Sunday, January 6, 2013

The things that helped me most

About a year ago, my little sister was going through a difficult period in her life.  My heart ached for her, both because I hated to see her hurting and because I knew how she felt; I went through a very similar period in my own life several years ago.  I did all the normal things that sisters do in times like these - mostly just being there to talk and to listen - but I felt there should be something more I could do to help.  Ultimately, I decided the best way to help was to share with my sister what helped me in my own struggle.  To this end, I wrote her a letter.

I realize that just because something helped me doesn't mean it will help someone else.  But it might.  I'm not going to share the more personal tidbits of the letter I gave my sister, but I do want to share the strategies that helped me get through some pretty dark times.  So here goes:

A visual journal: I poured my heart and soul into visual journaling for about a year.  The art itself was at times mediocre; at times it was quite shitty.  The process of creating the art…it was amazing.  It was like I was literally pouring my emotions out.  They made so much more sense when I could see them on the outside (and not just inside of me, where they usually hang out).  I found a good article that explains the whole process.  Check it out:

Looking for patterns:  People tend to act out their unresolved psychological or emotional conflicts.  Look for patterns.  Look back over your life and identify any behavior or set of behaviors that have repeated themselves over and over again.  For me, this was repeatedly falling in love with emotionally unavailable, commitment phobic men.  There were all sorts of reasons for this, not all of which I have identified even now.  Still, it’s important to see the pattern and to think about what might be driving it. 

Identifying your emotional needs and not expecting one person to meet them all: I read this book once that completely blew my mind.  It was called “How to be an Adult in Relationships” by David Richo.  He says that we should not expect a partner to meet more than 25% of our emotional needs.  The rest we have to get met in other people (friends, family, coworkers, etc.) or activities (art, music, relaxation, etc.).  We also have to learn to meet some of them ourselves.  Briefly, the “5 A’s” are: attention, acceptance, appreciation, affection, and allowing (yourself and others to be as they are).  You should really read this book.

Pay attention to how you talk to yourself: Everybody talks to themselves, either out loud or in their heads.  When I first started working out, I remember “motivating” myself to push harder by telling myself, “Move your fat ass” or “Keep going bitch!”  I used to think to myself that maybe I was unlovable.  (I later learned that there is no such thing as unlovable, but more about that later).  Just thinking these things made me feel like shit.  Yet, I still didn’t understand why I didn’t like myself.  Here’s the deal: you have to treat yourself like you treat people you like.  You don’t go around calling your friends bitches or worthless and you shouldn’t do it to yourself.  If you want to learn to love yourself then the first thing you have to do is to be nice to yourself.  Don’t put yourself down.  (Tell yourself to shut up when you do put yourself down). 

Acceptance: Accept yourself as you are without wishing to be something or someone else.  That doesn’t mean that there aren’t things you want to work on or goals you want to achieve.  It’s always good to work to become better; just don’t do it because you think you aren’t good enough as you are.  Accepting yourself as you are is not something you can just do once and be done with it.  (I wish it were that easy).  Self acceptance is something you have to do over and over again, every time you notice that you’re unhappy with how you are. The irony of self-acceptance is this: it is not until you accept yourself as you are that you are able to change.  If you always put off being happy with who you are – I’ll be happy when I get a good job, I’ll be happy when I get my own place, etc. – then you will always end up being disappointed. Acceptance – contentment – is something that happens right now, in the moment, or not at all. 

Self-compassion: Think about how you would feel if you see someone you love suffering.  You feel for that person and offer them love, warmth, and kindness.  You don’t judge him or say to him, “See, that’s what you get,” even if his suffering is the result of his own bad decisions.  “Everyone makes mistakes,” you tell him.  “Don’t beat yourself up.  You’re only human.”  You might go out of your way to check up on your loved one or to do something nice for him because you know he’s having a hard time. This is compassion.  Most of us have no problem offering compassion to other people.  Yet when faced with our own suffering, we tend to respond in ways that are decidedly un-compassionate. Take time to acknowledge when you are hurting; don’t try to ignore it or “suck it up” in hopes that it will eventually go away.  Recognize that you are going through a difficult time and think of ways to comfort yourself.  Give yourself extra attention.  Instead of judging or criticizing yourself, give yourself permission to be human.  Making a mistake or going through a hard time is part of being human.  You don’t have to beat yourself up for it.  Some people think, “If I’m not hard on myself then I won’t learn from my mistakes.”  This is not true.  Putting yourself down doesn’t teach you a lesson, it just makes you feel like shit.  It’s not helpful.

Core beliefs: These are the things our problems are made of.  Core beliefs typically operate on a subconscious level, so most of us are not really aware of them.  There is so much going on in our external environment at any given moment that there is no way our brain could take everything in.  Our brains use our core beliefs as filters.  Information that is consistent with what we believe about ourselves, other people, and the world is deemed important and is allowed into our conscious awareness.  Information that doesn’t fit with our core beliefs is deemed unimportant and is filtered out without ever reaching our conscious awareness.  In this way, our core beliefs influence how we perceive the world around us.

People need core beliefs; we can’t function effectively without them.  Sometimes, though, people have beliefs that are extreme and distorted.  This inevitably creates problems.  The core belief that created so many problems for me was, “I am unlovable.” 

Most people suffering with depression have at least one or two unrealistic core beliefs that are contributing to their negative emotions.  It is important to identify yours so that you can work to change them.

I hope this helps!


  1. This resonates well with me. Oh man I am going through it like a son of a bitch.

    I like reading these things and although I have a pretty even temperament I sure do suffer with a range of emotions.

    I thank you for you journal. Mine has been stamped out by someone who said they loved me only to later learn they wished to possess me and control me which is why my journal is no longer published.

    I think I am past that part and could perhaps start publishing it again. I miss it terribly. I have so much to say just like you do only not as eloquently.


  2. This is a great post. I even bookmarked it so I can come back and read it again. (And I'm pretty sure my husband is going to be super glad about me reading #3 up there. 25% was a bit shocking to me at first, but I think it makes sense as I ponder it. I don't think I have been expecting more, however, so thanks for the insight!)

  3. Hi, there! I just discovered your blog tonight (via this site & I am so glad I did. I am a first year MSW student and feel like I will gain a lot of insight through your blog...Thank you. LOVED this post, in particular. I just started a blog as well ( where I am going to try to write my experiences of being a social worker as well. Thanks for sharing and I look forward to more updates!


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