On the World Mental Health day, I would not really know where to start from. This topic, which we all have come across either through our own personal experience or through our observations and interactions with others, has been discussed thoroughly.
Several ideas and slogans concerning the decrease of stigma for mental health are spread all over the walls of our social media. But is that actually leading to minimizing stigma?
In the end, we might still be in the pursue of so-called "happiness" – like a dog after its own tail- through positive thoughts and mottos such as “if you really want something, you must and can get it” or “everything is up to you, as long as you change the way you are thinking about and dealing with it”.
And no doubt, our own way of thinking is an important tool among others, however does it consist of the driving force we need towards change – personally as well as a society overall – in order to open up new pathways of more essential communication within, but also with the world around?
Throughout the years of my professional and personal experience so far, what I often find missing, it is this sense of acceptance before there is even room for any attempt to change things.
Acceptance means space.
Space to be whoever you are, without packed solutions and decisions to change or cope with anything, without often the mood to move things within or outside of you, such as a messy room where you just need little or more time to observe the chaos before fixing it, so that you can just feel what you want to be different and why.
Acceptance means reconciling with the sense of shame created when an inner voice -developed throughout the years of development and social interactions - tells you “who I am is not good/right/as it should be”. How can you get along with such an emotion which discourages you, pushes you away from the mirror and demands direct shadowing of who you are?
The answer might come through dialogue, internal as much external. To listen very carefully to what your shame has to say, why it is afraid so much of us moving away from what we’ve learned is right, and to embrace the underlying fear. To find people and images and places where there is common ground and the distinctions based on “right and wrong” emotions are not as much important as it is to pay genuine attention to our needs.
Acceptance often means suffering, sadness and pain. All these emotions normally come out when things we once expected end up being different from what we’d thought or wished for, especially when this is experienced internally and shakes the ground of calmness and superficial happiness.
Acceptance means making in-depth peace with opposite drives which – by nature and place – we contain. In a society which is full of contradictions, diverse colours and voices, how would it be possible that we ‘d be – and we’d perceive our own self – as either happy or problematic? Therefore, instead of moving either towards one of those 2 directions – the one of either joy or sadness – maybe acceptance would mean to realize how much interconnected those two are, how many opportunities and little treasures they entail and how they both, together and hand in hand, evolve and develop throughout our life.
“Can I leave everything behind me?”
Often, I see someone coming into the therapeutic process very determined. They know what they want, they have given it much though before even calling you or knocking on your door and they pursuing it from the first moment they meet with you: to leave everything behind, in the past, where it belongs, to manage to turn their back on it, if possible, and focus on the future, on the pleasant surprises waiting to be experienced.
It is part of the normal process of development and evolution to make steps, walking towards creating new conditions within ourselves and around us and to aim at pursuing dreams and values which motivate us to live. And every time I come across a request of someone to cut off anything that might embed this process, it is like I almost hear them say “I want to grow”. And the level of determination and certainty they present this request includes a low whispering voice wondering “how can I make this happen?”
- And how do you imagine leaving everything behind you;
- Just not to think about it.
- And if you do not think about it, where will this go? What will happen to it;
- I don’t know. It will be forgotten. Like a story that has not place to come back anymore.
But any story needs to be remembered and understood in order not to be repeated. And one step further, it needs to be accepted. The moment you ignore it, it finds its way to open up new holes in the present and pop up with strength, in present tense, making circles and touching upon the remains of the past, waking up the same emotions, the same thoughts and reactions.
No matter how painful the story you want to forget is, provoking feelings of anger, sadness, weakness and helplessness for change, when looking it through the spectrum of the person you are today, there are possibilities and options to understand it, to realize what it offered to you and embrace the losses, giving it the reassurance that it has been heard, that it has a place and a reason to stay in the past.
The therapeutic process is a safe place to figure out the past and redefine who you are in the present and what you need, now but also in the future. And this is how you do not need to leave the story behind you but to make a conscious decision instead, regarding your needs and emotions after every battle you’ve been through, every conflict you experienced.
When rubbing two stones with each other, fire is born. And afterwards, the stones get softer, smaller, less sharp, and they find their spot in the landscape of your life, where they do not create any obstacles but work as points of reference, among other, which are helping the new steps to be born in the overall path and journey of life.
Body map showing areas where subjects reported feeling various emotions. (Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences)
“But feelings can't be ignored, no matter how unjust or ungrateful they seem.”
― Anne Frank, The Diary of a Young Girl
“One ought to hold on to one's heart; for if one lets it go, one soon loses control of the head too.”
― Friedrich Nietzsche
“The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched. They must be felt with the heart”
― Helen Keller
The famous quote by Descartes "Cogito ergo sum" (I think, therefore I am) seems nowadays to be giving its place to the importance of emotional awareness and connection with one's inner feelings.
"Don't act like a child, grow up!" seems to be a common phrase we tell ourselves when things get more stressful and we need to act fast and move forward. But the underlying emotions of fear, anger, sadness, shame, guilt and many more, remain unexplored, hidden, waiting to be heard. And they will be, sooner or later.
Either it's a separation, a divorce, a change of countries, a fight, a mistake we made or an unjust situation we feel trapped, all these events create some emotions which are often ignored in favor of our cognitive capacity to deal with a situation and feel "in control". So, we might not mourn for something we lost and try to find the antidote instead, which will bring us pleasure and will help us forget the adverse thing that happened to us. But the feelings for what happened will remain unfed. They are waiting for our attention, they are asking for space and time to be experienced, before we are truly healed.
As soon as we undergo this route of connecting to our emotions and inner experiences, everything starts to fall back into place. After having realized the emotional impact of our experiences, after having attended to the emotional pain we felt during a certain event, then we can make sense of who we are, what we need and who we want to be in the future to come.
It might often seem as a difficult path to take, but it is the one which connects us to our genuine self.
Moving places, changing work environment, being away from family and friends, getting married, breaking up/divorce, giving birth, finishing your studies and looking for what to do next… All these and many more situations are being experienced as life changes, which often bring about unexpected thoughts, emotions and overall challenges.
Every person carries certain personality traits, habits, unique characteristics which altogether formulate what we often refer to as “personality”. How do you adapt to life changes? What are your thoughts about yourself, your expectations and your wishes, your life goals? Even if others deal with some change in a way which makes them feel successful, is that what suits your personality to do?
In our fast-moving world, we do not spend much time in identifying who we are, but more what we want to achieve. Therefore, when change occurs, the planning goes off track easily, leaving us in a state of frustration since our coping mechanisms need to be reformulated in order to be adjusted to the new conditions. We are asked to re-orient ourselves, keeping from the past what we genuinely need and letting go what is not fitting anymore in the new chapter of our life.
Somewhere in between the past and present, the old and the new, the familiar and the unknown, what we often forget is the most important resource we have: ourselves, our values, our inner desires and aspirations, our strengths.
The first step to move along in this process of change is to carefully listen our inner voice. What do I need at this moment? How does my body react to the change? Do I feel more eager to do things? Do I feel less energetic? Where in my body do I feel these sensations? Sleeping, eating, levels of energy, breathing, these are basic cues I can start observing to understand what myself is telling me. At this first step, there is no need to modify anything but more identify my needs and listen to them.
A second step could be to start thinking about my inner resources, my strengths. This might be challenging at times, as we do not spend much training in our lives to do that. Some questions would be: What do I feel I am mostly strong at? What do other people who know me say I am good at? In which activity I am doing do I feel mostly comfortable with my abilities and my performance? How have I managed to cope with challenges in the past? What did I do and where did I find the ways to manage? It does not need to be a great challenge I managed, but almost anything I have been able to cope with, either small or large goal, as long as I feel that I dealt with it. Taking care of another person/pet, figuring out how to organize a trip, preparing a nice meal, these are also life tasks where we use resources we own that we often ignore.
Finally, a third basic step is to set my personal goals. Based on what I observed in myself and on my inner resources, where do I want to start from and what are the steps I want to take in order to achieve my goal? Regardless of whether this goal is to adapt to a new work environment or cope with a break up, before anything we always need to plan and take a small step towards our long-term goal. Plan your small steps, think carefully what you can and want to do and help yourself to feel safe every step of the way.
And in the frequent question people ask “what if I do something wrong?”, remind yourself that you are doing the best you can at any given moment.
Edited by Despoina Kairi, MSc Clinical Psychology