How Self-Love Boosted My Mental Health This Spring

Trigger warning: Brief mention of wanting to self-harm (not explicit).

My psychotherapist, Carol Ghannoum, has always told me that you can’t control a “shift.” When a shift is meant to take place, it’ll occur. Also, the shift solely takes place when your mindset is ready to accept it. 

As part of my “homework,” Carol would recommend that I daily perform exercises such as square breathing--a breathing technique to help relieve stress, meditation, and finishing with positive “I am...” statements about myself for my reflection.

At first, I did try to keep up with these but as I continued to visit Carol and became overwhelmed by post-secondary, I neglected them. When I would mention my excuses, she would remind me that the initiative to fulfill these exercises and improve my mental health was not up to her but to me. I’ve been seeing Carol, my current therapist, since August 2017.

Growing up, my parents made it clear they expected high grades from me. Whenever I deviated from my studies, they’d tell me I needed to study hard and receive good grades to be victorious in life. 

The pressure worsened in high school. I pushed myself past my limit in order to do well in school and gain the respect of my peers and teachers. My friends and teachers would provide reassurance and encouragement when I was worried about my grades. 

After having been told for so long that the world only noticed those at the top, I defined myself entirely by my academics. 

In addition, I made it my mission to excel at extracurricular activities as well. The praise of my teachers, classmates and peers made me feel important and special but my responsibilities and the expectations began to suffocate me and make me feel trapped. 

The summer after I graduated from Grade 12, I finally talked to my parents, especially my mom, about my mental health problems and decided to seek help when I came to a point where I frequently wanted to harm myself. 

Since that summer, I’ve been trying to be more open with my loved ones about my feelings, particularly confiding in my best friends about my reactions and difficulties. 

At the beginning of my first year at Ryerson, I remember being told not to expect to receive the same high grades in university that we may have had in high school. Since realizing how much pressure was put on me in the past to achieve high grades, my mother has also tried to emphasize this point to me throughout my university life whenever I struggle with assignments. Moreover, my friends have been supportive and I’ve also had Carol’s guidance. However, after having heard for so many years that I need to attain 90s, it’s a habit I have to endeavour to relinquish, which I am attempting. 

Third-year was the hardest for me as I struggled to attend class, engage in class discussions, interview people and complete and submit assignments. But the spring of 2019 is when I finally had the shift that made me value self-love and self-care. 

In second-year, the Ryerson Medical Centre diagnosed me with generalized anxiety and social anxiety. I also deal with depression. 

Before this past spring, I felt ashamed of my mental health problems. I know I shouldn’t feel ashamed and for those who are embarrassed of their mental health issues, please don’t be because there’s nothing wrong with having a mental health condition and/or poor mental health. This was because the things I took for granted in high school and were once not as tough for me to do, such as focusing on my school work, making friends, interacting with peers and taking part in clubs and publications were now more complicated and stressful.

This is hard to admit publicly but since I was a child, I always thought there was a monster hidden inside me because of events that had taken place in my past. Carol refers to this as one of my core beliefs. I didn’t believe that anyone would be able to love me for who I was and that my loved ones would eventually leave me because I wasn’t worth it. 

While I try to be more open with my best friends from high school about my insecurities and fight my fears that I would upset them or they’d grow distant or leave me, I fear burdening them and opt to bottle my feelings up sometimes. I remember I once asked one of my best friends why she was friends with me, to which she replied something along the lines of, “Do I have to have a reason?”

Those who know me well are aware of my love for books and storytelling. The day my shift happened, I was rereading an e-book I enjoyed. The female protagonist’s past made her see herself as unworthy of love. So when she does end up falling in love with the male protagonist, she tries to push him away at one point because of how she views herself. Now as I was engrossed in the novel, telling the character she wasn’t a bad person and her past didn’t define her as if she was a real person, it hit me. In that moment, I realized her and I were similar. I realized I’ve been ready to push away my best friends because I doubted I was loveable but they choose to be my best friends because there is something within me to love. I finally accepted and started to love myself entirely.

When I had that shift, I started to take more productive action in my life rather than dwelling in my thoughts and anxiety. I’ve always loved singing, so this summer I started posting singing videos and made a singing Instagram account. I rarely participated in class discussions, but since this year started, I’ve been making more of an effort to participate in class rather than opt to use my accommodations. The student who once couldn’t breathe when she thought of applying to work now has a part-time job. And I’m starting to connect more with other friend groups in my life and bond with my family.

When I told Carol about my shift, she immediately made me write it down. If I don’t hold on to what I learned from my shift, I could regress to my former state where my anxiety and depression consumed me, so Carol told me to always remember this note. I still don’t do my exercises daily but now I make the effort to perform them more often and recognize the positive impact they have on my mental health problems, such as actively fighting my negative thoughts and believing in myself and my loved ones. 

Credit: Sriskandarajah Anandarajah