Authenticity as Mental Health
After recovering my physical health following my months long breakdown, I began asking myself the tough questions about how I wanted to rebuild my life. How was I going to move around in the world and make choices to ensure that I didn’t end up in a state of heightened anxiety once again? Much of the answer to that question was in the tough inner work I had begun and commit myself to everyday to ensure that I am living my life in a healthy mental state, but I realized there were many external choices I had made that contributed to the downfall in my mental health and the majority of them were the result of cultural stories I had bought into that didn’t fit my values and who I was as a person.
I began asking myself questions about how I’d constructed my life to that point. Why is it my culture wants to unleash so much anxiety into my life? Who gains from me having heightened anxiety? Who profits? The short answer is that capitalism is at the root of many of these anxieties for me, as are cultural expectations we all grow up with that makes us aspire to wanting to be people we aren't meant to be and wanting things that may not fit with the lives we want to lead. I could write a book (and maybe someday I will) about all of the things I was trying to attain and be that didn’t fit with my values.
Once I began interrogating the things and beliefs in my life I began to see what was causing me stress. Before I dig into these stressors, I want to acknowledge that because I am a privileged person, I was able to make radical changes in my life that many less privileged people may not be able to. One of my major stressors was owning a home. For nearly two decades I was the proud owner of a charming 1930’s bungalow in the city. I bought into the home ownership goal that we as Americans are told is part of being a responsible and successful adult. I enjoyed home ownership, the feeling that I owned something (although I really didn’t, the bank owned it and I owed them massive amounts of money) that was all mine. What I didn’t realize at the time is how much stress owning a home was for me. The repairs in an older home were constant, and often led to more repairs. Money flew out of the window faster than it seemed I could earn it. Not only did I have to fund the repairs, I had to find someone to fix them when I couldn't do it myself. I felt I needed to remodel to keep the house up to date and marketable in the event I wanted to sell. It was a never ending pressure cooker and once I made the decision to sell the house, it was a relief, yet I planned to buy another house because I was convinced it was the only option for a successful adult. I planned a move to the suburbs and decided to rent before I bought another house so I could get to know my new neighborhood first, but it only took a couple of months of renting for me to realize that I had no interest in owning a home again. I loved that I could call maintenance when something broke and they would fix it while I went about my day. My anxiety decreased immensely and I began to let go of the status that I believed owning a home held for me.
Next, I made some changes to my work life. I work at a computer all day for a global company. I don’t see many of my clients, so I got up the nerve to ask to work from home three days a week. Fortunately, my employer was amenable to this and the loss of the hectic commute led to a more relaxed morning and evening for me and my family.
After these successes, I made a list of all of the things I didn’t like doing and started eliminating them from my life, or finding a work around that was more suitable for my lifestyle. I had to let go of a lot of cultural expectations as to what a ‘good’ mother is and does. I now order meals delivered to the door, which has been a lifesaver and I actually enjoy cooking now that I don’t have the burden of thinking of what meals to make and to shop for the ingredients. While I was at it, I eliminated the performing I was doing at being a good mother. I stopped being a person that wasn’t me, a classroom mother, a school volunteer, the mother who did arts and crafts. It’s just not me and I realized that being someone I’m not is not being a good role model for my daughter and it certainly isn’t good for my mental health.
There were also many small changes I made that helped me get back in touch with myself and the life I wanted to lead. I stopped comparing my life to those of others. I’m a unique person and want different things from my life, so trying to emulate others was causing me a lot of stress and kept me locked in inauthenticity. I love silence, so I built it into my life. I also stopped being busy all of the time and let go of the need to be productive every waking moment of each day. This has allowed me time to pursue the things I value most like spending time with family and friends, being in nature, reading, writing and just being. I’ve learned the joy of a good nap and no longer feel guilty reading a book for pleasure. I’ve also added a lot of pleasure to my life in the form of unplanned days, dancing, making art, getting massages and learning new things.
The more I honor who I authentically am, the happier I am and the more my anxiety decreases. I no longer subscribe to the cultural expectations of success. The only person I have to answer to is me and I’m pleased with the new authentic life I’m leading. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the more authentic I become, the more my anxiety decreases. We’re hardwired to be authentic beings and when we deny ourselves that right, our mind and body scream at us until we capitulate.