One of the most frustrating aspects of mental health problems is that they can take over huge swathes of your personality and identity. Even relatively mild, short term issues can colour your whole experience of life. Long term mental illness can impact you to the extent that you feel it has obliterated your self, you. One of the challenges of managing your mental health is finding the boundaries between how your mental health influences and who you are in essence.
Step 1: Don’t let other people tell you about yourself.
Sometimes a second opinion can be valuable and if you have people in your life who are encouraging and supportive, you should listen to them. However, a lot of the time, most people can’t see past the symptoms of your mental health issues. They insist that you are shy and passive, ignorant that it is anxiety and/or low self-esteem which makes you come across this way. If you happen to be an introvert (as I am), the effect is emphasised.
It’s only recently that I have realised I’m not shy. I have listened to people describe me as such many, many times over the years and I accepted it, but I noticed that people started saying I was shy when I started feeling anxious. I also read Quiet by Susan Cain and started questioning my experiences in the context of my introversion, which helped me start picking everything apart. I can now explain my behaviour and emotions in situations where I acted differently to someone who is shy. I then realised that most of what other people say about you is bullshit.
Nobody knows you better than you know yourself. Even when you live with someone, they aren’t spending any time in your head. They base their opinions of you on what you say and do, which doesn’t always tell the whole story. They don’t fully know your potential or your capacity to change – only you can begin to know the range and depth of your capabilities.
Step 2: Experiment to find out more about yourself.
Try a wide variety of activities and observe what gives you pleasure and satisfaction. Also observe what leaves you feeling drained, rather than energised. Do things differently. This can be scary, but you can do it gradually – start with a small change, like reading a book from a genre you usually avoid or learning to cook a new recipe. If you confirm that you don’t like something, that’s great! It still helps you get to know yourself.
Having an open mind is vital. Often, we participate in activities because we think we should enjoy them or because we should do them regardless of whether we enjoy them. Instead of finding more pleasant alternatives to these activities, we blame ourselves for not finding pleasure in them. Stop! There is nothing wrong with you for not liking the same as other people. So what if all your friends like cycling? It doesn’t matter if you prefer playing football or swimming. All that matters is that you find what you want to do – and find a way to do it.
Step 3: Consider what you want.
Not what you think you should want. Not what others want for you. What do you want to do today? What do you want to do with your life? I’m not saying you should drop everything currently in your life; you will have to make compromises, but unless you figure out what you want, you won’t be able to compromise. A helpful question which is used in many self-help books and articles is: what would you do if you knew you couldn’t fail?
These are big questions, so don’t pressure yourself to answer them all at once. Take plenty of time to consider what you would like more of – and less of – in your life. Start with simple adaptions, if you wish, like enrolling in a class doing something you have always wanted to try. Don’t worry about how you are going to achieve these goals – research and working out practicalities can come later. Just consider what you want to prioritise.
Step 4: Repeat
Being you is a process. It needs to be a process because you change over time. Your tastes and priorities will change. You will let go of things which used to be important to you and you will discover new joys. It’s worth reminding yourself regularly how to be you, since we can get caught up in our thoughts and all the crap life throws at us. Explore what makes your heart sing. Find out what inspires you with passion. Keep learning to be the best version of you.