Twenty or so years ago I was very unwell, in a dark place. I hated myself and wanted no part in the future, A psychiatric nurse set me what was then an impossible task. She asked me to write down five pages about my ultimate goal and the steps I would take to achieve it. The is actually quite a useful strategy for some people who are depressed but to me it was an unattainable task. I didn’t even have a positive goal – most of my thoughts on the future centred around me not being in it. The five pages lay blank and the nurse had to rethink her approach to encouraging me to be a bit more positive and future-focussed.
Fast forward twenty years and I am in a bad space again. Mood issues, some pretty odd experiences that my history tells me relate to psychotic illness – people insulting me in public, seeing ghosts where there (hopefully) are none, believing I am dead and everything happening is in the afterlife, that kind of thing. Yesterday I had a bit of a vent about a colleague at work which threw me into a spin – can I trust myself or will I damage my reputation with aggressive or rude behaviour? After work I was in the supermarket complaining about someone in front of me in the self serve line leaving me with 15 cents to pay before realising it was the cost of the bag I had just scanned five seconds previously! So as I went to bed last night you can imagine that I was more than a little anxious and uncertain. I started to unpack the issues and thought that I have had a diagnosed mental illness for 22 years and mood issues and psychotic symptoms are actually something I manage all the time. I also told myself that instead of worrying about the future I should focus on looking after myself in the present and that if the worst thing I was experiencing was some symptoms I have a lot of the time then that was far form the worst thing that could happen.
These two scenarios paint a picture of two very different people even though they are the same individual. The key to this change is two very different attitudes to myself and the world. The younger Jeanette actually wanted and sought out negative experiences. Oddly enough she felt safer in prisons and hospitals than she did in the ‘real’ world. If I remember correctly that version of me was never positive but somewhere along the line she gained some very positive thinking and a more useful attitude.
People used to say to – and about – me that I needed to see things differently, to take responsibility and look out for myself rather than destroying everything I had. These statements were not helpful to me at the time but when I did decide to change my approach they formed an important part of my understanding that people cared about me. I can pinpoint the moment that my attitude started to change. I was in a residential mental health program. The difference between this program and supports I had before was that I was trusted and respected by staff at this place. Instead of being seen as a ‘management problem’ I was viewed as being someone with potential and who was worthy of support and care.
My embryonic positivity grew incrementally and blossomed to where I’m at now.
While it is pretty much impossible to acquire a high level of self-esteem and positivity about ourselves right away, it is something which we can build on through life. It often starts from us and those around us thinking that we are valuable and worthwhile as we are.
Your attitude about yourself and having the view that things will improve or at least be manageable in the future is a strong protective factor for mental health and wellbeing. Some tips on how to get this kind of positive attitude if you don’t already have one include:
- Notice when you put yourself down or criticise yourself, both internally and in the words you use to describe yourself. Every time you insult or criticise yourself challenge it and replace it with something more positive instead regardless of whether or not you believe the positive descriptions of yourself at first.
- Advocating for yourself and your rights and / or the rights of others. If you have been bullied or criticised for being autistic then do everything you can to increase your sense of pride in who you are and your rightful place in society. This is something you can enlist the support of other autistic people and advocates to assist with – even if you don’t connect directly with them, you can read their words. For autistic people, a sense of identity and pride is a great foundation for a positive attitude about yourself.
- Focus on doing things you are good at and that you enjoy. For those of us who are autistic this often relates to our passionate interest. Think about what makes you good at what you do and why you enjoy it.
- Sometimes it can help to ‘fake it until you make it.’ This means that if you make decisions or actions based in a positive view, even if you don’t feel like doing it, this can sort of trick your brain into shifting into a more positive space. You may need to do this many times. Even if you don’t quickly acquire a more positive attitude you will have a repertoire of positive acts to draw on when you think about yourself.
- If possible surround yourself wth people who support you and want you to do well rather than those who will drag you down.
- Be aware that a positive attitude will not stop negative things happening but it is likely to enable you to deal with them better.
- Try to see yourself and what is going on in your life as a moment in your journey. We can find ourselves extrapolating out from a negative experience so that we think everything in the future will be negative. Using the example of my mental illness symptoms, there is a big difference between assuming all the misery will last forever and get worse or thinking that I am unwell at the moment but I have some agency to improve my health and it will change over time.
- Reflect on things to be grateful for in your life. Some people keep a journal and write down two or three things to be grateful for each day.