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How I Use Self-Compassion to Help Combat My Mental Illness

I’ve made some pretty poor choices as a mom over the years, and it’s been really hard to forgive myself. In fact, I can’t say I’ve moved past a lot of the mistakes I’ve made. Add in a mental illness like bipolar disorder into the mix, and you’ve got a perfect storm of shame and remorse.

Late last year, my husband and daughter went out to the movies so I could stay in and have a relaxing night to myself. Unbeknownst to my husband, I’d been struggling quite seriously with suicidal thoughts. While he and my oldest were out at the movies, I made the very poor choice to take a few bottles of pills and attempt to end my life. Fortunately, I’d been talking with a friend that day who realized I was in a very dark place, and she sent the sheriff’s department out to check on me. My husband got the phone call as he was leaving the movie.

Having a serious mental illness like bipolar disorder and trying to be a “good” parent can often feel like an effort in futility. Why should I even try? I’ll never be good enough. I’ll never be as good as my coworker who manages to get to work on time every day. I’ll never be as good as my neighbor who gets a cooked dinner put on the table every night. I’ll never be as good as the PTA president who volunteers every week at my kids’ school.

But I need to wake up and see my good enough is enough, and that all these “never enough’s” are destroying my self-esteem.

I have a job — that is enough.

I feed my family — that is enough.

My kids are doing fine in school — that is enough.

I can’t look at everyone’s strengths and feel less-than because they aren’t mine. It’s like that saying, “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”

So where is the lighthouse in this storm of shame and remorse? For me, it’s self-compassion. Treating myself kindly, with respect and with empathy when I mess up is the key to helping me get through these shameful moments. When you practice self-compassion, you’re making progress. It’s the difference between guilt and shame: Shame is when you tell yourself, “I am bad.” Guilt is when you tell yourself, “I did a bad thing.” See the difference? Even though I missed the school play because I was in the hospital, or my children saw me lying on the couch for days on end because I was too depressed to take care of myself, I’m still not a bad person. 

Shame thrives in secrecy and can’t abide being brought into the light of day. Once you’ve told yourself you’re OK, if you can, find an empathetic person you trust to be vulnerable with. Share with them how you’re feeling. Share these experiences with them, with someone who will listen empathetically or someone who will hopefully simply say, “Me too.” Although this is something I’ve struggled to do, from personal experience I can assure you that having someone like this in your life is so worth it.

Practicing self-compassion and being kind to myself has turned around my life. When you’re kind to yourself, you’ll find that a deeper love and connection to others than you ever thought possible. It all stems from knowing you are worthy of love and belonging. But it isn’t easy to get to that point in life — it takes lots of work to really know this. I know, I’m not there yet. I’ve needed the help of many loving people to even get where I am now. But with time, the right tools and the desire to really change, all things are possible.

Follow this journey on Ramblings of a Bipolar Mess

If you or someone you know needs help, please visit the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. You can also reach the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741-741. Head here for a list of crisis centers around the world.