Who is behind the mask that you show the rest of the world? I think this is an incredibly important question not just for those suffering from mental illness, but for absolutely everyone. How much better would our lives be if we were more in touch with the deepest corners of our character? I can answer that question; the difference is phenomenal! I have been experiencing this in the past 3 months and it’s truly helping me! I can see how grounding and stabilizing it is. But what does it take and how does one go about discovering their inner truths?
What it Takes
Well for one, self acceptance and discovery requires much courage. It isn’t easy to look in the mirror and be completely objective. Or if you prefer, it’s very difficult to step outside of ourselves and dig through our deepest fears, insecurities, character flaws, ambitions, etc. I believe this challenge to be one of the most noble pursuits, and consider it completely necessary to live a happy and fulfilling life. This should be, in itself, enough motivation to propel you onto this journey of self-discovery.
You CAN Find It!
The first step towards acceptance is deciding to take that first step. (We won’t be accepting EVERYTHING, don’t worry!) Now you can expect the troubling parts to stay with you even while you try to see things realistically and balanced…it’s part of the process unfortunately. But as you continue the good will start working its way in there. The reassuring thing is that we are always in a state of flux. Our current reality may not be the same as last months’ not to mention that of years ago. Thankfully, our character is not etched in stone; it is fluid, ever changing, and dependent upon our experiences, thoughts, patterns, beliefs, etc. (This list would be waaay too long.)
The following tips have been compiled from different books, previous/current therapy as well as self-discoveries. It’s going to be relatively simplified since this is an early self-inventory. Anything bigger in my opinion is too much too soon. Therefore, I would recommend beginning with taking stock and inventory of your character. Yes, even the ugly; in fact, especially the ugly. Try to be as impartial as possible, even though it’s a huge challenge. Try to separate your emotions from this endeavour. Later we’ll add the emotions, but first we need a semi-scientific approach. It can be difficult to sum yourself up with one word character traits, but it’s an important beginning. (This is quite rudimentary, but it takes much longer to rebuild than it takes to fall apart. Note: Not my quote but I love it.) To help you, I’ve made a list of many character traits. Feel free to come up with more, and I would DEFINITELY recommend asking friends or family to pick out your qualities as well. It’s important to get other people’s perspectives. (But obviously don’t ask someone at work who hates you.) The reason for this is that while in the shadow of mental illness our view of ourselves is often distorted. If you had asked me to name one good quality about myself 1, 2, 3 or 4 years ago, I would’ve laugh/cried and beat myself up internally. So please, ask around.
If You’re Stuck
I found out personally that the good traits I could somewhat identify, I described in the past tense: “I used to be smart, I got good grades.” Or; “I was kind and loving but now I’m selfish because I tried to kill myself. How could I be so cruel to my parents and boyfriend?” Depressing, I know. It was. But since the only good traits you may be able to find are from the different you that ‘died and got replaced by this…demon’ (My thoughts exactly…) my advice is to write them down anyway! Why? Because later you can write down why you were those things before. (What did you do that indicated your kindness/generosity, for example.) Then you ignore why you feel that you’re ‘no longer’ kind and generous. Finally, search for current indicators that seem close to your list of past indicators. BEFORE you discount them, circle them both and write them down along with the trait. Do not, and I mean seriously DON’T give up on that paper and throw it away! For me? Please.
- A leader
- A bragger
- Prone to anger
- Closed off
- A dreamer
- Quiet temperament
- Loud temperament
The Next Step
Next, I would divide the good traits and the not so good traits. Try not to be harsh, simply be accepting and open to discovery. In other words do your best to let your own guard down. With the positive traits, decide which ones you are most proud of. List the emotions you feel when you think about those traits. With the more negative traits, write down why you don’t like them, what emotions they evoke and which of them you want to work on. It’s never too late to grow and remake ourselves. (Tip – try not to hate yourself for the bad parts and then decide to quit OR to try to work on them all at once and get burned out. Just saying. Been there, done that. And it didn’t work.)
This exercise can help keep your inner critic in check because it’s a reminder that you’re not bad at everything and you’re definitely not a bad person. It can also help to read the positives when you wake up and go to bed to remember your worth. And don’t forget that nobody is perfect. I have a really hard time with this one because I feel that I should be and then of course I never measure up. The negative trait that you want to work on is also great because it provides a goal for the day. For example you can make a gentle reminder to do a physical activity instead of taking out your anger on others. Here are some of mine to give you an idea.
Loving – I would hate to not have love to share with the people who love me, but because I do, I feel like I have the capacity to enjoy one of the most amazing aspects of life. It fills me with an indescribable warmth and appreciation for my loved ones.
Intelligent – I am proud of my intelligence because let’s be honest, it’s a huge advantage in life and it makes me grateful. If I felt just born smart with things being easier for me I wouldn’t feel so good about it. But while I know I had the privilege of schooling and learning from my parents, I still work(ed) hard for every grade, read a lot, wrote/write a lot for fun and practiced/ worked on my imagination for years. I do feel guilty sometimes though, thinking that what I do well is only because of my parents…but that’s my baggage and to be kept locked away for now.
Creative – This one is iffy because I feel like I’ve lost my creativity, but nevertheless I cannot imagine not being creative. It is inherent to who I am (or want to be) and I see it as a gift and a responsibility to use it to help others if I can. Being creative could give me confidence in that I’ll feel capable of handling problems…but again, I’m not there yet. Ah. I just caught myself. I didn’t believe what I was writing and my gut confirmed that. I did what I mentioned but to a lower degree.
Hard-working – Well this is one of the cornerstones of success. Definitely not the only one, but it’s pretty useful I’d say. This trait makes me proud because it means that I’m not afraid to get my hands dirty and put my blood, sweat and tears into something. I mean that extremely literally, too. I firmly believe in doing everything to the best of my ability. This one I can actually believe (or at least believe that I was hardworking) because even during my roughest times of sleeping 3 hours a day, taking 6 classes in CEGEP, fasting during the week, and exercising/doing homework the rest of the time, I followed my sick routine to the letter and got above 90%. (BAD idea. I self harmed and ended up attempting suicide for the first time.) In other words, I’m proud but I also feel like I’ve missed the point somewhere… NOTE TO SELF: Rethink what it means to be smart+hardworking.
Selfish/ Inconsiderate – (The ugly inverse of me feeling loving.) I’ve tried to kill myself more than once and this makes me ashamed because I never intended to hurt the people I love. At least I’m finally coming to terms with the fact that I wasn’t in my right mind and would otherwise have never done it. I am working on being selfless by putting others’ needs first, but it’s a work in progress. At least I have volunteered in a Veteran’s hospital/old age home and giving my time like that made me feel spiritually correct and generous. It also reminded me of how far I need to go to improve this trait. I get overly wrapped in my own issues to point where I’m no longer considerate. I hate that about myself!
Closed off – This trait makes me feel sad and angry at myself. I really want to make friends and reconnect with old friends, but I’m really uncomfortable with letting people in. I need to try to open up more and give both myself and others a chance. I keep thinking that others are out to get me and because they hate me they don’t want to talk to me. Now I’m coming to realize that I’ve been the one pushing them away by ironically judging them, by thinking they were judging me. I hope that makes sense. What I mean is, I developed the judgment that people my age are out to hurt me/ hate me/ will never include me, and that was wrong because I assumed everyone was like that. I was so hurt from being judged that I became the judge! That’s a bad coping mechanism right there…(I’m learning Cynthia! (my psychologist))
Insecure – I definitely think that insecurity will/has caused me to withdraw from potentially great opportunities which makes me deeply disappointed and regretful. More importantly though, my insecurity has built a defence system that is unhealthy for everyone, not just myself, and this is the part that enhances my self-hatred. My defence mechanism can’t receive any criticism (constructive included), and therefore I see even the smallest of comments as an attack on my character. What do I do then? I lash out and find faults with the other person.
Apologetic – Again, not the worst trait, but it gets in my way. Just because I’m Canadian doesn’t mean I have to apologize for absolutely everything including things that are not my fault. (Don’t hate me Canadians, I’m one of you so this is just an inside joke.) I need a better filter to sort out what I am and am not responsible for. The biggest thing that taught me how bad this is is was when I started hearing that my apologies no longer meant anything because I was always saying sorry for the big, the small and what wasn’t even my fault. My apologies didn’t come with improvements. Repeated trips to the hospital, admitting to a relapse of self-harm, so so many examples. (Yes, I felt completely out of control and all I could say was how I was extremely sorry, but this doesn’t help the other person does it?) It made the people I love angry and resentful, not to mention they didn’t trust me. (Understandably.)
We’ll end it here for today…best of luck and I hope this was a good start for you! I know it’s overly simplified, but this is too huge to tackle in big chunks.
If this was helpful and you’d like to read the next part on this subject, you can take a look at Self Acceptance, Discovery and Growth Part 2