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Last week was World Mental Health Week. A week designed to raise awareness about the stigma attached to mental health. In that spirit, I wanted to share my stigma with you and my journey to overcome it. Not surprising, as with all types of stigma, our stigma about mental health is wrapped up in our own stories and beliefs.
For many years, I believed the goal of having good mental health was to feel good. To feel positive. It is a well-intentioned belief summed up in the statement that when life gives you lemons, you make lemonade. In my practice and my life, I helped people feel better and live happier. I was all about the positive psychology movement, changing your thoughts, thinking positive and feeling better. However, looking back, I can honestly say, it never quite worked. Yes, I felt better. Yes, my clients were living happier. But inevitably we would hit a wall where the techniques and philosophy were lacking. I always felt like something was missing.
And then my Dad died, and I was brought to my knees. ALL of the strategies I had learned stopped working. I couldn’t think positive. I couldn’t change my thoughts and feel better. I realized that I had to FEEL. I had to deal with what was going on. The philosophy that had been guiding me both professionally and personally had one critical flaw it never allowed me to accept myself for who I was. I was spending all my time running from the bad stuff, couching it in ‘thinking positive’ and ‘being grateful’ and I never realized I was running from myself.
The irony is that one of the tenets of the positive psychology movement that I had loved for so many years is the belief that you are not broken and that the traditional psychology movement tells us we are. Because traditional psychology is based on the medical model, it gives a diagnosis, and that diagnosis (e.g., anxiety, depression, bi-polar, etc.) marks us a broken. But what if it isn’t the diagnosis that characterizes us as broken what if it is our stigma around that diagnosis?
What I realized was this belief that ‘you are not broken’ is a lie and one that keeps us pushing, hustling, and running from what is really going on. Here’s the hard liberating truth: we are broken we have experiences that leave cracks, trauma, loss, grief, disappointment, fear, etc. AND sometimes those experiences combined with our genetic and chemical make-up cause conditions such as depression, anxiety, and bi-polar. Once I stopped running from my cracks and started looking at them square in the face, everything shifted. I didn’t need to hustle or think different. I needed to be honest to accept who I was where I had come from and the patterns I had built to move through this crazy experience of life. Good mental health is about acceptance.
So here’s the confession. I have spent most of my professional life going about this wrong. Believing that I can help people by helping them set boundaries, speak needs and become better versions of themselves. But great mental health isn’t about changing yourself it is about accepting yourself. It is about knowing yourself 100% and being kind to all of those traits the depression, anxiety, despair doubt, and fear. Just like the Japanese art of Kintsugi where they fill broken pottery with bits of gold. Our cracks are a part of us.
Knowing I can drop the hustle, stop pushing and pretending that those cracks don’t exist feels like a great big exhale. Finally, I can be me. Those cracks are what make me a great wife, teacher, therapist, daughter, and a human being. Now instead of helping clients change themselves, I help clients SEE themselves, and once they have that knowledge and acceptance, THEN personalized strategies and techniques work. But without the acceptance and kindness piece real change just can’t happen.
I see now that mental health doesn’t come when we can create a full positive gratitude-filled life. Mental health comes when we can fully see our life as it is cracks and all and then intentionally, kindly and with discernment live it.