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  • Writer's pictureRyan Wilson

Why can’t I feel better?

If I offered to swoop into your life and fix all of your problems, what would you say?

If you are like most people, you wouldn’t hesitate, not many people would say “no thanks, I want to struggle through this uncertainty and stress on my own thanks!”

We all do it. I have been guilty of this kind of thinking. We all want a knight in shining armour (male or female) to swoop in and rescue us when we are stressed out. The problem is that when we are already feeling overwhelmed, we give up the reigns and WAIT FOR THEM. And while we are waiting, NOTHING IS HAPPENING. In fact, while we are waiting, because we are not taking any steps towards living our values, we often get worse.



In the past, we have talked about mental illness as if it is the same as having a broken leg. Mental illness is something that just happens to us and we are at the mercy of our biology and medication to deal with it. After all, poor metal health is due to a “chemical imbalance”. Even a broken leg heals quicker when we help ourselves by getting a cast, give it a chance to rest, and do the physiotherapy after.

In the last 20 years it has been clearly established that having a healthy social group who we connect with regularly, a healthy diet, regular exercise, practicing mindfulness, engaging in daily gratitude & self compassion, acknowledging our emotions and choosing a healthy filter,  ALL CHANGE OUR BIOLOGY and biochemistry. We may not be able to completely heal ourselves, and we sometimes need medication to help us do the work, but WE CAN do a lot to help ourselves out!


The other issue is that humans seem to have “critical periods”- times when learning or developing certain skills or mastering certain tasks is easiest. After these critical periods learning can still take place, but tends to be significantly more challenging.

For example,  we have a critical period for learning language in human development, where if we are exposed to languages prior to the age of 5 yo, we seem to be able to pick them up much easier than after that time.

We also seem to have a critical period for self esteem development: it seems that up to about the age of 5 yo, depending on how our parents and primary care givers have been responding to us, we form our sense of who we are in the world and how to get our needs met. These become our survival maps. In other literature this is referred to as attachment behaviours, defensive structures and learned or conditioned patterns of behaviour. The common element across all of these is that behaviour ALWAYS has purpose, and that purpose is driven by our biological desire to survive in whatever environment we are in, given whatever knowledge and experiences we have to date. For a great 3 minute example where we can see this live, watch the Still Face Experiment, where we see an 8- 9 mo. baby’s survival map when faced with uncertainty, and we also see how distressed and upset she gets, but only when it doesn’t work.  For more on survival maps, watch this 5 min animated video.


When we are distressed, we want someone else to convince us we are good enough, smart enough

or give us permission to do things differently than we always have-

when in reality, the time when we can really take that in from the outside has passed.


forever broken

Self-esteem is having confidence in one’s own worth or abilities and self-respect. If our early caregivers were responsive to our needs (listening to our cooing, showing interest in our early drawings, giving us praise for hopping on one leg, etc.) we internalize that we are worth paying attention to. We learn that it feels good to share accomplishments and we can be good at something, so we learn to have permission to see ourselves in a positive light. The fancy way of saying that is that we learn to “hold ourselves in positive regard”. This teaches us to also expect others to pay attention to us and expect others to hold us in a generally positive light and we will want to live up to that expectation as well. The opposite is true if we did not get that response. As humans, we have a way of living up or down to the expectations of those closest to us.


We have to face uncertainty AND consciously choose over and over not default to old survival maps,

which means we have to SWIM without our life jacket, and this is really scary

survival maps change is hard

As a rule, we tend to default and gravitate towards people who share our world view. Surrounding ourselves with people who constantly challenge our survival maps makes us feel unsafe and uncertain. This makes sense since survival maps are really all we feel we have in the face of uncertainty. Survival maps are our life jackets when life throws us overboard -so taking those away understandably feels REALLY SCARY and we will want to avoid that feeling as much as possible. We are also set up to keep using our old survival maps, because when things are scary, like when we are trying to NOT use our survival maps, that is exactly when they get loudest!

The tendency to spend time with like-minded people also means that our tribe will subtly, and not so subtly, push us back towards being and acting according to THEIR expectations, which is most likely going to be in line with our old survival maps. After all, we like people who we feel we can predict best, so when we are changing, we often feel pressured to stop changing, maybe even stop therapy and go back to who we were before we first realized we needed help in the first place.


Our tribe often reinforces our old survival maps, which makes change even harder since we are a social species, 

and it takes time to change our relationships with old tribe or to find new healthy tribe 

peer pressure 2

A few examples of survival maps would be:

  1. My needs come last and my safety and worth comes from keeping the people around me happy and meeting their expectations

  2. My needs can only be met if I am the biggest, loudest and strongest, if I am intimidating, scary and aggressive, and it is has to be at the expense of other people- it is either my needs or theirs

  3. My worth and safety come from my work or a particular role as a caregiver, parent, volunteer etc.

  4. My safety and worth comes from “things looking good”, even at my own expense, and anger is destructive and dangerous and to be avoided at all costs

We can see how the person #1 is going to be prone to being a yes person, burning out and ignoring their own health in order to take care of others. #2 would likely be power-hungry, in whatever form they learned power matters like money, strength, size, athleticism (whatever their cultural context values), and also likely is going to bully- they may even be involved in criminal activity. #3 would be excessively invested in their role (which ever one gives them their sense of meaning, purpose and safety) at the expense of other things, and would become excessively distressed and may even fall apart if their ability to fulfill their role is threatened or compromised. #4 would likely become increasingly compromised over time as they need to ignore signs that something is not ok, stuff more and more negative emotions with them manifesting it in other ways, like hurting their physical health, their mental health etc.

So what can we do to make change easier so we can feel better? 

  1. We start by learning to GIVE OURSELVES PERMISSION TO CHANGE!

peer pressure
  1. TAKE RESPONSIBILITY for the parts WE CAN change (social connection, diet, exercise, mindfulness, gratitude etc)

  2. Be WILLING to ACCEPT that it will be UNCOMFORTABLE and scary at times. It will take EFFORT

  3. ACCEPT that change has to come from the INSIDE -> OUT

  4. EXPECT that we will have some RESISTANCE FROM OUR TRIBE and we may need to re-negotiate our relationships or find new tribe in order to stay on track as we learn to make healthier choices

See you next week! And remember, if you are looking for opportunities to connect with healthy tribe and you have completed ACT with us, check out the DROP-IN on Monday afternoons from 12-3 pm!

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