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.

 

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