A Go-To List for When You Forget How To Look After Yourself
Today is World Mental Health Day, and I’d like to begin by sharing a short summary of the place that mental health has had in my life. It is so easy to show only the best parts of myself online. The recipes I create, the self-care messages I send out, the support that I give out to each of you through comments or direct messages. But let me ask you a few questions.
How many of you:
1. know that I battle with regular meltdowns?
2. know that I often used to, and sometimes still do, have to work my absolute hardest to wait for suicidal thoughts to pass?
3. know that I struggled massively with relationships of all kinds throughout my time at university?
4. know how long I sometimes spend overthinking, until I realise what’s happening and have to work hard to stop that self-destruction?
If you have ever thought that my life is perfect and that I am happy all of the time, I hope that the above points shed a little light on that belief. I have thankfully however found that the root cause of all of this mental tension is codependency and am now focusing on that aspect.
Codependency is a form of addiction, or co-addiction. It is a way of coping that, before learning about it, we are not aware that we do. Codependency is full of learnt coping mechanisms and survival techniques, designed for short-term ‘dangers’ or ‘threats’ but which have a long-term impact on the difficulties we have in managing relationships of all kinds, including the relationship we have with ourselves.
Codependents will often internalise their struggles, and find it difficult to see when something is actually their responsibility to change and when it is not. They may also be extreme perfectionists. They may also assume that people’s anger is a result of their own actions only. Let me give you a few examples.
Scenario 1: You’re in a friendship group. Your best friends all fall out with each other, perhaps they fight over you, expect you to ‘take a side’, or ignore you. The life that you are used to suddenly crumbles. It affects you massively. You cannot feel loved, safe or supported without your current friends. Even though their dispute had nothing to do with you, you believe that you must fix it. That you are only happy when there is peace between them both. That it is your responsibility to bring them back together. You can’t see that perhaps they just don’t fit well together. You are blind to any manipulative behaviours that they may now be trying to control you with, because you are too busy trying to control them and you think it’s the right thing to do.
Scenario 2: Another form of control in order to ‘feel good’ or ‘feel better’ (can you see why codependency is an addiction-based problem?) is manipulating others to raise your own self esteem. Maybe you want more thanks or more recognition for something nice you did for something, or a recent achievement. To get this, a codependent person may bring up the subject multiple times again to get the other person to compliment them more, thus making them feel loved and like they are a good/successful person. They cannot simply feel that from within themselves - they want it from others. Maybe someone has done something that has hurt your feelings, or not responded to you in the positive or enthusiastic way you expected them to. A codependent person will then often make a point of this, and make sure the other person knows what they have done. They will point it all out and say “next time can you do this?” or in other words, very subtly and indirectly tell them they should feel bad.
Scenario 3: You spent most of your school life being told to reach for the highest grade and that you can always do better. Yes, you’re getting As, “but you can get A*s!”. When this message is prolonged, your pride in what you do achieve can slowly lessen. You can get 82% in a grade, have lots of people tell you how incredible that is, but reply with “yeah it’s okay, but it wasn’t 100%. I can do better”. Can you see the damage this can do to your mental health?
Scenario 4: The extreme perfectionism example from scenario 3 can also happen in the workplace, at home, with friends, with a loved one and more. If you are criticised or corrected by anyone, codependents may often see that as being something negative that defines them. Because remember, “you can always do better!”. Life is black and white, good or bad, with nothing in between. This is the low self esteem aspect of codependency, which is so closely linked to perfectionism and the excessive pressure we put on ourselves.
In recovery, codependency is thought of as a disease. This is because codependent behaviour is often something that you’re born with and is not something that you can get rid of, but is something that you can admit your powerlessness over and learn to recognise and deal with in a more ‘well’ way. Defining codependency as a disease takes away the shame and guilt often felt by a codependent, suffering from a behaviour that exists within their genetics and their learnt behaviours.
To summarise this disease in a few words the symptoms of codependency are as follows. A codependent may have a few or all of them, each with varying levels of intensity and prevalence.
1. Denial Patterns: difficulty identifying how you feel, changing or denying how you really feel, denying any selfishness within yourself and believing that your actions are only due to wanting to help others (rather than avoiding your own problems or to make yourself feel like a better person).
2. Low Self-Esteem Patterns: judging yourself harshly, seeing yourself as never being good enough, difficulty making decisions, having no or few boundaries, you highly value the approval and opinions of others, and you see yourself as unlovable and worthless.
3. Compliance Patterns: you do what others ask of you even if it doesn’t always align with your own values in order to avoid anger and tension, you are very sensitive to the feelings and emotions of others, you are so loyal that you may remain in harmful situations for a long time, you put others before yourself, and you accept sex or intimacy of any kind when you want to feel loved, even if there is no meaning or care attached to it.
4. Control Patterns: you try to convince others of what is ‘right’, you try to change others’ feelings and emotions, you offer advice without being asked, you believe that you must be needed in order to have a relationship and that those people cannot be without you, you give gifts to people who you want love or approval from even when you cannot afford it, and you get annoyed or resentful when people don’t listen to or agree with you.
I’d like to finish this section of this post with the serenity prayer:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.
So, how does all of this link to the title of this blog post?
When I am feeling the weight of codependent thoughts and behaviours on my shoulders, my mind struggles. It often tries to go into self-destruction mode, telling me that I am worthless and a waste of space. Not helpful! If this struggle or any one of the codependent traits is being particularly persistent in trying to bring me down, I gradually forget how to look after myself. I forget the basics. I forget that I need to shower, brush my teeth, eat intuitively, get some sun. I forget how to feel better without acting out (see the above codependent symptoms/behaviours).
To combat this cloud that completely covers my mind in times of difficulty, I wrote a list of ways to look after myself. Having a physical list on paper of ways to look after myself is a reminder that can be right in front of my face, so that even when my mind has forgotten how to care for myself, my past-self reminds me when I see the piece of paper. I suggest that you too write this list down and put it on your bedside table.
How To Look After Yourself: 10 Steps
1. Accept your emotions
2. Call a trusted friend for a catch up or for support
3. Go for a walk or sit outside in the sun
4. Spend 5-10 minutes stretching
5. Go for a run or lift some weights
6. Journal your thoughts or write a gratitude list
7. Drink some water
8. Have a shower or bath
9. Read a spirituality book
10. Cook a warm and comforting meal for yourself
I hope that they help you in times of need and remember that in your struggles you are never alone, no matter how perfect everyone’s lives look on social media. Perhaps add that to the list as a reminder for your future-self. If you ever need to talk, feel free to send me a message over on Instagram. Although I cannot give any medical advice and can only speak from my own experience if you ask for me to, I am most certainly there to listen with an open heart.
Sending you love and light,