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

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?

mental health

Being Unavailable

Everyone that’s ever responded to a text message or email after work hours, raise their hand. If you’ve taken a phone call related to work on the weekend (and I’ll use the term “weekend” loosely, as people work different schedules), keep your hand up. Finally, ANY work-type function performed during a vacation (mini or otherwise), leave your hand up. Now, be completely honest:

Is your hand up?

Yup, so’s mine. Welcome to the world of the workaholic. We have no sense of self preservation, and no concept of the word “boundary.” SOME event in our lives drove us hurl ourselves off the cliffs of perfection and people-pleasing. And our brains translated those needs into answering every beck and call as if our very lives depend on it. It doesn’t occur to us that – unless you happen to work for an actual Evil Overlord – we won’t die if we start setting up boundaries and allow those intrusions into our downtime to pass by. In some cases (say, if you’re dating, married, or have families), it MIGHT allow us to live longer.

Now, I’m not telling you to abandon a healthy work ethic. You don’t come across those very often these days, and they ensure quality. There’s nothing wrong with throwing yourself into everything you do, avoiding distraction. But when you punch out at the end of the day? You’re DONE. You don’t need to continue dancing attendance to the “powers that be.” Especially when it starts compromising your health and well-being. Running around in circles, frantically watching a phone every moment of the day? How does that improve ANYONE’S anxiety?

Newsflash: It doesn’t.

I worked in veterinary medicine for ten years – usually at emergency practices. That meant I could receive a text at any moment, asking me to come in and cover a shift. I understood the possibility, and while I wasn’t always coherent when texts or calls came through, I faithfully kept my phone on and the volume up. It never occurred to me that other people turned theirs off when they were home, ignoring THEIR messages. It took me years of agreeing – over and over – to add hours to my week, stretching myself thin, before I caught on. And by then? I’d established a pattern. Trying to back away and say, “No” became nearly impossible. I couldn’t figure out how to put up boundaries when my back already looked like a well-worn welcome mat.

And transitioning to freelance work? Things didn’t get better. Oh, sure, I set my hours and days. But the panic of reacting to the snap of someone’s fingers was already set in my mind. As soon as a message, email, or text came in, I jumped to handle it. Who cared if it was five minutes before I crawled into bed? Or on the weekend when I’d decided I wouldn’t work? How about the week of my wedding when I firmly declared I WASN’T working? The ingrained pattern drove me to reach for a keyboard. And my husband frowned and made the same comment, “I thought you were done for the day.”

I had ZERO boundaries!

If you don’t put down pickets and barbed wire (sometimes you need razor wire AND an electric fence), you’ll never learn to break the habit. And YOU’RE the one who has to set and hold a boundary, not the people around you. Because odds are pretty high you’ve trained people to walk all over you. A neat little note asking them to stop? That’s not going to work. You have to slam the door in their face a few times to get the message through. And, honestly, all of those barriers are for YOU just as much as they are for them. Trying to hold those boundaries is difficult. You’re breaking a habit that’s engraved down to the BONE. Erasing muscle memory takes a force of will. One you probably don’t have, courtesy of your anxiety that a client, your co-worker, or your boss will HATE you for deciding to insist on your time to relax.

The withdrawal? It’s real. I haven’t made it to the point of not checking my professional email account – mostly because I also use it for my personal writing. So I see messages come in after I’ve finished for the day or week. And there’s an internal LURCH to respond. Then my brain starts attacking me when I say (aloud), “I’ll take care of this in the morning (or Monday).” Every negative thought in the world shrieks in my inner ear. And I start shaking. Because my go-to gut reaction is to handle the response immediately. I have to talk myself down from the ledge – and, no, that isn’t an exaggeration.

Who cares that it’s dinner? I should drop what I’m doing and send a reply ASAP so my client knows… Oh, wait. So they know what? That I’m not a human being? That I chain myself to my desk and do nothing except sit and wait to hear from them like a dog in a shelter – desperate for any crumb of affection? Put the phone down and worry about it later.

It’s the weekend, but they have a question? I need to make sure I answer it! Because if I don’t the world will come screeching to a halt? Did they specify that the issue was immediate? Or didn’t it say “when you have a chance?” Doesn’t that imply they understand I have other things going on? Because I TOLD them I don’t work on weekends so I can spend time with my husband?

It’s exhausting!

But it’s also an important exercise. The week of my wedding was insanely stressful – for a ton of reasons. Letting myself fret over work issues (none of which were critical), was stupid. I’d set out of office announcements and let all of my clients know ahead of time about the time off. The fact that it got ignored wasn’t my problem. But instead of holding my boundary firm, I let them trample over the line. And I suffered as a result. It was the same as taking a text to cover a shift when I was on vacation (a POSTED vacation) years before.

When you don’t set boundaries, you give up pieces of yourself. And your mental health suffers. You don’t get rest (obviously, since you’re constantly staring at your phone in horrified anticipation). Downtime becomes a complete and utter joke. You might as well move into your office, because you never “leave.” Then there’s the domino of what happens with the people around you. Your family gets frustrated with your never turning “off” work. Friends get irritated with your need to step aside all the time. And you come apart trying to please everyone.

Are you going to get shocked by that fence a few times? Yup. Is it going to hurt? You bet. But will you thank yourself for putting up the fence down the road? YES. I feel the hiccup of tension and anxiety, but then I put my phone down and go back to what I was doing. I mean, I’m a work in progress, but I’ve come a long way from how I used to be. But you have to take that first step. You won’t regret it.

mental health

A Thousand [Wrong] Words

My Wedding Picture

Take a look at the photo above and let me know what you see. I’ll tell you my first impressions. The left strap of her dress has come down (she really should have fixed that before the photographer snapped the picture). And I think she needed to pull the dress up, it’s showing too much cleavage. Then there’s the fact that she isn’t smiling (though maybe her smile’s hideous, so who knows – this may be the better option). Her shoulders are rolled a little forward, showing poor posture. She’s incredibly pale, too. You’d think she’d have tanned, right? And while there’s some hint of bone structure at her collar bone, you can easily tell she’s not a thin and trim girl.

Harsh or just realistic?

Now, before you start condemning me to the depths for judging someone like this, the photo’s mine. It’s from my wedding, actually. And I’ve spent plenty of time looking at it and dissecting it. (This is one of my better assessments, truth be told) I’m also the only person to analyze it this way – to my face, anyway. Most people that saw it when I shared it gushed and went on an on about how beautiful I looked. I responded the way I always do: I deflected the compliment by assuring them it was only due to the work of my hairstylist (who also did my makeup – and she DID accomplish an amazing job). And, mentally, I told myself they were saying the words you’re supposed to on someone’s wedding day.

I’ve always picked photos of myself apart. And it goes back to my issues with self-image. Use whatever lens or filter you want: all I’m going to see is the distortion my brain’s programmed with. It zeroes in on every millimeter of cellulite and loose skin (translate that to “fat” – though my husband glares when I use the word), every stray hair, every imperfection – and I fully admit they’re usually imagined. It made me duck away and hide from cameras. And the words, “Let me take your picture” turned my stomach.

So I developed bad behaviors.

I always drifted to the back of group photos so I could hid as much of my body as humanly possible. (And since I’m tall, I told myself it was acceptable) I’d sneak an arm behind my back to try to tug loose clothes tighter so I wouldn’t look misshapen and fat. (News flash: when you wear scrubs, it doesn’t work) I turned sideways as much as possible – at least until I realized that did nothing to disguise the fact I was overweight. Because I always seemed to end up with people thinner than me, so comparisons were inevitable. And trying to focus on my face alone? Forget it. I’ve resigned myself to the fact I will never master the art of the selfie. The angles never come out right, making me look wrong no matter what I try.

The number of pictures I’ve deleted could fill a warehouse. But I can’t do anything about the photos other people take. Except stare at them, and hate them, and pull them apart. The phrase, “I hate having my picture taken” became my motto. It was easier to hold up my hand in front of a lens than to explain the resulting photo would land me in a fugue of depression. And I know plenty of other people out there struggle with the same problem. If you can’t look at yourself in the mirror, a picture is ten thousand times worse.

Because you can spend HOURS hating it!

The longer you stare at a picture, the more you find wrong with it. It doesn’t matter that other people use photo programs and filters to alter their images (that idea never occurs to us). All we see is perfection on one hand and every flaw on the other. Oh, we KNOW the pictures we see on those social media accounts aren’t real. But our minds aren’t wired to let that understanding through. Instead, all we can hear are the whispers telling us what’s wrong with US. And self-preservation encourages us to stay away from the source of our misery.

Then I came across this picture. It wasn’t posed like the other. (I didn’t know our friend took it) And when I sat down to start pulling it apart and cycle through my usual depressive spiral, I didn’t make it very far. Not because I couldn’t find things wrong (Please: my brain had a list within 5 seconds). It was more because something else clicked. I look HAPPY in this picture. That doesn’t happen in most pictures. And that’s where the key turned.

I went back over other photos, looking for similar smiles. And I remembered a few my husband took when I wasn’t looking. They were different from those horrible “let’s take a picture!” images I’ve always despised. I still WANTED to pick out the flaws, but the overwhelming feeling was more, “Gee, I look like ME.”

And I changed my mind about pictures.

It’s HARD, I won’t deny that. My gut reaction whenever I see a photo is to break out my mental magnifying glass and start taking notes. But I’m getting better about stopping myself and stepping back. I’ve even managed to share some progress photos on my weight loss with my coach. (My anxiety won’t let me share them with the entire group yet) I didn’t see the progress until she helped me, but now? I get it. And that allowed me to see things differently in the mirror.

I used to get annoyed when my husband would sneak a photo when I wasn’t looking. But they’re some of the best pictures out there. Because they’re REAL. So I’ve stopped protesting. And I’ve learned to smile – when I see them. (Let’s be real – I’m not the kind of person to walk around with a goofy smile on my face) They’re a part of who I am, and they represent what HE sees in me. It’s a new lens I can use in MY mind. And it’s healthier than the shadows my depression wants to use.

Even a year ago, I never would have dreamed of sharing my face with complete strangers. Oh, sure, I have a headshot for my freelance work. (It’s actually from our engagement photo shoot – another set of pictures I found myself loving, even though some of them WERE posed) But this is different. And I’m proud of the progress I’ve made. The negative voices still circle in my head, of course. But I can also drown them out with a few positive shouts. And that’s my hope for other people.

Don’t worry about filters or PhotoShop or whatever other programs are out there. And don’t let the voices in your head get to you. Somewhere in your phone or a shoebox or an album, there’s a picture that encapsulates YOU. And when you find that happy moment, it’ll lead you to the next and the next and the next. Once you pick up the thread, you’ll find a way to see your pictures differently. And maybe you’ll stop hiding from the camera. Just a little.

mental health

Someone Else

“I have said that he has the power to deliver a compliment and make it hurt. So, too, he can say something that ought to be insulting and deliver it in such a way that it feels like being truly seen.”

~Holly Black, The Wicked King

You know when someone’s about to say something sweet about you. Their eyes light up, the corners of their lips curve, and a light emanates from their face. Meanwhile, your skin feels like it’s trying to crawl away from you, and your stomach drops out of your body. Your shoulders hunch up around your ears, and you drop your gaze to their feet. Maybe (just maybe) if you avoid eye contact they’ll stop talking.

Nope, too late – they spout that compliment.

Now you’re left standing in an awkward hunch, curled inward and mumbling incoherently in protest. If you’re lucky, the person’s a friend or acquaintance who’ll give you an odd look and move on. If the stars are misaligned, the person’s a boss or superior who’s going to continue to stand there and stare at you – wondering if you suddenly took leave of your senses. Because who in their right mind doesn’t love getting a compliment?

It makes sense, right? Compliments are positive statements made to buoy a person’s ego and heighten their day. The bulk of the population walks around collecting them with a fervor that matches PokemonGO. You can almost see the trophy case they install each statement inside, the time and care they invest in polishing the best ones. Bored? Ask a person to trot out their best compliments, and you’ll get entertained with hours of details and perfect recitations. That’s how normal, functional people behave. Because compliments are GOOD things. They’re meant to be treasured and enjoyed.

And then there’s the rest of us.

People like me treat compliments like bombs. We start hunting for the closest fallout shelter as soon as we detect that upbeat tone of voice. Excuses bubble up from our throats in a desperate attempt to head off those words. Anything, ANYTHING to prevent the other person from speaking. Is there a glass wall nearby we can dive through? A cliff we can jump off? A hole we can fall into? (Laugh if you want, but we honestly look for any escape route we can find) Compliments twist up our minds and bodies into knots, leaving us feeling beaten and broken.

It’s not because we’re wired wrong (although people with depression have that working against them). The problem comes from deeper in our pasts. See, not every compliment is spoken with sincerity. Girls, in particular, like to wield sweetness as a blade. Girls are MEAN (if you aren’t one or haven’t been one, you have no frame of reference). They’ll speak words they don’t mean, then turn around and laugh when you straighten your spine. Over time, your trust breaks. You assume every compliment is a lie, a joke. It’s another way for people to laugh at you behind your back.

So you stop accepting compliments.

Your brain teaches you to curl up in defense. You build walls and seek a way out. And it cripples you down the road. To this day, I flinch at compliments – even from the people I love the most. I look away and turn my head when my fiance’ tells me I look beautiful. (I rarely ask him if I look nice – so I guess he wins there) I cringe when clients praise my work – though I luck out there as most of our communication happens via messaging and email, so they never see. I dismiss family members, insisting they have to say nice things due to the familial bond. Friends? My teeth are always clenched (which is super awesome for my TMJ, incidentally).

I’ve never figured out how to accept a compliment. I parrot the expected “Thank you” in an effort to end the conversation. I scoot away. And in my mind (at least, I hope it’s in my mind), I roll my eyes and dismiss every word. I have never fit in to any group, and so I’ve always found myself the target of jokes. THAT I have no problem accepting (crazy, right?). And so even when a part of me screams that the words are true, I can’t accept them. I make excuses and the rest of my brain tells me it’s just people being polite.

Not a great mindset for someone getting married in 11 days.

People don’t think about the damage they cause with their pranks. And people don’t understand those like us. They think our reaction is rude, egotistical, or backward. Instead of looking beyond our awkward response to the motivation behind it, they sniff and walk away (or question our sanity – always fun). It isn’t fair – on either side. Speaking up and admitting you don’t know how to take a compliment helps. It lets the other person know you’re struggling, and that you’re uncomfortable. If no one says anything, the miscommunication continues. Opening a dialogue can help you lance the wound, at least. Not everyone will get it, but some people do.

There’s nothing WRONG with you. Damage takes time to repair. Hell, I’m still struggling, and I’ve been fighting to fix this problem for YEARS. But knowing that I’m not the only person makes a difference. And even if my brain spends hours arguing after the fact, at least I’m not searching for that bomb shelter anymore.

mental health

The Guilt Trap

“Saying no to something is actually much more powerful than saying yes.”

~Tom Hanks

Everyone recite after me: “No means no.” You know that phrase – you practiced it in elementary school. In fact, it followed you all the way up to college (if you attended – no judgement). Teachers, mentors, and counselors applied it to everything from drugs to sexual advances. We proudly stood tall and assured our authority figures we could utter the words in clear tones.

And we do – in THOSE situations.

But get us cornered in an office setting and thrust a giant stack of reports into our arms, and the word “no” disappears from our vocabulary. Confront us with a shift that needs to get covered, and two little letters no longer exist in the alphabet. Ask us to remember to take care of ourselves, to prioritize our health (mental, physical, spiritual) above ANYTHING else, and we wilt and collapse under the pressure.

Epic fail.

Figuring out how to say no violates the guilt centers of our brains. Someone’s approaching and asking (demanding?) assistance, and we’re incapable to backing down. After all, we know no one else is going to step forward. A lot of people with depression, anxiety, or other conditions HATE seeing someone else in distress. We know what it feels like. So we bow our heads and take the burden on ourselves. To the detriment of ourselves, but – hey, we’re used to it. And better us than someone else.

Suddenly, we’ve created a pattern. Everyone learns that we’ll say “yes” to everything. No need to check elsewhere, regardless of the work piled up on our desk. They know the guilt will nibble at our conscience and prompt us to accept ONE MORE task without hesitation. Who cares if we’re dissolving into ill health and crumbling into despair? Just so long as they don’t have to bother with handling something themselves. And we don’t disappoint them.

We just sacrifice ourselves.

Because saying “no” is HARD! You have to fight that disappointment that’s going to flicker over the other person’s face. And you know they’re going to unfurl a guilt trip if you so much as form that hard “n” sound with your mouth. You’ve established a routine of always doing everything they ask. And now you’re daring to refuse? What the hell’s gotten into you? You’re supposed to work yourself into the ground – burn the candle down into a pool of wax!

Figuring out how to stand up for yourself and say “no” takes an effort of will. The first time I refused to accept a shift that needed to be filled, I honestly felt like I was dying. I couldn’t stop sweating, my pulse raced faster than during my hardest HIIT workout, my vision blurred, and I thought I was going to pass out. (Sound familiar? Oh, wait – that’s an anxiety attack!) But I had no choice – my body was beyond its limits. I was in so much pain that BREATHING hurt, and my system was going to take me out one way or another. I knew the refusal was needed for my own safety – and the simple act of saying no made me feel like I was dying! (Dead if I did and dead if I didn’t – such an awesome place to be!)

And my manager made me feel like shit for it. She gave me the worst disappointed look and pointed out that I had always stepped up before. (Talk about pouring salt in a wound!) I had to stand my ground and defend my decision – defend a simple “No!” I had co-workers that lied through their teeth to get out of covering shifts, and they never had to justify their answers. I was coming apart at the seams, and I needed to explain that – because I’d set a pattern of “yes.”

Learning to say “no” might save your life!

I started looking at everything I was asked from that point forward. I took stock of my body and my mental state. And I started saying “no” more often – for ME. Amazingly enough, my health improved. My body recovered, and I spent less time sobbing into my pillow at night. My depression eased up on me, giving me a chance to breathe. I realized I was BURYING myself in all of those “yes” and “sure” responses!

It’s still difficult for me to say “no.” My brain is wired to help and say “yes” to whatever someone asks me. I have to gut-check myself to STOP and look at calendars and think through how things are going. Because sometimes that need to step in still trips me up. And I pay for it.

There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be there for someone (don’t misunderstand me there). But you have to keep yourself at the top of the list. If you go down, you can’t help ANYONE. If you bury yourself, eventually the dirt’s going to tumble over. No one’s a superhero – much as we want to all try to be. Finding the courage to square your shoulders and say “no” is the smallest act of heroism you can accomplish – for you. Your mind and body will thank you.

mental health

Check the Fertilizer

Wasn’t exactly intentional, but I’ve stumbled onto a theme this month concerning dreams and goals, and this post circles around that same concept. When you sit down and start to figure out how to break down your dream into goals, it’s natural to look around at the people you love and admire – especially if they’re successful and living their personal dreams. It makes sense, too, since they’ve achieved a lot of their goals and climbed higher on their ladders than you. I’m not saying this is a bad idea by any stretch. The problem comes in when you start to compare and contrast them against yourself.

The grass is greener on the other side for a reason.

You are NOT that person. The two of you don’t have the same pedestals, don’t have the same ladders, and you aren’t even standing on the same level ground. Comparing yourself to them is going to start a round of self-defeating thoughts and behavior that will guarantee one thing: you aren’t going anywhere. You don’t know how many goals they’ve checked off the their list to get where they are today. How many sacrifices have they made? How much work have they invested? What kind of commitment are they putting in every single day? And how long have they been at things? You’re not even at DAY ONE – expecting brilliance is asking too much of anyone (not even superheroes save the world on their first day).

Yes, they make it look easy, and it’s depressing. When you reach that stage, you’ll get to depress everyone watching you from the ground floor – so there’s that to look forward to (don’t make that a goal, please). As soon as you sit down and FOCUS on what steps you’ll need, you’ll figure out it isn’t easy and gain some perspective. Whatever the dream is that you’re chasing down, there’s work involved that demands your attention, blood, sweat, and tears. Nothing that requires those things is easy. Anyone that tells you differently is selling something – usually at a steep price.

Are there people out there willing to sneer down at you from their ladder? Of course – people are shit. They live to make you feel bad because they aren’t secure on their own journey. Maybe they didn’t plan very well and are stuck without a new rung to go to. Maybe they realized what they were chasing wasn’t their dream (NEVER follow someone else’s dream!). Or maybe they’re just an asshole – those people do exist out there. Yeah, they’re standing above you, but if they aren’t doing any work, you need to stop and think before you try to compare yourself to them.

Sometimes the grass is green because it’s full of shit.

Is it hard to stop comparing yourself with the successful people around you? Of course it is. I spent years hearing my parents tell everyone who would listen about my sister being the only one in the family who used her college degree (newsflash – I’m not using any of my degrees). I watched my brother move up through the ranks of his military career (you get medals there, too). Then my other brother got a job where he was PAID to go to movies and got free tickets to ComicCon – I mean, come on! Meanwhile, I was sitting in a career that didn’t really offer advancement and wasn’t exactly thrilling me – yay.

I was embarrassed, I was depressed, and I avoided family functions whenever possible so I didn’t have to admit that I was a pathetic nothing in comparison to my fabulous – younger – siblings. It took me YEARS to realize that my siblings didn’t feel they were any better (or worse) than me, nor was there really any comparison. None of us are even in the same REALM as one another when it comes to our dreams and goals!

Comparison can get your nowhere – FAST!

What I DID finally get was a blueprint for my own success: I stopped being an idiot and realized what I wanted to do with my life. I thought over how my sister followed what she wanted to do – I could do that (and I have). I looked at how my brother has continued to pursue his dreams despite all of the changes in his life – hell, I could do that (and I am). I admired my other brother’s commitment and constant genuine self – yeah, I could do that (and I figured out how to). I picked out the RIGHT comparison to get myself moving forward, instead of continuing to stagnate.

Pick out the elements of those people you admire and decide how they benefit you. If they don’t, dismiss them and move on. If those people look down on you – get rid of them, because you don’t need that kind of negativity. Compare, don’t contrast; you can find the right model to help you adjust your goals and planning appropriately.

Remember: the only person you’re in a race with is you and where you were yesterday.

mental health

A Bar Too High

Seek No Approval

Everyone has their own interpretation of success based on their career or personal goals, whether it’s a promotion, a weight achievement, publication, or sale of a piece. Each of those things represent approval from someone outside of ourselves, usually someone we have placed upon a pedestal in admiration. They’re the person we’re going to go to with a smile when we deliver the news, and we’re going to expect them to smile in return and cheer that success; more than anything else, it’s their approval we’re chasing. And no matter how fantastic we feel about that achievement, nothing makes us feel worse than dancing in front of them and watching them stare back without any emotion whatsoever. That’s when it really hits us:

We failed.

The excitement runs out of us, the delight collapses, and the achievement turns to disappointment. We slink back to our drawing board with our tails between our legs and re-examine everything from square one. We didn’t accomplish anything after all, and we struggle to figure out where to go next, how to actually achieve something…gain that much-needed approval. The problem is that we’re setting ourselves into an endless loop of hope and disappointment broken up with gopher-pops, checking to see if that person has cracked so much as a grin yet. We become completely blind to the fact that we are accomplishing SO MUCH in the process of chasing that smile.

Why? Where is the breakdown?

It would be really easy to blame ourselves, and, a lot of the time, that’s exactly what we do. In fact, those people encourage that belief, usually because they know it’s a weakness of ours. They know full-well that we suffer from anxiety, that we desire perfection, and that we want their approval. And they sit back and laugh hysterically as we chase down imaginary checkboxes and turn ourselves inside out, trying desperately to impress them. They play on our insecurity, telling us they’re providing coaching and advice that will “improve us” and “push us toward success.” The truth is that they’re steering us in circles, pushing us away from ourselves, and setting standards that are impossible – all while encouraging us to jump for that bar.

The problem was never with us, not really; the problem was we chose the wrong person to set on that pedestal. We chose a person we might have admired (for various reasons) without doing our homework. Did we REALLY know them? Have we ever seen them actually mentor someone else? Have we seen them encourage other people? Was it done the same for each person, or did they exhibit favoritism? When they speak, do they provide equal amounts of positive and negative feedback? Are they excited when you reach a milestone – any milestone? Are they invested in everyone’s success, or just their own? If any of the answers are “No,” then you’ve chosen the WRONG person.

And, honestly, the best people to seek approval from are going to seek YOU out. These people come to YOU cheering before you even have a chance to tell them a word. They don’t have expectations, they don’t set any bars for you, and they don’t make ridiculous hoops for you to jump through. They love you, for you, and they never waver; they are the people who cheer for EVERY single accomplishment – even if all you managed to do today was get out of bed.