Finding Hope in a World Full of Challenges
Reflecting on the past year, it’s easy to feel discouraged. We are facing multiple ongoing crises in mental and physical health, the environment, economic inflation, political divisiveness, civil unrest, and war. Social injustice remains rampant. These concerns should not be dismissed, and I want to start by emphasizing that optimism in no way neglects their importance. Nor do encouraging statistics take away from the fact that every needless death is a tragedy.
However, it’s also important – for our own sanity – to consider the good news. I often describe to my clients how our brains are hard-wired to pay more attention to negative events or feelings than positive ones. This is a well-studied psychological phenomenon known as negativity bias. It can lead to rumination and even depression. We recall criticism better than praise. We remember negative events more strongly than positive ones, and think about bad things more frequently than good things. Counterintuitively, our brains do this for our own benefit. It is far more important for survival to know where the dangers are than to take time to appreciate the wonders of life!
We see this reflected in our news and social media: negative and alarming news grips our attention, and so it gets more airtime. We click more frequently on alarming headlines, so they get published more often. This amplifies the illusion that the world is threatening by default.
We cannot make effective change when trapped in a state of despair. To avoid such a toll, it is important to balance our negativity bias with mindful awareness of what’s going well. And it turns out there are many, many good things happening!
One antidote to the prevailing doom-and-gloom narrative of our time can be found in Matt Ridley’s Book The Rational Optimist. He uses hard data and historical analysis to show that we have made incredible progress in recent centuries, and this trend of increased prosperity is likely to continue as we innovate and adapt to ever-changing circumstances.
Another important book is the late brilliant physician Hans Rosling’s Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World–and Why Things Are Better Than You Think. He writes:
“Every group of people I ask thinks the world is more frightening, more violent, and more hopeless—in short, more dramatic—than it really is.
Uncontrolled, our appetite for the dramatic goes too far, prevents us from seeing the world as it is, and leads us terribly astray.
Step-by-step, year-by-year, the world is improving. Not on every single measure every single year, but as a rule. Though the world faces huge challenges, we have made tremendous progress. This is the fact-based worldview.”
Such thinking is not new, either. Even back in 1830, British historian Thomas Macaulay posited:
“Hence it is that, though in every age everybody knows that up to his own time progressive improvement has been taking place, nobody seems to reckon on any improvement during the next generation. … On what principle is it that, when we see nothing but improvement behind us, we are to expect nothing but deterioration before us?”
So, what exactly is all this progress that thinkers like Ridley, Rosling, and Macauley are talking about? Here are some examples.
Good News for a Change
Poverty is declining.
Globally, the number of people living below the poverty line (defined as living on less than $2.15 USD a day, in 2017 dollars) fell from 2.01 billion people (37.8% of the population) in 1991 to 648 million people (8.44% of the population) in 2019. It is still too early to calculate precisely how the covid-19 pandemic affected this trend; preliminary estimates indicate it may have pushed 70 million people or about 9% of the population back into extreme poverty in 2020. Yet the overall trend continues as it has for past decades. In 2017 renowned economist Max Roser commented that “Newspapers could have had the headline ‘Number of people in extreme poverty fell by 137,000 since yesterday’ every day in the last 25 years.” For more insights, see his excellent research website Our World in Data.
Population growth is stabilizing.
Although the global population is still growing, the rate of growth has been slowing down since 1968 in an accurately predicted manner. The population is expected to peak somewhere around 10.4 billion people in the year 2100, and then decline. With reduced poverty comes gains in education and health, and declines in child mortality, all of which are associated with lower birth rates.
The rapid decline in child mortality deserves its own emphasis: Hans Rosling once stated that “child survival is the new green.” According to his educational website Gapminder.org, “saving poor children is an important factor in ending both poverty and population growth. The death of children is not holding back population growth. It is one of the reasons poor people still have many children.” People have less children when they do not need to worry about whether or not those children will survive to adulthood.
Medical advancement continues at an astonishing pace.
Life expectancy is rising everywhere. People around the world are living longer and healthier lives, thanks in part to advances in medicine as well as increased access to nutrition and education. From vaccines that have eradicated deadly diseases like smallpox and polio to new treatments for chronic conditions, the progress in medicine is astounding.
For example, new medical technology allows us to identify cancer and other diseases earlier, leading to better treatment outcomes. Targeted therapies are becoming more widely available, less invasive, and more effective than traditional treatments like chemotherapy. Midstage trials are providing renewed hope for the development of vaccines against various cancers.
Genetics represent another marvel of medical advancement. Knowledge about the genetic basis of diseases helps improve diagnoses and treatments. Researchers are making significant progress in developing gene therapies that can cure sickle cell disease, HIV/AIDS, and other debilitating diseases. Genetic testing is now available for certain inherited conditions, like Huntington’s disease, which can help people make more informed decisions about their health and their future.
We are also making progress towards treatments for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (remember the ice bucket challenge in 2015?) and Alzheimer’s disease. The development of robotics has transformed surgical procedures, resulting in faster recovery times and fewer complications. Telemedicine makes healthcare more accessible and convenient. Wearable tech like smartwatches and fitness trackers can monitor vital signs and alert patients and their physicians to potential health issues.
Mental health care is advancing too!
Technology is helping mental health treatment as well. Our clinic and many others offer secure telehealth appointments, so that remote clients can get the same treatment as everyone else. We utilize cutting-edge measurement-based care platforms such as Greenspace to monitor mental health outcomes and help clients gain insight into treatment progress. Apps like How We Feel and Calm help clients develop emotional intelligence and mindfulness skills in an easy, approachable way. Neurofeedback is another relatively recent technology that provides an excellent alternative (or complement) to traditional talk therapy.
There are many more examples of medical innovation, and it may take time for some of these gains to become sufficiently accessible. But every day we are making great steps towards a healthier world.
There’s still time for the environment.
There’s no denying the reality that ecological sustainability and preservation are serious concerns. It seems likely we will overshoot 2.5°C of global warming, leading to severe weather events, expansion of deserts, food insecurity, animal species extinction, and economic harm. However, we can take solace in the fact that many initiatives are working, and progress is being made.
Many countries have reduced their greenhouse gas emissions while increasing their GDP. The world is making great strides towards clean and sustainable energy. Renewable energy sources like solar, wind, and hydro are becoming more accessible and affordable. Even though nuclear energy has suffered tragic accidents, it remains one of the safest and cleanest forms of energy when compared to death rates from air pollution created by fossil fuels. Fourth-generation nuclear reactors currently being developed will be even smaller, safer, and more efficient with far less nuclear waste produced. Scientists are making important discoveries towards fusion power, which has the potential to radically transform the world’s energy usage.
Another real concern is deforestation, but let us remember the wise words of Mr. Rogers concerning catastrophes: look for the helpers. Organizations like Cool Earth, which I fundraised for in 2019 and continue to support, are doing excellent work in this field. And we have data to support progress: a 2018 study published in Nature (one of the top scientific journals) identified with confidence that global tree cover has increased 7.1% since 1982.
Less harm from natural disasters
Furthermore, improvements in infrastructure and emergency preparedness have significantly reduced annual deaths from natural disasters, which were 3.7 million in 1931 and only 13,008 in 2022. Although we cannot prevent events like earthquakes, we can prevent high losses of life. The numbers prove that our efforts are working.
Admittedly, the tasks ahead will not be easy. But there is strong evidence that human effort and adaptability will allow us to fight current environmental threats and build a more sustainable world.
The world is more peaceful than ever before.
Given the widespread destruction and devastation in the first half of the 20th century, it is notable that the world has not seen a major global conflict in the past 78 years. Even considering the recent Ukraine conflict, warfare today is less frequent, less lethal, and more localized. While nobody knows the future for certain, there are reasons to believe that this calm and stability will persist. The globalization of trade means that the citizens of other countries are worth more to a nation alive than dead. As quality of life improves, we have less reason to engage in the discomforts of violence and vengeance. Institutions such as the United Nations have been developed to foster diplomacy, and cooperation has become more productive than armed invasion.
Violent crime is trending downwards as well. And the number of terrorist attacks and deaths from terrorism around the globe has dropped markedly since the 1970s (contrary to the over-representation of terrorism in the media, it accounted for just 0.05% of global deaths in 2017).
Overall, a person born in the world today is far less likely to be a victim of violence than a person born at any prior time in human history. That’s a remarkable achievement!
Basic needs are becoming more affordable.
It may be hard to believe, but it’s true: basic needs such as food, water, healthcare, housing, and education are becoming more affordable around the world. We owe this development to government and non-profit initiatives to reduce basic costs to individuals and families, as well as advances in technology, transportation, agriculture, and the global economy (lower prices stemming from businesses competing on a global scale).
The International Telecommunications Union, a United Nations agency, reported in 2022 that the price of mobile-broadband services has dropped to just 1.5% of gross national income per capita. Almost two-thirds of the world population has access to the internet. This number continues to rise, along with ownership of mobile phones. With more accessibility and affordability, the world is also becoming increasingly connected. I believe that will be a very important part of furthering communication and cooperation to solve global challenges.
What Now? “Learned Optimism.”
I hope these examples have conveyed that there are many reasons to see hope in all our futures. Our natural negativity bias can lead to a sense of learned helplessness. I firmly believe in countering it by cultivating learned optimism. We are better equipped to take on problems when we have an accurate, factual view of the world. The overwhelming evidence shows that the future is looking positive!
Here’s another piece of good news: the myth-driven stigma around accessing mental health care is disappearing rapidly.
In my clinical work, I often draw upon dialectical behaviour therapy (DBT), which teaches skills to strengthen emotional resilience and build a life worth living. These skills include radical acceptance (seeing situations as they are and focussing on what you can control rather than what you cannot) and checking the facts (developing a more accurate and realistic understanding of a situation rather than relying solely on assumptions and emotions).
Therapy can be useful in overcoming negativity and developing a more positive outlook on life. This is not simply turning a blind eye to suffering. Instead, it is about developing the skills to face challenges with a helpful and more effective outlook.
If you’re struggling with negative thoughts or feelings of helplessness, it’s important to remember that you don’t have to face these challenges alone. Consider reaching out to our team of skilled clinicians to explore therapy options and start building a more helpful future.
As parents, we try to support and guide our children in every way possible. Unfortunately, what parents tend to think is supportive can sometimes emanate significant amounts of pressure. Parents often want their child to be the best and inherit the mindset that their child will be the next Wayne Gretzky. When a sports parent thinks this way, it can affect their parent-child relationship. As an athlete, you want your parents to be proud and express their validation towards you. If a child feels like their sports parents aren’t proud, their words and actions are frequently perceived with pressure. This is why it is crucial to understand what may hurt your child instead of what may benefit your child’s involvement in sports.
Three things that hurt your child’s confidence
1. Expressing appraisal ONLY when they are doing well
It is essential that you are constantly being supportive no matter the outcome of your child’s performance. Regardless of whether they make a good play or make a mistake, your support should remain constant. Giving your child support no matter the circumstances will show them that you are proud of them despite the outcome. When they look over at you and see you cheering for them, it displays direct approval and encouragement. What if they look over and see you are unhappy or distracted by your phone? It may make them feel like you are disappointed in them. You may not think that your child notices your presence in the stands, but really, they are.
The correct approach would be to exude positive energy and cheering, even when nothing is happening. Do not make your supportive habits dependent on your child’s performance.
2. Telling your child how they could have done better on the car ride home
The car ride home is always a challenging situation. As an athlete who pressured themselves, I was already upset with myself if I had a bad performance. I definitely didn’t need to hear my parents say to me, “you should have done this.” Or “what happened on that one play where you made a mistake?” It would make me even more disappointed in myself than I already was. As sports parents, it is crucial to support and encourage your child without interfering. It is essential to focus on the positive attributes of their game instead of constantly reminding your child of what they did wrong.
3. Stop delivering clichés
Parents often believe that speaking in clichés is suitable for their child, but it does the opposite for kids. For example, if your child is getting worked up in games because of a mistake they made, it probably is best to avoid making certain remarks. Avoid statements such as “stop overthinking’ or “when you are out there, you have to be focused.” Most likely, the child is already trying to accomplish these things. Still, it’s not something that will immediately help them after you tell them to. Telling your child these clichés can develop into pressurization. It might make them believe that they are not doing a good job. Instead of saying these clichés, it would be more beneficial to say something like, “nice effort, you will get the next one!”
Here are some ways you as a sports parent can support your child when playing sports.
1. Provide emotional support
No matter the outcome of your child’s performance, it is vital to prioritize and provide unconditional love. Whether it is giving your child a hug or a high five after the game or telling them how proud of them you are, a little goes a long way. This is crucial after a game where the player may feel like they had a bad performance. Hearing how proud their parent is will make your child feel better. This will give your child the affirmation that being proud of them is not wholly dependent on their play.
2. Emphasize the importance of effort over outcome
Often, we think of the end result as the ultimate achievement instead of understanding the progress made. There is a lot of hard work that has to be done to reach an end result. If children constantly think about the outcome instead of thinking in the moment, it can become detrimental to their performance. When you put too much emphasis on a final product or winning, it can cause the child to feel pressure or anxiety because of you. This is why it’s more productive for a sports parent to focus more on the child’s efforts and relate their efforts to success. For example, after a game, tell your child, “I really liked how you hustled in and out of the dugout” or “you made a great effort on that one play. ”
3. Encourage independence
It is crucial for you as a sports parent to be involved in your child’s sports. Still, it is also important that your child is allowed to pursue their own independence. It’s okay for you to have boundaries and set rules. Still, when your child is involved in sports, it is beneficial for your child to gain independence within these boundaries you set. This is how your child learns to hold themselves accountable and grow in their independence. For example, you may tell your child that “you must always be prepared for practices.” Instead, tell your child, “I will be home to drive you to your game, but you must be ready to go when I get home.” This compels your child to get themselves prepared for their practice or game without your assistance. Altering how you give your child direction may fuel the desire for them to embrace independence.
4. Communicate and share goals
Open communication is vital when guiding your child through sports. Developing the habit of solid communication between you and your child will provide an understanding of how you can better support your child. This will also allow the child to express what they want from you as a sports parent. Ensure you are regularly checking in with your child by asking them how they are doing with their sports. Allow your child to make goals for themselves instead of you making them for them. This encourages children to be independent and control what they want out of the sports they play.
5. Behave in a way that your children want you to before, during, and after a game/practice
Strong communication between you and your child will help strengthen your relationship. This allows your child to express what they want from you before, during, and after a game. Every child is different, so it is important to understand the likes and dislikes of your child and how you can better support them through that. For example, your child may be nervous before a game and want your help with relaxing. During a game, your child may not like it when you approach the dugout and tell them something they need to do. Because of this action, your child may not want to talk about the game or express openness regarding the game’s events.
If you need help guiding your child through sports in a supportive way, book an appointment today with us at Alongside You. We can help you strive to have a strong relationship with your child!
Writing these blog posts is one of the easiest parts of my job to put off until later. They require some unstructured thinking time (which is fertile ground for distraction), are unstructured themselves, and there always feels like there is something more important (read: easier and less personally exposing) I could be doing with that time.
Recently I read a fantastic article in the New York Times on exactly the process I’m describing. Most people call it procrastination. I really, really think you should read the article now because if you’re reading this one already, chances are you’re putting something else off.
If you don’t feel like doing that, the basic idea is that mainstream science has come to embrace an idea that makes intuitive sense to many of us: procrastination has much less to do with laziness, lack of self-control, and disorganization, and much more to do with emotions. For example, it is often the case that the task at hand will bring up a disquieting uncomfortable feeling that we often barely notice. Therefore, procrastination is about protection: we keep ourselves safe from feeling (for example) our own self-doubt or shame by doing something unrelated, whether it is productive or not. This has the effect of a short-term boost in good feelings (TV is fun!) but is often counterproductive in the long term. For example, these blog posts give me some anxiety, because I never know who is reading them and what I might be sending into the public eye that might not be good enough, or that I might even end up disagreeing with myself a year from now. So I often find something else to do.
Along these same lines, there is a much more complex system of underworkings at play in our decisions than we think. We in the mental health field love to talk about the brain (how its fear center causes us to react in response to stress, for example), but according to good recent research, there are mini “brains” around areas such as our heart and gut that make them function as powerfully as our heads at times. Daniel Siegel is a big proponent of this, and you can also read more about this at Heart Math here.
To return to the article (here’s a link to it again!), it encourages self-compassion, which we counsellors also love. Having grace and compassion for our own mistakes is one of the best tools out there. The article offers three other, very simple tips for when you find yourself the victim of procrastination:
- Be curious. Take a breath and allow physical sensations, emotions, and mental processes to come and go, observing them like you were watching a new TV show. Notice what happens to the sensations, feelings and thoughts as you observe them. What are the feelings that might be bringing up unpleasant feelings?
- Hypothetically imagine the next step: “If I were the version of myself that wasn’t procrastinating right now, what would be the next thing I would do?” Just thinking about this might make you more likely to take action despite your feelings. Many pros agree that motivation often comes while doing something, and not before, so you might need to kickstart things a touch.
- Make temptations more inconvenient. Hide the TV remote, put a screen time blocker on your phone, etc., etc. This also increases the timeframe for you to become aware of what’s going on, and makes your reward for procrastinating less immediate.
I would add a few of my own tips as well:
- When you feel temptations arise, take a deep breath and allow yourself to be tempted, noticing the temptation to do something gratifying at the moment. This is called many names, but I learned the name urge surfing: you are riding the wave of your temptation and letting it run its course without trying to push it away or make it less intense. This fits really well with tip #1 from the article (Be curious!). Often, the urge will go away in 10-12 minutes, if not much less.
- If you must, try to give yourself more productive ways to procrastinate. For me, I take a few minutes and stretch. This often makes me feel a little better about myself physically, mentally, and emotionally, and makes me feel better equipped to take on the original task. You might also choose to journal about your inner experiences at the moment, which will help you understand and articulate them (this removes some of the power those impulses have).
- Building on #2, you could also call a trusted friend and chat about the fact that you’re putting something off. This will help in a number of ways. It will give you a sounding board for your thoughts and feelings, normalize your experiences, and make you feel generally supported (little motivates us as well as reminding ourselves of our supportive relationships).
Lastly (as I say with most of these articles), you can always feel free to talk to a professional helper, as they are often equipped with specific skill sets that can help you tackle something like the above, or help get you in position to tackle it. These include professional counsellors like us at Alongside You, but can also be something like a pastor, priest, social worker, or support group. Investing time in caring for yourself the right way has the best interest rate of any investment (by a huge margin). If you have questions about this process, please call our office, and you can even email me directly through my profile by clicking here – I will take the time to respond as best and as soon as I can.
Good luck, and now that I’ve written this, I’m off to do something fun.
You know when you meet someone for the first time and you just “click?” So do I. Meg and I just got back from a whirlwind tour of Calgary to go do something with one of these people. We flew out Tuesday morning and got back late last night. Driving back home, Meg even said, “We were here yesterday, it seems like such a long time ago!”
You see, this was a new experience for us. There were a series of firsts – the first time we’d sponsored an event in another province; the first time we’d travelled out of the province to provide a workshop together; the first time we’d tried to bring an art studio with us on a plane; the first time we did any of this with someone we’d only ever met once. All of this, because when we were told about the project and asked if we’d help, we said, “How can we help?”
The event was Let’s Talk Hope, with our new friends at National Hope Talks, and was a part of Bell’s annual Let’s Talk Day. Aside from being a sponsor for the event, our role was to talk about what we’re noticing in our context with regard to mental health and to lead a workshop on resilience and hope and human connection and how to use art as a vehicle to bring hope to ourselves and others.
One of the focuses of the conference was getting beyond talking, and figuring out what to do about mental health, from all perspectives; from professionals in mental health to artists and creatives, to those struggling, and everything in between. All perspectives are welcomed and valued, and solutions are sought – even if they seem like pipe dreams.
I came home on a bit of a high (albeit an exhausted one) because I was so inspired by the crew we joined to make this conference happen, and by all of the over 200 participants and what they brought to the table. Writing this article today, however, is bittersweet for me because today marks the anniversary of a close childhood friend who we lost to suicide. A friend who was immensely talented, had personality in spades, left a child and family behind, and who I assume, could not see a way out or a way to have hope.
This is why hope matters. Mental illness is not just a clever advertising campaign or something for us to feel good about when we do something one day out of the year to raise some awareness. Mental illness can be a matter of life or death.
When we held conversations at the conference about what brings hope, the overwhelming common thread that was repeated time and time again, was the connection. Human connection trumps any other intervention in the books. I want to suggest three ways we can get beyond talking about mental health, and move toward action and creating a hope movement in our communities.
1. We need to get over ourselves and out of our comfort zones.
We’re all here, because we’re not all there, and that’s ok. There, I’ve said it. As someone who has struggled with mental health since the age of 6, I’ve known for a long time that something was different about my brain and body and how that showed up in terms of mental health. I’m now at a place where most days are ok, but this has not always been the case. In fact, there were many years where this was not the case.
Here’s the thing, if we have a mental illness and our belief is that we have to be okay, then we stop connecting with others and cut off the best “treatment” we’ve got. We also stop connecting with each other, which is an invaluable resource and a vital part of our community. If we push this further, even if we don’t struggle with a mental illness, we won’t connect with someone else who is hurting if we aren’t feeling 100% good ourselves for many reasons, not the least of which being our belief that it’s not ok to not be okay, and we can’t possibly help anyone else if we’re not at our best.
Let me tell you, there would be no mental health professionals in this world if this were true, myself included.
2. We have to stop believing that mental health professionals are the only ones who can help someone who is struggling with a mental illness.
Over and over again I was reminded of this while at the conference this week. On our team of presenters and organizers, we had rappers, hip hop artists, spoken word poets, dancers, motivational speakers, visual artists, brain scientists, pastors, business coaches, and more. Guess what? I learned a lot. Some of what others brought out were things that either I wouldn’t have thought of, or really needed reminding of.
Meg presented on using art and journaling to bring resilience and hope, and let me tell you – the feedback was phenomenal. We had one woman come up to us after and explain the role that journaling played for her in her recovery from abusive relationships; moving from wanting to burn all of the entries, to now using them as reminders of where she’s come from, the victories she’s had, and the hope she now has with her new life. It was unbelievably powerful to hear her story and those of many others.
3. We need to remember that there is not a single thing on earth more powerful in recovery from mental illness than relationships and healthy human connection.
This is one of the things that I have been reminded of over and over again in the past few weeks. We now have over 20 years of research proving this, much of it coming from the scientific studies of marriage and relationships from the likes of The Gottman Institute, ICEFFT and Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy, as well as the trauma research from people like Besel Van Der Kolk.
If we want to give people hope who are struggling with mental illness, we need to be willing to connect with them and be a safe relationship for them. We need to be willing to get down in the mud, or as I often say to clients, jump into the foxhole together. We have to be willing to not be okay with them, and even to suffer with them. This is the core of empathy, which drives connection and healing.
Now, I never said any of this was going to be easy. Being with someone in their hardest times is sometimes incredibly difficult. In fact, sometimes they won’t let us. But we have to keep trying. Our lives and the lives of our loved ones depend on it. We need each other.
One of my new friends reminded me this weekend of a very important principle that can help us with this. She reminded me, after being reminded by a mental health professional in her life, that when someone is hurting, we need to bring them closer, not push them farther away.
If we can all remember to bring the hurting closer, and be willing to suffer with them, and walk alongside them, then we can bring hope. We can give them, and ourselves hope. We can make a difference.
We were talking around the office this week about how there seems to be a week for everything. Admittedly, when we plan our calendar it’s sometimes difficult to keep up. Sometimes I wonder why we need a week for everything – and even, why we need a mental health week. To help us understand why we need a mental health week, I want to tell you a story.
I have a courageous young friend who has battled mental health for many years. This has involved many different treatments, counsellors, psychiatrists, medications, trips to the hospital, and more. This friend has an incredible family, many supportive friends, and others in the community who have been there to help and encourage. When things first began at a very young age, it was tough. For many years things were not stable, and treatments didn’t seem to help. Then, things changed. Life got better, treatments started helping, and things became stable for a number of years. Lately, things have been more difficult again, and life has come to a bit of a standstill. It’s discouraging. It’s disconcerting. It’s heartbreaking. On the upside, the family, friends, and community are still here, but it’s back to square one with treatment planning.
As I reflect on this, it occurs to me that this is exactly why we need a Mental Health Week. It further occurs to me that the things I feel my friend may need to hear right now may also be what others struggling with the mental health need to hear. This may also be true in terms of what we all need to hear about mental health.
Mental health issues are physiological issues that are no less physiological than cancer, diabetes, heart disease, or any other physical illness.
Often, we hear that mental health is “just in our heads.” This is neither biologically accurate, nor helpful. Mental health is in our head, in our bodies, and in our spirits. Mental health difficulties may involve imbalances in neurotransmitters, physical changes in the structures in the brain, changes in our central and autonomic nervous system, and even changes in function in just about every organ in our body; in addition, it may involve changes in our view of ourselves, our identity, our spirituality, and our belief systems.
What mental health is not, is a result of an individual being a categorical failure as a human being, because they’re not strong enough, because they aren’t trying hard enough, or because they don’t measure up. We don’t say these things of someone with heart disease, cancer, diabetes, or otherwise; we need to stop saying these things to ourselves, and others who struggle with mental health.
We are not defined by our illness.
There is a strange phenomenon, it seems, that when someone struggles with mental illness they become defined by it, both in their own minds and especially in the minds of the public. It’s not uncommon to hear someone say in conversation, “Oh, they’re a schizophrenic,” or, “he’s just an addict,” or similar. Sometimes, however, it’s us saying the same things about ourselves. The problem is that in both cases, it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy, and the struggle becomes perpetuated.
See, if we’re reduced to being a schizophrenic, an addict, or simply someone who is mentally ill, we lose our true identity. We are no longer a brother, a mother, a father, a sister, a CEO, a firefighter, or an accountant. We are no longer the beloved child of our parents, the one who wears his or her heart on their sleeve, or the one who uses art to enliven the lives of ourselves and others.
If we’re reduced to our illness, we have no identity other than that – the illness. This causes us to lose our perspective on ourselves, our loved ones, and those around us who are in the midst of some of the most difficult times in our lives. If we are reduced to our illness, then there is no hope, we are simply sick, or weak, or worse.
There is always hope.
I don’t believe in hopeless cases. There, I said it. If I did, quite frankly, I’d have the worst job in the world. Now, this doesn’t mean that everyone will recover fully and not have to deal with whatever mental health issue it is that plagues them; it doesn’t mean that we’re going to have the grand life that we see everyone around us having on Instagram (which isn’t true anyway, but that’s another article); and it doesn’t mean we’re going to be happy all the time.
What it means, is that although we struggle with mental health, we have not lost our identity; rather, both we and those around us may have lost sight of who it is that we are, and now our job is to get back to our core. It is time to get back to having lived a life worth living and to get back to the essence of what makes us unique.
We are born with natural gifts and abilities, and usually, they are the first things to go when we struggle with mental health or other issues. A little-known fact about me is that I’m a classically trained pianist. I played piano for many years, training with the Royal Conservatory of Music and then training in jazz and blues. Now I play a number of different instruments when I make the time. I love music, it’s one of the few things that no matter what place I’m in, brings me joy. This is true whether I’m playing it myself or listening to one of the greats on a recording.
Music is what has kept me balanced throughout my life when I’ve let it. When I was at my worst, struggling with depression and anxiety, I didn’t pay nearly enough attention to music. It was too much effort, it didn’t seem worth it, I just couldn’t. See, music is a double-edged sword for me – I also have had very high expectations of myself, and historically, I expected to be the best, to never make mistakes, etc., etc., etc. My identity at times became my ability to perform. I’d lost my way.
The truth, however, is that music is part of the core of who I am. When I was trained in The Birkman Method, this came out in spades – right at the top of my interests and passions. I knew this already, however, because when I was able to play music in my recovery, for the joy of it, and the emotional processing of it, and not for the expectation to perform, it helped my recovery more than anything else.
“Music gives me hope.”
Sometimes I work with clients who have lost hope, and I can understand why they have. Their depression is unrelenting, they’ve just discovered their partner has had an affair for the past 10 years, their teenage son is addicted to heroin, or otherwise. Life can be incredibly painful.
Sometimes my job as a counsellor is to hold hope for my clients and to hold hope for those who are struggling until they can hold it themselves.
One thing that I have learned in over a decade of doing this work is that there are no hopeless cases – there is always hope. If you’re reading this and you’re the one struggling, hold on. If you don’t have hope, find someone who can hold it for you. If you’re the one who cares for someone in the struggle, hold hope for them. Encourage them daily. Don’t give up, life can get better for them, and for you.
This is why we need a Mental Health Week. We need a reminder that mental illness is real, and it is physiological, and it is not because we’re weak. We need a reminder that we are no more defined by our illness than we are the size of our shoes. We need a reminder that there is always hope for us and always hope for those we love.
We need a reminder that life can be worth living once again if we keep going.
For whatever reason, whenever I think about motivation, I think about the Sprite commercial from the late 90’s that had some very macho-looking basketball players named Freight Train, Pablo, and Mo-T, with hard-hitting dialogue, interrupted by the director calling, “Cut,” to say that the Sprite can is upside down. Mo-T tells the director off, saying he’d played Hamlet at Cambridge, Pablo complains that once again the director has ruined his concentration, and Freight Train asks the question, “Excuse me, what’s my motivation?” The commercial ends with the tagline, “Image is nothing. Thirst is everything. Obey your thirst.”
Now, clearly, the marketing folks knew what they were doing because I remember this commercial almost 20 years after the fact, and it’s stuck with me. This is somewhat disconcerting because I don’t like to think that I fall prey to marketing because, well, I’m too smart for that. Apparently not. To top it off, all they were trying to do was sell some drinks. So what does this have to do with me, as a Registered Clinical Counsellor and more importantly, what does it have to do with my counselling or coaching clients or anyone else who might be reading our blog this week?
I started thinking about this article over the Christmas break because I knew that the New Year’s resolution discussions were inevitable. Clients would come into the counselling room with all sorts of changes they wanted to make, blogs would be full of articles titled, “How to Make Your New Year’s Resolutions Work in 2018,” and inevitably, products would launch promising to make our dreams come true and help us stick to all of our newfound resolutions. Well, research has shown that New Year’s resolutions don’t stick, and they don’t work for most people. There’s plenty of opinions as to why this might be, and certainly a plethora of articles suggesting how to make sure yours works this year.
My opinion, however, is that most of our resolutions fail because they are tied to an image of ourselves that we want to attain. If only I shed those 20 pounds of weight; if only I was in better shape; if only I could sing better; if only I made more money; and so on and so forth. In other words, if only I could make these changes, and project this image, I’d be a better person, or perhaps more like, and then I’d feel worthwhile.
I have one question for you at the start of this year – and that is, what are you thirsting for? But not in the sense of your image, like how you want to look, how much you want to weigh, or how much more money you want to make at your job; rather, I want to know who you want to be. See, I believe resolutions fail because they are aimed at images of ourselves that automatically tell us we’re not good enough, rather than being aimed at who we want to be and how we want to interact with the world, informed by the knowledge that we are good enough just as we are.
So what are you thirsting after? Who do you want to be this year? How do you want to be defined as a human being, and ultimately, as one who is worthy, and deserving of being loved? I have an exercise for you. I sort of stole it from Mike Mawhorter from Ladner Baptist Church, and I’m not sure who he stole it from. I’ve changed it a bit to fit our purposes here. I’d like you to pick one word that you want to define you this year; to define your pursuits and to define how you interact with the world and ultimately, to define who you are. I’ll give you an example from my own life.
Last year, I picked the word integrity. I decided that I wanted everything I did in 2017 to be defined by and to flow out of integrity. Being a perfectionist by nature, I’m well aware of my shortcomings and areas I’ve failed at this. All in all, however, as I look back on 2017 I am surprised by how helpful this exercise was in three key areas, and I hope they are helpful to you. Picking a word to represent who we want to be, and how we want to operate, allows us to:
- Have a metric by which to make decisions. It’s simplistic but effective. As opportunities come up, or decisions are to be made, we can ask ourselves the question, “Does this get me closer to who I want to be, or further away? If it’s the former, go for it; if it’s the latter, say no and don’t do it.
- Keep the focus away from the image and toward our intrinsic values and desires, or the things we are thirsting after.
- Be motivated by the things that truly matter to us. If we are thirsting after something, our motivation is high. If we simply want to maintain a particular image or lose 20lbs because it’s a good idea, we’re probably not going to stick to it. If, however, we want to lose 20lbs because we want to be healthy, treat ourselves well, and be there for our kids as they grow up, we’ve got a better shot at it.
As I reflect on 2017 and move into 2018, I’m excited. I’m excited for what we’re doing here at Alongside You, I’m excited that we’re going to help more people this year than we have in the years combined since we opened, and I’m excited because if this works, those of you reading this will become closer and closer to a self-definition and motivation that is focused on who you want to be, rather than what you want to do, and reinforcing of the truth that you are valuable, worthy, and deserving of love, just as you are.
“IMAGE IS NOTHING. THIRST IS EVERYTHING.”
So, pick a word that you want to define who you are in 2018. Thirst after it, be motivated by it, and I wish you all the success in the world as you journey toward a deeper sense of self-compassion and self-love this year. You are worth it.
If our team at Alongside You can be of any help as you forge ahead in 2018, please contact us, we’d love to hear from you.