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.

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.