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It’s been a long and hard 12 years that I've actively spent working on / through my mental illness. I felt like I would never get better and a life lived in a constantly anxious state was not a life I wanted to lead but my focus on self-compassion has resulted in incredible growth and change that can be summed up in my experience today.
I walked into the Starbucks in London, Ontario on Richmond and Dundas. I ordered a drink and instantly felt amazing. When I sat down I randomly reminded myself that I needed to do my nails because I deserve to give myself attention. I hadn’t walked into that Starbucks for over 2 years, but when I did my subconscious took over because I spent over 4 years working on self-compassion. It had finally paid off.
During my time at Western University I was set up with an amazing and down to earth counsellor who understood my desire to not medicate but rather figure out and work through my illness. I owe this woman my life. She taught me the importance of positive reinforcement and self-compassion. Self-compassion is when you extend compassion to yourself. You are compassionate and do not beat yourself up over perceived inadequacy or failures. You treat yourself with respect. You remind yourself you are amazing. So every week, I had to actively engage in self-compassion. At the time, it felt like the dumbest (and for someone who is incredibly anxious and aware of time, it also felt extremely time consuming and pointless) bit of homework I could of ever been given.
I had to actively treat myself. I chose to go to Starbucks but before I grabbed a drink, I had to say "Maggie, you’re a good and strong person and you deserve this treat". I did that once a week for 4 years. In addition to this, I had to keep up my nails, physically taking time for myself. After 4 years what I had been telling myself has now become something I believed and keeping up my nails reflected my mental health.
When I asked a doctor why this had worked, they told me to imagine my brain like a bunch of roads: a negative road full of anxiety and darkness and all that not so fun stuff; and a second road, that was much more positive. Now if your brain is used to taking the road full of anxiety, it’s hard for you to deviate. That road gets used a lot, you've memorized the pathway. Your brain has formed strong bonds / associations with this way of thinking so when you first try to think positive and treat yourself with respect, your brain doesn't understand why you are using the old, dusty, poorly taken care of positive dirt road and will constantly tell you to get on the shiny negative highway that you've built in your mind. However, the more you drive on the positive road, the less dust that’s there, the more comfortable you become. You being to forget all about that negative freeway that once seemed so shiny and you start to use this road instead.
So here I am, sitting in Starbucks, practically crying out of happiness because slowly over the last year I'm starting to see all my hard work pay off. My nails might look terrible but as soon as I get home, I'm getting them done because I and my mental health deserve it!
P.S. I should mention that the type of self-compassion that I practiced was that self-kindness. My anxiety stems from being extremely hard on myself and I really did need to remind myself that I am awesome and human so I am not ever going to be perfect. That simple reminder went a long way.
In addition to self- kindness, mindfulness is also really important and something I am just now starting to work on. Mindfulness encourages us to be realistic when we have negative thoughts. We should neither suppress them nor exaggerate them but be aware of them in a non-judgmental way.
If this all seems scary and like a huge undertaking, it isn’t or it doesn’t have to be!
Try any of the following things or do whatever feels right:
1) Write down your feelings (and just your feelings not your opinion on your feelings because there is no need for judgment here).
2) Do something nice for yourself but make sure to make a mental note of why you are doing this. It can be as simple as a coffee that you deserve because you are awesome!
3) Remind yourself that you are human and you are not alone. I use to stare at myself in the mirror and say this to myself. At some point, I came to realize I am part of this world and it felt awesome not to be alone.
4) Meditate or try some yoga. Allowing yourself to focus on your inner self feels fantastic and gives you brain a change of mental scenery.
5) Practice. Self-compassion is hard because it is easy to say I don’t have time. Make time for yourself because you deserve it! If you practice a lot, one day you'll realize you aren't practicing anymore and that is the best feeling in the world.
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