As a counselor with a background in vocational rehabilitation, Im a big believer in meaningful work for people with mental health disabilities the research shows its an effective path toward recovery, and Ive seen this firsthand over and over. In my last post, I talked about finding work that works when you have bipolar disorder. In this post, Ill address one of the big barriers that holds people back: fears and doubts related to beliefs about their own abilities and self-worth.
As someone with bipolar disorder, Ive certainly experienced these difficulties myself. A bipolar disorder diagnosis can be a major blow to our self-worth – and the stigma of having a mental illness makes matters worse. It can be easy to forget that were much more than an illness and that we have a unique set of strengths and gifts to offer.
I should mention that those in a manic state actually overestimate their abilities and believe they can do just about anything. And people who are severely depressed probably dont have the capacity to see their positive qualities. I want to be clear that Im talking about people who are relatively stable – but by no means fully recovered – and want to develop a genuine view of their abilities. Here are some tips for doing so:
1. Identify your strengths. A strength is defined as something youre good at, something that comes easily to you, or something that allows you to get into a state of flow. A strength can be an activity like drawing or doing math, or it can be a trait like patience or persuasiveness. Think about the things that came easily to you when you were a child. Notice where you experience flow in your life that is, where time seems to slow down and youre fully engaged with what youre doing. Reflect on the positive traits that are a core part of your personality. Ive found many people with bipolar disorder are creative, empathetic, and have a great sense of humor.
2. Take some assessments. There are lots of assessments you can take to learn more about your unique profile of strengths and abilities. A good one thats free is Talentoday. Another one I recommend is the StrengthsFinder system. You can buy the book for about $15, which gives you an access code to take the test, or you can purchase and take the test at the online store (the Top 5 version, which costs about $10, is good enough).
3. Get input from other people. It can be difficult to recognize your own strengths. Ask your friends and family for feedback what positive qualities they like about you, what they think youre good at, what sets you apart from others. If possible, ask some people who knew you pre-diagnosis, since they may recall seemingly lost strengths that are still there waiting to be recovered.
4. Check your thinking. As I mentioned, a lot of what holds us back is our own limited or distorted thinking. Cognitive distortions are ways we interpret the world that create emotional problems and hold us back from reaching our goals. Simply put, they are unhelpful thinking habits. For example, you might filter out information about your strengths and filter in information about your weaknesses. You might exaggerate a mistake and turn it into a catastrophe. Or you might jump to the conclusion that youre not qualified for a potential opportunity, so you dont even try. You can read more about cognitive distortions in this article. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is a treatment that involves replacing our unhelpful thinking habits with more balanced ways of thinking. I dont have space to go in depth on CBT, but the Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies has some good information.
5. Focus on your strengths. Where we put our attention matters. We can focus on our weaknesses and feel terrible about ourselves – or we can focus on our strengths and start to build confidence. I have many limitations due to bipolar disorder and other disabilities. However, I also have many abilities: I can write well; I can listen to people in such a way that they feel understood; and I can teach complex ideas in simple and clear terms. So I choose to focus on these abilities instead of the many things I cant do. But learning to do this is like building a muscle – it takes awareness and repetition. For example, you can make a list of your strengths and review it regularly. You can put up sticky notes on your mirrors. Or you can make a bracelet with each bead representing one of your strengths.
6. Use your strengths. Its not enough just to recognize your strengths. You also have to develop them. In fact, sometimes its difficult to fully recognize them until youre using them which is partly why some vocational rehabilitation services focus on getting people to work as soon as possible. If youre already working, try to find ways to use your strengths there (even if you have a job you dont like). If youre not working, get involved in volunteer work I cant emphasize enough how helpful it can be. You can also get involved in community activities. For example, Ive found Toastmasters very helpful for building skills and confidence.
7. Get help from a pro. While you can make progress on your own, getting help from a skilled counselor or therapist can take you much farther, much faster. I mentioned some career counseling resources in my last post. You dont necessarily need a career counselor you mainly need someone who sees your strengths, believes in you, and can help you overcome whatever obstacles are standing in your way. OpenCounseling.com offers a searchable directory of low-cost counseling services. Open Path is a collective that offers access to low-cost therapy for a small, one-time membership fee.
Be Persistent and Dont Give Up
It takes courage, persistence, and help from others, but if you stick with it you can overcome your doubts and develop your strengths into meaningful and satisfying work. If youd like, you can start by listing some of your strengths in the comments.