Is There a Line of Poetry that’s Become Your Mantra?

Portrait of Rachel Kelly

An old friend told me about Rachel Kelly’s memoir, Black Rainbow: How Words Healed Me: My Journey Through Depression. In it, she describes her struggle with depression, and how she was able to use her love of poetry to help her during this time.

In this memoir, she recounts her experiences, as well as the poetry that moved her so deeply.

For me, the opposite of happiness is ordinary unhappiness; depression is its own third, urgent category. But happiness, unhappiness, and depression are all worth studying, for insights into one brings insights into the others. I was eager to hear what Rachel had to say about happiness and good habits.

Gretchen: What’s a simple habit that consistently makes you happier? 

Rachel: A habit that consistently makes me happier is to recite inspirational quotations in my head, mantra-style. My favorites include “My strength is made perfect in weakness” from Corinthians in the Bible, as well as a line from a poem by George Herbert: “Love bids me welcome,” which reminds me to keep returning back to a place of love and compassion.

My memoir Black Rainbow has fifty poems in it; all full of great inspirational lines that have helped me change the narrative in my head and feel less alone.

What’s something you know now about forming healthy habits that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old? 

I now know that mind and body are intimately linked. A healthy body helps cultivate a healthy mind, and vice versa. If I’m mentally tense, then I’m physically tense. Equally, if I can become physically relaxed, it helps me to become mentally relaxed. The two are inseparable.

When I was younger I didn’t give much attention to my physical health because I didn’t feel as if I needed to. Now I know that if my head is a mess, it’s sometimes best to work at it the other way around by trying to optimize the way my body feels and functions. Physical exercise plus breathing and relaxation exercises are all crucial healthy habits that I didn’t previously recognize.

Do you have any habit that continually gets in the way of your happiness?  

Eating sugar continually gets in the way of my happiness because it makes me feel physically lethargic and low after an initial “buzz.” I turn to it when I’m sad and think I need a treat; just as when I was little, I was given sweets to make me feel better.

Have you ever managed to gain a challenging healthy habit – or to break an unhealthy habit? If so, how did you do it?

Yes, I would describe myself as a recovering Obliger. I have managed to become a bit less of a people-pleaser and am now better at listening to my own needs.

However, I do also try to put my tendency to oblige to good use. I have found the concept of “external accountability” really useful – thank you, Gretchen!

So in order to stay fit for example, I have committed to doing an exercise class with my husband — so I have to show up because he’s expecting me there.

Another tool that’s been fundamental to growth and change has been learning to be more compassionate with myself and to stop pushing myself so hard. When self-criticism sets in, I now imagine treating myself as I would one of my own children. I ask myself: would I be so hard on a small child? On my own darling daughter? Saying she had to show up at every function and do whatever it takes to make everyone else happy? No, I would not.

Would you describe yourself as an Upholder, a Questioner, a Rebel or an Obliger

This is such an easy question for me. My default setting for a long, long time has been “Obliger.” I was born an Obliger. I imagine that when I was a baby I would have said to my mom: “No, really, only feed me if the timing suits you,” and “Don’t worry – I’m fine with a dirty diaper.” I always aim to please.

I once went to the screening of a friend’s film, waited for the credits to roll and then let myself out through the emergency exit to go to another friend’s party, because I didn’t feel as if I could let either of them down. To top it all off I rushed home for dinner because I had promised my daughter that I wouldn’t be out that evening.

I’m such a people-pleaser that I even keep score of how many people I manage to please; it’s very much a number game. Each time I feel as if I’ve given another person what they need from me I get a high — a rush.

Thank goodness, I’ve begun to change. Very slowly I’m edging towards becoming more of an “Upholder” and more able to respond to inner, as well as outer expectations.

Have you ever been hit by a lightning bolt, where you changed a major habit very suddenly, as a consequence of reading a book, a conversation with a friend, a milestone, birthday, a health scare, etc? 

I experienced a lightning bolt moment when I first identified myself as a people-pleaser: so many things fell into place in my mind. This was thanks to a conversation with my therapist and was also informed by reading Better Than Before, which had a big impact on me. [That’s so nice to hear!]

I realized that being such a compulsive Obliger had literally almost killed me. Trying to do too much, please too many people, working long hours while raising my young children, led to serious depressive episodes that made me want to take my own life.

Do you embrace habits or resist them? 

Like many people, I’m a great one for embracing new habits with enthusiasm for a few weeks, and then my commitment begins to wane. But over time, some good habits have stuck, luckily, which is actually the subject of my next book – Walking on Sunshine: 52 Small Steps to Happiness.



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