Imagine a closet in the back corner of your brain. It’s packed full of worries, stressors, and struggles that are unique to your life. As you move through your day-to-day tasks, it’s very common to take any negative feelings and lock them in your mind’s closet, willing them to go away. This is what most of us have been taught to do; push negative and harmful thoughts to the back of our minds.
The problem is, they’re still there. They are slowly accumulating over time, and even though they may be tucked away in a closet, they haven’t actually left your brain. As long as they’re in that closet, they will still affect your perception of the world and of yourself.
Over time, these negative thoughts in your head can affect your mental health, and not in a good way. To clean out the closet in your mind, it is essential to examine what it means to be truly mentally healthy, to recognize the lens through which you see the world, and to become more aware of how that lens impacts your ability to see reality. Only when you start to clear away the clutter and unpack the feelings locked away in that closet can you truly begin to move toward a healthier state of mind.
Let’s start with identifying the messages we are implicitly given about what it means to have a healthy psychological and emotional life. To do this, the key is to understand the concept of conditioning and how it works on a personal level and a societal level to create those messages.
What is Conditioning?
Think about your daily routine. Do you ever notice yourself doing something, inconsequential as it may be, that you’ve been doing habitually since you were a child? For example, not leaving the dinner table until your plate is clear, or loading the dishwasher the specific way your parents always insisted upon?
Conditioning is the process of becoming accustomed or “trained” to behave a certain way or accept a certain set of standards. The way that you are personally conditioned to act and the things you are conditioned to believe are constructed by the circumstances of your environment. If your parents didn’t allow you to leave the dinner table until you finished all of your food, or always washed the dishes a certain way, you are likely to reflexively continue those habits into your adulthood. That is a form of conditioning.
It goes beyond small routine habits, though. Conditioning applies to broader ideas and belief systems, too. Was your household very money-conscious growing up? If so, you’re probably a careful saver now. Consider the main beliefs, ideologies, principles, and expectations you were surrounded with growing up. Those affect the way you operate now, whether or not it is obvious.
Now, let’s examine how this operates on a societal level. Apart from your childhood and parental conditioning, there are also standards you learn within your environment that are created and taught by outside institutions. In the case of messages about mental health, those institutions include the media, the education system, and the healthcare system.
What Does it Mean to be Mentally Healthy?
According to PALM Health’s Well-Being Coach and Counselor Sarah Lewis, “Our healthcare system, as well as the media, has difficulty adopting a holistic view of mental health.” Western medicine tends to rely on norms and averages. Consequently, assessing and promoting mental health becomes the act of measuring an individual against a singular standard of “normal” and trying to move them toward that norm.
This standard for “normal” mental health in the US—the standard that has become widely accepted—is typically equated to the ability to function adequately in society.
But what does it mean to function adequately in society? Most people would define it generally as behaving in school, getting good grades, succeeding in a career, and fulfilling family commitments, among other things.
You’ll probably agree, though, that checking all of these boxes doesn’t necessarily correspond to a healthy mental state. Any one of us may function just fine in society by going to work every day and completing a set of tasks, but still struggle with anxiety or depression or even just feel that something isn’t quite as fluid or balanced as it should be.
Health is not simply the absence of illness. This goes for mental health, too.
Is a person automatically healthy if they do not have a diagnosed disease or condition? Not necessarily. True health goes beyond just functioning and appearing “well”—for both physical and mental health. Whether or not you have a diagnosed mental illness, everyone has the potential to continue to grow in well-being.
As defined in Anthropedia’s Know Yourself DVD series, one of the main tools our coaches use at PALM Health, well-being is more than just the presence of positive emotions and the absence of negative ones. It is a state of health, happiness, creativity, vitality, and satisfaction with life. How do you nourish and take care of your body and mind? Do you actively build a lifestyle that allows you to thrive and respond resiliently to challenges?
It is normal to struggle—but if everyone does to some extent, then being mentally healthy goes beyond simply functioning. It takes more than that to truly thrive. Well-being is about learning the tools to work through the inevitable struggles you will face and maintaining a balanced state of mind that allows you to see reality clearly. From there, the door is open for you to continue to grow.
The process of cultivating a state of well-being is different for each individual, depending on your life experiences, preconceptions, and how you think. At the root of this process, however, is recognizing your conditioning.
Becoming Aware of Your Conditioning
Every person has a potential to grow in well-being, which is largely about attaining an elevated sense of self-awareness and learning to let go of your struggles. It is a lifelong process that never truly ends.
So, what does “self-awareness” mean in the context of mental health? First and foremost, self-awareness is a process of growth in the capacity of your thought and cognition. A key part of this process is recognition of how societal and personal conditioning have created distortions in your perspectives on life. Equally as important is becoming aware of the source of your internal conflicts.
Think about this in a simple example: if you grew up in a household where emotions were suppressed or there wasn’t a lot of open communication between family members, you may struggle with expressing your feelings properly in future relationships. Behavior patterns like these can be hard to work on, but it’s helpful to understand where it is coming from and why you struggle with it before trying to move past it.
“If you don’t become aware of your conditioning, it is difficult to grow because your life falls into a pattern of rehashing old ways of thinking,” says Sarah Lewis. Only when you start to see this conditioning and how it operates can you break free from it and move into a heightened understanding of your own thought process.
Meditation, mindfulness exercises, journaling, and other exercises can be helpful tools in understanding the thoughts you constantly fight. These tools are intended to help you grow in self-awareness, which can help pull you out of the overwhelming feeling of life uncontrollably bouncing you around. Tools such as these can help you find meaning and importance in your daily tasks, while simultaneously allowing you to let go of struggles that are holding you back.
Chat with a coach to learn more about these and other tools with a free 15-minute Coaching Call.
Avoidance versus Acceptance (Opening the Closet)
The way we are traditionally taught to process and work on our heavy thoughts and emotions is actually not to process them at all. In the past when you have an inner conflict or been struggling, have you ever been told “push those negative thoughts away,” or “just don’t think about it”? It is quite common to feel a sense of avoidance when it comes to dealing with mental health.
However, avoiding your inner conflicts doesn’t help you grow in well-being. If you are genuinely unhappy or struggling, trying to pack negative thoughts back into your mental closet and convince yourself that you are happy won’t result in any transformation. On the contrary, it may just result in conflict with yourself. In the process of growing in self-awareness, letting go of struggles and fights with yourself and others is crucial. “The only way to let go is to start by accepting reality as it is,” says Sarah Lewis. “It’s a difficult and uncomfortable process, but necessary. You have to open the door to that closet and shine a light inside.”
It sounds daunting, but there are several helpful exercises out there that you can try on your own to start small and begin growing in awareness of your thoughts and emotions. For example, over a period of a few weeks, take the time to pay attention to what day-to-day situations make you most emotional and log them in a way that works for you. Sarah Lewis recommends journaling as a logging method.
Another thing you can do to initiate the process of self-awareness is attending a meditation class, which can be a helpful tool in discovering the basics of mindfulness. PALM Health offers meditation classes for members focused on breathing, calming the agitation of the mind, opening oneself to nature, and neuroplasticity.
If you’re struggling and feel you could use some guidance, the counselors and coaches at PALM Health are always ready to help. Our mental health team offers a variety of services for mental health, including counseling, health coaching, well-being coaching, personality assessments, Know Yourself workshops, and a range of other options. To learn more about mental health services at PALM, contact us at 314-801-8898 option 2.
PALM Health is a healthcare company focused on whole-person wellness for people seeking to extend active, healthy years. Our experts in medicine and wellness empower people to transform their health, become more resilient, and feel their personal best in mind and body. Connect with a Navigator to explore your options at 314-801-8898 option 2.