In all honesty, 2017 tested my courage, perseverance, and hope. After cutting the (false) safety net of my eating disorder in the summer of 2016, “finishing” therapy shortly after, travelling through Southeast Asia half a year, and returning to Western world in spring 2017, I found myself having to face my personal challenges and fears head on without the distractions of foreign cultures and exciting adventures, or self-destructive coping mechanisms. How did that go? Disastrously. I was not prepared to fully experience my insecurities, inner conflicts, and downward spiralling thought loops.
I don’t see any shame in openly admitting that I failed in many ways and gave in to the dark, because it helped me see how to take better care of myself and work towards being myself again. But now it’s on me to turn those lessons into actions, and I believe that they can be helpful for anybody struggling with mental health. 2018 will be about bringing back the light, and I will:
1. Learn to forgive and accept myself
When asked if I love myself, I usually stare at the other person in disbelief as if it was some magical skill. Feelings of shame and unworthiness are no strangers to many of us and they cause great pain to ourselves and to those around us. However, appreciating and being kind to ourselves seems bizarre and unfamiliar.
I’ve read Radical Self-Acceptance by Tara Brach and When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chodron, which I found useful to explore the root cause of my inner battle and understand why I am feeling like “I am never enough”. Full disclosure, I am having troubles fully incorporating my newly gained knowledge. Maybe it’s my German stubbornness.
How do you learn to love, or simply accept and forgive yourself? This will be the most difficult answer for me to find, but also the most valuable.
2. Meditate everyday
Anybody who has tried meditation (and stuck with it for a certain amount of time) will tell you that it does wonders. It did the same for me when I was committed to daily practice. It helped me dig deep into whatever I was feeling and discover what was really going on inside – what is triggering these emotions, what exactly are these emotions, is this reality or anxiety speaking, and where do I go next?! I also learned how to better identify what I was feeling emotionally through bodily sensations, for example a stone in my stomach would signal (perceived) emotional insecurity and pain and if my chest was getting tight it would mean I was resisting something. For some people, these might be obvious signs and they know how to respond to them, but for people discovering what it is like to really feel and not suppress, this is more difficult and they are often overwhelmed and don’t know what to do.
During my meditations, I became more self-aware, but I also saw changes in my daily life. It helped me to become less emotionally reactive, and instead of running around like a reflexive timebomb, I was able to pause for a moment and observe what was really going on. Instead of ending in conflict, I could then talk about what I was thinking and feeling and resolve the situation peacefully.
But as life got busier and I lost my daily routine, it became all too easy for me to make excuses for not taking those ten to thirty minutes each day. The most common one: “Oh I don’t have time for that right now”. So it’s about time I pick that up again!
How to start meditating? The great thing is, you don’t actually need anything to meditate, you could just sit in silence for ten minutes. But what I found more helpful in the beginning, were guided meditations. There are tons to choose from on Youtube, or if you want a more structured program, try Headspace. One of my favorite guided meditations, however, is Tara Brach’s RAIN meditation (Recognize, Allow, Investigate, Nourish). This one focuses on de-conditioning unconscious patterns of resisting moment-to-moment experiences.
If you are anything like me, your thoughts in the beginning will “Am I doing it right?”. The answer is yes, there is no right or wrong in meditation, there is practice. And like with anything else, some days it’ll be easier whereas sometimes it’ll be more difficult.
3. Go back to therapy
Therapy has previously helped me to make great progress – over the course of 4.5 years, just to put that into perspective. In most cases, change does not happen instantly but requires consistency, time and hard work, especially when it comes to behavioral patterns. I know how difficult it can be to make the first step and ask for help, to admit that you need help. But it’s okay. Many people go to therapy, and in fact many more should.
Why your friends, family, and/or partner are not your therapist (and don’t get me wrong the support I received from them has been beyond measure): A therapist is objective and unbiased person, whereas your loved ones are emotionally invested in you. A therapist went through training to acquire the specific skills to support you in working through. That said, therapy is also a reality check, your therapist is not going to sit there, nod, and smile to everything you say, but will hold you accountable.
Therapy is also not just talking to someone, you will have to use the tools and knowledge you gain during the sessions in daily life. But the important point here is that therapy equips you with these tools and techniques because without them you can try as hard as you want but it is unlikely that you will see change if you keep working with the same unhelpful tools. Imagine someone wants you to draw a portrait but for all your life you’ve only drawn stick figures. And then you try to meet their expectations by drawing stick figures, but it’s not working. Yes, you could learn how to draw portraits yourself, and in fact you are trying already, but it is less effective than having someone, who is more experienced, show you how it’s done (credit for this metaphor goes to one of my amazing friends). Therapy gives you extra support, but will not be the magical fix on its own. The key to therapy (leaving out “successful” on purpose) is finding a therapist you feel comfortable with, committing to it, using the provided tools, and doing the work.
I am aware that I am very lucky that my health insurance fully covers my sessions, and that it can be more difficult to afford therapy sessions in other countries. However, there are a few options. You can reach out to the National Alliance on Mental Illness Helpline and they will support you in finding low-cost or free treatment options. Some therapists offer a price scale to find a price that works for you, or accept a number of pro bono clients, and trainees as graduate schools and teaching hospitals usually have reduced rates. Also check if there are local support groups you can join.