mental health

Cue Annie

At some point in time, everyone uses the word “tomorrow.” Usually, we break it out when confronted with a chore we HATE: dusting, organizing the closet, weeding, rearranging the books to fit new ones on the shelf. (Let me clarify: I only hate that because it involves hauling heavy tomes back and forth across the den…and I usually don’t anticipate the space required the first time) Setting a new deadline soothes the guilt in the back of our minds. We’re not procrastinating – not really – we’re scheduling the task for a more appropriate time. Then we can go about our day, proud of our organization skills.

As long as we DO attend to things tomorrow.

That’s always the kicker, though, isn’t it? Because when tomorrow DOES show up, our enthusiasm for the chore hasn’t spontaneously manifested. Then we’re faced with a new quandary. Do we put off the task for one more tomorrow? Or can we sigh, roll up our sleeves, and get to work? How you answer that question depends on your motivation in the moment you stare at the garden patch, dust rag, closet door, or book shelves. And the internal dialogue you engage in will determine your next course of action.

It’s easy to think the pattern works the same when you look at the bigger goals in your life. You know you need to address the next step on that climb toward the top. And you WILL – tomorrow. You equate it to the thought process you use when looking at a sink full of dishes. But are you afraid scrubbing the dirty plates and glasses will lead to absolute failure? Possibly (I try not to judge), but more than likely not. Most of us DO panic that pushing over the boulder on our journey WILL result in a tumble back to the bottom, though. So we’ll confront the obstacle tomorrow – when we’re better able to handle the implications.

And the tomorrows start piling up.

When you’re considering a fear, it’s always easy to find an excuse to delay a task. (For instance, I know that giant spider probably has friends in the front yard. So I’m not about to head out and weed the beds until the coast is clear. Say after the first hard freeze) It gets harder and harder to unearth the possibility of success and write a firm action to DO something. Having a nebulous idea of “tomorrow” settles things easier. We calm the guilty side of us that insists we need to accomplish something, but we also settle our fearful side by refusing to attach a time. And before long? It’s been a month…two months…a year.

I’m a CHAMP at the tomorrow game. I sit in seminars, feeling excitement well up as I learn new techniques and ideas. My mind churns with plans; I can SEE the steps I need to take. I step away to work on an assignment or sleep for the night. And when I come back and confront those steps, worries surface. Maybe my enthusiasm was misplaced. Did I really think I could pull off something so ambitious? I should probably table things until tomorrow – give my brain a chance to marinated.

Then tomorrow arrives, and my anxiety spiral’s had 24 hours to work. The single fear I started with has multiplied. WAY easier to convince myself I need more time to sort through the possible ramifications of each new possible doomsday scenario. (You can’t take action without backup plans, can you?) I need to wait until tomorrow – when I’m DEFINITELY ready. So the cycle begins. And it lasts until I’m willing to call a halt to the madness.

IF I make it stop.

There’s always another tomorrow. That’s the beautiful thing about trying something new. If you encounter a hiccup, you get another try tomorrow. But when you refuse to make the jump, you can end up standing on the edge of the cliff FOREVER. And the only person that can convince you one way or the other is YOU. Do you face your fear and take the risk that, yeah, you might fail? Or do you refuse to move forward? Which action offers the better state of mind?

On one hand, you stay safe and sound. You’re never going to fail. There’s no need to push through anxiety, fear, and potential depression. And, believe me, I get the allure! But you hate that stagnation, remember? If you didn’t, you wouldn’t have set your goals in the first place.

On the other hand, you have to confront the sweating palms, the shakes, and the racing heart. You have a 50:50 chance of things working out on the other side. (And, no, I can’t predict your outcome) You’re rolling the dice, moving out of your comfort zone, and placing your hopes and dreams in the hands of fate. It’s horrifying! But it’s growth, and there IS that chance of success. You could move forward with your dreams. And even if you DO fail, you’ll learn something out of the process. (We like to forget that part)

When I start noticing that more than two tomorrows have happened, I force myself to immediately stop what I’m doing and take action. It’s the only way to break the habit. And, yes, it’s terrifying. I find myself with gritted teeth (don’t do that – it’s bad for your jaw) and a massive stress headache. But I’ve made “progress” each time. No, I haven’t always succeeded, but I HAVE continued to learn and grow. So that means I’m not sitting back on the path, shifting from foot to foot in indecision. And it does feel good to admit that.

That’s how you break the pattern. As soon as the word tomorrow hits your brain, you STOP and implement a plan. Make appointments. Start the research. Take notes. Buy the supplies. Whatever you need to get yourself on the path to that next step, DO IT. Because if you use the word “tomorrow,” you’re verging dangerously close to “never.”

(Incidentally, this advice does not apply to weeding gardens where spiders may or may not be present)

mental health

Not a Molecule Out of Place

“She also said that people who try to control situations all the time are afraid that if they don’t, nothing will work out the way they want.”

~Stephen Chbosky, The Perks of Being a Wallflower

Certain people you can spot a mile away: They nudge crooked pictures to rights – in public venues and stranger’s homes. A strange tile in a floor mosaic causes them to twitch. You need to restrain them from tucking tags under collars for random people on the street. Left unattended, they rearrange pens in order of color on reception desks. And (generally) no one wants to tackle a project with them. Two little words follow them wherever they go, spoken in different tones depending on the observer:

Control freak.

There’s one way for everything to get handled, and it’s THEIR way. They usually nitpick the world around them, showing zero concern for the particular environment they find themselves in. Clearly, the host didn’t realize the books on the shelf needed to go in alphabetical order. Or maybe the store owner grew lax and failed to observe the dreadful state of their display. And, of course, no one else in the group has any clue on what they’re doing. It’s better if everything remained in THEIR capable hands. That’s how things get accomplished and turn out perfect and polished, after all.

People HATE control freaks. It’s why the term has developed a negative connotation over the years. Getting saddled to a work shift or group assignment with one of these individuals is pure hell. (Ask anyone) Even those with controlling traits protest the term, denying any identification with the words. Because “control freak” immediately brands you as a monstrous demon, bent on destruction.

As if having your shit together is something to revile.

Because control freaks get work DONE. They look at a situation, analyze the steps required, and then roll up their sleeves. While most people mill around or stare at the ceiling, waiting for some kind of divine inspiration to strike, those with a controlling nature have already broken down the situation and anticipated potential problems. It’s that drive people resent and frown upon. (Nothing worse than motivation, am I right?)

Yes, I get it: having someone point out flaws and constantly inform you of what you’re doing wrong grates on the nerves. That’s where control freaks cross the line. But the negative stigma doesn’t belong. Rather, it needs understanding. And maybe a touch of support.

If you look at people with controlling natures, you’ll usually find underlying cases of anxiety. The ability to shred a situation and find EVERY possible problem comes with that constant whirlpool cycling in the back of their brain. That’s why they demand you do things in a certain way. By keeping everything in a precise order, they’re deflecting one of the tragedies their brain cooked up. (Okay, so the odds of aliens landing in the backyard is slim. But there’s still a 0.000001% chance. So keep your stupid photos aligned!) The order in the chaos soothes the demon in their mind.

But the twist of the lip and scornful tone when people say “control freak” forces people to deny the trait. And, in the same breath, they attempt to deny their anxiety. “I don’t demand people to keep the counter set up this way” is the same sentence as, “I’m not trying to prevent the worst from happening by being prepared.” But people only hear the first defensive statement. And they turn their backs. It doesn’t encourage dialogue. And it won’t help the anxious work through their fears.

Personally, I embrace being a control freak. My way IS the right way. Because I get things done, without mistakes (most of the time; no one’s perfect – though we know I try), in a timely manner, with brilliant results. You can always find everything you need without scrambling, and Cthulhu won’t destroy my house because the books on my shelves are in alphabetical order. (There’s a slight risk of zombie dinosaurs, though, as my husband continues to fold the towels in weird ways) But it took me a long time to embrace the title and recognize the superpowers that rigidity brings.

Don’t get me wrong: I know the negative aspects, too. (For one, everyone hates me) My anxiety often leaves me paralyzed and struggling to take the next step toward my goals. And I need a constant reminder that what flies in MY space isn’t accepted in someone else’s home or workspace. It’s physically painful to sit in a room with a crooked picture. And seeing the damned fast food sign with the reversed words for WEEKS?! Yeah, almost had a coronary.

But control freaks AREN’T the enemy!

We’re the ones you turn to when everything goes to hell. Who do you want when your project falls apart at the last minute? The popular idiot you voted to lead you? Or the control freak who can navigate the problem and bang out a champion solution at minute zero? People with that laser eye for detail are the ones that achieve so-called miracles. They get the spiral working and spit out solutions. And all you have to do is grit your teeth and tolerate them barking orders. (Is that so much to ask?)

Here’s the thing, though: If “control freak” wasn’t so negative, maybe anxious people wouldn’t end up quite so rigid. When I can stop and explain WHY I need things a certain way, I don’t “bite” as much. It lets me get out of my head and explain my fears – hostile dolphin takeovers and all. (Okay, so the fears aren’t this ridiculous. I’m trying to make a point) How often have you stopped and asked someone WHY they need pens lined up in a pentagon? Or why their fingers itch to align books with the edge of the shelf? When did you swallow the words “control freak” and TALK to the person about who motivated their actions?

The drive behind hyper-organization usually comes from anxiety and fear. SOMETHING in our brains urges us to impose restrictions. And once everything’s in line, our brain decides to send the “homeostasis” signal. But if you don’t TALK to us, you can’t understand that. And derisively labeling someone a control freak won’t encourage them to open up. (Nor will it break them of the habit)

Too many negative sentiments find their way into mental health issues. And it’s one of the reasons people hide. Why talk about the anxiety you feel when you see a skip in a pattern if someone’s going to glare at you? More people need to STOP and take a moment to sit down and engage in conversation. One quick question could end SO much stigma. “Why do you feel that way?” (And NOT said in a nasty way!)

The more we set aside our irritation and anger, the better our chances of breaking down the walls and stigmas around too many mental health disorders. Even if that means letting someone instruct you on how to fix your twisted necklace chain.

mental health

Soundtrack the Day

Playlist on phone
Photo by cottonbro from Pexels

How do you find yourself working through the day? Do you keep a television on in the background, maybe tuned to the local news so you’re aware of what’s happening in the world? Are you one of those who prefer silence? (If you are, please tell me how you cope with only your thoughts for company) Or do you pop in a musical selection on your streaming service of choice? (If you use CDs, tapes, or records, I’m not one to judge)

Most people opt for the latter – complete with preferred playlists.

Music provides variety, speaks to memory, and taps into emotion. (Not to mention avoiding dangerous triggers the news is famous for) Courtesy of the internet, you can find any genre you want – as I proved to my father in one experiment. Feel like sitting down with jazz? You’re only problem is deciding what era to choose. Want to curl up with folk yodeling? You’ve got it. Ready to dive back into the music of your childhood? Pop the year into a search bar and let nostalgia enter. Maybe you won’t get anything accomplished, but you’ll enjoy the trip down Memory Lane.

Researchers invest years and years into the science of music. What tempos encourage shoppers to purchase more? (What? You thought those songs were random?) Are there pitches or tones that irritate? Do certain voices attract people? It’s science and marketing we don’t think about when we hit play. At least, not until it affects us personally. For instance, on my internship at the Zoo, the summer started with an instrumental clip that lasted 10 minutes. It wasn’t unpleasant, but when you hear the SAME BARS repeated over NINE hours? You lose your grip on sanity. Visitors didn’t notice because it took them an average of 10 minutes to move through the exhibit. We finally protested, and the team added two additional pieces for a total of 30 minutes. It made the difference on our nerves.

My point? Music’s powerful stuff!

This is why the playlist you choose for yourself plays such a dramatic part of your day. The key, tempo, pitch, and lyrics work their way into your brain and influence your mood, perception, and even the narrative you set for yourself. Yes, it’s subliminal. No, you don’t usually realize it’s working. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t happening.

Think about it: When you listen to something powerful or dramatic, how do you feel? Do you get a sense of strength and that ability to take on the world? Of course you do! Your brain sucks up the confidence within the melody and translates it into your mood. The opposite happens when you listen to sad songs. Gradually, you find yourself sinking into quiet and despair. It’s mood osmosis, and you don’t realize WHY it’s happening.

I maintain an insane number of playlists. Every novel I write gets its own “soundtrack.” And short stories usually have at least one song assigned to them. The music sets the tone for scenes, allowing me to get in touch with the characters and the presiding emotions. (Plus every writer out there – whether they admit it or not – develops a movie script for their work. This is simply part of the process) But I also keep music running when I do my freelance writing work. And that doesn’t fit nicely into a pre-programmed playlist. I still need SOMETHING to keep my mind “distracted” while I work, though.

I can’t work in silence.

And – over time – I’ve learned to recognize my mood shifting depending on what’s playing. As keys drop, lyrics swoop low, or voices slow down, so does my outlook. My fingers stutter on the keyboard, and I start losing faith in my work – or myself. If I punch up the beat, assignments churn out in record time, and I can take on the world. I find myself confident in everything I face. And it’s all a result of what’s churning out of my speakers. My playlist impacts which way my brain decides to jump.

It’s forced me to get picky on what I set each day. Yes, I LOVE my showtunes. The number of musicals I know by heart is – well, not surprising for a theatre nerd. But too many heartbreaking songs come up on the playlist. Perfect when I need to write a miserable scene, but terrible when I’m trying to work through copy, network, or cobble together a pitch. I’ve set them aside in favor of 80s pop, upbeat tunes, and even dance favorites. And I’ve seen my productivity and mood swing up.

What about you? Look at your playlist (or note the songs you hear throughout the day). Where do you place the music you hear on the emotional scale? And how are you feeling in response? Can you make changes to improve things? (I get it if you’re stuck somewhere without control of the sound system. But if you’re feeling this way, odds are other people are, too) Try it and see how the way you view the world changes.

What’s the worst that could happen? You might start chair dancing? (Or, you know, actually dancing) Not to worry – there’s ALWAYS a worse dancer out there in the world.

mental health

Remember Who You Are

“Adults follow paths. Children explore.”

~Neil Gaiman

When someone mentions the words “adult” or “adulthood,” how do you define them? Don’t reach for your dictionary; I’m looking for your personal thoughts on this one. What makes up the bullet points of an adult life in your world? (You don’t need to overthink this one, either. I’m not going to collect a written essay or anything)

Ready to compare answers?

I’m going to go out on a limb and guess you have some variation of the following: responsibility (i.e., paying bills, maintaining a home, showing up for a job every day), respect (okay, so youngsters need to obey laws and demonstrate respect toward authority figures, but they don’t get hit with the consequences as heavily as adults), providing an example for the future generation (assuming you can pry their attention from their screen of choice), or projecting a proper image – whatever that looks like. Did I come close?

Now, obviously, there are a few numerical milestones that separate an adult and child. Legally, an adult can purchase alcohol, vote in political elections, and rent a vehicle. (If you work – even part-time – you get the joy of paying taxes. So kids get to experience that responsibility, whether they like it or not) And, eventually, adults get to retire. But that’s about it. If you strip away those defining characteristics, there isn’t anything that divides an adult from a child.

Sounds crazy, I know, but I’m going somewhere with this.

You’ll find kids out there who end up taking on responsibility at incredibly young ages. They assume the care of their siblings (or themselves). Getting whatever work they can, they take on bills and management of a household – sometimes while scrambling to get to class. It’s a rough life and worse than plenty of adults juggle on a regular basis. And (though it seems to be an infrequent thing these days) kids DO get raised with a demand to show respect to those around them. It’s a demand in certain cultures and family lines. The definitions we use to describe an adult work equally well for younger ages, if we’re willing to turn and look around.

So it goes without saying that the flip side should function, too. If youngsters can step up to the plate and exercise a healthy work ethic, why can’t WE shrug off a suit and jump into a fountain for a few minutes of play? Why do we cross some imaginary threshold and decide we’re above being a kid? Is it the peer pressure thing? Or something else? Maybe that silly “title” of adult? (As if it appears anywhere on your resume or license) I’m going to go with the fact you feel a crazy obligation to look and behave like – well, like an adult. As if anyone actually has a concrete example of what that looks like. (It’s not like you’ll find the costume for sale anywhere)

When we graduate from college (or high school or get our GED), society tells us we’re an adult. You have ZERO preparation for the real world, but you’re shoved out in the cold and told to “do some good.” You stare around at the “adults” and start imitating their behavior, assuming they know what they’re doing. (Newsflash: They have no clue) Of course, you don’t see their crippling depression, the weight of anxieties on their shoulders, or the crumbling family issues they lock behind the front door. Because they struggle to put on a stunning display of carefully kept homes, with art books on tables, conversation pieces on the walls, and furniture that prioritizes form over function. They step outside without a single hair out of place, rattle off every label on their clothing, and wouldn’t dare appear in a photo or video without makeup.

And you buy into this definition of “adult!”

I did. I struggled for years to meet that ideal. It meant waking up early to struggle with cosmetics (to this day, I barely know what I’m doing). I rolled my ankles in heels. I hid my stuffed animals and toys in a corner of the bedroom. And let’s not get started on the weird art I agreed to display on the walls. Slip up and mention I was hitting the movies to see Montsters, Inc.? Everyone looked at me like I’d suggested placing a bomb in the building. Run to the swings at the zoo playground? They asked if I needed to get some water (because, clearly, I had heat stroke). When I wore a pair of dragon earrings, I was pulled aside and asked to remove them; clients might get the wrong impression.

Over and over, the message came clear: being an adult meant a constant cycle of SHAME. At least, when I tried to be myself. And even when I “fell in line,” I received a list of improvements. Nothing remained “right” for long. Is it any wonder those years were filled with the worst of my depression? My highest anxiety? The adult world SUCKED! I couldn’t make anyone happy – least of all myself.

So I stopped trying.

I took a moment to reflect on when I’d been happier. That was easy: as a kid. When I fully embraced being myself. Those times when I threw away the cares and concerns of the world around me and did what I wanted. (Okay, so it didn’t last long in those years, but the brief moments of freedom lingered in the brain) Something in my head clicked: as an adult, no one would hold me back NOW. I could do whatever I wanted. And if I was willing to brave those tongue-clicks from my frowning peers, I had nothing left to fear.

It’s when I decided to was time to be a kid again. I stopped apologizing for ME. No more fighting to duplicate cat eyes or smoky eyes or whatever makeup trend people were espousing. I decided I liked my face without junk on it (and it meant getting to sleep later in the morning). My home underwent a purge, clearing out everything that made no sense to me. And I stopped trying to hide my stuffed animals and toys. My goofy jewelry? Yeah, it’s always going to remain my favorite. (I love that my husband tries to get me artsy stuff) And I have no problem walking up to whatever movie I want to see – or bragging about it.

When I embraced the kid I was – have always been – I took a huge breath in. It was an amazing sigh of relief. And I found this amazing gem you don’t realize exists when you’re young: you care less and less about those raised eyebrows and “for shame” remarks. Kids are bulletproof at some point in their lives. And you can tap into that, if you’re willing to abandon the regiments of being an adult. If you can laugh and play and be YOU, you can find that nugget. It means playing on the swings, dancing in public, dressing up in costumes, and laughing too loud. Which takes guts. But it’s SO worth it.

I don’t think anyone considers me a “stellar example” of an adult. My home won’t show up in any magazine features. And I’m not anyone’s model or muse. I don’t have a giant following on social media. But I also don’t care. I love the life I have. It makes me happy. And I have an outer layer of armor – courtesy of that little girl I decided I wanted to be again. It’s worth ditching the long list of bullshit I was attempting to follow before.

And, crazy as it sounds, it’s done wonders for my skin. (I’m just saying)

mental health

Think Before You Think

Theatre monologue
Image by bigter choi from Pixabay

How often do you find yourself having a conversation in the back of your mind? Not in the “crazy” way of talking to yourself, and I don’t mean hearing voices that aren’t yours. Just the standard internal monologue everyone uses throughout the day. Maybe to catalog your schedule. Or as you’re getting yourself out of bed in the morning and preparing for the day ahead. Or the (always popular) derogatory remarks you make to yourself for every hiccup and bump in the road, laying heavier and heavier weights on your shoulders.

Yup, we’re talking about THAT internal monologue.

The one that flattens your mood and leaves you looking for a blanket fort and a pint of ice cream. It’s saturated with sarcasm. You can even picture the twisted sneer on the face (well, YOUR face, since it’s your voice you’re hearing) as the zingers whisper in your ear. The words pour out non-stop, growing louder and louder as you move from an innocent trip to a full-out crash. Because the internal monologue’s distracting. It starts to take over more and more of your thought processes. Before you know it, it’s dominating your brain. You miss outside conversation. And you lose focus on the things you ARE supposed to provide your attention to. Which only serves to feed back into that maniac.

Not everyone possess an internal monologue. Some people go through their day with radio silence. And if you cope with depression? Well – like me – you envy those people. I know, others look at them strange and can’t conceive of the possibility of a quiet mind. But when all you hear is a constant barrage of negativity, you’d gladly sever a limb for five minutes of peace. Five whole minutes without your brain informing you of everything you’re doing wrong. (Did you know you can BREATHE wrong?)

People without an internal monologue don’t realize the blessing they have.

For the rest of us, we’re stuck with that actor in the spotlight, determined to speak to a trapped audience. And it’s usually overwhelming. If we could hand our ticket over to someone else (or, you know, LEAVE the theatre), we would. Anything to avoid the constant litany of failure. Because hearing about mistake after mistake beats you down. And just when you think you’re finally numb, the voice reaches a new spot and digs in a fresh wound. It’s agony! Listening to someone rattle off all of your worst qualities – 24/7 – is draining. And your body tells you in the form of exhaustion, insomnia (as if you WANT to stay awake and listen to the late show in your head), and illness.

I’ve attempted some pretty ridiculous things to break the cycle of negativity that runs on a constant loop in my mind. Blaring music? The theory seemed sound. Except that your internal monologue is capable of shouting over even the best headphones. (Turns out your mind’s WAY more powerful than anything technology can produce) Plus, high volumes aren’t safe for your hearing. And don’t get me started on the health risks of banging your head against hard objects. (Seriously, don’t try that one) Nothing shut that voice off. If anything, it ENCOURAGED the verbal barbs.

I needed to try a different angle.

Have you ever witnessed a stand-up comic getting heckled? It’s horribly rude. And the best performers out there handle the situation with grace and professionalism. But the speaker of your internal monologue? Yeah, they’re – well, they’re you. And let’s face it: they aren’t the BEST aspect of you. Derailing them is surprisingly easy, once you get the knack of it. (Okay, so this sounds strange, and, yes, I’m advocating that you “argue” with yourself. As long as you don’t do it aloud, you’re in the clear on the strange looks from strangers and friends category)

You need to throw those negative comments off track. And you do that by challenging the statements the SECOND you hear them. Or, if that’s not something you feel comfortable with yet, shift the train of thought they’re working on. For instance, when my internal monologue starts down the road of, “You’re never going to finish this story,” it’s time to step in. I can call a bluff and think of everything I HAVE finished and shut things down that way. Or I can jump to a fresh path and look at a new project I’m excelling at. Either way, that negative personality loses momentum and dissolves into the background. They lose their material.

Like those “I am” statements, it’s WORK. And I’m so used to getting bogged down in my internal monologue, that it might take me too long to implement a switch. Then it’s a matter of soothing the mental bruises and moving on, promising to remain more observant next time. But I FEEL better for not letting myself get dragged under all the time. Don’t get me wrong, I still feel beaten down by the things that inner voice says. (We’re the most accurate critics around) But at least I’m not dragging the negativity around with me throughout the day.

Give it a try. Put your internal monologue on a stage – with a spotlight – and then deprive them of their glory. Throw tomatoes or rotten fruit. Or break out your phone in the middle of the show and ignore them. Be a rude, disrespectful audience. If they can’t support you and behave, then you don’t need to listen. It’s a training process – for both of you. It’s the only way you’ll learn to speak nicer to yourself.

mental health

Brain Food

“I am the greatest. I said that even before I knew I was.

~Muhammad Ali

Even if you (like me) subscribe to streaming services so you can avoid the annoyance of commercials, you don’t get away from subliminal messages in your life. Advertisements are EVERYWHERE. Introverts still have to venture out of the house to seek sustenance now and then, and that means seeing billboards, ads on the sides of bus stops, and all of the sandwich boards and glaring posters in, on, and around stores. Produce and cereal get taglines these days. Everything’s designed to provoke a feeling, a message, and emotion. And people devote their careers to getting that reaction from you.

Meanwhile, all you wanted was a doughtnut.

Unwittingly or not, you DO take in those words. They leave an impression on your brain that you carry with you throughout the day. (Nothing better than a dose of guilt with your morning coffee, am I right?) Running errands with a blindfold on isn’t the best advice out there, though. That means you’re going to find yourself confronted by potentially negative words and images when you step out of the house. And – depending on your working environment – you could face the same problem in your office. So is it any wonder you walk around with the weight of the world on your shoulders? You’re subconsciously feeding your depression the food it CRAVES!

Think about it: What do you have around your home and work space? What are the words you see as you walk around? Are they affirmations of the fantastic job you did on your last project? Or are you surrounded by calendars with red ink – shrieking that you have five seconds to complete twelve more deadlines? Which one provokes your anxiety, do you think? We can do all of the work in the world to prod our thinking in a positive direction. But if we’re not “feeding” our thoughts a decent meal, it’s going to fall flat every time.

We have to get the “diet” right.

I know it sounds silly and corny and – okay, it sounds like some self-help nonsense. But you want to find affirmations that work for YOU and put them EVERYWHERE. Remember how you used to stick those sayings in your locker so you could drag yourself through class every day in school? Yeah, same principle at work here. You’re counteracting all of the negative that bombards your brain in the world. Even if you don’t stop and READ the words, your mind absorbs them as you catch them out of the corner of your eye. And those affirmations start to beat back the doom-and-gloom monster that is the depression lurking in the shadows. You sit up straighter. Your shoulders roll back and feel lighter. And you stop wanting to beat your head into the desk.

If you happen to follow my writer website, you know that I’m a sticker fiend. When I started adding those cute little images to my computer, I noticed my spirit lifting every time I sat down to work. Yes, they express my personality (and turn otherwise boring boxes into a colorful workspaces), but there’s more to it than that. Two, in particular have messages that hit me whenever I sit back:

“You are BRAVER than you believe, STRONGER than you seem, and SMARTER than you think.”

That one is nothing more than a simple circle. My husband got it for me when I started my writing business – and spent most of my time feeling worthless. Too much time wandering around, letting myself absorb the negative ads that pop up all over. Stopping and looking at the words have gotten me through SO many difficult days.

“Never Never Quit”

This one? It’s an original illustration from Karen Hallion. Three little words that goad me along when I feel sunk. If I sit and stare at my screen, struggling to find words, my eye hits that sticker, and my body relaxes. A simple affirmation that means EVERYTHING.

You can do the same thing. Maybe stickers aren’t your thing. Post-It notes cost nothing. Find quotes or words that strike you and put the Post-It where your eye will hit them. Your mirror, beside your bed, next to your computer, on your cubicle wall. Add a decorative border, or leave it plain. Whatever works to get your attention. Put them up at home AND at work. Because you need those affirmations EVERYWHERE. And then let those words sink into your brain when you feel your mood sinking. Give them the chance to feed your thoughts.

You’ll notice a change. You’ll feel the lift starting to happen. And it’ll fend off the misery you usually battle throughout the day. You don’t need to justify the presence of those affirmations to anyone else, either. If they ask, you can explain what the quote means to you. Maybe they need some affirmations in their life, too. Or you can just smile. (Everyone gets weirded out by the quiet smile – it’s awesome) As long as you’re protecting YOUR mind, that’s what’s important.

mental health

Channeling Ironman

"I am" notebook

When your feet hit the floor in the morning, what’s the first thought that crosses your mind? After you cycle through the usual litany of, “Holy crap, why am I awake?” (obviously). Are you the kind of person that starts running through the tasks you have lined up for the day? Or do you groan over the job you need to drag yourself to? Either way, you’ll find the word “I” working it’s way into those statements. And you fall into one of two possible camps: positive or negative. (And, no, I’m not referring to chipper morning people and those who require a caffeine infusion to function)

Now, before you start fretting, I’m not going to go into that nonsense about needing to smile first thing in the morning to create a rainbow for the day. I’m firmly opposed to smiling at dawn; that shit needs to get banned. How a person decides to crawl out of bed is entirely up to them. And the fact you growl and scowl through your routine doesn’t mean you’re going to strike out the rest of the day. (Karma doesn’t work that way) If it did? I’d be dead by now.

No, I’m focusing in on the words that tumble around in your head in those first few moments. The coherent ones, anyway. (I’ll give anyone a pass that can’t form a functional sentence until they get their first cup of coffee. I share a house with one of you) Not because they set a tone or anything, but because they DO influence the way you view yourself. Those words determine how you’re going to hold yourself for the rest of the day and interact with the world. More importantly, they decide how you’re going to speak to yourself as the hours progress.

And how you continue to talk to and about yourself.

The average person finds positive ways to describe themselves. They get out of bed, look in the mirror, and smile. “I am going to ace that presentation today.” Or they pour a mug of tea and think, “I am confident I can sell that pitch.” The slant of the words they cycle around their brains trends UP. Even if they encounter a bump in the road, they’re able to shrug things off and keep working. The constant reinforcement from their minds buoys them through adversity. It’s why you see a smile on their faces all the time. And why they’re usually morning people, encouraging you to start your day with a grin plastered on your face.

A nice theory, but not always practical.

For those of us with depression, we don’t get a positive voice in the back of our minds. That first glance in the mirror? It’s accompanied with, “I am a disaster. Why did I get out of bed?” Our morning beverage of choice gets stared at with thoughts of, “I am grossly incompetent. No one’s going to hire me.” And that sinister whisper continues to plague us. We get frown lines between our eyes, hunch our shoulders, and avoid eye contact. Hurdles throw us into despair because the only thing waiting to catch us is a mud pit and laughter. All we hear are doubts and reminders of every moment of our lives in which we failed. So getting up in the morning? That’s an ACCOMPLISHMENT in the first place. Asking for a smile on top of things is absurd.

Anyone with depression knows you need to change that inner dialogue. I know, it’s easier said than done. (I’m in that boat, too – remember?) So you start with something small. And something I’ve found that helps is narrowing my focus to two little words: “I am.” What you add after those words can determine which way your mood bends. And it grounds your mind into YOU, forcing you to examine a situation from YOUR point of view. It’s frightening, challenging, and requires supreme effort (we’re talking marathon strength here). But the end reward?

Well, you tell me what you think.

The notebook in the picture? It’s mine. I picked it up in my annual school supply splurge. (I’m not an addict or anything. If you don’t understand, talk to a writer) Within the pages, I keep a few different tallies for my writing, including the number of brave steps I accomplish each week. On Fridays, I then sit down and analyze how I did: with my business, with my mental outlook, and with my emotions. And at the end, I write out an “I am” statement. No matter how I feel the week went, that word MUST be positive. Sometimes it takes me an hour to come up with a way to finish the sentence, especially when I feel frustrated. (Believe me, I want to use “frustrated” ALL the time) But I refuse to accept anything less than a positive shift in my thinking.

This simple (okay, it’s not simple; it’s brutal and exhausting) exercise is already rewriting the patterns in my head. I catch myself reverting to the old way to speaking to myself and cut the flow of words off. It doesn’t mean I WON’T write out those frustrations in my analysis, but I’m not allowed to dwell on them. I HAVE to cycle around to a positive. It’s leading to a fight to keep my thinking on track.

And it’s EXHAUSTING!

But it’s helping. Instead of getting sucked into my usual pit of despair, I’m looking UP to the next step. And I don’t find those voices as overwhelming as I used to. Yes, they’re still there. (Let’s face it, no one’s cured depression) They just don’t own as much real estate in my thoughts as they have in the past.

So take some time out of your day and find an “I am” statement. Write it down. You don’t need to do it in a notebook; a scrap of paper will do. Steam up a mirror and write it there. Look at it and hold it in your mind. And then do it again tomorrow. And the next day. And the next. Train your brain to find a positive assessment about yourself. It’ll quiet all of the negative we battle.

Even if you’re not waking up with a bright, sunny smile every morning.

mental health

Toss the Red Pen

To err is human.”

~Alexander Pope

Everyone with a perfectionist streak can pinpoint the exact point in their life where the habit burrowed into their brain. Sometimes it showed up early, developing from demanding parental figures. Other times it makes a later appearance, courtesy of managers or co-workers with an inability to compromise. As fear of disappointing someone (to say nothing of the repercussions) sets in, you learn to hold a microscope – much easier to spot flaws with than a magnifying glass – up to your work and life and pick up the specks of error before they go out into the world. Because mistakes? They’re not tolerated.

Where did your need for perfection begin?

I fall into that first group. The eldest child, I got to serve as the “example” for my siblings (don’t you love when parents trot that phrase out?). Throw in a natural aptitude in school systems ill-prepared to handle above average intelligence, and it’s a recipe for disaster. Adults LOVE success. I suppose you can’t blame them, but when they see it, they expect the pattern to stick. One straight-A report card sets precedence. Before you know it, you hear, “If you get a B, we’re sending you to Siberia.” And, intelligent or not, a child brain can’t process the empty threat behind the words. All you hear is the implied disappointment. And a perfectionist is born.

The first time I DID see a B on an assignment? I ended up in a full meltdown. Where I knew kids in my class tore up and hid D or F papers, I contemplated the same with something the average family wouldn’t bat an eye over. All I could see was a monumental mistake, though. My world came crashing down. Everything – my dreams, my hopes, my plans – ended. All because I fumbled too many answers on an advanced math quiz (setting up my hatred for the discipline for years to come). It never even occurred to me that I was working on skills two years ahead of my age. I screwed up, and I needed to go home and pack my bags for a nebulous destination on the other side of the world. (Incidentally, my math skills didn’t extend to the fact that one B couldn’t tank my average score)

And this defeatist attitude followed me to adulthood.

Mistakes equaled abysmal failure. Naturally, I fought tooth and nail to avoid making a mistake in the first place. That meant driving everyone around me up the wall. Why did I need to spend an extra ten minutes on something? No one wanted to take a trip to the library to check a reference for a paper. (Yes, yes – I attended college before Google took off) What idiot stays up until 1:00 AM triple-checking a PowerPoint presentation for consistency? Even worse, when I spotted something I missed, I felt an uncontrollable need to point the error out – to EVERYONE. As if the people in the audience gave two shits about a misplaced bullet point. I stored up the rolled eyes, snickering, and “are you kidding me?” expressions as evidence of my failure.

Since a kid, I’ve chased the concept of perfect, deciding that a lack of mistakes meant success. And, tied with it, I’ve frozen my brain with the fear of destroying everything by tripping up over inconsequential tidbits. It’s something I KNOW other people cope with. You wind yourself up over every big assignment. And when you send an email to your boss (or an editor or a prospective employer), noticing at the last second that you spelled something wrong? You feel a mountain fall on your head. You’re positive the universe paints it in neon, flashing lights. And, of course, the person’s going to laugh, share it with the rest of the world, and turn you down.

Because that’s how mistakes work.

Except – as I’ve started figuring out – they don’t. If they DID, no one would succeed. How many books, newspapers, or magazines do you read with errors? Editors miss things all the time. People type slower than their brains work. And the more you work on something, pushing your mind and body past the point of exhaustion, the greater the odds you’ll fail to notice a mistake sliding into your work. But you still have a job, right? You still earn your paycheck. Clients still approach you. Because THEY don’t pay attention to the minutiae you obsess over!

Courtesy of other people hammering the lesson into ME, I’ve been working to break this need for perfection. And while it requires gritting my teeth, breaking a sweat, and enduring the shakes, I’ve allowed myself to MAKE mistakes. (Not berating myself about them is taking more work, but it’s also part of the process) For instance, I write both of my blogs stream-of-conscience. While I plan the topics ahead of time, I don’t write, review, and edit them ahead of time. So if they come out sloppy, with weird errors, so be it. I need to calm down the shrieking in the back of my head that tells me I sound like an incoherent moron, but it’s the best exercise I’ve done. It FORCES me to allow mistakes into my life.

And the Apocalypse hasn’t happened. (Go figure)

I’m ruthless about my work. I review, and review, and review everything – determined to please my clients. And I do a solid job. I also exhaust myself in the process. And if they notice something that needs tweaking? I go into a full-blown panic. That ISN’T how a person’s meant to behave. It tells me I still have PLENTY of work to do on breaking this habit. People make mistakes – and then they move on. You can fix boo-boos without a problem. Everyone does. So why should I hold myself to a higher standard?

If you find yourself in the same anxiety loop because you misspelled a word, you know what I’m talking about. And you need to get to work on a similar exercise. Find something you can do that might lead you down the road toward a mistake. (I don’t mean deliberately make a mistake, but leave the door open) And if you see one? Let it be. You can fix it, if someone asks you to. But if they don’t? Hey, guess what? You don’t need to pack your bags for Siberia. Who knows? Eventually, we might even approach something close to normal with our thinking.

mental health

Another?

Rejected
Photo by Kulbir from Pexels

Given the choice between acceptance and rejection, no sane person would run towards the person with their arms crossed in an emphatic “NO.” (Let’s set aside for the moment the fact that no one’s going to consider me a sane person) That’s basic human nature. We covet approval. The Millennial Generation, in particular, arose from a need to get a gold star for everything. People don’t like getting a door slammed in their face, especially when they’ve invested time and effort on a project they’re insanely proud of. That immediate repulse sends a negative message into their brain that lingers for days (weeks, months, years).

But rejection? It’s healthy.

Yes, that statement sounds completely and utterly INSANE. Why would you EVER want to invite rejection into your life? It’s painful. It leads to mental anguish (not to mention the physical repercussions of that mental instability). And it sets up roadblocks on the path to whatever you’re struggling towards. I won’t deny any of those statements. Every time laughs, hangs up the phone, tears up your email, or slams a door (even if those actions are only metaphorical), you feel the physically bruised. Sitting alone in a room, you swear a spotlight goes up the entire world can see. (And, of course, there’s a speakerphone to allow everyone to listen in) Everyone out there ends up privy to your humiliation. It’s ripe fodder for the nasty voice in the back of your mind to remind you of how pathetic a person you are, what drivel your dreams are, and how you’re likely NEVER going to accomplish anything.

Each time you hear that variation of rejection, it goes to work on your mind and body. As they pile up, you get a fresh anxiety loop. And trying to push through that tornado to attempt something new? It’s pure hell. We’re talking a full-blown panic attack just to submit a short story to a new market! Ask your boss for a raise when they gave you that look the last time? You’re positive your heart will stop. Approach a gallery about displaying your work? You can feel the aneurysm. Given the option, you’d rather baby-sit an entire gymnasium of small children than go into a situation promising rejection. So WHY am I suggesting you step out of the gym and walk down the street?!

Because it’s the only way to defeat that knee-jerk anxiety reaction. You can’t push through the wall of fear and panic and misery without an outer layer of numb skin. And that means learning to step up and EMBRACE rejection.

Like a BOSS!

I thought I had the rejection concept down. Writers either learn to accept it, or they stop writing. You can’t take those form letters – or even the personally-written letters – to heart if you plan to make it. Famous authors ALL received scathing responses at some point in their careers. Odds were they felt the sting of the words, but they didn’t let someone’s opinion drive them into a shadowy corner. Instead, they charged forward, continuing to fight for their place on a shelf. It’s what I told myself. And my stack of rejections? I track them and count them as progress. So I assumed I was immune to the entire process.

Ha! Maybe in THAT part of my life. But in everything ELSE? Nope. I was boxed in by this horrendous fear of someone looking at me, laughing, and then divulging in a global voice everything wrong with me. The panic paralyzed me, preventing me from taking a single risk with my freelance career (ironic, considering I write there, too). What if I made a fool of myself? I’d have to admit defeat. And then the entire world would know. (We always think the planet’s aware of what we do – funny, isn’t it?) I couldn’t MOVE. And I spiraled into this depressive state, convinced I’d made a mistake from the very beginning. A mistake in pursuing my DREAM.

Until someone made the remark that you NEED to look for opportunities FOR rejection. It sounded absurd and horrifying. Why in the world would I WANT someone to tell me no? I was supposed to be looking for a YES. The answer? Because the fear of that “no” was holding me back. And once I confronted the horrible “No Monster” head-on, I’d realize it wasn’t as terrible as I’d built it up to be in my mind. Instead, I could move on to the next potential no, and the next, and the next. Because the reality is, there’s a good chance somewhere in there is a yes I didn’t realize existed.

Dumbest thing I’d ever heard.

And I ignored the words for a long time. Well, I ignored FOLLOWING the words, anyway. They stuck in my brain. And when I finally hit a corner, with nowhere else to go, some tiny brave part of me decided it was worth a shot. I put myself out there for a rejection. I knew the odds were high I wouldn’t get the job. Guess what happened?

I didn’t get the position. And the world didn’t end. I also didn’t feel anywhere near as badly as I thought. For one, I’d prepared myself for the “no.” Two? The cataclysmic repulsion I’d built up in my mind didn’t occur. Instead, the response was a polite refusal with a request to keep my information on file for the future. I can live with that (it’s not something I’d rehearsed in my mind). More importantly? That heavy shadow I’d been dragging around? It got a little lighter. Maybe only a touch, but enough for me to notice.

It’s made me start the snowball rolling. Before, when I saw something I KNEW would yield a “no,” I passed it by. Now? I push myself to go for it. If it’s a no, it’s a no. All that means is that I’m back where I started. Okay, that’s not hurting anything. I can’t go BACKWARDS by trying. And I think that’s what they meant. I’m not one of those people where everything rolls off my back (not yet – maybe not ever), but at least I’m not cowering in the corner anymore. And while I’m still working on that first “yes,” I am at least working.

You can do the same. It takes WORK to push through that wall of anxiety (believe me). You need to give yourself multiple pep talks to knock on that first door. But the next door? You need less chatting. And your shoulders stay back a little easier. And I’m predicting that – down the road – you reach a point where you don’t even knock; you simply walk in with a smile on your face. How far that mile marker is, I don’t know. But if we don’t start hitting those doors NOW, we’ll never know.

mental health

Pumping the Breaks

“I may not have gone where I intended to go, but I think I have ended up where I needed to be.”

~Douglas Adams

Mention the word “vacation” and everyone sits back and begins to think of their perfect retreat. Some people picture tropical beaches, complete with an iced beverage and glittering white sands. For others, it means a mountain trail to a quiet lake, roaring waterfall, or a rocky overlook. Maybe it translates to days running around an amusement park, standing in line for the newest roller coasters (or waiting for your phone to let you know you’re clear to enter Galaxy’s Edge). And a break can even end up as something as simple as sitting on a porch or deck, enjoying your view of choice. That’s the EXPECTED reaction to the word.

But for some people? It’s anything but.

Ask some of us what “vacation” means, and we shake, hyperventilate, and break out in hives. Take a break from work? Are you serious? Turn off the phone, step away from email, and pretend there aren’t any responsibilities? Pretty sure that only occurs in movies – and it usually doesn’t end well when it DOES happen. What if something critical happens and you miss it? Maybe someone will see your Out of Office reply and decide you’re lazy or unmotivated. (A dedicated worker would snap to respond at any moment of the day or night – accepting work on vacation) And what if you’re somewhere with NO internet signal? (They exist – I found pockets of them) The chances for a lack of work skyrocket. The anxiety spirals set in, and you run screaming from the suggestion of a vacation – almost as if someone suggest you spend a week in a torture chamber.

Why? Programming, what else? Way too many of us spend years working in careers where “vacation” ends up a taboo subject. Sure, you have vacation days or hours as part of your benefits package. But the reality is Management DOESN’T want you to use them. (Paying you for NOT working? It’s not something they’re fond of) That’s why you see that disapproving expression when you submit your Time Off request. Sometimes you get the bonus of a sigh – as if you’re asking for a promotion to Owner of the Company. And some places make you jump through elaborate hoops to get that time off. You may need to submit your request MONTHS ahead of time. In other places, you have to find someone to cover your shift – even AFTER you’ve followed the other rules. And you may even have to compete with more senior employees for time; if someone else decides they want a week off? You’re out of luck.

The system is designed to KEEP you working.

And (as a hard-working employee) that’s what you do. It’s not like you get many hours off, anyway. (At least, I usually didn’t) Then you grit your teeth when Management stands up in meetings, talking about the importance of self-care. And when you finally get a precious vacation here and there? You take phone calls from work. Or you walk back in (because you know better than to go too far from home). Your brain learns that you’re not supposed to do anything EXCEPT work. Until your anxiety starts screaming any time you’re NOT working. It’s a sadistic system, and it’s rampant in the careers out there.

The worst part? I STILL fight with this concept. And I’M my boss now! I call the shots and have the right to take a vacation whenever I want. But when my husband and I started discussing plans for a break, that familiar anxiety was waiting for me. I didn’t feel right leaving everything behind. It got to the point he made me PROMISE not to work while we were away. No checking (or answering) email. No new writing. No phone calls. I was to RELAX and turn my brain off. (Such a novel concept)

I felt like an outright criminal. An entire week without focusing on my job? Seven days spent away from my computer? My brain braced for lectures, frowns, disapproving glares. None of them came, of course. And around the third day, I realized how STUPID that system is, and how much damage it did to my mental health.

I lost SO MUCH enjoyment on vacations in the past, constantly feeling chained to my phone and needing to check in with my job. Whenever I found a moment of tranquility or joy, that stupid piece of technology would break in and ruin everything. But this past week? That never happened – because I refused to let it. So I got the chance to laugh, NAP, and reset my system. You know – the things you’re SUPPOSED to do on a vacation. Making that promise was the best thing I’ve ever done.

And the world didn’t end!

If a client feels I’m lazy for taking a much-needed vacation? I don’t want to work with them. But someone that wants to work with me will respect my time off. That’s the way the working world SHOULD function. If people want us to thrive, they need to allow us time away to unplug and regenerate. Sitting over a laptop in a panic attack – even on a beach – isn’t HEALTHY! Why don’t corporations understand that? People DIE every year from stress and overwork. And it’s due to the system they’ve created.

Yeah, I’ve broken free from the insanity at this point. But not everyone can do the same. If you’re not self-employed, you need to feel empowered to stand up for your vacation time. (I can’t advocate breaking the rules they’ve set; you don’t want to get fired) When you punch out of that clock? TURN OFF YOUR PHONE! You’re NOT available any more. They have plenty of other employees they can contact for an answer. And while you’re at it? Unplug your brain. Your work worries will wait for you (don’t worry about that). When you sit back at your desk, you can pick them up again. But for the time you’ve carved out? You don’t need them.

It’s WELL past the time that we took back our vacation time. We are NOT robots with endless programming. And management structures need to understand that. Preferably before they land their top employees in a hospital – or a grave.