Taking a Leap

I achieved one of the major goals I set for this year: as of yesterday, I am no longer on benefits. I stopped claiming ESA.

People keep telling me how awesome this is — even when I mentioned my intentions, people responded with enormous enthusiasm — but my overarching emotion at the moment is not joy or relief or excitement. It’s fear.

All leaps are a leap of faith

Why am I scared? Because I have lost my safety net. Living on benefits is no fun, for sure, and I didn’t receive a lot (just over £5200 a year, which would be impossible to live on if it weren’t for the support of my parents), but it was a regular income. Now, as a self-employed writer, I am responsible for providing myself with as regular an income as I can. Part of me wants to run away and hide.

Yet I know that this is an essential step towards achieving my long-term goals. I also know that there is a good chance I will be able to make it work, aided by my new job writing CVs for an international company. In some ways, that makes me more anxious: when there is a good chance of success, failure seems less excusable. It puts more pressure on me because there are more expectations.

So why am I putting myself through this additional stress? Because the alternative is less palatable. I don’t want to spend the rest of my life on benefits, never able to buy my own home or even move out of my parents’ house. I want more than a miserable existence punctuated by the odd fun night out. I want to earn a living from the work I enjoy and I want my life to be meaningful.

I believe this is possible. I don’t have a great deal of faith right now, but I found enough faith (and hope) to make the leap.

Rewriting the Rules

We all absorb our life experiences both consciously and unconsciously, identifying patterns and formulating rules. For example, I love animals and have noticed that I’m happier when I have a pet, so one of my rules — which, surprisingly, I don’t think I have articulated before today — is that living with pets is worth a lot of sacrifice because they improve my happiness and wellbeing. A lot of the rules we follow are useful, but some are harmful and the two are not mutually exclusive. Avoiding risks, for instance, is a useful strategy for avoiding unnecessary stress and anxiety. However, it also limits your potential for success and happiness. In the long term, following this rule can have many negative impacts on your life and actually increase anxiety. It took me a long time to realise this in relation to my own anxiety, but the rule I had been blindly following in order to feel better left me feeling worse.

Identifying rules is the first step

It is obvious now that my rule to reduce anxiety was a fallacy, but I lived within its constraints for a long time because I never identified the rule. I never examined its accuracy or effects. Of course, rules can be complex and some might work some of the time, rather than being consistently beneficial or detrimental. Rather than worrying about how they work (or don’t) focus on simply pinpointing them.

• What patterns do you tend to fall into — are you prone to specific types of behaviour or relationships?

• Do you avoid doing certain activities, taking on certain responsibilities or entering into certain kinds of relationship?

• What do you tell yourself you could never be?

Compile the evidence

Once you know your rules (or rather, some of them), start gathering evidence of their effects. Don’t put yourself under pressure to find every effect straightaway — just start developing an awareness of the effects. Often, it is useful to notice the effects of your rules over a period of time, as you are living them, because it gives you a bigger, clearer picture. Take as much time as you need and concentrate on one or two rules at a time to avoid overwhelming yourself.

Keep, modify or discard

Not all rules are unnecessarily restrictive, so instead of abandoning every single rule you identify, think about whether they could serve you better — or if they already serve you well. For example, one of my rules is that I always research things I want to do, sometimes to a much greater degree than the average person. While I sometimes wish I could be more spontaneous, this rule serves me well in the whole. It encourages me to develop my knowledge and skills, which helps me achieve more than I would probably otherwise achieve. I follow this rule most of the time because, despite some disadvantages, it improves my life.

Rules which can be modified are tricky: you need to be honest with yourself and decide whether you are adapting the rule because you are too scared to discard it, or because it will have positive effects once modified. Modifying rules is a process, so approach it as an experiment. Try out one modification and observe the effects, then try another and compare. If the effects are, on balance, still negative after several modifications, you need to discard the rule.

An example of a rule I have modified is my previous rule that I would never submit writing because I was afraid of rejection. It protected me from rejection for sure, but it also meant I would never achieve my goal of being published. I didn’t want to replace it with an opposite rule (i.e. to submit everything I write) because I don’t want to submit writing  which doesn’t reflect my best work; that would just waste my time and annoy the people to whom I submit work. So I modified the rule to this: if I have improved a piece of writing as much as I can at this point in my life and career, I should submit it. The modification means I risk rejection by submitting work, but I give myself a good chance of success by submitting only my best writing.

Discarding rules isn’t easy, but by deciding to discard a particular rule you have begun the process which will help you stop living life by the rule. Whenever you find yourself following the rule, remind yourself to re-examine the evidence.

• What are the alternatives?

• What could be the effects of each alternative?

• What do you lose by trying an alternative — and what could you gain?

Writing new rules

Changing the rules you follow means changing your life, which isn’t easy. Neither is it linear — adopting new rules relies on trial and error. Some changes will seem quick and easy, whereas others are more challenging. There is no magic formula: persistence is the key. As Einstein said, insanity is doing the same thing and expecting different results. As long as you keep trying something different, you have a good chance of success.

Deciding on new rules can be challenging in itself. You have to think about some big questions and consider possibilities you might have been ignoring for your whole life:

• What type of life do you want? What do you want to achieve? How would you like to spend your time?

• Which aspects of your life do you want to change? What are your top priorities?

• What rules would it be most fun to change?

You might find that last question odd or unexpected, but viewing the process of changing your rules as a game and a way to have fun can be very effective. You will be learning the principles while minimising stress. For this reason, it might be a good idea to start writing new rules for areas of your life which are less important to you right now. Instead of tackling the big parts of your life, which are typically career, money and relationships, start with something small — trying out a new hobby or going somewhere different.

If you find a change too challenging, choose the smallest change you can perceive. Read a book you have never considered reading before or cook using a new ingredient. Even small changes reinforce new rules by demonstrating how trying  something different can have positive effects. Each change, no matter how tiny, challenges a rule many of us follow by default: that we should stick to what we know because it’s better or less scary.

Creating a new future involves following a different script

When you live by the rules you have always followed, your life follows the same course. If you want a different future, you need to write a new script and rip up the old one. You don’t need to do it all in one go — just work on it scene by scene. Rewrite your life one rule change at a time.

Your life will require many rewrites. Think of it as a film which is constantly in production — as long as you are alive, you will be adding new scenes, developing characters and changing the plot. One lesson I have learnt is that these rewrites are required more often than you may have anticipated; as you implement changes, you think of new changes to adopt. Don’t stick to a script which isn’t serving you as well as it could be, no matter how recently you rewrote it. Keep rewriting!

Pushing Forward

One of the trickiest aspects of emerging from a period of mental illness, even if it’s emerging from an episode of intense symptoms into a less severe manifestation of mental illness, is finding a balance between pushing yourself forward and not pushing too hard. Placing a lot of pressure on yourself is counterproductive, since it increases the chance that you will fail to live up to your (unrealistic) expectations. Facing failure after mustering the courage to push yourself can be devastating — it can feel like the entire world is conspiring to push you back down.

Yet the alternative is worse: to never push forward, to stagnate.

Stagnation is destructive because even if you stay still, the world around you keeps changing. Time marches forward. If you do nothing for long periods of time, the prospect of being proactive becomes scarier because it is so long ago that you last tried. You cling to the relative comfort of stagnation just because it is familiar. You adopt an attitude of “better the devil you know” and convince yourself that setting goals is, at best, pointless.

The danger of becoming enmeshed in this mindset is that if you do find the courage to take a risk and it fails, you consider it proof that you were right all along and having goals is simply setting yourself up for failure. You lose perspective and begin to view failure as inevitable and unique to you. Everyone else succeeds; you fail.

But the truth is that everybody fails.

Life is a succession of failures and triumphs, big and small. Unfortunately, mental health problems tend to magnify the failures and dismiss the successes. Your sense of perspective becomes so warped that you think the supermarket selling out of your favourite snack is a sign that the world is against you, though you would never consider the other items on your shopping list being in stock as proof that the world is supporting your goals. The effect is emphasised when you considered that achieving many goals necessitates numerous failures: if your goal is to bench press 50kg and you currently struggle to lift 10kg, you are going to fail to lift 50kg multiple times until you finally achieve your goal.

I am trying to learn to embrace failure. If you fail a lot, it means you are doing a lot.

I have come across the “fail more” philosophy in several self-help/lifestyle advice books and while I wholeheartedly agree, it is bloody difficult to put into practice. For a start, the failures which form the foundations of people’s success are often hidden — we are told about the achievements, but not the years of hard work and thwarted goals which preceded someone’s success. Even when failures are mentioned, it is usually as a throwaway comment such as “X author had their book rejected by X number of publishers before it sold millions”. Unless you seek out the information because you have a specific interest, you rarely hear about the writers who complete several novels before getting sn agent or the writers whose books are dropped by their publishers because their popularity pales in comparison to the big hitters who top the bestsellers lists. Details of the struggles are disregarded whilst the “cinderella moment” is highlighted.

There are magical moments in life, but they are usually the result of hard work and a relentless willingness to seize opportunities.

There are also struggles after the magical moments. These can make us doubt ourselves just as much as initial failures; we wonder whether we are worthy of the success, whether we can live up to expectations. Again, few people openly discuss the struggles and failures which come after success. Those of us who are doubting ourselves after an achievement are left to assume that everyone else finds it easy.

As I mentioned in my last post, I have recently gotten a new job. It’s ideal in many ways, but I still lack confidence in my abilities. Some of its advantages have been revealed to be a double-edged sword: I can determine my own hours, as long as I meet the monthly minimum in my contract, but how much should I push myself? Not pushing myself enough would mean missing out on money, experience and perhaps opportunities. Pushing myself too far could be detrimental to my mental health, which is improving after a horrible and unanticipated nadir at the end of last year.

Finding balance is a learning curve. Just as I had to push myself forwards to avoid stagnation before I got the job, I need to continue to push myself forward without placing myself under too much pressure. Instead of obsessing over how much to push myself, I need to experiment and discover the balance which is best for me right now. I might feel like running away a lot of the time, but I would rathef face uncertainty than stagnation.