A few weeks ago, I was having a conversation with a friend and she said something which has stuck with me ever since. She said “Be kind to your unhealthy self, as you are kind to your healthy self.” When she said it, I was gobsmacked. Once I regained my composure, I told her I was writing that down, and suggested she do the same. In conversations since, she has returned to the phrase “being kind to my unhealthy self” as she describes the decisions she has made. It has become a touchstone as she makes her way through life.
I recently spoke with my therapist about this phrase, and she was also struck by its power. She suggested a slight modification to it: instead of “unhealthy”, she suggested “burdened” (more on that in a bit). The more I’ve thought on it, I like my therapist’s suggestion, so I will be using that.
What is “your burdened self”?
In our conversation, my friend and I were talking about how depression and anxiety have affected us and how much it interferes with achieving goals we set for ourselves. For instance, I might set a goal to spend a Saturday cleaning and organizing a room in our house, and then when Saturday arrives, sleep past noon and spend the rest of the day reading in bed, all the while feeling guilty about my failure to accomplish my goal. But what was happening under the surface was that I’d been up ’til 6am, unable to sleep because I couldn’t get my brain to shut down and be quiet, and then once I finally woke up, the same thought patterns fired up again. More simply, I was depressed, which stole my energy and motivation, which made me anxious about how I was going to accomplish the goal I’d set for myself. In the end, I’d feel guilty and feel like a failure because I hadn’t been able to accomplish the seemingly simple goal of cleaning a room.
But my failure wasn’t in not cleaning the room. My failure was in not giving myself the space to be depressed, and not recognizing that dealing with depression and anxiety is a worthwhile task/goal of its own. I had set a goal which depended on my having enough mental energy and certain thought patterns, and I’d left no room for the possibility that my mental energy might be spent on dealing with depression. I wasn’t being kind to my burdened self. Instead, I was being quite unkind to my burdened self by hoping that she wouldn’t be the one who showed up on Saturday.
This isn’t to say that I shouldn’t set goals for myself, but rather, I should be more careful about the goals I set and kinder to myself when evaluating my own performance against the goals I set.
Why “burdened” instead of “unhealthy”?
While depression can be classified as a mental disorder (see What is depression?), characterizing it as “unhealthy” ignores some fundamental truths. As my therapist pointed out, I am arguably at my strongest when I’m dealing with depression; I have an immense burden, yet I’m still finding ways to do the things I have to do – I’m coping, I’m self-soothing, I’m searching for ways to claw myself out of the dark hole I’ve found myself in, all while getting up, getting dressed, going to work, and doing the basic things I have to do. And I’m surviving!
It’s easy to do things when you’re unburdened; it’s hard to do things when you also have to carry a heavy burden. That my burden isn’t visible doesn’t diminish the impact it has, nor the strength required to just keep going.
“Unhealthy” can have a negative connotation, as though I’ve done something to cause it. I didn’t. But “burdened” is an acknowledgement that what I’m dealing with has a weight and that it costs me something – without making a judgement about it being good or bad.
How can I be kinder to my burdened self?
The first thing I can do is to stop depending on my unburdened self to show up. I can set my goals in a way which makes space for my burdened self. Instead of saying “I will clean and organize this room this Saturday”, I can say “I plan to work on cleaning and organizing this room this Saturday.” The difference is that in the first statement, I have set up a clear pass/fail criteria – if I don’t clean and organize the room on Saturday, I have clearly failed at my goal.
But in the second statement, I plan – I speak to my intent, which is true at the time I speak it. I intend to work on – I don’t create a pass/fail measurement beyond working on it. While it might not be a high bar to set, if I manage to throw away one piece of paper from the room, I’ve met that bar, and therefore don’t need to feel like a failure if I don’t manage to accomplish everything else I’d like to have done.
At the same time, I don’t want to set a goal so insignificant that I might as well not have set it in the first place. So I specify details – these actions, this place, this day. I set a framework so that if my unburdened self shows up, she has something to do. But my framework is flexible enough that if my burdened self shows up, she has the space to take care of herself however she needs to, without pressure and possible (self-) judgment setting her up to feel even worse about herself.
As you can see, I’m still working on this idea, and I’m sure my understanding and feelings will evolve as I explore it more and try to put it into practice. What are your thoughts? Do you set goals and then feel bad about yourself when you fall short? Have you looked more closely at why that happens – why do you feel bad, or why do you fall short? Are you perhaps falling into the same pattern as I have – setting goals with the assumption that my unburdened self will be the one to tries to fulfill them? Let me know in the comments – I’d love to talk this out more!
Until next time,