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What I’ve Learned From Being Single

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About 4 and a half years ago, I wrote one of the most personal, painful posts about why I was choosing to be single called Solitude. I decided to be alone after dating almost non-stop since I was 15 because I was beginning to lose respect for myself. I knew I was running away from something that I needed to face, and it made me feel weak, pathetic. I had settled for unsatisfying and sometimes downright traumatic relationships because I thought anything was better than being alone. Four and a half years ago I finally decided that I would be alone or die trying, because the alternative was to hate myself. And it seemed hypocritical to write a blog about self-acceptance if you hated yourself.

And, as you know if you’ve been reading my blog since then, sometimes it’s been rough. I would often lie on the couch or in bed in a half-asleep, half-starved state because I was too tired to get food but too hungry to sleep. And when I did eat, it would be random stuff like peanut butter crackers because that’s all I had in the house.

I worried a lot about what would happen if I got hurt or died and no one found me for days. So I played tennis almost every day to make sure people saw me. And I told my friends to take it seriously if I posted something on FB that said I had fallen and I couldn’t get up.

I didn’t have anyone to talk to about my day, so I wrote in my journal a lot. But that ended up being a great thing. It really helped me to develop my writing. And I thought I was hilarious and loved re-reading old entries. And I was a much better listener than any of the people I had been with, so I allowed myself to go into as much obsessive detail as I wanted to, and to write about the same thing over and over again, without worrying about boring my future self.

Another reason why I stayed single was because I thought I was a terrible person in relationships. I was jealous and controlling. I was rigid, judgmental, and demanding. I was selfish, and nothing the other person did was ever enough. I figured those patterns were so deeply ingrained that there was no way I could forge new neuronal pathways in my brain. There wasn’t enough time. I was already in my mid 40’s.

Now I realize that a lot of those things that I thought were true about me were not me at all. They were thoughts, feelings, and fears that belonged to other people that I had assumed were my own. In psychodynamic theory, this is called projective identification. You unconsciously take on things the other person finds unacceptable to admit about themselves. Things like being jealous, or selfish, or demanding.

There was no way I could have known that these patterns were not as deeply ingrained as I had thought without being by myself. In fact, I am so different from the person I was before my solitude experiment that it’s a little shocking. People tell me that I’m unselfish. Not jealous at all. That I don’t ask for anything. Sometimes I look around and think, are you talking to me? Because that doesn’t sound like me at all.

I think my solitude has been something along the lines of a 4 year meditation retreat. (Not a silent one, obviously.) I’ve spent a lot of time practicing self-acceptance, mindfulness, and self-compassion as ways to face my fear of being alone. And just like everything else, the fear itself was far scarier than the actual experience of being alone.

I have found that the hardest thing to do is to be honest about the things we are ashamed of. We do all kinds of things to avoid really seeing ourselves. Drink. Shop. Binge watch shows on Netflix. Date. Blame other people. Whatever your go-to strategy is, my advice to you is to be still, let things settle, and see what’s there. It won’t be as scary as you think. And the benefits are far greater than you can imagine.

Feeling Fragile

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You know what I feel like? I feel like that vase in the Brady Bunch. The one that the Brady Bunch Boys broke while they were playing football in the house, which they weren’t supposed to be doing. And then they glued it back together so their parents wouldn’t know. But there were little pieces missing, so when Carol used it for flowers and poured water in it, it started leaking. Because it was barely held together.

That’s what I feel like.

Even though I’m off for the summer, I’ve been really stressed. I didn’t realize how badly until I went to get a massage yesterday. Ordinarily I don’t get one in the summer because I don’t need to, but I noticed that my shoulder was tight and I couldn’t get it to release, even though I stretch every day, sometimes twice a day. But she said my whole body was tight. Was worried that she might be hurting me.

And usually it does hurt when I’m tight. But I was obsessing so much about how much it cost, how I need to start doing yoga. Can I make it to the class tonight? Tomorrow? But I want to do strength training! No, your body needs stretching, Christy! Listen to what your body needs! Hey, stop obsessing! This is costing $100! Focus on relaxing your muscles! Pay attention!

So I didn’t even really register the pain.

I’ve been doing a lot more than I would ordinarily do in the summer. I’ve decided to do Talkspace, which is an online therapy platform. Because, you know, my regular job isn’t really stressful enough. But I might be buying a new place.

On the one hand, it’s interesting to see how they work out all the legal and ethical issues that come up with online therapy. And there are a lot of things that I like about it. I think I could get pretty good at it. But it has been a lot of work just to do the training, and I haven’t even started seeing clients yet. I’m in the middle of my first test, but I have to record this 2 minute introductory video that requires me to memorize my script and dress professionally and put makeup on. When I usually just wear workout clothes and don’t even brush my hair. So I decided to procrastinate and write a blog post first.

And apparently everyone fails this first simulation. So I go back and forth between telling myself that it doesn’t have to be perfect, it’s OK if I fail, to channeling my inner warrior and being like, I will win! I will pass it on the first try, gosh darn it! So it’s been this exhausting emotional roller coaster of feelings.

And if that isn’t enough stress, I’ve also decided to sell my house, because of the two people living in the space for one thing. I don’t know for sure if it will sell, and if it sells, I don’t know for sure it will be enough to cover the downpayment for the townhouse I want to buy. So my mind goes back and forth between figuring out how I can rearrange things here if it doesn’t sell to thinking about all of the things I’ll have to do if it does sell. Oh, and I have to keep the place clean. And get my brother to keep his space clean, which is even harder. So another emotional roller coaster.

This isn’t the first time I’ve been in a situation where I felt overwhelmed. Where I had no idea how I was going to handle it all, how things could possibly get better. There were my two divorces. My brother moving in with me. The depression I went through 9 years ago. The 4 other houses I’ve bought. Eventually I just had to put my faith in God. I didn’t have to figure it all out. I didn’t have to envision how it would work for it work. I just had to trust that God would take care of me. And he always has. So that’s what I’m trying to do.

Oh, and I take my Ativan. Because that’s what my psychiatrist told me to do when I’m obsessing. Which is also helpful.

Nothing Compares 2 U

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Want to feel better about yourself? Here is a piece of advice that doesn’t require money, self-help books, therapy, dieting, exercise, or youth-enhancing products. Stop comparing yourself. To others, to your former self, to your ideal self. There’s nothing about comparison that will ever make you feel better. Even when you win, you lose.

In my post on What Compassion is Not, I talk about how comparison is not compassionate. Have you ever tried to cheer yourself or someone else up by telling them that there are people who are suffering worse than you? People in war-torn countries? People who are poor, hungry, and sick? Sure you have. This is one of our go-to strategies for making people feel better. But did it?

I know I have used this strategy, and it always makes me feel like crap. And when I’m depressed, it makes me feel even more depressed and worthless. Because what’s my problem? I don’t even have a good reason to be depressed. Yet here I am, unable to function like a normal human being.

Or have you ever felt good about yourself because of an accomplishment–lost a little weight, got a raise, did a good deed–only to find out that someone else has done the same thing, only better? How quickly self-praise turned into self-criticism? Maybe if I had the discipline that she does, I could have lost more weight. Why didn’t I stay after work more often, like my colleagues? I must be selfish for not giving more.

Or how about berating yourself because you are not like your former self? I used to be in better shape! I used to be able to play 3 and a half hour singles matches in 90+ degree heat! Now I feel like I’m going to pass out in the heat while playing doubles if I have to hit more than 3 shots. And throw up after long rallies. I’m old! My body is falling apart! This sucks!

(Although to be honest, I don’t miss singles at all. I just didn’t know any better back then.)

Perhaps the worst comparison of all is failing to live up to the version of yourself that you think you should be. That put-together, in control, polished, successful part of yourself that is always telling you that you suck. What I usually call the Inner Critic, but it can go by different names.

Sometimes in therapy I ask clients to personify this ideal self. And then I ask them how they feel about this “person.” They don’t like them. They’re mean and judgmental. They’re a little afraid of her. They wouldn’t want him as a friend. Isn’t that ironic, that the “perfect” version of ourselves that we so desperately want to be isn’t even someone that we like?

Let’s say that occasionally you’re fortunate enough to hit your target goal. You got straight A’s. Make a six-figure salary. Lost 20 lbs. You’re feeling a bit superior to all of those less-fortunate scrubs who don’t have what it takes to do what you have just done. Even in these cases, enjoyment is fleeting. Because even if you don’t meet someone who has done a better job–even if you “won”–you have to stay on top. You can’t slow down now. So you can never relax and just feel good about being you.

Given our comparison-obsessed culture, what are we supposed to aim for, exactly, if we aren’t trying to be better than someone else? It’s hard to come up with something that isn’t about trying to be better. We don’t even have the vocabulary for it.

I’ve written about my struggles with trying to figure out what I’m supposed to do if I’m not trying to be good. Because being good is a kind of comparison. Most of the time we end up measuring how much better we are than other people (e.g., it’s not that he’s a terrible person; he’s just worse than I am).

So now, rather than trying to focus on being good, I try to focus on being loving–to myself and to others. I try to practice compassion. One of the advantages of practicing compassion is that it’s inherently nonjudgmental, non-evaluative. You can’t do a good or bad job. You can’t succeed or fail at it. You can’t get an A in compassion. (Because if you could, I’d totally try.) You just practice and accept whatever happens.

It’s hard to give up comparisons completely, so I will end by saying that, of all the strategies that I’ve tried to make myself feel better, compassion is the clear winner.

How to Get What You Want

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Here’s a fact that will save you a lot of self-criticism, and help you to understand why people do things that don’t make sense: we are not as rational as we think. That might not seem comforting in a culture where it’s important to be reasonable, stoic, self-sufficient, and in control, but it’s true.

Let me illustrate how illogical we can be. I’m going to give you some examples of how people try to get what they want from others. But let me first say that, if you are relying on others to get what you want, you have already given up some control, because we have far less control over other people than we do over ourselves. And I don’t know about you, but I can barely get myself to do what I want.

Nevertheless, we still try to get what we want by getting other people to change their behavior. We want bullies to stop bullying. We want our kids to come home at curfew. We want our partners to stop leaving wet towels on the floor.

Even in these cases, we often try to change other people’s behavior in ways that aren’t very effective. Maybe they work sometimes, but even when they do, they hurt the relationship.

Usually these strategies involve punishment–guilt trips, shaming the person, passive-aggressive comments, withholding love, the silent treatment. If you’ve never taken an intro psychology course, it may come as a shock to hear that punishment is not an effective way to change people’s behavior, given how often we use it. Rather than lecturing you about the principles of behavior theory, I’ll just give you a few examples to prove my point.

Let’s use bullying as an example. It took me 2 seconds to find this quote about bullying:

Bullying is not a reflection of the victim’s character, but rather a sign of the bully’s lack of character.” 

The message is: bullies are bad people. Don’t be a bad person. Have you ever tried getting someone to stop doing something by telling them to stop being a bad person?

Of course you have. We all have. And I’m guessing what happened is the person got defensive and you had this big argument and you didn’t get what you wanted. Or if you did, it probably resulted in them resenting you more, liking you less. So even if the person stopped leaving their towels on the floor, they pick them up begrudgingly, and it remains a thing between the two of you.

Let’s imagine we try something other than shaming bullies out of their behavior. Perhaps we could try practicing compassion. We could try to understand why this person hurts other people.

Or I can just tell you why. People hurt other people because they are hurting. So if you want to make people stop hurting other people, you have to address their pain, rather than add to it. Asking questions, trying to understand, listening to what they say, and expressing empathy for their pain goes a long way in changing people’s behavior. Yes, that takes longer than telling someone they’re a bad person, but this is how you get what you want. This is how you get a bully to be kind. With kindness.

Another strategy for getting what you want is to use positive reinforcement. The easiest way to use positive reinforcement is to praise someone when they do the thing you want. I’m sure you’ve used this with children, and it is amazing how effectively and immediately it works. Wow, Jane! You are a fast runner! So Jane runs around like a maniac for the next 5 minutes, demonstrating how fast she is. People want praise, so we will keep doing the things that make people praise us.

I encourage you to try out what I’ve just said about punishment and positive reinforcement. See for yourself if it works. And if you do try out your own personal psychological experiment, I’d love to hear about the results.

 

Adam and Eve Retold

I’ve written a lot of posts about Adam and Eve–trying to make sense of what it means to have free will, to be good, the inevitability of sin, the possibility of boredom in Paradise.  For some people, a story of a God who would put a tree in the middle of Paradise, and a snake that would tempt Adam and Eve to eat from it, and then punishes them for doing so seems fair game. For me, not so much.

But that doesn’t mean that the story isn’t meaningful to me. I believe that the Fall from Paradise is a prelude to the story of our lives. It sets the stage for the lessons that God wants us to learn about what it means to be human. So I’m going to take some liberties in retelling the story of Adam and Eve in a way that makes sense to me.

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Once upon a time, after God had separated heaven from earth, light from darkness, and land from sea, God populated the Earth with vegetation, living creatures, and Adam. He created a place for him to live in the Garden of Eden, and in the middle of the Garden he planted 2 trees–the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. He told Adam to work and keep the Garden and that he may eat from every tree except the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, because he will die if he does. And that would make God sad.

Then God realized that it was not good for Adam to be alone. There was no helper fit for him among the creatures that Adam had named. So while Adam was sleeping, God took one of his ribs and created Eve. They became one flesh, naked before one another, with nothing to be ashamed of.

One day the serpent, the most crafty of all God’s beasts, approached Eve.

“Are you sure you are not to eat of the Tree of Knowledge?” he asked.

“Yes. We will die even from touching it, ” Eve confirmed.

“God would not let you die. Eating from the Tree of Knowledge will open your eyes and make you like God, because you will also know good and evil.”

Eve looked at the fruit on the Tree of Knowledge. It looked delicious. The idea of becoming wise was equally appealing. So she took the fruit and ate, and gave some to her husband, who did the same. Then their eyes were opened, and they became aware of their nakedness. They sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths to cover themselves.

Then they heard God walking in the Garden and they hid. But God called to them and asked them, “Where are you?”

“We’re hiding from you because we’re naked and afraid,” said Adam. Like that reality TV show on the Discovery Channel.

“Who told you that you were naked? Did you eat of the Tree of Knowledge, even though I told you not to?” God asked.

“Eve made me do it,” said Adam.

“The serpent tricked me,” said Eve.

Like any parent dealing with children who have disobeyed them, God was angry. But because he loved them, he was also sad and afraid for them. He had wanted to protect them from all possible harm, so that they would never know pain and suffering. But in choosing knowledge, Adam and Eve could no longer live in blissful ignorance in the Garden of Eden. Like Neo in the Matrix, they had taken the red pill, and now they would have to see how deep the rabbit hole goes with the knowledge of good and evil.

In preparing them for the journey of humanity, God warns them of what lies ahead.

“Children will not be made from dust and ribs. Eve will have to bear them, and it will be painful. And your children will disobey you and break your heart, just as you have done to me. Adam will have to work for food. No more plants and animals free for the taking. And you and your offspring will struggle with the existential angst of how to cope with death, loss, loneliness, and the meaning of life.

But through this journey of humanity, by witnessing pain and suffering, you will develop Compassion, which will teach you to be more loving, and Wisdom, which will give you strength to endure strife. And in developing Compassion and Wisdom, you will understand more deeply my love for you. So that at the end of your journey, when you return to Paradise, I will have a celebration in your honor. For although you are lost, you will be found.”

 

Sorry, Not Sorry

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Never underestimate the value of a sincere apology.

If you don’t give a crap about the person, I guess you can say whatever you want. But a sincere apology goes a long way if you’ve hurt someone you care about and really want to make amends. If you get into arguments with loved ones where there is no clear resolution, it’s probably because they don’t end with a sincere apology, and therefore it’s difficult to reconnect.

Before I outline what to say in an apology, let me first begin with what not to say. Things that will likely prolong the argument and hurt the relationship.

Insensitive comments have to do with shame–the feeling that, if you make a mistake, you must be a bad person. Therefore, the person cannot acknowledge any wrongdoing. And because the person is focused on their own shame for making a mistake, they cannot have compassion for the person who they have hurt. Here are some examples:

  1. You’re too sensitive. This is not an apology at all, obviously. You’re basically saying it’s not me; it’s you. You are flawed. I am not.
  2. That wasn’t my intention. I meant well. Not my fault if you interpreted my good intentions in a different way. So we can just agree to disagree and you need to get over it.
  3. Everyone has flaws. You know how I am. I have a bad temper. Sometimes I blow up. I can’t change who I am. So expect more of the same.
  4. I’m sorry that you’re upset. I can see you’re upset, but I don’t take any responsibility for it. But I do I wish you weren’t upset, because you’re upsetting me.
  5. I’m sorry. I will say sorry to appease you, but I have no idea what you’re upset about. And I don’t really want to try to find out and have to change my behavior.

If you have said one or more of these things, let me reiterate that you are not a bad person. No one likes making mistakes. It activates our defenses and makes us want to protect ourselves rather than attend to the other person. And most of us aren’t taught how to give a sincere apology.

So here’s your chance to change your behavior. These are the steps you can take when you’ve hurt someone:

  1. Acknowledge their pain. Even if you think they’ve misunderstood what you’ve said or done. Try to identify what they’re feeling. Acknowledge that you can see how your actions triggered that feeling.
  2. Tell them that you care about their feelings. Let them know that their pain matters. You do not want to be the cause of their pain because you love this person, and it hurts you to know that you have been, in this case.
  3. Make your apology specific. I’m sorry that I worried you by not letting you know I was running late. I’m sorry that I made it sound like it’s your fault, when it’s not.
  4. Make a commitment to change your behavior. From now on, I’ll text you if I’m running late. I’ll tell you that I need space and tell you when I’ll call back rather than hang up.
  5. Reaffirm your commitment to the person. I care about you and I care about our relationship. I’m going to demonstrate this through my actions.

The best way to practice giving sincere apologies is to practice self-compassion. When you accept your own mistakes and forgive yourself for making them, you learn that making mistakes doesn’t make you a bad person. We all make them. We’re all just stumbling along, not knowing what we’re doing half the time.

So self-forgiveness goes a long way.

Ironic, isn’t it? That the best way to learn how to be kind to others is to be kind to ourselves? That’s a win-win, if you ask me.

Things I Learned from Bad Therapists, Part 3

Don’t be afraid to break up with your therapist. They’ll understand.

How to be Unsuccessful

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As you may have surmised by now, I’m actually a big believer in therapy.  I’ve suffered from mental health issues (mostly anxiety and depression) for the better part of forty years, so I’ve seen a LOT of therapists.  Some of them have been helpful, and some not so helpful.  Everyone looks for something a little different in their therapist. I want a therapist to be more like a close friend than a doctor, which can be challenging because I don’t have many close friends.

The “bad therapist” i’m thinking about today actually wasn’t bad at all – he just was more like a doctor than a friend (not his fault).  But he taught me a couple of things:

Treat your depression like a medical condition

and don’t be afraid to get a new therapist

This guy (whom I’ll call Steven, because that’s his name) is a psychiatrist, and I was…

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