Making Yourself Happy

My favourite mug (pictured) tells me to “do more of what makes you happy.” I bought it because I thought it would serve as a positive daily reminder, but the more I think about the phrase, the more I believe it’s a good philosophy for life.

Lilac mug

Doing more of what makes me happy fits with a couple of simple concepts I keep coming across:

go to site 1. Self-love and compassion get you further than self-reproach and punishment.

source 2. It’s up to you to make yourself happy — nobody else.

Society tries to tell us otherwise. We are told that the only way to achieve goals is to embark upon a gruelling regime, denying ourselves all pleasure until we attain whatever we want. We are expected to believe that the perfect partner will magically solve all our problems and make us happy. Yet what society tells us doesn’t work very often — and when it does, it involves making things more difficult and less fun than they need to be.

 

Treating yourself with love and respect

Self-punishment is counterproductive. It’s a lesson I have learnt many, many times over the years, but it’s a hard habit to break. Admonishing myself for failing to do something is the best way to ensure I continue to procrastinate.

We tend to assume that when we don’t live up to our own expectations, the answer is to get tougher: demand we work harder, faster and longer. Sometimes it works and we complete tasks we have been putting off, but this progress comes at a cost to our mental (and often physical) health. Worse, we start believing that this type of intense work under the threat of punishment is the only way we can achieve anything.

The true antidote to procrastination, anxiety, depression and most other problems is self-care . All of the bad things in my life are not the result of a lack of self-discipline, although they may appear so, but the consequences of self-punishment.

Even when other people have abused and bullied me, I piled on the punishment by believing it must be my fault. I must somehow deserve to be treated badly. Instead of seeking support, I alternated between harming myself — physically and psychologically — and seeking comfort in unhealthy habits which caused me more harm in the long term, including overeating and getting into debt through impulsive spending.

This kind of behaviour creates a vicious cycle. You berate yourself all the more because you have created new problems, such as debt and obesity. Other people also see these problems as a reason to insult and criticise you, pointing out that you and your life are a mess. You punish yourself more, which makes the problems worse.

http://booth-one.com/?p=680 It’s vital to realise there is another option — one which empowers you to solve your problems. To love, respect and support yourself.

I resisted this for a long time. When we say people “love themselves” it’s usually meant as a criticism — we think they are arrogant, conceited and/or selfish. Yet these traits actually indicate insecurity, not self-love. People either hide behind a mask of arrogance or build their sense of self-esteem upon a shaky foundation, like their looks or career. They don’t love themselves — they love the idea of themselves they want to project.

You can tell when people truly love themselves because they have a quiet confidence. They have no desire to show off or to belittle other people. They know they are not perfect — and that’s okay. While their self-esteem doesn’t depend upon their work or social life, they enjoy success in these areas because loving, respecting and supporting themselves is key to achieving their goals.

I’m learning to treat myself this way; it’s a work in progress and I still get bad days when I succumb to the old self-punishment routine, but I have made small changes. I think I’m more productive and I certainly feel better most days.

 

Stop waiting for a panacea

It’s easy to fall into the trap of believing a single thing can be the solution to all of your problems. Meeting your soulmate, winning the lottery, losing weight, a lucky break… If only you could have this single thing, everything else would fall into place. But life doesn’t work like that. Even if you woke up tomorrow with all of the things I have mentioned, plus a bunch more, you will still have problems.

I’m not saying that those things wouldn’t help to some degree: lacking emotional support and money is tough. Being overweight and unemployed exacerbates problems. Problems also tend to proliferate,  especially if you have mental health issues. But if you focus on your problems, solving the major ones won’t help as much as changing your mindset.

Choosing not to focus on your problems is incredibly hard, but it’s possible.

Again, I’m a novice in changing my attitude, but I have already noticed positive effects. When you focus on your problems, it creates a tunnel vision which blinds you to potential solutions. It also blinds you to the good things in your life, so you believe your life is 100% negative. Because you are focused on your problems, they often get worse as you remain passive instead of taking action towards finding solutions.

Debt is a vivid example of how problems can spiral out of control when you don’t take action. If you continue the behaviour which caused the debt, your debt will get bigger. If you struggle to pay the minimum payments, your debt will get bigger as you aren’t covering the interest. If you do nothing at all, you incur penalties and your debt not only gets bigger, but can lead to legal proceedings.

Many of us have struggled with debt and a common reaction is to ignore it — except you can’t really ignore it, so you worry incessantly as you continue to overspend and struggle to afford minimum payments. You avoid taking the most basic steps towards tackling your debt, such as seeing what help and support is available (I recommend www.moneysavingexpert.com, which has loads of advice and supportive forums you can use anonymously). You are convinced you cannot solve the problem, so you don’t even try to create a plan.

This is a typical reaction to a lot of problems, from relationship issues to changing careers. We hope for a panacea to arrive as we watch our problems get worse. Perhaps you buy a few lottery tickets and then feel dismayed when you don’t win the jackpot, which is a way of fooling yourself that you’re taking action when you’re not doing anything productive. Waiting achieves nothing and makes us feel powerless.

You have to make yourself happy. 

Check your reaction to the above statement. Did you scoff? Did you accept the truth of it, but feel sad because you don’t think you can make yourself happy? Were you angry, because you were hoping for a different solution?

For most of my adult life, I would have reacted to that statement with anger, frustration, sadness and disappointment. I didn’t believe I could make myself happy. If anything could make me happy, I expected it to be money. Or perhaps an intensive therapy programme which would cost a lot of money.

If my beliefs were true, there would be no unhappy people earning more than £20,000 a year. Everyone lucky enough to own their own home would be happy. People with zero debt would be deliriously happy. Yet that’s not true.

You can do the same for all of these so-called solutions, because I’m yet to find one which can’t be disproved. There are plenty of people in relationships who are unhappy, even when they and their partner love each other and want to stay together for life. People with incredible bodies can be unhappy. Ditto those who have their dream jobs, travel regularly and are gorgeous.

First and foremost, you have to change your mindset. The good news is  changing your thought patterns is free and accessible to all. The bad news? It’s bloody hard and easy to give up, returning to your old beliefs that a million pounds and film star partner are the only solutions to your problems.

 

Choose to see the amazing aspects

Yes, changing your mindset is difficult, but it’s also amazingly wonderful. Anyone can learn ro do it, for a start. You don’t need to spend any money (though a few books can keep you motivated) and you can start right now. There are loads of strategies for changing your mindset, including simply listing the things you are grateful to have in your life. Do some googling and see what speaks to you (after you finish reading this, obviously!).

I suspect some people would prefer a different solution. If I had told you that the key to solving your problems, or at least learning to live with them, is a magic gemstone you can only buy in the Himalayas at sunrise on the third full moon of the year and it costs half a million pounds, you would have lots of excuses for not doing anything. “I don’t have the money, I can’t get the time off work, I’m afraid of flying, I don’t know the language…” You could do nothing and feel justified.

The only excuse for not trying to change your mindset is the difficulty factor. But refusing to change your mindset is more difficult in the long term.

All of the improvements I have made in my life have been difficult. The first time I forced myself to go outside alone, after years of anxiety preventing me from doing so, I was extremely uncomfortable. I wanted to turn around and run back inside. So why didn’t I? Because I knew that staying inside for the rest of my life would be more difficult than forcing myself to go outside for the first time.

You face the same decision. Changing your mindset is hard, but not as hard as continuing to struggle.

 

Doing more of what makes you happy will change your mindset

You may resist this concept, too. You may believe it advocates a life of mindless hedonism, indulging in unhealthy habits which harm you and people around you. Except those things don’t make anyone truly happy.

Happiness is not a quick buzz from drugs, alcohol or junk food. It’s a long term effect of living a satisfying, meaningful life. 

The things which make you happy are meaningful experiences: spending time with loved ones, reconnecting with your passions, contributing to your community, working towards personal goals. You can regonise them by the afterglow they produce. For example, playing video games keeps me entertained for a while, but serves mostly as a distraction. In contrast, reading gives me pleasure while I’m doing it and afterwards, when I think about what I have read. A meal with friends makes you happier than scoffing junk food alone, even if you eat the same amount.

You may be surprised by what makes you happy — and what doesn’t. Tackling challenges makes me happy, even if I don’t appreciate it at the time. Exercise makes me happy, because it has strong neurochemical and psychological effects. Baking makes me happier than eating what I bake. Watching my favourite television programmes keeps me happy for an hour or two, but the effect wears off if I watch for longer.

I’m adopting this philosophy in the spirit of experimentation. So far, my mood has improved and I think I’m less anxious. I hope it will help me to be more productive and to find creative solutions to my problems in the long term. If nothing else, it has reminded me that my old regime of self-punishment resulted in mental illness and other problems. Self-care isn’t a luxury: it’s a necessity.

Try doing more of what makes you happy — and let me know what happens!

Sunshine and Optimism

I love summer — and the effect it has on my mood. The sun has a physiological impact, making your brain produce more serotonin and regulating melatonin levels. This means you feel better and your sleep patterns improve. In addition, sunlight boosts vitamin D levels and vitamin D deficiencies  are strongly associated with depression. Try this article if you would like more information on the benefits of sunshine (and enjoying them safely) — it’s long, but fascinating.

Sunset
I love it when 9:30pm looks like this.

Summer also has a psychological effect.

I have a theory that good weather encourages mindfulness; especially in the UK, where we have to make the most of the sunshine while it lasts! Warm weather and long hours of daylight also make it easier to get outside and participate in activities which improve my mood.

Instead of watching TV or aimlessly browsing the internet, I read or scribble in my writing journal. Or just hang out with my dog. I can enjoy walking either early in the day or late in the evening, rather than rushing to get out while it’s still light and not raining too much. I spend more time meditating and practicing mindfulness.

Perhaps it’s better because it’s fleeting.

Would I enjoy summer so much if it lasted longer? I’m not sure. Perhaps I embrace it so wholeheartedly because I know it will pass too quickly. If we had warm, dry weather for most of the year, would I make such an effort to take advantage of it and participate in activities which benefit my mental health?

Maybe it would be easier to keep doing those activities. To keep getting outside and exercising or reading. Or maybe I would stay inside, watching TV because I know the sun will still be shining in a week, a month, a few months.

But why overthink it, when you can enjoy it?

The bottom line is that summer improves my mental health and helps me feel better. I intend to use the benefits to make improvements to my life and mental health while I can.

Decluttering

Every so often, I get the urge to declutter. Not just to get rid of a few things, but to completely reassess and overhaul my possessions. I find it cathartic.

Note: Milo is not being recycled as part of my decluttering drive.

Decluttering is both mental and physical.

As you take stock of what you own, you take stock of your life. As you notice which objects are most important to you right now, you realise what is working well in your life – and what isn’t. You find that things which used to feel vital to you no longer matter and you can discard them without regret. Other stuff is hard to get rid of, although you know it’s for the best, because it means giving up a long-held notion of yourself and your life.

Hoarding has a strong psychological aspect; it stands to reason that the same is true for decluttering. In the western world in particular, we are brought up to measure our self-worth through what we own. More stuff = more value. Even when we think this through logically and realise it’s bullshit, this ideology keeps a stranglehold on us.

We can accept that we have far more stuff than we need, yet we cling to it. Even stuff which we know we will never use. Our stuff is something physical which we can point to and say “look, I must be worth something, because I have all this stuff.”

 

But you are valuable regardless of what you own.

Stuff doesn’t determine your true value. Many very rich people have lots of stuff but act unethically, harming others; many very poor people dedicate their lives to helping others. Who is worth more?

Of course, I’m not saying that all billionaires are bad and all poor people are good: I’m saying that everyone’s value is separate from what they own and how much money they earn. For every Philip Green who avoids paying a fair rate of tax (legally, though immorally) and conducts dodgy business deals (again, legally but immorally) while lavishing money on himself, there is a Bill Gates who donates substantial amounts of money to charity and uses his wealth to help make the world a better place. I don’t care what their bank accounts say – their actions determine their true worth.

The same is true for you and me: our actions are better measures of our value than our money and possessions.

 

Decluttering is a process – and a learning process.

I have read about extreme examples of decluttering and these examples can be intimidating. You find out that some people can fit all they own into a backpack and compare the idea to your mounds of clutter, which makes it seem like you are fighting a losing battle. But decluttering doesn’t have to be about your quest to become a minimalist.

My own decluttering process has been gradual. I started in earnest three years ago and while I continue to make small improvements regularly, I still have too much stuff. It doesn’t matter – it’s all progress.

Decluttering makes you consider your lifestyle and your ideal lifestyle. Sometimes, especially at the beginning, it feels like you will never marry the two, but as you declutter you will get closer. Decluttering also alters your spending habits as you become more considerate of the possessions you want in your life.

These changes may be gradual and you might not notice them for a long time, but they occur as decluttering changes your way of thinking. Your habits are likely to fluctuate, but there will be an overall improvement. For example, I still overspend sometimes (compulsive spending is a common symptom of borderline personality disorder), but less frequently than I used to and on things which I genuinely want. I no longer buy designer shoes just to cheer myself up or order thirty books from Amazon at a time.

 

Decluttering makes you consider your priorities.

Some of the stuff I have found most difficult to let go is stuff which represents a fantasy I had about myself. For instance, I kept my guitar for far too many years despite never learning to play it properly, because I liked the idea of playing guitar. In reality, it was never a priority. Decluttering forces you to look yourself in the eye and admit that many of the ideas you hold about yourself are untrue.

It’s hard, but when I let go of these untrue ideas about myself, I feel relief. I don’t have to learn to play guitar! I don’t have to live with the embarrassment of owning a musical instrument I can’t play! I no longer feel guilty about owning something I’ve barely used!

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I have amped up my decluttering as I emerge from a difficult time in my life. Decluttering can be a way of coping. When I don’t know where to start, I pick a category (often clothes, since they wear out quicker than other possessions and my weight has changed a lot over the years) and get stuck in. Some things obviously need to be discarded, so the decision is easy. Other things I feel more ambivalent about and the decision is difficult, though feeling ambivalent is usually a sign I need to get rid of something, no matter how painful.

In this way, decluttering often mirrors decisions I have to make in life. It teaches me to trust my intuition, even as I cling to things which need to be discarded. It shows me that I can trust myself to make choices without regret.

 

Decluttering makes room for opportunity.

I love reading decluttering books, although I pick and choose what works for me rather than following some guru. I bought Marie Kondo’s second book, Spark Joy, at the weekend and loved reading her anecdotes about how clients’ lives have been changed through decluttering. She says that decluttering makes space for new opportunities, relationships, career changes, lifestyle transformations, etc. I agree – I feel less stressed on average and more focused since I started my decluttering crusade.

I like the analogy of decluttering as weeding your garden, allowing what you want to blossom. If you ignore the weeds, they will choke the flowers and vegetables you want to grow. Likewise, living with possessions which mean little to you and are rarely (or never) used makes it more difficult to enjoy the possessions and activities which mean the most to you.

Decluttering seems like such a small change, yet it can transform your life. I now live in an environment I love, instead of one I hated because it was crammed full of furniture and all kinds of crap – despite it being the exact same room. I can concentrate on achieving my goals and enjoying life when I can, instead of being obsessed with accumulating more stuff and then stressed about how to make a tiny bedroom accommodate that stuff. It costs nothing and is accessible to everyone – give it a try!

Shaking Things Up

I’m back from my summer blogging break and a lot has changed…

I reached the point where I was fed up with my life not improving quickly enough, so I decided to shake things up. A lot. I started going to modern jive classes, which I enjoy despite being terrible at dancing. I go with a friend, but my confidence has increased enough that I went on my own when she flitted off to Barcelona for a week. A few months ago, that would have been unthinkable!

I also joined my local gym and go to 3 classes a week to build a foundation for my fitness. I prefer to do “normal” cardio either outside (walking, mainly) or at home on my exercise bike or treadmill, so the classes incorporate resistance exercises as well as giving me a blast of cardio. Since I reduced my medication a few weeks ago (after checking with my doctor, of course), I intend to use exercise to help me manage my anxiety and depression symptoms. I have been doing that irregularly for a while, but being in a class helps me to stay motivated and has a beneficial social aspect.

I won’t lie — it hasn’t been easy. But it’s worth it.

I still get anxious when I push myself, but the more I push myself the more I am able to do. I have learnt that I can cope, even if I need to duck outside for a few minutes to calm down or stop working out for a few minutes until my breathing is back under control. Side note: it’s really weird how getting out of breath when exercising can trigger my anxiety, though I’m getting better at controlling my physiological response.

The strangest thing is, people tend not to notice my anxiety. I had to explain to the instructor in one of my exercise classes that I was anxious, not having an asthma or heart attack! When people do notice that I’m anxious, they take it in their stride and view it as normal. After all, few people relish walking into a room full of strangers. Often, I will say I’m nervous or anxious straightaway, so that I’m not obsessing about whether other people are misinterpreting my symptoms.

The biggest changes are invisible

It’s still early days — although my lifestyle has changed a lot, there have been no miraculous transformations. I’m a little fitter, but I still feel incredibly out of shape compared to the others in my exercise classes. I’m more sociable, but I’m not out partying every night.The biggest transformation has been in my mindset: I have made a conscious decision to focus on the positive aspects of my life.

Again, this might sound simple but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. I’m working hard to cultivate optimism and gratitude. There are days when it’s harder than usual; but there are also many days when I feel happier than I have for years. I still have problems, but now I’m more interested in finding solutions than stressing out about them.

Onwards and upwards!

The past couple of months are just the beginning. I plan to continue making changes, transforming my mindset and creating the life I want. I know it won’t be easy and that I have to keep managing my mental health problems for the rest of my life, but what I have experienced so far has convinced me that it’s worth the effort.

 

Permission to Be Fabulous

Two weeks ago today, I was panicking. It was the first day of my Arvon short story course at Totleigh Barton and I had no idea what to expect. Meeting new people is nerve wracking for most people, but it’s one of my biggest triggers for anxiety, which has been severe in the past, so I was especially worried.

My fears were somewhat allayed by the Arvon staff and my fellow students, who were all warm and welcoming. As the week went on, I grew increasingly comfortable around everyone. Our tutors, Clare Wigfall and Tod Wodicka, were also friendly and supportive. It was a fantastic week — intense, challenging and inspiring.

As my anxiety shifted its focus from whether everyone would hate me and think I’m stupid (aided by vast quantities of wine…), I became preoccupied with my major concerns relating to my writing. These can be summed up as:

• Who the fuck am I to try to make a living from writing?

• Who the fuck am I to write this particular story?

• Who the fuck am I to have goals and dreams?

I realised that these issues all relate to one concept:

Permission

Permission to write, permission to write what I want, permission to take myself seriously as a writer.

I recalled an interesting blog post by Tania Hershman about permission and was surprised to find, upon rereading it, that she refers to an Arvon short story course she taught at Totleigh Barton. She discusses how permission can be gained from the example set by other people’s writing — how other writers have found ideas, written in certain styles or formats, about specific subjects, etc. All of which I wholeheartedly agree with; I have been inspired by various writers to experiment in my writing.

In fact, during the short story course, I hit upon an idea which made me uncomfortable because I felt I didn’t have permission to write about the topic at its core. Strangely, when I consider other writers, I am adamant that anybody can write about anything — as long as they seek the emotional truth at the heart of their story. Nobody owns a particular story until they write it; you can write about your own experiences, of course, but you can also write about experiences which are vastly different to your own. However, I find it difficult to give myself permission.

External Permission

My course tutors were brilliant at giving me external permission to write about whatever comes up. Their tutoring styles were contrasting but complementary: Clare reassured me to continue exploring my ideas and Tod challenged me to think more deeply about my ideas. I continued to work on my story and will complete it at some point (hopefully) in the near future.

I also received external permission when I won the Devon prize in the Exeter Writers short story competition: somebody thought my story was good! Maybe I’m not completely deluded in trying to write. Ditto whenever I receive any encouragement in my writing — it feels like I’m being given permission to continue writing.

Yet as much as I enjoy receiving external permission, I know that I need to give myself permission.

Internal Permission

The more I think about this, the more parallels I find between writing and recovering from mental illness. I spend so much time seeking permission from others, too scared to push my boundaries without it, that I often play it too safe. I shy away from risks, despite experience having taught me that the biggest risks have the biggest payoffs.

There simply isn’t time to hang around waiting for somebody else to give you permission to pursue your goals. Most people are too busy worrying about whether they have permission to follow their own dreams to stop and give you permission to follow yours. Even if you have close friends or relatives who act as permission givers, encouraging you to take risks and push your boundaries, you ultimately need to give yourself permission.

No matter how we pretend to be mature and sophisticated, I think most of us have internalised aspects of fairy tales which do us no favours. We might not literally believe that Prince Charming will rescue us from a life of drudgery, but we bestow this wish onto other things which we (mistakenly) believe will transform our lives and make everything better — winning the lottery being a prime example. We know we don’t have a fairy godmother, but we still wait for someone else to give us permission to go to the ball.

I need to give myself permission. Both in writing and in life. It also needs to be continuous, rather than letting myself take risks sometimes and letting myself hide behind my anxiety at other times.

Consistent Permission

Consistency is key to any success. As a big tennis fan, I see that what divides players at every level is not innate talent or luck, but consistency in training, mental attitude and skill. Every aspiring writer gets told about the famous examples whose manuscripts were rejected many times before hitting the big time (JK Rowling, anyone?), but that’s merely the most visible kind of consistency.

Success in writing usually depends on consistently practicing and improving your craft, finishing projects and submitting work. I need to keep giving myself permission to write and to be a writer.

The same is true of any goal — giving yourself permission every once in a while is not enough. You need to give yourself permission every day to prioritise what matters to you. Even if you don’t actively work towards your goal every day, the permission needs to be given on a daily basis as a reminder that your goals are important.

All-Encompassing Permission

Over the past week, since finishing my Arvon course, I have been learning about how permission applies to all areas of my life. I have realised that part of managing my mental health is giving myself permission, every day, to monitor how I’m feeling and to work with my symptoms, not against them. Sometimes this can be counterintuitive — it’s hard not to berate myself for being lazy when I know that I’m not well enough to work. Sometimes it involves challenging myself more than I find comfortable, because I know it’s better for my long term mental health.

Giving yourself permission isn’t easy, but it is necessary if you want to lead a fulfilling life.

Think of the people you admire most — your heroes and role models. Whoever they are, I bet they didn’t wait for someone to give them permission most of the time. I bet they gave themselves permission frequently and consistently.

Imagine if people like Helen Keller, Martin Luther King Jr, Gandhi, Marie Curie, Nelson Mandela and Rosa Parks waited for someone to give them permission before they took action. None of them would have achieved as much as they did. In all probability, they would have led unremarkable lives.

So who are you not to give yourself permission?

You could be just as amazing as the people I mentioned above and anyone else you find inspiring. How can you know if you don’t give yourself permission to achieve your goals? The only guarantee is that if you don’t give yourself permission to do what you want to do, you will be lucky to fulfil 1% of your potential.

That’s my single piece of clarity as I struggle towards my goals: my chances of success might be low, but if I don’t try, my chances are zero.

So I will continue making the effort to give myself permission, though it’s never easy, because it’s the only way I will achieve anything.

And that Arvon course I have been talking about? It took me over 3 years to give myself permission to apply. I kept making excuses, thinking I couldn’t cope with completing the course or that I stood no chance of getting a grant which would cover enough of the cost. I was wrong. Giving myself permission to do the course was one of the best decisions of my life.

Go ahead — give yourself permission to be fabulous!

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!

How to Be You

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.

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.

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.

Wednesday Recommendation: Gretchen Rubin

Gretchen Rubin is best known for her book The Happiness Project, which chronicles the year she spent trying to become happier. She followed it with a similar sequel, Happier At Home, which focuses on how changing your home life could make you happier. I love Rubin’s honest, experimental approach: she reads a lot around the subject of happiness and observes what happens when she tries to apply her findings.

Better Than Before is written in a similar vein, but focuses on how we might change our habits. Rubin identifies 4 types of people in regard to how we approach forming habits, although there is overlap between the types: Upholders, Obligers, Questioners and Rebels. She draws on examples from her own life to suggest how different types should adapt their behaviour to make it more conducive to forming habits.

Rubin blogs about these topics — and many more — at gretchenrubin.com.

As someone with mental health problems, I often get too caught up in blaming everything on mental illness. Rubin’s books have been helpful for helping me to improve certain aspects of my life, i.e. what I can control, instead of ignoring the “little” things out of a misguided belief that they won’t make much difference. The little things count: they might not transform your life overnight, but they are an excellent starting point.

Don’t put off tackling your problems until you have solved your biggest problem. In my own case, I don’t know if I will ever be “cured” or even in remission from my mental illnesses; I could waste my whole life waiting for recovery. Working with my mental health issues can be tricky, but it’s better than doing nothing and staying miserable. I want to earn a living from writing and services/areas related to writing, so I’m going for it. My progress is slow and difficult (I need to overcome my anxiety and do more marketing, for a start), but it’s still progress. I’m further ahead than I would be if I waited to be depression-free, anxiety-free and BPD-free.