Building Self Awareness

Why bother? Well, self awareness is one the many skills that help you manage life in general. We had a great chat about this at Bridges today. When you’re dealing with something as complex and difficult as a mental illness, self awareness can be one of the keys that help you cope and recover. Learning who you are, how you function, what you need, what keeps you well and what sets off your symptoms are all part of being able to better predict and manage a mental illness. Knowing more about what’s going on for you can help put you back in the driver’s seat. Instead of feeling helpless, overwhelmed, and like the illness is running the show – which it certainly does in those really bad times, you can gather information and feel more like you’re in the driver’s seat. I hope that you may find something useful in my experiences with self awareness.

I confess I have come from a place where I had very little self awareness. I collected information about the people around me, when their birthday was, what their favourite flowers or food were, if they like company when they’re struggling or if they prefer to be left in peace. I was proud of being able to remember all these details so I could tailor how I responded and try to be as good a friend as possible. In contrast, I felt blind to myself, like when I tried to look inside myself everything was in shadow. My head felt full of fog and mist. My mental illness felt totally unpredictable and unmanageable, good days or bad days seemed to come out of nowhere without warning. Nothing made sense to me. I felt like I was in a tiny boat at sea, storms came or went and I just tried to survive.

A few years ago I received the diagnosis of a dissociative condition, and I changed gears. I was desperate to fix the problem and get myself back on track. I firmly resolved to be one of those inspiring patients who faces things squarely, works really hard, and gets everything sorted. I decided that I would be completely cured of my condition within a year.

So, for the first time in my life, I basically made myself my own research subject. Once I started to get past my denial of my mental illness, I studied myself. I looked for patterns. I lay awake at night for hours asking myself questions that I was, frankly, terrified of getting answers to. I wrestled with myself, deeply frustrated and strongly driven to be able to sort everything out immediately. I derailed very quickly. When I faced either driving myself into a suicidal breakdown, or backing off my aggressive approach to self awareness, I realised that what I was doing was actually destroying my ability to function. So, very confused, I backed off a bit and had to re-think my approach.

In my case, I’ve discovered that self-awareness has to be underpinned by two different things. The first is the ability to cope with what you learn. In the case of a dissociative disorder, the dissociation is often playing a protective role. It is buffering you from feelings, memories, information, and awareness that you might find pretty difficult to cope with. So, I was digging around for answers, but also terrified of what those answers might be. This isn’t a great way to learn about yourself. I had a whole bunch of fears about what it meant to have a mental illness: would it be permanent? Was I going to get worse? Could I be dangerous? I desperately wanted information but I was also really scared.

As I read more and educated myself more about my conditions and mental health in general, some of those fears started to calm down. I discovered that mental illness labels are basically a shorthand way for one doctor to communicate with another about the kind of struggles a person is having. No one ever quite perfectly fits a diagnosis, and that’s normal. I spent some time with other people with mental illnesses and found that they were still people. We could find something to talk about, some common ground, some interest or concern we shared. I discovered that statistically, people with mental illnesses are actually less likely than the general community to be violent. My intense fears began to calm down. I learned that there’s a lot of grey area in this field, that sometimes it takes a lot of time to work some things out, that others may never be known. I started to realise that this was going to be a process. I began to engage that process in a more gentle and curious manner, instead of frantic.

The other component to developing my own self awareness has been working on accepting myself. Self-acceptance is another key to recovery, and it’s never been my strong point! I was not treating myself well in the process of trying to learn more about myself. I was harsh, angry, hostile, and contemptuous. I demanded answers to questions, I was furious at the very dissociation that was actually buffering me from overwhelming distress and hopelessness. I was angry at my own weaknesses, driving myself hard to cope better. I would constantly ask myself “what’s the matter with you?”. My self talk was nasty “You’re so pathetic, you’re weak, stupid, ugly, disgusting, no one likes you and they’re right not to”. My self esteem withered and my relationship with myself was like being sandblasted.

I had to develop more compassion for myself. I had to work on building a better, more gentle and caring relationship with myself. Learning about who I am and how I function has been more like tending a garden, or coaxing a hurt animal to care than undergoing a military inquiry. Less about asking the questions and more about just listening to myself. The more I’ve been able to be okay with the answers, and to be gentle with my own limitations, the more I have learned. While I railed and screamed, my mind remained shut tight, closed down. Now, I’ve been slowly able to gather and build up information. I’ve unpicked the dynamics that have fuelled my illness and learned what the keys were to those good days.

Self awareness makes a huge difference to my ability to function. I’ve learned some of my triggers, developed my own grounding kit, learned my early warning signs and what to do about them. This doesn’t mean that I can always prevent the bad days. There’s a lot in life I can’t control, and overwhelming circumstances can bump my stress level past the point I can cope with. But these days I can at least see that coming most of the time. So I set in place strategies – I ask for help, I increase my grounding techniques, I don’t spend time alone if it’s going to be dangerous. It gives me more control to predict and manage my illness and my life. This doesn’t mean it’s something I’m finished with! Still very much a work in progress, and probably always will be. We change, develop, acquire wounds and hurts, and grow over a lifetime. So self awareness is always going to be a process, listening to ourselves and learning our needs, desires, fears, and dreams as they change with us over time.

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