As moms, we’re often experts at putting our own well-being last, which means our mental health tends to hang out on the back burner while we work to manage the rest of our lives. Between the isolation and worry of the pandemic, virtual schooling, work challenges, and more heart-wrenching news stories than one can count, it’s been a marathon of just trying to keep our heads above water.
After over a year of heightened anxiety, stress, and guilt, we’re left with a painful reminder of what things can feel like when life gets away from us and we bump caring for our own mental health to the bottom of the list.
So, how can we proactively care for our own mental health in a way that fits in our lives?
For me, it started by breaking one simple, deeply ingrained habit that was making caring for myself much harder:
I stopped the “I’m fine” reflex.
A couple of years ago, if you had asked me how I was doing, “I’m fine, how are you?” would come out of my mouth instantly, regardless of the situation. Before I even had the chance to think about it, my walls were up, and I was closing off even those I cared most about, just with a few words. For so long, parroting these words made me feel like I was being polite. After all, nobody really wants to know how I’m doing — they’re just asking to be nice, right?
Fast forward to 2020. One of the hallmarks of pandemic life is that nearly every conversation seems to start with some form of, “How are you holding up?” Just because we’ve added a bit of mental health consideration to our standard niceties doesn’t mean the response reflex needs to always be the same.
Think about it: When we say, “I’m fine” and move on, we are selling our own feelings short and perpetuating an environment where our needs are overlooked and put on the back burner. “I’m fine” can mean “I’m struggling, but I don’t want to burden you with my feelings or needs,” or, “It’s more important for me to be polite than to ask for help.”
Now, I’m not advocating for sharing all your woes with every store clerk and barista in town — after all, we did develop this reflex as a way to function in polite society. The problem is this: “I’m fine” repeatedly reminds us that our needs don’t matter.
After decades of “I’m fine,” I realized that these two words were my way of shutting down any possible expression of care toward me. Put simply, this was just a fancy way of saying “no” to every possibility of anyone offering their care and support. Not only does this mean missed opportunities for connection; sometimes it can even come across as a rejection. When a friend asks how I’m doing and my response is, “I’m fine,” it can mean, “This isn’t a safe space for either of us to talk about how we’re really doing,” or, “Well, I’m fine, so it wouldn’t be polite for you to talk about how you’re struggling.”
So I’m breaking the habit.
When I’ve answered the, “How are you holding up?” question honestly lately, it has opened the door to conversations that have helped me build and strengthen my support system. Perhaps more importantly, it has reminded me that my needs do matter, and it’s made it easier to ask for help when I need it.
Once I started being honest about struggling, whether it was depression, anxiety, or the stress of everyday life as a mom, things changed. It isn’t always easy, but now when I answer that question honestly, I know I’m not cutting off support from others before I even realize it’s there.
It might seem like just words, but realizing just how impactful my “I’m fine” reflex was on my attitude about myself made for a big change in the way I see my own mental health needs.
Being guarded about our own well-being can easily turn into a habit that makes us feel closed off from our biggest supporters. When we talk about our own mental health and well-being honestly, we signal that it is safe to discuss these topics with those we care about. Practicing talking openly and honestly about our challenges can help us ask for help when we need it — even if that help is an afternoon off for ourselves or some extra hands for a challenging task around the house. Words hold great power and meaning, and just like we try to reduce negative self-talk, being aware of the ways we minimize our own feelings and needs can make a big impact on our mental well-being.