Today’s article begins our Year of Mental Health program in coalition with TakeThis.org. We kick things off with Raffael Boccamazzo, the clinical director of TakeThis.org and a doctor of clinical psychology. For more information about mental health, check out their website, TakeThis.org, for more articles, interviews, and tips for a better year.
Even if your list of resolutions has fallen by the wayside and your gym membership is gathering dust, 2016 is still a great time to improve your life. When it comes to taking care of your mental health, there really is no time like the present – and this year, you don’t have to go alone. We’re coming along with all the tools you need to work out your mental well-being.
The first thing we all need? A goal. For some, that goal might better health. For others, it’s better relationships. For others still, it’s finally finishing that underwater fortress in Minecraft. Whatever your goal might be, setting it and working on achieving it are huge steps toward improving your self-image. Here are some tips for how to make that happen:
Make Your Goals Clear and Measurable
One of the best things you can do is have goals that are both defined and measurable. If your goal is to be “healthier,” well, I don’t know exactly what that means. You might not either. Worst part? If you don’t know what your goal means, it’s tough to know if you’ve achieved it. Make it specific. “Healthier” might mean limiting yourself to 24 oz. or less soda per week. It might mean having a full serving of steamed or baked vegetables with each meal. It might mean 30-minute cardio workouts at least three times per week. The important thing is that it’s specific and measurable, as with those examples. You either do them or you don’t. Plus, this way you can…
Track Your Progress
Depending on what they think about themselves, most people tend to overestimate either their successes or their failures. If your goal is to work out three times a week, it’s easy to think, “I’m doing well. I might have missed a day or two, but I’m doing well.” The reality might be that you’re only working out one day a week, which is more than before but not as much as you’d like. By not tracking your progress, you could have a false sense of achievement. This may sound like a good thing for your self-image, but it becomes a problem when you get frustrated and maybe even quit because you’re not seeing results.
Be Prepared to Fail (Sometimes)
For most people, mistakes are necessary. I don’t know about you, but I can’t just change a pattern of behavior the instant I decide to do so. Most other people can’t either, so they will lapse back into old behaviors. Here’s the thing: a lapse is not a relapse. We’re looking for overall patterns over time, and there are ups and downs. Behavior change is easy when it’s easy, but that’s not always the case. Long term change requires learning how to deal with obstacles, and learning usually means mistakes. Get comfortable with the idea that you will likely screw up from time to time. However…
Reconsider How You Describe Failure
The words we use are important. Let’s look at two statements: “I failed at this task,” is a lot different than, “I am a failure.” The first one describes a behavior, while the second describes you as a person. That’s what psychologists call global labeling. The first statement might be true, but it may be for rational reasons. You can troubleshoot and problem solve if you fail at a specific task. Maybe the goal is unreasonable. Maybe it requires more time than you initially gave it. Maybe there are some preparations you need to make that you didn’t think about before. Those are specific challenges that can be solved. The global label? Not so much. When people think of themselves as failures it tends to zap away their motivation. Then they don’t try, which ends up confirming their previous perceptions of themselves. It can turn into a nasty cycle. Don’t talk about you as a person. Keep your talk about the behavior, and…
Celebrate Your Progress – Don’t Minimize Your Successes
Minimizing is a term that psychologists use when people rationalize away the part they played in something or its significance. It’s easy to chalk your successes up to circumstances or say they’re no big deal. “I only did well because I had help,” or, “I only accomplished a little bit,” are statements I hear all the time from people I work with. Even if you’re only accomplishing a little bit, you’re still doing more than before you decided to make a change. Use that to motivate you to try for more successes. “I accomplished a little more than before,” is a lot more motivating than, “I didn’t do it all at once.”
Have Compassion for Yourself
You’re probably not trying to make only one simple change. If it was simple you’d already have done it. You’re likely trying to create a whole pattern of long-term behaviors, or a long-term pattern of things around one behavior. That takes time and effort. In the process of doing so, remind yourself of this, and give yourself a break.
Keep Your Comparisons Only About You
Comparing yourself to others can be a tricky thing. On one hand, it can set a benchmark, but it can also be an unfair comparison. There may be circumstances you don’t know about, so try to compare your progress only to yourself. I was lifting weights several months ago, and I noticed that a friend of mine was warming up with the weight I had progressed to. I made a friendly, sarcastic comment, to which he replied, “Remember, I played Division I baseball in college. I’ve been in the saddle a lot longer than you.” He was right. I’ve never been athletic, and he has been his whole life. I temporarily ignored the fact that I’d made a lot of progress because he was lifting (a lot) more.
Make Yourself a Specific Routine
If you do the new behavior at the same time every day, or at a specific, arranged time, it helps to establish new patterns of behavior. It gets you used to doing things a certain way at a certain time, and it reduces the likelihood that can procrastinate with the ever-classic, “I’ll do it later.” You either meditate at 9 a.m. or you don’t.
Forget the Word “Should”
“Should” is often a really destructive word when it comes to motivation. Should tends to come from external influences and sets up a false standard of value. People often feel irrational guilt when they fail at tasks they think they “should” be doing. Who says I “should” be able to do salmon ladder exercises like Arrow’s Oliver Queen? It would be silly to measure my worth by that standard. Instead, acknowledge that the “should” is most likely a “want” that comes from you.
Ask for Help
This is a super important tip. Even the best actors, musicians, and athletes had teachers or coaches to help along the way. Roughly 70 percent of jobs are obtained through social connections. There’s no shame in needing help. We all need help from time to time, even if it’s just someone to hold us accountable. One of the best motivators I have when I hate to work out (read as “every morning”) is knowing I might get a text message from my workout partners if I miss more than one session. For other people, it might come as a friend or therapist to bounce ideas off and problem solve how to be successful. Even teachers have teachers, so don’t feel like you need to achieve everything alone.
Keep these tips in mind as you work towards your goals. They’ll help you reach the finish line in record time. And if you’re ever at a loss for behaviors that you should work on, don’t worry – we’ll be back every month with more steps you can take on your mental health journey this year.
Raffael Boccamazzo (AKA “Dr. B”) is a doctor of clinical psychology and clinical director of TakeThis.org. He also runs a private psychotherapy and psychological assessment practice in the Seattle area and works with several local groups as a social skills coach, often for older teens and young adults with high functioning autism spectrum diagnoses. In his spare time, he cooks, acts, and plays oodles of different tabletop and video games.
Feature Image Credit: Bryan Lee O’Malley/Oni Press