Often, practicing good mental health means breaking a series of bad mental health habits. Whether it’s identifying cognitive distortions, practicing mindfulness, or learning to sit with anxiety without acting, what you are really doing is exchanging bad habits for good ones. Like all bad habits, each of us has our own personal “faves”. In other words, we each have our unique bad habits that are particularly hard to break.
For me, it’s “Shoulding”.
Last Spring I spent the longest weekend of my life in an inpatient behavioral health facility after a particularly bad OCD spiral. Upon discharge, I entered into a partial-hospitalization program designed specifically for OCD. I attended the program from 9am-3pm every day for almost two months. My case manager was also my primary therapist in the program. In a relatively short period, she pretty much had me entirely figured out. It was rather impressive. What’s more, is that once she had my number, she didn’t let me away with anything. That is precisely the type of therapist with whom I excel. I cannot be coddled. My mental health requires tough love. My current, post-program therapist is the same way, and I am doing excellent work with her, as well.
ANYWAYS, back to my case manager. One of the things she loved to say was to tell people to “Stop shoulding all over the place”. You see, when we are struggling with our mental health, or indeed with any number of problems, psychological or otherwise, we are almost always comparing our current circumstances to another set that we think we should have.
For example, let’s say you are struggling with a bout of depression. You wake up in the morning and feel off, despondent, hopeless, etc., and you become distraught or frustrated at realizing that this is how you feel.
Why? Why are you distraught about it? It’s because you are shoulding all over the place. You recognize the way that you feel, and you are subconsciously telling yourself that you should feel differently. “I have a wonderful family, so I should feel happy.” “It’s a beautiful day, so I should want to go outside.” Whatever it is that you are feeling, you are not allowing yourself to be with it, because you are always comparing it to how you think you should feel.
Let yourself off the hook. Sure, maybe you should feel a different way, but you don’t. So, release yourself from the added pressure of telling yourself that your feelings are wrong, or invalid.
I’m not saying to wallow or give up. Far from it. If you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time, you will know that I am a proponent of Value-Driven Behavior. That is, I believe that no matter how you feel, it is best to continue to do the things that matter to you. The post before this one is a comprehensive look at Value-Driven Behavior, complete with worksheets to help you both identify what truly matters to you and some actions that you can take to move in the direction of those values. I encourage you to take a look and to do the worksheets, because it isn’t always as cut and dry as one might think and having the insights sorted through ahead of time can make a rough mental health patch much easier to navigate.
What I am telling you to do is to simply allow yourself to be exactly where you are. In my own experience, releasing myself from the expectation of how I should feel was like clearing the path for me to be able to feel that way.
The expectation itself was the barrier.
So, I simply said “This is how I feel today, and that’s okay. I will allow for that, and continue to move in the direction of my values (ie: engage in behaviors that aligned with my personal values), regardless of how I feel or how I want to feel.” I stopped worrying about how I was feeling. I stopped telling myself that I should feel differently.
You know what happened? Over time, I started to feel better. That’s what happens when you stop shoulding all over the place and just focus on moving in the direction of your values. Values are your life-blood. They are the things that bring you joy and contentment, which is why I say it is so important to identify your values and some value-driven actions if you ever want to have truly good mental health.
Something that is important to note is that values are more than just things that make you happy. They are deeper than that. Values are the things that give your life meaning and purpose. They are the things for which you live. Earl Grey tea and biscuits make me happy, but they don’t give my life meaning. They are not part of my value system. I might have some Earl Grey tea and biscuits on a bad mental health day, but I’m not going to expect them to change things much.
All that said, these last couple of months I have had more bad days that I would like in regards to my mental health. I’m not in a particularly bad space, but I’m becoming increasingly aware of a need to reinforce some of the good habits that I’ve perhaps let fall by the wayside as my mental well-being stabilized. This morning, I woke up and didn’t feel the way I wanted to, mentally or physically. I have had some physical discomforts which are the fuel of choice for my health-related OCD. As I moved through my morning, becoming increasingly aware of the way my mind and body felt, I noticed that familiar slip into frustration at the circumstances. Thankfully, I heard my old case-manager in my mind, calling me out and telling me to “Stop shoulding all over the place!”
So today, I acknowledge precisely the way that I do feel, right at this moment. I choose to see it from a place of non-judgment. This feeling is neither right or wrong. It just is. Each time I catch myself judging how I feel, or telling myself that I should feel differently, I will course-correct (and believe me, this will happen over and over). Lastly, no matter how I am feeling, I will spend each day moving in the direction of my values.
I’m going to stop shoulding all over the place.
I encourage you to do the same.