How to Maintain Mental Health: 3 Tips From Michelle Obama

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Light We Carry" by Michelle Obama. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

Like this article? Sign up for a free trial here.

Why is it important to take care of your mental health? What are some things you can do to maintain a healthy state of mind?

If your mental health is not in order, you’ll struggle to make meaningful progress toward your goals. As a result, you’ll feel like a failure, initiating a vicious cycle. To achieve success in any endeavor, you must take care of your mental health by minimizing stress and doing activities that make you feel fulfilled.

Here are some of Michelle Obama’s tips on how to maintain mental health.

Maintaining Your Mental Health

Maintaining your mental health is essential to completing goals. The healthier you are, the more energy you can use to meet your goals. This is one of the reasons Michelle Obama made it a point to maintain her mental health as First Lady by going on walks, talking to her friends, and getting enough sleep. These activities may have cut into her working time, but they made her more effective.

(Shortform note: In Give and Take, Adam Grant agrees that people can work toward a goal while also taking care of themselves. To do so, think about how you spend your energy and identify the quickest, most effective way to reach your goal. Being efficient lets you use any remaining time for rejuvenating activities. Obama’s tactics are good examples, as outdoor physical activity, socialization, and adequate sleep are all essential to overall health. Using these tactics to avoid burnout lets you work longer and more efficiently, generating greater positive change.)

Maintain Mental Health by Balancing Independence and Interdependence

According to Stephen R. Covey in First Things First,  neglecting your mental health out of guilt might stem from an over-inflated sense of independence. Embracing independence can be good, as it forces you to take accountability for living up to your potential. If you only focus on independence, though, you’ll feel responsible for everything in your life. You’ll always feel rushed and pressured because you’re the only one trying to meet your goal, arguably impacting your mental health. This pressure and rushing also lead to worse outcomes: Your work will be haphazard; you’ll focus on quick solutions to problems instead of effective, long-term ones; and you’ll be less likely to notice when others need help since you’re too busy to pay attention.

To counter this tendency, balance independence with interdependence: Take responsibility for causing positive change, but recognize that you’re not the only person responsible. Share tasks with other people, learn from them, and trust them to take over when you need rest.

Obama offers three pieces of advice on how to maintain mental health:

Tip #1: Recognize When You’re Struggling

Reflect on times you’ve been in a healthy place mentally and how you achieved that state, Obama says. This can reveal patterns of behavior that help you feel happy, confident, and in control. After recognizing these patterns, use them to improve your mental health and nurture your personhood. For example, if mindfulness meditation always makes you feel happy and fulfilled, make it a regular part of your schedule.

(Shortform note: It can be difficult to recognize when you’re in a healthy mental state or how you achieved that state. This might be caused by “negativity bias,” a tendency to be more affected by negative situations than positive ones. Negativity bias means you’re more likely to notice and remember when you’re in a bad place mentally, rather than a healthy place. This tendency can protect you from reexperiencing negative situations, but it can also make you depressed. To counter this tendency and recognize your healthy mental states, take time every evening to write down three good things that happened that day. Your brain will start emphasizing positive experiences, making it easier to track and improve your mental state.)

In addition, Obama explains that the more you reflect on your healthy mental state, the easier it’ll be to recognize when you’re not in that state. This knowledge helps you practice self-care and escape negative spirals. To use a popular metaphor, a frog that’s put in a pot of gradually heated water may not notice it’s being boiled alive. However, if the frog regularly notices the state of the water, comparing it to its past experiences and evaluating how the water makes it feel, the frog can better detect changes in the water and react accordingly.

(Shortform note: Reflecting on your healthy mental state can improve self-confidence, your ability to use positive self-talk, and emotional intelligence. To reflect on your mental state, try mirror mediation: Sit in front of a mirror and practice being aware of your thoughts and feelings. Seeing your reflection solidifies your sense of self and personhood, and tracking your expressions helps you identify and accept your emotions. This in turn encourages you to be empathetic and kind toward yourself.)

Tip #2: Prioritize Personhood Over Self-Criticism

Second, Obama suggests prioritizing personhood over self-criticism to maintain your mental health: Focus on recognizing your unique personhood and expressing joy at your existence, rather than focusing on your imperfections. Doing so separates your worth from your appearance, status, or success. It emphasizes that you deserve to be loved and celebrated simply because you’re a unique individual who can’t be replaced. This realization makes you happier and more confident, improving your mental health.

In contrast, Obama notes, focusing on imperfections hurts your self-esteem. It makes you self-conscious, magnifying the flaws in your mind until you can’t recognize your inherent worth.

How to Prioritize Personhood

When you have negative thoughts about yourself, replace them with an acknowledgment of your inherent worth as an individual, Obama says. After reinforcing your self-worth, you can address any issues you experience, secure in the knowledge that you’re more than your flaws.

Tip #3: Create a Support System

Prioritizing personhood over criticism is helpful when following Obama’s next suggestion: creating a support system. We all need support, care, and companionship to remain mentally healthy, Obama says. 

It’s specifically important to build a whole system of these relationships, Obama stresses. Many people rely on their spouses to provide the care, companionship, and support they need. While your spouse is an important source of support, forcing them to hold all the responsibility is unfair and could damage both of your mental health by increasing their stress and exhaustion, leaving you unsupported. Having a wide support system spreads this responsibility among many people while also increasing the odds that someone will be available to help you whenever you need support.

Obama says a support system requires two main things: intentionality and acceptance. (Shortform note: Obama discusses both friendships and spousal relationships in her book. Her advice for both is largely the same, so we’ve consolidated the information into a single section.)

Practice Intentionality

Intentionality is vital to creating a support system and maintaining relationships. Obama says relationships are a process of building trust, reaching out, supporting each other, and celebrating each other’s personhood. You must commit to creating relationships and must care enough to put in effort. This includes interacting with strangers, getting people’s contact information, and scheduling time to interact with and learn about others.

Practice Acceptance

Obama notes that acceptance helps you overcome conflict, an essential part of maintaining relationships and celebrating other people’s personhood. No two people are the same, so conflict will appear in all relationships. Whether it’s as minor as different methods of folding laundry or as major as conflicting worldviews, you must support the other person despite your disagreements.

Acceptance is important because the core of a person doesn’t change, Obama explains.  People are molded by their personal history. The way they were raised, their life experiences, and the examples of intimacy and relationships they’ve had all affect the way they behave and approach relationships. Since people’s personalities and worldviews solidify through these decades of experiences, they’re not going to change just because they entered a relationship with you and added one new experience. They may adjust their behavior and compromise, but entering a relationship expecting them to change fundamentally will lead to heartache and further conflict.

Obama says learning about other people’s pasts can help you practice acceptance and celebrate their personhood. If you recognize how the other person’s history affects their actions, you’ll understand them better and be better suited to adapt and compromise in a healthy way.

How to Maintain Mental Health: 3 Tips From Michelle Obama

———End of Preview———

Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Michelle Obama's "The Light We Carry" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full The Light We Carry summary:

  • Michelle Obama's advice on fulfilling your potential in life
  • The benefits of nurturing and sharing your unique abilities and strengths
  • How to overcome the obstacles to reaching your potential and creating change

Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

One thought on “How to Maintain Mental Health: 3 Tips From Michelle Obama

  • September 26, 2023 at 6:21 am

    In today’s fast-paced world, where stress and burnout are common, this text serves as a gentle but powerful reminder that we should prioritize our mental health. It’s a call to action, encouraging individuals to make time for activities that nourish their minds and souls. By doing so, they can not only enhance their personal well-being but also become more effective and successful in their pursuits.

    In conclusion, the importance of mental health cannot be overstated. This text effectively conveys this message and provides actionable insights, making it a valuable reminder for all readers to prioritize their mental well-being.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.