Thinking Positively with Mental Illness: Realities & How Tos

Hi lovely readers,

Well, we’re all still in Quarantine here in Canada, and it sucks, it really does. Over the last few months my mood has been on a more rapid decline that I can really remember it ever having been. I have felt impulses and had thoughts that I haven’t in almost a year, and some really ever. For me, that isn’t a direct result of the COVID situation; I am very aware and end up internalizing and empathizing deeply with the sadness my friends and family have communicated to me that they feel. Even on social media I’ve noticed a significant decrease in the amount of posts I’ve seen calling this a period of ‘personal growth’ in which we all have ‘time to work on ourselves and the things we never have time to do’ and an opportunity for a ‘glow up’.

This is relevant to what I’m going to discuss today, in that while I completely understand how people, including myself, at the very beginning of quarantine could have felt like they had to put a really positive spin on it and see it as one of those things that a happy and motivated mindset and a lot of desire for self-improvement could guarantee it being an unexpectedly great thing, and if you didn’t feel that way and were upset about the thought of being unable to participate in society and see friends and go to work and go to the gym, etc. then you just weren’t ‘thinking positively enough’. This is a sentiment that is sometimes even passed along to people in crisis, dealing with trauma, or who are mentally ill or in the midst of an addiction they can’t seem to escape, by people who are not in those positions themselves, and that is, in my experience and opinion, utterly unhelpful, and to the person on the other end of that comment, could feel really cruel and cause them to feel shame or as though they are not ‘trying hard enough’ or they’re ‘lazy’.

There’s a notion that we can always adjust our thoughts in order to go into the world each day feeling grateful and determined to be, not our best selves, but society’s perceived vision of the best us. When people demand that others think positively even when they are experiencing indescribably difficult for them, or really make any kind of demand for them to be more logical, notice all the good things around them, etc., that they clearly lack experiential perspective on, they belittle that person’s experience, they act out of deliberate ignorance, and they make that person feel shame and isolation. There have been many times when friends and even family members have made comments like these, even when I have been physically or sexually harmed (emotionally should count too, by the way) and when I have been simply very, very sad, without being able to pinpoint why as a result of my depression, or even suicidal, or in the midst of a PTSD flashback or dissociation, or manic. In those times, no amount of effort put into changing my thought patterns would silence what my brain is telling me. I could reason with all of my might and I wouldn’t be able to see the ‘silver lining’ or the positive ‘realities’ of my situation. I wouldn’t be able to think of it as something that would one day make me a better person and arrive at the conclusion that my extreme discomfort would bring growth, and thus, wasn’t really all that bad. My brain can come up with an answer to any positive thought I try to push into it along the lines of “That positive thought isn’t true for these reasons and I have nothing to live for, and no one who listens or to live for either, I can’t meet these simple expectations that normal people have for me, nor does anyone like who I really am”. Because that is what mental illness is. Including the repercussions of trauma, like developing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder – which is also a mental illness. Living with trauma can be a mental illness – I just really want to make that clear. Mental illness is a part of your brain being too active, or inactive, or enlarged, or too small, some of which has been a result of the influence of situational and environmental factors, but a lot of which we don’t really understand, but that we can pinpoint probably has a lot of genetic components and that probably starts before we’re even born. As such, you are mentally ill, because, unmedicated, or on the wrong meds, or in a triggering situation, or experiencing symptoms that modern medication really hasn’t mastered treating, you cannot logically deduce much of anything about the perceived realities of your situation or yourself and sometimes others, and as such usually are incapable of controlling whether you can push against the unrelenting negative beliefs and create a boundary mentally such that you not only do not harm yourself or act in some way that is considered to be unacceptable within society’s standards and that seems ‘crazy’ to others, but so that you can actually take ‘positive action’ and ‘work on yourself!’ or ‘make the best of things!’ or even, see that ‘nothing is even really (currently) that bad/scary!’. You do not feel that something is ‘just in the past’, and you can’t simply ‘let it go’, though to others it might seem so simple to do so, and like such a sign of weakness and laziness that you aren’t able to do the same.

This is the flaw of positive thinking within society’s definitions. We apply it to everyone, in every situation, with every circumstance, with every illness (except the physical ones, frankly, and even then I’m sure that happens sometimes too). We expect something from them because not only do we fail to exert any effort understanding just about anything about anyone other than ourselves, but even with that understanding some of us just don’t want to…bother. It’s too much, not their problem, and shutting that nonsense down with some advice about positive thinking is a much quicker fix and, though people may not intend to do this in many cases, it makes people unable to follow their banal, inconsiderate advice feel so ashamed and embarrassed of their supposed shortcoming that they are liking to stop bothering those people with any details of how they feel, what’s happening in their lives, or much of anything personal. I generally make an effort to avoid talking to people who share plenty about their lives and then, even when I only hint at something I find challenging, dismiss me so blatantly with that kind of ‘advice’ – which is really an unconditional expectation. Sometimes I get this advice from people who have experienced great sadness, pain, even periods of severe anxiety or depression but whose illness was not such, as it was treatable without medication or intensive psychiatric and therapeutic aid, and it passed with this ‘positive thinking’ (or so I gleam from the advice they give me?).

I’ve addressed that aspect of positive thinking, but it also exists in a form that, isn’t always applicable, doesn’t work perfectly most of the time, takes a lot of practice, and that most people don’t need/aren’t exposed to. CBT is something I’ve done on and off for several years, and often when I’ve been heading into (not in the depths of) depression, or experiencing a lot of negative thoughts about the world and myself, some of which are actually well-formed and realistic, but not in a scary situation, flashback, dissociative or simply broken state, or at the absolute beginning of becoming manic, or even when I’m just at my ‘normal’ baseline, which I’ve noticed is not exactly like most of the people I know and which I think may be the case for a lot of mentally ill people, putting great effort into changing thought patterns to nurture more balanced ideas can be very important.

For example, consider this exercise:

A stuck point for me is my self esteem. A recurring thought I have is that I am a bad person, worthy of nothing, unattractive, unloved and disliked, undeserving of happiness and incapable of ever having it anyway due to my utter uselessness. I record both that general stuck point and the thought that creates it. Then CBT asks me to record evidence for and against my thought – it is important that it is not just the evidence against, or it can feel very unrealistic and it is easy to quickly shake off those positive ideas because they seem small in comparison with all the negative thoughts and emotions whirling around in our minds. An example of evidence for could be: I have stolen my parents’ money to obtain drugs and sometimes, just material things that I wanted so I could feel better, with little consideration of their feelings. An example of evidence against could be: My friends and family come to me for love and caring and to just talk, and they say that is because I am non-judgmental, kind, and that I listen well and empathize. Once all the evidence for and against is gathered, we evaluate it. Generally we notice that there is more against a really negative thought than there is for it, but sometimes we might see that there is a lot of evidence for both sides, or that there is just more evidence against than we expected, which was perhaps none at all. Then we form the more balanced thought: I have done hurtful things in the past, I sometimes do not consider others as much as I want to, and I have lost and alienated some people as a result, but I am not a bad person, and I am loved by many, for good persons, and I have worked hard to change who I am and my life already.

Sometimes it is necessary to take it even a step further, and to determine the actions you will take in situations or in general going forward as a result of what you have concluded about the realities of yourself, or the world, and what the difference is between the evidence-based, balanced thought is and your original thought. It can be important to write out how you will apply this going forward to intrusive thoughts, or to when people say things that seem to solidify that old, entirely negative belief, and you, naturally, feel ashamed and for a little bit as though your old belief was actually the terrible truth, or to when you have made a mistake and you feel guilty. It can eventually, or at least I hope will in my near future, help someone overcome a thought pattern that is really detrimental to their lives, and to as a result, take actions that are in accordance with the most positive, but balanced belief, that can benefit themselves or others. But, it takes lots of time and dedicated practice.

And, as previously mentioned, it really isn’t a solution to a severe episode of any form of mental illness, as, and this is in no way a reflection of someone’s willpower and whether they’re lazy or not, most people who are in the thick of such things do not have the capacity to reason with themselves. If they did, they wouldn’t be mentally ill! Still, I find there to be power in more positive thinking – just not in the way society typically defines it and pushes upon others.

I hope you are safe, mentally stable/perhaps happy despite these hard times, getting by or finding ways to overcome the difficult feelings I believe most of us to be having. However you feel is valid.

Lots of love,

Liz

One thought on “Thinking Positively with Mental Illness: Realities & How Tos

  1. Yes! This post captures many important points about mental illness that I feel most people who haven’t experienced it simply don’t understand. Thank you!

    Like

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