What Happened When I Tried Actually Doing the Things My Mental Illness Makes Me Avoid
Last week, my therapist and I had a frustrating but important conversation about how, if I really want my life to change for the better, I have to start doing better things. I need to behave in ways that are aligned with my needs.
Right now, I don’t do that. At all. Why? Oh, for lots of reasons. Because my nervous system is always fired up, keeping me in a freeze response that prevents me from doing much of anything most of the time. Because shame has created such a chasm between my needs and my consciousness that I don’t even really know what I want or need. Because I prioritize others’ comfort over my needs, and instead of acting on my own, I spend most of my time reacting to others.
There are lots of reasons, and for years, I have dedicated all my brainpower to understand why I seem so stuck in feelings and patterns that make me unhappy. I thought that if I could understand the “why,” then the “how” would just start to come naturally. Like, if I could just change the issues in my brain, then my behavior would follow suit.
I don’t think that’s a totally terrible idea, honestly. It makes sense to me, anyway. How I act is a direct result of how I think. Plus, I’ve always kind of balked at the idea of trying to change problematic behavior instead of changing a problematic mindset. To me, that just feels like more invalidation and inhibition.
But, let’s look at the facts. I’ve been taking this approach for years now. And while things have gotten better in many ways, I still feel like I’m trapped in my mind, frozen and angry.
My therapist is right. Apparently, I can’t think my way out of mental illness. I’ve tried, and it isn’t working. My behavior has to change.
How Do You Change Behavior When You Feel Like You Don’t Do Anything?
So, this is my first question. How am I supposed to change my behavior if I don’t do anything? The behaviors that upset me the most are the behaviors I don’t engage in. I wish I wrote more poetry, I wish I called friends more often, I wish I just said how I felt and what I really thought when I talked with people, I wish I felt engaged in my life when so often I feel like I’m floating through.
It seems that the answer is … I have to start doing stuff.
Just writing that makes me defensive and nervous. I have this fake conversation with my therapist in my head pretty much every day now:
Therapist: “If you want to change your inaction, the solution is action!”
Me: “So, your professional advice is that I “Just Do It,” like a fucking Nike campaign? Don’t you think if I could do the things I wanted to do, I would?
Therapist: Would you?
Me: I don’t know.
Therapist: OK, so let’s start by trying to do more, trying to make more active decisions about how to spend your time, and see if you can. Let’s just see what happens.
She wins every time.
I know it’s not really as simple as her telling me to “just do it,” but that’s what it boils down to for me. After all, I’ve spent years trying to think my way into acting on my needs and wants, and it isn’t happening. So now, I have to fight through my shame-fueled freeze response and do the things I’m afraid to do. Actually, in our real-life conversation about this (not the ones in my head), my therapist told me I might have to try doing the exact opposite of what I naturally want to do. Which seems completely wrong, right? I mean, we’re working on me listening to myself more often, and here she is, telling me to ignore myself.
My Wins So Far
So, I don’t know, I’m going for it. I’m doing things, even if I feel like I shouldn’t. It’s been … very uncomfortable. Here are some of the behaviors I normally would have shut down, but decided to go ahead and act on since my last therapy session:
- I called my therapist when I was having a really hard day. I usually avoid this because it’s an extra expense and she’s busy and I’m really “fine,” just angsty, etc. But I was having a horrible day, and calling was the exact opposite of what I would normally do in that situation, so I called. She was out of the office and didn’t have a chance to call me back, but just calling her was a huge behavior change for me.
- I had an interview with Victoria from the Life After Crisis podcast on one of my bad days, and I really wanted to cancel. I felt like I could barely think straight, let alone speak coherently. But I really liked the podcast and was really honored to be a guest, and if I didn’t do the interview, then I would have just sat, frozen, doing nothing. So I fought that urge and did the interview, and it honestly made me feel so seen and heard and it alleviated some of my internal chaos.
- I took my time getting back to people when they called. Usually, I either respond right away, even if I don’t have the emotional capacity to talk to people, or I just avoid people entirely. This time, I gave myself space and didn’t force myself to call or text everyone back right away, but I also didn’t avoid them entirely.
And Now I’m Cured, Right? Right?!
Sadly, no. Shocking, I know, I made three behavioral changes in the course of a week, and I’m still mentally ill. Who could have suspected?
But honestly, I think this approach is helping. I’m not ignoring my feelings to do what I think I’m supposed to do to be healthy (which is how the whole “just do it” thing sounded to me at first). I’m ignoring my shame to act on my feelings and my needs and my … self. I’m letting myself be myself, even when I don’t necessarily like myself.
I had a pretty rough week. And changing a few behaviors hasn’t eradicated my shame. But it has shown me that I am not completely prisoner to it. I don’t have to do every single thing shame wants me to do (or not do). Sure, there will be times I can’t fight it, but apparently there are times where I can. And that’s huge for me. Shame has ruled my existence for so long, it’s hard to imagine a world where I can do what I want to do and still be … OK. And safe. And lovable.
A version of this article was previously published on the author’s blog, Megan Writes Everything.
Photo by Jens Lindner on Unsplash