The Wednesday Recommendation: Dream Save Do

Dream Save Do: An Action Plan for Dreamers Like You by Betsy and Warren Talbot is exactly what it says. Whatever you want to achieve, you can use this book as a guide to get you there. It’s full of practical advice and examples, with a particular emphasis on funding your dream. Of course, it’s up to you to use the information in the book to work out the details of your action plan — at the very least, you will need to do some research to find out how much your dream will cost — but the Talbots demonstrate how to tackle every aspect of your plan.

Betsy and Warren Talbot decided to take a year off to travel the world. They were persuaded to do this sooner rather than later when two people close to them experienced serious health problems in their mid 30s. They realised that putting off travel until retirement was not a wise choice when they might never reach retirement. So they saved like mad and decided to travel in the year they hit 40. The Talbots did not achieve their goal — they surpassed it, travelling much longer than they had originally planned.

The relentless practical focus of this book is inspiring. You can’t make excuses for not pursuing your dream when you are provided with a plethora of practical advice which tells you what steps you need to take. Sure, you will need to figure out the details of those steps, but the book gives you a template.

The book is realistic and honest too, telling you that it will be hard to turn down things which stand in the way of your dream. You will have to sacrifice a lot in order to achieve your goals, whether that means studying while your friends are socialising or not being able to afford meals out. There will be difficult times as you prepare to achieve your dream — but it is, ultimately, worth the sacrifice.

I love the proactive approach advocated by Dream Save Do. My own situation is very different to the Talbots (they were yuppie types with a big suburban house and no debt), but their advice is universal. Their dream is different to my own, but the route I need to take to get there runs parallel to theirs. The very title of the book reminds you of what needs to happen if you want to be happy and fulfilled: dreaming is not enough on its own. You need to work out how to fund your dream and then go out and live it.

How Much of Your Identity is Determined by Your Mental Health?

I don’t think mental illness should ever be your whole identity, but I have to acknowledge that it’s part of my identity. My experiences have contributed to who I am — and many of those experiences were affected or created by my mental health problems. But how much of my identity is determined by my mental health?

And, more to the point, how comfortable am I with the extent to which my identity is determined by my mental health?

The weirdest thing about these considerations is that, against common assumptions, my mental health problems have had some extremely positive effects:

• Hitting rock bottom has made me determined to follow my dreams, especially my goal of earning a living through writing.

• I have more empathy — which means I want to help break down the stigma surrounding mental illness to help others.

• Confronting my mental health problems forced me to build my self-esteem, which means I no longer let anyone treat me like shit.

• I value integrity, creativity and emotional honesty over the things a lot of other people seem to value, like money and status.

• The stagnancy of mental illness persuaded me to embrace change, which has led to me getting my degrees and travelling to places I never thought I’d see.

But, like physical illnesses, mental illnesses leave scars.

I think I will always have the insecurites which are enmeshed in my mental health problems. My anxieties resurface when I least expect them. I know how bad things can get: I know the despair of believing life is not worth living. These are aspects of mental illness that I would not wish on anyone.

So how can I accept these negative aspects of mental illness as part of my identity?

The short answer is because I have no choice. In order to embrace what I have learnt from my mental health problems, I must embrace the negative effects as well as the positive. The difference is, I try to give far more attention to the positive effects.

That is true of everything in life. Every relationship in your life has negative and positive aspects. Every experience you have, ditto. You don’t choose to become mentally ill, but you can choose to learn from your experience of mental illness (once you have recovered enough) and to cultivate the silver linings.

Ultimately, it is impossible to say how much of your identity is determined by your mental health.

It cannot be measured. Your mental health — whether you have always been mentally healthy or if you have had mental health problems — colours all of the other aspects of your identity. The idea of that would have terrified me a decade ago, but I have learnt that I can use my experiences to my advantage. I can use my knowledge of The Dark Side to drive myelf towards a better future. I can enjoy the authentic friendships in my life and minimise contact with the people who treated me badly when I was at my most vulnerable.

You don’t relinquish power by accepting how your mental health has impacted your identity: you gain power.

You move past the shame and anguish which other people project onto you and realise that mental illness is not a personality flaw or a punishment you have brought upon yourself. It is just an illness. It is bound to affect all aspects of your life, just as a serious, long-term physical condition is bound to impact your life.

Am I a different person because I have mental health problems? Yes and no. Mental illness has made me learn more about myself. It has brought different aspects of my personality to the fore. It has encouraged me to explore who I am.

I used to be preoccupied with pleasing other people. I hid my imagination and my intelligence because some people had a problem with them. I paid attention to criticism and ignored praise. I lost confidence and didn’t try new things.

I could have soent my whole life like that, working in a job I didn’t like and wasting my time on unimportant things, but experiencing mental illness led to a change of direction. It changed my priorities. It made me discover my own values.

More than anything, my mental health issues have helped me become the person I always was.

Proactive Doesn’t Mean Positive

I use the word “proactive” a lot, but what does it mean? Put simply, it’s about taking control. It means carrying out an action or many actions which will change your situation. Sometimes these actions will be big, like applying for a job or taking a course, but you can be proactive by carrying out small actions too. When I’m having a bad day, for example, my version of proactivity might be having a shower and making a semi-healthy breakfast. Being proactive means accepting that you can change your life in some way.

A lot of people confuse a proactive approach with a relentlessly positive approach, but the two are not the same. I do try to adopt a positive attitude, but I’m also realistic. You can be proactive without being positive — the only positivity required is that you accept there is a small chance of your actions improving your life. You can convince yourself you’re destined to fail, but as long as you are taking action you are being proactive.

The trouble is, it’s difficult to keep taking action if you believe it will have no effect. If your frame of mind is negative, focusing on the actions themselves is the only way you can maintain a proactive approach. You perform each task without getting caught up in the what-ifs. You follow your plans even if you doubt there will be good consequences. However, being proactive always has one good consequence: you have taken action. You have grabbed an iota of control.

You can also be positive without being proactive — it’s called wishful thinking. This can be more harmful than being negative, because you relinquish control of your life and if anything good does happen, it doesn’t have the same effect as it would if you had worked towards the good thing. Your self-esteem and confidence will not be boosted, because you didn’t do anything to bring about the positive consequence. Being proactive, on the other hand, boosts self-esteem and confidence even when the consequences aren’t good, because you are taking  responsibility for your life. You are effecting change, even when it doesn’t always work out as you had hoped.

And let’s face it, nobody is going to wave a magic wand and solve all of your problems. Everyone has strokes of luck in their lives and some people have massive windfalls, but unless you are proactive you will not be able to take full advantage of luck. If you don’t become proactive when you get a lucky break, you will squander the opportunity. Your windfall will not make you happy.

Perhaps you refuse to be proactive because whatever will be, will be? Something is bound to happen sooner or later, right? External events will change your life, regardless of whether you do anything about it. If you think this way, grow up. You have some control over your life, so use it. None of us have 100% control over our lives, but as long as you are capable of consciousness (and if you are reading this, you are) you have some degree of control. Even people in the most desperate situations can use the small amount of control available to them: Victor Frankl, who wrote the amazing book Man’s Search for Meaning, used his time in a concentration camp to learn about humanity and refused to let the Nazis steal his only remaining possession, his mind.

Being proactive takes some effort, but it is not difficult — as long as you tailor your actions to your current situation and frame of mind. Small tasks add up and improve your life, no matter how gradually. Every time you take action, celebrate. You don’t have to break out the champagne; simply acknowledge that you are taking control and your life will improve as a result. You don’t need to convince yourself that the result of your actions will be brilliant — you just have to carry out the action and see what happens.

The Wednesday Recommendation: Getting There

Getting There by Gillian Zoe Segal is a book of mentors. I’m lucky enough to have my own mentor, Emylia Hall, thanks to The WoMentoring Project, but I’m not someone who finds it easy to network or to talk to people I admire. I also have anxiety and live in rural East Devon, so I tend not to meet many people within the writing industry. Getting There provides people like me with 30 mentors from a range of fields. You get great advice without exposing yourself to embarrassment!

It’s an inspiring book and I was surprised by how people successful in fields very different to my own often provided the most pertinent advice for me. It highlighted the fact that mentors don’t have to be on the same career path as you — a lot of skills are transferable, so they can be applied to a variety of jobs. The most common thread of advice is that you have to be proactive: you need to be ready to seize opportunities as they arise.

This usually means doing a lot of work with little or no recognition. I find that reassuring, rather than depressing. It means that you can still become an expert in your chosen field if you have spent years working on it without success. It means that hard work pays off in the long-term.

In a world where the media portrays people as either overnight successes or utter failures, Getting There is refreshing. It shows you how you can take control of your future and bounce back from the inevitable setbacks. It offers reassurance and guidance, just like any good mentor.

Don’t Be Caged by Your Past

Sometimes the past holds you back in obvious ways: you convince yourself there is no point in trying something, whether that’s a dance class or an university course, because you have failed in the past. Or you convince yourself that you can’t achieve a “big” goal because you have never achieved a big goal before — regardless of whether you have attempted to achieve one. However, sometimes you can find yourself held back by tiny instances from your past: comments you have all but forgotten, experiences which you have never questioned because they seem inconsequential, labels given to you by people who didn’t know you well enough to make those judgments.

I have been thinking about this more as I develop my embryonic freelance career. When I was at school, I did 3 days of work experience at a local newspaper’s offices. In the feedback given by the editor, he said “Hayley doesn’t have enough confidence to be a journalist.” I took this to heart and never considered journalism — or any kind of nonfiction writing — as a career for over a decade.

I had very little self-esteem as a teenager, so I readily believed any criticism I received — regardless of its accuracy — but now I value myself more, I can look back and reassess. The first thing that stands out is that the editor’s comment seems to view confidence in black and white terms: it is something you have or you don’t have. There is no suggestion that I could gain more confidence. The implication is that confidence is innate and if you don’t have it, you will never have it. This is obviously bullshit.

Confidence is not discrete. It is fluid and ever-changing. You can have utmost confidence in some areas of your life and none in other areas. You can develop confidence as a skill. You can also learn how to fake confidence, which is just as effective as being confident. Your confidence fluctuates throughout your life and teenagers are notoriously insecure and neurotic. None of us deserves to be judged on our confidence levels during such a turbulent time.

Another thing which stands out is how little attention was paid to my other skills by the newspaper editor. Part of the reason for this is that I didn’t see a lot of the editor; he was absent on the third day of my work experience and I spent most of my time with a reporter. I was also bound to be more nervous on the first couple of days, since I was a 14 year old girl thrust into an unfamiliar environment full of strangers. Neither did I have much opportunity to show off my skills, particularly the ones which were more accomplished, like writing, proofreading and photography.

I am horrified by how much weight I put on a comment made by someone who didn’t know me and only saw a tiny fraction of my skillset. Note that “I” because it’s what I find most painful: I was the one who placed undue importance on a single comment. I was the one who accepted the editor’s opinion as fact. I was the one who decided to quit, instead of proving that I could become more confident.

When you start to reassess your past, you will find many paths that you have cut off for various, unimportant, reasons. It can be painful to face the decisions you have made, but it is vital to accept them. Be kind to yourself — you did the best you could in your situation. Yes, you have made plenty of mistakes, but that doesn’t make you an inferior person. It makes you human.

Reassessing the past allows you to move on. You need to realise that you are not bound by your past decisions. You are influenced by the past, for sure, but you don’t need to be restricted by your past. You are not the same person who made those past decisions. I am no longer a scared 14 year old girl who believes she is inferior to everyone else and incapable of gaining confidence. However, I have learnt from that girl’s experiences and I no longer allow people to label me.

To break free of your past, you need to accept responsibility for it. You also need to accept responsibility for your present and future. This doesn’t mean that all your problems are your fault: it means that you acknowedge the power you have to respond to your problems in any way you choose. After all, every cage has a door.

Wednesday Recommendation: Money Saving Expert

This week’s recommendation is a little different: it’s moneysavingexpert.com. As the name suggests, this is a financial website and it was founded by Martin Lewis. So why am I recommending it on a blog which is predominantly about mental health? Because mental health and money affect each other.

Mental health problems can lead to financial difficulties, most commonly because being mentally ill affects your ability to work. Many people (myself included) have had to give up jobs due to mental illness. Unless you are wealthy, this means you are forced to rely on benefits and/or supportive family members. Some symptoms of mental illness also affect finances — people with bipolar and borderline personality disorder, in particular, are prone to compulsive spending.

Money problems can also have an adverse effect on your mental health: being in debt can promote anxiety and depression, for example. If you are already mentally ill, financial worries can make the situation worse, impeding your recovery. It’s vital to find solutions to your money problems if you want to manage your mental health.

Moneysavingexpert.com is full of advice and information, including guidance tailored for people with mental health issues. As I mentioned in Dealing with Debt and Mental Health, MSE has produced a Mental Health & Debt guide, which can be found here: http://www.moneysavingexpert.com/credit-cards/mental-health-guide. The forums are also an excellent source of help, support and encouragement.

Whatever your financial situation, MSE can provide information and ideas relevant to you.

 

You may also be interested in 7 Ways to Start Dealing with Debt

 

Turning Problems into Challenges

Thinking of your problems as challenges is, apparently, the first step to overcoming them. It fosters a positive attitude, because challenges seem nobler and more surmountable than your garden variety problems. Whereas problems niggle and prevent us from achieving our goals, challenges are goals in themselves and demand to be met.

Problems tend to promote black-and-white thinking: we think of them as either “solved” or “unsolved.” In contrast, we think of challenges as being fought over numerous battles, with each battle won bringing us closer to the ultimate goal of overcoming the challenge. This is particularly helpful when you are facing a complex and/or long-term issue like mental illness.

If you think of your mental illness as a problem, you set yourself up for failure because you cannot cure it in one fell swoop. There is no single action you can take to solve all of your mental health issues, although there are many actions you can take which have significant effects. Considering your mental illness as a challenge, on the other hand, helps you to tackle the issues you face.

Why it’s helpful to view mental illness as a challenge, not a problem:

  1. It reminds you that there will be ups and downs. Progress is rarely linear when tackling a challenge, especially when that challenge is dealing with mental illness. There will be good days and bad. It’s easier to cope when you see these fluctuations as a natural part of overcoming challenges.
  2. It encourages you to break down the challenge into smaller goals. Doing this is essential when you are facing complex issues. Every small goal you achieve is a vital step to overcoming the challenge. When you realise this, you learn to value every stage of progress, no matter how small, and slip-ups are less demoralising.
  3. It promotes a multi-faceted approach. Because challenges are complex, we accept that we will have to tackle different aspects of the challenge. If you planned to climb Everest, you would have to consider a variety of things and develop a number of skills. It’s not enough to buy a plane ticket and show up. You have to plan your ascent, raise money, improve your fitness, buy the appropriate equipment, etc. Addressing the challenge of mental illness likewise demands that you consider every angle.

Pinpointing your challenge/s.

Mental illness is a challenge because it prevents us from living the life we want. The life you want to live is individual to you and you have to decide what you want to achieve, the type of lifestyle you would like to have, the type of relationships you want, etc. It could be argued that many mental health conditions need to be managed rather than cured, so the illness itself is not a challenge — its effects are the real challenge/s you need to face. Whatever you view on whether all mental illnesses can be cured, it is useful to think of managing your mental health rather than curing an illness.

For one thing, everybody has to manage their mental health. Regardless of whether you have experienced mental illness, you have a mental health profile — just as everyone has a physical health profile. You have fears and emotions. Your confidence fluctuates. You have thoughts. These are all aspects of mental health; aspects you need to consider if they are preventing you from living the life you want.

Life doesn’t stop when you have a mental illness, even if it often feels like it has stopped. Viewing your mental health as part of your challenge/s reminds you that mental illness is a part of your life, not its whole. One of my challenges is building a freelance writing career while coping with depression and anxiety. Note that my challenge is not to cope with depression and anxiety and then build a freelance writing career. I can’t put my life on hold — I have tried to put it on hold before and it doesn’t work!

Trying to cure your mental illness before striving towards other goals is a sign that you are thinking of your mental illness as a problem, not a challenge. Start with small goals: one of my past challenges was to shower and eat proper meals despite feeling depressed. A challenge I recently overcame, taking my dog for a walk on my own, seems small to most people but was a big deal for me. Your challenges are unique to you.

It’s all about shifting your perspective.

When you have mental health issues, it’s difficult to see past them. Reframing your problems as challenges helps you to see that moving past them is a possibility. Even if it feels like a very distant possibility, the shift in how you think still makes a difference. Your attitude will gradually change simply because you are aware of this possibility.

After all, hope is intrinsic to challenges.

 

 

 

The Importance of Making Plans

When you are in the midst of depression — or even when you just feel a bit low — making plans seems pointless, at best. The idea of following through with the plans feels impossible, so you decide it’s best to avoid making plans. However, that’s the worst thing you can do: it is vital to make plans, even if you are certain you can’t stick to them. Here’s why:

Plans assume you have a future. If you make plans, you are open to the possibility that you have a future — even if this feels like a narrow possibility. It reminds you that there is hope.

Plans give you something to look forward to. So no matter how awful you feel right now, you know you will be meeting up with friends or buying a bar of chocolate or doing something else pleasurable in the future. It doesn’t matter how “small” your plans are — they still make a difference.

Plans help you escape your current state of mind. When you are planning, you aren’t caught up in negative thoughts and emotions. It really is that simple!

Plans give you goals. To change your life, you need goals. You have something to work towards, which is essential. It doesn’t matter how small the steps you take towards your goals are — or if the goals themselves are small — as long as you have an aim.

Plans are a way of connecting with other people. You can ask friends and family for help or advice. You can read and post in internet forums. Just readi about people with similar plans can help you feel connected to others. Plans remind you that you are part of the world.

So make lots of plans and don’t beat yourself up if you can’t stick to your original plans — they can always be adapted.

 

 

Wednesday Recommendation: Brené Brown

I was a little sceptical when I bought Brené Brown’s book The Gifts of Imperfection. After years of being a perfectionist, having permission to be myself was something I regarded with suspicion. However, I liked the idea of embracing my imperfections — even if I didn’t think it would work.

I’m glad I put my scepticism aside. Brown not only reminded me that I am human and cannot be perfect, but taught me about the advantages of being imperfect. The book is split into “guideposts” which explain how to cultivate qualities like self-compassion, resilience and creativity. There is a lot to inspire even the most trenchant perfectionist!

Brown is my kind of self-help author: she writes with empathy and openness, but doesn’t slip into sentimentality. She is motivating but realistic. She addresses both the meaty issues and aspects of wellbeing that some people tend to dismiss, like paying attention netion to your intuition.

I plan to read more of Brown’s books, but in the meantime I will keep re-reading The Gifts of Imperfection and try to implement her advice. However, simply reading the book has altered my mindset and made me more forgiving of my failings and imperfections.

See Brené Brown’s website brenebrown.com for more information.