7 Reflections on My Journey to Decrease Depression and Be Kinder to Myself
In late December 2018, I talked with my surviving brother about New Year’s Resolutions vs. intentions. A resolution is something that can be broken, and honestly, it usually is. Think of all of the people you know who set an intention in January and keep it up for three months only to go back to their previous behavior. An intention is something to strive for. Someone I value described it as pointing to the moon or the North Star and heading in that direction without worrying so much about actually being there in the end. It is more about the journey, the process. It is about doing the best you can in the moment and getting better each step you take.
My intention for this year, as part of my journey out of depression, has been to be kind to myself. Kindness has always been something I look for in others while also striving to be kind, no matter who the person is or what the situation may be. Sometimes I do this to my own detriment (which is unkind to myself). I used to see my therapist every Tuesday at 11 a.m., and upon leaving her office I would see a young man whose session was at 12 p.m. We engaged in small talk every week, and one day (and every Tuesday after) he hugged me. He was hurting and needed human connection and touch. I was hurting and needed distance, space. My therapist knew about these exchanges and asked if I could tell him I was uncomfortable being hugged. My response was this: “Sometimes people need something more than I don’t need it.” After a few months, my therapist rearranged her schedule and asked me if I could come in the afternoon instead. I have not seen that young man since, and I feel a huge sense of relief wash over me almost every Tuesday. In being kind to someone else, I was being unkind to myself.
I have come quite a distance from that experience. I have not always been kind to myself, but I have made many conscious decisions to attempt to value myself more than I have in the past. I am a little over the halfway mark for my yearlong intention, so I wanted to reflect on my journey to decrease depression and increase kindness.
1. I have decided that spending money on me is OK.
I recognized sometime these past several months that my mental health requires I engage in things that I enjoy. I attend a Saturday morning mindfulness meditation group which has taught me so much about grounding and being present, especially when I feel like I am losing touch with myself and my surroundings. I am frequently flooded, and this skill to stay present but attend to something else when overwhelmed has been paramount to the process involved in my therapy. I believe awareness is a superpower that gives the illusion of time slowing down. It creates space to make rational decisions and respond from rational thinking rather than emotional overwhelm. From the Saturday morning group, I learned about an eight-week mindfulness-based stress reduction course, which taught more skills in greater detail and provided another community of people for me to see each week. I also joined a gym and work out with the help of a personal trainer once per week. This has been a very necessary tension and anger outlet valve. It has also helped lift my mood, and it makes me feel better about my physical appearance as I have lost weight in the process. Finally, I admitted to myself that I needed to see a nutritionist because of several ongoing struggles with food. There is only one nutritionist in my insurance program who will see me, and she can see me infrequently. She is also currently out due to surgery. I started paying out of pocket for a nutritionist recommended to me, and I decided I want to stay with her, despite the cost.
2. Accepting gifts has also been an act of kindness for myself.
My family has been given money in varying amounts for various reasons. We have been given food at times. We were given a car when the engine in our car blew. I was also given a gift by someone I respect greatly who wanted to commemorate a great milestone in my recovery. All of these things were very difficult to accept. I feel I am not deserving of these things. “Deserve” is a loaded word. I probably do not deserve these gifts, and I certainly did not work for all of them. They were examples of people being kind and loving toward my family and me. Self-compassion is accepting that display of love and kindness.
3. In the course of discovering and displaying kindness toward myself, I had to redefine self-compassion.
I attended a walk-in meditation class in which we were all instructed to do a body scan and think about what each body part does for the whole body and, in a way, speak kindness to that part. So, my feet take the weight of my body with each step and yet support me and allow me to take the next step and the next step. I was unable to think positively about most of my body. It has failed me in so many ways the past several years, and I have grown to hate almost everything about it. I am in pain, my lungs do not work right, my heart palpitates, my organs go haywire for various reasons, and the list goes on. Self-compassion in that moment was to not speak anything at all. I suppose I am grateful for my joints, but I am aware of the pain almost all of the time. I am grateful for my digestive system, but I am also aware that it fails me at least 50% of the time. I am grateful for my brain and intellect (oh am I!), but I am also aware that I get brain fog and sometimes automatic thoughts that would scare most people away. So, I chose to acknowledge that I have a body. Kindness is knowing that was all I was capable of in that moment and being OK with being aware of my thoughts and emotions.
4. Setting boundaries and having empathy.
I mentioned the young man I would see every Tuesday at my therapist’s office. Well, in the past six months (actually the past month) I have started to recognize the importance of two aspects of relationships that go hand-in-hand. I am just beginning to set up healthy boundaries, and with those healthy boundaries comes the ability to have empathy — authentic empathy for others. Brene Brown says that without boundaries, empathy is inauthentic. Boundaries act as a way for me to love people but in a way that separates them and their situations or needs from myself and my needs. I am a little (just a little) more able to say that I will not do something that makes me uncomfortable just because it will make you more comfortable. We are separate. I do not cause other people to feel things. People feel things in response to how they interpret situations through their own lenses. If I am uncomfortable with something or have preferences that differ from another’s preferences, I am becoming able to say, “My preferences matter!”
5. Last month I recognized how my idea of a goal was attempting to achieve perfection.
I recognized that in order to be and feel successful, I needed to set more specific goals for myself. To set smart goals. You can read how that realization played out in my blog post entitled, “Good Enough Isn’t Good Enough.” I have been working on being kind to myself through accepting who I am in the moment and knowing I need to change or improve as well as setting attainable goals. Two things have happened in the past two weeks: First, I was pushing through a workout at the gym with my trainer and wishing I could work faster and harder but recognized I was just feeling fatigued. When I finished that workout, I was able to notice I was disappointed but that, while I was working, I was giving what I had right then. It was not what I wanted, but it was what I had. Just because it was difficult and felt slow does not mean doing the same workout the next day would feel the same way. Second, after writing a section about setting goals in my blog post, I thought about a running goal I wanted to achieve for the summer. I did not say, “I want to run as fast as I did in college,” or “I am not good enough until I can run a marathon.” I set a goal for the summer. I wanted to hit a specific mile time. It seemed like a difficult but attainable goal that maybe I could hit around September. Fast-forward three weeks and many runs later, I took off on a casual run the morning after arriving in Michigan on vacation. I looked at my watch at the one mile mark of this easy run and realized I met my goal. Being kind toward myself is recognizing I cannot obtain perfection, but I can do great things.
6. Connecting with others.
Yesterday I agreed to go out to coffee with someone I have been getting to know in my meditation class. Today, I chose to show kindness toward myself by sticking to that plan and connecting. I do not spend time with friends, and as a matter of fact, I try not to have friends because of the fear of connection. She makes me feel comfortable though, and she told me she hates small talk. (What a relief.) It turns out not only was this an act of kindness toward myself (albeit one that made me feel panicky), but I enjoyed that time and look forward to doing it again.
7. Finally, I have allowed myself to cry.
Typically, when I cry, it is done in private. Crying has always been way too vulnerable of an act for me personally. If I am crying in front of someone or out in public, there is a good chance I am angry or extremely distressed. When my brother passed away late last June, I cried in front of a lot of people. It was horrible. In the past two months, my guard has been down. I was feeling anxious, afraid and sad with multiple types of stressors. I was struggling with suicidal thoughts and feeling as though the only way to cope with these feelings was to harm myself. In a moment of complete desperation and overwhelm, I stopped fighting, and tears started streaming down my face. I did not try to hide it, wipe the tears away, stop crying or attempt to force the pain away; I sat with it. I sat with it for a long time, and I sat with it with someone. I did not feel shame or embarrassment in that moment. I could feel that person holding the space for me to just be. I actually felt comfortable sitting in the presence of someone at that moment; it’s not something I have experienced in years.
In case you are wondering how crying, especially in front of others is an act of kindness toward myself, let me explain. The kindness of allowing myself to cry is threefold. First, I am able to experience more deeply what I am feeling and thinking without pushing it away. Pushing these experiences away paradoxically makes things much worse. Second, crying allows the stress and tension to dissipate. Crying is an alternative to self-harm just as running is for me. Third, doing so with another person present opened me up to experience something different. I am not exactly sure how to explain what that experience was like except that I felt accepted in that moment for how I was feeling, responding and connecting. I felt validated, and that person did not have to say anything to make me feel that way.
This six-month process has not been easy. Although I am able to share my successes, I could also share the many times I have been unkind toward myself. Focusing on those moments will diminish the work I have done, and let’s be honest, negative begets negative. A wise weightlifter once sent me a text that said, “You treat everyone you meet with the utmost respect and kindness, but you don’t treat yourself the same way. Treat yourself as you treat others.” Here’s to that journey!
Follow this journey on the author’s blog.
Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash.