By Susie Lee, AMFT
Just like our physical health, everyone has to manage and take care of their own mental health. Unfortunately, our society tends to be saturated with a stigmatized view of mental health and mental illness. This view tends to result in many individuals not seeking out the help they need or learning concepts that could provide them with the tools they need to promote their own mental health. Anyone and everyone can benefit from learning more about how our brains work on a basic level, emotions, behaviors, thoughts, and how they all work together for our mental well-being or lack thereof. The following are five terms that, by understanding, can enable you to improve your mental health.
Metacognition is basically the idea that we are aware of our own thoughts, that we go throughout our day thinking about what we’re thinking about. However, we aren’t always aware of the fact that, if we have the power to observe our thoughts, we also have the power to change them. A lot of the time, our metacognition is on “autopilot”, which frequently leads us to more negative, irrational, or unhealthy thoughts and can lead us to accept them as facts. When we accept these thoughts as facts, it often leads us to allow them to define us. When we are more mindful of our thoughts and the impact they have on our behavior, you can become more and more skilled at altering them to thoughts the drive you forward, rather than keeping you stuck. Being mindful of our metacognition also allows us to realize when we are accepting dysfunctional assumptions that have been built up over time.
Building off of metacognition, our core beliefs (sometimes referred to as schemas) are beliefs we have built throughout our lives about ourselves, other people around us, the world as a whole, and what the future holds. Our core beliefs begin to build in childhood, when we are eager and open to learning new things. This causes our core beliefs to be deeply influenced by our childhood experiences and can often make them seem absolute and unchangeable. While it is true that our brain’s way of processing information makes learning harder as we age, we are entirely capable of expanding our learning throughout our entire lives. This allows our core beliefs to be enhanced on and or changed at any time. We need never give up on our ability to increase our thinking, question what we know, and learn new things, especially if we give ourselves permission through our thought processes to do just that.
Due to the fact that our core beliefs are initially built through childhood experiences, they are greatly impacted by our experiences with our family of origin, which includes our parents, siblings, grandparents, etc. Enmeshment is when the boundaries that exist in a relationship get blurred, which is often the case in our family of origin. We become so intertwined with the thoughts, feelings, and values of another person, that we find it difficult to find where they end and we begin. While this can happen in our family of origin, it can exist in any relationship we have with another person and can lead to an unhealthy codependence, in which we rely excessively on the support of another person. In order to maintain a healthy sense of self, we need to consider the extent to which we may be influenced by others. While it is not unhealthy to be inspired by or agree with another person’s ideas/point of view, we want to be sure that we are not behaving a certain way solely because we believe that is what the other person would want. If we are, this undermines our own sense of self and can lead to frustration and resentment, along with a host of mental health issues.
Sometimes we recognize a problem within ourselves on a subconscious level, that we then attribute to another individual in order to avoid examining ourselves. This projection is a very common defense mechanism to avoid dealing with hard issues we find within ourselves. In order to benefit from knowing this concept, we again want to bring more awareness in to our own emotional responses. When we begin to feel a negative emotion in relation to another individual, we want to step back and consider what this means about you, what it means about them, and how we can move forward. We can’t do much to change another person, especially if they have no desire to change, but we can change how we behave, as well as how we react emotionally to that person.
Congruence is when who we are on the inside matches how you behave, meaning that what we want and believe in are in line with how we live our lives. When we are unable to achieve congruence, it can lead to a feeling of dissonance, which is basically a feeling of discord, discomfort, stress, or anxiety. To be more congruent and avoid dissonance, we want to bring more awareness into how our thoughts and behaviors align with what we find most important. Take small steps to ensure that your day to day actions and thoughts match your day to day behaviors and be as consistent as possible. When you feel stress and dissonance, bring awareness to why this is coming up, and make necessary changes.
Many concepts that relate to our mental health can benefit us if we put forth the effort to learn about them and apply them in our lives. Often, improving our mental health is a journey that starts with a desire to do something different. This often starts through personal exploration and can be built upon as we open our mind to more opportunities and different ways of thinking. It doesn’t mean you will be able to apply everything and change tomorrow, but rather that you’re willing to put forth the effort to grow and improve. Start small and build off your successes and you’ll find yourself slowly moving in the direction you want to go.