Please note that I am not a mental health professional – just someone with a hell of a lot of lived experience – and this advice should never act as a substitute for professional medical advice.
My Struggles With Codependency
I’ve never talked about this publicly before – maybe because it’s just so highly stigmatized in our society – but I have struggled throughout my life with entering into codependent relationships.
Codependency has been defined a lot of different ways (and often in ways that further stigmatize people with mental health struggles).
I prefer to define it as a relationship in which a partner becomes a substitute for healthier coping strategies. By being an individual’s sole source of support and caregiving, they interfere with their partner’s ability to be self-reliant and adaptive in the face of stress.
It creates a dysfunctional dynamic in which one partner is seen as “rescuing” the other partner. Love between those partners ultimately becomes defined on the basis of either providing or receiving assistance/support. Psychology Today has a great article about it if you want more information.
My therapist once described it very simply as “putting all your eggs in one basket.”
When I was sixteen and struggling with bipolar disorder and anxiety, I put every egg I had into one basket – a tumultuous relationship with a boy I went to high school with.
My (untreated, undiagnosed) mental illness was running rampant in my life. I was experiencing extreme highs and lows, dissociation, panic attacks, self-harm, and suicidality.
And descending from the heavens, in my mind, was this guy who loved me despite it all and carried me through.
I not only perceived him as being the one who saved me from myself, but I saw him as loving me when I was inherently unlovable. This created a dysfunctional dynamic in which I relied on him to help me adapt to my illness, rather than seeking out adequate treatment, expanding my support networks, developing new coping strategies, and creating a practice of self-care.
If I was depressed, anxious, upset, you name it – I was calling him with the expectation that, no matter where he was or what he was doing, he would talk me through it. I became so dependent on him that I didn’t know how to survive without him.
Similarly, he also struggled with depression, and sometimes these roles would shift. I would become his one and only support. I would drop everything to be there for him. I would sacrifice my own sanity just to give him something or someone to lean on.
At some point or another, I realized that I had lost touch with nearly every friend I had because I was so invested in this one relationship. And worse yet – when I realized this, it hardly seemed to matter.
And thus our unsustainable, chaotic relationship became both our saving grace and the very thing that drove us mad. Because without adequate coping strategies and resilience, the burden was placed on our relationship.
Towards the end of our relationship – an end that we both could see coming from a mile away – he told me that he had considered, many times, breaking up with me, but felt that he couldn’t.
When asked why, he simply said, “I couldn’t break up with you. You would go off the deep end.”
That was my wake up call. I ended the relationship immediately, never looking back, and I made a promise to myself: Never again did I want to be in a relationship in which my partner felt manipulated, unintentionally or otherwise, into staying with me out of fear that I could not survive without them.
I’m not ashamed to say that codependency is something that I struggled with and, at times, still do. It makes perfect sense that, in the face of trauma and difficulty, I adapted the only way I knew how. It’s completely understandable; I have a lot of compassion for myself in this way.
But now that I know better, I work diligently to ensure that my relationships are healthy, and that I’m able to take care of myself instead of using my relationships to avoid confronting my mental illnesses.
By no means should we shame ourselves for the coping strategies we created when we didn’t know better – every one of us, especially those of us with trauma, has created maladaptive ways of dealing with stress.
But we owe it to ourselves and the folks that we love to work on it, especially because codependency can do real harm to both ourselves and our partners (and some of these relationships can become abusive – a real risk that we must be honest with ourselves about and be accountable for).
For me, my healing process began with self-care.
How Self-Care Helped Me Shift Away From Codependency
A practice of self-care can be absolutely radical for folks who struggle with codependency as their coping strategy. The idea that we can rely on ourselves to deal with stress and trauma runs completely counter to everything we’ve learned to do over the years.
In my community, we talk about a “radical practice of self-care.” It’s the idea that an intentional effort to nurture and affirm ourselves can be immensely helpful for our mental health, transformative in a world that tells us that putting ourselves first is a selfish act, and psychologically necessary as we endure the injustices of this world.
It’s pretty fucking awesome if you ask me.
But too often, we don’t acknowledge that for some of us, self-care is not only radical – it’s actually tremendously difficult and even painful if our only coping strategy involves, quite literally, the opposite of self-care.
For folks who struggle with codependency, I want to acknowledge and validate that this shit is hard for us. Self-care goes against everything we know.
So let me say it loud and clear: I get it. Codependency comes from a place of hurt and fear. Carrying that around day in and day out is not easy. And so I validate that, completely.
It’s not just about learning to take care of ourselves. It’s not just about reading a good book when we’re sad, or taking a walk to clear our heads. For us, dealing with stress is never that simple.
Self-care for people with codependent patterns is also about unlearning these maladaptive behaviors that, for many of us, have developed over the course of years and even decades.
These coping mechanisms can be so ingrained that it makes us behave and react in ways that we find difficult and even impossible to control. For us, the stakes with self-care are much, much higher.
If this is your struggle, I’m here to say that I totally know those feelings. And I want this conversation to be a safe space in which I can encourage you to take baby steps towards shifting away from codependency and, instead, developing a practice of self-care that can work for you.
Self-care has helped to empower me to take control over my own mental health, my own happiness, and begin to find new tools to call upon when I’m encountering a stressor in my life. It’s helped to bring more balance into both my own life and into my relationships.
And best of all, it’s helped me to feel confident that I can survive on my own. My well-being no longer depends on whether or not someone is there to support me or rescue me. I have been able to let go of the fear that everything will fall apart if my partner isn’t there.
That peace of mind – the assurance that I will be okay – is the reason why I believe that we need conversations like this. No one should have to live with the absolute terror that their world will fall apart unless that certain someone is there to take care of them.
You can take care of you. And while friends, partners, family, and community can be a part of that care, they aren’t the only tool that you have. It’s empowering to know that you are in the driver’s seat of your own healing.
My Self-Care Tips For Folks Struggling With Codependency
This is, of course, just the beginning of a larger conversation. But I want to offer some quick tips that you can walk away with, right now, to begin your practice of self-care.
1. Seek out a therapist.
I realize that this isn’t accessible to everyone, but if it’s possible, a counselor or therapist can be absolutely invaluable in helping you to cultivate resilience as you unlearn codependency.
2. Bookmark this self-care guide and USE IT.
If you get nothing else from the article but this link, I’ll still be happy.
I love this guide because it feels conversational. It’s exactly like having a friend or partner there to walk you through what you need to do to be well, except it requires no one but yourself to actually use.
It’s basically an interactive quiz that gives you advice on how to react to stress. By using it often, you gradually learn healthy ways to respond when you are struggling with a trigger or episode.
As far as I know, the only time it involves another person is if you indicate that you are lonely, in which it encourages you to reach out. All the other advice can be put into motion on your own. This is great for those of us who are working towards being more self-reliant.
I keep it in my bookmark tabs so I see it every time I open my browser. And I use it. Often. Like, literally every time I’m upset.
3. Create a Self-Care First Aid Kit
I encourage anyone, codependent or otherwise, to get an old box or container of some kind and put together a “feel good” kit for those inevitable shit days.
Some suggestions on what you could include: A bottle of your favorite scented lotion or bath product to lather up with, a favorite upbeat album to dance to, a favorite movie with a bag of microwavable popcorn, a stuffed animal to cuddle with when it gets rough, a book that makes you laugh when you read it, a box of tissues for when you’re crying, a super soft pair of socks that make you feel cozy, a candle or incense you could light, a crisis hotline number if you feel you might hurt yourself (even if you don’t think you’ll need it, please include it), and a list of phone numbers for three friends or family members that you can call (not including the partner or individual you have a dependent relationship with).
You don’t have to go out and buy these things – they can be items you already have on hand or you can ask if any friends have items they might donate. The idea is that if you keep these things in one place, they’ll be easy to access and you’ll be more likely to use them.
4. Seek Out More Resources On Self-Care
I personally believe that you can never have too many articles, print-offs, and videos on self-care. The more ideas and suggestions, the better!
I wrote another guide that talks about self-care for folks with anxiety, which included my favorite video on self-care by my lovely friend Melissa Fabello (seriously, watch the video, it’s required). Everyday Feminism has another great self-care guide if you’re looking for more general guidance.
If you struggle with mental illness or with your mental health in general, print off this list of affirmations. I wrote them just for you and I want you to read them. Often.
Lastly, there are entire communities online dedicated to radical self-care. Some are specific to fat folks, queer folks, people of color (fun fact: radical self-care originated from women activists of color), etc etc.
My favorite place to find these communities happens to be on Tumblr, but you can find them on many of your favorite platforms. Don’t be afraid to investigate and find a community that works for you!
5. Realize That Unlearning This Takes Time
Be gentle with yourself. For many, codependency emerged as a survival strategy in the face of neglect, trauma, or illness. It is important to be compassionate with yourself and honor the journey you are on, however slow the pace may be.
It is a tremendous thing to be self-aware in the face of codependent behaviors, and to choose another path. That is an incredibly brave thing to do.
I believe in you and I’m proud of you. Please know that healing from the trauma that comes with codependency is not only possible – but it’s something that you are absolutely worthy and deserving of.
Originally posted at Everyday Feminism and shared here with permission.
I remember the first time my therapist told me, “Sam, you’re doing a good job.”
I remember how overwhelmed with emotion I was. I had worked so hard to keep myself steady and had spent so much time just trying to survive, but I never got any credit for this invisible battle that I was fighting every single day.
For a moment, I couldn’t catch my breath as I repeated the phrase – you are doing a good job – in my head a few more times.
When she saw me – really looked at me and saw my pain, my struggle, my willpower – I felt like my whole soul was being nourished. I was being given something I didn’t even know that I needed until that moment: validation.
People with mental illness don’t get enough credit, enough affirmations, enough love. More often than not, the words we get can feel a little hollow.
In a world that tries to tell us that we are too crazy, too much – in a world that says we are less than in so many ways – I just wanted someone to say to me, “You are exactly enough, and yes, I see how hard you’re fighting.”
If you’re anything like me, sometimes you need someone to acknowledge you, especially when things get tough. So here are some of the affirmations that I wished I had, and that every person with a mental illness (or illnesses!) deserves.
1. You Are Worthy of Love
Yes, even on your worst days, you are absolutely worthy of love, care, and compassion.
Sometimes it can feel like the folks in our lives are doing us a favor by loving us, but this stems from a really problematic idea that we aren’t worthy of love in the first place.
Bullshit. We are. Struggling with our mental health doesn’t make us unlovable, no matter what our exes or so-called friends say.
That’s not to say that we’re perfect. No one is. But perfection is not a requirement for love. We have trauma to work through by virtue of the difficult journey that we’ve been on. But many of us, whether we have a mental illness or not, have things that we need to work on.
Just because you’ve got work to do, it doesn’t mean that you should deny yourself love, or goodness, or happiness.
Mental illness does not make you unlovable. Mental illness does not mean that anyone who loves you is doing you a favor. Mental illness is just one layer of a complicated, beautiful, and whole person.
2. You Are Enough
Struggling with your mental health can sometimes make you feel inadequate as a person, like this so-called weakness makes you less than everybody else. If you’ve ever felt that way, I’m here to tell you something: You are absolutely, positively enough – exactly as you are.
No matter where you are in your recovery, no matter what struggle you’re dealing with, and no matter how many times you’ve broken down, I need you to know that you are enough. You don’t need to do anything extra or change who you are to be worthy of good things in your life.
Mental illness doesn’t mean that you’re somehow less important, less worthy, or less remarkable than other people.
I find myself beating myself up at times, wondering why I can’t get my shit together, wondering if these disorders say something about my character. I wonder if it’s a sign that I’m defective somehow. I wonder if it says something about my shortcomings. I wonder if my mental illnesses are a shortcoming.
But you and I are not defective. We are just people, with our own unique journeys and the struggles it took to get here.
Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
3. You Are Strong (Even On the Days When It Doesn’t Feel Like It)
You’re fucking tough. You know how I know that? You’re still here.
Don’t believe me? It’s summed up best by this Mary Anne Radmacher quote:
“Courage does not always roar. Sometimes courage is the quiet voice at the end of the day saying, ‘I will try again tomorrow.’”
Every day that you choose to keep fighting is a testament to your strength. Every day that you keep trying, even when everything in you is resisting, is proof of your courage.
Every small victory – getting out of bed, making that phone call, preparing a meal, doing a load of laundry – is yet another example of how strong you are, despite the relentless grip of mental illness.
Give yourself some credit. You deserve it.
4. You Are Not Damaged Goods
Back when I was dating and I wasn’t open about my OCD, I felt like I was carrying around an enormously shameful secret. I felt like I was defective and that, sooner or later, the people that I cared about were going to discover that I, Sam Dylan Finch, was “damaged goods.”
But here’s what I’ve learned: Every one of us, in some way, is “damaged.” And moreover, those struggles, while they may have shaped who we’ve become, are not the entirety of who we are.
And whatever those struggles might be, they certainly don’t depreciate our value. We aren’t meat sitting in a freezer, slowly expiring until we’re tossed aside. We’re people – people that, like anyone else, have had our fair share of challenges to get to where we are today.
Anyone who says we’re less valuable because we’ve struggled in the past does not deserve a place in our present.
Besides, let’s be real. Deciding that someone is less worthwhile because of their disability? That says more about their lack of compassion than it does your value as a person, no?
5. You Don’t Need to Run Away
Sometimes when I’m scared that I’m too much of a burden for the people that love me, I feel this intense urge to just run away.
To turn off my phone, catch the next train and take it up the coast, to don a red trench coat and disappear a la Carmen San Diego. (Yes, this is a fantasy that has run through my head many, many times – and yes, I own the red coat.)
Years ago, I used to disappear abruptly for a day or two, sometimes even weeks at a time, much to the distress of my loved ones. I believed that I just wasn’t good company. I thought I only deserved to have friends when I was feeling good, and if I wasn’t, I deserved to be alone.
Let me save you the time (and money): You don’t need to run away. You are not a burden.
Your friends are your friends because they care about you, not because you’re a circus performer that exists solely for their entertainment. Friends are there on your good days, your bad days, and all the days in-between.
And it’s their responsibility to make sure they’re taking care of themselves, and that they communicate when they need space. It’s your responsibility to trust that, if they need space, they’ll take it.
Instead of running away, just be open about how you’ve been feeling. Give your friends the chance to prove you wrong or to take a step back if they need it. You don’t need to run away just to see who’s going to follow – all you need to do is tell them what’s really going on.
You’re not a burden. You’re a human being who has struggles from time to time. That doesn’t make you undeserving of friendship – if anything that means you need your friends now more than ever.
If your friend was going through a difficult time, I imagine you’d do your best to stand by them. Why is it so hard to believe that someone would do the same for you?
6. You Didn’t Do Anything to Deserve This
Sometimes my twisted OCD brain would convince me that I somehow brought these illnesses onto myself, or did something to make them happen.
Gentle reminder: It’s not your fault.
And again, for emphasis: It’s not your fault. It’s not your fault. It’s not your fault.
If you had caused this, wouldn’t you have done everything in your power to undo it? Wouldn’t you change this if you could? And wouldn’t you have done that already?
I don’t know why mental illness likes to tell so many lies (what a jerk, right?), but take it from someone who knows: Mental illness doesn’t happen because an individual magically makes it so. It’s a complex combination of psychological, social, and biological factors.
Nothing you did on its own created this monster, I promise. Your first diet or binge didn’t “cause” your eating disorder. Your first cut didn’t “cause” your depression. Your disorganization didn’t “cause” your anxiety.
A dysfunctional response to stress is evidence that the problem existed long before you responded to it. Okay?
So don’t dwell on what you could’ve, should’ve, would’ve done. Instead, focus on your recovery. Be kind to yourself and be gentle.
7. Do Something Nice for Yourself
Self-care is vital. And if you aren’t making time for yourself, it’s time to make time.
Setting aside an intentional moment or two to nourish and take care of yourself isn’t just a luxury – it’s necessary for our mental health.
I wrote an article specifically about self-care for folks with anxiety, talking about how self-care is one tool that I use to help manage the distress that accompanies generalized anxiety, and what steps I take to practice self-care as a person with mental illness.
For many folks with mental illness, self-care is an invaluable coping tool to keep ourselves afloat.
You deserve nice things. You deserve to treat yourself and nurture yourself. The everyday wear and tear that comes with mental illness means that we have to invest in ourselves and our wellbeing. We need to make sure we’re taking care of ourselves to mitigate the impact that mental illness can have on our health.
And yes, even when we’re feeling great, we have to keep investing in our self-care to keep it that way.
Self-care isn’t selfish. It’s necessary. And if you haven’t been putting in the time, now is as good a time as any.
8. You Don’t Have to Pretend to Be Okay
I spent so much time trying to hide what I was going through. I locked myself away and I kept people at an arm’s distance for so many years; I thought that I was protecting the people I loved, but in reality, I was hurting us both.
I was hurting them because, in truth, they wanted to help me. They were more hurt that I didn’t trust them or ask them for help when I needed it. And I was hurting myself because it meant that I was battling these illnesses alone – something that I just couldn’t do by myself, no matter how hard I tried.
I’m going to issue a challenge to you: Stop pretending to be okay when you aren’t. You don’t need to be “okay” all the time or even most of the time.
I’m giving you permission to struggle. I’m giving you permission to be sad. I’m giving you permission to be angry. Feel whatever it is you’re feeling, and let the people in your life who want to be there for you actually be there.
Let people in. It’s okay to not be okay. You don’t have to do this alone.
9. You’re Doing a Good Job
You knew I was going to say it, and here it is: Yes, you’re doing a good job.
Living with mental illness(es) can be hard work. And we seldom get any credit for the work that goes into keeping ourselves alive.
On the outside, it seems like what we’re doing is very simple – getting out of bed, cooking ourselves a meal, and maybe dragging ourselves to work. But with disabilities like ours, simple tasks can require a monumental effort.
I see that effort. I know that it’s hard work. And I want to tell you that you’re doing a good job. You’re doing an amazing job. Despite every obstacle that is standing in your way, you’re still doing the best that you can.
I am so, so proud of you for the work that you do, day in and day out, to keep going.
If I could, I’d teleport over to you right now and give you a trophy. I’d also bake you a cake. And then we’d watch Netflix together – because who has the energy for anything else?
I know that it might not always seem like you’re making much progress, especially on the days when you can’t do much other than sleep (I’ve been there, trust me). But even on those days, knowing what you’re up against, it’s a miracle that you’re still around and I’m so happy that you’re here.
Keep taking it one day at a time. And every step of the way, don’t forget to pause and acknowledge the hard work that you’ve done to get where you are.
If you can’t, just tweet me and I’ll do it for you (seriously).
A note on labels: Like many people with mental health struggles, I’ve experienced my fair share of misdiagnoses. Since writing this piece, I’ve finally been correctly diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder and complex PTSD, which have been life-changing realizations for me. This piece has been updated to reflect that. (Jan 2019)
[The image features a metal case, presumably a first aid kit, with the words “SELF CARE” on top.]
Holy anxiety, batman. If there’s one thing readers want to hear more about, it’s my experiences with anxiety — namely, how I cope with it. It seems like a lot of us are still trying to navigate this tricky condition.
Therapy and medication can help, but a lot of how I manage my anxiety is based on a regular, consistent practice of self-care.
I think that self-care — defined as intentional actions taken to improve one’s sense of well-being — has made a significant difference in my overall mood, and has been especially helpful in dealing with my anxiety.
While the ups and downs that come with anxiety are not always within our control, there are a lot of things we can do to impact our mood and make the wave a little easier to ride. It’s not about getting rid of anxiety altogether — it’s about changing the way we respond to anxiety to lessen the impact.
So when I start to feel anxious, here’s what I do, step by step:
Step 1: ENGAGE with what’s making you anxious.
Okay, so your gut is probably telling you to run for the hills. Engaging with what’s making you anxious is probably the LAST thing you want to do. I know that my personal tendency is to avoid what makes me anxious.
But often times, we need to engage with our anxiety, because avoidance can make it worse.
A great way to do this is to write down what’s making you anxious in one column, and on the other column, write one thing you could do to make this situation less stressful or more manageable.
Here’s an example:
I’m anxious about writing my annotations paper.
– I could read over the handouts to get a better idea of how to complete the assignment.
I’m anxious about taking the train to Walnut Creek.
– I could listen to music on the train or ask a friend to go with me.
Most of the time, the steps I come up with are reasonable and helpful. Part of what makes me freak out is feeling that I have no control or ability to impact the situation — but when I write down steps that I can take, I feel as though I have a little more agency.
But if there’s a problem and I can’t figure out any steps to take, I know that it’s probably time to seek out a therapist, counselor, healer, or trusted friend to brainstorm some solutions.
Once I’ve written out what’s making me anxious and I’ve come up with one idea that could, at the very least, make things a little easier, I take my notebook and I put it aside. I then move onto the next step.
Step 2: DISTRACT yourself and give yourself a break.
For me, I know that once I’ve engaged with my anxiety, I need a break so I can steady myself. Once I’ve put the notebook on my bookshelf, I start looking for some healthy distractions to stabilize my mood.
What works for me may be different than what works for you. I like to watch something that will make me laugh on Netflix. I also like to play Nintendo, particularly games that are less action-based and aren’t particularly demanding (in case you’re wondering, this includes Mario Party, Animal Crossing, and a variety of puzzle games). I like to read a fantasy novel, or color in a coloring book, or bake a new recipe.
My favorite distractions will transport me to a new reality (television, video games, books), particularly if it involves roleplaying (which is why I pick up the Nintendo most often). I especially like distractions that utilize my imagination because they seem to distract me the most.
The key is to find things that are distracting without any triggers. I find that the internet is full of triggers for me, so I tend to avoid it when I’m taking care of myself. We should always be looking for healthy distractions — activities that bring you down a notch — instead of unhealthy distractions, which may numb you for a moment but create more stress or consequences down the line.
Once I’m distracted and feeling less frazzled, I go onto the next step…
Step 3: RELAX in a calming environment.
Hold on. What’s the difference between a distraction and something that relaxes? Distractions are things that take me out of my head, out of my body, and neutralize my mood. Relaxing, on the other hand, will place me back in my body, and help me to feel good again.
After I’ve distracted myself enough, I seek out a relaxing activity that engages my body. For some folks, it’s a guided meditation while they’re laying in bed, and for others, it’s a stroll through their favorite bookstore or park.
Visualize a place that makes you feel safe, and imagine something soothing that you could do in that space. Find something that makes your body feel less heavy — something that involves good smells, good tastes, good feelings.
Decide if that place is indoors or outdoors, at home or away. Decide if it involves people or if it’s something you do by yourself.
I’ve learned overtime that my safe space is a hot shower, maybe with cinnamon incense burning or my favorite soap from LUSH.
Why distract before relaxing? If I’m too anxious and I just jump in the shower, I spend more time thinking about what I’m anxious about than actually relaxing in the space. I need to bring the stakes down a little bit before I can actually relax. Distractions get me to a more neutral place so I can actually relax when it’s time to do so.
Your self-care regimen will probably look different from mine. But once you figure out what distracts you and what relaxes you, be sure to write it down to remember later on.
Step 4: If needed, REACH OUT for support.
If you haven’t already, it might be a good idea to seek out support from a friend, a loved one, a therapist, a healer. Simply going it alone is not always an effective way of caring for ourselves, and we often need the support of others to manage our anxiety.
When you’re asking for someone’s support or help, I recommend being upfront and using an “I feel and I need” statement to directly communicate your needs.
I felt so anxious earlier, and I need someone to listen. Can we talk?
I feel so paranoid right now, and I might need a new dose on this medication. Can we make an appointment?
I feel really stressed about this assignment and need some clarity. Can you help me understand it better?
I feel depressed, and I might need a therapist. Can you recommend one?
Articulating what you’re feeling, what you need, and a concrete step that you can take together can help make the conversation a productive one. Remember that people are not mind-readers, and the best way to getting what you need is to ask for it.
By asking the person if they can help, you also ensure that they are not taking on a stress that they can’t handle. You’re giving them permission to opt in, or opt out.
If you aren’t sure what you’re feeling or what you need, you can also say so. “I’m not sure what I’m feeling right now and I’m not sure what I need right now, but I thought that we could talk.” We can’t always articulate our anxiety, but talking through it with someone can still be helpful.
After I’ve gotten some support, I move onto the last step.
Step 5: REVISIT your list.
Remember the list of stressful stuff that we created at Step 1? When you’re able to, it’s a good idea to return to that list.
Sometimes anxiety comes from feeling overwhelmed, so commit to doing just one, maybe two things on that list. I recommend starting with the easiest thing on the list to get you going. Sometimes starting is the hardest part.
It’s important to take things one step at a time. Commit to just a few steps, and see what happens. You may find that after you get going, you feel motivated to take on more. That’s great! But if not, doing just one or two things at a time will hopefully lessen the anxiety that you felt in the beginning.
* * *
A lot of folks think of self-care as a way of dealing with stress after we’ve reached our limit. However, I disagree. It should not be exclusively a crisis resource, but something that we practice regularly. I do a little distracting and relaxing every single day. I set aside an hour or so to make sure that I’m taking care of myself.
If you’re interested in more about self-care, check out this fantastic video by my good friend Melissa Fabello:
If you don’t have the time, make the time. You wouldn’t wait until your house is flooded before fixing a simple leak, right?
Our bodies and our minds undergo a lot of wear and tear, because life, my friends, can be very stressful. So do the maintenance instead of waiting for life to blow up in your face; nurture yourself and care for yourself each and every day.
Why? Because you, without a doubt, are worth it.
Self-help articles are great. In this day and age, the internet is one of the largest sources of self-help content — and as someone who loves to uplift others and be uplifted, this is a genre that I have a strong affinity for.
But I’ve noticed this really unfortunate trend as of late – namely, articles that suggest that in order to be happier, we need to avoid the habits of “chronically unhappy people,” or remove “negative people” from our lives altogether.
Is someone bringing you down? Just get rid of them! Don’t want to be a downer? Fix yourself!
This all seems to be code for, “depressed people are shitty, and here’s how to avoid them and avoid being like them.”
This is basically saying that folks who are suffering from depression – because that’s what it means, right, let’s call a spade a spade – are not worthy of our patience, love, and support.
Further, we should aspire to be the exact opposite of them, as there is nothing redeeming about them. Let’s observe their struggles, and from that extract all the “what not to do’s.” I think that’s a really problematic response to have to someone who has depression.
When we treat people with depression as though they’re a burden or plague, it perpetuates the stigma that comes with depression, and encourages people to ostracize those who suffer from depression.
Further, mainstream self-help articles push this dichotomy of happy versus unhappy people, oversimplifying the complexities of real people. Moods, and even mood disorders, do not define the entirety of a person.
If it were just one article, I wouldn’t be as concerned. But there are many articles that continually make these vague, and sometimes not so vague, references to people who very well may suffer from depression – treating them as undesirable, broken, and negative forces that need to be eliminated from our lives. They are dehumanized and reduced to their illness, rather than seen as whole, worthwhile, complete people.
If someone in your life is depressed or going through a difficult time, it can be tempting to run for the hills. And of course, I’ll never undermine the importance of self-care. We are responsible to our friends, but never for our friends. But there’s a consistent problem in our society with ignoring depression when we see it, or worse yet, expecting folks with this struggle to fix it themselves, and not “burden” others with what they’re going through.
This creates a culture that is particularly hostile to those with mental illnesses. Criticizing them for feeling victimized, for being unhappy, and for not meeting your criteria for “trying hard enough” or “problem-solving,” all uphold awful stereotypes about the disorder and about people who suffer from it.
Personally, I’d like to create a culture in which folks who are unhappy can find support — and that we don’t ignore or opt out the moment we realize they might not be all sunshine and rainbows.
There’s also this terrible habit in self-help to look down on this idea of “victimhood,” without being critical of where those perspectives come from. If someone is conditioned to expect that their life will be difficult, perhaps it’s not an issue with attitude, and maybe, just maybe, a problem with the culture and society at large. If someone expects that their life will be difficult, maybe that isn’t an attitude problem and instead, their lived reality.
I suspect that if you’re looking down on folks who see life as primarily a struggle, you might be some combination of white, able-bodied, heterosexual, cisgender, middle or upper class, and more generally not feeling the full gravity of systematic oppression. When we write these articles, we need to ensure we are being intersectional, and being mindful of our privilege. Invalidating victims is not self-help — it’s oppressive.
The self-help genre could benefit from taking into account that diverse life experiences condition us to form different expectations and attitudes – ones that you may not have experienced before. Instead of placing the blame on the victim, maybe we should be pointing at the system that victimizes us every day.
The reality is, depression is hard. Mental illness is hard. And it’s not something that can be fixed over night with an attitude change. We’ve been saying this for decades – this isn’t our fault, and if we could make it better, don’t you think we would’ve already done that?
Yet, at times, self-help as a genre has been completely out of touch with the lived experiences of those with mental illness, as well as other marginalized groups, like folks of color and those in poverty.
There are certainly unhealthy habits that we could all afford to kick, but placing this in the framework of chronic unhappiness and depression is the wrong way to go. It does a huge disservice to people who are genuinely doing their best to cope with these illnesses. It creates bigger obstacles for people whose lives are devastated by depression.
There are better ways to offer advice and perspective in ways that aren’t ableist, and don’t kick folks while they’re down. Regardless of our good intentions, we must consider the impact of our work when it reaches a broader audience of people.
Perhaps most importantly, people with depression do not exist to teach you life lessons. And if you have someone in your life who is “chronically unhappy,” instead of taking notes for your next article like you’re on some mentally ill safari, maybe reaching out to them and checking in is the more appropriate response.
Self-help is a genre with a lot of potential to do good in the world. But if it only seeks to empower some while upholding the struggles of others, it is doing more harm than good. There needs to be accountability to our audiences, starting with those who are struggling the most.
Creating a greater stigma around depression, rather than dismantling that stigma, is the exact opposite of what self-help should be doing.
This genre could really benefit from a reality check. And maybe, just maybe, it could start by realizing that there are better ways to approach the “chronically unhappy” and depressed – starting with a little compassion.