I was listening to NPR or MPR yesterday on my way to taiji, and the topic was mental health. Funnily enough, when I talked about it with my taiji teacher, I called it ‘mental hellness’, which I think is often apt. Anyway, the topic more specifically was how can we talk about mental health and being proactive about it in the same way we now talk about, say, how to prevent a heart attack (the example given by the host). One of the guests was a psychiatrist, and he said there was one thing that was most important above all else. I immediately shouted, “Sleep!” I knew one-hundred percent that was what he was going to say, and I was right. He went on to say that after thirty years of practicing psychiatry, he had three linchpins of good mental health. Sleep was one of them, followed by self-compassion and a deep connection with someone else.
There was also another guest who was the director of a cultural wellness center (I gathered it was a mental health center for minorities, specifically black people), and she said it was important to tell the truth to yourself, especially right before you go to bed. If someone wrongs you, you acknowledge it and ask what you’re going to do about it. If you did something wrong, you acknowledge it, too.
I think all this is important, but I immediately thought of a few questions. With the latter woman, I wondered if this worked for people who continually blame themselves for everything, anyway. Like me. What I actually had to do was learn how to NOT blame myself for things that I didn’t actually do wrong. I will admit there was a side helping of resistance when someone else pointed out I did something wrong because I was already so self-critical, and it miffed me that I had to think of something else that I might be doing wrong. However, I also have to admit that part of the reason I blamed myself for everything was the ‘do it to myself before someone else does it to me’ mentality. I’m not proud of it, but it’s true. If I was already being hard on myself, then other people weren’t as apt to come down on me. Then, I didn’t really have to do anything because, hey, I acknowledged I did something wrong! That’s enough, right?
My other question was for both guests. How do you help people get to the point where they can do these things? People are notoriously bad about recognizing their own flaws (and strong points much of the time), and we are not known for our self-reflection. So, yes, it’s good to tell the truth, but what if you don’t know what the truth is? I see many people walking around in denial, and it’s exceedingly difficult to get someone to see something they can’t–or won’t–see. In addition, what if someone is in a position where doing something about the truth is extremely difficult? Say, for example, an abusive relationship. I’ve learned that the time someone tries to leave is the time when an abusive partner is most likely to be deadly. So, it’s not as easy as, “I’m being abused. I must leave.” You have to plan it out very carefully and still recognize that it’s going to be hard. On the other hand, though, maybe just being able to acknowledge the truth of the abusive relationship and have others validate what you’re saying may be empowering in and of itself. I don’t know, and I would not dare profess that I have any kind of expert knowledge.