It’s the afternoon, and I’m doing the dishes. We don’t have a dishwasher, and I hate the way the water feels on my hands. I hate when my fingers touch the soggy food left over on the plates. I hate how the water slides from my hands to my elbows until it feels like I have water all over me, and I can’t escape it. There’s water all over the floor now. My feet are wet, too. No amount of soap seems good enough to get the dishes clean. I wash and rewash the same plate over and over. I tuck my hair behind my ear, and now my face is wet. I want to scream and cry and throw the plates. I want to throw every single dish out of the window until the sink is empty, and I’m shaking with fury and relief.
I want to…
I take a deep breath. I don’t know why I get upset over the smallest of things. Why doing a simple task like washing the dishes makes me feel angry and helpless. Why everything is such a big deal to me sometimes. I don’t know. It might be something I learned over the years or it might be a part of my mental illness. But what I do know is that I am 22 years old. I have read self-help books. I have gone to therapy. I have gone to support groups. I have dedicated my entire online presence to raise mental illness awareness. I am not helpless. I am not the confused little girl I was. I am strong, and I know what to do.
When I first learned about reframing negative thoughts, I rolled my eyes. It sounded like just another person telling me to “be positive.” Every time someone told me “to look on the bright side,” I pressed my lips together and imagined throwing my cell phone at their head. I thought of the meme shaming those of us who take antidepressants. You’ve probably seen it around online…
Some of my friends and family members have posted it. Instead of getting mad, I remind myself that they have never experienced clinical depression. And I’m glad they haven’t because it’s horrible. For temporarily feeling blue, a feeling we all have from time to time…Yeah, getting some fresh air and taking a walk can help you feel better. But if you have an illness, then you may need antidepressants. That’s not a cop-out. It hurts when I see people who love me share this online. Do they think I am weak to use medication? Do they think I am too lazy to work on my mental health and that’s why I take medication? Do I confront them? I don’t want to. It makes me feel like a grammar nazi or social justice warrior finding something wrong with everything. So, instead…I address it here on my blog and anytime it may come up in conversation. I’m not going to attack people for being ignorant about mental health because I know that I’m ignorant about so many things myself. Educating people is important, though. If I hadn’t taken a college-level course in political science, I might still be a Republican (gasp).
Here’s a correct version of the meme:
Much like how getting some fresh air can improve your mood, reframing your negative thoughts is also a coping skill I have learned over the years. For me and many others, medication is the foundation for me to get better. I could not use my coping skills if I was delusional or psychotic. I have to be able to think clearly. With medication, I am able to remain rational and calm for the most part, which allows me to think more clearly. So, I am able to work on myself. I am able to better myself by learning about my illness and using coping skills to improve my overall mental health.
Some people don’t need medication because they are naturally logical. I do. There’s nothing wrong with that. Getting some fresh air or thinking positive does not help me at all if I’m convinced someone is following me and trying to murder me. That is a delusion. By definition, you cannot talk someone out of a delusion.
After being in recovery for two years and finding the right medications, I am now able to use my coping skills. And one of the most powerful coping skills I have learned is reframing my negative thoughts. Reframing negative thoughts is called cognitive reframing or cognitive restructuring. It requires you to keep an eye on your thoughts. You have to be self-aware. It’s all about monitoring your thoughts so that you can challenge anything negative.
Writing down any negative thoughts might be helpful at first when you are still getting used to the process of identifying them. For example, when I was doing the dishes, every little thing was frustrating me. I was mad that I didn’t have a dishwasher and had to wash everything by hand. I was mad I was getting water everywhere. I was mad about everything. So I mentally took a step back and tried to reframe my thoughts:
Is doing the dishes THAT bad?
Were there any positives to having to do the dishes?
I started to think about it, and I found a few things to be grateful for…
- Having to do the dishes means that I have my own apartment, even if it means I have to do all the dishes myself. This is a privilege, and I’m grateful to have my own place.
- Having to do the dishes by hand means I have to set time aside to do the dishes. This is annoying at first, but because I work from home, I forget to take breaks. Because I know I have to set time aside to do the dishes, I am forced to take a break from work and allow my mind to rest, while I let my hands do the work. My mind quiets, and usually, I remember that I haven’t eaten lunch yet because I was so hyper-focused on getting all my work done.
- At this point in my thought process, the positive thoughts are coming faster than I can count them… I’m grateful I have clean running water to wash the dishes.
I’m grateful that I am able to work from home. This means that I can do the dishes during the day instead of stressing about them after I come home from work.
Now I’m glad I don’t have to commute. I’m glad I am able to work. I’m glad I have a job.
- Soon, I’m thankful for the dishes that I have to wash. They were my great grandmother’s who passed away. I’m thankful for her and the time I got to spend with her. I’m thankful for my health and happiness. For my life and all the love in it.
Now I’m just getting carried away with positive thoughts in the same way I do when I focus on the negative. The more you force yourself to focus on the positive, the more it becomes a habit and the easier it becomes to do. It becomes effortless and natural. It has become so natural for me that sometimes I roll my eyes at myself for being so, well… happy. I was a Negative Nelly for years, depressed and angry and sad. There is still a part of me with her jaw hung open watching me meditate and use essential oils. She remains horrified at who I have become. That’s okay. I’d rather be happy than have the approval of my past (miserable) self.
While it may be difficult at first, once you begin to practice reframing your negative thoughts, you begin to challenge your negative self-talk. It gets easier and easier. This leads to a more positive self-image, increases our self-esteem, and helps us deal with challenges better.
Up until I was about 20 years old (only 2 years ago), I was angry and cranky and always mad about something. I was miserable. I didn’t know if I hated myself more or if I hated everyone around me. Reframing my negative thoughts was hard at first. Everything felt hopeless. Everything felt dark and pointless. But with each negative thought that I challenged, my world began to get a little brighter. And now I am sitting in the sunlight. I like it here. I’m happy with who I am and the way I treat others. I’m happy with my life, and I’m thankful to be where I am on my journey. A lot of the mistakes I made in the past now look like stepping stones and turn signals.
Being hospitalized for a week for psychosis was something that I never thought I would be able to reframe as positive. But if I was never hospitalized, I would not have met all those wonderful people in the hospital. I would have never known what rock bottom felt like. I would not have had to find the strength inside myself to revive myself and my life and begin rebuilding. Now I know that I am strong. I am on the right path. Everything happened the way it was supposed to happen. I’m content with where I am, even if it was not where I planned to be.
August B Pfizenmayer is the founder of Survival is a Talent. She is a freelance writer, blogger, and student. She studies creative writing, specializing in poetry and creative nonfiction. She loves sweets and warm weather. You can connect with her on LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.