Pain is necessary, but suffering is not: Charlene Lam on Staying Sane




I’m Charlene Lam and I recently moved from Brooklyn, New York, to Lisbon, Portugal, and I’m originally from New York.

I’m also pivoting from a communications consultant to what I call a grief guide. I’ll also call myself a grief curator or grief coach, depending on the situation.

Basically, I use my skills and background as a curator as a communicator, and as a certified life coach in my grief work.

Currently, I’m speaking, writing and doing exhibitions about grief and loss.

My mental health story

My first experience with depression was in high school. A couple of things happened. I think I was in my sophomore year of high school, and expectations and reality collided.

Up until then, school had been pretty easy for me, I didn’t have to study very much, I was lucky enough to have a good memory. And I just did well in school.  I had this class, trigonometry, that was really hard for me. I didn’t get it.

I didn’t know how to deal with that. I hadn’t really learned how to study, I hadn’t really learned how to struggle through learning. So for some reason, that really knocked me off my sturdiness. And, at the same time, this was also the period of getting ready for college and applications. I had pretty high standards for myself.

The stereotype is that it’s the parents who put pressure on their Asian kids. I never really felt like that was the case. I always had high standards for myself. I usually met them, because school was pretty easy for me. But at around this time, I became aware of just how much my parents wanted me to get into a good college.

Awareness of this pressure, along with not doing so well in certain classes, just tripped something in my brain.

I felt so much pressure that I just wanted to check out of things.

That resulted in a serious episode of depression. I started skipping classes, and I wound up finishing my junior year of high school with an incomplete. So that was my first big encounter with idea of mental health. And especially as it applied to me personally.

To my parents’ credit, they took it really seriously, even though mental health was not something that you would traditionally speak about–in our family and as Chinese Americans–and they got me a good therapist. I was put on medication.

Because I had earned all this goodwill with my teachers and the principal, they actually came together and helped me to make up those classes that I had not completed my junior year, and I somehow wound up graduating my senior year with an A+, with a GPA that was above 4.0.

I was attending a high school that was very driven. Most of the kids came from privileged backgrounds. And we’re expected to go to four-year colleges. That was my first encounter with mental health and maybe a mental illness.

Why mental health matters to me

[It matters to be because] I love my brain. My brain is everything to me. I’m an introvert. I’m an only child. I’ve always loved spending time with my brain and in my brain. I know that it can do all these amazing things. It can create stories, I can come up with new ideas. So there’s an aspect of mental health now that’s about just taking care of this amazing brain of mine.

I think back in high school and in college days, I kind of thought, “Oh no, my brain is defective. It’s prone to mental illness.” And I don’t feel that way anymore.

I think for a while there, mental health looked like just lurching from crisis to crisis. There was the crisis in high school. Then I got better. Then there was a crisis in college, again, having to deal with different pressures of college and being out on my own. And it kind of got better. Then there was the crisis I had my after my first job, because again, a whole lot of pressure that I put on myself, and I got a therapist.

For a long time, that’s what my mental health journey looked like: just going from crisis to crisis

For a long time, that’s what my mental health journey looked like: just going from crisis to crisis, and and I thought that’s what I would have to deal with for the rest of my life.

What mental health means to me

I think it is this aspect of not just surviving, but thriving. So not just lurching from mental health crisis to mental health crisis, and getting help whenever I was at a really low point, but actually this idea of maintaining my mental health, taking it as seriously as I do with everything else, in terms of taking care of myself, and making sure I’m functioning correctly, making it a daily practice to take care of myself.

I take my mental health as seriously as I do everything else–every day

In the same way that I learned to floss every night–because I like taking care of my teeth, and I really do not like going to the dentist and getting cavities filled–I take care of my mental health every day.

I journal a lot, because there is so much going through my head, that it’s important for me to get it all out. I have a therapist, I have a life coach, and actually got certified as a life coach a couple of years ago, actually to help myself. I gotten help from life coaches, and specifically it was through the Life Coach School with Brooke Castillo. She shared on her podcast how she used her her system to help herself through her own anxiety. It was one of the first times in which someone who was successful and really productive had talked about their anxiety. It made me realize, oh, maybe there’s another way.

Learning skills to hold space for myself changed everything

I’d always kind of assumed that my anxiety would hold me back, that I would always have to be hyper aware of slipping into anxiety or slipping into depression. Learning the skills to hold space for myself, learning how to treat anxiety and myself with more kindness, with having a practical framework for coping with anxious thoughts and situations changed everything, because I had decades of therapy.

Therapy made me very aware of my thoughts. But that just meant that I was really anxious and really aware that I was really anxious. So adding on the life coaching skills, and using them for myself to coach myself, changed everything with my anxiety.

I’m so much more functional than I was a couple of years ago. That’s been a really interesting journey.

I’m very aware of self care and prioritizing it.

As an entrepreneur, I make sure to rest when I need to.

I’ve know now what kind of activities drain me and what kind of activities feel good to me. I like speaking. I like doing presentations, because and as an introvert, that works for me. I know exactly when  I’m supposed to be “on stage” and then when I am “off.”

I like having times when I’m entirely off. That’s really important for me as an introvert. And I just find that my brain needs it. Like I said, there’s so much already in my brain, that having that quiet time to just process what’s in here is really, really important to me.

I’ve learned to design my life and my business around this need [for quiet]. I’m not apologetic about it. I’m learning to be okay with my business and my life not looking like a typical business.

My life includes a lot of things–travel when it’s possible. Being really happy with my choices and understanding why I chose it for myself, even if it doesn’t make sense to other people.

Over the past two years, I’ve been working on boundary-setting, because it was [part of] recognizing what’s good for me. So if people aren’t going to respect the boundaries that I set for my energy, my time and attention, then I either need to reinforce those boundaries or I need to end that working relationship.

It’s been an interesting practice of setting better boundaries for myself as part of self care. Part of [setting boundaries] involves taking responsibility for communicating my boundaries, for communicating what I need. And I mean that for a business capacity, as well as a personal capacity.

mental illness is not our fault, but it is our responsibility

I don’t remember where I saw it, but [I saw] this idea that mental illness is not our fault, but it is our responsibility. That really resonated with me. I now think of mental illness and things like anxiety–my anxiety anyway, and my depression, which I kind of now think, is really more of an anxiety disorder that sometimes manifests as depression, when my brain needs to escape that anxiety, then it’ll go into depression, just to get the pressure taken off of it–the same way as I would if I had a medical condition like diabetes.

It’s not my fault, but it is my responsibility. So what that looks like is: I know what the danger signs are. I know what I need to do to stay healthy and kind of in optimal condition. That means getting enough sleep, eating well, exercising, having that time off socializing a bit, but not too much.

I know how my brain thrives in terms of what I feed it. I know that I always dream. So if I go to sleep, for instance, listening to podcasts about movies, or watching very active YouTube videos, I will have nightmares. Good sleep, rest, good food, movement, good company, all the things are essential for the well being of my brain.

When I say the danger signs, it’s kind of like how a diabetic knows when their blood sugar is having issues, they know what those physical signs are. And I think it’s the same with my anxiety. I know when I’m putting myself at risk, if I’m not getting enough sleep, if I’m pushing myself too hard physically, if I’m not resting when my body says rest. I know certain signs.

I watch for the signs and I respond accordingly.

If it looks like Oh, is this the start of a depression spiral? What does that look like? It looks like fantasizing about running away. It looks like fantasizing about getting hurt, so I can get some rest. I know that at those times, I should rest. I know the things that make me feel better, which can include taking a shower, going for a walk, staring at the ocean, just having time to myself in comfortable clothes. I watch for those signs and I respond accordingly.

Systematic and social factors that have had an influence on my mental health as an entrepreneur

I spoke a little bit earlier about how there was this balance of expectations, and the weight and pressure of expectations. My parents weren’t typical dragon parents or anything. I think there is an overall expectation of what success looks like for a Chinese American and particularly a Chinese American woman.

I’ve always been aware as you know, a good girl, a good student, of what things garner approval. I was good at learning. What was approved, and I was good at following directions and instructions. That’s what made school easy for me. Early on, I understood what things were looked at approvingly, and that everything from appearance to physical features, body types, behaviour, language.

I took ballet from a very early age, from three and a half until I was maybe 15, or 16. So thus, again, I was very aware of what kind of body types were approved of, very good at following instructions and doing what you’re told.

[Mental health has involved] a process of unlearning some of that, because following all that does not equip you for failing. It does not equip you well for the discomfort of growth, as we tend to say it.

It doesn’t equip you well for doing things that don’t look like the norm, which it turns out is what I enjoy doing. More and more of us know we’re going to have to create our own paths.

As entrepreneurs, we’re often creating our own path.

As entrepreneurs, we’re often creating our own path. And early on, on the one hand, I was really confused as a good girl and good student: How is there not a surefire set of instructions or roadmap for being an entrepreneur? You mean, I can have any kind of business?

That lack of clear structure was a struggle at first. As I became more familiar with the online entrepreneur world, and all the people who talk about blueprints and roadmaps and proven, blah, blah, blahs, I realized, “Oh! I don’t want to build their business. I don’t want to do what they do. I don’t want the life that they have.” That became another kind of crisis of confidence, because it was realizing, oh, wait, people are saying that there is a blueprint, but I don’t want that blueprint. I don’t want to follow that path.

It’s been a process of trusting myself, learning to trust myself, challenging the idea that other people know better, challenging the idea that I need permission, or I need approval. That was a long, long lesson to realize that I did not need anyone else’s approval, and I did not need anyone’s permission in order to do the things I want to do.

My mother moved to the US when she was 15. With her family, and her parents, so my grandmother and grandfather, opened a laundry in New York City, a Chinese laundry, because that was one of the few businesses that Chinese people could own. They really built the American dream. They worked six days a week. They slept in the back of the laundry while the kids stayed with relatives. They wound up buying a house in Queens. My family always talked about how hard my grandparents worked. I think my mom and her generation, their idea of what success looked like for a Chinese American and educated Chinese American was to get a good job.

It didn’t necessarily have to be a lawyer or a doctor in my family, but certainly a stable job with benefits was what was expected. All of us, me and my cousins, we were all well educated and grew up in the US, so most of my cousins did that. They are architects, they work in financial services. They work for Google and big companies.  Not doing that felt like a bit of a betrayal on some level of what my parents had invested in me. They made sure I got into a good school, they helped to pay my tuition and my expenses when I was in school. Doing something different felt a little bit like failure, because it didn’t look like something that they could brag about to their friends.

I don’t know if that’s actually something that my mom ever really talked about or anything like that. She was always very supportive. My parents did actually have a strong interest in creativity and the arts. So they brought me to museums as a kid. But I don’t know that they actually thought that was a viable career. So even though they didn’t actually say it to me, I have a feeling that they were probably quite concerned about my life choices, about me not getting a job at a big company, about becoming an ex-pat about moving to London… not doing the expected thing.

Even being an entrepreneur, if we look back at the stories that were told about what my grandparents did, to build a dream, right, they had to sacrifice, they had to hustle. They had their kids helping out in the laundry. That was an idea of, “Oh, that’s what have your own business entails? Why in the world? Would you want to risk having your own business? If it entails so much sacrifice?”

I had to challenge a lot of those assumptions about what it meant to be an entrepreneur, about what it takes to be a successful entrepreneur.

A mental wellness tip that I found useful

I think maybe it was a concept [I got]  from Judy, the first therapist that I had as an adult. I was at my first full time job, after college graduation. I was doing a lot. I was being a star player. I worked long hours, not necessarily because they demanded of me, but because I was so interested in the work. I also put a lot of pressure on myself.  I started seeing Judy, this therapist, and she made the point that I didn’t seem to think that I needed to experience necessary pain.

I was sharing with her about how I was doing a project where I was commissioning graphics and illustrations from an artist for a project and how difficult I found it to manage all of it. And she made the point, “Well, why shouldn’t it be difficult? You’ve never done this before. You haven’t been shown how to manage project like this before.” She was just kind of pointing out that, just like in school, I had assumed that if I was smart enough, if I was good enough, I would just know how to do these things, and I wouldn’t need to experience the necessary pain of learning how to do these things, including making mistakes.

That concept of necessary pain always stuck with me. When my mom died almost nine years ago, It brought that concept of necessary pain up again, in a different way.  [This time it was the concept of necessary pain] that we will all have to experience in our lives just as human beings.

As a corollary to the necessary pain, there’s that concept of unnecessary pain or unnecessary suffering. There’s that saying about how pain is necessary, but suffering is not. That really resonates with me, accepting that being human [means] going through loss and grief. Going through the discomfort of growing involves pain and discomfort, but I don’t have to add to that with unhelpful thoughts with painful stories.

One thing I would share about mental wellness with women entrepreneurs

I would like to share the analogy that I use or the metaphor that I use for my daily practice: the garden of the creative mind. I have this visual of my amazing mind, my amazing brain, being so creative, and having this really fertile soil. It can dream up all kinds of concepts and new ideas and make all kinds of connections. But that fertile soil also means that not so great things grow, like anxiety, like sometimes depression, sometimes fearful thoughts.

I am vigilant about tending to the soil, of the garden of my creative mind. It’s a daily practice to take care of the gardens of our minds. It is not just a duty, a responsibility, it’s also a privilege. It can be a joy, in the same way that gardening can be. It can be hard work. Sometimes it can be tedious. But I really do enjoy that visual of being a gardener, that I can choose what I do with how I take care of my mind and my brain.

I tend to that soil. I try to plant seeds. I try to nurture the plants that I want in there. I try to weed out what I don’t want in there. It’s just that daily practice. There’s no shame to have here. There’s no shame about having to take care of myself. It just is.

I’m the gardener. I’m not ashamed of having to weed the garden.

Looking back on this mental health journey, reflecting on how far I’ve come, I’m so glad I have so many more skills and tools.

Maybe there’s that aspect [that we need] to have the necessary pain of learning how to take care of our human brains [in order to find out] that there are tools and techniques that are out there. We don’t need to assume that we know how to do it. No one ever teaches us how to do this in school. They should. But it’s often on us as adults to learn. And luckily for us, there is so much more information. There are so many tools and frameworks and modalities. So take advantage of them.

Charlene’s Links

About the author 

Shulamit Berlevtov  -  Shulamit (she/her) is the Entrepreneurs' Therapist. She is working passionately to mitigate the entrepreneurial mental health crisis through keynote speaking and educational workshops and by supporting women entrepreneurs 1:1 to care for their mental and emotional wellbeing and their money psychology in an era of relentless stressors that can make you want to lose your crap on the daily.

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