We can all change our behaviour to fit in with other people. This is how we as humans seek acceptance and make connections. But for those of us whose mental health affects our sense of self, this becomes more about a desire to fit in. It can be a real struggle to know who we are and because of this we struggle with knowing how to behave.
If you struggle with identity issues or an unstable self-image, you might behave in ways that don’t align with your values. It might look like you are constantly changing to fit the situation or the people you are with. This adds even more confusion to this sense of knowing who you are. Not knowing how to act around others can make even the most typical of interpersonal situations feel very anxiety provoking.
1. Define your values
Your values are the guiding principles to live your life by. Paying attention to your values will help you to figure out how to act and how to prioritise. When you have a clearer idea of your values it becomes easier to see when your behaviour crosses these standards, as this will often lead to feelings of guilt and shame. Defining your values can lead to more confidence about going with what feels right for you. Try to notice to what extent your behaviour lives up to your values.
2. Identify your goals
When you are not sure how to act, ask yourself “What is my goal?” Then consider how much your behaviour matches up with that goal. Think about your long and short-term goals for relationships as well as your life. Your goals are your action steps to ensure you live by your values. It can be really helpful, before you take on a new commitment, to examine whether you are doing this because it is the right action for you, based on your values, or whether you are doing this because you want approval from others. If you have doubts, revisit your values.
3. Let go of seeking approval from others
Pay attention to when you may be looking for approval from others. Then practice letting go of seeking reassurance. You need to approve your own behaviour. Notice when your behaviour comes mainly from wanting someone to say that you fit in or did the right thing. Before deciding what action to take in any given situation, check in with yourself to see if your choice is consistent with your values.
4. Ground yourself
When you are feeling anxious or swept up in social situations, the urge to take on other people’s behaviour can be very intense. This is why it is important to ground yourself so that you can connect with your own values and goals. Grounding techniques involve paying attention to the present moment and activate the senses. My suggestions include doing a three minute breathing space, chewing a piece of gum or eating something mindfully (like a mint or boiled sweet), applying a sweet smelling hand cream and trying to identify as many sounds as you can.
5. Plan ahead
This is known as the DBT skill ‘cope ahead’. When you notice anxiety about how to act, come up with a plan beforehand for how you’d like the interaction to go. Remind yourself of your goals and values and write down how you’d like to behave. Try to anticipate what behaviours you might engage in that cross your values and go against your goals. What barriers that might get in the way? Make a commitment to stick to this plan. If in the moment you don’t for whatever reason, forgive yourself and move on. Reflect on the situation with self-compassion.
6. Recognise your strengths
Being flexible in different environments and social situations is a great quality. But it requires balance and achieving balance means acquiring skills. This takes some practice. Try not to give yourself a hard time when you get it wrong. One way of building a more stable self-image is to reflect on your strengths. Ask people who know you to name three things you are good at (and believe what they tell you!). Or, if that’s too scary, pay attention to positive feedback when you receive it.
Coping with BPD: DBT and CBT skills to soothe the symptoms of borderline personality disorder by Blaise Aguirre and Gillian Galen (2015).
A notebook with dot grid pages. Some notebooks come with an index and page numbers, but one without is absolutely fine.
A favourite pen. Possibly a ruler. A pencil is handy too. Coloured pens are optional, as are highlighters, stickers, stencils or washi tape.
What you won’t need:
How to Bullet Plan: a Practical Guide, Everything You Need to Know About Journaling with Bullet Points by Rachel Wilkerson Miller. I’ve read it so you don’t have to! (But if you would like a guide, this one comes strongly recommended.)
Why Bullet Journal?
It helps you to organise your life and keep track of important things.
It builds executive functioning skills, like memory and planning.
It can be useful when trying to challenge negative thinking biases.
It creates focus, supports goal setting and increases goal attainment.
It is a place to celebrate your achievements, increase motivation and positive emotion, connect with your values and practice self-care.
With careful planning it can take just 10-15 minutes a day to fill in.
The Bullet Journal Method is an analogue system designed to track the past, organise the present and plan for the future.
It was originally conceived for organisation. To give an overview of how it works – and because good organisation is conducive to positive wellbeing – we will spend a bit of time in this area before delving into the wellbeing tips. It should be said that countless interpretations have evolved from this basic method. There is no ‘wrong’ way to bullet journal. The only prerequisite, for it to work long-term, is that it makes you more productive and/or brings you joy. If you are focusing on bullet journaling for wellbeing then you may prefer to skip over this section.
Here are the core tools:
Index points to where information on different topics is located.
Rapid logging. Events/tasks/notes/lists are logged using a system of symbols to simplify, abbreviate, categorise and organise information.
Logs. These are for your events and tasks (known as “spreads”).
Collections. These organise related types of information by category.
Migration. This is the practice of periodically updating lists to new lists, such as carrying over one month’s unfinished tasks to the next.
This log helps you to forward plan and keep track of key events/tasks, such as birthdays/holidays. It is the spread that goes first, either as a list or calendar (or both), and it can be 3-monthly, 6-monthly or 12-monthly. Spread the log/calendar across as many pages as you think you’ll need.
One-page or two-page spread (or more for 6 or 12-month spread).
Layout can be a list (dates/tasks/events), or a calendar plus a list.
Copy the relevant dates, tasks and events from your future log.
Write your monthly tasks list – essentially you are using this space to note down everything that you need or want to get done that month.
Add-ons: important events/don’t forget, mood tracker, monthly goals.
One-page or two-page spread.
Schedule all upcoming activities by referring to your monthly log.
Make space to keep a to do list and (optional) notes section.
Add-ons: habit trackers, main focus, meal planner, quotes, reflections, sleep tracker, weekly goals and review, and so on.
Log entries using short, bulleted sentences and organise by category (task/event/note) using symbols. Mark priority entries with a star.
Migrate any outstanding or incomplete tasks over to the next day.
Your bullet journal is a to-do list and planner and diary in one.
It makes capturing and organising information really fast and it helps you to focus on the things that are worth your time. Stress can impact on productivity and poor organisation can increase stress, so it’s win-win.
The productivity part kicks in when you take the time to evaluate your logs. At the start of each new month, look back over your weekly/daily logs to assess your tasks and timescales. Scan for open tasks and ask yourself, “which are worth my time?” Only these tasks get migrated. This process weeds out distractions, allowing you to focus only on what you consider valuable. It can be a helpful goal setting activity too.
At this point you might decide to log related tasks in a collection. For example, if you are working on a specific project, you would copy all related tasks on to one page (remembering to record the page number in your index). You can refer to your collections when planning your month or week. They can include reminders, like things you are waiting on, shopping/wish lists, or low-priority tasks you want to keep track of. Collections help you to organise your thoughts and plan your time.
Reflection and “Intentional Living”
It is possible to bullet journal without a daily log. In fact, you probably won’t need to use both. If you have a particularly busy day ahead then you could use a daily log; otherwise you can rely on the weekly spread.
It is helpful for this reason to leave enough space for a task list in your weekly spread. Once the week is up you then create a new weekly spread, where you migrate any relevant events and outstanding tasks.
In my case, I do a mini-review of my week every Sunday to establish which tasks are important. Only these are migrated over to the next week. Low priority tasks get migrated to another month or collection.
Carroll calls this process Reflection. If reflecting weekly feels too burdensome or time-consuming, try reflecting monthly instead. Use it as an opportunity to refocus your attention on what matters to you. This is known in the Bullet Journal Method as The Mental Inventory. It forms the basis for goal setting, weekly planning and “intentional living”.
If intentionality means acting according to your beliefs, then the opposite would be operating on autopilot. In other words, do you know why you’re doing what you’re doing?
Ryder Carroll, The Bullet Journal Method (4th edition), page 29.
Making to do lists addresses the overwhelm of decision fatigue too, with the benefit of having the lists all in one place so you can organise them.
Bullet Journaling for Wellbeing
“The power of the Bullet Journal is that it becomes whatever you need it to be, no matter what season of life you’re in.”
Carroll, page 44.
The bullet journal method is designed with flexibility of both form and function in mind, insofar as you set up the pages as you go along. The effectiveness of your bullet journal will depend on the simplicity of your method. This is especially true of your weekly spread, which you will use every day. These are my suggestions for making a bullet journal work for wellbeing, based on my experience of setting up my own.
The Weekly Spread
Weekly calendar spread: create this over two pages and schedule your daily activities a timeline order (symbols are optional). Reflect at the end of each day by adding anything else for an accurate record.
Choose a Main Focus. This is something you would like to keep in mind or work on throughout the week. It could be wellbeing related, like “aim to get more early nights”, or “catch myself catastophising.”
Goals. These can be more specific and measurable than your focus and could support monthly goals e.g. go for a run 3 times this week.
If you are using Custom Bullets and Signifiers (a key with symbols to denote different tasks/categories) keep them as simple as possible.
Daily Reflection: Improve Productivity and Boost Your Mood
I can only improve my time management if I know how I have spent my time. So, at the end of each day, I add in retrospectively any tasks I have completed but not logged. This gives me an accurate record of my day.
Having an accurate record challenges my negative self-perceptions. For example, I sometimes get a gut feeling I have not achieved enough with my time. It is difficult to buy into this negative thinking when I have evidence to the contrary! If I don’t have the time or energy for weekly reflection, seeing my achievements accrue day-by-day is motivation enough. And if I have genuinely achieved very little, then I still benefit from the bullet journal ideas for positive wellbeing (discussed below).
Journaling vs Bullet Journaling
There are several ways you can incorporate the qualities of a traditional diary or long-hand journal in your bullet journal.
Write your diary entries in between weekly logs or after daily logs.
Dedicate a page or two to record reflections, thoughts and feelings.
Alternatively you might decide to keep a separate reflective journal and keep your bullet journal for planning, positivity and progress.
One key benefit of the bullet journal is that it brings everything together in one single place, but it can still suit the multiple-notebook person who wishes to use a separate bullet journal for health/home/study/work.
In this video Carroll explains the differences between journaling and bullet journaling and shows how to combine the two.
These are great for motivation and reinforcing behaviours. You could consider including one with your weekly spread, starting with just three habits. Mark the relevant box for every day you do them.
You can change the habits from week-to-week or month-to-month.
Specific health and wellbeing trackers could include meal planners or sleep/water trackers. You might choose to include these if/when you have a particular health goal (mine is often “no caffeine!”).
You can track TV/smart phone usage, step count, days you cooked from scratch / packed a lunch / met your savings target – anything!
Mine takes up one landscape page for each month and looks like this:
6+ Fruit & Veg
Fatigue / Lethargy
Flat / Numb
My Monthly “Mind & Body” Mood Tracker
You could use ticks, crosses, coloured boxes – any method you like. I separate habits from physical symptoms by using different colours and I colour-code each mood type too (positive/negative/neutral).
It is possible to record morning and afternoon separately by using two different colours and splitting each box in half diagonally.
Another idea, if you want to capture the emotional intensity, is to use block colour for strong emotions and shading/dots for not so strong.
Keep it simple, though. If it’s not working for you, the next time you set up your monthly tracker try simplifying it and see if that helps.
Three More Monthly Trackers
Housework – list all the different chores and dot when you’ve done them. This might not be that fun, but it does remind me to clean!
When Did I Last? – e.g. car MOT, dentist, eye test, oil bicycle chain.
Workouts – each time you exercise record it in your bullet journal. Even if it’s a short walk, that still counts. I use mine as motivation.
Bullet Journaling for Wellbeing: Collections
“Creating Custom Collections is a creative, enjoyable, and rewarding aspect of Bullet Journaling because you’re empowering yourself to solve your own challenges!”
Carroll, page 237.
Create an action plan for a particular goal or project using these steps:
Define the goal/objectives
Set a realistic schedule within reasonable time frame.
What are the barriers/obstacles I might encounter?
What strengths/resources do I have already to help overcome these?
What will be my first step/s? Make this manageable!
This is ideal for turning a Mental Inventory into more actionable steps.
Take up 1-2 pages and get all your thoughts out of your brain and on to the page. You turn all your worries, ideas and dreams in to a list or a mind-map, which you can then turn into actions (if you choose to).
Celebrating Small Wins
On one page list the dates of the month down the left-hand side and beside each date, on each day, write down something you achieved.
If this seems challenging at first then start by doing it once a week. It’s about congratulating yourself on the small wins and celebrating your accomplishments, no matter how insignificant they may seem.
Remember that once complete your tasks turn into accomplishments! An achievements page gives you a dedicated place to celebrate these.
Use one page of your bullet journal to do a mental health check-in. Divide the page into four sections and assign a category to each quarter e.g. physical/mental/emotional/spiritual). Do this as often as you’d like.
“Every day, once a day, give yourself the present of savouring the good in your life.”
Carroll, page 187.
List the dates of the month and on each line write down something you are grateful for. Or fill an entire page by writing a list in one go.
Gratitude lists work best if what you record is specific and genuine. So if you can, noting it down as soon as you think of it can help.
Try the Three Good Things exercise. Write down three good things that happened that day. Next to each positive event, answer one of the following questions: “why did this good thing happen?”, “what does this mean to you?” or “how can you have more of this good thing in the future?” Do it every day or three days times a week.
Random Acts of Kindness
Make a list of ideas for random acts of kindness, marking them off each time you do them. Or simply notice when you perform a random act of kindness and note that down during your daily or weekly reflection.
More ideas for your bullet journal toolkit
The possibilities are endless, but here are some of the ones I like:
Books – list the titles you’re reading and tick them off when you’re finished, or break it into smaller chunks by tracking chapter progress.
Films / TV shows – use this collection to list all the things you plan to, or want to, watch. Again, tick them off once you’ve seen them.
Turn this into a goal by choosing one thing to read/watch each week.
Mental health toolkit – list some coping techniques that help most.
Self-care – list all the things that do/don’t increase your wellbeing.
Some final words on persevering with your bullet journaling
This wasn’t straightforward for me at first. Sifting through all the available information and making a start was slightly overwhelming (and, I’ll admit, on some days it still is). It took some perseverance and I had to keep tweaking things until I found a set up I was happy with. It was worth it, though. (If you’re interested, I’ve written an essay on how I got started.) I still search Youtube and Instagram for inspiration (without overburdening myself) and I don’t keep any tried ideas that don’t bring me satisfaction or joy. Above all I keep it simple. Happy journaling!
Negative thoughts of self-loathing can be unrelenting. Feelings of shame, guilt and self-directed anger are destructive for self-esteem and can keep us stuck in certain patterns of behaviour. If it goes unchecked, feelings of shame and self-loathing can perpetuate a vicious cycle of self-criticism as our low mood spirals down further – even turning into self-neglect or self-harm. At better times it can manifest in not being happy with who we are.
It is especially important to focus on acts of kindness towards oneself during these times. Because as hard as it may be, facing the pain that self-loathing brings is the key to resolving it. Learning to feel and process our emotions is a way of developing emotional resilience, but it takes practice. Start by trying out these skills drawn from CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy), DBT (Dialectical Behaviour Therapy) and mindfulness.*
“It’s not all bad. Heightened self-consciousness, apartness, an inability to join in, physical shame and self-loathing—they are not all bad. Those devils have been my angels. Without them I would never have disappeared into language, literature, the mind, laughter and all the mad intensities that made and unmade me.”
Stephen Fry, Moab Is My Washpot
1. Have patience
Creating new brain pathways and new ways of thinking takes time. Being patient with yourself as you practice is the first act of loving yourself.
2. Ask for help
This can be from friends, family, teachers, therapists, co-workers or self-help groups. Focusing on getting help for yourself is an act of kindness.
3. Don’t avoid the self-loathing
You cannot address your emotional pain without feeling it first. Facing the reality of your self-loathing is painful, but it is the only way to get out of it. Do this by acknowledging that the pain is there – don’t dwell on it or ruminate. This is the DBT distress tolerance skill known as Radical Acceptance. When you can face the pain, instead of fighting it or dwelling on it, you are mastering it – and healing from self-hatred.
4. Do things you enjoy
If you are in the depths of self-loathing it is likely that you’ll be having a lot of negative experiences, but it is possible to build positive experiences. This is known in DBT as Opposite Action. When done mindfully, it can reduce emotional vulnerability and create balance in our lives. It works like this: if we feel shame and notice the need to isolate, instead we speak up; or, if we feel disgust and want to distance ourselves through avoidance, we push through it and get through the situation. By doing the opposite action the emotion goes away or becomes less uncomfortable. Self-loathing punishes you by depriving you of the things you love, so do the opposite. The more you practice doing things you love, the more you will love.
5. Try a Zen practice
Think about someone you respect who you consider to be a wise, compassionate person. Now imagine that person is living with you in your mind and body during moments of self-loathing and see how they might handle your self-hatred. You could even repeat a compassionate phrase or mantra in your mind – something like “you are enough”, “you are doing your best”, or “this too shall pass”. This is a difficult task, but with practice you will find greater self-compassion.
Forgive yourself for all your perceived faults and failings. If you have crossed your values and hurt someone, ask them for forgiveness too. Keep in mind that at any point in time you are doing the best you can do. Releasing yourself from anger or resentment is an act of self-compassion.
A note on Opposite Action
This is one of my favourite skills to practice and share with others. I have found it to be effective in so many different situations. These additional practices have helped me with my mental health and might help you too if you are feeling self-loathing – or any other strong emotion for that matter.
It is possible to use opposite action by using your body differently. Take some deep breaths if you are feeling anxious or panicky, or place your hand on your heart when you notice judgement or blame. Challenging the physical signs of shame and submission, for example by lengthening your spine and grounding through your feet, can help to combat self-loathing.
Taken from The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron, this is her “bedrock tool” for creative recovery. She likens it to “a form of meditation for hyperactive Westerners”, as the pages clear her head and prioritise her day. Morning Pages requires you write three pages, by hand, first thing in the morning, about whatever comes to mind and which you show to no one. There is no wrong way to do it; you simply keep your hand moving across the page, with no breaks or pause for thought. This practice dislodges the dust from every corner of our life, eventually moving us towards constructive action.
It is helpful for people who have difficulty expressing painful or strong emotions (so all of us, then!). For example, I have found it to be a particularly powerful tool for working through anger and frustration.
List 25 things you love
This is another one of Julia Cameron’s creative recovery tools. If you’re anything like me you can become entrapped by your list-making, so don’t over-think this – just get some things down on paper, which could be a page in a bullet journal (if this is something you like to do). Cameron also talks about scheduling an “artist’s date” – a once-weekly, solo expedition to explore something that interests you. You could do your own version by scheduling a “self-care date”, creating for yourself just one hour a week –or more – to do something you enjoy. You could refer back to your list of loves for ideas, or throw it away as soon as you’ve finished – it is up to you.
Coping with BPD: DBT and CBT skills to soothe the symptoms of borderline personality disorder by Blaise Aguirre and Gillian Galen (2015).
Read Julia’s Blog online / her books The Artist’s Way and The Right to Write.
*These skills are best practiced when you feel safe and well enough. If you are experiencing a mental health crisis or medical emergency click here for information from Mind, the mental health charity, about how to get help.
Photograph (my own): Self-compassionate Graffiti, Princes Place Public Toilets (Royal Pavilion Gardens, Brighton).