There is something more damaging and scarier than mental health conditions.
It is our fear.
Our fear leads to social stigma that brings disharmony in any society.
In turn, it creates myths and misconceptions that destroy our ability to do what’s right.
People fear what they don’t understand.
Many of us tend to perceive people with mental illness as someone who is broken, lack willpower or discipline and should be locked up somewhere away from the rest of the world.
I’ve also came across other harsh remarks such as “this person has committed deadly sins and thus he is now being punished!”
Having known a couple of friends having mental health conditions, I know these fears are groundless or far from being true.
On the contrary, many of them are living a remarkable, beautiful and magnificent life!
One of them is Lishan. She taught me the value of becoming a better version of ourselves.
And I would like to invite you to discover these 4 life-transforming lessons on self-care, courage and life’s wisdom.
At the end of the article, I’ve also included useful tips on how we can best nurture, support and interact with people living with similar mental health conditions.
Growing from struggles to strength
When you first meet someone like Lishan who is bubbly and a high achiever, it is hard to imagine she is having bipolar disorder Type 1 and bulimia nervosa.
In fact, people living with mental health conditions look just like any of us.
For her, it is financially and emotionally draining having to seek treatment (psychiatrist appointments, medication, psychotherapy, alternative holistic therapies) for the two devastating disorders.
Not only that, she has to deal with the side effects that come with the medications. For someone with a mental health condition, the symptoms are out of his or her control.
Mental health condition like hers is not something that she choose to have. It isn’t a character flaw either. There is no single cause for a mental health condition. Instead there are multiple contributing factors such as genetic, biological and environmental.
One of the biggest message I like to convey is this: “it is not your fault.” No one is at fault here. Only opportunities for change and growth.
Despite what she is going through, her conditions have given her the opportunity to bring out the best in her as a human being.
She is more sensitive to the bigger societal issues surrounding mental health which she is aspiring to transform.
She is now seen advocating greater awareness and compassion for mental wellness.
Developing practices for self-care is crucial. Synchronistically, she encountered yoga five and a half years ago which transformed her.
She reveals: “Through yoga, I was able to reconnect and reconcile the aspects about myself I was having conflicts with. It was the level of healing that not only my mind needed, but also my body, heart and soul at that phase of my life. Yoga teaches me to stay grounded in reality while being optimistic with my life to pursue my passions.”
Despite how far she has come in her recovery journey, Lishan still has her ups and downs. “Although I have grown over the years through inner work and support from others, I’m not done. I’m still a work-in-progress.”
She reminds herself not to take her life for granted and is grateful for where she is now. Lishan does not wish to rest on complacency and strives to improve herself everyday.
Lesson 1: Express yourself wholeheartedly.
Coming out of her past and redefining herself is tough work. Nevertheless, Lishan continues to believe in herself. She draws her strength from years of experience in the performance arts.
“I have been acting since I was in kindergarten. In primary school, I was selected to be in dance and choir and was in the Chinese painting club. I attended speech and drama classes after school and went for poetry recitations. In secondary school and junior college, I was in English Drama and participated in SYFs. I also studied Theatre Studies and Drama for my A Levels. My love for the performing arts has led me to attend various dance classes, watch many performances and be a part of Universal Studios at Halloween and Christmas. With my degree in Communications, I acted in many videos and stage pieces and starred in short films by the Art, Design and Media students in my university. Naturally, I have been connected to many people from the arts scene and now continue to act in independent films, commercial projects, Mediacorp shows and live productions,” she described.
One of the things that constantly showed up in her creative line of work is of judgment. “I don’t really fit in. I would say I am a non-conformist. Perhaps that’s why people can misunderstand me sometimes,” she mentions light-heartedly.
So how does she deal with differing opinions about herself from others?
“I don’t really remember what others say about me unless it is constructive feedback. My attention is focused on doing what I love that I have no time to be affected by negative remarks. Especially in this age of social media, it is easy for people to comment and judge based on what they see in my postings or on media. People can say whatever they want. It is usually their projections onto me. Those interpretations do not necessarily represent who I am. What matters is I am clear how I choose to express myself,” Lishan clarifies.
The ability to show your best self comes from owning who you are. It starts by being comfortable in your own skin. By facing yourself honestly, you can master something about yourself everyday, including your failures and weaknesses. Without challenges in life, we wouldn’t know who we truly are. “Living an examined life taught me to be humble about my development, while knowing when to speak my truth. This is where beauty and confidence no longer become a goal or an outcome, but a way of life without trying too hard to achieve them,” she summarized.
Lesson 2: Daring to live fully.
Besides her passion in acting, modelling and yoga, Lishan is also an avid traveller.
One of her most memorable experiences was her recent trip climbing the Altai Mountains with Beyond Expeditions. What mesmerised her during the climb was the process more than reaching the peak. She marveled, “I am astonished by the pure and raw elements of nature. Because it was desolate, it was also magnificent, beautiful and healing.”
That’s what living life fully is about for her; embracing life in its totality. However, as we get excited about our aspirations, we may become obsessed in a few areas while ignoring the rest. She advises: “Respect balance in your life, neither neglecting nor compromising one aspect of your life over the other out of fear, shame, guilt or attachment.”
I also learned from Lishan that this is not so much about risking it all. On the contrary, it is about being compassionate, embracing the truth that everything is interconnected. It comes with wisdom.
First, let go of whatever perception you have on what it should be. Lishan explains: “Too often, we are influenced by ideas sold by society or the masses. You are unique. Define your own version of what that means to you, not based on someone else’s. Honour what’s true for you.”
She added, “I’ve also been asked many times by others on how they can find their purpose as they step out of their comfort zone. I realise this concept of life purpose has been misunderstood by many such that it becomes an obstacle rather than a stepping stone. We tend to think that we need to uncover that ONE ULTIMATE purpose before we ever begin on anything serious. That’s why I like to approach it differently. I focus on creating new experiences while deepening existing ones. No path is too small or unworthy to venture into. The more I participate and show up in life, the more life nourishes me. And who said you need to have a purpose at all in the first place?”
She also believes in keeping your senses open by exploring different opportunities. “The more you expose yourself to various options, you’ll realise the more you don’t know. Your role is to be a lifelong student of life’s possibilities and potential. You don’t need to gain the approval of others. What stops us from growing is our ego being arrogant, critical or cynical because we kill the opportunity before we even embark on it,” she concluded.
Lesson 3: Develop self-love – a source of powerful self-expression
Life as a talented performer and teacher is not a bed of roses. It can be harsh at times dealing with different standards and expectations.
Fortunately, Lishan has a holistic practice to heal and align herself to well-being when life gets rough. Working on self-love is one of her most useful and powerful routine of personal mastery.
Integrating yoga with meditation and other vibrational or energetic modalities, she realizes that all circumstances and conditions in life are transient. As a metaphor, she illustrated, “I enjoy surfing. And just like surfing, you are constantly riding the waves, not identifying yourself with the crests or troughs because they are impermanent. Instead, you are one with the essence of water, which is about flow. Nevertheless, we need these polarities and contrasts to see the bigger picture so that we can flow. Applying this wisdom empowers me to forgive and love myself even when I am at my worst and not to take my best for granted. No matter what happens, you are always worthy of yourself.”
Though she has many holistic modalities at her disposal, yoga is the one she frequently comes back to as her core practice.
“A lot of people see yoga as a form of fitness. For me, yoga is more than just stretching or flexibility and balance. It is a practice of self realisation and union of mind, body and spirit. Physically, I teach on average two classes a week and practise about twice on my own. I would have been practising for 5 and a half years this February and have already been teaching for 4 years. However, the true practice extends beyond the mat into our daily lives. I would believe that I am always practising at every moment – through being more mindful, conscious and aware, both internally and externally of how we carry ourselves, our thoughts and emotions. I believe this builds a more compassionate and loving community,” she elaborated.
For those of you who are concerned if self-care is selfish, it isn’t. Without taking care of ourselves, we can become a liability for others rather than someone of value. More importantly, we can then form healthy boundaries, knowing what and when to say yes and no to. As such, self-care is not an indulgence, but a form of fundamental self-respect and ownership as a human being.
One of the exercises she shared to kickstart the journey of loving yourself is to begin your own gratitude list. Each day, review and acknowledge yourself for at least three aspects of your life you are grateful for. If you do it consistently, it shifts your frame of mind from blaming at what’s lacking to loving the abundance around and within you.
I relate my observations that the practice of self-love is less adopted and discussed among men and asked for her perspective and advice.
I agreed with her that men find it hard to share their feelings and emotions. A useful tip is to lead by example. Start by listening sensitively without judgment. Articulate how something makes you feel and not just talk about what you do. It is essential to affirm the other party that it is safe to communicate their feelings with you.
On encouraging men to love and reveal the softer side of themselves, Lishan declares that she find men more attractive when they allow themselves to be vulnerable. “You don’t have to put on a tough front or to look smart all the times. It can be pretty tiring and often, can be a sign of insecurity than strength.”
Lishan stresses that knowledge does not equal transformation. Although something might sound amazing, it means nothing unless you experience it for yourself.
Lesson 4: Show who you are, own it and live it!
As we were about to conclude our conversation, I asked Lishan who she is beyond her roles as an actor, model and yoga teacher and she says, “I am a brilliant soul, walking this temporary path as a human being.” From this perspective, we are fundamentally similar and unique simultaneously.
She would like to encourage all of us to listen and tune in to ourselves, not just living up to our parents’ expectations. “Define your own version of success in life. Find time to explore various activities and connect with different people. Allow yourself to spend time engaging in the work that brings you energy, joy and inspiration. This way, you will continue to discover who you are. You might get physically tired sometimes, but you won’t be permanently exhausted as long as it is coming from your heart and soul. And the rest is about owning and living what you truly love,” she summed up wonderfully.
That’s not all…
As I mentioned earlier, I’ve also included the following useful tips that I got from Lishan on how we can best nurture, support and interact with people having similar mental health conditions.
a) For people who are suffering from mental health challenges, what do they really want?
They want understanding and empathy by receiving no judgement but encouragement and to normalize seeking help. Having a mental illness means one has a genetic predisposition to it and does not mean they have a character flaw or are weak.
b) How would you like people to interact with you? And what not to do?
I would like them to treat me normally and not as if there is something wrong with me. However, it doesn’t hurt to be kind and compassionate knowing that I may be more sensitive to certain remarks and criticism pertaining to what I struggle with. It helps to be educated on the types of mental health, what sufferers go through and how to seek professional help.
c) How can family members support?
They can support financially as psychiatric treatment is expensive and ongoing meetings are required depending on the severity of the illness. They can also offer moral support and identify triggers in the home environment or in conversation such as clutter or sensitive topics.
d) How can friends support and nurture people who are struggling with mental health challenges?
They can support emotionally by checking in with you and keeping one another on track with life goals. I have a few friends who also suffer and we seek solace in speaking to each other. We also exchange gratitude and accomplishment lists to encourage ourselves and practice celebrating our victories. We have so much to be content about. Friends also act as a distraction and a means of connection as addiction thrives in isolation.
e) Where can people with mental health conditions seek help and support from?
They can call or email private or public clinics to arrange an appointment with a psychiatrist for diagnosis and medication while seeing a psychologist to change their thought patterns and system of self belief which contribute to unstable emotions and unhealthy coping mechanisms.
f) What practices or routines support you in your journey?
Intuitive eating by staying in the moment to honour our body’s hunger and fullness signals and mindfulness practices such as yoga and meditation to calm the mind and develop consciousness.
To top up, I find it particularly helpful to be able to ‘hold the space’ for them. You can learn more about this here.