My Friends

There are people in my life who challenge me. They make me aware of the things that I once thought and that still creep into my mind. I look at them and I see the lies float past and my only defense is to remind myself “this person is my friend. They are wonderful. I love them. Every person I think these thoughts of is a friend, wonderful, loved. Each person I think these thoughts of has the rich individual experience that I do.” These people teach me about the inner lives of difference.


I have a friend who’s severely overweight. I don’t see him often, and in my mind he loses weight. I bring him closer to what I view as normal, closer to everyone else I know. The other day a picture of him popped up on Facebook and I felt a flash-flood of disgust before the shame set in. This is my friend. How dare I change his body to fit my expectations? How dare I ask myself who he is to be Other? How dare I feel disgust at him, someone who feels and thinks and exists in all the complex ways that I do? How dare I reduce him to his body, to the intimate ways that he feels the world and fills the spaces around him, ignoring how his neurons fill that body and his mind is so intimately tied with its senses and he is his body?


This is one of my challenges.


I have a friend who is trans*. Most days I don’t think about his sexuality or his gender. Most days it doesn’t matter because he is my wonderful, sweet, perfect friend. But every now and then I find myself wondering, my mind probing at what he’s like, asking what his name used to be (I’M SO SORRY), and I know I’ve crossed the line when I remember that his body and what his body looks like is so much less than the whole of him. It is such a miniscule piece, one that is so unimportant to our relationship that I can’t fathom why I would wonder about it. He is so much more. His stories, his perspective, his experience: they transcend my questions about his genitalia (and let’s be honest, I really shouldn’t have those questions anyway).


This is one of my challenges.


There are so many of these people, people who are complex and interesting, people who are my token people. I wish they were not my token people. I wish I knew more of them (this is not helped by the fact that I am antisocial). I wish I could understand their lives in a deeper way, and my challenge is that I have only one and I must fight against making them a token in my life. They challenge me every time I recognize them as more  than an idea, more than their weight or their gender or their sex or their race. I know that they are more than that, and my training in this world has left me incapable of separating them from it. And so they challenge me.


I want to tell myself their stories. I want to be honest with myself when I see others like them and remind myself that they see the world each day through their own eyes, that they struggle and love and feel, that they wonder and feel hurt and imagine how I see them. I want to see them with full lives, with full minds, with full thoughts. And so my friends challenge me, and I thank them. They remind me that behind each pair of eyes, each face that I don’t understand, there are worlds I cannot imagine.

The Lessons of Success

There’s a piece of received wisdom that says we learn more from our failures than we do from our successes. When you fail, it says, you learn what not to do in the future, you learn about yourself and your reaction to stress, you learn who you can count on, you learn about problem solving and about which elements of your plan work. We learn a great deal from our failures, I don’t think anyone would deny that. When something goes wrong, one of the first questions that others ask us is “what did you learn”? It’s even in interviews fairly often.


However it seems to me that success is often underrated in what it can teach us. I was contemplating today whether I had learned more from my successes or from my failures, and immediately I knew that the “right” answer would be failures, but that it was also an untruthful answer. Where we learn depends on where our deficits in knowledge lie. I am an individual who discounts her talents and abilities, who is hard on herself, who is acutely aware of her shortcomings and nearly always striving to do better. These things can cripple me if I can’t learn to also see what works for me, how I contribute to the world, or what my role is in positive actions in the world. Success is far more likely to teach me these things than failure is. For others who are better capable of seeing their positive impact, paying attention to failure might be a better option.


It may seem as if all success does is bolster one’s ego and emotions, not teach lessons. I wholly disagree, and I’d like to point to a number of concrete reasons and things that one can learn from success. The first thing that you can learn is your own worth. Understanding your worth is very different from simply feeling good about yourself. When you look at a situation and understand that objectively you contributed to a success, you have a knowledge about yourself that is different from emotion, and it’s one that is important to have in order to cope with strong and difficult emotions.


In addition, you learn from success what works. It is hard to hit upon this simply through the trial and error of multiple failures. Personally I think it’s easy to find ways to fail, but much harder to find the right combination of ingenuity, planning, and confidence that brings you to success. Learning what that feels like, what a particular situation calls for, and what it looks like when it succeeds does so much to give you a basic roadmap for the future.


You also learn about yourself and your reaction to success, you learn whether you can be gracious and humble, you learn who supports you and encourages you and wants to hear about good things in your life, and you learn which people are willing to help you reach that success in the first place.


In my mind, the most important kind of success, and the one that you learn the most from, is the success that comes after a failure. Many people say that when you fail you learn how to get up and try again with new lessons and tools in hand. I agree. However what really teaches you the lesson that failure is not the end of the world, or that you can be flexible, or that you can learn and grow in a way that has positive consequences, is when you get back up, try again, and succeed after a failure. This teaches you that you can rebound, that you can survive, that you are smart and capable of growing, that you have learned what to change. The success after the failure is a necessary component of that learning process, because it illustrates what you’ve learned, it gives you the confidence necessary to keep trying, and it gives you hope.


Hope to me is the best lesson of success. You need success to keep going, and in my lines of work that can be daunting. When you forget hope, you burn out very quickly. When you have a success, you learn that change can happen. This gives hope. Hope that you will do better in the future, hope that you and your work are worth it, hope that things will be ok. It’s hard to explain learned hope, but when things go well, you learn that they might again in the future. Hope.


I’d like to change the wisdom. We learn from all of our experiences, and what we need to learn depends on what we struggle with today. If all you see are your failures, you are far more likely to learn from a success. Perhaps we could simply allow a variety of experiences to be important instead of focusing on one to the detriment of others.

Strengths and Mental Illness

Lately, our culture seems to be all about optimizing our strengths. At work, we’ve been taking Strengths Finder and analyzing our strengths up the wazoo. We’re often told how we need to play to what we’re best at. While in the past, we were often told to focus most on what we were worst at to bring it up to speed, we’ve had somewhat of a shift to focusing on how your strengths can help you across the board.

While hearing all of these comments about strengths, and how to optimize myself, I found myself somewhat frustrated. It can be hard to imagine excelling at things when it’s a struggle to get out of bed in the morning. In addition, my strengths in Strengths Finders came up as competition, achievement, input, intellection, and learning. Essentially, all of these things at their root have caused me a great deal of heartache and stress. I can’t imagine I would have the mental illnesses I do without them, particularly without competition and achievement. It was hard for me to see how those could be strengths, how they could help me succeed and flourish in life. I was also frustrated at the idea that we should focus on our strengths and not worry about our weaknesses because we would never excel at them. As someone whose weaknesses are not just a nuisance, but are in fact seriously debilitating, this doesn’t seem far practical to me.

So what can someone with a mental illness learn from these strengths based ideas? Can we use them to our advantage? Can mental health treatment benefit from this movement towards strengths?

The first thing that stuck out to me when contemplating strengths is that I spend a lot of time in the mindset of my strengths. Perhaps too much time. When we were discussing them in my office, we mentioned that one could over rely on one’s strengths: focus too much on one way of doing things, and get lost in that. This can be damaging, and actually turn your strength into a weakness of sorts. As an example, let’s look at competition. This strength is about being able to compare yourself to others, to see where you fit in, to see how others are doing things, and to use that comparison as motivation. When you rely overly hard on it, everything becomes a competition, you start to be extremely hard on yourself if you’re not first at everything, and you can become vicious in your attempts to win at all costs. You don’t focus on the larger picture of how competition is helpful, and instead compete simply for competition’s sake. This happens to me quite often. In this case I’m relying way too hard on one strength to get me through, using it as my sole motivator, and I’m not allowing myself to be balanced.

I am used to looking at my competitive nature as a weakness, as something that needs to be fixed. I’m used to seeing it as the source of many of my problems. I’ve been told not to compare myself to others because it will make me miserable. But truth be told, I feel quite lost when I can’t compare myself to others. If I don’t have a benchmark, I’m not sure where I should be. If I don’t know that I’m getting better, I feel a bit lost about myself and my accomplishments. Having this shift to seeing it not as a weakness, but simply as a strength that I need to be more aware of has been incredibly helpful.

Another way to look at this is to circumvent some of your perceived weaknesses. I’m not so good at a lot of the including, social type skills. Social anxiety and me are best buds. This can make my life harder when it comes to things like making phone calls or doing the customer service portion of my job. I’ve spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to get past this social anxiety. However it might be more helpful for me to put my time and effort into projects that come more naturally to me, or to try to approach social engagements as a way to learn something so as to engage the things I do feel good at. I feel good at explaining things to others, so if I view myself as simply a help desk rather than someone trying to make a deep personal connection, I feel far more comfortable.

However despite how helpful focusing on your strengths can be, there are times when weaknesses require your attention (e.g. when you can’t get out of bed in the morning). This can make focusing on your strengths difficult. This might be a time to think about balance, and to think about how strengths and weaknesses are related to the myths that we carry. In DBT, we like to talk about myths. These are things that you are convinced are true, that were probably helpful coping mechanisms at one point, but are not any longer. They include things like “anger is not acceptable”, or “I can’t ask for help”.

Oftentimes, we internalize myths about what our strengths should be, or about how heavily we should rely on our strengths. To go back to competition, I often tell myself that I need to be the best at everything I do. This is a myth. And it means that I obsess over my competition strength. It may even mean that I force myself into it in situations that I don’t want to use it. Perhaps if I didn’t feel the weight of having to be the best at everything all day long hovering over me from the moment I wake up, I’d have a bit more spring in my step upon waking. Thinking about the values that you assign with your strengths can help illuminate some of those myths and help you understand how pulling back on a few of your strengths may help you with some of your weaknesses.

Perhaps mental health treatment focuses too much on what we can’t do and the ways that our brains hurt us, rather than imagining what we do right and asking us to rely on those things. Perhaps spending some time thinking about what we do well can help us find workarounds for the things we don’t like.