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.

mental health

Flattery

Photo by Tara Winstead from Pexels

Yes, I’m about to trot out an old saying: “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.” If you’re anything like me, you heard the phrase for the first time as a child. Say, when your little sister starts wearing the same outfits as you, joins the same swim team, or attempts to read the same books (despite a five-year age difference). You voiced a complaint and your parents pulled out that old gem to attempt to quell your indignation. And you ignored the sage advice because NOTHING’S more annoying than someone copying everything you do (especially little sisters).

So you missed the lesson.

The phrase dates back to the early 18th century. And while plenty of people twist it into a sarcastic meaning, the origins centered around an unintentional flattery. A person adopts aspects they see in another because they feel they’re POSITIVE. And while it ends up getting viewed as imitation (and usually in a negative light), the intent’s far from it. Younger siblings adopt the mannerisms, habits, and looks of those around them because they ADMIRE them and want to BE them. And while it’s obnoxious to walk into the mall with a “mini me” trailing behind you, it’s an artless form of flattery. (Yes, I know – no one goes to the mall anymore. It used to be a thing, okay?)

These days, everyone’s obsessed with being unique. And I’m entirely for finding and being yourself at all times. But when you exude that kind of confidence, it attracts attention. People turn their heads to watch you walk by. They see things they’ve never thought of. And you INSPIRE them to try the same thing. It’s imitation, sure, but for the RIGHT reasons. And getting defensive about it helps no one – least of all a person brave enough to climb out of their shell. Yet that’s what seems to be happening most of the time.

Everyone develops their social media presence. And – I get it – you work hard to carve out a different space from what already exists. Then you see something SIMILAR and lose your mind over it. (Note: I’m not referring to outright plagiarism here. I DON’T support that in any way, shape, or form) Suddenly, you’re attacking that person, crushing their self-image and turning them into piles of anxiety. All because they took a few of your IDEAS for inspiration. Imitation that FLATTERED the work you did in the first place. And now it’s a quivering pile of misery and depression.

Good job.

I’ll pull from my writing roots here for an example. I participated in a critique group ages ago, before I found the beta-readers I have now. I was still learning the ropes and figuring out the best way to write up my critiques to make them beneficial to the writers. And then I received one of my critiques back. The way the writer broke everything down? It was beautiful. Not to mention providing all of the information I needed to fix the short story. I took their format, made some tweaks for the way I read/edited, and I started using that for my critiques. And I couldn’t wait for the chance to review on of their stories and show them how I’d adapted their template.

Well, that opportunity arose a few weeks later. And, holy hell, you would have thought I committed a crime. They didn’t even pay attention to a word of my critique. Instead, I received a scathing message about how I’d STOLEN their review format. They were going to report me to the head of the group, get me banned, tell every other writer they knew so I wouldn’t find a welcome in any other critique group – it went on and on. Being the fragile newbie writer I was, I couldn’t apologize (or cry) enough. I felt WRETCHED. And I slunk away. I didn’t attempt to find a new critique group for YEARS.

And I did NOTHING wrong!

First, their precious format? No copyright. (And if you DO copyright that kind of thing? You’re a colossal moron) Second, I didn’t plagiarize it. I modified it to work with how I reviewed stories. I LOVED the way they set things out, so I adapted it to work for me. Third, stealing? That implies something malicious. And my intent was far from negative. Exactly like my sister, I was looking up to someone I admired and attempting to follow in their footsteps. And – as much as I hate to admit it – like I did to my sister, they slapped me in the face for my innocent imitation.

People can genuinely demonstrate flattery. They pick out things they admire, enjoy, or find intriguing. And rather than roaring in defiance, I think it’s important to pause and look for those possibilities FIRST. There’s no such thing as an original idea. EVERYTHING exists out there already. Does it have your unique twist on it? Probably not. But the same holds true for someone else. And if you look close enough (take off your angry eyes), you’ll probably see it. Odds are YOU took inspiration from someone – whether you want to admit it or not. Weren’t you trying to flatter them?

Someone somewhere looks up to you. And as long as they’re not photocopying you (with the exception of siblings – you’re out of luck there), what’s the harm? A little bit of imitation isn’t going to kill you. Destroying them, though? You could damage someone in ways you can’t imagine. It took me years to regain my writing confidence. And daring to trust another writing group? I felt like I was stepping in front of a firing squad! I suffered a horrific anxiety attack when I submitted that first short story.

While I’ll allow that there are exceptions to everything, imitation’s not worth getting your blood pressure up. Even if someone’s doing it out of sarcasm, they’re not going to keep it up if you don’t react. Keep being you – 100% – and smile. Accept the flattery and move on.

And remember that siblings WILL grow up…eventually.

mental health

A Necessary Evil?

“There are positive things that come of social media as well as negative.”

~Millie Bobby Brown

Maybe this will demonstrate my age, but when I was a kid (and even a teenager), social media didn’t exist. No smart phones, no digital cameras even – at least, not until the latter part of my youth. Instead of spending every day glued to a mechanical device, flipping through posts, tweets, and photos, we ran around outside like heathens. When you took a picture, you needed to wait for the roll of film to get developed to figure out you looked like a goof. (At the very least, you wafted the Polaroid around for a minute) People traded gossip behind whispers and scribbled notes passed from hand to hand in the back of the classroom. And when someone disliked you? You usually found out via marker on your desk or locker – anonymous bullying.

Sounds vaguely familiar, right?

While social media claims it’s a step ahead of the game, everyone knows the pattern grew out of those high school corridors. And while you’re supposed to register and prove your existence with official emails to prevent anonymous bullying, everyone knows that doesn’t happen. With endless sources available, people create plenty of accounts with the aim to harass or promote themselves. It’s the modern equivalent of gangs and sending yourself flowers on Valentine’s Day. And people continue to get trampled into the dirt, thrown into the corner of the bathroom, and pitched down the stairs. The only difference is no one gets a physical bruise anymore. Oh, right, and there’s no Principal to report to.

I’m not going to lie: I hated school. But I also didn’t fall into any circle of acceptance. As a military brat, I moved throughout my youth, entering and exiting grades. While my peers usually grew up with one another, I stumbled in on established friendships. And, yes, I was weird. I didn’t have the right accent. I knew different histories than the teacher kept reciting. (Newsflash: every region slants things and picks out the elements they want to focus on) I’d traveled from one end of the country to the other and seen and done things no one else had even heard of. As it turned out, no one cared about those things, either. And when I took a few steps away after bubbling about this, that, or the other, I could hear the giggles and ridicule.

Social media? It’s more sinister.

Some people WILL laugh at you directly. But you have the potential to interact with people from around the world. And that means you won’t see them sitting at their computer, falling out of their chair at your remark. Instead, you stumble across the sarcastic video where they mimic the way you talk, or quote something you said. And you get to see everyone else laughing in response. Or you attempt to join a conversation and find yourself squeezed out (or ignored). It’s the bullying of the past multiplied by an infinite number. And it’s ACCEPTED by the masses! Because social media found its niche with generations that never experienced the real thing. So they thrive within the safe walls of their little worlds where there’s no genuine repercussions for their actions. (Remember: no Principal)

I know, all of the heads of every company promise they have checks and balances in place. It sounds good, but you only need to observe for a few moments to witness the blatant failures. Cyber bullying has sent how many people to their deaths? False news (something so rampant it’s now an official definition) has created how much chaos? Social media took the game of Telephone we played as kids and morphed it into a living, breathing monster and loosed it on the world – with no containment plan. And when someone tries to point out the problem, the “fixes” usually only create a bigger issue.

Social media isn’t going anywhere. Those little wires are firmly embedded into everyone’s brains (coming soon, I have no doubt). And while I despise the damage it wreaks every day, I have to wince and acknowledge the positives it’s brought at the same time. The opportunity the global reach extends for artists is invaluable. Regardless of budget or location, writers, sculptors, painters, and sewers (and everything else you can imagine) have a chance to carve out a small space for themselves. If they can snag ONE person’s interest, the potential exists to grow an audience. Before long, social media grants them a platform and a following. They gain popularity and opportunities to expand their work.

It’s something they often struggled with before.

I resisted the social media fiend for YEARS. While everyone I knew was playing around on MySpace (don’t laugh), I skipped that era entirely. My Facebook account existed simply so I could exchange photos with friends and family around the country. To this day, my friend count? It’s under three digits (shocking, I know). But as a freelancer, I’ve had to admit the platforms out there can help me. And that means gritting my teeth and dropping into the deep end of the pool – with all of the piranhas. These people are VICIOUS, too! As you do everything you can to promote a positive image of who you are and what you have to offer, all you get slammed with is silence, bots (my personal favorite to deal with), or ignorance. It’s enough to make a person give up!

But you see the same story from other artists out there. They’re learning TikTok, Discord, and Twitch. People are setting up Kickstarter projects to branch out projects and flooding social media to spread the word. The persistence drives you to find new ways to market yourself and call attention to the work you’re doing. And (eventually) it pays off. You just have to keep struggling through the quagmire that exists.

Kind of like surviving to graduation.

mental health

Unicorn Without a Horn

Inspirational clothing
Photo by Jane Pham from Pexels

Spend even a few moments in the rabbit hole that is social media, and you’ll find any number of sources of inspiration. People carve out their individual niches for fashion, health and wellness, travel, and (of course) their adorable pets. Maybe you don’t think of those things as “inspiration,” but the images provoke emotions and thoughts – both positive and negative. Oh, sure, some people have shallow aspirations behind their work (i.e., profit), but if you dig deep enough, you’ll stumble upon the artists and thinkers. You can find minds and contemplations worthy of admiration. Maybe you even click those “follow” buttons because of the twinge of inspiration they struck in your thoughts.

That’s how charisma works.

It’s the same principle at work with motivational speakers. Whatever the topic, you find yourself swept up and riveted. Energy zips through your veins and you walk out of the room, ready to conquer the world. Even in a stadium of thousands, you feel an immediate connection to that person. You KNOW they held eye contact – even for a brief moment. The words form a bond with some part of your life. These people inspire you and make you feel that anything – goals, dreams, aspirations – are easily attainable. Charisma and ease infuse their bodies and voices. Without it, you wouldn’t pay attention to more than a sentence of their message – if that.

You can probably name at least five people that inspire you, because of that passionate fire. And they don’t even need to bring it out with a bullhorn. Charisma carries through in art, photography, and writing. Something about the person or their work catches your attention and makes you want to follow them (not literally, of course – that’s stalking and against the law). The people we hold as inspirations make huge impacts on our lives.

But BEING an inspiration? That’s a different story.

Unless you’ve determined to fall into one of those categories, you don’t expect to hear that you inspire someone. In general, people don’t get out of the bed with a eye on their actions and behaviors. Sure, you appreciate recognition for a job well-done, and acknowledgement of your accomplishments always makes your day. But that’s not the same thing as someone stepping out of the woodwork and saying, “You inspire me.”

Wait – what?

I struggle every moment of every day to get my life in order, battle inner demons (who usually win), drown in anxiety loops, and fall down endless steps of failure. Am I inspiring you to NOT be like me? (THAT, at least, makes sense)

The truth is, though, someone somewhere probably DOES look up to you. Even while you’re looking at the shattered disaster of everything wrong in your life (because that’s what people with depression are best at), they’re zeroing in on one thing you did right – and conveniently overlooked. Or, because they aren’t in your head 24/7, they manage to see things from a different perspective than you do. YOU focus on the events that caused all of the scars, but they see the strength it takes to survive the battle to emerge on the other side. And while you feel like a battered disaster area who only just limped over the finish line, they view you as an inspiration who accomplished something other people find impossible.

Crazy, right?

This argument’s been churning around in my head for a few weeks. I didn’t do more than answer a friend’s question. But before I knew it? We were comparing “war wounds” regarding anxiety and worrying about what other people think of us. Suddenly, she threw out that comment of, “You inspire me so much.” I didn’t know what to do, so I sat there like an idiot. I’m NOT an inspiration to anyone. I still go through at least one breakdown a day over SOMETHING. In fact, her words sent me down a new spiral of panic. (Was she making a joke? Did someone put her up to that? Was I misunderstanding the words? What subtext was I overlooking?)

In the end, I fell back on my old stand-by: I’ve gotten where I am through a TON of work and fighting. It deflected the compliment, but it wasn’t a complete lie. But it also didn’t admit how uncomfortable I was with her statement – or the fact that I felt like a complete fraud. I WANTED to tell her that I’m not an inspiration to anyone. I screw up all the time. I make the wrong decision. And figuring out the answers? I’m still working on that. But those all sounded…not inspirational? So I ran and hid (which, you know, is VERY inspirational).

Since then, I’ve thought more on the topic. I’ve looked at the times I’ve spent with my niece and nephew, and the things they say. Kids choose fictional characters for inspiration all the time, and we don’t bat an eye. No one (okay, not NO ONE – but rational individuals) stops them from that admiration. Hell, my niece is a complete and utter badass, and she’s only seven. She inspires me every time she talks or charges out into the world – completely fearless and determined to carve out her place. The time she dressed as Batman for Halloween and corrected everyone that tried to call her Batgirl? Yeah, that’s my girl.

Maybe you DON’T need qualifications to inspire.

So I wrote down a list of other people who check one or two boxes of some sort of inspiration in my life. Whether they make me smile, get me moving, drive me forward in my work, or make me feel like a human being. And while a few motivational speakers popped up, as well as some of my favorite artists, most of the list? Probably not anyone the general public’s heard of. If they’re on MY list, maybe it makes sense that I can show up on someone else’s list. For whatever reason they have (most likely as a cautionary tale).

You don’t know how someone else views what you’re doing. While you’re standing on the edge of the cliff, gasping for breath and staring at the blisters and cuts and cursing the climb, someone else is gazing in wonder that you managed something so monumental. And maybe, MAYBE if you take a second to look at things from their side, you won’t beat yourself up quite as much as normal. It’s a theory, anyway – one I’m trying to implement. Not to be an inspiration to anyone (I have no desire to be one of those), but so you can feel better about yourself and what you’re accomplishing every day.

mental health

Hiccups

People may not always appreciate the anxious and their need to over-analyze a situation to death, but it means we’re usually prepared for the worst to happen. (Which it usually will – maybe 90% of the time…Okay, maybe only 80%) Even when we champion over our “doom spirals” and charge forward, we have a duffel bag full of resources and alternate plans (Plan B-Plan Omega) ready to go. It’s annoying to listen to us diagram every possibility, but most people admit we’re handy to have around when the fences fail and the T-rex breaks out of containment.

Until we trip on a branch and sprain our ankle.

Because – for all of our brilliant reasoning and the ability to foresee disaster – we aren’t perfect. And we’re not always the best at foreseeing minor stumbling blocks. Even worse, coping with those hiccups? Yeah, we tend to fail there, too. Our emergency duffels contain everything you need to combat Armageddon – but we forgot the ankle wraps. (Seriously – who remembers that kind of thing when meteors might come raining down on your head?) So we hobble along, getting slowly left behind by the group – mostly because we’ve already resigned ourselves to the approaching zombie horde. (Alright, yes, I’m mixing up movie scenarios here)

My point is, when you’re fantastic at seeing the big picture, you’re usually lousy with the finer details of things. And you let those tiny blips DESTROY you – because you feel like you should have done a better job at scouting them ahead of time. It’s a stumble, a trip, and stub of the toe, but you let your mind build it up into a twenty-car monstrosity on the highway. ANYTHING to justify the fact that you just twisted your foot around on a rock on the path. And you forgot that Ace bandage in your backpack.

Clearly, you’re a useless idiot.

One slip-up, and your mind goes to work, conjuring up an entirely new Doomsday situation. And YOU LET IT! Because if you were smarter, faster, better, [insert adjective here], you wouldn’t have stumbled on that obstacle in the first place. So, obviously, you’re a colossal moron. And your depression’s only too happy to pick up that narrative and run with it. The longer this goes on, the further you get from the path you started on. And now you’re falling – over and over again. Instead of climbing toward your goal and that crucial dream, you’re slogging around in the swamps, tearing your hands and feet up on impossible climbs – and you still haven’t addressed that ankle in the first place.

All from ONE little stumble!

Me? I’m a champion at this. And the worst part? I PLAN for everything in my life to go to shit (at some point), but a bump in the road? Yeah, pitches me straight off the cliff. And by the time I get my head screwed back on straight, I’m left wondering why I attempt to climb the mountain in the first place. Because I lose SO MUCH ground! All because of tiny hiccups in the path – none of which I could anticipate or do anything about. But I’m bound and determined to shoulder the blame for that tree branch lying on the ground. Clearly, I put it there – so I could trip over it.

I’ve had work contracts come to end. Not because of me, but due to outside forces. And I even get it: shit happens to everyone. (Not every obstacle’s as easy to get around as a rock) My clients gave me rave reviews and asked to work with me again down the road, should things change. No biggie, right? But in my brain, anxiety and depression got together, had a chat over coffee, and translated the situation to, “You are the worst writer in the world and deserved to be fired.” Cue the whirlpool: I couldn’t write. Why was I even doing this as a career? I’d never get another job. I should just give up and work at McDonald’s. Oh, wait – they think I’m overqualified to flip hamburgers. I probably can’t do that, either.

And I bought it!

WHY? This is how freelance writing works – and I even KNOW that! The end of a contract is nothing more than a stumbling block. And it’s not even like I don’t have other work, currently. Not to mention that I have plenty of avenues to garner additional clients out there. Or I could take the downtime to focus on my speculative fiction. I was misreading a wave hitting the ship as an iceberg and jumping in the lifeboat for no reason. (How many disasters can I fit into one post? Let’s count them, shall we?) But this is how my brain works. And I KNOW it’s the same way for plenty of other people.

When you struggle with self-confidence, anxiety, and depression, EVERYTHING can feel like a setback. And you have to interrupt the flow of that thinking. Okay, you fell and twisted your ankle. And maybe there IS a slasher coming up behind you. But are you incapacitated or just bruised? Because those are two dramatically different situations. One lands you on the “deceased” roster for the film. The other? It might just get you to the final credits. And that’s the conversation you have to have with yourself.

Maybe you didn’t plan for or anticipate the stumble. Does that mean you don’t have any resources to cope with it? Of course not! You’re a champion worrier! Even if you didn’t bring the bandages, you probably have SOMETHING that’ll work in a pinch. And with enough motivation, you can get your ankle stabilized so you can keep going. But you have to MAKE that choice.

Can you overcome the hurdle?

When I FINALLY stopped listening to my inner monologue, I sat down and made a new plan. I wrote out the steps I wanted to take to get myself back on track. And I’ve already crossed off half of it – within a week. (Turns out my motivation never went anywhere – it just got a little buried in the avalanche of bullshit) Maybe that’s what you need to do. You’re already accomplished at making out those lists. So add a new one to get your ass around the obstacle – even if it’s a small one.

It’s better than getting abducted by aliens, right?