A version of this post originally appeared on the Huffington Post.
It is easy to say I have spent the majority of my life in therapy. At first, it was as a result of my parents’ divorce and the toll it had on my relationship with my father. The therapy eventually progressed as I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. The diagnosis in and of itself didn’t upset me. In fact, it was freeing in the sense that it explained or validated many of the experiences I was having. The difficult part at that time in my life was separating the symptoms of my illness from myself. I would regularly say that change is impossible because this is how I was born and this is how things were going to be. There was no room for self-love; I essentially thought my entire life was going to be one large screaming match that would escalate over time. I struggled with my father, my schooling and, really, how I saw the world.
I wasn’t able to easily differentiate between who I was as an individual and the diagnosis I had been given. At first, I WAS the diagnosis. I later learned that this is not true and that revelation has ultimately saved my life. I am only my diagnosis in so much that I experience the symptoms of my illness, which requires on-going management and vigilance. A brilliant (and unorthodox) therapist of mine met me during a three-month episode and became an active participant in my journey. One day, as we got to know one another (as I have done with dozens of doctors in my life), she wrote something simple on a post-it note and asked that I put it on the mirror in my bathroom. I was told to read it to out loud to myself every day for 21 days. At face value, this exercise felt obvious and therefore meaningless. The words read:
I love you Michael!
You are worth all this effort Michael!
I will never leave you Michael!
I was less than enthused about the exercise; however, I brought it home and put it on the mirror. I went back a week later to therapy and was asked if I had read it every day this week. I, of course, said, “yes”, but the reality of the situation is that I had merely looked at the post-it for 7 days — never once absorbing what the words actually meant. I finally went home and conceded that I didn’t like how I felt and that my current state of mind couldn’t continue. So, I read the post-it note again.
I was hoping for a flash of light or a mood lift or a greater understanding of how the universe worked. That didn’t happen. I actually felt uncomfortable reading the words with my name at the end of each sentence. I felt more awkward reading it aloud to myself. Why were those words so unnerving to me? Did I not love myself? Did I really feel as though I didn’t deserve happiness? Did I believe that I was actually going to leave myself?
An interesting thing happened the more I read the three simple sentences above. I started to separate myself from the things I was experiencing on a daily basis. It was a wonderfully brilliant and simple exercise. One key component to practicing mindfulness is separating my feelings from my actions, thoughts and behaviors. This rewiring is critical in how I process the world around me. I never realized that I had such self-hatred and contempt for myself until I was asked to say, “I love myself” and “I’m worth the effort”. I guess the most shocking result was a subconscious belief that I might leave myself!
It is now four years later and I repeat that mantra, or something close to it, daily. My own recovery and rewiring of my brain started when I stopped fighting and started accepting that an honest conversation with myself was the key to self-love and happiness. Because I was in a virtual holding pattern of mental illness, addiction and rage, I couldn’t even begin to understand the detrimental effects I was having on my own wellbeing.
This simple exercise in self-love gave me the permission I needed to love myself and accept myself for exactly who I was. Only then was I able to begin achieving a true sense of happiness and peace of mind.