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Self-Awareness | 10 Tips To Help You Master The Most Life-Changing (And Difficult) Recovery Skill

[Disclaimer: The aim of this blog post is to tell my experience with honesty. Therefore, some content may trigger an adverse reaction. If this post is beginning to upset you, I advise that you please stop reading it immediately and talk to your support team. There are NO ads featured in this piece, all recommendations are done off my own back. Content and Trigger Warning: Depression & Anxiety]


There are many self-awareness blog posts out there that will all tell you very similar things, most of which are designed to lead you to the end goal of "being more successful", "a better leader", or some other form of idealised super-self.


Where mental-illness is concerned, this super-self is so far away from your current self it isn't recognisable as our self at all. It's a whole other person that can cope and thrive and... well... do things! Many bloggers seem to be writing about self-awareness as though it is the gateway to achieving all your worldly dreams, and they are right, but not in the way they think they are. When it comes to recovery, and even just survival, self awareness is actually the gate way to living.


Self-awareness is a tool that needs to be used by those whose minds "cannot be trusted". It allows someone who regularly doubts themselves, who has trouble making objective observations about themselves and their behaviour, or someone who has very little self-worth, to really look at everything with a cleaner lens that isn't muddied by whichever illness they are battling. Self-awareness is perspective. Self-awareness is a fighting chance.



Why is it difficult to master?

Ironically, many people with depression or anxiety may actually feel that they are already self-aware, because they are able to analyse their own behaviours (and the behaviours of others), but this is usually just scrutinising themselves to within an inch of their life.


A person with depression and anxiety (myself included) may be hyper-aware of themselves, but this attention to the details of their every move is overshadowed by their illness.


How often do you "over-think" every little detail of an interaction with someone else? How long do you spend unravelling a conversation you've had? How many times have you been rendered terrified because you feel you can "predict" what will happen? This sucks, but we justify those shitty feelings by claiming they are "realistic" or "logical" based on the evidence we have in front of us. We've looked at every single possible outcome, looked at every aspect of ourselves to find potential faults or flaws to minimise, and know exactly how others think because we've come to the most obvious conclusions... right?


Wrong. This is not self-awareness, this is ruminating and catastrophising... and obsessive, and distressing and is focusing on all the wrong things.

 

Rumination:

To think deeply about the same things over and over again. This is dangerous when you combine it with your anxiety of depression and can lead to obsessive thinking and catastrophising.


Catastrophising:

when someone assumes that the worst will happen. Often, it involves believing that you're in a worse situation than you really are or exaggerating the difficulties you face.

 

That one thing you did 10 years ago that still keeps you awake at night will have been forgotten by everybody else but you.


The person you had that conversation with will be more concerned (if they are even concerned at all) about how they came across in that conversation, not you.


All those predictions and made up scenarios in your mind are just that. Made up. You can never really know what's going to happen, no matter how hard you try to predict something. And as terrifying as that is, that's also what makes life exciting.


Self-awareness is so difficult to master because our disorders have been with us for so long now that they have actually altered how we think and how our brain processes information. We now view everything through a tinted lens that makes everything seem so much darker than it may actually be and it's very hard to change your own perspective once your eyes have adjusted to the lack of light.


To master self-awareness you have to teach yourself new ways of thinking, and practise them, every day in order to adjust your brain to a new perspective. These smaller, repeated actions will have a huge effect over time, just as your disorder has grown with you, so can your recovery.


How will more self awareness change my life for the better?

It's much easier to practise self-awareness on good days, so start there (using some of the techniques in the next section). Everyone has to start somewhere. It's much harder to continue to practise self-awareness on bad days, but eventually that will get easier too.


Unfortunately you may not always be around others who can help you, or something may happen suddenly that is a shock, and this is when you will need a support system that comes from within. You need to be able to coach yourself through things when all you have is yourself. Self awareness will offer you a way to fight your illness long-term by giving you a perspective that challenges those negative thoughts.


Self-awareness untangles you from your biased thinking and frees you from the grip of your disorder over time. But it doesn't stop there....


As time passes along your recovery journey and you find yourself being able to do more, you'll find that self-awareness can positively impact every aspect of your life. You'll be more attuned to your capacity for work and stress, understand how your health and body works (and therefore when something isn't quite right), and you'll be able to nurture relationships with others and yourself for continued growth and healing.



Tips for becoming more self aware


1. Keep a journal

Write down what is happening in your life and how you are feeling about it, and do this as often as you can. You'll get better at your recall of events and better at putting your emotions into words. Not only will you be able to identify emotions by name, but you will be able to work out how to make yourself feel better too.


That's not all though. As embarrassing as it can be to look back at old journal entries, this is where self-awareness will really be developed.


Did that event turn out how you wanted it to at the time? Did everything turn out as badly as you expected? Did something surprising happen?


Reading old entries and applying your present knowledge of what how things progressed helps you to challenge your catastrophising habits. You'll see that actually, most of what you worry about happening doesn't happen and you can use this to tackle the scenarios that your disorder is scaring you with.


Hindsight really is a wonderful thing.


If a physical notebook is not your thing, you can also try writing in an online journal/blog. Tumblr is a personal favourite of mine and has been since I was in secondary school. It is free and you can create private blogs so that your thoughts are private and read blogs done by others in the same boat as you (as always though, take caution when looking at sensitive material online and remove yourself should you find it upsetting). Or you can download a journal app to your phone.



2. Install a mood tracker on your phone

This is something that I do and cannot recommend enough. Tracking my moods, along with what I did each day, illuminated patterns that I did not know were there. I found that days that I spent with friends produced higher moods (which seems fairly obvious) whilst days spent alone I spiralled. Days where I was at work at a job I was not enjoying, unsurprisingly was heavily affecting my mood, but days where I managed to engage in something creative or spent time outdoors lifted my spirits.


These connections were all there but I was blind to them before I started my tracker. As much as we think we are aware of what effects certain activities will have on our minds, until that evidence is right there in black and white we tend to turn a blind eye or just assume that we are doing everything right.


From this exercise I realised what I needed to change in my life to improve it. Here is a before and after of when I started tracking my mood vs my moods from the May just gone. As you'll see, it's not perfect. Life is not perfect even if you're in recovery but it is better.



I use Daylio for my mood tracker, available for both Apple and Android and is free, though there are extra features that you can pay to unlock should you choose to. You can customise the activities, moods and make notes with more information on what you were thinking and feeling that day. You can even set goals to help you achieve and establish newer, healthier daily routines.


3. Track your symptoms (both physical and emotional)

Physical symptoms encompasses a lot of different aspects, depending on how your mental illness affects you. For example, your anxiety may cause you stomach aches or chest pains, whilst your depression may cause you to lose your appetite. It's important to keep track of what happens within your body leading up to and during a depressive or anxious episode. This way you can better take care of yourself when you have a bad time, or better spot when things are starting to get bad and intervene.


I also highly recommend you track your menstrual cycle if you have one. As our hormones change we may experience psychological symptoms as a result and until I started tracking my cycle I didn't realise that my depression has a strong hormonal element to it. I get depressive episodes at all times in my cycle true, but I noticed that almost like clockwork I would become very depressed for a few days each month before my time. This is not something that I can control or prevent, but I know it's coming and can deal with it accordingly thanks to this awareness. For this I use an app called Flo, again, it is free (unless you want to access all the informational articles and features) and can track ovulation, predict your upcoming cycles up to a year in advance within a day's accuracy, and helps you track PMS symptoms and moods as well.


Tracking your emotional symptoms can be very similar to tracking your moods and does overlap slightly, but goes deeper than just "I feel sad today". It means tracking when you experience panic attacks, have thoughts about harming yourself, when you compare yourself to others and any other habits you find that you engage with when your mental illness flares up. This allows you to better anticipate when a bad time is coming and how to tackle it.


By tracking both physical and emotional symptoms you can pick up on patterns or links between the two and over time can discover how to ease both.


Image credit: www.thebrandhannah.com.au

4. Ask for feedback

When trying to become more self-aware it helps to have open and honest conversations with people you trust.


Oftentimes our disorders make us believe that the people around us are judging or thinking negatively about us, or we worry about what others think... so why not just ask them and find out once and for all? Be open and say "I need help with deciphering which of my thoughts are unreliable, can I ask if I came across as *insert negative assumption* just then?" or "I'm having trouble trusting my thoughts today, so I just want to check that we are okay."


There is no shame in admitting that you are struggling with your own thought processes and in doing so you are taking the first steps to showing yourself and others that you are serious about making positive changes in your life.


By asking someone straight out for their honest thoughts, not only are you becoming more aware of when your thoughts are lying to you and when you are right or wrong, you will also be forming a stronger bond with this person as they know that they can be honest with you and help you through difficult times.


5. Self-reflection

Sitting with your feelings is a very different process than over-thinking and learning how to do this effectively takes time and practise.


Self-reflection in this instance means you analyse the thoughts you are having, not yourself. If you had a bad day and are having negative thoughts about yourself or your worth, rather than dwell on those bad thoughts and go down a spiral self-reflection aims to help you recognise the thoughts you are having and then try to work out where they stem from.


Try asking yourself:

  • What is it I am actually feeling right now? E.g. You may feel anger, but this may be caused by feelings of betrayal or frustration. Try to find the deeper emotion you are experiencing.

  • Will I still be feeling like this in a few days, weeks or months from now? Try to determine how temporary the emotions are.

  • How does feeling this way normally affect my behaviour? Do you engage in any unhealthy coping mechanisms as a result of these feelings? Try to figure out what reaction these emotions cause you to have and what this means you need. E.g. if you engage in excessive drinking as a result of negative emotions this may mean you want to escape the emotions, and so need to learn how to deal with them in a healthy way.

  • If this was happening to a friend or loved one, would I say to them the same things my thoughts are saying to me? The likely answer is no... This may help you put into perspective how harmful the things you are saying to yourself are.

  • What is the first memory I have of feeling this way? And how have these feeling progressed over time? Pinpointing the root of these emotions may help you realise that, with hindsight and perspective, the original context may no longer apply or how much you have evolved since you first felt this way.


Delving deeper into your feelings and working out the cause can be incredibly helpful in pushing you along your recovery journey. Not only do you now know what originally caused this way of thinking, you can now rationalise all other instances of negative thinking going forward.


However, it is highly advised if you want to start diving into your thought processes (and potential trauma) that you do so with the help of a licensed therapist. They can help you explore these feelings in a safe manner and put in safe-guarding measures to protect you.



6. Recognise strengths and weaknesses

Recognising strengths is very difficult for someone with depression and/or anxiety, but is vital for gaining a balanced view of yourself. Try first to make a list of things you are proud of yourself for, and then work out what qualities or talents you have that helped you get there.


For example, I am very proud of the degree I have. This is because I really struggled through the final 2 years of study due to my mental health, but I tried to seek help for my illness and didn't give up. This means that my strengths are determination, perseverance, creativity and passion for the subject I was learning. Despite this I beat myself up for a long time because I didn't get a higher grade... I didn't stop to realise how much I actually achieved!


Looking at your own weaknesses can very quickly turn into an opportunity for your illness to run wild, tread carefully. Your weaknesses do not make you less of a worthy person and do not mean that you are inherently bad because you have faults.


Go easy on yourself here, no one is perfect and recognising weaknesses doesn't have to be teamed with fixing those weaknesses!


At my worst, I would have said my weaknesses were that I'm "useless" or "ugly" or "pathetic" but those aren't weaknesses. Weaknesses are more like the fact that I care too much about what people think of me, that I am too hard on myself and that I take things to heart... these things in turn lead to me feeling "useless", "ugly" and "pathetic". Looking at yourself objectively is difficult and separating the disordered thoughts from reality is even harder, but it can be done, just give yourself a hug and keep trying.


7. Monitor self-talk

The negative voice in your head can say some pretty ridiculous things sometimes, things like "I don't know why I bother", "I'm useless at this", "I can't do anything right" etc. but that's really all those thoughts are... ridiculous. They are lies and we become so used to hearing them that we believe them!


Most of the time we become so accustomed to talking to ourselves like shit that we don't hear it anymore, and sometimes these statements even come out of our own mouths.


I'm sure you've heard someone you know say some of these things about themselves before, and we usually jump to argue those thoughts on their behalf. We try so hard to tackle these negative statements in others but don't give ourselves that same level of encouragement.


One method I have found useful when tackling negative self-talk is to flip the statement entirely! For example, if you slip or trip over rather than saying "I'm so clumsy!" try turning it into more of a jokey, positive statement such as "I am the epitome of grace and elegance!" even this you only do this in your head. You will surprised at how many times you will find yourself correcting negative statements... and eventually over time you'll also find that you begin to automatically challenge any negative thinking that comes into your mind with a more positive outlook.


8. Establish boundaries

To establish boundaries, first you need to work out what makes you uncomfortable, and then you need to accept that your feelings of discomfort are valid.


  • Is their someone in your life who negatively impacts your mental health? This could be anyone who doesn't leave you with a good feeling after you see them, or gives you a sicking feeling at the thought of seeing them. Analyse where this is and how they treat you to decide which boundaries you need to set with this person in order to harbour a more positive relationship.

  • Are there topics of conversation that you want to avoid? This could be to avoid triggering a trauma of yours, or because these topics bring up negative emotions within yourself. Asking someone to avoid certain topics does not "limit their free speech" as much as it protects you.

  • Are there situations that make you feel unsafe? Do you attend events out of guilt, even when you are not up for it and then fear that your mental health will suffer as a result? Do you feel peer pressured to participate in activities that feel dangerous? If so, then a boundary surrounding what you are and are not comfortable doing needs to be set.

  • Are you disrespected by someone in your life? Are your opinions or feelings undermined or ignored? Are you made to feel small or devalued by someone you know? Everyone deserves to have their voice heard.

  • Do you find yourself regularly people pleasing at your own expense? If you always put others before yourself you run the risk of allowing yourself to be taken advantage of. Yes, looking after others is an admirable quality, but you also need to give yourself the care that you give to others. If you are not coping to the best of your ability because of burn out then you will not be able to look after others as effectively as you would like to. Sometimes you have to look after yourself in order to look after others.


It's okay to put boundaries up in defence of your mental well-being and safety, because not everyone will have your well-being as their priority. Your need to feel comfortable does NOT come after someone else's need to feel right, or their feelings of entitlement. If a person is not willing to adhere to your boundaries (especially if these boundaries will positively impart you), then they do not care about you as much as they do their own self-righteousness. People who care will go the extra mile to help you move forward.


Boundaries do not necessarily mean shutting people out (though limited contact with certain individuals may well be part of it if needed), they mean sound like "I know you are angry, but do not speak to me that way", "I would appreciate you not talking about this in front of me" or just simply allowing yourself to say no. Boundaries do however require action when they are being tested or crossed. This could come in the form of you stating that "I won't be spending time here if this continues", "If you continue to speak to me like/about that then I will leave the conversation" or creating space between you and the person(s) violating your boundaries.


Setting boundaries can give rise to feelings of guilt or confusion if you are not used to standing up for yourself or have grown up with co-dependent dynamics, but they are necessary for healing and you deserve to feel respected, valued, heard and comfortable with those around you. You will be teaching others how to treat you, based on what you will and will not accept.


9. Meditation and mindfulness

I have spoken about mindfulness and meditation before a few times on this blog already, and to be honest is something that I don't do nearly enough.


Meditation gets you to focus your attention on your breathing and muscle tension, rather than on your conscious thoughts. Becoming more aware of your body, how it feels and how you can control it through focus and breathing can help in so many areas of mental illness from anxiety and depression, to general stress or even body dysmorphia. It teaches us that our brains and bodies are not the enemy, but can be stressful for those who have issues with their body, or struggle to be with themselves without any distractions.


Whilst it is not for everyone, the research is hard to ignore. The best way to work out if mindfulness is right for you is to simply give it a try!


"Researchers reviewed more than 200 studies of mindfulness among healthy people and found mindfulness-based therapy was especially effective for reducing stress, anxiety and depression." American Psychological Association https://www.apa.org/topics/mindfulness/meditation

I have people in my life who swear by meditation and mindfulness and have made it part of their daily routines. These people are resilient, self-aware and self-assured, thanks in part to meditation and mindfulness, and in part to their continued to work on themselves for the better.


A good mindfulness meditation can be found here.


Please Note: Mindfulness may not be suitable for those who have experienced physical trauma due to the practise of drawing attention to your body.


10. Start therapy

Finally, I highly recommend talking to therapist regarding any struggles you may have, or even just to continually learn more about yourself.


Therapy for a lot of people seems like a "last resort" when things cannot get any worse, and to be honest that was the point in which I sought therapy for myself... but I WISH I'd started sooner. There are so many incidents in my life that I could have handled better if I'd have given myself the tools to do so. Tools that therapy provided me with later in my life once it was too late.


Therapy helped my see where my thoughts were stemming from, how and why I was reacting to things the way I was, which of my feelings (many of which had been invalidated) were actually justified, and thus helped me see clearly for the first time in years.


We don't need to wait until we are desperate in order to start changing our lives for the better. There is not a single scenario in our lives that a clearer vision and understanding of ourselves (and others) will not positively impact. We owe it to ourselves to take the leap.


One final thing...

This is by no means a full and extensive list of ways to increase your self-awareness, but it is a good place to start at least.


Self-awareness is not something that will come to you after a day of meditating and journaling. It is a daily effort to discover more about your ways of thinking, learn how to cope with your emotions and grow as a person, as well as fight for better mental health and wellness. You deserve that, as much as your brain may well tell you otherwise and you are more than capable of achieving it.



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