I tell people all the time, “Don’t let anybody define your unique experience and struggle with mental illness. Don’t let anybody prescribe some generic emotion you’re supposed to feel.” And I mean every single word; do not allow anybody, family, friend, or professional, to tell you how life should make you feel.
But I, myself, wasn’t always so sure of my emotions. Whenever I hit a rough patch, I would reach out and ask if it’s OK to feel a certain way. Sometimes, people would tell me that my situation would make them angry and if I wasn’t angry at that point, I would start riling myself up. When my attempts were unsuccessful, I would get frustrated with myself and that always ended with me being angry only at myself. Other times, people would ask me why I’m not sad after triggering events, causing a turmoil of emotions and self-doubt. Worse than feeling negative emotions, is doubting oneself and constantly questioning if your mind and heart are in order.
When I was diagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder it made me turn my thoughts inwards and honestly think about what I want to feel as opposed to what I should be feeling. In the past, when my therapists were talking about the five stages of grief, I perceived their words and translated it in a literal sense. It is commonly known that grieving is a process of five stages; denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Though some people see themselves and their experience in this cycle, not everyone does. Most mornings, I found myself waking up and making a conscious decision that today I will be in the bargaining stage, or today I will be in the acceptance stage. And those of you who have been dealing with depression will know that emotions don’t tend to work this way. Depression isn’t wired to hit the acceptance stage when you set it to. Depression is so numb that it doesn’t fully grasp what anger is. And the more expectations I set myself as to how I should feel, the more I set myself up for disappointments which only made me more depressed.
Speaking to my therapists didn’t help, because I kept measuring myself up to a process and therapeutic terms that didn’t fit in my world. Only when I hit rock bottom, did I realize that if I am not going to define my own terms, my own emotions, and my own process, I will end up spiraling down into an endless of pit of self-destruction. I knew that I had to do something big to pull myself out of the rut. I had to learn how to let go of prescribed emotions, expected feelings, and normal thoughts and terms. I had to learn to accept myself for who I am. The only question remaining was how I was going to make those changes? Three daily rituals that I implemented helped me immensely in reteaching myself that what I feel and what I think is perfectly OK because it’s unique to my experience.
- I started keeping a daily journal, writing down at least two positive things about myself every night. If I helped someone during the day, I would record that I am kind, and if I struggled to get out of bed in the morning but still did, I wrote that I was courageous. It wasn’t always easy. There were days when I did not see a single good thing in myself and was only seeing the worst which was pulling me down. On those days I simply wrote that I like the sweater I’m wearing and that I still have good taste in fashion. Although it may seem like a minor thing, it gave me something positive to associate with myself. Sometimes, I decorated those journal entries with sketches, art, and poetry for added positivity.
- I stopped obsessing over what prescribed symptoms should be. Though most people feel anxiety a certain way, not everyone does. Some people grieve best when they cry and others when they distract themselves and laugh. I allowed my emotions to decide for me and stopped telling myself whether what I’m feeling is right and wrong. It’s not easy to stop obsessing, and it takes time. Yet, every time I caught myself in the act, I would stop, take five deep breaths, and let the expectations go.
- I also learned to communicate. Sometimes, people don’t know what we feel until we tell them. And until we tell them what we’re feeling, they will tell us what we’re supposed to be feeling. So no, I didn’t disregard my therapists and the people who care for me. I just learned to accept my feeling first and then communicate it, instead of asking them how or what to feel. And I’ve come to realize that most people are a lot nicer and accommodating when they know what you’re going through.
I am still learning to accept myself for who I am. But I definitely like myself a lot better now, than when people dictated my life. Yes, I still ask for advice and support when I need help, but I don’t let it define who I am. Sometimes, I forget and I do, but when I do I look back at my little list and it makes me feel better.