How changing my mindset helped my mental health recovery journey
Bhargavi explains how learning to separate emotions and behaviours really improved their mental health.
Written by Bhargavi Magadi
Voices - Experiences
Young people share their personal experiences.
Emotions like anger, envy, and irritation are difficult to experience. I used to be ashamed of myself whenever I snapped at someone for no reason or felt jealous of others’ accomplishments. I thought these emotions should be suppressed. However, eventually, they would explode out of me no matter what. In the long run, that was much more harmful to me than just letting myself feel these so-called “ugly” emotions.
This pattern was frustrating because it played out in destructive ways repeatedly. I found myself wondering how I was so bad at saying the things I meant. Instead of comforting my friends about their struggles I’d say, “don’t be so hung up about it.”
Or I’d just sit with them in uncomfortable silence because I knew that the moment I opened my mouth something stupid would come out. I snapped at people randomly and had weird mood swings I couldn’t pinpoint. I got into arguments about small, petty things: when someone ate something I was looking forward to (even when they had no idea I wanted to eat that in the first place), or when they gave me really good advice that I got defensive about.
Eventually, I hit a breaking point with myself. I started adding restrictions: no feeling jealous, no getting annoyed at people over small things, and no getting depressed because my friends went out without me (they always invited me, but I rarely went because I never thought my mood was good enough). This backfired, and badly. Bottling up my emotions even more than I normally did just led to them exploding all in one go, leaving behind a lot of regret and guilt.
I became tired of repeating the same mistakes, but I wasn’t sure what to do about it. Finally, I asked for help.
Getting help for dealing with emotions
The main advice I got was to see negative emotions as a normal part of life. Everyone gets jealous, angry, possessive, insecure, and so on. How I react to my emotions and how I express them is what matters, more than the emotions themselves. I didn’t really understand what that meant, or how it could be that negative emotions were not negative.
I could get my head around one thing though: it’s better to feel envious of others than to feel envious and bring them down in the process. The feeling of envy, by itself, doesn’t affect anyone other than me. So, I changed the boundaries I had drawn previously: for example, anger was okay, but being snappy and unreasonable was not. I remade my rules for every negative emotion I felt, and it worked for a while. However, it wasn’t sustainable.
Accepting mistakes as part of my recovery process
I was trying to protect others, but I wasn’t extending the same consideration to myself. I still beat myself up every time I broke a rule, which resulted in more shame and guilt. Emotions piled up on top of each other until I didn’t know what to do with them anymore.
Then, someone pointed out to me that people don’t change overnight. I would not magically learn to control my feelings just because I made up some rules. There were a lot of mistakes in the process. What I needed to do was accept that there would be mistakes and failings in the process, and take responsibility for them.
So, for the first time, I had an argument with someone, and once I calmed down, I asked for forgiveness. They forgave me very easily. It made me ashamed of how long I had never given people the apologies they deserved just because I was too afraid.
Slowly, by taking responsibility for my mistakes, I started having more conversations with people about them. About why I acted the way I did, how they felt and how I felt. It was a great way for me to learn about myself. It also helped me feel better about myself. It made me feel like I had finally stopped running in circles. I was moving forward. I was confronting my fears and overcoming them.
Discovering ways to deal with emotions
After a while, I recognised that all my emotions are a signal. Sometimes they were a confusing signal that just turned up out of nowhere, but was caused by some things that happened in the past. It was difficult to trace all of them to a root cause, but they did all have reasons.
I began to ask myself, first, if my bad mood was because of something physical. I can’t count how many times I’ve been snappy and annoyed because I just didn’t realise I was hungry. If it wasn’t something simple like a lack of food, sleep or exercise, I started asking more emotional questions. Was I lonely? Did something happen in the past while? Did I have a conversation with someone that struck me the wrong way?
In the beginning, I didn’t find many answers, and even when I did, I didn’t know how to deal with them. Sometimes the links between my behaviour and their causes were complex. For example, I didn’t go out with my friends because I thought I didn’t deserve to have fun, because I lost my temper at someone, because I was hangry, because I had skipped breakfast, because I felt guilty about eating a heavy dinner, because I was insecure about my weight and on and on. There was a lot to unpack in one argument already without tracing it back to its root causes.
However, I continued to ask questions and look for patterns. In the meantime, I tried to develop short-term ways of dealing with my negative emotions.
The coping mechanisms that work for me
I started by addressing the immediate cause of my emotions wherever they had one. For example, I stopped skipping meals. That created a whole range of other emotions I didn’t realise I had. This resulted in another round of asking questions and searching for solutions, but it was better than hiding and choking them so they could fester without me knowing. If I felt my feelings, they hurt, but they wouldn’t keep coming back as long as I addressed them.
I experimented with new coping techniques. I started with basic things, like journaling and meditation, but I quickly found they weren’t the best fit for me. I liked journaling, but I kept forgetting to do it. Every time I meditated I would get antsy, then anxious, and then frustrated because my brain did not stop thinking and it was not relaxing at all.
Next, I started running. The physical exertion kept me from focusing on my thoughts and calmed me down, as well as the general benefits that come from exercising.
I tried to talk to my friends more. It helped that they also opened up to me, so we could share without feeling judged or like we were burdening each other. It was a mutual exchange of trust. They also encouraged me to hang out with them and come to parties instead of waiting for myself to be in a good mood. Even if I started off being silent and boring, I was usually cheered up by being around them. They never forced me to join in or talk, but they always made sure I wasn’t alone and that I was enjoying myself.
How compassionate self-talk helped me regulate my emotions
One day, my friend got a better grade than me on a test that I had worked very hard for. I felt that familiar pang of envy and frustration, and I told myself, “yeah, that sucks. It’s frustrating and tough not to meet my own standards, and it’s hard when I do worse than I hoped. It’s okay to be jealous of someone who has what I want.”
Weirdly, that made me feel better. I congratulated my friend and asked them if we could compare answers. I asked them how much they studied, and they said they worked every day for six hours.
I said, “Wow, I could not imagine doing that. That’s impressive!” And that was okay with me. I enjoyed relaxing after school and I had a lot of hobbies. Plus, I cannot resist lounging on the sofa and bingeing Netflix in the evening. Those things made me happy. I didn’t feel ready to sacrifice them for a higher grade, and that was okay. My friend and I just had different priorities and so we got different results.
I was still jealous that she was so hard-working, though, but that was normal. I wanted to be dedicated like that, but I just hadn’t found something I was passionate about. I was working on it, and I was content to be where I was at that moment.