The data on our collective mental health is not good. Teen depression and suicide rates have never been this high. Likewise, the drug overdose rates are also unprecedented. The traumas of the Covid years have transformed our culture with loss, grief, isolation and loneliness. The most critical work in front of each of us is to heal ourselves in an ongoing and sustainable way. There is no quick fix to reset and maintain our mental wellbeing, instead we need to approach this work through skill building.
Love, for ourselves, as well as for others is an action verb, made up of practices that make us more capable relationally. In order to heal we have to get better at being with and accepting ourselves and how life is. Below I suggest a few solid practices that have helped me to manage my own grief and isolation since the death of my son, Ian.
Notice your inner voice.
Probably the most challenging aspect of our humanity is the original wound of not being enough. It is in some crazy ways built into the genome, in such a way that really no one escapes the inevitable negative self-talk which can easily come to dominate a life.
The Buddha wisely said that “we are what we think, with our mind we create the world.” This is a truth to be respected, but in order to respect it, you have to learn how to listen for your inner voice. It is a practice, learning how to distinguish the negative critic voice from reality.
Over the years, this has been one of my primary practices, of noticing when and how my inner voice turns ugly, judgmental and harsh. Remarkably, often there is no external situation that initiates the negative self-talk, although frequently I catch myself spinning a story, to solidify the critic with a narrative that only exists in my mind. Even with a lot of practice, I am still amazed at how quickly my mind will turn on itself and how much effort I have to put into bringing it back to reality.
It’s worth noting that just the single choice to give your attention to what is actually happening in reality is enough to get your inner critic to quiet down. The critic will take over whenever we are not tethered to what is happening around us.
Extensive research has demonstrated that kindness is the singular most important attribute in successful relating to others. And there is nowhere that it is more true than with oneself. I have come to see that learning how to be kind to ourselves is the foundation for kindness we have for every other relationship.
Kindness, like love, is less an attribute than it is an action verb and the best way that I have found to activate it in myself is to give myself the benefit of the doubt. The benefit of the doubt means that you know that at any given moment, you are doing your best. It is a form of the unconditional love that we all craved from our parents, acceptance that you did your best whether you succeed or fail, or, even more importantly, whether you see yourself as good or bad. Especially when I fall way short of my own expectations for myself, I work to give myself a break. I tell myself that it is okay to make mistakes, that mistakes are a valuable education. I practice being kind with all that is imperfect in me.
The truly beautiful thing about this kind of mental wellness skill is that it makes you more generous to everyone else you know. Ultimately the truth that we are all doing the very best we can at any moment starts to feel true like gravity. Even the worst behavior can be seen through a different lens, and it makes moving through the hard days a little bit gentler.
As one who never was very good with boundaries, it is revelatory for me to share how I have come to understand our boundaries as one of the most powerful skills to maintaining my balance and composure. Learning how to create limits for yourself is foundational to being able to trust yourself to the world. Whether it is about the foods you consume, the sleep you need or the ways that communicating is needed in a relationship, knowing what is true for you and respecting this is how we become integrated into life.
My weakness at boundary setting as a parent was a trial for my children that they have been working to heal as adults. I do know that it is impossible to respect your own limits when you don’t know what they are, when you cannot name what is important to you, when you don’t know what feels good and true for you. Our limits and boundaries are a direct reflection of how well we can trust what we know. I spent way more time being an emotional barometer for my kids, and in many other relationships, that I often never stopped to think about what I wanted until I had gone far over the line of what I didn’t.
This is at the heart of the consent issue that plagues the sex lives of so many people, young and old. If we can’t know our own desires, we also don’t know where to draw the line for what we don’t want. Learning to embrace our boundaries is a practice of listening inside. Taking the time to tune out of what is around you and feel where yes ends and no begins. It is there, waiting to be heard. Also, this inner voice is not the critic’s drone. This is the voice that you have to get really quiet to hear, the one that is always working on your behalf to make you well.
Courageously seek out relationships.
There are literally millions of data points from the largest and longest running studies on human health and happiness that prove out the truth that we need each other to be well and happy. That said, loving relationships are the most challenging and rewarding work that we are offered in a lifetime. There is no greater influence on our long-term health and longevity than the presence of a healthy supportive partnership. And yet, we are living in a time when young people are relationship avoidant and much of the emotional fluency that we need to sustain our commitment in the face of difficulty have been lost to the immediacy and distraction of social media and the ways that we have lost our comfort being together. So now more than ever, we need to practice the skills of emotional literacy, to learn how we feel and be able to name it. To listen to other people’s feelings and be able to be compassionate.
It all begins within, being your own friend so that you can both give and receive love from everyone else.