are some days that I just won’t be able to face it. Knowing that I have the freedom to work from home when needed is a huge weight off my mind.
- Independence and Autonomy — Figure skating, Yoga, and the gym are three things that have a huge impact on my mental health. Having the freedom to set hours outside of 9–5 so I can continue to invest in my own wellness is vital.
- A Supportive Team — This one almost goes without saying, but now that I’m working in such a supportive team, it’s not something I’ll ever give up. We look to build each other up at every opportunity, and it’s so beneficial.
- A Connection to the Mission — I have to believe in the mission of the team, company, or what we’re building. It’s what keeps me motivated and focused when I’m feeling down — without it, I’d struggle way more.
Working in tech, we’re incredibly fortunate. There’s a huge variety of opportunities with a diverse group of companies — we have the opportunity to find a job and an environment that really works for us.
If you know your current situation isn’t working for you, I’d encourage you to explore other options where possible.
These are the top three things that I do to balance my mental health with my career; and although they help a lot, it’s still not easy. I’m continuously growing and understanding more about myself, and as I do, I’m sure what I need and prioritise will change.
More than anything, I’ve come to accept that mental illness doesn’t need to be past-tense when looking at a successful career. We don’t need to make caveats or asterisk our experiences. In many ways, it can actually make us better and more valuable at our jobs — but I’ll save that for another post.
An Open Invitation
I’m always open to coffee (virtual, or in-person) so if you’d like to chat, drop me a message on Twitter, or email if you prefer — firstname.lastname@example.org.
I’m also a mentor on Designed.org, a non-profit design education platform — if you’re grappling with anything in the product or design world, I’d love to help out.