When I was 14, my mom told me how grateful she felt that I was a normal kid. I’ll never forget it. We were sitting in our car in front of the hospital, where someone close to me had just been admitted after a mental health crisis. The word “normal” felt so loaded, almost like a threat. It was her way of telling me that I couldn’t have a mental illness, ever. I had to be fine.
For many years I pushed down my anxiety, hid my tired eyes with concealer, and ignored the negative impact my peers’ struggles were having on my own mental health. I thought there was no way my parents could deal with my anxiety on top of everything else. From what I observed, everyone else’s mental health was in a worse than mine was, so to me that meant they deserved more therapy, attention, and support more than I did. Fast forward to college, where I realized all my friends struggled with some sort of mental health crisis too. All I wanted was to make my friends feel valued. I wanted them to know that it’s okay to struggle, and that no matter how big or small their problems are, they are worth attention and concern.
Soon, however, it became easy for me to spiral down with them, and lose myself in others’ problems while ignoring my own. I never wanted anyone else to feel like I had when I was younger—like I had to be perfect and happy—so I moved away from caring about my own wellbeing in exchange for supporting my friends. It was only when my struggle with anxiety caused me to lose a dangerous amount of weight that I realized this choice wasn’t working. I had to take a step back, even though it felt selfish to me. Now, however, I am so much healthier than I have ever been. Here’s what I’ve learned in the process of prioritizing my own mental health when other people in my life are also struggling, and hopefully my journey can help you out too.
- Distance is necessary.
It can be hard to see a friend living with mental illness and not be able to help them through it, but sometimes prioritizing yourself is more important. While that might imply a level of distance and boundary, you don’t need to completely cut your friends off—just don’t throw yourself into their pain.
- Check in with yourself.
Take a minute to ask, I know my friend is not doing well, but how am I doing? The more you ask yourself this question, the more aligned you’ll feel with your own needs. This can help separate your mental health struggles from your friend’s struggles.
- Acknowledge your bad feelings and be compassionate.
The best advice my therapist has shared with me is to not be angry when I don’t feel 100%. I can’t attack myself for being anxious. It’s easy to think that I don’t deserve to feel depressed or sad because what I’m going through is not as severe as someone else’s trauma. But here’s the thing: emotions are not optional. If you’re not feeling good, then you’re not feeling good. Be kind to those thoughts. Give them a hug. Allow yourself to feel them, and then gently wave them goodbye.
- Start journaling, seriously.
If you feel like you can’t open up to people about the dark gunk floating through your brain, you still need to get those thoughts out somehow. Write them in a journal, in your notes, on your phone, or wherever works best for you. Journaling can help you to see your bad thoughts manifested physically, and then help you to acknowledge that they are deserving of attention. You don’t have to write a page-turning autobiography—just throw some bullet points onto a page and get it out of your system.
- Try therapy.
Therapy is the best choice I’ve ever made for myself. Because I struggle to carve out time for my own self-care, therapy has changed my life. It’s given me a solid chunk of time to wallow and feel anxious without judgment. I don’t feel like I’m burdening anyone with my issues.
Burying my health issues and my symptoms wasn’t working for me. It wasn’t working to throw my entire support system in the direction of others, while forgetting to remember myself. Now I prioritize myself, and my friends still love me. They don’t blame me, and they’re not mad at me.
Your mental health is just as important as your friend’s, your mom’s or your sibling’s. You deserve to respect your own health on the same level that you respect theirs. It is not your responsibility to manage their mental health, but it is your responsibility to take control of your own. After I learned to have compassion for myself, and to value caring for myself, I finally had the room to do so for other people.