A client of mine faced a very difficult situation this week. As they talked me through what had happened, how they felt, and what they did during and after the difficult situation, I was able to clearly discern something: they had actually faced the situation with tremendous courage, strength and self-care. Their actions had come from a place of self-care, and not from a place of fear, as before. The pain was still very much present and real, and at the same time, they were able to care for themselves. It represented a huge moment of healing and growth.
However, too often, we are not able to discern these key changes in our lives. We face situations that trigger our traumas or negative past experiences, and we take it as a sign that we haven’t progressed at all. But this is the thing: those situations will ALWAYS occur! The progress is not in the fact that they happen, but in the way we deal with them. During the session with my client, I made sure to point out every single action and thought that represented progress and growth in a very difficult situation. My client had said no to a painful and harmful situation, and then proceeded to implement some focused self-care. But initially, my client was only focusing on the situation, rather than the actions that followed. We can’t control what happens, we can only control how we engage with what happens.
And this is often one of the main benefits of therapy: having someone to point out how well you’re doing when you can’t see that for yourself. Sometimes we get so caught up with life, that we fail to see how well we’re actually doing in certain situations. My therapist often points this out to me too! This week, I have actually been reflecting on all the things that I have been doing over the years, which have contributed to a stabilisation of my psychological wellbeing – my mental and emotional health, to make it clearer.
I often say to my clients, and have written about this many times, that we can’t make real positive change in our lives, if we keep things that hinder our growth. And as I mentioned last week, this becomes easier once you get to know yourself better. If you don’t know your triggers well, you won’t really know what might be triggering them in the first place, so it becomes difficult to discern what needs to stay and what needs to go.
This is something I know very well about myself: I am much more inclined towards melancholy and pain than I am to joy and happiness. For years, I used this as evidence of how “damaged” I was, but as I grew and worked on myself, I began to remove this “damaged” narrative, and simply acknowledge my propensity to darker moods. Knowing this about myself, made it easier to then see what would feed into that, and ultimately remove it. What you remove and say no to, is obviously very personal and subjective, but here are some personal examples.
Years ago, on my way to work and then on the way back home, I would grab the free morning and evening newspapers as a way to catch up on what was going on. As weeks went by, I slowly began to feel more and more negative each day, by noticing a rise in anxiety, fear, and judgment. I made the connection that reading or accessing news from certain sources was ultimately detrimental to my emotional and mental health, and so I stopped that.
I have subscribed to special interest pages on Facebook, which let me know what’s going on in the areas that I care about, such as human rights and therapy, as well as to news sources which focus on positive news. I have a much more balanced relationship with the news and with what’s going on in the world. Awareness has helped me to become very strict about what I consume in the media – if it’s sensationalised, I won’t even touch it. If it promotes fear, anxiety, judgement – which, let’s be honest about this, is what most media is these days! – I won’t let it in my space or world. No, no, and no! After making these changes, there was so much more space for other, more positive, things in my life!
The most common feedback I receive about my social media presence, is that it’s very inspiring. Why? I consciously made it that way. I actively curate my online presence and, once again, apply very strict rules to my own posting of stuff: literally, is it fear based, or love based? Anything that is fear based, is not included. That goes for people as well. And when I say love and fear, what I mean is, all the feelings that derive from both of those sources. I consider love and fear as the simplest expressions of human emotions. They are the blueprints for everything else.
So, for example, if I follow someone on social media and all it does to me is trigger feelings of insecurity and doubt, guess what, I will definitely unfollow them. If I read an article and it triggers a fear-based response in me, I won’t share it. We can talk about serious things, from loving and considerate places. We can be aware of and follow updates of serious situations around the world, by following inspiring leaders, rather than hateful ones. A useful question to ask: is this contributing to my wellbeing, or not? Listen to your instinctual response, and then act on it. Don’t think too much about it! Yes, or No? Boom! The mind will always find an excuse for everything, so don’t give it much time to consider your response. Being cutthroat like this becomes easier the more you do it. It’s like a muscle that just needs some exercise.
As above, the same question can apply to anything in your life: is this contributing to my wellbeing, or not? Granted, it’s much harder to do this with people, but it’s not impossible. But, as above, the same principle applies. A more extreme, but very clear, example: back in 2011, I decided to quit drinking in order to evaluate my then tumultuous relationship with alcohol – well documented in this blog post on a previous platform. Many things can be said about that time, but in the context of this blog post, what stood out was some people’s inability to accept this very personal decision of mine. There were the people who completely dismissed my reasons to do it, and tried to pressure me into drinking. There were the people who tried to give me alcohol on purpose. There were the people who would say the odd belittling comment about my decision. Guess what? None of those people are in my life right now. If someone can’t support my decisions, particularly the ones that are deeply personal and difficult, then “I’m sorry my dear, but you are up for elimination”. If someone’s contribution to my life is based on negativity, they are simply out.
Dr Maya Angelou used to say: “When people show you who they are, believe them! The first time!” It has taken me years to really understand what that means! Another clear example: last year, as I retreated to Lisbon after a breakdown, I found out that a member of my own family seemed to rejoice at the news that I had apparently (and finally!) failed at something. Do you think I speak to that person now? Nope! Don’t claim to love and support me, and then rejoice at my pain!
I also apply this principle to places – environments that encourage or trigger judgment, anxiety, insecurity, and doubt. Workplaces, housing situations, social situations and environments. I am known to have left all of the above, for the sake of my own wellbeing. Even my own country!
One of the most difficult lessons I’ve been learning since becoming a therapist, which was really a reflection of the way I lived my life, has been self-care. What does it mean? What does it mean to take care of myself? What does it look like, practically, and on a daily basis? One of the things I’ve discovered has been saying no and removing things, people, and environments which do not contribute positively to my wellbeing. By removing all the things I’ve been removing, I’ve found space for many other things that contribute to more joy, contentment, and general fun in my life.
Sometimes, it’s really difficult to say no. Often, you will disappoint others, and sometimes yourself. But just like on an airplane, if you don’t put the oxygen mask on you first, you won’t be able to help anyone else. This applies to every aspect of our lives. This is what it means to love yourself, and then love somebody else. Having chosen a profession where I have to be there for others, I have had to learn – the hard way – how to be there for myself first and foremost. No compromises, excuses, or apologies!