Cultivating Self-Compassion

“The thing that is really hard, and really amazing, is giving up on being perfect and beginning the work of becoming yourself.” – Anna Quindlen

For someone who can oftentimes have an incredibly low amount of self-esteem, the nomenclature of being a “perfectionist” seems a bit ironic to me. Perfectionists, as the name would suggest, want everything they produce and put out into the world to be perfect – anything that is less than this standard is considered unacceptable to them. When they do fall short of perfect (as happens often, as perfection is an unachievable standard), the shame kicks in, telling them they aren’t good enough. For something called perfectionism, ironically enough, it often leads to feelings of being an incredibly imperfect person.

Feelings of perfectionism and shame operate cyclically, like most addictive habits. Feelings of shame, brought on from anywhere, lead to a mindset of, “I need to be perfect so as to improve my life,” which, when this goal inevitably falls short, leads to more shame, and the cycle begins anew. As Brené Brown puts it, “Perfectionism is the belief that if we live perfect, look perfect, and act perfect, we can minimize or avoid the pain of blame, judgement, and shame.” Shame is where perfectionism stems from, and vice versa.

Many of those who have perfectionist attitudes, including myself, justify it with the guise of self-improvement. “By working to do the best I can at everything I do,” we might say, “I’m creating a good work ethic for myself.” The first glaring problem with this logic is that perfectionists are not simply satisfied with trying their best: their results must be the best. There is nothing wrong with trying your best in all you do – that’s a great thing. But beating yourself up when what you create or achieve isn’t actually the best is a dangerous way to live. It is for this reason that perfectionists are much less willing to take risks than others. The goal of perfection becomes even less attainable when it involves something new, so, “Why risk more disappointment?” By sticking to what they know, says the perfectionist, the chances for disappointment are substantially lower.

Brené says: “Perfectionism is, at its core, about getting approval from others.” I genuinely believe that most people out there, even the perfectionists, know that nobody is, nor ever will be perfect. I think that most people realize this, even if they’re at different levels of accepting it. This only lends strength to the argument that perfectionism is “other-focused.” Healthily striving to improve yourself is focused on self – how can I improve, so my life is more fulfilling? Perfectionism is based on others – what will they think?

At its heart, perfectionism is also about control, over yourself and what you put into the world. Something that cannot be controlled, no matter how hard we may try, is others’ perceptions of us. We can toil day and night to impress someone, but the fact of the matter is that there is always somebody who will see things differently than you, someone whose idea of perfect is light years away from yours. As such, perfectionism, along with making yourself infallible, is about making yourself liked by everyone around you – two utterly impossible goals. Shame is inevitable in the pursuit of perfection.

Your biggest tool in the battle against perfectionism is self-compassion. Being kind to yourself is understanding that you are only human, and as humans we are, by our very nature, makers of mistakes. Self-compassion is the middle ground between ignoring your mistakes, and blowing them out of proportion, à la perfectionism. See your shortcomings and learn from them, but forgive yourself for them. Don’t shame yourself for what you’ve done imperfectly, embrace it, and use that experience to help you in the future.

With this attitude, it’s easier to be less judgmental of others as well. To accept that you’re a human who makes mistakes, is to realize (and subsequently accept) that we’re all humans who make mistakes. As completely cliché as it is to say that we’re all “perfectly imperfect,” I believe it to be true. “Human being” and “flawless” are not two phrases that belong together in the same sentence.

This attitude adjustment doesn’t happen overnight – it takes practice. Many of us are raised on values that, to different degrees, encourage us to strive for as close to perfect as we can reach, the whole “good enough isn’t good enough” mantra. The best you can do is good enough, but it doesn’t have to be the best. It’s hard to break out of a mindset that’s oftentimes instilled into us at an early age, but it is possible, and it’s worth it.

We’ve all heard the phrase “nobody is perfect,” so which should that not include you or me? You don’t need to be perfect to be good, and quite frankly, I’d rather have someone call me a “good person” than a “perfect person.” By practicing self-compassion, you will come to realize, you aren’t just good enough, you’re good.

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

Living with Depression

There’s no cure for depression. A combination of prescribed medication and therapy can variably lessen the impact the illness has from person to person, but this is by no means a permanent solution. Clinical depression, in a much less detailed nutshell, is caused by chemical imbalances in the brain, particularly concerning serotonin and dopamine. Medication, as well as a healthy lifestyle and proper self-care, can help to regulate these chemicals, but that’s really all it can do. Now, it may feel like I’m starting this post off with a very direful mindset, but as my aim with this post is to address the realities of living with depression, I believe it’s important to be realistic and honest, as opposed to spouting motivational lies. But I promise, it isn’t as grim as it sounds.

Depression, like many other illnesses both physical and mental, is ever-present. Experts say it’s likely that at least 60 percent of those who’ve had a depressive episode will have a second, 70 percent of those who have had two episodes will have a third, and 90 percent of those who have had three will have a fourth. As the number of depressive episodes increases, so too does the likelihood of another. To clarify, depressive episodes are not the same as clinical depression as an illness – episodes refer to periods of time, lasting anywhere from days to months, in which one is suffering from depressive symptoms. In short, a multitude of depressive episodes are what make up clinical depression as a whole.

A statement from Thomas Franklin, M.D. speaks to me as being one of the most accurate representations of what depression is, anatomically speaking. He describes the illness as being biopsychosocialspiritual, meaning it oftentimes permeates every aspect of the life in one who’s suffering from it. Physical, mental, spiritual, social…depression can be informally considered an illness of any type. There is much we still don’t understand about it, and with time, research, and prayer, hopefully there will come a day where we can eradicate it altogether, but for now, we live with it as best we can.

In the Harry Potter series, according to author J.K. Rowling herself, dementors are a direct reference to clinical depression, mirroring her own experiences with it. For those who aren’t fans of Harry Potter (first off, why not?), dementors are ghostly, cloaked, disturbing creatures, who attempt to kill a person by literally sucking their soul out. Yikes. As morbid of a metaphor as this may seem, it is accurate, as those suffering from depression often have the joy “sucked out of them” by the illness, preventing them from enjoying life as much as they should. Whilst many who have depression may not claim that their soul is missing, it does seem important to note that life, the very thing that builds and strengthens our souls, is what’s being threatened by depression.

I would be remiss to sit here and claim that I know what depression is like for everyone. Every person is physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually different, and the way depression affects each person is different in each of those ways as a result. For myself, depression is a creeping beast, ready to pounce when I least expect it. My depression is the almost eternal pessimistic attitude, and the devil on my one shoulder, though oftentimes it feels like it’s on both. My dementor ensures that only the happiest of moments can drive it away, and even so, it will oftentimes rear its ugly head after the euphoria has died down. My depression causes me to think about returning to my bed for a large chunk of the day, only to have me return to it at night, wide-eyed and worrisome for the next day.

bedtime
Credit: Jake Likes Onions

Accepting my depression is accepting that I will never be as comfortable in social situations as many others. Very rarely will I be the one to take initiative in much of anything, and logic will oftentimes fall to the wayside as my decisions are emotionally based on trying to lessen the impact of my depression in the present, as opposed to making decisions that will help me combat it in the future.

I’ve accepted my depression. I’ve come to (relative) peace with the fact that much of my life will be spent trying to live in harmony with it. The key is realizing that it doesn’t have to govern my life. Depression, by its very nature, is a condescending acceptance, a resigned sigh that things aren’t going to get better – if anything, it says that things will get worse. That’s what depression tells me, and all else who suffer from it. This is one of the plethora of lies it will heap on whoever unwillingly listens to it, another step forward in its job to make people’s lives worse.

Whether or not you believe medication makes things better, anatomically, it does help. From our very, VERY limited knowledge of depression, we can see prescribed medications make the numbers we want to go up, up, and the ones we want to see go down, go down. I’d be lying through my teeth if I told you if I knew what all of those numbers are, but from my own research and personal experience with psychiatrists, serotonin and dopamine are the two golden chemicals in this this regard. Our brains need certain amounts of each one of these to make us happy. Regulating these chemicals is key to combating clinical depression.

As any good doctor will tell you, though, popping a few pills isn’t nearly enough to avoid recurring depressive episodes. Having good mental health is a full-time job, and it includes balancing all aspects of your life. Depression makes this even harder, though, as the very likelihood of its existence is based on inadequate mental health management. This is why I cannot stress enough: if you need help, ask for it. Although the stigma surrounding asking for help has been dying over the past few years, there is still a strong mindset out there that believes asking for help is a sign of weakness. We’ve all seen the movies where the stubborn husband on a road trip refuses to ask a local for help because “real men don’t ask for directions.” Don’t be that person. Real men and women aren’t afraid to admit their hindrances, because they realize everyone has their own.

Notice I didn’t say “admit their faults,” there, as depression isn’t a fault, just like it isn’t your fault it you’re suffering from chicken pox. You clearly didn’t pick your genes out and say, “Ooh, depression? That sounds fun!” It’s not your fault, nor is it a fault in character. It’s an unfortunate character trait to have, sure, but that doesn’t make you worth any less. It’s a part of your life, and the sooner you accept that, the sooner you can learn to live with it, if not harmoniously, at least tolerably.

As with many posts I don’t sit down and plan out beforehand, this was a little all over the place, and for that I apologize. If there’s any one thing I’m trying to get across here, it’s to show how those who have depression can view the world, and broadly explaining how I believe the illness can be dealt with. Sure, there’s no cure for depression, but there are ways to live with it, and decrease the chances of its return once it lessens. There’s help everywhere, all you have to do is ask.

Stay strong.

– Ryan

“Life isn’t fair” doesn’t cut it

An incredibly common cause of frustration in my life comes from a feeling of unfairness – like I’ve been cheated out of what I deserve (or, in some cases, don’t deserve). If you’re human, you’ve undoubtedly had your own moments of intense emotion over unfair situations. Whether one of these situations is of your own making or not, feeling like what should be the case isn’t the case is, to say the least, rather discouraging.

There’s the old adage of “life isn’t fair, deal with it,” which, for me, does little to rectify the situation. In the heat of the moment during a situation you deem unfair, it can be difficult to look at a resolution with a level head and “deal with it,” at least in a way deemed socially acceptable. Looking at my own life, the times when I seem to lose most of my sense is in situations I’m involved in that seem to put me on the bottom rung. There have been times where it has taken all of my self-control not to storm out of work, not to rage at a family member, simply because my mind was trying to argue for justice of my own treatment. Whether or not the moment in question actually is unfair isn’t the point – the fact of the matter remains that my emotions still run rampant.

Before I continue, let me just state for the record – I am fully aware that life is not and never will be fair. I see no obtainable, utopian future where everyone gets what they think they deserve and nothing less – that is literally, physically impossible. As long as there are people with free will, there will be a vast majority of them who feel unfairly treated.

As much as I despise the phrase, I believe accepting the fact that life is indeed unfair is the first step in dealing with it. It’s a hard truth. It sucks. But that doesn’t change what is. I am still very much learning how to deal with unfairness – my crappy day at work where I felt said emotion is what inspired this post in the first place. However, I do have a few tools in my arsenal that have proved invaluable in this fight.

First,

I try to look at how much this situation will actually matter in the long run. We tend to get so caught up in our own heads when we’re faced with a situation that makes us feel any kind of uncomfortable. The defense mechanisms in our brain are frustratingly fantastic at making us believe that all of our energy needs to be focused on remedying the bad situation we find ourselves in. What remedy our brain comes up with varies with personality, but either way, we’re still so focused on finding that solution.

Looking back on situations in which I’ve felt a feeling of unfairness in in the past, the vast majority of the ones I can pinpoint didn’t affect my life in any notable way past when the situation was said and done with. Not to say that the situations were always resolved – I didn’t always join the other person for a picnic and a walk in the park afterwards, but simply done. For example, if you have a bad day at work, how much of that really makes a difference once you get home, unless you’re fuming about it in your own head? In the case of unfair situations, the majority of the stress comes from not getting what we believe we should – justice, for lack of a better word. Unfair situations only have as much power to make you distressed as you give them.

Secondly,

I try to remember what I am blessed with, and how many less fortunate people would look at me as the one with a better situation.

As cliché as this example may be, I try to think of those who are struggling every single day just to get something to eat. They may wake up every morning, unsure of whether or not they’ll have a meal that day. Meanwhile, I eat three meals a day and snacks in between without much thought to it. I have days where I cry bloody murder if I don’t have enough caffeine in my system, while across the world, there are families who would sacrifice so much just to have a quarter of what I have.

Simply put, remember what you have, and be grateful for it. Life may not always be fair to you, but I wholeheartedly guarantee that you have it better than plenty of others.

Finally,

I try to discern the times to be healthy, and the times to be right. In the words of Marcia Reynolds, Psy. D:

 You decide where to put your most precious resource-your energy. Let go of what you cannot control.

In the end, one of the greatest gifts you can give to yourself is to learn to quickly discern when it is time to let go from when it is time to react. There are times you need to stand up to what is unfair. There are times to move on.

Don’t beat yourself up for having an emotional reaction. Your brain is doing what it is supposed to do-protect you. Instead, recognize when you are having an emotional reaction, take a breath and choose how you best want to respond.

Source: How to Deal with Unfairness

Life is fist-clenchingly unfair. It always will be. That’s why it’s so important to find healthy, socially acceptable ways to deal with situations that put you in an unfair position. Remember that what may feel like the right course of action in a tense moment may just be your brain doing its best to fight for justice for you. Take a breath. Separate yourself from the situation for a moment if possible and collect yourself. If, even then, you feel that the right thing to do is fight for your equal treatment, then go for it. But also remember that, although it may not feel good right away, sometimes the best course of action is inaction – walking away from the situation, or concentrating on something else. Remember what you do have going for you in life, and hold onto that.

Stay strong.

– Ryan

 

Maintaining Mental Health

Happy Mental Health Awareness Month!

Depression is one of those things that seemingly has no rhyme or reason as to when it decides to rear its ugly head. Sure, it’s always more or less prevalent in the lives of those who suffer from it, but there are times when it decides to take over every aspect of the way you think, feel, and view the world. It’s rather well-known by now that depression is largely based in the makeup of brain chemicals.

In short, depression (chemically) stems from a lack of dopamine and hypo sensitivity to serotonin in the brain. Dopamine, known as the “happy chemical,” is essential to keeping our motivation going. In other words, when you feel little to no excitement over doing things that once pleased you, there is a good chance this is related to a dopamine deficiency. The relationship between serotonin and the brain in someone who’s depressed is a bit more complex. More often than not, someone who suffers from depression is not deficient in serotonin, but rather the neurotransmitters in the brain are not accepting and absorbing the chemical. Serotonin is thought to regulate things such as a constant sleep schedule and appetite, which are two things that are often lacking in depression sufferers. If you’re interested, I wrote a post a while back on the more technical aspects of depression here: Clinical Depression, broken down.

Since depression is oftentimes so rooted in chemical imbalances, it rarely “goes away.” Medication can help to alleviate symptoms and bring some stability to the chemicals in the brain, and therapy can help with the more apparent effects of the depression, but to expect such a mentally crippling illness to simply disappear is uncommon, as nice as it would be. So why, then, does depression seem to hit us harder at some moments than others? Personally, I can go weeks without feeling like my depression is keeping me from doing things – I can hang out with friends and genuinely enjoy myself, get out of bed at a reasonable time, and eat all three meals in a day as opposed to just snacking far too much at one point in the day.

Of course, I’ve experienced the flip side of this more often than I can count. I’ve gone months without doing anything social with friends, had no discernible eating pattern, and my sleep schedule has been so out of whack that I was closer to nocturnal creature than human.

And whilst I’ve experienced both ends of the spectrum of depression, far more often, I’m somewhere in the middle of these two extremes. Not terribly depressed, not carefree, but simply feeling average. So again, I ask, what causes depression to go one way or another? For those who have it, it’s always there, but it seems to be a matter of chance whether it’ll get worse or lessen.

I’m far from an expert. I don’t have a degree in psychology or a doctorate; any opinions I state here are from talking to others with depression and my own experiences. From what I can tell, depression is affected by what goes on outside of the brain, in our lives, just as much as (if not more than) what chemical imbalances there are in our brains. Our social lives, our sleep schedule, our establishment of a somewhat consistent (at least) schedule…the list goes on. This may seem obvious to some, but for those whose lives can be overtaken at a moment’s notice by depression, it can be quite easy to lose grasp of this seemingly simple concept.

I think of maintaining your mental health like maintaining a garden. You can go out and buy the highest quality seeds possible, and plant them in the most fertile, open land you can find. The setup is ripe with success. However, if you don’t water and cultivate those seeds, working to remove any weeds that spring up, those seeds won’t grow and bloom into something as beautiful as they have the potential to be. The land in which you plant those seeds are the environment you’re in, i.e. the people who support you in the form of healthy relationships. Maintaining your garden after it’s planted is taking the steps needed to keep yourself mentally healthy – keeping a consistent sleeping and eating schedule, making an effort to go out and be social at least occasionally, staying active, and attending therapy and taking medication prescribed to you, if you feel that’s what you need to keep yourself afloat. Picking weeds is removing any unhealthy habits and influences from your life, especially those that tend to make depression worse – smoking, drinking, and overeating. These habits are nothing but temporary relief, trading a moment of peace for tougher consequences later on down the line.

A mistake often made by those suffering from depression is thinking that because they may be in one of their moments of (for lack of a better term) not-so-apparent depression, they can fall off of their mentally healthy habits without any type of fallout. They begin to go to bed a bit later, eat a bit more, consume alcohol more often…and they fall back into a deep depression, because they let their “mental guard” down and allowed depression to reestablish control over them. It’s a vicious cycle – feel good because the depression isn’t acting up as much, fall back into unhealthy habits because it feels fine, deep depression creeps back in because of a lack of care, work to re-cultivate a healthy lifestyle, and the cycle begins anew. The key is to find the sweet spot, so that you find a way to re-cultivate a healthy lifestyle,and keep it that way.

I may make it sound easy here. It isn’t. I struggle with this every single day, as does nearly every individual who struggles with depression. If you know somebody who is so skilled at keeping their depression in check that it’s like they don’t have it at all, even in the privacy of their own home, kudos to them. You know one of the few. If mental health was so easy to maintain, I guarantee it wouldn’t get nearly as much attention as it does. A benefit to this is the amount of resources now made available to everyone, free of charge. At the end of this post, I’ll have a list of numbers available to those suffering from depression and things often tied to it.

If there’s any one point I’m trying to make with this post, it’s this: having a mentally healthy lifestyle is a balance of monitoring brain chemicals, mostly through medication, and maintaining a lifestyle which supports your intention to be happy. Being physical is as important for your mental health as it is physical health. Licensed therapists are such an underused resource for mental health, as many people attach a stigma to them; some people see them as a resource for those too weak to take care of themselves. This isn’t true in the slightest. I see a therapist every week, not because I can’t maintain a healthy lifestyle independently – I can. I see him because having him as resource, especially for those times my depression is acting up more than usual, is invaluable to me.

You deserve to be happy. Not just putting on a smile for those who see you, but genuinely happy. Depression doesn’t want you to be happy – it’s in the name. But by maintaining as many aspects of your life as you can, you can be stronger than the illness. As always, whether I know you or not, feel free to send me a message if you want to talk – I’m happy to do whatever I can to help lessen the burden of depression, if I can.

US Suicide Hotline —— 1-800-784-2433

NDMDA Depression Hotline – Support Group ————– 800-826-3632

Suicide Prevention Services Crisis Hotline ———- 800-784-2433

Suicide Prevention Services Depression Hotline ——– 630-482-9696

Parental Stress Hotline – Help for Parents ——— 800-632-8188

Suicide & Depression Hotline – Covenant House ——— 800-999-9999

National Youth Crisis Hotline ——– 800-448-4663

Source: Telephone Hotlines and Helplines

Note: All numbers listed above are U.S. numbers. A quick Google search can give any available hotlines for your country of residence. A few UK numbers are listed in the source link above.

Stay strong.

– Ryan