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Satisfaction Guraranteed

enough

I’ve read a lot of books on happiness. I’m practically an expert on the subject, as far as my library is concerned. The book that has been on my mind recently is by Thich Nhat Hanh, Living Buddha, Living Christ. Which doesn’t sound like a book on happiness, but of all the books I’ve read so far, I think he gives the best advice on how to be happy.

This will probably not come as a surprise to you if you read my blog, but the key to happiness is to practice mindfulness. Well, actually, it was still surprising to me, because even though I do practice mindfulness, I’m not sure I am necessarily any happier than I was before I started doing so. So I was anxious to find out what I needed to be doing differently.

Here’s how it works: in any given moment, there will be good things and bad things. (Although I think he refrains from using the words good and bad, because Buddhism tries to avoid judgment and criticism. But I can’t remember what phrase he used.). We often imagine that if some aspect of our lives were different, we would be happier. If only we had a better job. More hours in the day. Eternal summer. In reality, even if we could get everything we wanted, it would just change the content of the good and bad things in our lives at that moment.

For example, lately I’ve been feeling increasingly dissatisfied with my single status. I tried to have a positive attitude on Valentine’s Day, but it would have been nice to have some guy other than my allergist wish me Happy Valentine’s Day. And he probably only said that because he kept me waiting for an hour before he finally saw me.

But when I really think about it, I thought it was sucky to be in a relationship, too. I don’t miss arguing about stupid stuff like where to put the plants. I don’t miss those periods of feeling disconnected during arguments. Being in a relationship didn’t even make me feel any more secure. The fear of rejection and abandonment was always looming. Every day my clients remind me of all of the pain and heartache that come with love, and I don’t miss that pain at all.

In many ways, my current life has been an exercise in learning how to be happy with what I have. When I got divorced I lost more than half my income and constantly stressed about the safety that comes with having money. Now I’m also supporting my brother and have even less than I did before. But I worried about money when I had more of it, too. So I really can’t say that money has made me happy, because my fear about not having enough of it has always kept me unhappy, no matter how much I had in my bank account.

Even though I still find myself wishing my life were different every day, multiple times a day, I do believe that happiness comes from accepting whatever life is in this moment. This mixture of joy and pain, good and bad. My relationship status. My income. Even my ability to access happiness.

When I teach clients how to practice mindfulness, I tell them that the goal is not to be successful at staying in the moment, but rather to become aware of when they are not and to bring their focus back to the present. So that’s what I do. A thought about how my life sucks pops into my head, and I remind myself that it is possible even in the midst of my pain to access happiness. Over and over again, until I get to that moment.

In Transition

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If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, perhaps you remember my inner infant–that part of me that gets anxious for apparently no reason but has no words to tell me what she’s upset about. I am still like a new parent who is getting to know their child for the first time. It is a very slow, painstaking process. But I came to a realization last week that has been helpful in being more compassionate towards this anxious baby, who I will call Amygdala for scientific reasons that are too technical to get into, but if you’re interested, you can check out this article.

Every morning when I’m getting ready to leave for work, Amygdala gets anxious and I have to say my standard mantra to her: It’s OK. Everything’s going to be OK. You’re fine. Everything’s going to be fine. And when I’m frustrated, I add although I have no idea what you’re anxious about!  Which is not very compassionate, and therefore not very effective in soothing her.

For some reason, last week I realized that Amygdala gets anxious when I am in transition–from sleep to wakefulness, getting dressed, getting into the car, getting out of the car, leaving work, going to play tennis. I imagined what it would be like for a baby during these times, and I could see why Amygdala would be anxious.

For example, when I am spending the night in a different place for the first time, I will often wake up and have a split second where I don’t recognize my surroundings and not remember where I am. Then I’ll be like, oh yeah. I’m at districts. But babies don’t have very good memories, because their brains aren’t fully formed. So for them, every time they wake up, they probably don’t recognize their room. Or they could have been moved to a different room while they were sleeping. And they’re probably like, where the hell am I?! (If it were a baby that cursed, that is.) What am I doing here? Where is that person who is supposed to be taking care of me?!

Or like how when my niece was younger she never wanted to go to dance class, even though she loves dancing and always enjoys it once she’s there. I never understood why kids do that, since I’m not a parent. But I do know what it feels like to be all content doing whatever you’re doing and then having to get up, change clothes, drive somewhere, and see people, even if it’s to do something I love, like play tennis. It’s hard to overcome the inertia of doing nothing. So I can see why that might be upsetting.

But since I’ve realized this, I’ve figured out something more compassionate to say. Whenever Amygdala cries because I am in transition, I tell her that it’s OK, she’s just anxious because we’re doing something different, but once we get there, everything will be fine. And it usually is.

So maybe I’m becoming a better parent after all.

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I found this while I was looking for quotes on transitions. My inner infant has no idea what it means but she thinks it’s funny.

Control What You Can Control

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My friends on my tennis teams and in my groups often tell me, in a teasing way, that I am bossy. And I have to admit, it’s true. But it’s sort of necessary if you want to make sure that people show up to matches and for court times, because it’s very bad when people don’t. Which is exactly why people don’t like to captain and be in charge of groups. Who wants all that responsibility? No normal person, that’s for sure. So really, I’m doing everyone a favor.

One of the things that all of the books on compassion emphasize is how little control we actually have over our thoughts, feelings, and behavior. Our genetic makeup, our upbringing, our circumstances in life are not in our control. In some ways, it’s a little disconcerting, given that so much of our culture is focused on the idea that we control our own destiny. This is why people don’t want to take meds (they’re for the weak-minded). Why we blame people who find themselves in less fortunate circumstances than our own (they’re just lazy). Why our failures are our fault.

When I tell people about this aspect of practicing compassion, skeptics are quick to respond with, you’re just letting people off the hook. You’re just giving people excuses for not taking responsibility. Which is not the case at all. Because the one thing that we are in control of is our intentions. To be loving or hateful. Forgiving or vengeful. Accepting or judgmental. And our instinctive response with ourselves and others is to be critical and judgmental. It takes a considerable amount of discipline and practice to counteract these negative responses. It is far more work than controlling, blaming, and shaming ourselves and other people.

I know it’s negative, but as I reflect on this past year, the first thought that comes to mind is that it really sucked. I know people have it worse, that people have harder lives than me, but a lot of it was still sucky. It would be unrealistic to aspire to a normal life, given how predominantly mental illness factors into every aspect of my life, but sometimes I wish it could be a tad easier. Just a little less painful.

I tell myself all kinds of things to try to keep from falling into a pit of despair. The most helpful strategy is a compassionate one. I cannot entertain these thoughts because they cause me suffering, and I don’t have enough energy to spare on unnecessary suffering. I must take care of myself or I won’t be able to function. I remind myself that I’m doing the best that I can. That all I can do is focus on getting through this moment. I need to take advantage of whatever small thing I can do to make myself feel even the tiniest bit better.

So this year my New Year’s resolution is to exercise more control over my intentions, which are to be mindful, compassionate, and accepting. Which means that I need to write more blog posts.

Eye on the Ball

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When I went to that self-compassion retreat a few years ago, one of the teachers told me that she thought I loved tennis because I love practicing mindfulness. As you know, I’m a big advocate for mindfulness, but I was pretty sure I cared more about competition, burning calories, hanging out with friends, and wearing cute outfits than I cared about practicing mindfulness. But I can see her point. Tennis is the only thing I can do that allows me to block everything else out of my mind, and I almost always feel better afterwards.

For example, last Monday I was feeling so depressed that I actually did not want to play. Which almost never happens. But I knew it would make me feel better, and I was playing with a friend, so I forced myself to do it. It was tough, though. I thew up 4 times, which is a record. I’m not that good at singles anymore, so I was losing for most of the match. For the first set and a half I felt like crying.

But then I channeled my inner warrior. I told myself I could cry when I got home. I reminded myself of all of the times I was depressed during matches and played through them. How I’ve had to lie down for several hours after matches because of heat exhaustion–which is not a great thing, I know, but it does demonstrate my mental toughness.

And It worked. I won that night. I even saved a match point. I felt better afterwards, but I still cried when I got home. Still, I was proud of myself for my ability to fight through adversity. If there’s one thing that depression teaches you, it’s how to be resilient. To play my best under pressure. It has made me a stronger person.

The most helpful strategy was to keep my eye on the ball–which is pretty much always my strategy. If you’ve ever played with me, then you know that I often publicly announce that I am going to watch the ball before every point. I told myself that in that moment, I’m just a tennis player. Not a psychologist. Not a sister taking care of her brother. Not a depressed person. It’s just me and the ball. Nothing else exists.

Thich Nhat Hanh says that when you practice mindfulness, happiness is available to you at any moment. I can’t say that I was happy after the match, but I did feel better afterwards. And there were moments when I was in flow. When I was free from all the thoughts and feelings that plague me. And that is a great feeling.

So whatever your equivalent is to keeping your eye on the ball, be sure to call upon that strategy whenever you’re feeling down to help you ground yourself in the present moment. You’re bound to feel better afterwards.

A Compassionate Take on Why Misery Loves Company

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A few years ago I had the pleasure of listening to the the President of Washington and Lee University speak to the parents of the freshman class that year, appraising them of some of the things they could expect to encounter in their child’s first year of college. A frantic call in the middle of the night about something. The transition to being a little fish in a big pond. The Turkey Drop–which happens over this very break, when some poor girlfriend or boyfriend is informed that this long-distance relationship thing just isn’t working out. Hope we can still be friends.

Students in counseling often talk about “losing the breakup.” I like that term, because it so accurately captures that feeling of being left behind with your heart broken, stalking your ex on social media as they post pictures with their new significant other. If I have to suffer, they should have to suffer, gosh darn it! I hope they get what’s coming to them.

It’s true; misery loves company. And sometimes it’s because people who are miserable want other people to be miserable so that we can all feel sucky together. But sometimes it’s not because people are mean and hateful. Sometimes it’s because we don’t want to be left alone in our pain and suffering.

In self-compassion speak, this is called common humanity. It’s one of the things that comforts us in the midst of our pain in suffering. To know that getting your heart broken is an inevitable part of experiencing love. It sucks for everyone. It did not happen to you because you are uniquely unlovable. And it’s not your fault that it hurts so much that your friends are tired of listening to you talk about your ex.

As I mentioned in my last post, it’s that time of year when my inner demon of depression rears its ugly head. It’s better this year. I’ve made it to work every day so far. I have not fallen into a pit of despair. But it’s still painful.

One of the best and most unexpected benefits of having a mental health blog is that, in the midst of my lows, some reader will reach out to me and thank me for sharing my pain because they have known that pain, too, and it’s comforting to know that they are not alone. It is as therapeutic to me as it is to them to know that there are people in the darkness with me, reaching out to me so that I know that they’re there.

Last week, as I was describing to one of my clients the types of obsessive thoughts that often go through people’s heads, she asked me if I knew what this inner dialogue was like because I studied it or from first-hand experience. I was a little taken aback. I’d never had a client ask me directly if I had an anxiety disorder. But I told her the truth. It’s both. I know her pain because I studied it, and I feel her pain because I, too, struggle with it.

I know what it’s like to suffer alone. So I became a therapist. Because misery loves company.

If Only…

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It’s that time of year again–after Daylight Savings Time, shortly before Thanksgiving–when I am the most at risk for a depressive episode. But this year I am determined not to have one. Or at least to control whatever is in my control to prevent one. I mean, that is always my goal, but I do have an added incentive this year: I have to be able to take care of my brother, which means I have to take care of myself.

I am happy to say that I have been much better about setting boundaries as a result of this added motivation. I can only help so many people. I can only worry about so many things at once. I can only take on so many responsibilities.

The biggest problem is that, despite all of the blog posts I’ve written about letting go of those illusions of happiness that people cling to– money, beauty, the perfect relationship, extra hours in the day–I still cling to my illusions of happiness. I feel this restlessness that can’t be soothed. I long for something that will take the edge off. I turn to something that will only provide fleeting moments of relief, at best.

Lately I’ve been turning to shopping. I know it’s compulsive. I know that the relief will be temporary. I repeat this to myself as I fill my cart, put in my credit card information, and hover over the order button.

Sometimes I can talk myself out of it for a few days. But during those days I still obsess over it. Would it really be so bad if I bought another pair of boots? Don’t I deserve some indulgence, given the crappiness of my life?

So I give in and hit order. But a few days later, I have the itch to shop again. And then I have to take money out of savings to pay my credit card bill. And then I obsess about not having any money. And then I feel deprived, so I want to buy more stuff.

The problem is, I need something to think about. And if I’m not going to fill my head with all of these illusions of happiness, then what, exactly, am I supposed to think about?  So then I try to remember what all of those mindfulness books say about happiness.

I list all of the things that I can be thankful for. This is tricky, though, because if I see an accident on the side of the road, I think, I’m glad I haven’t gotten injured in a car accident. But then my obsessive brain will be like, oh my God! What if I get in a car accident?!

So then I have to switch to practicing self-compassion and tell myself that we’re not going to focus on car accidents because that stresses you out. We’re trying to focus on things that will make you feel more content. Like, how nice the weather is today, given that it’s the middle of November.

Or I’ll try to be fully present by focusing on whatever it is I’m supposed to be doing in that moment. Like driving. Or listening to my client. Or watching UVA get killed in football. Or I’ll do something that I enjoy, like knit, or read, or write.

But eventually I give in and shop some more. So then I have to switch to practicing self-compassion again and remind myself that I’m doing the best that I can.

It’s a lot of work, quite honestly. But it does occupy my mind with something other than illusions of happiness. So I’ll keep practicing and see if it keeps me from getting depressed.

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Do you think I bought too many shoes?

Why the Incredible Hulk is a Poor Role Model for Stress Management

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In a previous post, I made the argument that post-apocalyptic strategies for motivation like inducing the fight-or-flight response, our bodies’ emergency system reserved for life-or-death situations, is not the most efficient use of our psychological energy. It is akin to setting off the fire alarm in your house to wake up in the morning.

Despite its inefficiency, it is still our go-to response. Perhaps it’s a product of our culture, where being stressed and overworked is a sign of being important. We’re always rushing to meetings, trying to make deadlines, eating lunch while we work.

Perhaps it’s because we value the warrior mentality. We like the idea that we can push ourselves to the limit, overcoming Mother Nature, physical exhaustion, and psychological duress. This is the premise behind many reality TV shows. It’s what makes sports and war movies entertaining.

I, too, like the thrill of pushing myself to the limit. I take great pride in channeling my inner warrior on the court. Which I did last night in the deciding game in our tennis match. And it was worth it, because now my team advances to districts.

Even the role models for our children idealize using extreme psychological states for motivation. Take, for example, the Incredible Hulk. In the TV series (my favorite version), the Incredible Hulk got his powers from a Jekyll and Hyde-type experiment in which Dr. David Banner was trying to figure out how to summon superhuman strength after his wife died in a car accident. However, his attempt to capitalize on the fight-or-flight response lead to an accidental overexposure to gamma radiation. Afterwards, whenever he became angry, the ordinarily mild-mannered Banner turned into the gigantic green creature with superhuman strength that we know and love.

In addition to his less than desirable appearance, the other drawback to the radiation overdose is that his rage is uncontrollable and usually leads to random mass destruction. Luckily, most of the time his rage hits the target and the bad guys pay the price. But it is far from an effective strategy for what Banner had originally sought, which was the power to save lives.

Don’t get me wrong; I like the Incredible Hulk. I loved the TV show. I’ve even seen several of the movies. And, admittedly, a mentally stable person who is committed to self-care and psychological energy conservation probably wouldn’t make for a very interesting Marvel comic book hero. Certainly not someone you would put on a t-shirt.

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But in real life, having a superhero complex is detrimental to your well-being. I’ve spent my life trying to save my family, friends, romantic partners, and clients. Sometimes even random strangers who happen to attend a presentation. It’s pretty taxing. It has lead to numerous depressive and anxiety episodes. I don’t recommend it.

Despite my commitment to non-catostrophic motivational strategies, I’m still prone to pushing myself to the limit over things that are not life-or-death. Like playing tennis 7 days in a row in 100 degree weather for no good reason. Still, I am more selective about who I try to save, what fires I choose to put out, and what challenges are worth taking on. And it has really helped with my depression and anxiety.

So it turns out that giving up post-apocalyptic strategies has been a life-saver.