You are the best expert on yourself. You have, by far, more knowledge about yourself than anyone else. No one else lives inside your body or inside your brain. No one else has ever experienced exactly what you have experienced. And no one else can know what you want to do with your life—your goals and dreams. (I remember when a vocational counselor showed me my file and it contained goals for my life and how I was going to meet those goals—a document I had never seen. I was flabbergasted!)
Mary Ellen Copeland, PhD, is an author, educator, mental health advocate, and mental illness survivor. Copeland’s work is based on the study of the coping and wellness strategies of people who have experienced mental health challenges.
Editor: Saad Shaheed
If you are like most of us, when you come upon troubling times, experience distressing symptoms or need to make some life changes, you look outside yourself for answers. And you will find that there are many people who will be delighted to direct you, to make decisions for you, to take action on your behalf. You may reach out to your partner or another family member, friends, colleagues, a religious or spiritual advisor, a counselor or therapist, a medical doctor or medical specialist (such as a psychiatrist), a nutritionist, an acupuncturist—the list goes on and on. And while all of these people may be able to provide some help, information or guidance, you may overlook the most important authority—you! If you overlook your own inner guidance as a source of wisdom, your course of action may prove to be less than helpful.
If I Had It to Do Over Again…
In 1976, I was experiencing another deep depression—one of a succession of depressions that have troubled me throughout my life. I had never looked at the possible causes of these depressions. I thought they were something outside of myself and that I couldn’t control them; that these depressions controlled me.
This time, I decided to reach out for help. I went to see a psychiatrist and described my symptoms. He told me that, like my mother, I had manicdepression and, if I took lithium and an antidepressant, I would be fine. I accepted his diagnosis and took the medications he prescribed.
In looking back, I know that I should have asked him what being a manic-depressive meant and how he determined that should be my diagnosis. Then I could have decided for myself if the diagnosis really fit. I could have asked him if he thought other issues in my life—like being in an abusive relationship, being overworked and overwhelmed much of the time, bad things that happened to me when I was a child, lack of close friends and supporters, or being kept from doing the things I wanted to do with my life—might be causing or worsening my symptoms.
I know now that I definitely should have asked him the possible short- and long-term side effects of the recommended medications, how much water to drink when taking these medications, if there were times I should not take them, what would happen if I took too much of them, etc. Based on what I felt and learned, I could have decided whether I wanted to follow his direction and take the medications at all.
What Others Had To Say
In the years since then, I have reached out to many other sources for help and guidance. They include:
- A nutritionist, who told me that I needed more B vitamins and some amino acids.
- A minister, who felt my problems would be eased by more involvement in a religious community—that I was out-of-touch with God.
- Various counselors, who told me I should try to heal my relationship with my husband, or that I should leave my husband, and tried to direct me in and out of other relationships.
- A body worker, who told me that my healing was dependent on the thoroughness with which I could remember and share childhoodtrauma.
- A family member, who told me that I should “pull myself up by the bootstraps.”
- A well-meaning friend, who said I should go home and bake pies for my family.
- A benefits provider, who accused me of malingering and being noncompliant.
When I told a psychiatrist that I wanted to write a book, he told me that I was being “grandiose.” Since then, I have written 10 books and had them published. The same psychiatrist told me I could never lead a workshop. Since then, I have led hundreds of workshops, attended by thousands of people all over the world.
Listening to Myself
The most important lesson that I learned from all of this is that in making decisions about me and about my life, I first must listen to myself. I must ask myself what I know and feel about myself. Then, if I want to, I can reach out to others for their ideas. As each of them shares an opinion or gives advice, I can weigh it carefully and see how it resonates with me; does it feel right to me or doesn’t it? If it feels right, I can do or believe as they suggest. If it doesn’t feel right, I don’t need to think or act in that way.
Ideas on Accessing Inner Knowledge
You may have received so much advice and been told so many things about yourself over the years that you have no idea how to access your inner knowledge. While it takes time and patience, you can learn to improve your ability to listen to yourself and to determine what is best and right for you. Some of the following ideas may be helpful to you. As you work on this, you will discover other ways that help you to know yourself and what you need.
- When another person suggests that you do something or says something about you, make sure it feels right to you before acting on it. You may ask yourself, “Is it a ‘bing’ (right) or is it a ‘thud’ (wrong)?” If it involves action, you could write the options on sheets of paper. Shuffle them. Then choose a sheet of paper. By noticing your emotions about what is written on the paper, you will know whether or not it is the right answer for you.
- Educate yourself so that you know all there is to know about the issue or issues at hand. As you learn, make sure what you are learning feels right to you. Remember, just because it is in a book by a prestigious author or on an Internet site does not mean it is right, or that it is right for you. For instance, many people who have a psychiatric diagnosis are given erroneous information like: you will never get well, you can never have children, you can never be in an intimate relationship, you can never go to college, or you can never have the career of your choice. Education will help you conduct your own assessment of each issue. You may decide that you don’t even agree with the diagnosis or that anyone has the right to diagnose you with anything. You may prefer to think about your symptoms as feelings rather than a diagnosis.
- Discuss the issue in-depth with a person or people you trust, even an “expert” like a doctor or a counselor. Then decide for yourself how you feel about the input you received and what action you are going to take.
- Before making a major decision about anything, decide to wait a specified amount of time—for instance three days (or longer for more important decisions). Often, after reflection, you will change your mind. My mother once jotted down a note that said, “If you haven’t changed your mind lately, maybe you don’t have one.”
- Consider journaling. The process of writing can be helpful for gaining understanding of how you really feel about something. Don’t worry about penmanship or grammar. Write anything you think or feel; it doesn’t have to be right. It can be pure fantasy. It can be thoughts, feelings, expressions of emotions, ideas, plans—anything you want. You never have to show it to anyone if you don’t want to. Others should respect the privacy of your writings. Reread your writings when you feel like it.
- Think about peer counseling. Ask a friend that you trust to peer counsel with you. Decide how much time you can spend (most people do it for one hour, but it could be more or less time), divide the time in half, and each of you spend your half of the time talking, laughing, crying, ranting, raving—anything that feels right to you—while the other person listens closely without interrupting you.
As you work on accessing the inner knowledge that you possess, and taking action based on what you know about and want for yourself, you may find, as I have, that the quality of your life improves and that your life becomes richer than you could have ever imagined.
Mary Ellen Copeland, Ph.D. is an author, educator and mental health recovery advocate, as well as the developer of WRAP (Wellness Recovery Action Plan). To learn more about her books, such as the popular The Depression Workbook and Wellness Recovery Action Plan, her other writings, and WRAP, please visit her website, Mental Health Recovery and WRAP. Reprinted here with permission.