What it feels like to experience bipolar shame and three ways to fight it.
Before I begin this post about shame caused by bipolar disorder, I must remind you the bipolar brain is not reasonable. If anyone feels the need to email me or comment about how I’m not being rational in talking about feeling ashamed of mental illness, please understand I already know. However, knowing the facts doesn’t change the way I feel.
And I’m not alone.
This week, I had a wonderful email conversation with one of you dear readers. One topic came up several times in our exchange, the subject of shame. It’s made me think a lot about the subject.
As much as I’m open about my bipolar disorder, I still feel ashamed. Frequently, I feel like I am failing in life. Many days, I feel broken and that the damage occurred because I didn’t have the strength to protect myself. My inadequacies created this horrible condition.
Yes, I know none of that is true. On an intellectual level, I can identify the truth, but my heart often tells me otherwise. Right or wrong, it’s how I feel. Maybe it’s how you feel, too.
This type of shame causes many to hide their condition or to never seek treatment. That mistake can be deadly.
As I’ve written about before, I’ve lost several friends because they were ashamed of the way they felt. Their shame made them afraid to seek help.
It’s a trend we have to stop.
So what can you do if you feel ashamed of your mental illness? Here are a few things that might help.30 Days of Positivity
1. Acknowledge the Shame
The first thing I do to cope with mental illness shame is to acknowledge it. Yes, I can pretend I never feel ashamed of it, but that doesn’t get me anywhere. If I accept the shame and then try to analyze it, it makes it a little easier to deal with.
Shame can be like a cold shadow hovering over the room. By turning the light on the shadow, it loses its power.
You can find your light by the messages you choose to use.
Bipolar pushes you to say negative things to yourself, but with effort, you can correct those harmful messages.
I find affirmations helpful. I might say things like, “I have an illness, not a weakness,” or, “My brain chemistry is off, not my entire life course.”
Accepting your shame rather than running from it will help you overcome it. A great way to reach acceptance is to write yourself a letter.
2. Write a Letter
Writing a letter to yourself is the second positive thing you can do to cope with shame caused by bipolar disorder.
I’m a writer, so I process the most challenging parts of my life through writing. This is especially true for coming to terms with my mental health.
Writing is my chief therapy and how I sort out the noise in my head. When things are extremely complex, I write a letter to myself.
It may sound kind of silly, but it’s an excellent way to step outside of yourself and make sense of a situation.
There’s something magical about writing a letter. Suddenly, you’re outside of your head and writing to a person in need. The act of writing separates you just enough from the internal turmoil that you can see things from a new perspective.
When you write a letter to yourself, try to do two things. One, offer forgiveness for whatever you have done or felt. Yes, there might be some awful things to forgive, but you have to do it. Two, offer support. Write things like, “I’m here for you,” or, “I love you no matter what.”
Write the letter as if you’re writing to one of your closest friends. Express the same concern and tenderness you would give to anyone you love if they were the one suffering.
Let the words flow and don’t hold back any emotions. It’s okay to destroy the letter when you’re done. This task is about the process of writing the letter, not the content itself.
3. Help others
The third thing you can do to overcome the shame of having a mental illness is to use your experiences to encourage others. You don’t have to be a medical professional to help someone else.
I love to use the illustration of hiking to highlight the practicality of helping someone. You don’t have to be an expert hiker to be useful, you just have to be one step ahead. If you know the best stable ledge where I can place my feet, then you have what I need.
It’s the same with mental illness.
It doesn’t matter if you have it all figured out or not. Truth be told, no one does, so stop holding out for that unreality.
The thing is, there are people in your life who are a little behind you in their journey of accepting their mental illness. They need to know what you did to make it possible for you to go to work every day, or just to get out of bed and take a shower. They’re staggering and need a stable foothold. You can give them the directions to get to where you are now.
As you help the people you care about, you learn to accept your mental illness. Watching them succeed gives you validation both in knowing that you’re not alone and that you’re making progress.
As you help them, you can point out the reasons your friend shouldn’t be ashamed of having a mental illness. Those realizations will help you stop feeling ashamed as well.
Shame is an unfortunate part of dealing with mental illnesses like bipolar disorder, but it is something you can fight. There is no reason to be ashamed, but there will be days you feel it.
To fight the shame caused by bipolar disorder, continue to confront the feeling, and it will get better. Learn to accept the feelings of shame, write yourself a supportive letter, and look for ways to help others.
The shame may not go away completely, but it will stop ruining your life.
Until next time, keep fighting.30 Days of Positivity