24 life lessons for being mentally healthy in the new year

 blue sand passing through hour glass

Mental health lessons I learned in 2017

 

Ever feel like your emotions got the best of you in 2017?

That your anxiety prevented you from focusing the way you wanted to?

Or you weren’t sure why you were feeling the way you felt in the first place?

You’re not alone.

If you don’t have your health, you can’t be your best.

And to be your best, you most certainly need your mind to be running smoothly.

Here are 24 mental lessons that I learned and internalized this year. They weren’t always easy to learn, but I’m glad I made the struggle.

And now I am offering them to you with the hope that they help you start 2018 off right.

(On a time crunch? 6, 7, 12, 13, 16, and 17 are my favorites.)

1. If you are genuinely vulnerable, you inspire others to be vulnerable in return.

Courage starts with showing up and letting ourselves be seen. - Brene Brown from Daring Greatly

Mistakenly viewed as weakness, being vulnerable is actually a source of strength. When you are vulnerable, you are putting raw emotions on display.

And it is raw emotions that will inspire others and propel them to follow your lead.

As Brene Brown alludes to in the above quote, when you are vulnerable, you show up to your life and let your authentic self be seen.

2. Emotions undergird everything.

Emotions are not synonymous with weakness. Instead, they are pure strength.

What does life look like without the emotional content that fuels great action?

It looks bland and uninspired.

Acting with emotion does not mean you are swept away by your feelings.

It means you approach life with an energy that emanates from your core values and purpose.

Approaching life in this way is electrifying and contagious for those around you.

3. If you can manage your emotions, you can manage your life.

Yet, unadulterated emotional action can get messy.

It needs to be balanced, to be tempered.

This can happen in many ways--through meditation, through prayer, or through simple, intentional contemplation about the day's events.

Learning to balance outward energy with inward introspection is the difference between a match that keeps burning and a fuse that fizzles out.

4. That nasty (insert annoying action / comment that someone did / said to you) thing that happened? It's probably not about you.

Remember when Joe made that ignorant remark at work? Remember when your dad told you he thought you should lose some weight?

As hurtful as it was at the time, it's probably not about you.

People learn from their own life experiences and the story they tell themselves.

As a result, it's natural for them to project their own troubles, doubts, and insecurities onto others.

Ask yourself, where could be this be coming from?

Is this person already having a bad day?

Have they slept? Have they eaten? Have they just received bad news?

Be mindful of what could be going on in their worlds that they could be bringing into your world.

5. Anxiety is a beast that dogs almost everyone.

I have anxiety. I live with it every day. Some days are worse than others.

From totally debilitating to merely a nuisance, anxiety is a hornet not far from the hornet's nest.

Anxiety makes me self-conscious. It always makes me feel like I'm not allowed to have the concerns that I do.

But, almost always, talking about my anxiety leads to others sharing their experiences battling the frustrating foe.

Anxiety is everywhere and in many shapes. It's existential dread, lack of life purpose, and anticipatory.

It's either shapeless or acutely felt.

It's fluctuating nature is what makes it mystifying.

6. But if you're not anxious, you're not learning and growing.

Because it is possible to create — creating one’s self, willing to be one’s self… — one has anxiety. One would have no anxiety if there were no possibility whatever. - Soren Kierkegaard

Kierkegaard, one of the greatest writers to ever put words to anxiety, said it well.

Writing is a curse, but it is also a blessing because it means you have the ability to create your life.

If you didn't have that ability, there would be no reason for anxiety.

Life that is predetermined grows stale.

Life that is unknown holds great risks--but also unfathomable rewards.

7. Emotions signal what is important to you.

Emotions are like signposts on a hiking trail.

You can largely travel without help just by following the trail.

But occasionally, life requires a decision, a choice of which way to go.

Emotions become prominent when you have important choices to make.

Do you lean in and experience the consequences?

Or do you avoid and shield yourself from different experiences?

8. Haters gonna' hate.

Attempting to lead a mentally healthy life will occasionally lead you into trolls who guard your path.

Being emotionally stable means putting a healthy amount of boundaries. It means learning to say no. It means holding dissenting opinions.

Not everyone will like you when you do that.

But it is not your goal to have everyone like you. That is an impossible task.

Your goal is to figure out the healthiest way to live your life--and then to pursue that relentlessly.

Anything less is to fail to care for the most important person in your life: you.

There will always be haters, naysayers who believe they know what is best for you.

Sometimes they will know. Often they will not.

You know yourself best, and you know what kinds of actions nourish your soul.

9. Mental health is not as taboo as it once was, but we still have a long way to go.

The times, they are a-changin'.

Sometimes societal shifts seem like the imperceptible drifts of glacial decline.

Other times, there is the tectonic shift of new societal trends that scour those they leave behind.

As the world talks about mental health more and more--on Twitter, on Facebook, on Instagram, in the news, by celebrities and by political leaders alike--the conversation grows, and more people feel accepted for who they are.

Still, newspaper editors don't always use person-first language when talking about individuals living with mental illness (or even know what that is.)

I sent a message to a newspaper editor of my local paper earlier this year to encourage him to use language that does not completely identify individuals by their mental illnesses.

He didn't know what I meant.

To my surprise, he accepted information I had about how to document mental health issues in journalism.

I noticed future stories in the paper used the person-first language that I recommended.

But then they went back to the old way, the way with which the world has grown comfortable.

Old habits die hard. But we keep trying.

10. You set the example.

You can't expect the world to suddenly wake up and eradicate stigma. That's pure fantasy.

What you can do is teach people--with your actions, your words, and your lived experience.

11. You teach others how to treat you.

 man and woman communicating about mental health

How can the world know what's empowering and what's hurtful if you don't let them?

Your overbearing boss won't back off until you put up boundaries.

Your friends won't understand that you don't enjoy their relentless teasing unless you tell them.

When you adopt an internal locus of control instead of a mindset that everything is happening to you, you will be amazed by how the world responds.

12. Acceptance will always be the answer.

As long as I live, I know this will be true.

The best way to move through pain is by accepting pain.

The best way to rid yourself of anxiety is to accept that anxiety.

Don't conflate my acceptance with eternal joy.

I still get bitter that this is how life works--but it's true.

Can you ever let go of something nagging at you if you do not first come to accept it?

You don't have to like that your mental health isn't always how you want it to be. But if you can accept it, now that's something you can work with.

13. Acceptance resides in the heart, not in the people, places, and things surrounding you.

And where is acceptance? Is it given to you by your friend, your neighbor, or your colleague?

Is it wrapped up in a box with a sparkly, red bow?

No. It's inside of you, waiting for you to acknowledge it.

It resides in the heart, typically the last place we think to look for it.

It falls victim to the old dilemma of "hiding in plain sight."

It's hard to retrieve at first, but acceptance gets easier the more you practice it.

14. Daily practice a good mind makes.

And it's daily practice that makes for a happy life.

Daily meditation changed my life. When I meditate for several days in a row, my world brightens and life gets easier.

If I miss a few days?

Boy, can I feel it, and soon the toxic reverberations in my mind affect my attitude and environment.

Paradoxically, a life of freedom starts with discipline.

Most people don't want to accept that an exemplary life begins with a morning routine and good sleep hygiene.

People want magic pills. They want silver bullets.

But it's hard work, the day-by-day, that leads to emotional wellness.

15. If you discipline your mind, you change your life.

If you can commit to this hard work, to this dogged persistence, well, then you are already halfway there.

Much of life is simply showing up, announcing to the world, I'm here, and I'm ready to face whatever happens next.

16. Only YOU can tell yourself what you want in life.

You have no responsibility to live up to what other people think you ought to accomplish. I have no responsibility to be like they expect me to be. It's their mistake, not my failing. - Richard Feynman

The brilliant physicist and indefatigable learner Richard Feynman said it well.

There is no reason that you have to follow other people's directives. You may think you do, but that's because you've internalized other people's messages.

When you wake up and dig deeply into what truly matters to you, you discover that you are the one responsible for your life.

17. Struggling with mental health issues does not make you a bad person.

"Where you stumble, there lies your treasure. The very cave you are afraid to enter turns out to be the source of what you are looking for. The damned thing in the cave, that was so dreaded, has become the center." - Joseph Campbell

Struggling to overcome any setback makes you stronger, not weaker.

You always have a choice: you can either learn from what happened to you and strive to inspire others, or you can let the setback define you.

No one is saying that the choice is always easy, but there always is a choice.

18. You are always worthy of love.

And so what if you mess up from time to time?

If you make the wrong choice and veer down a less-than-desirable path?

Nestled alongside acceptance in your heart is your self-worth.

It's there when you need it. It never goes away.

Taking the time to be present and learn about who you are will improve your ability to notice it more often.

Over time, introspection will lead your wild-goose chase of life back to where it all began: with you.

19. You'll never have it all figured out.

I will never know everything. I will never understand why anxiety flares up at the strangest of times.

I will never know why bad things happen to good people.

And neither will you.

That's OK. The more you try to do everything perfectly, the less effective you will be.

You'll get lost in the thorny underbrush of minutia and petty arguments and never make it out to see the beauty of the open valleys and plains.

And it's the space and clarity of the open valleys and plains where you will find yourself.

20. You will get better each and every day.

Emotional work is just as draining as physical work.

Professional athletes don't become standout stars because they go to the gym more than the average person. They persist in honing their chosen crafts until they achieve greatness.

Emotional mastery is the same way. Why would it be any different?

21. Our emotions? They are universal and connect us to each other.

When we see ourselves without judgment, then we'll begin to see and accept others without judgment. Well turn the volume down on the external world, and we'll see we're all connected, we're all same-same. - Mattox Roesch from Sometimes We're Always Real Same-Same

And still, there are people who don't want to talk about emotions.

They don't want to admit they exist.

There are people for whom emotions are weaknesses, are sicknesses, are bodily pariahs that deserve no recognition alongside other more acceptable human pursuits.

But emotions are who we are.

We can' t have empathy for other people's situations and stories if we don't connect to the emotions they feel.

22. Every experience is valid.

And connection starts with acknowledging other people's experiences as valid. It's as simple as that.

When you suspend your own judgments, you step into the screened-in porch of that person's experience rather than talking to them through the mesh wire.

23. It is through believing and accepting another person's experience that you have the opportunity for authentic, human connection.

"World is the structure of meaningful relationships in which a person exists and in the design of which he participates." - Rollo May

You create your world. You choose who you surround yourself with. You risk being vulnerable so that you can have a chance at connection.

Because it's connection that matters.

It's connection that builds the skyscrapers that make the world so big and it's connection that lays the fiber-optic cables and telephone lines to make the world so small.

 child looking at world map and globe

24. This is all there will ever be.

Which leaves us now at the twenty-fourth lesson on my list.

These words, as you read them and register them inside of you, are filled with meaning.

Or not. Your experience is subjective.

How they resonate with you will depend on the mood you were already in, or the mood I put you in--or something else entirely.

The way you experience your world is all there will ever be.

It’s always a new moment. Always a blank slate. Always overlapping perceptions blending to make a whole.

I’ve learned that there’s no use trying to escape the inescapable.

All that you need is right here in front of you, waiting for you to step into the scene to assume responsibility for what you will do next.

 

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