Tag Archives: Reframing experiences

Turning Problems into Challenges

Thinking of your problems as challenges is, apparently, the first step to overcoming them. It fosters a positive attitude, because challenges seem nobler and more surmountable than your garden variety problems. Whereas problems niggle and prevent us from achieving our goals, challenges are goals in themselves and demand to be met.

Problems tend to promote black-and-white thinking: we think of them as either “solved” or “unsolved.” In contrast, we think of challenges as being fought over numerous battles, with each battle won bringing us closer to the ultimate goal of overcoming the challenge. This is particularly helpful when you are facing a complex and/or long-term issue like mental illness.

If you think of your mental illness as a problem, you set yourself up for failure because you cannot cure it in one fell swoop. There is no single action you can take to solve all of your mental health issues, although there are many actions you can take which have significant effects. Considering your mental illness as a challenge, on the other hand, helps you to tackle the issues you face.

Why it’s helpful to view mental illness as a challenge, not a problem:

  1. It reminds you that there will be ups and downs. Progress is rarely linear when tackling a challenge, especially when that challenge is dealing with mental illness. There will be good days and bad. It’s easier to cope when you see these fluctuations as a natural part of overcoming challenges.
  2. It encourages you to break down the challenge into smaller goals. Doing this is essential when you are facing complex issues. Every small goal you achieve is a vital step to overcoming the challenge. When you realise this, you learn to value every stage of progress, no matter how small, and slip-ups are less demoralising.
  3. It promotes a multi-faceted approach. Because challenges are complex, we accept that we will have to tackle different aspects of the challenge. If you planned to climb Everest, you would have to consider a variety of things and develop a number of skills. It’s not enough to buy a plane ticket and show up. You have to plan your ascent, raise money, improve your fitness, buy the appropriate equipment, etc. Addressing the challenge of mental illness likewise demands that you consider every angle.

Pinpointing your challenge/s.

Mental illness is a challenge because it prevents us from living the life we want. The life you want to live is individual to you and you have to decide what you want to achieve, the type of lifestyle you would like to have, the type of relationships you want, etc. It could be argued that many mental health conditions need to be managed rather than cured, so the illness itself is not a challenge — its effects are the real challenge/s you need to face. Whatever you view on whether all mental illnesses can be cured, it is useful to think of managing your mental health rather than curing an illness.

For one thing, everybody has to manage their mental health. Regardless of whether you have experienced mental illness, you have a mental health profile — just as everyone has a physical health profile. You have fears and emotions. Your confidence fluctuates. You have thoughts. These are all aspects of mental health; aspects you need to consider if they are preventing you from living the life you want.

Life doesn’t stop when you have a mental illness, even if it often feels like it has stopped. Viewing your mental health as part of your challenge/s reminds you that mental illness is a part of your life, not its whole. One of my challenges is building a freelance writing career while coping with depression and anxiety. Note that my challenge is not to cope with depression and anxiety and then build a freelance writing career. I can’t put my life on hold — I have tried to put it on hold before and it doesn’t work!

Trying to cure your mental illness before striving towards other goals is a sign that you are thinking of your mental illness as a problem, not a challenge. Start with small goals: one of my past challenges was to shower and eat proper meals despite feeling depressed. A challenge I recently overcame, taking my dog for a walk on my own, seems small to most people but was a big deal for me. Your challenges are unique to you.

It’s all about shifting your perspective.

When you have mental health issues, it’s difficult to see past them. Reframing your problems as challenges helps you to see that moving past them is a possibility. Even if it feels like a very distant possibility, the shift in how you think still makes a difference. Your attitude will gradually change simply because you are aware of this possibility.

After all, hope is intrinsic to challenges.

 

 

 

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.

The Myth of Independence

Everyone wants to be independent, right? We want to have the freedom to do what we want without relying on other people. We want to live according to our own goals and values. We tend to think that depending on other people will get in the way of living our lives as we wish. That’s all bullshit: nobody is truly independent.

I struggled with having to rely on my parents. I have had mental health problems throughout my adult life, so I’ve depended on them for practical and financial support for thirteen years. I had to leave three jobs because of mental illness; despite providing doctor’s notes explaining my absences, my employers seemed to regard the absences with suspicion and instead of supporting me, put me under more pressure so I ended up resigning. I have paid my parents “rent” to cover some of the grocery and utilities I use since I left college at eighteen, but my finances have been irregular for long periods so my parents have lent me a lot of money. I would not be able to live alone because the benefits I receive barely cover the living expenses I have now, which are minimal.

I also rely on my parents to pick up my antidepressant prescription. I could probably do this myself nowadays, but in the past I have been too scared to leave the house – let alone go into a pharmacy and talk to strangers. My mum also makes sure I eat a proper dinner most of the time, which sounds trivial but makes a big difference when I’m too depressed to cook for myself. My parents accompany me to appointments when needed and make phone calls on my behalf when I’m too anxious to do it myself.

As you can tell, my life is far from independent. I rely on state benefits and my parents just to survive. I rely on the NHS to provide me with treatment for my mental illness – treatment which has helped me to become a little more independent. I have learnt not to feel guilty about being a burden; at least, most of the time – it’s one of my major insecurities during periods of depression and/or anxiety. I have also observed something interesting: I have never met a wholly independent person.

All UK residents are entitled to NHS treatment which is free at the point of service. We rely on our employers to pay us on time and follow workplace laws which protect us. We depend on the police force to prevent crime and convict criminals. We expect supermarkets to sell us good quality food. Even if we consider ourselves to be someone who will never claim benefits (hey, I used to be one of you!), the welfare state still provides a safety net. Whether you like it or not, you are not self-sufficient.

On a personal level, most of us depend on family and/or friends for many things. Moreover, many of us like helping others and enjoy being asked to help out a friend or relative (within reason, of course!) – yet we balk at the idea of asking for help ourselves. I also find it fascinating how some forms of dependence are accepted, while others are criticised by many people. Apparently, living with my parents at 31 is shameful, but if I had kids and relied on them for free childcare nobody would bat an eyelid. Going to an appointment with your mother is viewed as a bit weird, whereas going with a partner is completely normal.

Being so dependent has opened my eyes to the hypocrisy surrounding the idea of “independence”. The major difference between those who think they are independent and the rest of us, is that we are aware of how we depend on others. A lot of people are simply unaware of their own privilege, like the middle class white male who gets a good job because he was recommended by a friend of a friend but is convinced he was the best candidate. Independence is an illusion. Once we give up this illusion, society will be more empathetic and compassionate towards those who need support – in particular, elderly people, people with disabilities and people with mental health problems. When we accept that nobody is wholly independent, we empower everybody to set and achieve their own goals in life, without worrying about how others may judge them.

After all, nobody is going to tell Stephen Hawking “yeah, you might be one of the most successful physicists of our time, but your achievements don’t count because you depend on other people to fulfil your basic physical needs” – so why do so many people think it’s acceptable to ignore some people’s achievements simply because we can’t be as independent as others?

You Are Not Normal!

This week, I read a charming book called What The **** Is Normal? by Francesca Martinez, who faces multiple challenges because she has a terrifying condition: she is a comedian. Oh, and she happens to have Cerebral Palsy but prefers to refer to herself as “wobbly”. Francesca points out that nobody is normal and having a disability — including mental illness — just means you do things differently. We all have different abilities, strengths and skills — so why do we define some people by what they can’t do and not others?

Francesca’s book is awesome and should be read by everyone (especially politicians, in my opinion), but I found it very interesting from the perspective of someone with mental health problems. Francesca and other people with physical disabilities spend their lives being told what they can’t do, often erroneously; myself and others with mental illness spend our lives being told, erroneously, that we can do things. We can “pull ourselves together” and “snap out of it”. My conclusion is that people should mind their own bloody business!

We should also stop labelling each other. You may have noticed that I don’t use terms like “depressives”, instead refering to “people with depression”. I do this because language is powerful and nobody should be indentified by a medical condition. Of course, medical conditions can be part of your identity — I have talked about the merits of mental illness — but it should never be the whole.

I think Francesca is fucking amazing and her message, delivered with the force of her hilarious humour, is vital: you are not normal. Nobody is. So why waste energy bewailing the fact? Whether you have a physical or mental condition that affects how you live, there are far more important things to worry about thatn how “normal” you are.

Learning to Be Vulnerable

A lot of our fears and anxieties centre on one key fear: that of exposing ourselves. No, I don’t mean literal nakedness – that’s a cinch compared to what I’m talking about, emotional vulnerability. It’s natural to keep our emotions, feelings and thoughts hidden; in many circumstances, revealing them does leave you vulnerable to harm. From an evolutionary viewpoint, revealing fear is dangerous and exposes you to predators. It makes sense for a caveman to pretend he is fearless and act aggressively when faced with a sabre-toothed tiger. It’s a sensible approach in some circumstances nowadays, especially when you can’t trust the people around you. However, in some situations it is better to show your vulnerability.

It’s essential to let your close friends and family see that you can be vulnerable. It’s exhausting to pretend to be confident and self-assured 24/7 and does no favours for the people you care about, who may feel that they can’t show their own vulnerability. It’s natural to feel fear, doubt, shame, sadness, embarrassment, anger, disappointment, etc. By expressing these emotions in an appropriate manner, you teach others that their own feelings are validated and that they can deal with them.

On a wider scale, you are vulnerable whenever you take a risk that exposes you to potential criticism. You aren’t in any physical danger, yet you might get hurt emotionally. However, the alternative is to never take this type of risk; to stagnate. This is particularly pertinent when it comes to your career: success in most fields depends on putting yourself in vulnerable situations, like interviews and submitting work. If you opt out, you don’t progress.

Learning to be vulnerable involves accepting that vulnerability is necessary if you are to grow. It means you start to embrace the benefits of emotionally exposing yourself, such as gaining constructive feedback which you can use to improve. You can start with a few forays into showing your vulnerability and gradually increase the frequency. You will notice a paradox: the more vulnerable you become (or rather, the more you demonstrate your vulnerability), the more your confidence grows.

Vulnerability is linked to confidence because it cultivates self-acceptance. When you come to terms with your vulnerability, you begin to see that your flaws and failings are often mirror images of your strengths. You will also realise that most people accept your vulnerability – and many welcome the opportunity to interact with you on a “real” level, which is only achieved when you show yourself to be vulnerable. You will gain pleasure from situations which depend on exposing yourself to emotional danger, because taking the risk and being human is preferable to the alternative.

Think about dating: if you are to form a real connection, you must open yourself up and be vulnerable. Sure, your date might not like you or they might criticise you, but so what? You aren’t right for each other and need to move on to the next person. The alternatives are to never ask anyone on a date, which might get very lonely, or to put on a false front which will protect your feelings but also prevent you from interacting with others in any way that’s not superficial. The same is true of other situations – if you submit a piece of work which is important to you, for example, it might be rejected but at least there is a chance that it will be accepted. The alternative in this case is to never submit important work, which is pointless.

Being vulnerable can be painful. Criticism hurts more when you care: I can cope with rejections for stories which don’t mean much to me, but every rejection for a story I love cuts me to the core. But the pain is worth it because being vulnerable is the only way you can invite anything meaningful into your life. And it’s less painful than stagnating and never achieving your goals or forming close relationships.

See also: Feel The Fear and Do It Anyway

Reads to Rewrite Your Life 1: Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway – Susan Jeffers

Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway by Susan Jeffers is such a classic that people think they know what it’s all about without reading the book. They assume that its catchy title tells them everything they need to know. That’s a shame, because Feel the Fear is both motivating and practical.

The first time I read Feel the Fear, it was a revelation: it told me that everyone feels fear! At the time, I assumed my anxiety was proof of being a freak. Everyone else seemed to glide effortlessly through life while I got intimidated by the simplest tasks. It was helpful to read that I was not alone; that everyone feels fear when they are outside their comfort zone.

It doesn’t matter how small (or big) your comfort zone is: you can follow the advice in Feel the Fear to expand your life. I have been diagnosed with anxiety, so I’m a relatively extreme case, and found the book indispensable. I first borrowed it from the library and knew straight away that I would buy my own copy. I have also highlighted my copy, for quick reference when I need a boost. When my anxiety was at its worst, I also made flashcards to carry with me.

 

Feel the Fear is centred on 5 truths:

  1. The fear will never go away as long as I continue to grow.
  2. The only way to get rid of the fear of doing something is to go out… and do it.
  3. The only way to feel better about myself is to go out… and do it.
  4. Not only am I going to experience fear whenever I’m on unfamiliar territory, but so is everyone else.
  5. Pushing through fear is less frightening than living with the underlying fear that comes from a feeling of helplessness.

 

These truths are explored in detail and it is vital to understand their importance. Fear is not a weakness and neither is it insurmountable. Jeffers also discusses a lot of related topics, such as how to make a no-lose decision and moving from a position of pain to a position of power. The tone does come across as a bit “new age-y” in places, but not as much as the book’s reputation would suggest. A problem faced by every self-help book is how to use a vocabulary to talk about our innermost feelings without the words having undesirable connotations, which is a difficult task and Jeffers succeeds for the most part.

I recommend Feel the Fear to anyone whose anxieties have ever prevented them from living life the way they want. The advice applies whether you are struggling to leave the house (a frequent issue for me) or if you want to push yourself to deliver a speech to a large audience. Without this book, I would not have gone to university, I would not have learnt to drive and I sure as hell wouldn’t be writing this blog.

 

About the Reads to Rewrite Your Life series

This series discusses books which have helped to change my perspective on life. Many will be self-help guides, some will be classics and others will be a little different… I aim to provide an eclectic mix to inspire everyone, regardless of whether or not you have mental health issues.

  1. Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway – Susan Jeffers
  2. Quiet: the power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking – Susan Cain
  3. The How of Happiness – Sonja Lyubomirsky
  4. The Art of Non Conformity – Chris Guillebeau
  5. Wherever You Go, There You Are – Jon Kabat-Zinn
  6. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience – Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
  7. Undoing Depression – Richard O’Connor

Mental Illness is Not a Weakness

I repeat: mental illness is NOT a weakness. It sounds obvious, right? Yet I believed the opposite for years. I thought having a mental illness meant that I was weak and somehow less of a person than everybody else. I thought I had to work twice as hard as everyone else to counteract this weakness. Of course, putting such pressure on myself made the mental illness worse. It took me a decade to realise that coping with mental health problems has made me stronger.

Mental illness itself isn’t a strength any more than it is a weakness: it is a condition, a disease, not a character trait. However, dealing with the effects of mental illness has forced me to develop a number of desirable skills and character traits. For example, I had to learn to speak up for myself because the alternative was to be abused or neglected. I have become more compassionate because I have been in desperate situations and know how painful it is to be ignored, belittled, insulted, derided or criticised when you are in such a wretched state. I have also learnt to laugh at many aspects of mental illness, because the only other option would give it too much control over my current and future life.

Although it is illegal to discriminate, many employers view people with experience of mental illness as weak. When considering potential employees, they consider mental illness a drawback. In fact, I would argue that the opposite is true. When you have battled mental illness – and often continue to battle the symptoms on a daily basis – other challenges pale in comparison. You are persistent and resilient. You have had to become an expert at problem solving. I’d say those are some bloody good traits to have in an employee.

But how can we expect employers’ attitudes to change unless we lead the way? We must stop thinking of mental illness as a weakness. To do so gives it too much power and detracts from our own power and strengths. What has your experience of mental illness taught you? What skills have you been forced to develop as a result of mental illness? Which parts of your personality have been strengthened? How has mental illness affected your values? How has it changed how you treat others? Has it affected the decisions you have made in your life?

See also: The Merits of Mental Illness

Choose a Fresh Page – Instead of Wishing for a Fresh Start

Everyone sometimes wishes they could start again. I don’t know if it happens more frequently for those of us with mental health problems; I just know it’s easy to blame mental illness for all of the problems in our lives. I have this fantasy where I pack a rucksack, go somewhere far away and start my life over. I will never act on it, because I can’t abandon my dog or desert my parents and friends, but it has a strong appeal.

Yet I know it’s bullshit. I can’t escape myself or my past actions. Any new life I create has to be built on the foundation of what has gone before – and that’s a good thing. Regardless of our experiences (and I refuse to use this blog as an excuse to throw myself pity parties), we have all gained something from our past. Often it’s the knowledge gained as a result of making mistakes. It could be resilience from overcoming obstacles time after time. Or skills we have learnt, whether it’s knowing how to read or being able to play the piano. You might have gained a really good friend or a partner. Or just a kickass pair of shoes. We have all gained something, even if what we have gained seems small and insignificant.

Which is why we should stop wishing we could abandon our past and make a fresh start. Instead, let’s choose a fresh page, a new chapter. Decide what changes you would like to make and create a plan. Standard advice is to start small, but who says you have to? In my experience, bigger changes can be easier because the reward is more of an incentive and helps you face your fears. However you decide to transform your life, take action as soon as you can.

Take action and keep taking action. Fears and anxieties may never go away, but turning your attention elsewhere forces them into the background and when you take actions related to your fears and anxieties, they are reduced. Again, I’m not claiming that it’s easy to face your fears and take action, but remember: Fear and anxiety can only be overcome with action.

Any action counts. One of my successes in overcoming my anxiety this year was taking my dog for a walk on my own. Not only does this action seem tiny to other people, especially as I live in a rural area so going for a walk doesn’t involve negotiating crowds of people, but it’s something I used to do all the time. However, I hadn’t gone for a walk on my own for years. I don’t care what anyone else thinks – the first time I did it, I was elated and for good reason. Your actions may be ‘bigger’ or ‘smaller’ in the eyes of other people, but none of that matters. The only thing that matters is that you take action, any action.

So start a fresh page and do something a little different. Big or small, let me know about it – email hayley@hayleynjones.com or leave a comment below.

Edit Your Life

It is a truth universally acknowledged that most writing is rewriting. At least, most good writing is rewriting. Even if all of the ingredients are present in the first draft, it is the rewriting and editing that ensures the writing flows and the sentences sing. You may think that the best writers don’t need to rewrite, that it comes naturally to them, but the opposite tends to be true. If you don’t believe me, google ‘first drafts by famous writers.’ You will find hundreds of examples of first drafts by people like George Orwell and Charles Dickens, scrawled with copious notes and corrections. The best writers are rewriters, taking time to craft their work to perfection.

Perhaps it’s an occupational hazard, but I see a lot of parallels between writing and life. You can’t – and shouldn’t – expect to get everything right first time. Implementing changes is not a sign of failure or weakness, but an integral part of the process. We have to keep learning and developing if we are to reach anywhere near our full potential. We have to be aware of what can be improved and improve it through trial and error.

 

Wrangling the Characters

The most important editing we can do is deciding who we want to be the most influential characters in our lives. We can do this by paying more attention to the people who treat us with love and respect, who build us up instead of knocking us down. We can choose not to dwell on the bullies and critics, but on friends and mentors. I don’t mean to sound flippant – it takes a lot of work to come to terms with the pain we have suffered and to stop letting the people who inflicted that pain have such an impact on our lives. But you can do it; even if nobody in your life has ever shown you kindness, you can pay attention to role models you have never met and take inspiration from their actions.

 

Twisting the Plot

You can transform the plot of your life by setting and achieving goals. Again, I don’t mean to imply that this is easy and it’s likely that you will make mistakes along the way, but that’s all part of the process. By learning what doesn’t work, you get closer to discovering what does work. Okay, so you can’t change what has already happened, but you can reframe the past and learn from your experiences. In order to have a happy ending, you need to overcome obstacles.

 

Picking a Setting

You can move away, of course, but you can also change the setting of your life without changing your home. You just need to reinterpret the world around you. Cities like Paris, New York and London have been the settings for numerous stories – romances, comedies, thrillers and tragedies. The main difference between the cities’ portrayals in different genres is down to how the author interprets and fictionalises the city. If you look for crime and suffering, you can find it anywhere. If you look for love and kindness, you can find it anywhere. You cultivate what you choose.

 

The Ending

You won’t have complete control over your ending, but when you live a life full of love, generosity, integrity, creativity and/or whatever else you value, every possible ending will contain those values and be bittersweet. On the other hand, if you refuse to search for the beauty and goodness in life, your ending will just be bitter. It’s your choice: accept a crappy first draft or edit your life.