“The importance of maintaining a sense of self,”
“Our stories and relationships change when we learn to value our whole self,”
As many who suffer from mental illnesses may attest, mental health problems do not exactly lend themselves to an over-flow of self-esteem. When a person becomes unwell with mental illness, they exert a lot of time and energy finding ways to treat their symptoms and manage their illness. So much so that it’s common for the individual – as well as family, friends and medical professionals – to focus entirely on the illness, forgetting that there is an actual, unique and whole human being beneath it.
This renders the person with a mental illness almost unable to see themselves as someone worthy of love or attention. In fact, in some extreme circumstances (and I speak from personal experience) the focus solely on the illness(es) can lead to someone completely losing their sense of self, their worth as an individual and their necessity as a member of the human race. They can see none of the skills, talents or values they possess as their illness (and/or trauma) causes them to focus solely on the negative aspects of their personality; aspects which are often unfavourably exaggerated out of all proportion.
A good example of this was a post I wrote yesterday in which I questioned whether or not I actually had any positive skills or values. A statement that immediately returned the comment:
You are a very caring person and very aware of other people’s needs. You have very good computer skills, you are a good artist, you are a talented photographer (if you had a camera that is), You have great taste in music with a wide variety of styles, You are also a very skilled writer when your illness allows you to be.
You seem to have got yourself in a rut of running yourself down and not seeing what is good about yourself, I know this is due to your past experiences but somehow you must break through this and see yourself for how good you are, not how useless you are.
This rut is something many who suffer from mental illness fall into, especially those who have had their sense-of-self destroyed by an abusive relationship.
Stephanie, for example, was a talented artist and photographer, someone who could work in a myriad of styles and produce work that was both multi-layered and truly inspiring. Whenever I would tell her this, however I would tell her this, she would instantly disregard my comments as a “complete lie” or that I was just saying that because I “had to” as her friend. The years of abuse she’d suffered (in combination with her mental illness) had made it impossible for her to see what everyone else could.
My thinking follows the same pattern of negative reinforcement that the exercise we undertook in the Mi Recovery group seeks to change.
A picture of me, in a strong frame
“I respect my limitations. I know my strengths. I compare myself with myself,
not with others who have different challenges and attributes to mine,”
The premise behind this exercise is to build a picture of who we are; the things we value, the things we like to do, our strengths and skills, how someone who knows us well would describe our abilities and successes, what aspects of our illness fit into the picture and what knowledge, resources and strategies strengthen this picture.
Once this picture has been formed, we then need to ask ourselves what internal and external resources we need to draw on to maintain this picture. For example, support groups, counselling, asking for help (external) or resilience, determination, insight (internal). This I could do easily…it was the actual strengths that I struggled with.
However – partly because I had to, partly because I needed to – I did (finally) create a portrait of myself:
~ Key ~
BROWN TEXT (HAT) are three things I value in a relationship
RED TEXT (HEAD) are things I value in life
ORANGE TEXT (ARMS) are aspects of my illness I believe fit into the picture of me
PURPLE TEXT (BODY I) are things I am skillful in
BLUE TEXT (BODY II) are some of my strengths
GREEN TEXT (RIGHT LEG) are external resources I need to maintain the picture
PALE GREEN TEXT (LEFT LEG) are internal resources I need to maintain the picture
YELLOW TEXT (GROUND) is something I really (really) need to learn how to do to maintain this picture!
GREY TEXT (ANNOTATIONS) are things I like about my body (I chose to add these due to my body image issues)
Given the negative view I hold of myself it’s safe to say I do not yet believe everything I’ve included in the picture of myself. Some of them are things other people have recognised in me (e.g. Samantha saw my kinkiness as a strength, my family see my compassion as a strength and many people have noted my intense survival instinct and determination) whilst others are things only I believe (Zelda games are a skill? Really?)
But I believe it’s important to include these things in my picture, purely because they are all things I need to start believing rather than dismissing about myself.
It may be a long time before I do believe in this portrait, but for now I shall just celebrate the fact I’ve created one!
Why not make one of your own…you may be surprised by what you come up with! :)
Other articles in the “Mi Recovery” series:
- Mi Recovery: Introduction
- Mi Recovery: The Biopsychosocial Model
- Mi Recovery: Homework 01 – What are your beliefs about mental illness?