I have a bracelet with the inscription, “Change Your Thoughts, Change Your World.” If I had a larger wrist, it would begin with “Know Your Thoughts.” For me, that is the real key to positive change. I have spent much of my life as a ‘stuffer’ – one of those people who pushed down painful emotions and difficult thoughts. My anxiety was constantly high because I never gave myself the opportunity to work through the feelings or confront the often dysfunctional thoughts. The disquiet was free to roam unfettered and unchallenged.
As a child, this nervousness manifested itself as a deep hollow feeling in my stomach. Since I didn’t know any better, I thought this was just normal. In my mid-twenties, I began to experience episodes of depression as well, and this tag team ruled my life on and off for a long, long time. Throughout this time, I found lots of ways to cope with my mental illness, many of which were self-destructive. I stayed busy all the time to avoid my thoughts and feelings; when I ran out of all energy, I slept so much it could be better described as hibernating. When these methods stopped working, I self-medicated with alcohol. As Pink Floyd says, I became ‘comfortably numb.’ Except nothing about it was comfortable.
I would like to say that I had an epiphany one day and – ta-da – I came into great self-awareness. It was, instead, a long winding journey with many challenges along the way. I came kicking and screaming into the light of learning to be still with myself and my own thoughts. Only then did I begin to recognize that my focus was often on the negative, and especially on the things I couldn’t control. The ‘what ifs’ were always running in the background of my mind. What if people didn’t like me? What if I got sick and couldn’t support my family? What if I lost my job?
The reality is that although I spent a great deal of my energy worrying about such things, most of them never happened and those that did I couldn’t change anyway. But only when I had exhausted all my dysfunctional coping strategies, was I finally ready to explore other possibilities. I began to read about and practice mindfulness and meditation. Again, I would like to say that it was an awakening, but this, too, is a process that ebbs and flows. I also started to consciously focus on the good things in my life: I keep a gratitude journal to remind me of all the things I am thankful for; I record three good things that have happened every day. When I am feeling that hollow angst, I sit quietly and consider what is actually going on in my thoughts; I work through whether or not it is within my control, is reasonable, likely. I work to replace the negative with the next right choice, the opportunity, the silver lining.
Please don’t misunderstand me: while I believe in the power of positive thinking, I am not suggesting that if you just think good thoughts, you can overcome mental illness – I have had some people suggest this to me over the years and I know that I can no more do this than think myself into producing insulin if I was diabetic. And when I experience a depressive episode, I need more than these strategies to get me back into balance. I am also realistic enough to know that this approach will not result in a life without challenges. The truth is that bad things, even terrible, tragic, heart-wrenching things, have happened and will happen during my time (and yours) on this earth. But I have come to know that for me to maintain balance and well-being, I need to accept that which I cannot change, feel it, ‘ride the wave’ (as my one friend says), experience the emotion – pain, frustration, anger, sadness – be with it, and then let it go. This makes room in my head and heart for all of the blessings that I do have in my life and the ability to focus on the possibilities in the world around me. With all this energy, who knows what I might get up to next? Maybe I’ll change the world.
“No matter what people tell you, words and ideas can change the world.” – Robin Williams
About Susan Mifsud
Susan Mifsud is a 49 year old mother of two adult sons who has worked in university administration for the last 25 years. She is an active volunteer and advocate in support of the elimination of stigma and shame related to mental illness and addiction. Follow Susan’s story on HMC’s Supportive Minds blog or additionally follow Susan on Twitter.