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Recovering Self-Esteem

Recovering Self-Esteem:
Working With the Cumulative Effects of
Life With Mood Swings

Over and over again, in the local Manic Depressive and Depressive Association support group, I hear people talk about how guilty and how bad they feel that they are not cleaning house, doing laundry, getting a job, eating properly, attending to chores, and other basic activities of daily living. The things we feel guilty about are highly individualized: some folks just don't get out of bed, and some folks have an extremely sophisticated project at work on which they repeatedly fail to make progress. I suspect that people with mood swings develop or intensify low self-esteem due to repeated failures to do the most "simple" things that are expected of us.

Week after week I sit in group and listen to others - and I have heard myself do the same thing - describing themselves in the most disparaging of terms. I have come to believe that this is intimately connected to the way we come to look at ourselves after months - if not years - of having mood swings and acting accordingly. Our mood swings affect our functioning, and after not functioning well for a while we begin to believe that that is who we really are. Every negative message we've ever received confirms this, every critical old tape plays over and over, and it is very challenging to believe anything different. We come to look at ourselves as terminally worthless, when, in fact, the opposite is closer to the truth.

What we need to do to combat this insidious misconception is to work hard at loving ourselves. Some effort is required, but the first step is simply recognizing that just because we don't feel good doesn't mean that we are not good. We have to find ways to honor our goodness, to give ourselves credit for the things that we are doing, even as we sometimes appear to be doing nothing at all. It is so easy - and so dangerous - to sell ourselves short, to do violence to our self-esteem, by focusing on what we should be doing and ignoring the things that we already do. For a person who is in early recovery from a mood swing, the basic acts of eating, bathing, receiving a phone call, absorbing the sights and sounds of the TV, collecting the mail, and taking out the trash are quite heroic. They affirm that we are alive, and even though it may not be the life we want or the life we are used to, it is our life for that time. As we struggle with the ebb and flow of energy, feelings, thoughts, and actions affected by the our moods, it is crucial to keep one thing front and center in our consciousness. That one thing is a question, and it is a question we need to answer for ourselves over and over again:

Given the energy I have available at this moment,
how can I show myself that I love myself ?

I have found a few things helpful in accomplishing this. The following list is a chronological recounting of the various events of my life that converged during my most recent recovery. They are the things that gradually worked for me over an eight month period. Taken as a whole, the list is overwhelming. These events emerged serially, and if you wish to make use of my experience, I'd suggest a "take what you please" approach.

Do not accept that the psychiatric treatment you are receiving is the right treatment if it is not working.

Delegate the essential things you can't do.

Pay attention to what makes you feel better.

Find ways to remind yourself that you live in a body.

Do not cut yourself off from people.

Cut yourself some slack.

Keep a daily activity list.

Use the list to love yourself.

Make a master list of priorities.

Believe that things will change.

Mood swings are actually fluctuations of energy - too much, too little, at times just enough... mood swings determine what you can and can't do safely, without risk to your mental and physical health, at any given moment. When energy is low, it is time to rest, to recharge. When energy is high, it is time to use it constructively and disperse the excess in a healthy fashion. When the energy is "just right", it is time to relax, experience contentment, be at peace, regroup and prepare for the energy to change. The Zen masters use the metaphor of the willow tree to teach the value of this kind of flexibility in life. According to the metaphor, in severe wind the oak will topple because it is so rigid. The willow, because it is flexible, will survive the storm as it bends to the onslaught. Living with mood swings requires that we assume the posture of the willow, and be flexible with what we expect of ourselves in the face of the wind of the changes in energy level.

Life for a person with mood swings is often a real example of the triumph of hope over experience. Some part of us - a part with which we are often not in touch - continues to hope in the midst of great discomfort and chaos. Even when we feel hopeless, we most often continue to choose life: this is real proof of our internal strength; our resourcefulness; our creativity. It is imperative that we not lose sight of the fact that even as we persist in not doing what we think we should be doing, we are doing the best we can to survive.