Self-Care and Mental Maintenance: Building your house right
This is a preventative/maintenance post about “building your mental house right.” I hope you enjoy!
Caveat: take what helps and leave the rest. I am not a doctor or a professional of any kind. I am a regular person who wants to help. You know you, best. End of disclaimer!!
Before I start, I want you to grab a very large post-it note (preferable that is neon). This is going to be important.
This was inspired by a friend of mine saying, “I’m not too many steps from a crazy person.” That idea really resonated with me – because it’s true. When life unravels, it’s really easy – and rapid – to get to a point of being completely leveled. Where we have no tools, where we are grasping, begging, underfoot, feeling desperate and incapable. Or crazy. Or worthless. Like a mess, like life is a mess – like we fucked everything up. No one loves us, etc.
And how we get there is usually a cascade of little things or one or two big things that tip our balance.
I want to illustrate to you the difference between those two mindsets:
One: you can see a typical life hurdle and think – that sucks but I will tackle it. I just have to do x, y, then z.
The other mindset: you see a hurdle and think: Really? Again? Why me? Why does the universe hate me? I can’t seem to get a break. My life is hopeless. People are terrible. I don’t have friends and I don’t like myself. I don’t have (a career yet). I don’t have (the income I want). (Insert thing you are striving for.) And now this. (Followed by a week of intense fret around said hurdle and wallowing and depression.)
The difference between these two mindsets (or really, bodysets) – is everything. It’s the difference in REALITY. Your world with exactly the same ingredients can look completely opposite depending on how you are showing up in your body – to witness that life.
Because from one state you take actions and the actions remain just that: moments that you move through one at a time. From the other mindset, you are experiencing a whole flood of emotions – for a long duration of time – that are disorienting and also very bad for your health. The stress and thinking and ruminating actually increases your risk of heart attack, heart disease, decreases your ability to sleep soundly, and also puts you into a hyper-reactive zone that I called “the fuck-it zone” in a recent podcast episode. This is where life is a challenge, and you are always the victim of your circumstances. Like a mouse running around a crowded sidewalk. Because you are stuck in REACTION. You are fighting against anything that comes your way – because you have been compromised and are unable to access your resources: your highest, smartest thinking.
So this post is really about recognizing when you start to get into that state of “life is attacking me” to a state of grace. Which is a weird word, but I basically mean gracefulness and presence – while moving through fire. Being able to take steps in the right direction and go through your pre-planned most helpful motions, despite the pain.
I like to think of this process as starting with a giant neon post-it note that you put on the ceiling over your head as you wake up in the morning. The post-it reads: Is my house in order?
This question can remind you that we are all building blocks of sanity – that need to be stabilized and reinforced from the ground up. They require maintenance. Especially if one or two of those blocks is slightly off-kilter. With that, I have some specific tools for self-care maintenance and happiness orientation. Yay!
TOOL: Journal entry - Benchmark
Here’s your journal prompt: What is your benchmark for success?
Write this entry and know what it will look like for you when you are living a successful life. I mean describing the qualities in your life: how you will feel, not the stuff you will have. The stuff has little to do with the feelings and the literal experience of your life.
I really, really want you to do this one because this exercise can be life-altering and enlightening. Often times we are totally unaware of what we actually feel like a good life looks like. We get distracted and confused by the goals and benchmarks of others (or the things commonly said in pop culture) and we forget to really ask ourselves this question.
You might be pretty close to living a successful life, right now. And this can wholly change how you approach each new day. Instead of strife and drive, you might will yourself into a bit more laughter and family time.
TOOL: Post-it Place-Setting
This is yet another post-it exercise. Let’s put this one by your bathroom mirror. This is a post-it that I call a place-setting because it’s similar to a table-setting: we need a fork, a plate, a napkin, a glass of water. On this post-it, you are going to create the place-setting that is required for stable mental health. For example, sleep, healthy greens, exercise, meditation, balanced chemicals, time with nature, etc. If you start to unravel or feel overwhelmed – the first thing you do is check your place setting and ask yourself – what is missing? Is it this? Is it this? Is it this? (Am I stressed at work right now? Have I slept well? Am I about to get hormonal?) These are your usual suspects – this is the first step to account for what is happening to you emotionally. This will also give you the marching orders needed to get back to a balanced emotional state.
TOOL: Check the Room
This is a way to conceptualize an emotion in how it affects your body. You can think of depression like an addiction. A drug is like another character in the room that cannot be ignored. When therapists treat people who are addicted to a substance, you cannot isolate the mental health issues until they are off the substance because the substance creates a whole set of personality traits and tendencies. There is no divide between the person and the character that is that substance and therefore, the person is in many ways invisible. For example, cocaine is this jittery person who is suave and enthusiastic then the next minute, crying on the floor or hiding behind the couch. The same goes for a depressed mood. This alters your perspective of everything in life, as well as what you perceive as “you.” Any other mood is just like a chemical substance in your body – it will alter your habits, your perceived future, as well as the intelligence behind the steps you take. The purpose of this tool is to remind you of this truth so that in the moment you have a new “character” in your body, you can act despite it and follow the true-you’s intentions. That means sticking to the self-care plan you already have in place: acting in your own best interests, despite what your character tries to tell you, you want.
TOOL: Journal Entry - The Balanced House
When you are feeling at optimal level, now’s the time to write a journal entry about that. Describe to yourself the details and the ingredients you need in your life to have a happy, optimistic, sober and balanced self.
This is much more accessible information when you are already in this state. This entry might include logical descriptions of reality so that you can recall this exists the next time you are in a compromised state.
So here are a few sample prompts….
• What does it take – in your life – to feel good and in harmony?
• What are the factors? What are the conditions?
For me that means I am sleeping, eating well, I am treating myself nicely, I am acting as my best self – meaning my actions are aligned with my personal values – for example, being kind to others, and this is a dorky one – I am journaling and doing my grats (gratitudes) on a regular basis. This is a huge ratio of what keeps my house in order.
TOOL: Get Bored
When’s the last time you were bored? Weird question, right? That’s something we need to feel. It’s the playground before we decide to put something on it – like a handball. Or a new outing with a friend we haven’t seen in a long time.
A lot of what therapists are trying to do in the room with clients is wait until the feelings arise. When they’re silent and staring at you, they are waiting for something underground to pop up. This is one version of how people process things– how the internal world unfolds.
We avoid doing a lot of that in our everyday lives – because we are constantly running from feeling anything close to unfulfilled, worried, lonely or bored. We numb and numb with distractions, not to mention meds… What happens when we do this is we end up being unconsciously guided by circumstances and/or the tracks set up in front of us at any given time. Like a Hamster, for example.
We need the feedback from our inner selves to know what it is we actually want. Because often that answer isn’t fully baked yet if we muscle it– often, we have to let it arrive. Or arise, from within us.
If you are spending your days in a state of unconsciousness/addicted to busyness, then you can watch quite a few years zip by without actually stopping to think about whether or not you’re into what you are doing. This truth often shows up as a health symptom or a pervasive mood that stops us in this process. For example, you might find yourself feeling lethargic and you don’t have the energy to do what you have previously done without stopping. Or you might find that you start having panic attacks. Or you get heartburn. Or your sleep starts to get all out of whack.
We process social shame in the same part of the brain as physical pain – so often people feel serious back pain when they’re unable to confront their emotional shame. I bring that up for context. If you are feeling physical effects that make your routine difficult, there’s likely an underlying unconscious reason.
This tool is really encouraging you to lean into a more balanced way of approaching your life. Be conscious. Welcome feelings of awkwardness, discomfort and anger – because these are the feelings that exist to force change. They are opportunities to correct what isn’t working in our daily lives– not ignore them or wish them away.
Just to be clear: this is not encouraging you to indulge in suffering. Soothing your body via mindfulness practices and becoming more conscious is different. That is a healthy and positive thing. I’m not saying self-soothing is bad. I’m saying unconsciousness is harmful when it comes to actively guiding the course of your life. And if you are unhappy or depressed, you can and should manage those emotions by soothing them the best way you can. But you should also become aware of what they are telling you.
We have yet to really confront the ramifications of smartphones and social media, but something plainly obvious in our culture is a pervasive feeling of loneliness, depression and emptiness. (Especially in the US.) This tool is one way to start to correct that.
TOOL: Talk to Someone
Processing is vital to moving energy through our bodies. By processing I mean talking through something with another person: reflecting, seeing it from other angles. This is also me making a case for therapy – if you are feeling like there are hurdles between you and the stuff going on inside of you, this is a really straightforward way to untangle it. As you process things out loud with another person, you honor yourself and validate your pain and losses. This is beautiful to witness – for you and for the therapist, because it really takes compassion, bravery and openness. You give yourself forgiveness and support and you mourn things you might have previously stuffed away and internalized as “it’s okay – I don’t need xyz” (which often times converts into “because I don’t deserve it”).
When you can talk about your past, you put into context a lot of what is repeating in your life and coming up for you in the present. You can also gain the insights of an adult’s perspective on events you have internalized from a child’s perspective. And the logic of a child is often desperate and self-blaming.
When you can put your inner files in order, you begin to become lighter: you align internally and externally. Which is exciting! When you have the tools (and capacity) to look inward, I believe this process will continue for you outside of therapy, for the rest of your life. It’s really about building a good toolbox. When we learn about ourselves and recognize what is happening for us inside - we start to make sense and we begin to align. It's a wonderfully healing process that leaves us feeling strong and balanced and in touch with everything that might have mystified us, before. We go from “me and my shitty stupid things I do,” to “I’m having that old feeling come up – what do I need to do to help myself, right now”? It’s known as a talking cure because that’s what it is. I know it can be confusing and daunting to think about starting therapy, especially if you are unsure of what your particular work is and where to start. I would say the best way to begin anything is to have be open to the process, and start anywhere.
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If you are worried about therapy or you are curious about how it works then I highly recommend a new book called “Maybe You Should Talk to Someone.” It’s funny and engaging but it’s also a pretty accurate portrait of what it looks like to do therapy, including the behind the scenes stuff. I think that the person in this book does psychodynamic therapy – it’s not my particular style. You will find all sorts out there. Most important is that you like the person you are working with and you trust the relationship you build with them. It’s about being seen and witnessed and accepted unconditionally, and guided through a process of making sense of yourself. Unconditionally positive nudging. (I didn’t expect to divert into such a therapy-focused post…)
I believe it was Jack Kornfield who said - kindness is a corollary of self-acceptance. This is a quote from this book that really hit me – that’s so profound and true! So if you find yourself being petty or unkind, or you find another person doing that – for that matter, it’s because of a lack of self-acceptance. A dark corner in the back of that person’s soul where they feel “I’m kinda shitty.” If you find that this is coming up for you, then I invite you to openly and compassionately self-examine.
Because kindness is empowering and feels good. Selfishness and pettiness feels bad. It’s reductive. And I want all of you to feel good, and great– for that matter. You deserve to be proud of yourself – and feel joy on the reg. You don’t have to have a bunch of stuff or be at a certain point in life to feel that way. You deserve to have it now. And if you don’t – then getting to that point starts with a wish to enjoy your life regardless of your achievements. To appreciate what you have, today, right now. I know that for many of you this concept sounds fluffy and familiar. Oprah-y, for lack of a better term. (BTW, Oprah is awesome.)
All I’m saying is set this kind of goal and the orientation of your life will change. If we are aimed at something external we will end up unfulfilled. If we target ourselves at something internal, then we actually change the way we’re behaving and reacting toward life. It’s really amazing. It’s like a repetitive un-training process. I did this with my body image a few years back and thank fucking God I did. It was a tremendous waste of time. Focusing on the wrong shit.
I hope this helps you and if you have any questions, feel free to reach out via the contact page.
I send you my love and hopes and well wishes – and as always, don’t forget to smile.
The book I talk about – that I recommend if you are curious (but unsure) about therapy is here: