You all know by now how much I hate generalisations about mental health – if you don’t, go back and read my post Creativity and chaos – but there’s one that I’m seeing as a repeated pattern, over and over again, in my network of friends and family.
The pattern has two distinctive markings, and when they appear together they seem to add up to a tendency to struggle with mental health. Of course, if you have both of these and you’re feeling fine, that’s amazing and I’m pleased for you.
The two things I’ve noticed are these: a pattern of high achievement, and a habit of placing deep importance on the thoughts and feelings of other people.
I went to a good school, objectively. I spent my teens in Kent, where we still use an antique, elitist system known as ‘grammar schools’, that select pupils based on an exam they take at the age of 11. This way, they’re able to weed out all of the ‘stupid’ kids, and ensure their funding by achieving consistently high results from the creme de la creme of the surrounding 12-18 year-old population.
The reason I’m sharing all of this is to give you a little bit of context about the kind of kids I grew up with. They’re brilliant, my girls, incredibly high-achievers. Then, at uni, I expanded my network with more brilliant people: biologists and chemists, plurilingual and multi-talented.
I went to summer camps, worked part-time jobs, and then worked in a few graduate-nurturing jobs. The long and the short of it is, I know a lot a really wonderful, clever people, and it seems like I am not alone in suffering from poor mental health now that we’ve all moved, in drips and drabs, into the workforce.
But it seems like there’s an additional element to what a lot of us are going through, and it has to do with a lot of the adjectives I’ve used in the last few paragraphs. Words like wonderful, clever, brilliant. Words that high-achievers are used to hearing, as they go from exam to exam, university to graduation. We level-up through our lives, beating every boss level, and then suddenly we find ourselves in our mid-twenties, with no big achievement to celebrate and no big milestone to work towards.
People used to describe us with those words. And now that we’re adults, and we’re not working for anyone’s approval but our own, we are lost, and stressed, and sick. People make a lot of fun of millennials (a word I hate, by the way) for our constant need for praise. No one ever thinks about what it feels like to be used to praise, and then have it taken away.
It’s something I’ve struggled with a lot at work. I’m not ashamed to say that I was praised a lot as a kid – I earned it, I dealt with an awful lot of crap and when I achieved something, I deserved the rush of endorphins that came with a win. Now, in the workforce, no one is invested in my success. No one gives me a cookie for doing my job.
I don’t expect one, either, I’m keen to reassure you. I do good work. Sometimes, I do exceptional work, and I’m praised for that. I’m rewarded well for what I do.
But it’s hard, when the world is screaming at you to find your bliss, and your commute is long, and your colleagues are co-workers, not friends. Personally, I’ve been trying to accept what I cannot control and change, gradually, the things that I can. I’m trying to make friends with my colleagues, now I’ve been in my new job for a while. I’m trying to find parts of central London I find soothing and lovely, so that commuting into the city feels better. I’m trying to remind myself of how bored I was at my last position, and how much I appreciate the stimulation of this new role, even if it is sometimes stressful.
It’s really difficult not to care what people think of you, especially if you have anxiety. Your brain is wired like the ape you used to be, thousands of years ago – you’re designed to care about your reputation, and to stay strong for the sake of the tribe. Anxiety amplifies this, as your animal brain freaks out at misinterpreted facial and verbal cues.
I’d be lying if I said I have the answer, but as I said to a good friend of mine recently, sometimes you don’t need to know what you’ll do with the rest of your life. Sometimes, it’s ok to look at your life and ask yourself: ‘What, in this moment, is lacking?‘
Chances are, in any given moment, the answer will be this: nothing.
If your long-term goals are stressing you out and making you sick, put them aside. Find one small, easily changeable thing in your life, and work at it. Take a 5-minute break every afternoon and go outside. If you manage to do it every day, reward yourself. If you don’t manage it, reward yourself.
Because in the end, punishing yourself won’t do you any good. All anyone can do is try their best.
I believe in you. I’m proud of you.
Breathe, and take care of yourself.
With love, always,
Remember to like, share and comment! How has your mental health impacted the way you work? ❤