Mental health is an interesting topic for me in a lot of ways. Growing up, it didn't appear to most people, be it adults, friends or peers, that I had any reason to be concerned about my mental health. For the most part, I was naturally outgoing and didn’t find it hard to socialize with new people, even when I was starting at new schools. Playing sports and locking in on competitive soccer at an early age, I always had an extensive group of friends that I grew with and could rely on. On top of all of that, I always did well in school and was typically one of the top students in my classes.
Despite my good fortune, I didn’t always feel the sense of confidence that many people around me seemed to assume that I had. Throughout grade school and high school, and even still today, there were always moments where I doubted myself far more than people expected. Making new friends, talking to girls and even just speaking up in a group were often things that I felt a lack of confidence about before I tried to pursue them. Fortunately, I was still able to convince myself to at least try to do these things more often than not, but there were also many times where I didn’t win these small mental battles.
While experiencing the occasional self doubt and questioning your abilities from time to time are in no way the same as dealing with fully developed mental health issues, going through these natural stages when others can’t seem to understand why you’d go through them does make you acutely aware of your own internal dialogue and how what we tell ourselves can affect us.
I can’t remember exactly, but I think I was in 5th or 6th grade when my cousin committed suicide. She was a lot older than me and we didn’t know each other particularly well, but even at a young age the impact it had on my aunt and my mother was abundantly clear. What stood out the most to me was the simple fact that nobody could understand why she’d been driven to do this. Not that I’d expect anybody to understand that decision, but this idea that somebody’s personal thoughts could be so different than what the people in their life assumed it would be was once again brought to the forefront of my thoughts.
While I was aware of this concept or paradigm or whatever you want to call it, I was fortunate in that the difference in what I was feeling compared to what may have been considered normal never snowballed out of control or developed into a sustained issue. In many ways, I grew to become more comfortable with it and somewhat forgot about it until about a year and a half ago.
As a professional photographer and videographer, I spend a lot of time alone while I’m editing. Whether it’s the middle of the day or late at night, I’ve found that I work best alone.
No distractions, just me and my computer screen…and my thoughts.
When you’re in the right frame of mind, this isn’t of much concern. However, when you’re not in the right mindset, this can be incredibly toxic. What’s worse is that it’s also not always easy to realize when it’s happening, especially if you aren’t aware that it’s a possibility.
My girlfriend and I moved in together two years ago and while that has mainly been a huge positive in my life, there have obviously been a few hiccups along the way. More often than not, we worked through these challenges, as most people have to do in a relationship, but the real problem was if I went back to work in my office before we resolved an issue. It took awhile to realize how negative I could be with my internal dialogue and how out of hand it could become when there wasn’t anybody else on the other end of the conversation to keep my thoughts in check.
This didn’t just pertain to the occasional disagreement with her. If a client was making a project difficult or somebody cut me off while driving or whatever it was, it became all too easy for me to bring that resentment home, sit down with it at my desk and let it take over my subconscious while I was focused on editing for three hours.
I don’t know exactly how long it took for me to realize this was happening, but I remember I first recognized how bad this internal dialogue had gotten after my girlfriend had gone to bed and I was effectively still arguing with her in my head while I was editing. All of a sudden it just clicked how ridiculous it was to be torturing myself with a conversation that wasn’t actually happening and I realized how it had skewed parts of my perspective to be unnecessarily negative.
For me, simply identifying that this issue existed was the first step to correcting the toxic tendency. Being honest with myself that it was going on allowed me to catch when it was happening and shift my focus to something more positive.
The second step was beginning to talk to people more. This doesn’t necessarily mean talking directly about the issue (I honestly haven’t spoken much about it) or seeing a therapist, just actually talking more, with other human beings.
Obviously I apologized to my girlfriend about what I’d noticed, but I also made a point of calling my friends more frequently. Instead of listening to a podcast or music during every drive home, I’d occasionally check in with a friend and talk about nothing in particular. I spoke with other photographers about how their businesses were and what they were working on next. I visited my parents more often and called other family members more regularly. Even though I wasn’t talking about my issue, these increased social interactions reinforced all of the positive aspects of my life, reminded me that everyone deals with their own challenges and restricted the amount of time I could spend thinking negative thoughts.
As more and more freelancers, startups and solo entrepreneurs enter the workforce, and especially as our economy shifts towards more virtual work as a result of these quarantines, I know that many other people are experiencing what I went through (and still go through at times) and plenty of them are not even aware of it. My suggestion for those who are is simple: call somebody to talk, even if you have nothing to talk about. And if you aren’t dealing with it, I’ll also offer the same advice. You may help a friend who’s unexpectedly dealing with mental health issues and you may also help yourself if you simply haven’t realized you’re experiencing it too.