Guard Your Mental State At All Costs
“Putting yourself first is not selfish. Quite the opposite. You must put your happiness and health first before you can help anyone else.”
- Simon Sinek
A successful life starts with a good mental state.
What one person defines as ‘successful’ will be different to another. However, regardless of what each of us wants from life our mental state is the common denominator; it is the base that we operate from.
In order to be a good mum, elite athlete, successful business person, talented artist or even to just survive until the next day, your mental state is key. By taking action to put yourself first, you are ensuring that you are in the best position to succeed.
Putting Yourself First Is Not Selfish
Anytime somebody talks about putting themselves first they can come across as selfish. So before proceeding any further I really want to drive home the point of why you must first look after yourself before moving on to helping other people.
You can’t be as good a parent, sibling, friend, employee, boss, or anything else if you are emotionally drained, compromised, or suffering from a mental affliction.
The better you are, the better you can help others.
Most people are empathetic and as such, there is a real tendency to want to help others with their problems. So we take action without realistic thought towards our own wellbeing and end up compromising ourselves to help the other person. This is not a ‘bad’ thing to do, in fact many would consider it a kind of noble sacrifice. However it is not realistically a sustainable course of action over the long term. A balance needs to be made.
In my role as a parent there are some hard ‘musts’ that I need to ensure are met. Adequate food, clothing, water, shelter and safety are prioritised over everything else. In order to provide these things for my son, I would do almost anything. However, beyond providing these core musts, the decision to choose one activity over another becomes significantly murkier.
For example, if I have a spare hour on a weekend, should I choose to go to the gym or take my son to a play center? Presuming I can’t do both, my decision depends on my mental state. For me ‘Exercising Daily’ (chapter 2.4) is one of the best antidepressants available. It keeps me sane. Thus my ability to provide those ‘musts’ for my son may be compromised if I don’t regularly exercise.
If my depression flairs out of control, I may not be able to provide the care that my son really needs. Realistically, he can forgo one trip to the play center, but he can’t forgo dinner. It sucks, but it is a compromise that has to be made. What’s more, if I am in a bad place, I will not be able to properly focus on the events happening at the play center anyway.
In order to be a focused, present and attentive father, I need to look after myself in my own way. That could mean taking him for a jog in the pusher as a compromise of exercise with baby time.
If necessary, I could of course push through a mental affliction and work more if necessary, but I couldn’t sustain that forever – eventually I would break. This is why it is important that I take preventative actions to best ‘Guard My Mental State’.
This concept can be further explored by the example of a friend going through some kind of crisis in their life. I will always try to help them of course, but the kind of ‘help’ that I will provide to them will be dependent on my mental state. If I am in a good place, I will feel more comfortable getting more directly involved than if I am in a bad place.
It is important to recognise that my level of care stays the same, but I know my limits. If directly helping them would cause me to have a break down, I don’t. I will offer referrals, advice, a chat or simply shared sympathy.
I can’t help them if I need help myself.
A great analogy is one of lifesaving at a pool. You should only jump in if you are a competent swimmer, have the appropriate equipment on hand, are sober, and are ready to perform. Because realistically, if you are not in this state, you would probably drown along with the person you were attempting to save.
Not only do you need to be in a good place to be able to help other people, but it is imperative that you place importance on yourself as a matter of priority. You, more than anyone, has to ensure that your needs are met. Only you are in a position to know what you need, and you are the one that will be directly impacted by the circumstances of your life.
I am not saying to use people, to take more than you need, or to ignore the needs of others. Rather still be you, just be aware of your limitations. Realise that at different times you are capable of doing different things, and act accordingly.
You will perform best when you are at your best.
Self-esteem is also a factor. Some selfless people are like that because they believe themselves to be worthless, that is that they are somehow ‘worth less’ than other people. That their lives, concerns or issues are less important or significant than those of other people.
If this is you, please realise that you are just as much of a human as everyone else. Regardless of your past actions (everyone has made mistakes) or what has happened to you (you are not at fault for the actions of others when you were a child), you should consider yourself at least equal to everyone else.
Say the following out loud, ‘I will put myself first, because by putting myself first, I am ensuring that I will be able to help those I care about to the best of my ability’.
Unless you are in a good place yourself, you can’t act.
I know that I am sounding like a broken record, but it is vital that this is understood. If you sacrifice yourself attempting to save someone else, you will both be lost. Even if that person recovers, you may not, or at least not in time to help someone else in need.
How To Guard Your Mental State
There are two main avenues that you can take to best ‘Guard Your Mental State’. 1) Add more ‘good’ things to your life, and 2) cut the ‘bad’ things from your life.
Of course, what helps or hinders you will be different for everyone, and may even change for you over time. But by acknowledging the impact that different events, people, places, or circumstances have on your mental state, you can develop a plan and act accordingly.
Always move towards the positive and away from the negative.
For the next month, take a daily journal with the following headings on each day: ‘Positive Impact’ and ‘Negative Impact’.
Every day, you are to write a minimum of one item in each category. Include any event, person, place, or circumstance that impacted your mental state, regardless of how small or large the impact was.
Specify the detail down to the tone of voice used, a particular word, a type of food, a time of the day, a song, or an advert. Note down anything that causes a shift in your metal state either way.
At the end of the month, get two A4 pages with the following titles: ‘Positive Impacts’ and ‘Negative Impacts’, and copy your entries across, noting down any repeat entries with an extra dash after the entry.
Once complete, these sheets will serve as a good starting point to seeing which things are impacting your mental state and will help you to guard it.
Once you know what things impact you, you then need to develop an awareness of your current mental state. For some people this level of self-awareness will come naturally, but for others it may be more challenging.
Due to events in my past, I suffer from dissociation. Basically this means that I sometimes struggle to connect with myself, and I won’t realise the extent of my anxiety or depression levels. It is as if one part of my mental state is blocked from the other parts. Despite this lack of awareness, I am still impacted by mental afflictions. I will be acting anxious or depressed, but not be aware of it. It is almost as if I am on auto pilot, unaware of how I am feeling.
If you can relate to these feelings of a lack of connection with yourself or reality, complete the TAKE ACTION below, as well as consider looking into the concept of dissociation by talking to a qualified therapist.
In the same journal as the prior TAKE ACTION, each morning, noon and night take a note of your current mental state.
Out of 10, rank yourself on the following criteria. With 1 being lowest possible and 10 being highest possible.
Don’t get too caught up on what constitutes a 3 or a 7, just attempt the exercise. The goal of this activity is to get you into the habit of ‘checking in’ with your mental state on a regular basis. The better you are at determining your mental state, the better you will be a judging if you are in a position to take a particular action
Guarding Your Mental State Musts
1) Cut the negative people from your life
If someone is constantly getting you down, or is always in a bad place themselves and wants to (even unintentionally) bring you down with them, END that relationship, at least in the capacity that it currently stands.
Of course this gets tricky when the person is a close family member. But for most of those relationships as well, my advice still holds. Some family members are simply toxic. Others, while well intentioned, may still impact you negatively. In those cases, limit contact with them as much as possible, and only see them when you know you can handle it. If your ability to cope changes, end contact and reschedule a catch up at a later stage when you are back in a good headspace.
Should your elderly mother live with you or in a retirement home? Should you put your sister up in your house until she gets a job? Should you pop into your grandparent’s house because you happen to be driving close by? It all depends on how it would impact your mental health.
The same is true for work colleges and people doing a sport/recreational activities with you. If there are people who cause you mental duress, take steps to address the issue. Can you be transferred? Are there alternate arrangements that can be made?
Before you begin cutting everyone, I want to highlight a couple of things.
Firstly, do your best not to burn bridges. You don’t need to announce what you are doing, or explain why you are doing it to them or anyone. This is not a formal ‘break up’. Simply just stop making as much contact with them. Be civil and calm in your interactions. Realise that there may come a time when you want to rekindle a relationship and if you have burnt bridges by telling them exactly why they are toxic, you may have ruined that opportunity. People can and do change over time.
Secondly, before you start cutting people from your life, make sure you ‘Sleep On It’ (chapter 1.8). This will help you to determine if your decision to cut them is based on a heightened emotional state, or the result of careful delibration.
Finally, it is worth considering the idea that the issue in the relationship could be coming from a problem inside of you. If you are having a problem with many different people across different parts of your life at the same time, you could be the common denominator.
You certainly could be at a toxic workplace, have a terrible romantic relationship as well as issues with your friendship circle. But there is also a possibility that the problem could be coming from you. I would strongly suggest talking to a qualified therapist prior to cutting people to ensure that you are working through all your personal issues.
2) Prioritise mental health over money
When I was working full time, I would bank my ‘sick leave,’ waiting instead to use it as ‘mental health leave’. When this ran out, I would still take the time off that I needed to recover, surrendering that day’s pay.
Thankfully I have always been frugal with money, so I could afford to miss a day of work here or there. That being said, there have been times where I haven’t worked for months on end – literally. This choice took a significant toll on my lifestyle, but the trade-off was worth it. To put it bluntly, I am still alive.
There were times when work stress combined with personal factors were causing me to fall into deep periods of depression. These were highlighted with episodes of self-harm and the contemplation of suicide.
I chose my mental state over money. You should too.
There is no point having a large bank account or a new gadget if you are too depressed to enjoy it, or if the process of acquiring it causes you to question your continued existence.
I have taken this concept a step further. I have realised that I am not capable of long term full time work. I am just not built for it. I get overwhelmed with responsibilities, stress and the pressure of needing to be ‘on’ every day without rest.
I have now moved into a more casual approach to employment. This new approach has me performing a variety of different activities like writing, coaching, replacement teaching and eBay selling. Now I can choose when and how much I want to work.
Truth being told, I am on less than half of my old full time income, but I am infinitely happier. Trading money for time and freedom was one of the best decisions that I have ever made.
3) Make doing what you love a daily priority
I love practicing my martial art, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu as well as ‘Exercising Daily (chapter 2.4), these activities have consistently been the best form of antidepressant that I have ever come across.
I know that they will boost my mental state for the day and I will be better off because of it. I make certain to schedule those activities into my day as a matter of first priority. This is a preventative action, taken to guarantee that I am in the best place possible mentally.
Prioritise the things that benefit your mental state the most.
Give yourself time to read each day, walk your dog, pluck your eyebrows, have a long phone call to a loved one, or play the guitar. Whatever it is for you, make sure it happens daily. The positive feeling will carry over and begin to compound.
4) Change plans when your mental state changes.
If you have made some plans in a good mental state, but something happens that puts you in a bad place, feel free to change them. It is tempting to push through of course, but that may not be the right move. You may have a break down.
Consider rescheduling to a later date, or altering the plans to better suit your new mental state. I have planned on attending a party, only to cancel and catch up one on one at a later date. That way I am not overwhelmed by the party, but I still can socialise with my friend.
Continue The Conversation
How do you ‘Guard Your Mental State’ each day?
Tweet @zacpphillips #mentalstate, with your thoughts.
Frequently Asked Questions
Q) I don’t think that it is selfish to put myself first by guarding my mental state, but I am concerned that others may. How do I let them know what I am doing and why?
A) Wherever possible I find it best to use open and honest communication, letting people know who I really am, and what I need out of a relationship. Most people understand that I have certain needs and simply ‘get it’ just like they would if I explained a physical condition to them.
If somebody does not understand, and is unwilling to accommodate me and my needs, they may be somebody that I will consider cutting from my life.
Q) I am concerned that my work would judge me for taking so many sick days. In the past, I have chosen to push through the mental affliction rather than take the time off to recover.
A) Companies want their employees to stay. Recruitment, selection and training costs are huge, and the process of integrating a new employee into the team can be very time consuming.
It is often a better financial choice to accommodate the specific needs of employees than to continually cycle through them. You could consider negotiating part time employment, job sharing, working from home or other arrangements specific to your needs.
If that doesn’t work, you may need to change to a more understanding workplace or consider a career change. I know that that sounds extreme, but if you are significantly struggling, what is the alternative? Would your boss prefer you to take a sick day here and there or to leave the workplace entirely?
If you are not in a good place mentally, you will be unable to help others, to accomplish your goals, or enjoy your life. You need to take the necessary steps to protect your mental state as a matter of first priority.