Mental health is a misunderstood topic:
- Many people believe that mental health is deterministic—that you are essentially at the mercy of your genetics and brain chemistry.
- Other people believe that it’s simply a matter of will power—this is exemplified by the “just think positive” mentality.
But the truth is in the messy middle.
Mental health is neither a matter of fate or any one particular decision. It’s largely a matter of habits.
In my own work as a psychologist, the best way I’ve found to help people strengthen and maintain their mental health is through the cultivation of healthy habits, especially mental habits.
This doesn’t mean that other factors like your biology or social context don’t matter—they definitely do! But for most people, the thing you have most control over is the habits you choose to build and live by.
Here are four uncommon habits that will improve your mental health.
1. Be curious about your own mind
Metacognition is the ability to observe and think about your own mind and how it works—and it’s a key ingredient for lasting mental health.
Most people act on autopilot much of the time, especially when strong emotions are involved:
- You feel angry and immediately lash out—saying something sarcastic, slamming a door, or even just ruminating in your own mind about how terrible someone else is.
- You feel anxious and immediately try to distract yourself with meaningless activities or you call a friend for reassurance.
- You feel sad and immediately turn to alcohol or food to numb out the pain.
Not only does impulsiveness lead to bad decisions and poor consequences, but it prevents us from learning something new about ourselves.
If you always resort to sarcasm anytime you feel angry, for example, your vision of what anger is and what it means is quite limited. It’s just a “bad” feeling that leads to saying cruel things.
On the other hand, if you cultivate the habit of observing your thoughts and feelings—especially the uncomfortable ones—you can begin to get curious about them.
When you learn to be curious about your own mind, self-awareness and growth are not far behind.
For example, if you took a minute to observe and get curious about your anger, you might realize that behind your anger is some fear—fear that people won’t love you for who you are, fear that you’ll be alone, maybe even fear of your anger itself. Which means that anger, and all the behaviors that come out of it, might be merely a distraction from the real issue—your fear and insecurity.
But this kind of self-knowledge is only possible if you consistently pause and observe your own mind from a place of curiosity.
The next time you feel a strong emotion, hit the pause button. Then ask yourself:
What’s going on in my mind right now?
You can’t change without self-awareness. And you can’t be self-aware without curiosity.
2. Be compassionate with your suffering
A sure sign of mental health is that you can be compassionate with yourself when times are hard—that you approach your mistakes and suffering in a gentle, rational way, without resorting to extremes of positivity or negativity.
In my work as a psychologist, the one thing that united nearly every one of my clients when they began therapy is that they lacked the habit of self-compassion.
Simply put, self-compassion means that in times of pain or suffering, you treat yourself like you would treat a good friend—empathetically, non-judgmentally, and with a sense of balance and perspective.
Ironically, while most of us are quite good at being compassionate with other people, we’re terrible at being compassionate with ourselves:
- When you make a mistake, you immediately start criticizing yourself with negative self-talk and catastrophic predictions.
- When you feel upset or afraid, you immediately criticize yourself for being weak and discount your pain as silly or trivial.
- When you’re uncertain or confused, you compare ourselves to others—as if shame will motivate you to figure things out.
In other words, our default response to mistakes and pain is to be hard on ourselves. This is probably the result of a culture that insists that the only way to achieve success in life (and therefore happiness) is to be tough on yourself.
But I see little evidence that being hard on yourself improves either your success or happiness in the long run. If anything, people who are successful probably got there despite their lack of self-compassion, not because of it. And even if they do find success, it’s often at the expense of genuine contentment and happiness.
Success without self-compassion is hollow.
The antidote to the habit of being hard on yourself is self-compassion.
Self-compassion doesn’t mean that you’re soft or spoiled, it just means taking a balanced view of your mistakes and failures:
- Self-compassion means acknowledging your failures for what they are without dwelling on them.
- Self-compassion means reminding yourself that you are more than the sum of your mistakes. Far more.
- Self-compassion means acknowledging that just because you feel bad doesn’t mean you are bad.
There’s no greater strength than the willingness to be gentle with yourself.
3. Be flexible in your behavior
A tell-tale sign of poor mental health is rigid behavior. But its opposite—flexibility—is the key to a stronger, more healthy emotional life.
There’s an old saying that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again despite it not working.
While most of us probably don’t fit the technical criteria for insanity, it’s not hard to think back on a time when we were suffering emotionally and see the same pattern—getting stuck trying the same old things to feel better but only feeling worse.
- When you’re feeling depressed and down, it’s all too easy to isolate yourself and disengage from the world.
- When you’re feeling guilty or ashamed, it’s tempting to replay your past mistakes over and over again in a cycle of rumination and self-criticism.
- When you’re feeling anxious and afraid, it’s easy to lose yourself in a mindless distraction rather than facing up to your fears.
In other words, we all tend to get stuck in habitual ways of responding to stress and painful emotions. We feel bad and our default behaviors kick in, often without much awareness.
I’m sure you can think of a time when you felt bad and then kind of found yourself doing something in response that maybe felt good temporarily but only made the problem worse.
You can’t keep doing the same old thing and expect different results.
If every time you feel anxious, you start worrying—and then find that worrying only makes you more anxious—maybe it’s time to think about a new way of responding to anxiety?
If every time you feel sad, you start ruminating—and then find that ruminating only makes you feel worse about yourself—maybe it’s time to think about a new way of responding to sadness?
If every time you feel angry, you criticize other people—and then find that being critical only makes you feel worse about yourself in the long run, maybe it’s time to think about a new way of responding to your anger?
Instead of defaulting to your same old strategies, try to be flexible in how you respond to difficulty:
- Take a new perspective. Ask yourself: How would someone else look at this?
- Experiment with new behaviors. Test out what happens when you bite your tongue instead of lashing out or call a friend instead of isolating yourself.
- Study other people. Pay attention to how the people you admire respond to difficult situations and stress: What do they do differently and what might that look like for me?
Be a scientist in your own life: observe what’s not working, formulate a new theory, test it out, and see how it works.
4. Be assertive about your values
The real tragedy of chronic emotional suffering is you become so consumed with alleviating your pain that you lose sight of the things that matter most—your values and aspirations.
When we feel any kind of pain—including emotional pain—our attention gets drawn to finding the quickest possible way to alleviate that pain.
For example: When your finger feels pain and you realize it’s resting on a hot frying pan, all your focus and energy goes toward getting your hand off the hot pan. And for good reason—it would be dangerous and harmful to leave your hand on a hot stove!
But, while pain is often an indicator of danger, it isn’t always. Emotional pain, no matter how severe, isn’t itself dangerous—no amount of sadness or anxiety, for example, can harm you.
But it’s easy to get confused here. It’s easy to treat all pain as an indication of danger. And when we do that, it means channeling all our attention and energy toward escaping that pain.
But there’s a cost to this instant pain avoidance strategy:
When you spend all your time running away from what you don’t want, there’s little time left for running toward what you do want.
If you suffer from chronic mental health issues or emotional struggles, you probably recognize this pattern of your life shrinking and narrowing as everything becomes about feeling less pain.
And while this strategy of trying to outrun your pain makes sense on an intuitive level, it almost never works in the long-run. And in fact, it often makes things worse:
- Avoiding your grief by drowning it out with constant distraction only perpetuates it.
- Avoiding your social anxiety by not going out as much only intensifies it.
- Avoiding your goals because you’re afraid of failing only makes your self-esteem issues worse.
The antidote to a life of chronic avoidance is assertiveness.
Crafting the habit of assertiveness means learning to go after what you want with confidence and setting boundaries on what you don’t want with strength:
- Asking for a nicer table at the restaurant even though you’re worried that the waiter might think badly of you.
- Refusing to engage in hostile conversations with coworkers, even though it feels good to try and put them in their place.
- Making the decision to leave your job and try a new career even though you’re scared.
In the end, the only way to genuinely and consistently feel better is to start moving toward the things that matter most even if you don’t feel like it.