Cultivating Authenticity (Part One)

“Often people attempt to live their lives backwards: they try to have more things, or more money, in order to do more of what they want so that they will be happier. The way it actually works is the reverse. You must first be who you really are, then do what you really need to do, in order to have what you want.” – Margaret Young

If you’ve read or seen even a shred of motivational work in your lifetime, you’ve certainly heard the phrase “be yourself.” When I hear this, my mind goes back to the quote by E.E. Cummings I mentioned in my last post (“To be yourself in a world….is the hardest battle which any human being can fight.”). Simply “being yourself” can seem to lead to societal pushback, the whispers and murmurs behind our backs. It isn’t so much the act of authenticity that rubs some people the wrong way, it’s more so the guile of it. On one hand, we’re expected to be ourselves. On the other, we’re expected to be people-pleasers, expected to find the balance between honesty and keeping others comfortable. Tell the truth, but don’t say anything to make others too uncomfortable. Have the courage to disagree with the majority, but don’t say anything controversial. Do your best to sound informed, but don’t come across as a know-it-all.

Some may argue that it’s about finding a balance between authenticity and people-pleasing, but I disagree. When we have to courage to be ourselves and nothing but, there will be some resistance, both from others and our own minds. We may fear that others may not like us as much when they see what we truly are and believe. So much of society is expected to put on the chameleon facade, adapting to the situations as they come, even if that means altering our personality and mask we put on for others. But, if life is about connections, then the only way we can cultivate and nurture those connections is to, and I quote, “be ourselves.”

Is it easy? Absolutely not. Many individuals already have problems with maintaining a healthy self-esteem, so to be asked to shed their safety blankets and show their true, imperfect selves can be incredibly daunting. But putting on a mask for everyone has its own risks. When we refuse to put our true ideas, talents, and opinions out into the world, they eat away at us. They fester in our minds and eat away at our worthiness. You can trade in your authenticity, but in return you may experience anxiety, depression, rage, resentment…the list goes on.

Think of authenticity not as a personality quirk, but as an active lifestyle choice. To quote Brené Brown, “Authenticity is a collection of choices that we have to make every day. It’s about the choice to show up and be real. The choice to be honest. The choice to let our true selves be seen.” To quote her again, “Stand on your sacred ground.” Your sacred ground is your true self. Your morals, ideas, opinions, talents, all uniquely yours. Don’t let any disapproving glances or sneers from society throw you off your foundation, your “sacred ground.”

Mrs. Brown also has another invaluable piece of advice on the subject –

“I try to make authenticity my number one goal when I go into a situation where I’m feeling vulnerable. If authenticity is my goal and I keep it real, I never regret it. I might get my feelings hurt, but I rarely feel shame. When acceptance or approval becomes my goal, and it doesn’t work out, that can trigger shame for me: ‘I’m not good enough.’ If the goal is authenticity and they don’t like me, I’m okay. If the goal is being liked and they don’t like me, I’m in trouble.”

You were made specifically to be uniquely you. Don’t let fear of disapproval from others get in the way of what you’re meant to share with the world.

Stay strong.

– Ryan

Add: Much of the inspiration for this series of posts comes from Brené Brown, Ph.D., L.M.S.W., a writer and researcher who has written multiple books on shame and courage. Her TED talks are available on her website, and she’s also available on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn. I would highly suggest checking out her work.

Her website

Her Twitter

Your Imperfect Self (Introduction)

If I were to ask you to define the word courageous, what would you tell me? Would you perhaps give me some examples of individuals who, despite any fear, risk their lives for the greater good? Or, some smaller-scale examples, such as overcoming a fear of public speaking and giving a speech in front of a crowd?

The word courage is rooted from cor, the Latin word for heart. The original definition of courage was, “to speak one’s mind by telling all one’s heart.” Heroic acts are indeed courageous, but not all courageous acts have to be that of heroism.

Everyone wants to be courageous. We all have our own ideas of what constitutes a courageous act, but true courage lies not necessarily in risking one’s life, but in risking one’s heart. How do we risk our heart? We embrace who we are and what we’re supposed to be, and refuse to let others dictate what we should say, how we should look and, most importantly, how we should feel. To risk one’s heart is to be vulnerable at its most innate definition – we open up everything about who we are.

Our society is one of chameleons; we are experts at fitting in where we think we need to. We can alter our personalities to suit the situation we’re in, saying some things and holding others back. When we do this, we swap out one mask for another, wearing whichever one will get us through the situation with the least amount of collateral damage – without hurting others or ourselves. What’s more, this is encouraged by our society. We are told time and time again to put others before ourselves, and while this is a noble goal, the way we’re told to do this is ultimately self-destructive. Put your true self away, and bring out the you that can make it through this situation with no harm done to others. You may forget yourself in the process, but it’s okay, everyone does it.

So, if we take the concept of being vulnerable and being chameleons, they butt heads. We cannot be ourselves at every turn and please everyone. On the flipside, we cannot please everyone, but also be true to who we are as a person. E.E. Cummings once wrote,

“To be nobody-but-yourself in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody but yourself – means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight.”

In order to truly deepen human connection and find a love for yourself, it is completely necessary to be vulnerable. It isn’t optional. To be anything less than vulnerable is to be a chameleon once more – putting on the color scheme that will please others, and “switching it up” as need be. Compared to what I’m asking you to do, being a chameleon is incredibly easy. It takes the “no harm, no foul” approach of making it through situations, quick and easy. In return, however, you sacrifice meaningful connections and a sense of peace with yourself and who you truly are.

No, being vulnerable isn’t easy. It’s incredibly uncomfortable, unnerving, and, like many good habits, is very hard to stick with. Even the word itself, vulnerable, has a stigma attached to it – to be “vulnerable” is to leave yourself open to attack. Being a chameleon, when it comes down to it, is as much about protecting yourself as it is pleasing others.

It’s tough, there’s no getting around that. But how do you learn how to ride a bike? You practice riding a bike. How do you study for a test? You look over your materials, and practice your knowledge of it. How do you learn to be vulnerable? You practice being vulnerable. You learn courage by being courageous.

Great, you say. I’d love to be vulnerable. I’d love to be courageous and my true self and all of that cheesy stuff, but there’s one thing getting in the way. One large, looming, intimidating obstacle that stands in the way of pushing against the grain:

Shame.

The very first thing that anyone needs to understand about shame is this: everyone experiences it. Shame is a real and powerful human emotion, and the only ones who can’t feel shame are those who lack the capacity for empathy and human connection. Shame keeps us from being vulnerable by convincing us that, when people see our true selves, they won’t like what they see. While guilt is your mind saying, “I did something bad,” shame is your mind saying, “am bad.” Our true selves aren’t enough of what other people want to see, so we fall into the chameleon mindset – “I’ll become who they want me to be.”

That isn’t what our lives are about. We don’t live our lives for others, and so we shouldn’t live our lives according to others, despite what society sees fit to tell us. But shame is the single biggest factor in preventing us from doing just that. So, the obvious answer is to combat this shame.

How? The same way we open ourselves to being vulnerable: we practice. We build ourselves up to be shame-resilient, and work to convince our mind as best we can that those feelings won’t have nearly as much as an effect on us and how we live our own lives. In order to do this, we need to let go of certain mindsets that have been ingrained in our society to further support the chameleon mindset. And, in my upcoming posts, that’s what I hope to elaborate on.

To love ourselves and others is to be vulnerable. To be vulnerable is to be courageous. To be courageous is to be vulnerable, despite the fear of shame threatening to push us back to our chameleon ways. If we combat shame, the rest will fall into place. Over the next ten-or-so posts, I want to go into more detail about certain things that invite shame into our lives and therefore, discourage being our true selves.

All of these concepts are things that I struggle with, and I know too well that many, many others do as well. I would love for you to join me on this journey of reaching a point of self compassion and love. As always, if you have any questions, comments, suggestions, or anything else, feel free to post a comment or use the contact form on my site to send me an email and I will always get back to you. Ideally, my next post on the subject will be up in a few days’ time, but life is unpredictable, so if it takes a bit longer, I apologize! I always look forward to sharing my thoughts with you, and hearing some of your own.

Stay strong.

– Ryan

Add: Much of the inspiration for this upcoming series of posts comes from Brené Brown, Ph.D., L.M.S.W., a writer and researcher who has written multiple books on shame and courage. Her TED talks are available on her website, and she’s also available on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn. I would highly suggest checking out her work.

Her website

Her Twitter

Romantic relationships and Depression

It’s no secret that depression can negatively impact a great many relationships, and in my experience, romantic relationships can take a large brunt of the heat. Romantic relationships are built on mutual affection – “if you love and accept me for who I am, then I’ll do the same for you.” But what happens if, instead of not being able to accept your partner, you can’t accept yourself?

This goes without saying, but one of the biggest impacts that depression has on us psychologically is an overarching feeling of self-doubt. It makes us question whether or not we’re smart enough, or generous enough, or, quite simply good enough. As such, it only makes sense that these feelings find a way to interfere in relationships. Those suffering from depression tell themselves: “If I’m not [insert positive adjective here] enough, why should my partner spend any time with me?” Depression makes us question whether or not we’re actually deserving of a romantic relationship. If we can’t love and accept ourselves, how can we ask somebody else to love and accept us?

Then there’s the blow to communication. Ask any couples counselor and they’ll tell you that communication is one of the most important aspects in any relationship. However, communicate is one of the many things people with depression are least inclined to do. Generally, when people are in the depths of depression, the last thing they want to do is talk about it. Psychologically, there’s a plethora of reasons for this, but one of the main reasons is because they’re convinced nobody else will know how they feel. Despite the facts showing that more than 350 million people worldwide suffer from the illness, depression has the uncanny ability to make people believe that their problems and way of looking at things are theirs along to deal with.

As a result, depressive thoughts and emotions are a subject not often brought up, even between partners. This often causes the one in the relationship not suffering from depression to interpret this as keeping secrets, or feeling like they aren’t trusted. Obviously, trust is a major component in any relationship, so for one person to feel like they don’t have it can damage that relationship immensely.

Building off of that, this lack of communication can lead to unneeded drama. If one person in a relationship is not communicating with the other due to depression, the other may decide to take matters in to their own hands. Quite frankly, it’s hard to stay mature and level-headed when it seems your partner has no desire to communicate to you what they’re feeling.

If you’re dating or married to someone with depression, please don’t take any of these actions (or inactions) to heart. Understand that any lack of communication or presumptions is not out of spite for you, but instead a natural part of the mental illness that is clinical depression.

One of my favorite things to say is “understand that you will never fully understand.” Without trying to sound pompous, if you don’t have depression, you will never understand how someone with depression feels. Those who have depression know that fact, and only want for you to acknowledge it too. Even if they don’t show it, people are incredibly appreciative when you make an effort to try and “work with them,” even when you don’t completely understand the way their mind works.

Depression is hard enough on its own – adding another person to the mix can make it even trickier. But this isn’t a reason to avoid relationships. Having another support figure in life who not only loves you, but accepts you and makes an active effort to be compassionate and stick with you to the bitter end can do wonders for a mind suffering from depression. It isn’t easy, I know. But few things in life worth doing ever are.

Stay strong.

– Ryan

Why Mental Health is so Important

Just for a moment, I want you to imagine being trapped inside your own mind.

Imagine that, despite any evidence to the contrary, your mind constantly takes situations and turns them into disasters. Imagine being so incredibly paralyzed by fear, anguish, guilt, jealousy, and every other terrible emotion under the sun, that it’s almost all you can bear just to pull yourself out of bed in the morning. Imagine believing, with barely a sliver of doubt, that the most worthless, undeserving person you know…is yourself.

Imagine yourself dealing with nearly every situation with the knife of anxiety at your throat, giving you the choice of either suffering from panic attacks, or coping with those situations in unsavory ways. Imagine feeling inferior to everyone else, because you can’t deal with simple, everyday situations. Imagine feeling like no one else could possibly get why you think the way you do.

Imagine being so wrought in despair, self-loathing, and guilt, you seriously consider taking your own life.

Society puts so much time, money, and effort into researching a great number of physical diseases and illnesses…cancer, HIV/AIDS, cerebral palsy, leukemia, and countless others. All of this attention directed at these physical afflictions is completely, 100% needed and deserved. In my opinion, the researchers who have made it their life goal to find a cure for, as of now, incurable diseases, are the best types of people. It goes without saying, but a wife shouldn’t have to lose her husband of many years to cancer. A child shouldn’t have to spend the rest of her life in a wheelchair simply because she was fated to. Attention to physical illnesses and diseases is absolutely warranted.

Then, there’s mental illness. Individuals who suffer from mental illnesses such as depression, Alzheimer’s disease, anxiety, PTSD, and dementia (and that’s a small list of the illnesses we know about) often suffer from symptoms just as bad (and sometimes worse) as those who suffer from physical debilitation. There are some who argue that we put so much effort into researching physical diseases because there are many that are terminal – being “overly anxious” never hurt anyone, right?

Wrong. Statistics show that more than 1,000,000 people commit suicide per year. One million people, gone from the Earth, no more life to live, simply because they decided life wasn’t worth it. Granted, not all suicide stems from mental illnesses, but a great deal of it does. Suicide is the second leading cause of death for people aged 10-24 worldwide. That is tragically incredible. For such a young age range, for so many people to be convinced that life isn’t worth living, even with so much life laid out in front of them…it’s heartbreaking.

just cancer

Oftentimes we can see the effects of physical diseases: a cancer patient undergoing chemotherapy may lose his hair, or a woman suffering from Parkinson’s disease may have shaking hands. For mental diseases, it’s so much harder for the unwary eye to see. A man can put on a smile, make it through a work day, and laugh with his friends, but the next morning his depression threatens to have him stay in bed all day. A small girl may be seen as simply shy and quiet, but in secret she wants to communicate so many things, it’s simply her autism preventing her from doing so.

For those unaware of how many ways mental illnesses can affect people, symptoms are often misunderstood. Depression is seen as being “down in the dumps.” Anorexia is seen as someone having a skinny celebrity as a role model and wanting to look like them. Anxiety is seen as being a “worrywart” or “cowardly.” There is stigma attached to mental illness because so many people are unequipped to deal with it, and, quite simply, because many people don’t realize it’s a serious, attention-worthy problem in many people’s lives.

You see, that’s just it. People don’t realize. They’re unequippedUnaware. How are we supposed to help mental illness sufferers deal with their problems if they don’t speak about them?

To start with, many individuals suffering from mental illnesses aren’t speaking about their problems not because they don’t want help, but because they don’t think they’re worth it, or fear of being judged or, all too often, not even the one suffering from the mental illness realizes it’s an actual, medical problem. We live in an era where more and more light is being brought to mental illnesses every day, and as a result, more of society is becoming aware of the debilitating effect these “invisible” diseases have on people’s lives. But, as a worldwide community, we aren’t quite where we need to be yet.

To be turned against by your own body is a terrible thing. To be turned against by your own mind is just as bad. This is why I write on these topics. These dark, depressing, and oftentimes uncomfortable topics are real things that real people deal with, on a daily basis. The uncomfortable conversations are the ones we need to be having, if we’re to get anywhere in making those affected by mental illnesses have lives not plagued by uncertainty.

The next time someone entrusts in you that they suffer from any sort of mental illness, don’t think about how they may not be in any significant physical pain. Instead, remember that they’re in mental pain, whether it be self-loathing, anxiety, hallucinations, memory loss…they deal with this on a daily basis. But do not let this change your opinion of them for the worse. Instead, respect them for having the strength and fortitude to deal with whatever their mind heaps upon them. Understand that you will never fully understand the way their mind works, but have compassion for them regardless. And, most importantly, love them for who they are, not for whoever their illness is so desperately trying to make them be. Do this simple thing, and the world is one step closer to combating mental illness.

not okay

Stay strong.

– Ryan

 

I think I’m a mean person, and it’s incredibly discouraging

Hoo, boy, this one’s gonna be a doozy…

I’ve said many times over that I believe in the inherent good of all people, myself included. Regardless of our individual approaches, we’re all working towards some sort of happiness. It’s a whole ‘nother conversation about what methods are “acceptable” and whatnot, but I digress…

Inherently, I’m good, like I believe everyone on this earth is. As I’ve gone through these past few weeks, though, I’ve gotten to wondering: “is my inherent good making me outwardly good?” I’ve had proof the last few weeks to argue against that point. And I hate it. I’m sorry, but I do. There’s no getting around that fact.

I have clinical depression and anxiety, which means my mind and the conclusions it comes to are a bit different from those people who don’t have either illness. Long ago I accepted the fact that these mental illnesses will not only change the way I view myself, but also change the way I view others and their actions and words towards me. I dwell on things, I take things personally, I analyze every little detail of every little action, and, nine times out of 10, I come to bad conclusions. Whether they’re simply flawed in logic or straight-up insane conclusions to jump to, my mind tells me to, regardless.

So, in response to these terrible things my mind is telling me might happen, or in response to things I take personally and then WAY out of proportion, my wonky mind, despite being the reason I reached these conclusions in the first place, tries to pat me on the back and say “Don’t worry, Ryan, I’ll help you deal with this!”

“No!” my logical mind says. “Absolutely not, your ridiculous overthinking and fear-mongering is what got me to this mental state in the first place! I’ll deal with this logically, calmly, and with a level-head.”

Then my emotionally-overridden mind takes over. It pins me to a wall with nails. “I don’t think so, logic. We’re dealing with this MY way. Over-emotionally, overthinking, fearfully dealing with it.” And so it begins.

I’m mean to people.

I snap at them, I ignore them out of spite, I assume every little action is something in spite against me, I try to make my problems their problems, I scowl at them behind their backs, cut and dry, I’m a straight-up jerk to them, all to cope with my own messed-up way of thinking. So, I suppose that makes me selfish, as well. Great.

I won’t hide behind my depression and anxiety for all of this here – maybe this is just part of my personality, as well. I’d like to think not, because before either one of these illnesses manifested itself in me, I was actually a very pleasant person to be around. Regardless, even if I can attribute all of my “meanness” to my depression and anxiety, that isn’t an excuse.

I’m being 100% honest when I say it feels like these illnesses are pinning me against a wall with nails, telling my to deal with personal problems in unsavory ways. There are things I could do to deal with that, but even if there weren’t, what does it matter? I can certainly talk the talk –  I can tell you to be good to others, love yourself, understand you’re only human. But if I can’t walk the walk, what really matters, what good is it? I’ll say you should to be nice to an individual, and maybe the next day I go and snap at someone else for something that isn’t even their fault. I’ll say you should always be accepting of someone regardless of personal differences, but then later on put down someone’s viewpoint simply because it doesn’t line up with my own.

My point is this – I don’t think I’m a nice person. I can spout nice things left and right, and I can passionately believe them in my head and heart, but if I can’t apply what I “passionately believe” to my actions and attitude towards others, what good is it? It isn’t any good, I’ve found.

Maybe I’m inherently good. But I’m not good. I’m not sure I can convince myself otherwise.

– Ryan

 

Clinical Depression, broken down

Depression is known for its unfortunate ability to “override” any good thought that decides to come our way. Even if there is evidence in our lives supporting the fact that we shouldn’t be having depressive thoughts, our minds still find a way to push that logic to the side. With major depression affecting so many aspects of our lives from sleeping all day, to being reclusive, to suicidal thoughts, it’s almost hard to believe that all of these symptoms stem from a simple glitch in brain chemistry.

Unlike some mental illnesses such as Parkinson’s Disease, clinical depression affects multiple areas of the brain as opposed to just one. In a nutshell, depression stems from abnormalities in the interactions between hormones and neurotransmitters in the brain, such as the ones controlling serotonin and dopamine regulation. In order to understand why brain chemicals such as serotonin and dopamine are important in the diagnosis of clinical depression, it’s important to understand what they actually do.

Serotonin is thought to regulate sleep, pain sensitivity, sexual function, and appetite. Looking at some of the symptoms of depression, including sleeping for long periods of time (or not at all), overeating, or loss of ability to perform sexually, it’s no surprise that serotonin plays a big role in regulating depression. However, depression symptoms are not caused by a serotonin deficiency, but rather by the neurotransmitters in the brain being hypo responsive (under-responsive) to the serotonin provided to them.

Dopamine is known as being the “happy” chemical. It’s responsible for regulating motor function, reward and motivation centers, memory, and attention. Even more symptoms of depression include loss of motivation, loss of interest in things that once excited you, and a feeling of sluggishness. On the flipside of serotonin receptors, the neurotransmitters responsible for receiving dopamine are hyper responsive, basically overreacting to stress and fear stimuli.

neurotransmitters depressionThese hypo and hyper reactive receptors can be caused by a multitude of reasons, from excess stress to overeating. While genetics can certainly play a role in the risk of developing depression, it’s only about half that of the risk stemming from individual lifestyle factors. Of course, depression can stem from a combination of the two as well.

anatomy of depressionThis is another fact that makes clinical depression unique among many illnesses. While many diseases are purely genetic (you have to be born with the right makeup of genes, chemicals, etc.), depression affects us physiologically even if we aren’t born with it. Regardless of the cause, chemicals in the brain are put all out of whack.

So…why does any of this even matter? If you’re sad, you’re sad, who cares about the brain chemistry, right? It matters, because understanding the brain chemistry has played a big part in recent years in our understanding and treatment of depression. If you were to go back in time 50 years and tell someone that you’re depressed, chances are you’d get a response somewhere along the lines of “you’ll get over it soon.” 50 years ago, most people weren’t worried about the causes of depression, simply because most people weren’t worried about depression. Depression has been “diagnosed” in many individuals since the time of Mesopotamia (its original name is melancholia), but understanding it as an actual medical problem didn’t come until much later. If an individual was feeling depressed, it was considered nothing more than “being in a funk.” Everyone feels sad sometimes, why should we pay any more attention to people who feel sad a bit more often? Now, knowing what we know about brain chemistry and physiology, we’ve finally come to the realization that depression is an actual, medical problem, and it is worthy of our time and attention. Through our new understanding, we are more equipped than ever to deal with it.

depression wheel
A small correction to this graph: under Situations, as aforementioned, a bullet point should say “genetics.”

For me, nothing says it better: “Depression is a flaw in chemistry, not character.” Flaw is such a key word here, as depression has the ability to make anybody dealing with it feel like a flaw of life. I’m dumb, I’m ugly, I’m sad, I’m flawed. No, you are not flawed. You are as much of a person as anyone else, worthy of feeling happiness, joy, and love; a slight mix-up of brain chemicals doesn’t change that simple (yet irrefutable) fact.

We live in a time where we’re lucky enough to have, at the very least, a rudimentary understanding of clinical depression and its causes. By understanding the root of depression, we’re that much closer to finding a way to cut the stem before it sprouts. If we do nothing with the information we’ve learned, combating depression (and mental health in general) will be at a standstill for far too long. As someone who suffers from clinical depression, I feel a responsibility to use what power I have to make sure that doesn’t happen.

Stay strong.

– Ryan