I’m A Psychologist And Coach, Here’s How I Approach My Mental Health And Growth (Part II)

Exactly half my life ago— 18.5 years to be exact— I walked into my first psychology class. Here’s Part II of my biggest lessons in winning the mental game.

Identify your latest limiting factor.

In every chapter comes a new struggle. Sometimes the struggle feels stupid because you aren’t objectively suffering but it’s existential, or you have no reference points. Or you feel it’s a vapid first world problem. This is likelier the more you’ve grown as a person, and built up your inner and external resources. So let’s first come to terms with this— your struggle is valid.

Next up, with every struggle comes a new factor that is limiting you. As a young person, your limiting factors are likely to be experience, skills or money. You sacrifice your sleep and health to build them up, also because your body is still robust; and as you build them up, they start compounding benefits. Then your new struggle might become emotional intelligence, a great network, or time. Following which, it might morph into mindset, health or old demons that you’ve always tolerated ‘just fine’.

That is good, identify them. Because to grow into the next version of you, you will have to make this limiting factor work for you.

You don’t need your routines and rituals to be perfect.

Here’s my confession: I sleep very late everyday. Part of how I understand this is that with ADHD, when I am awake, the world is so amazing that I don’t want to sleep, and that when I am asleep, that world is so amazing, I don’t want to wake.

And whilst I get all the science for sleeping earlier— including what my facialist always tells me about even better skin— I don’t want to pressure myself too much on getting everything right. Plus, I sleep an average of 9 hours anyway, so for now I am at peace with this.

Similarly, there will be aspects of your routine you may not get perfect. And whilst you will benefit from getting that better, as long as 75% of your foundational life is in order, then you don’t need to scare yourself.

It’s the same with how I see people afraid of rice, pasta or cake— which contributes to a mental health struggle called orthorexia. If you eat generally thoughtfully most of the time, white carbs are alright. Plus, there are seasons for cakes like birthdays and the holidays. So if you actually like cakes and burgers, you don’t need to cut them out from your life forever.

I do my best not to eat, sleep, or ‘indulge’ from a place of escaping my emotions. And so all the other times are measured. And here’s my favourite rule I learnt from fitness personality Dan Go: don’t make one bad day, two. So you may have fallen off-the-bandwagon for one day because you wanted to comfort or punish yourself. And what most people end up doing is punishing themselves for that, by spiralling further.

Here’s the deal, you are human. Keep one bad day at one bad day. Tomorrow is a new day.

Don’t shoot the path that got you here.

A big issue I see with Type A personalities is lamenting how they were brought up perfectionist and always achieving. A part of this has to do with increasing levels of mental health awareness in the zeitgeist, as well as Op-Eds on how people should learn emotional intelligence instead.

It got me thinking about my younger self. People were gagging to teach me how to socialise and develop some emotional intelligence, and for some reason, I saw no need to, nor had any desire to. So if I hadn’t developed my academic and commercial sides, where would I be today? And for my clients, this makes them question their entire timeline, as though what they’ve accomplished becomes moot because all they did was, go to medical school or law school.

And hence my strong belief in not shooting the path that got you here. Rather, wherever you are in your life today, there will be gaps and vulnerabilities, like emotional intelligence was mine in my 20s. These are the parts that when you realise you want to work on them, that you will strengthen and grow.

Similarly, don’t shoot your successes by downplaying them. I am guilty of thinking things like, it is easier for me to do XYZ or accomplish ABC because I don’t have the pressures of childcare. That I had a great education because my parents gave me the funds. For everything that comes easily to me, or every success that I have, I automatically compare my path to someone who’s had it harder. And my perfectionist head will inevitably pick someone with maximum struggles, from their financial resources to their cognitive wiring to being a refugee.

And then I stop myself. For every privilege and freedom I’ve had today, I have also paid the price of foregoing something else in my past, present or future. And I’ve also struggled and worked hard enough, and I have nothing to prove by suffering more.

Part of the issue comes from what naysayers say, so I do my best to silence those narratives by distancing myself and reminding myself to stop suffering to satisfy people who don’t care about me.

Having a relatively blessed everyday life doesn’t make me removed from understanding others’ lives, especially in my job and as a human being.

Three years ago, I had a major family crisis, and that changed my priorities. I was on the lookout for my family emotionally, and creating contingency plans. And I was blessed enough to organise my career in a way that allowed me to work fewer hours.

And that is something I’ve also battled inside deeply for the same amount of time.

Watching out for someone else drains your energy, so of course I would want to devote fewer hours in order to produce quality work. And that with everything I know about empathy burnout, of course I also filled my life with social and personal projects and goals, so that I would come out of this chapter stronger, having made the best of it.

But it is only in retrospect that I have deeply come to terms with these realisations instead of merely knowing them intellectually.

But the biggest absolution I’ve gained about the way I’ve designed my everyday life has come from author Shane Parrish’s Clear Thinking. That it is in how you live your ordinary moments that determines success, because you have bandwidth and a clear head to make better decisions for yourself.

Often, it is easy to wonder that if you’re not frazzled and doing 37932407 things, are you living ‘correctly’, especially in a wired culture like Singapore. The rules of how others live can make you doubt your choices. And to have to defend your choices, can be exhausting.

And that helps me understand that it is those years of working very hard and making responsible choices that got me to a place where I could step back and focus on family. And that throughout the last three years, I worked hard on myself too, building stronger foundations for my future, and solid relationships with my tribe. In exchange, I’m the healthiest and fittest I’ve ever been in my entire life, and these habits have become automatically ingrained. I should not shoot down this success and imagine I should be in shambles today in order for those three years to have been ‘valid’.

And as I emerge from that chapter, I hold my head up high knowing I lived it responsibly.

I now understand, I have just graduated from another level in The School Of Life— knowing that the valleys are temporary, and more importantly, the plateaus don’t last forever.

It is with that, that I will consciously make my ordinary moments and everyday life work for me and with me.

And so, it is what you do in your day-to-day life, in-between your check-ins with your coaches, healers and therapists that matters most.

You can go to a retreat on a deserted island, and you will likely lose weight, feel more at peace, and happier if you’ve been fed on fresh fruit and hearty soups, and have been breathing deeply with others.

But what happens when you go back into your real life and your phone pings every 2 seconds between 8am to 8pm, and the easiest thing to eat is fried noodles from the takeaway, whilst you hate your boss, partner or friends? Sure you can go to the retreat in 12 months’, but in the meantime, yo-yoing between the reprieve and the chaos is what gets people feeling more helpless and hopeless everytime the cycle repeats itself.

It’s not just the retreat for detox, or where you aren’t allowed your phone. Same with burning out. Or insert any mental health struggle. That is what I call, the And Then What? Problem.

Real life is the stress test, the active training ground for how you live and grow. The real issue with your phone might lie in the fact that you allow every type of notification and not mute it for certain hours a day. The real issue with burnout might lie in poor boundaries and not knowing how to take care of your body in a way that is optimum for you.

And so there might be habits to delete from your life, like that automatic taxi, and fitting in a walk. Or, being more thoughtful about the food you order, popping a few supplements for brain health, consciously deep breathing several times a day.

The sum total of these ordinary and boring decisions, and how you keep showing up (imperfectly) is really what matters.

That retreat or session with the professional you hired can only do that much. Or to quote the wisdom from my facialist, she can only clean your face that well— the magic happens if you take care of your skin everyday, and then her monthly treatments turbocharge everything.

The takeaway.

The thing about mental health and growth is that it’s really meant to be lived. A session with your professionals, a book, or a retreat can inspire you, give you epiphanies, and cartograph a map. But what you do over and over again becomes your habits, and that then your character.

And of course, you will grow. Life and the world will change. So part of this is learning how to pivot and collaborate with reality, to tweak your systems so they grow with you.

So much of this to me, boils down to winning the inner game. I remember what a trusted confidant taught me as I was finding myself entrenched in a strange place whilst looking out for my family:

“Don’t fight in the North or the South. Fight every battle everywhere, always, in your mind. Everyone is your enemy, everyone is your friend. Every possible series of events is happening all at once. Live that way and nothing will surprise you. Everything that happens will be something that you’ve seen before.”— Lord Petyr Baelish, Game Of Thrones.

That reminded me of the person I’d always been, and the person I wanted to be again.

So the thing about your mental health and growth is, it really isn’t a luxury. Don’t look for it as sexy glittery solutions that you can excitedly trumpet on social media, but rather see it as how it’s really Trojan-horsed into your life.

It is the best investment you can ever make; and at times you may feel disheartened that there are no immediate huge returns on your salary or assets. But remember, that network you built in your 20s may only start fruiting in your 30s and 40s— same concept here. And ultimately, winning the mental game is really about playing the long game.