Table of Contents
I used to be a regular on /r/MMFB and /r/offmychest, and found myself giving the same advice to many different people. To avoid early-onset Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, I’ve decided to create a central and updatable reference to which I can link those in need of some life advice.
If you’ve been linked to this document, please don’t feel that I’m blowing you off or think your problems are unimportant. On the contrary, everybody’s problems are important to them (more on this below). It’s just that many have the same sorts of problems (this is a comfort to some, annoying to others), and those same sorts of problems usually have the same sorts of solutions.
If you have any questions about what you read here, get in touch. I’m always looking for ways to flesh out and improve this guide.
I’m going to lay this out in basic steps. Keep in mind that, depending on the person, some of these steps can take days, weeks, even years. On the other hand, you might already be able to skip a few steps. It’s all up to you.
It’s always a shock to find out that our individual pain is very similar to that experienced by millions of other people. However, it’s also very useful on the journey to spiritual advancement. With that in mind, take some time to familiarize yourself with the most common symptoms of mental illness.
There’s also burnout. You may have been pushing yourself for so long that you’ve forgotten how to take care of yourself and make sure you’re finding happiness in life.
If an illness sounds somewhat familiar, but you’re still not sure, search Youtube for stories of those with that illness (for example, ‘OCD sufferers‘), and listen to how they describe what it’s like. If you find yourself nodding along, shocked that another person ‘gets it’, you may have hit upon part of what’s going on. (Note: This process is part of what’s called ‘self-discovery’.)
Don’t treat this as a diagnosis. Don’t go around telling people you have this illness (though, if you think they’re knowledgeable and a good listener, definitely tell them about what you’ve found so far). See a doctor as soon as you can and describe these symptoms; they may try prescriptions, refer you to a therapist, and/or suggest lifestyle changes.
This self-help process will go much more smoothly if you’re being assisted by professionals, but I understand being too poor to go to a doctor. You may qualify for services at a free or low-cost health clinic. (Keep in mind, as of early 2015, colleges may have access to the health records of students attending campus health clinics.)
Try contacting local insurance agencies and asking if they help lower-income individuals/families sign up for subsidized (government-paid) health benefits. The availability will depend on your state’s laws and a million other factors, but you may be offered a low-cost or even free plan that will allow you to visit the doctor.
Do you value others’ success and happiness above your own, to the exclusion of your own basic well-being? (Note: I find it helps to focus on how my self-improvement and -care will keep me spiritually, mentally, and physically ready to help others.)
Do you see the world as a tomb, a horrible place that you can’t hope to improve? (Note: After years of this oppression, I found it helped to change my ‘inputs’ — news sources, people I hung out with, topics I researched, etc. Yes, terrible things still exist and should be dealt with, but their bombardment was keeping me from being ready to assist others. Here’s a related article from the great David Wong.)
Do voices in your head constantly remind you about your shortcomings, mistakes, flaws, and horrible imagined fate? (Note: These don’t have to be literal voices; that’s usually a movie conceit. More often, it’s a thought that loops over and over, like a song stuck in your head.
Are you terrified of disapproval from others, even complete strangers?
You’ve heard that the only way to get a song out of your head is to replace it with another song. In the same way, the only way to stop these abusive thoughts is to consistently and confidently replace them (this is something therapists can help with, possibly with the aid of medication).
This is the essential mental step you need to take before you can really start working toward happiness. No one can make any real progress toward that goal if they don’t think they deserve to reach it. So I want you to make this your new mantra:
I DESERVE TO BE HAPPY.
Add whatever disclaimers you like (“. . . but never at the expense of others”, “. . . within reason”, “. . . because God created me to enjoy His Creation”, etc.), but repeat it to yourself.
The reason the wording isn’t important is because there’s something far more powerful going on here: You’re making a decision about how you’re going to live your life. Congratulations, you have taken the first step on the path to spiritual advancement.
There are two main sources of happiness:
Let’s try an experiment: Name three things that, if you received them right now, would make you happy. Here’s mine, from when I was a teenager:
Now, for comparison, here’s my current list:
Pretty stark contrast, huh? All three of the initial items revolve around other people. I had only minimal say in them (behaving to please my parents, getting out and trying to make friends, working hard at my writing).
I don’t want to come across as a cynical misanthropist. I believe everyone can be a good person when they want to be. But humans are human, prone to unreliability, selfish motives, hang-ups, misunderstandings, etc.
You can come close, but you can never fully understand another human being. However, with introspection, you will always understand yourself. You are the person most interested in your own happiness. If you mess up, you are in the best position to understand why and improve yourself to avoid future failure.
That said, some setbacks and failures are your own fault, but some are just life. Some are coincidence, or lack thereof. Some are other people accidentally or deliberately screwing you over. These are the hardest to get over, because they highlight the seeming impossibility and futility of our quests. These are the holes you’ll want friends and loved ones to help dig you out of. (Hey, I didn’t say knowing and trusting people is completely useless . . .)
The great Alain de Botton addressed this in his video, ‘Higher Consciousness’.
In summary, humans who wish to better understand themselves and to think and feel more deeply should take regular time to reflect on their experiences, their environment, and the world large.
I learned about a lot of these ideas as a teenager, reading The Self Matters Companion, a workbook that steers one through figuring out who they are and what they want. I can’t recommend it enough, and firmly believe that working through even a few chapters will show results. If you can’t afford a copy, either check your local library (I bought the copy on my shelf from one for a dollar), Amazon’s ‘used items’ page, or tweet at me.
Take some time to explore your inner badass. If you could look five years into the future and be blown away by what you see yourself becoming, what traits would you see? What skills does your future self master? How do they present themselves to others? What do they spend most of their time doing?
Now get used to the idea that you’re eventually going to be this person. Take on their dress and mannerisms, their interests and approaches. It might feel like playing a character at first, a more interesting and capable version of yourself. As long as you enjoy the role and find it fulfilling, it will gradually become your default mode, and then you will have become your future self.
(Best part is, your future self then imagines a far-future self who’s, like, a superhero. Budget for outfitting a secret lair eight to ten years from now.)
The core concept here is to empower yourself and grow into a strong, capable, admirable, confident person. People flock to that, so there’s been a lot of writing on the subject. Name a successful person in any field and they probably fit that description; even if they don’t truly feel so empowered, they’re faking it to great effect.
This leg of the journey can take weeks, if not months or years. With every way you tweak your worldview, you’ll have to test it in real-world situations and then return to the drawing board. This isn’t an overnight thing. Hell, technically, it never ends.
If someone linked you to this, it’s probably because you’re unhappy. But why? Many people aren’t even sure why they’re unhappy. Let’s try to remedy that lack of information with some self-reflection.
Explore what makes you angry or sad. Nobody’s grading or judging you, so you can feel free to go big (“All the corporations are corrupt and politicians don’t care about anybody!”) and little (“I hate it when my girlfriend chews food noisily!”). Don’t feel guilty for anything you write down; these things are making you unhappy, whether you (or others) would consider them petty or not.
If you need ideas for items to include on your list, I recommend the Clean Sweep Assessment. Even happy and fulfilled people should give this list an annual once-over; it contains a lot of simple yet oft-overlooked ingredients to a great life.
We can be tempted to reduce these problems to short-term solutions — fighting misery over weight by setting up a gym membership. But not all problems can be fixed in neat increments, or sometimes even at all. Life is partly about learning which things to make peace with, and let go of.
Pro wrestlers get a cool song that plays as they come out to the ring. It gets the audience pumped, it makes the wrestler feel like a badass, and it intimidates anyone in his way.
Fill your ears with music that makes you feel like a badass. You probably already have some in mind. If you need more, here’s where I usually check:
Decorate your space with pictures of and quotes from those you admire. John Wayne? Boudica? Sherlock Holmes? Welcome to your new desktop wallpaper.
Make friends who are confident, cheerful, uplifting, and willing to keep you company when things look bleak.
Above, I linked to The Self Matters Companion, which I consider an essential book on self-assessment. Here, I’m going to link you to an essential one on organization: Getting Things Done. Here’s Lifehacker’s guide to getting started on GTD.
That book also has techniques for dealing with your physical space, turning it into one huge workbench filled with tools with which you can hammer your life into exactly what you want.
Before we go much further, I have to list some common mistakes and how to avoid them.
Not thinking of the consequences. Before you undertake anything important, try to think through to how you might end up regretting your decision.
Being paralyzed by fear. Fear is the mind-killer. As Bruce Lee said, “Balance your thoughts with action. If you spend too much time thinking about a thing, you’ll never get it done.”
Keeping bad company. If you hang out with criminals, self-destructive whiners, and people who openly want to take advantage of you, you’re not an edgy risk-taker; you’re asking for trouble. If you’re going to spend so much time cleaning up yourself, make sure your social group matches your goals. If anyone feels insulted, they’re probably secretly jealous that you’re moving ahead in life while they’re stuck in bad habits. That’s sad for them, but don’t let your compassion drag you down.
Accepting or ignoring all advice based on emotional reactions. Sometimes, the people in your life are selfish and secretly want you to stay on their level. Sometimes, they genuinely want to support you but don’t really understand how the world works or what you’re trying to do. And then sometimes they’ve been through your same situation, and their counsel is valuable and should be taken seriously. Learning to tell the difference is part of the process of becoming an adult.
Thinking that turning a certain age will automatically make one an adult. Even if you’ve passed a lot of the major milestones, the truth is that maturation is a lifelong process. On the bright side, this means that there’s no ceiling; if you work at it, you can be a more and more amazing person every single day.
Thinking that being an adult will automatically make you independent and happy. If you work on being a strong, capable person, then sure. But moving out on your own and getting to make all your own decisions does not a happy, independent adult make. There is no silver bullet; you must decide to be happy.
Being cynical. Conan O’Brien said it best: “Please don’t be cynical. I hate cynicism — it’s my least favorite quality and it doesn’t lead anywhere.”
Letting things ruin your outlook, or even your day. I tell everyone, “You are the only one who can decide that you’ll be happy.” A friend who works in retail demanded, “What if a customer screams at me, or I get fired?” Things happen that hurt us, and there’s no shame in feeling that hurt, but it is you, and you alone, who decides whether to become paralyzed with guilt and fear, or take each problem in stride, recover your balance, and move on. You can end a day feeling sad but ready to face the next day with your usual strength.
Discounting the value of religion. At least in my own example, going to church as a teenager provided a social network that I desperately needed, and encouraged me to define and push myself. Even if you’ve firmly decided that you don’t want to get involved with religion, never scoff that others feel they need it. It can be a powerful structure for good and has made many happy and able to live their best lives. There may still be a lot you can learn from them.
Attempting to fill the holes in their lives with counterproductive garbage. Everybody hurts, and everybody has their own way of coping. But now that you’re treating your mental issues and thinking intelligently about how to spend your life, assess the things that make you feel better in the short term, and ask yourself if they’re doing long-term damage. Will you regret these things in a year? Five? Twenty?
Not respecting their bodies. I had a ‘woah’ moment when I realized that I can never leave this body until I die. I’ll have these eyes and hands and teeth and brain cells the entire time, and can never change them or switch them out for nicer ones (barring technological advances). Most of all, I have to drive a car or ride the bus in order to haul this sweaty sack of fluids to work in order to earn a living. My brain processes at such incredible speeds, I could be a thousand miles away in half a second, but I will always be anchored to physical form. The body can be beautiful, but never forget that it is your prison, and you must take care of it. Think carefully before exposing it to drugs, unhealthy food, sex, dangerous sports, etc. You only get one.
The conclusion isn’t for me to define. You will know when it’s time to take a break on your never-ending journey to becoming capable, admirable, strong, and other cool adjectives. So keep going.