As I zipped up my last suitcase, I lay down in my bed, feeling a sense of tiredness yet excitement. I was going to be leaving home and starting my college journey in the USA. I had spent a large part of the summer preceding college going to therapy once again, as I felt I had not fully processed my rejections during the college admissions process and the underlying feelings of insecurity, anger, and regret. Besides, I enjoyed going to therapy – I see it as going to the gym for your mind – so I was in a fairly positive mental state before my departure. However, I did feel several doubts flare up in my head as I pondered what my college experience would look like.
Will I make lifelong friendships or will this be a repeat of high school?
Will my friends move on with their lives while I remain stuck in the past?
Will my academic and personal life be as horrendous as it was the last two years?
When you’ve spent years perpetually self-deprecating and engaging in negative self-talk, it’s easy to adopt such storylines and look for ways to adhere to them; after all, as I’ve said before, being sad is often the easier and more comfortable thing to do. As a result, due to my failure to accomplish my dream of going to a prestigious Ivy League school, I began to debase myself even further; those around me who had done well in their admissions were a constant reminder of my own inability and failure, and I could not help but feel a deep sense of resentment and angst whenever I thought about where they were headed and where I was. I firmly believed that I was going to be left behind, and no one would even turn around and bother. These notions caused me an interminable sadness that I was cognizant of but unwilling to challenge and change.
During my therapy sessions, my therapist and I often discussed the habit of comparing oneself to others, and when doing so, I had a tendency to m&M: minimize my own attributes while magnifying others’ positive attributes. This unhelpful habit led to me question my own self-worth and abilities, and consequently, I would self-sabotage as to prove those storylines I had molded over the years right. Unfortunately, this would often be a self-fulfilling prophecy where I would only bolster my reasons for thinking pessimistically. Another unhelpful thinking pattern was that of black and white thinking. My place in the world was in absolutes – I was either a success or a complete failure; I was either kind or terribly selfish and unhelpful; I was either intelligent and accomplished or dull-witted and incompetent. Needless to say, viewing myself in such screaming opposites was folly and detrimental to my efforts to get better.
My therapist advised me to maintain a thought record where I would jot down negative or troublesome thoughts/situations, how they made me feel, how strongly I believed in those thoughts, what I did after, and how I felt after. She told me that I needed to work on my absolute way of thinking – it is not as if only those who go to Ivy Leagues are successful; in fact, there are so many successful people who didn’t even go to college. I realized that once again I was tying my sense of worth and being to external and superficial validation and achievements. Furthermore, we concluded that though this college admission hadn’t panned out the way I had desired, I had kept going on and pushing forward (even in a depressive state) which displayed strength and perseverance. Hearing these words from another person made me feel buoyant and better, however, this would be ephemeral and quickly dashed out by the pervading pessimism in my psyche.
When you are depressed, you’re afraid of the possibility of happiness and optimism. Any flicker of hope needs to be extinguished – you had hope and dreams before¸ and look at how that turned out. There is often a fixation with your current turmoil – it is untrue to say you weren’t happy in the past, but now all that matters is that your present is bleak and hopeless, and often, you’re inclined to think your future will be too. Therefore, my thought record was plagued with ponderings along the lines of sadness, compunction, and anger.
I was quite self-aware of the things I was feeling, but internally, I didn’t have the desire nor the willingness to change. What was the point? I had tried to change in the past too, but I had come up short. Why would this time be any different?
I went to therapy regularly before college, and even though I did feel a slight improvement in my mental health, I was still caught in the maelstrom of depressive thinking. Instead of trying to use my strength and grit to propel myself of out this storm of pessimism, I decided to stay motionless and let the waves decide my fate. I was passive, and I knew it, but I didn’t really want to change – and until then, I would never be able to overcome my mental struggles.
There is often this misconception about therapy being a fix for your mental health issues, and once you go to therapy, your problems will solve themselves. I’m here to tell you that therapy alone won’t fix your problems. Let me expound this using my earlier gym analogy. If you were trying to get physically fitter, you would probably enroll in a gym or a yoga studio or start running. However, just the intention alone is not enough. You need to put your intention into action, and fully engage yourself with your commitment. Furthermore, your diet matters equally. If you continued to binge on chips and fast food, you’d probably see little to no progress.
Therapy works in exactly the same manner. Simply attending sessions and unloading your thoughts will not make you better. The real work happens outside of therapy where you use the tools that therapy provides you with and really try to change your unhelpful thinking styles or patterns. Moreover, your mental diet – the things you say to yourself when you’re down, when you make a mistake, when you’re angry et cetera – is just as important. Don’t let your pessimistic thoughts undo all the work you’re putting in by attending therapy and trying to get better.
My mental health would improve only after I made the realization that the aim of therapy is to make sure you don’t need it again. Therapy seeks to provide you with the tools you need to cultivate a healthier, more self-sufficient, and more sustainable mindset.
Unfortunately, my mental health would reach its nadir in college (more on this later). However, my experiences that summer taught me that it’s okay to not be okay. It’s okay to seek help when you need it. It’s okay to cut yourself some slack and maybe lay in bed, binge watching The Office the entire day. It really is okay. As long as you realize that you can only get better when you really want to get better. And once you realize that you have to really, really try your best. You owe yourself that much. Trust me.