(Note: The bulk of this post was written in answer to a question about how to become better at positivity and self-care on one of my favorite websites.)
A little about me so you know where I’m coming from: I have Panic Disorder with Agoraphobia, Social Phobia, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, and Mood Disorder – Not Otherwise Specified (because I have symptoms of several of the Bipolar disorders, but don’t fit entirely into any one of them). I’ve been in and out of therapy for more than 25 years, and on and off meds for more than 20. My current meds include two mood stabilizers, an anxyolitic, and a benzodiazepine.
I’ve struggled a lot over the years with many of the same issues you’re having. Miserable self-esteem. Negativity and cynicism. Surviving depression and abuse. Triggers. Panic attacks. Feeling unsafe. Pathological perfectionism. Over-thinking and over-analyzing everything. Being utterly terrified of making a mistake, never mind actually failing. Here are some of the things that have helped me.
My newest coping mechanism is one my therapist strongly, maybe even emphatically, suggested just a few months ago. She recommended I undertake a creative hobby with a tangible output, so I had a physical thing to concentrate on that would occupy my mind. The underlying theory here is that if I focus on this I can’t obsess about that. She suggested Pinterest (come follow me!) as a starting place for ideas. I spent probably five or six hours that day on Pinterest, looking for anything that looked both doable and cheap. A few days later, I visited family and asked my mother for ideas, since she’s one of the most creative people I know.
Mama taught me how to do English paper piecing so I can make quilts, pillows, purses, all manner of fabric crafts. It’s my new obsession; I love it. I’m working with hexagons – or hexies – since they’re so versatile, and probably have a good 800 sewn so far. The first project I’m going to finish is one I hadn’t even thought of when I started out – a decorative pillow for my daughter’s bed.
You’d think my perfectionism would rear its ugly head with arts and crafts, and it tries to now and again. However, I can fight it back a couple different ways. First, perfect is boring. I don’t want my projects to be boring. My paper flowers are fun and whimsical. My initial letters are colorful and well thought out. My hexies are as good as they need to be. Which would you rather own, one of a million perfect, mass-produced bed-in-a-bag quilts, or one that was hand-crafted but may have a few quirks?
Second is a phrase I came up with when I was writing an article on how to make the hexies: Imperfection is inflection. Each of us is imperfect in our own way; that’s what makes us unique and gives us our own voice. One of my biggest challenges with the hexies, for example is that I can’t count to two. Seriously. I want to do two stitches in several places, and I put one, or three, or even four, because I can’t remember if I’ve only done one or not. That’s just one minor thing that makes my hexies unique.
Another means of helping me deal with my demons is 7 Cups of Tea. 7 Cups “is an on-demand emotional health and well-being service. Our bridging technology anonymously & securely connects real people to real listeners in one-on-one chat.” It’s a peer support network. The Listeners are trained to be sounding boards who can help you figure out how best to deal with whatever’s going on in your head at the moment. Listeners were members first; they understand where the members are coming from because they’ve been there.
If you don’t want to talk one-on-one, 7 Cups has other areas that can offer support. There’s your Growth Path, where you do one or more quick activities a day that are designed to lift your mood. Those are things like writing down two things you did well recently, or one small step you can take today towards self-care. There are Group Chats for a variety of topics, including Anxiety, Depression, and LBGTQ+. There are Forums for more than 60 discussion areas, including Psychotherapy and Self Care. My personal favorite, especially for days when I just can’t interact with other people, are the Self-Help Guides, including Acceptance & Commitment Therapy (ACT), Panic Attacks, and Traumatic Experience. 7 Cups is where I found this video on ACT, which I watch probably at least once a week.
I found another coping method while working with a business mentor and several colleagues. We’ve been working through a book called Finding Your Direction, by Bill Cantrell. Bill uses a workbook when he’s teaching courses on the text. One thing it explores is the roots of our current behaviors – why we do what we do. I realized that a lot of my current behaviors and beliefs were based on what five-year-old me thought and believed.
Five-year-old me thought that if I knew everything, I could do anything. So I undertook to read the encyclopedia. The whole thing. Once I was done, I was certain I could do absolutely anything I would ever want to do, because I knew everything. Until my parents pointed out that there was a world of knowledge that didn’t exist in the encyclopedia. Since I couldn’t know everything, did that mean I couldn’t do anything? I decided that whatever it was I wanted to do, I would have to know everything there was to know about that subject before I could get ready to get started to get going.
That’s carried through to today. I research, and analyze, and refine, and over think before I ever take the first step. But now, I can ask myself a new question about doing all that: why am I letting a five year old determine how I act today? Five year old me had no idea what I would be capable of doing today. (Granted, she could count to two…) She couldn’t possibly have conceived of the technology we have, the opportunities, the industries that didn’t exist back then. So why am I letting her run the show? Same goes with eight year old me who felt like she wasn’t good enough and 11 year old me who decided that since getting all A’s and one B meant being grounded, she had evidence that she wasn’t good enough. While I have compassion for those scared little girls, I’m not letting them run the show any more.
My final coping method came from this article by Jon Morrow. He’s wheelchair-bound and can only move his eyes and lips. But he became a millionaire who’s traveled all over the country, and now lives in a condo in Mexico. After a car accident that left him pinned under his 300 lb. wheelchair with both legs completely shattered, he spent a month in the hospital. While he was there, he made himself say, “Okay, this is my life now. What’s next?”
That’s now written on a Post-It Note stuck to my monitor. You see, in addition to my psychological illnesses, I’m also physically disabled. Nobody knows why, but I can only walk a few feet, or maybe yards on a really good day, unaided before my legs give out. My arms, abs, well, all of my muscles are similarly affected. I have two dozen doctors and take about 30 medications for this and other health issues (including fibromyalgia, asthma, tachycardia, and GERD). Whenever I’m having a rough day health-wise, I can look at that Post-It, think of Jon Morrow, and soldier on.
And now for my two trite truisms – with apologies for the alliteration and triteness both. First: if I can do it, anybody can do it. I’ve sucked at self-care and positivity for most of my life. And I mean really sucked. Not just a little sucking. I’m an overachiever. So if I can make strides like I’ve made recently (I actually complimented myself on something a couple weeks ago!), anybody can.
And second: This, too, shall pass. I spent more than 20 years calling my Daddy to ask him to tell me that before my therapist asked me the obvious question, “Why not ask him to leave it in a voice mail for you?” So now when I’m awake and miserable at 3 a.m., I can hear him telling me, just like he has for years. Every time I play the message, I feel better. Why? Not just because it’s Daddy and he loves me, but because he’s been right every time. This, whatever it is, always passes.
What coping mechanisms do you use when your self-esteem and self-care aren’t where you want them to be? Let me know in the comments!