Monday, 25 January 2016

Brain Biscuit: Optimism

I wanted to write a few words on a subject that I’ve been thinking a lot about recently. I do my best to be an optimistic person. This isn’t always easy when you have ongoing issues with your mental health - hell, I don't think it's easy for anyone. One thing that has been helping me a lot, though, is to separate myself from the voice inside my head. This has helped me to catch those negative thoughts before they take hold and have the time to create an even more negative internal dialogue, and then developing into a stronger emotion which is a lot harder to shake off. The practice of Mindfulness is something that has been extremely useful with that, but that’s a topic for another day.

What I have realised more recently is that positive or optimistic thinking is a very different thing from denying that there is something wrong. That would be called wishful thinking. This will sound so obvious to some of you, but it's something that I've only grasped myself. I can think of tough times when I was younger, but I would tell myself that it was nothing to worry about, simply because some of my school friends had 'worse' problems than mine.

The first issue that I have with this is that I was comparing myself to others. I thought that this was being done in a positive way, but when it involves invalidating your feelings, then it is most certainly not positive. In fact, I think that comparison rarely has a valid place in our personal lives. Evaluating your own progress is fine. But let’s always choose being kind to ourselves over beating ourselves up because... Nancy got a better mark than us for her essay.

The other problem that I have with my old way of thinking is that I was basing the validity of my problems on the labels that other people give them. Divorce, or the death of a relative are both things that we recognise as being stressful life events. And rightly so. But there are many other types of events that can affect us deeply, but on the surface would appear unimportant to someone else, perhaps even to ourselves. As complex individuals, and more importantly human beings, our emotions aren’t as simple as we often think they are. I was essentially feeding myself a lie. I told myself that if I couldn’t tick the boxes society-approved reasons to feel sad or stressed, then I had no right to feel down or reach out for help.

So while I've made progress by realising this, now it's time for me to truly welcome optimism into my life. I don't think it's a skill many people can say that they have mastered, but here's my plan. Honesty with myself seems to be the first step. I’m learning that any emotion that I feel is valid. Then I try to recognise its source. Is it a thought that I’ve fed to myself? Is that thought really true? Even if I decide it’s not, I try not to shoot it down and tell myself I'm being silly. Recognising which negative thought patterns continuously creep back is helping to separate the voice in my head from the real me, and ultimately, to welcome more genuine optimism into my life.