Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Compared to What?

Self-esteem is a perennial problem for the mentally ill. We have to live our lives at a different pace from the mainstream, with generally scaled-down goals, and sometimes it is impossible not to feel “less than.”  In addition, it’s my sneaking suspicion that we just have to spend more time than most people with the critical voice in our heads, and it’s a louder, more insistent voice. Especially if we are surrounded by “normies”, we can wind up feeling inadequate, to say the least.

It is a truism to say, “you shouldn’t  compare  yourself to others,” and it’s silly. People are going to compare. They are supposed to compare! This is how the human mind works! The brain takes any image or concept, scans through the memory banks to find something similar, and says, “Ah, this is like such-and-such, only bigger or smaller or more colorful.” It lists the differences. That’s how it operates. That is why a good teacher will go at a new concept from several angles and maybe with a couple of stories or similes, looking for the ‘hook’ to previous ideas which will allow students to process something new.

The thing we need to understand is that we are no longer measurable by the old rules.  By definition, we are not part of the mainstream.
We are dealing with tremendous extra pressures and challenges they could not conceive. We are carrying a heavier load, every day. We are going to perform differently. So we will do a lot better if we compare ourselves to our peers, or just to our own levels of functioning. (And anyway, let’s be real – is that mainstream, with its frenzied ideas of materialism and power trips, so totally sane and admirable that we want to copy it?)

Here’s an example. I sometimes pick at myself for taking so much medicine every night. It’s uncool. It’s like being an elderly woman, or an invalid. Then I remind myself that over the years I have cut down on my meds by about half.  I am actually getting better. Another self-critical issue for me is work and earnings. I used to feel bad that I could only work 15 hours a week. Then my doctor told me that at my level of severity, 90% of people could not hold a job – any job – for more than 6 months. I had been working at the library about 5 years by then. Instantly, that 15 hours looked better. And as for money, it takes a lot of skill to live on the miniature amounts you get from the government. It takes a lot of skill even to get them. Can you congratulate yourself on making that work? I’ll bet most of your salaried friends could not do it.

Never mind how the up-and-comers are doing. How are your colleagues doing? Go to a support group and see what is realistically going on for the people there. Maybe you are well off because you are the only one who sleeps through the whole night. Maybe you are on top of your paperwork, or have a more reasonable social life or romantic relationship than half the people in the circle. But you won’t know that until you look at others like you. At least read about them, if there are no groups nearby. You don’t need to reach the upper limits of human achievement! You just have to do okay on one or two items that matter today.

Take time out from your self-flagellation to tot up your small achievements. Anything can count, from taking your medicine more regularly to getting out of bed during a depression. Little things are important. I do not have to be Tolstoy. You do not have to be Steve Jobs. Just pat your bruised self on the back for the things you did right today. You deserve the appreciation.

Deborah Fruchey
You can get her book, Is There Room for Me, Too? 12 Steps &12 Strategies to Coping with Mentally Illness, at,, Kindle Editions, Apple's iBookstore, and Those last three sources will download a free chapter or two to you!