Creating an Archive of Self — An Interview with Meghan Watson.
Maybe the question you need to ask yourself is, ‘am I willing to commit to this even when it feels hard?’
I have a question. If we know ourselves better than anyone else, so why don’t we trust ourselves more? And what does trusting and being accountable to ourselves look like? A few weeks ago, I spent some time talking to Meghan Watson, a psychotherapist, writer, and consultant, and I left our conversation with a question about what it would take for me to work towards being the most authentic version of myself? Working towards better mental health is a uniquely personal journey, but one that Meghan notes involves deep reflection about who we are, what we want and how we can get there.
I’m really curious about the way people talk about mental health. It almost seems that people don’t think of mental health in the same way that they think of physical health. People immediately understand what it means to have good physical health but might not understand what it means to have good mental health. Can you help me and, possibly, others understand what it means for one to have good mental health?
I think it differs for everybody. Good mental health is not a state of being that is ubiquitous across the board, it's something that is very personalized. And the idea of mental health, I think, is a bit of a misnomer at times, because a lot of people say mental health, but mental health might not necessarily just be about your thoughts, or what you mentalize or what you think. It can be about how you feel, your experiences, your body; it can be about the way you interact, your behaviour, your habits. And so I think mental health is an umbrella term to kind of talk about what kinds of ways do you personally feel safe in your mind, your body, and your soul. And I use the word safe, specifically, because physical health is more about feeling comfortable, and feeling knowledgeable about how to be in your body, and how to understand what your body is doing. But mental health is more of a place where you can actually start to deepen this idea of ‘what does that comfort mean?’ And when we feel comfortable, do we feel safe? Do we feel understood? Do we feel known? by ourselves and by others?
How would you describe the work that you do? And how do you do it? If someone were to stop you and ask ‘what do you do? and why is it important?’ what would you say?
I do many things. I am a psychotherapist by training. But I would say what I do is I walk the way of people's journeys with them, and I show them what it might mean to walk on their own — whether that's knowing your feelings, engaging with loved ones, or starting to feel a little bit more like your mind is not the enemy that you think it is. A supervisor of mine once gave me the exercise to put on a blindfold and tell her what it is that I wanted to draw, and she'd put up a pad of paper on the wall. And her role was to not use the pen and the paper but to just guide me into drawing this thing. And she kind of described this as a process of therapy.
You know yourself best, but we know how to get there, and as a therapist, it's the greatest gift to be able to walk alongside someone and say I might not be able to do this for you but I can definitely show you the way.
That’s such a wonderful description of the work you do. As a therapist, I’m curious, what are some of the common things that are standing in our way of getting to where it is we want to go as you’ve described.
To be honest, unrealistic expectations. I think a lot of people have this idea that there are shoulds in life and I try to help you examine those shoulds. And I don’t want to try and take away from any of the goals that you have, but a lot of the time, what gets in people's way is this unrealistic expectation and this frustration that they're supposed to be somewhere, that they're supposed to be doing something and existing somewhere, and they haven't even questioned whether or not that desire has any other meaning.
I saw this on your page where you talked about healing as a long-term practice. But we [myself included] come into therapy with this desire to fix one thing and think we’re going to be fine. So, the question is, why do we want to know how long it will take us for us to “be fine” and “fix everything.”
Well, I think a broad answer is that we live in a capitalist society. And everything we do is optimized for productivity and performance. So we start using the frameworks of optimization to try and fix ourselves like we are computers that need a software update, and we just haven't quite gotten the right program yet.
I think a lot of people kind of subscribe to that optimization narrative in some shape or form, and think that fixing how they are in relationships will make everything better, fixing their family dynamic is going to make everything better. But I think more often than not, we have to realize that healing is a sustainable thing, there's no destination. It's not a place that we arrive at. And there will be days where you feel amazing, then there'll be days where you feel neutral, there will be days where you feel awful. And all of those experiences are valid, and neither means anything about you, other than that you’re a human being with emotions. And we can't necessarily predict what is going to come out of the corner, whether that's a surprise job loss, a breakup, losing a pet or a family member, we have no idea what kind of grief is around the corner for us. So, the more we acknowledge that change is evolving, and we have to be okay with it, the easier it gets to step out of this idea that you have to somehow be optimizing yourself to be better looking, make better decisions, have a better relationship when you can feel just good enough, just as you are.
What about for those for who mental health has not always been a priority in their families, and starting to address it on their own feels scary. How do they overcome this fear?
Think about what the impact of that would be for you. What are you hoping for when it comes to these kinds of changes? What is the purpose behind this desire to evolve and to grow and do something for yourself? Whether that is changing a habit or a routine, whether that's responding to your emotions in a different way, or unlearning generational cycles, knowing the purpose behind something can propel us forward, even when that thing is scary and overwhelming. Your fear is uncomfortable, your fear is overwhelming, but it's not going to hurt you. And what hurts is how people respond to you when you share that fear, when you are vulnerable, when you express your emotions, and those things are out of your control. And so remembering, what can I control in this process—I can control what I say, I can control what I do, I'm not powerless in my life. It's hard because when you start to do this work, and you haven't really had any experience or anyone to show you that way, you have this fear, this overwhelming tsunami of ‘okay, what's gonna happen when I start this journey? What's gonna happen when I do this? And am I going to be okay?’ And I just don't know if you need to ask yourself that question just yet.
Maybe the question you need to ask yourself is, ‘am I willing to commit to this even when it feels hard?’
You talk about being accountable to yourself when you begin this journey, can you share what that means and what that could look like for someone?
Concretely, being accountable to yourself might mean, being honest about how you really feel, it might mean, protecting space to process what happens in your day-to-day. Everything happens so fast right now, by the time we turn around the news cycle could change, there could be something else going on and we haven't even had breakfast by the time we go through all of these different emotions. So, being accountable to yourself also means that you need to balance this idea of being and doing and making sure that you fine-tune that balance so that you are both existing in the world and observing it, while also finding time to process it. So, again, like mental health, I feel like being accountable to yourself is totally unique to the person. If you struggle with abuse or dependence, being accountable to yourself might mean going to recovery meetings. If you are struggling with taking time and space for yourself because you are in a busy healthcare profession, then being accountable to yourself means recognizing that compassion fatigue is not something that you can just get over, and you have to give yourself an opportunity to either go to therapy or to take some time away from work or to engage with yourself in a different way that might help heal that. It really depends on who is asking the question, and what are your goals? What do you need to show up as the best and the most authentic version of yourself?
One of the things that I want to talk about because it seems very relevant to the pandemic is burnout. I was talking to a friend about how I’m realizing that burnout is much more insidious than exhaustion. I want to know, from your professional experience, what is burnout? And how do you encourage someone to work through that if that’s what they’re feeling.
I think there are two processes that happen when you maybe identify for yourself that you're burned out. One is how do I deal with this crisis right now? And two, how do I make sure that this cycle doesn't happen again? I think burnout is again, like so much of this, personalized. I know I'm saying this over and over again, but I really want to encourage people to think about this not as “who's going to give me the answer to what's going on inside of me?” but “how can I start to describe what I'm experiencing so I can give some answers to myself?” But generally, burnout can look like emotional and physical and mental fatigue. It can look like difficulty making decisions it can look like apathy and compassion fatigue, difficulty feeling like you care about anything at all. Burnout can look like [your] heart-racing when you have to approach work, feeling anxious, sweaty, tense, having a lot of overwhelming dysregulating emotions, like swings of your mood from up and down. It can also look a lot like disassociation and fogginess and feeling like you just can't get a grasp on clarity in your mind to make a decision or to even plan ahead. So, when you are feeling depersonalized and, and disconnected from your body, you're feeling fatigued, and you don't care about anything, you're emotionally exhausted, you are maybe traumatized at the same time because a lot of the symptoms of trauma coexist with symptoms of burnout. That's when people start to say, I can take a mental health day, I can exercise, I can limit my consumption online, I can step back from taking on the labour of everyone around me and in my community, I can simplify my daily routine, all these things can help with burnout. But the healing from that requires that you take a real hard, good look at what has happened in the last week, what has happened in the last month, what has happened in the last year. And is there anything that you can draw a link to either directly or indirectly that has related to the feeling that you’re feeling right now? And walk back so that you can start to figure out how to unlearn the cycles of burnout. But you can't unlearn it if you're not documenting anything. And if you're walking through life, just not documenting, not creating an archive of self, whether that is through journaling, through a calendar, through ways of remembering what happens. If you're not having that archive of self, then there's nothing to go back to, you have nothing to reflect on. Healing from burnout also means committing to that archive, and building it up, and making sure that that's something that you do even on a very, very basic level. It might just be having a calendar in the kitchen, and knowing what month it is, what day it is, and grounding yourself in the present.
Thank you for saying that. I’ve never heard anyone describe it as keeping an archive of self, and it sounds really powerful. Why do you use that language and even outside of combatting burnout why is creating an “archive of self” important?
I use “archive of self” because it's something that I use I use personally, it's something that I reflected on and I felt like it was one of the key pieces that improved my mental health over the years. I think a lot of people feel a little bit stuck by the simplicity of journaling, it's like it's so easy and yet it's hard. So, no one wants to necessarily write things down when they don't want to face what’s happening. This idea of looking at it as more of an archival memory created more interest, it created a little bit more intrigue for me because it felt more like I was creating a museum or a library of me, rather than just having to face all of the hard bits. And when I think of it as an archive, or when I think of it as a library or the Museum of me, then I try to document with more curiosity and engagement for future me who might be looking at this, and providing myself with wisdom and guidance on how to cope ahead with my problems. So that archive really allowed me to become more flexible with my practice, meaning that if I couldn't write out my feelings, I could just write a list of the physical sensations I had that day. If I couldn't do that, then maybe I could find an object — a leaf, a post-it, a doodle of something that I could just write a caption underneath and say, ‘this is the mood for today.’
One question I have is for people who go to therapy and are enjoying the process of therapy but want to do more to feel like they have agency over their mental health. What can they do in addition to therapy?
What I like to encourage people to do is to treat themselves as a whole person. If you were encountering a whole person you’ve never met before, what are the things they need to be successful? and feel whole? And therapy might be one piece of that puzzle, but it’s not all. So maybe they need some movement and some sort of engagement with their body that reminds them of their vitality or strength, whether that is weightlifting, or stretching before bed or even just going for a walk in the evenings after dinner. Movement doesn't have to be a value judgment of good or bad, it can just be. And so I would encourage everyone to engage in some sort of movement because we only get this vessel once, and we don't have to optimize it but we do have to care for it. I would say do something that inspires you offline. Pick up a hobby that only you care about, and don't make it a side hustle, don't attach it to your career or your self-worth. Try not to optimize it. For some people, it can be easy as purchasing a single plant and watching it grow and committing to that. Finding a hobby for yourself, that allows you to engage with people as well can be good, if that's not the thing that you're avoiding, or if that's not the labour that you struggle with. Writing letters to your loved ones, and putting them on nice letterhead and sharing your day. Getting back to this small transactional way of engaging in the world that reminds you of the beauty of being a human again.
Between the pandemic and climate change, it seems as if we’re in a free fall of bad things. How do you learn to manage your emotions when you’re dealing with situations that are completely out of your control?
It's a great question, one that I don't know if I have the full answer to yet. We’re still living through it. But something I have practiced for myself and teach my clients to do is to realize that when you’re having a bad day the things you’re thinking about don’t expand, they narrow. It's almost like if you put on a pair of glasses, and the field of vision narrows, and so all you can see are these tiny points, wherever you look. And I almost want to encourage people to engage in the expansiveness, don't be afraid to let more in, because as you start to realize how shit the world is, you're going to start to realize how beautiful, how accepting, and how trusting it is too. So, when you are really overwhelmed by the stressors of life, from climate change to a promotion, to relationships see if you can start to expand your awareness at the moment to observe what's around you. Can you see a shadow on the pavement that looks like a cat? Notice the smooth texture of your pen, the ridges on a leaf of a plant in your office, the glint on the glasses of your manager as they're sharing their feedback. Start to open up the world, make the world bigger, make the world larger to you, not just in what you observe, but in how you see it. Because when we are scared, overwhelmed and anxious, often that is all we see.
I got married last month, which is why there was no newsletter on September 1. A few days ago, I stumbled on this letter from Elizabeth Foss to her younger self on her wedding day. Beautiful.
Camonghne Felix’s profile of Simone Biles for The Cut is a perfect read.
A story I spent about two years working on was published in Broadview last month. If you can spend some time with it, I would really appreciate it. It’s a story about a phenomenal woman and her phenomenal faith.
It’s time to build an archive of self, what’s the first thing you’re including? I’ll go first. This picture of me on the subway in New York is pretty self-explanatory. Leave a comment below or send me an email