Good Mental Health May Not Be What You Think

Most people seem to have some knowledge of what mental illness is, but there is a great deal of confusion about what constitutes mental health. However, when I Googled “mental health,” I was hit with a barrage of gobbledygook. I won’t repeat any of that here.

A fundamental part of good mental health is living as much as possible in the present, rather than reliving past events or worrying about future events. Everyone has a history, some good, and some bad. You can’t change what happened, so the better you get at living in the present, the more mentally healthy you will be.

Everyone has stories, but the trick is to not confuse your story with who you are. You are not your story. Nelson Mandela has an amazing story of the horrors of 30 years of hard labor in prison. However he did not confuse that story with who he was. He never let that story become his identity.

You may have some conceptualization of who you are, such as, “I am an impatient, Type A decision-maker.” This is the way you experience yourself, but you are not the experience itself. So don’t get too attached to it, or it may interfere with some of your other life roles such as lover, parent or teacher.

Like everyone else, you have thoughts and emotions, good and bad, but you are not those thoughts and emotions. Our medicalized society has preached that if you have bad thoughts or very unpleasant emotions, there is something wrong with you. The result is that you may spend a great deal of time and effort trying to control your thoughts or emotions, that is, trying to fix yourself.

The control may take the form of suppressing, avoiding, trying to forget, or just plain denying. Let me ask you, have any of your attempts to control worked long-term? …I rest my case.

The trick is to be the observer of your thoughts and emotions, never confusing them with who you are as a person. Learn to accept them, and when you can do that, you’ll find that they provide useful data for your choices. More about that below.

What do you value in life? What is your purpose? The key to mental health is your commitment to making choices consistent with your values, at the same time simply accepting your past, your stories, your emotions and your thoughts as you stay present with your commitment. This takes psychological flexibility.

Mental health is more about this quality of psychological flexibility than about happiness. However, as you make your choices which reflect your values, your level of happiness is often an excellent source of feedback on the quality of your choices.

About the Author

Psychologist Dr. Neill Neill maintains an active practice on Vancouver Island, BC, Canada. He focuses on healthy relationships and life after addictions. He is the author of Living with a Functioning Alcoholic - A Woman's Survival Guide. You can find out more about Dr. Neill and read his blog at www.neillneill.com.

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