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Adventures in Blogging: Six Years Later

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I wrote my first blog post on September 24, 2013.  At that time, my goals were to take some preliminary steps towards writing a book. Like writing stuff down and letting people read it. Because I had never written anything about myself that I thought was good enough to share. I figured blogging could be my version of exposure therapy–just throw myself out there, with all my weaknesses, secrets, and embarrassing moments. Make myself vulnerable to the world.

Fortunately, not many people read my blog, so it wasn’t too painful. And the people who read it were mostly my friends and family. And people who could relate to my problems. Which turns out to be almost everyone. The response has been overwhelmingly positive, in fact. It turns out that the things I was so reluctant to share are the very things that have improved through the process of blogging. So I thought I’d share my progress with you, since you helped me to be the person I am today.

  1. Self-care. This has actually become one of my areas of expertise. Which is kind of ironic, because I was pretty terrible at it when I started my blog. I never got enough sleep and often had to binge sleep on weekends and breaks. I would get hypoglycemic because I wouldn’t make eating a priority. I coughed all the time, couldn’t breathe, and threw up on occasion but didn’t bother to find out what was wrong with me. I would only allow myself to consult my therapist in emergency situations. I had a terrible relationship with my body. To be honest, I still struggle with all of these things, but the difference is that I’m committed to making self-care a priority. When I falter, I forgive myself and renew my vow. And it makes a big difference, having someone who is committed to caring for me.
  2. Self-compassion. At the time I started my blog 6 years ago, I was separated from my second husband and dating someone who I couldn’t stand and filled me with self-loathing. We broke up shortly thereafter, and that was the first time I had ever been single. Most people never knew what was going on in my relationships because I feared that people would judge me, and I already judged myself harshly enough. I didn’t need the extra guilt and shame. But in freeing myself from the pressure of seeming like I had it all together, I was able to forgive myself for my mistakes. And I have become less judgmental of other people, too. Or at least I am committed to being less judgmental of myself and others.
  3. Boundaries. Before I started my blog, I only had a vague idea of what boundaries were. Probably because I didn’t have any. I never said no. If someone needed something and I could provide it, I felt it was my duty to give them what they wanted. I couldn’t distinguish my feelings from someone else’s feelings. I knew what other people wanted but I had no idea what I wanted. There were no boundaries in my thoughts, either. Everything ran together in this litany of worry that played over and over, like an anxiety playlist on repeat. Practicing mindfulness has helped me to put some boundaries in place, but I still struggle in all of these areas. But that’s OK. In mindfulness, there is no goal to achieve. No grade to earn. I just need to keep practicing.
  4. Warriorism. I love a challenge. A difficult relationship. A complicated knitting pattern. Being so tough that I can throw up during a match but keep going, win or lose. But I have learned that, while it’s good to know that you are capable of doing hard things, that doesn’t mean that you need to make everything hard to do. So now I take my drugs for all my conditions, take time off from playing when my body tells me to, let go of people who do more harm than good, and sometimes knit really easy things, like scarves. Because I imagine even warriors take it easy when they’re not in battle.

2019 has been a tough year, and the school year has already begun with some unique challenges. But I feel up to the task. I am committed to caring for myself. Being kind to myself. Saying yes to what I want and no to what I don’t want. Being selective about the challenges I take on. And blogging.

How Do I Learn to Love Myself?

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You know how people say you can’t love others until you love yourself? Well, it’s trite, but true.

The reason you have to love yourself first is because, if you don’t, then in every relationship your focus is on getting the other person to reassure you that you are lovable. Which is not a reliable source of reassurance. Sometimes people are distracted, or in a bad mood, or equally preoccupied with wanting you to prove that you love them. Which leads to a lot of fights that center around accusations and demands.

Before I could even say what the rules were, I learned that I had to prove I was worthy of love in a variety of ways. And it wasn’t enough to be good. I had to be perfect. The best, if possible. The #1 seed on the tennis team with an undefeated record and no unforced errors in any of my matches, for example. And in the rare cases in which I could achieve this moment of perfection, the target moved. The carrot stick just a bit further, still out of my reach. I needed to work harder. Be better.

I’m not saying this to blame my parents. I know that they were under the same kind of pressure from their parents. Which they learned from their parents. And I did the same thing in my relationships. It’s painful to remember all of the unreasonable demands that I made on other people. How nothing was ever enough to reassure me that I was loved. If I wanted him to buy me flowers, and then he bought me flowers, I’d be like, you just did that because I told you to so you don’t really love me. It was a no one situation for both of us.

Not so long ago, I hit rock bottom. I couldn’t stand being this person in my relationships anymore. Which is why I embarked on that 4 year journey of solitude. I was determined to love myself, even if it killed me!

How does one learn to do this, you ask? Because you can just be like, I love myself! Done. Ready for love. I didn’t have examples of what that looked like, and there weren’t any textbooks on it in grad school. Self-love 101. So it has been a very slow process. Like learning a second language on your own. It has only been in the last decade or so that I have found any helpful advice on how to cultivate self-love, and that was when I learned about self-compassion. Which I write about a lot. But rather than make you go back and read 300+ blog posts, I’ll give you a cheat sheet on what I have learned so far.

  1. Forgive yourself for the love you didn’t give. We are all going about life, trying to love and be loved, using whatever limited resources we have at our disposal.
  2. Forgive others for the love you didn’t get. The same thing applies to them.
  3. Remind yourself that your feelings count. Even if you don’t know why. Or it doesn’t seem like a good enough reason. Or the feelings don’t go away when you want them to. Be willing to be there, with your pain, for as long as necessary.
  4. Embrace who you are, exactly as you are, in this moment. Your flaws. Your mistakes. The embarrassing things you’ve said and done. You don’t have to be perfect to be worthy of love.
  5. Strive to love better. Most forms of self-improvement come from a place of unworthiness. I don’t think we ever convince ourselves that we are worthy, but we can try to love ourselves–and others–despite all of our glorious imperfections. And it feels way better than blaming and shaming.

These steps have become my daily practice. My self-love workout. But despite my daily practice, my internal monologue still doesn’t sound very loving at times. But I try to forgive myself. Try to accept wherever I am in this moment on the path to wholeheartedness.

What Winners Do, Part 2

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This weekend my tennis team made it to the semifinals in the state tournament. This is not an easy feat. It is only the 3rd time I’ve experienced it in my 15 years of playing in leagues. A few years ago I wrote about What Winners Do after districts that focused on positive self-talk and mindfulness. This run at Regionals reminded me of some other things that winners do.

  1. Winners don’t make excuses. My tennis partner started cramping at the beginning of one of our matches but didn’t tell me. And she said it didn’t affect her game. I believe her because she plays through a lot of injuries and ailments. Some players tell you that they haven’t played in weeks. Or they ran 3 miles before the match. Or they’ve been nursing an injured hamstring. Sometimes before play even begins. Just in case they lose. Just so you know… it’s not their fault. Players like Federer and Nadal don’t even reveal that they were struggling with an injury until well after their loss. Because winners aren’t afraid to lose.
  2. Winners put their team first. As with any sport, playing time is a big deal. You take it personally when you aren’t in the lineup at Regionals because you paid a lot of money to be there. We don’t have sponsors like professional players do. Plus, it makes you feel like your game isn’t good enough to be in the lineup. But this weekend, our captain did not put herself in the lineup for our semifinals match, even though she is a strong player, because it didn’t benefit the team overall. In my experience, not many captains put their team before their own personal interests. But that’s what winners do.
  3. Winners learn from difficult losses. In one of our matches in the semifinals the opponent made 3 bad calls. Unlike professional tennis, at our level you are expected to be honest and make your own line calls. However, at Regionals you can call an official to watch if you think your opponent is cheating. Even though my teammate was upset by the other player’s poor sportsmanship, she said she learned an important lesson about asking for an official next time. Because that’s what winners do.
  4. Winners come up with new strategies. Last night at the U.S. Open, Maria Sharapova got crushed by Serena Williams. She probably had no chance of winning, but one of the things Sharapova has been criticized for is not changing her game plan. She hits hard, and if she’s losing, she hits harder. She won’t stand further back if her opponent has a good serve. She doesn’t try to use drop shots or lobs. Federer also played last night and lost the first set to some guy that no one has ever heard of. You could see him trying different tactics after that, determined to find a way to win even though he wasn’t playing well. Because that’s what winners do.

In an effort to be more like Serena and Federer, our team has decided to change our strategy for next year. We’re going to adopt a team uniform, because that’s what the best teams do. We’re going to get the outfit that Serena wore last night in her win. Even though her outfits aren’t always flattering, she’s still one of the greatest tennis players of all time. And it would be a perfectly legal way to distract our opponents!

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The Power of the Pause

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Remember how I said I have trouble with transitions? Well, it turns out that everyone has trouble with transitions. And I thought it was just me! (By the way, if you ever think that something is just you, it’s not true. This is really how everyone thinks and feels.)

This summer, in an effort to recoup after a challenging academic year, I decided to up my mindfulness practice by pausing more often in transition from one thing to the next. Because I had this mini epiphany that mindfulness is actually about creating pauses. At the most basic level, it’s about pausing between a thought or feeling and how I respond to it.

For example, I started having anxiety attacks the week before work started because I kept getting work emails asking me to answer questions, check my schedule, review this thing, take this assessment, etc. I tried to ignore them, but once they popped up on my screen, I had to read them. You know. Because I’m OCD. If you’re thinking, well why don’t you just turn off those notifications, Christy? It’s because while I was single for 4 years and never got any texts, every time I looked at my phone, my inner demons would be like, don’t even bother checking. No one gives a crap about you. So I turned on my notifications for everything so I could be like, take that, demons! You don’t know me!

But I digress. What was I saying? Oh yeah. Pauses. Actually, that’s a good example of a pause. Those inner demons are constantly trying to make us think we are worthless, and without taking a pause, we believe them. If you put a pause between the thought no one gives a crap about you and the automatic thought that comes up after that, which is something like, I’m unlovable, lots of useful things can happen. You can ask yourself, is that thought true? No, actually. It’s not. I just had dinner with a friend last night. And I’m playing tennis with more friends tonight. So some people must like me. That’s just my inner demons, doing what they always do. Persistent little buggers.

So then, based on something a client said (clients often have really good ideas), I decided to insert more pauses into my daily routine. Before I ate something to give thanks. Before I turned on the TV to see if there was something else that would be more helpful. Before reading the next chapter, to let what I just read sink in.

And it really helped. Before I used to go through my self-care routine like a to do list. Meditate–check. Take meds–check. Stretch–check. Just going through the motions, trying to get them out of the way. But then I remembered how another client had talked about a book she was reading that encouraged treating even the most mundane activity as though it were sacred. Which is what mindfulness is about. This moment, while you’re folding clothes, matters. Regardless of how you feel about it. Or what you have to do afterwards. Be here. Experience it. It will never come again.

Perhaps sometimes that’s what we want when we’re bored or sad. Or filled with dread about school starting. But perhaps when you look back at some point you’ll think, wow, I spent that last week of vacation obsessing about school so much that I didn’t even get to enjoy it. Or, remember when I had a job? Those were the good old days. Or some other thought that makes you realize that there were a lot of good things going on in that moment when you thought it wasn’t so great.

And you know how we can try not to take those things for granted? With pauses. They require no special training. No therapy needed. No self-help books. You can’t do it wrong. And even taking one will make a difference.

Try it out. See what you think.

A History of Trauma

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There were 3 mass shootings last week. Three. Last week. Although there is only talk about 2 of them, because I guess not enough people got killed in the first one. I used to think about how hard it would be to live in the Middle East, where children are trained to be suicide bombers whose goal is to kill as many people as possible before sacrificing their own lives. Have we become a culture that does the same thing?

I just finished reading All the Light We Cannot See. It was interesting to read what WWII was like from the German side. And a reminder of how traumatic war is. It seems the only way to survive was to forget–all that you saw. All that you lost. All of the things you did. All of the things you didn’t do. Forget that you saw dead bodies strewn about, or piled up in large heaps, and just went about your business. Maybe you even contributed in some way, directly or indirectly, to killing them yourself. But what other choice did you have, really, but to focus on your own survival? How could someone who lived through something so horrifying not have PTSD? It’s too much to process. Too horrible to make sense of.

In the book Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma, Peter Levine argues that war is a reenactment of unhealed trauma that repeats itself at the individual, generational, and cultural level. That’s deep. Even in the Bible humanity begins with murder. Brother killing brother. And the aggressor survives, earns his right to pass down his genes to the next generation.

In my own family, I can see the effects of trauma in some of my nieces and nephews and can trace the pain of it back to my grandparents. I’m sure it goes further back than that. I just don’t know their stories. Although I wasn’t consciously aware of it at the time, this is why I chose not to have kids. At some level, I knew that I would do more harm than good. People who know me would say this isn’t true, but I know that trauma happens all the time and is often invisible to us. Even when we see it, we can become desensitized to it. And even when we know it’s happening to people we love, we sometimes look the other way.

I also read Maybe You Should Talk to Someone, by Lori Gottlieb–a therapist who talks about her own therapy, as well as the work with her clients. A book that I had wanted to write, by the way. The very reason I started this blog. So she beat me to the punch. But she isn’t as crazy as I am, so maybe there is room for 2 books about therapists who are also clients.

But I digress. One of the clients she talks about is a woman who is about to turn 70 and is going to commit suicide on her birthday unless Gottlieb can convince her that life is worth living. Talk about pressure! Turns out that part of the problem is that she doesn’t want to be happy. Or rather, she doesn’t deserve to be happy. Among her list of crimes is that when she was married to an alcoholic and abusive man who beat their children, she would walk out of the room. And she didn’t leave him for a long time. She knowingly, willingly, participated in their abuse by looking the other way. None of her children have forgiven her. Why should she?

But what power do I have to stop a cycle of violence that began with the first offspring in the history of humanity?

My client asked me this question yesterday. Felt powerless, disoriented, and anxious in a world where children can buy weapons of mass destruction and are given permission to kill other people—particularly those who are deemed to be less than human. Everyone points fingers, argues about who is to blame, but nothing happens. What can I do to have some control?

In East of Eden, John Steinbeck also wrestled with what to make of the sibling rivalry that kicked off humankind. How do we go forward after we’ve killed our brother? The answer eventually comes from Adam’s Chinese servant Lee. He decided to study Hebrew with some ancient Chinese wisemen for several years. So that he could accurately interpret the 16 lines of the Bible in which Cain’s story is told. Just for kicks. And the answer is: not matter how deep-rooted the sin, there is always a chance for redemption.

In other words, we do have some power to stop the cycle of violence. And, in my opinion, it begins with self-compassion. I told my client that he has the power to be kind to himself. To commit to creating a space in his mind that is loving. That is dedicated to self-care, acceptance, and forgiveness. It takes practice, but with time, healing takes place. And the energy you create within you and around you will be filled with compassion, so that others can feel it when they interact with you. And so forth, and so on, until we create a cycle of love that breaks the cycle of violence.

So I’m trying to take my own advice. The cycle of hatred ends with me, within me.

No Fairy Tale

Once upon a time that was a deer named Bambi who lived in the woods with her mother. Bambi’s best friend was a bunny named Thumper. Thumper would often come to Bambi’s neck of the woods and Bambi’s mom would give them milk and homemade cookies.

One day when Bambi and Thumper were out playing in a meadow nearby, a big scary metal thing with wheels came and cut down all the trees. Bambi’s home was destroyed and her mom was killed. Bambi cried and cried, and didn’t know where to go or what to do. Then Thumper told her that she knew a girl named Goldilocks who was looking for some help with cooking and cleaning. Bambi was a good cook because her mom taught her how so she decided to apply for the job.

Goldilocks lived with a family of bears. When she knocked on the door to apply for the job, Baby Bear warned her that Goldilocks was high maintenance and everyone who took the job quit within a week. But Bambi had no other choice so she applied anyway.

Because there were no other applicants, Bambi got the position. But Baby Bear was right; Goldilocks was scary. She was always complaining that nothing was ever good enough. Her food was either too hot or too cold. Her bed was too soft or too hard. Her chair was uncomfortable. Goldilocks would get mad and yell at everyone so loudly that the windows would shake.

Goldilocks liked to throw parties because she needed to be the center of attention. So at the last minute, she told Bambi she had invited a bunch of her friends and Bambi needed to clean the house and have food ready for that night. Bambi was really stressed about this but she did the best that she could, hiding stuff in closets and under beds. She didn’t have time to cook so she just bought some things from Sam’s that she could heat up quickly.

That night everyone came dressed as characters from fairy tales, because Goldilocks liked all of her parties to have a theme. The seven dwarves were there, and all the Disney princesses, and Shrek and his wife Fiona. At first everyone was having a good time, eating and singing and dancing. But then Goldilocks wanted the whole group to get together so that she could take a picture and put it on social media. She wanted to show the world how fun her parties were.

Bambi didn’t come right away when Goldilocks called because she was in the kitchen frying egg rolls. So Goldilocks had a really bad temper tantrum because she had been drinking. She screamed at Bambi in front of everyone and told her that she was stupid and ugly. Usually Goldilocks didn’t let people see this side of her so all of the guests were scared and ran away.

Bambi was scared, too, so she ran back to what was left of the woods that were her home and decided that she would sleep there for the night until Goldilocks cooled down. While she was sleeping, Bambi had a dream that her mom’s spirit came to her and whispered in her ear. Don’t go back, her mom said. Anything is better than this life. You can make it on your own. I have faith in you. Bambi felt comforted by her mom’s voice and didn’t want the dream to end.

But when she woke up, she felt alone and afraid again. The world felt unsafe, and even if Goldilocks was mean sometimes, she was also nice sometimes, and that seemed better than nothing. So she went back to Goldilocks’s house and apologized for not coming right away when Goldilocks wanted to take the picture for social media.

The family of bears moved out shortly after the party because Goldilocks’s public temper tantrum was the last straw for them. So they wished Bambi luck and gave her their new address if she ever needed them. Thumper also begged her to leave Goldilocks, but Bambi knew she would never leave so she spent less and less time with Thumper because she felt guilty and ashamed. So Bambi was left alone with Goldlocks and kept trying to find ways to please this person who would never be happy.

Bambi would often take the piece of paper out and look at the address for The Bears and try to convince herself that she was strong enough to leave and start over again. But she believed that she was stupid, because that’s what Goldilocks said to her all the time. So she stayed with Goldilocks and lived unhappily ever after.

The moral of the story: Get out of a bad situation, no matter how scary it may seem.

 

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How to Predict the Future

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If you’re psychic, this blog post does not apply to you, because you already know how to predict the future. For the rest of us, there are a range of options for predicting the future, each with their pros and cons. In this blog post, I will review the primary strategies so that you can be more informed and mindful about employing whichever one you choose.

  1. Worst-case scenario. This is the most common strategy I see in therapy. It involves things like predicting you will fail your test, and then your class, and then college altogether, and then you’ll end up flipping burgers at McDonald’s. People who use this strategy are not delusional; they know they are picking the worst-case scenario. Their argument is that if things go poorly they will be mentally prepared, and if things go well they will be pleasantly surprised. The problem with this strategy is that it causes unnecessary stress, since the worst-case scenario is not likely to happen. And, if you’re trying to practice self-care, your goal is to eliminate unnecessary stress. Plus, even if the worst-case scenario does happen, you can prepare for it then, just as well as you can prepare for it now, and save some energy.
  2. Optimism. In this strategy, people assume that things will turn out in their favor, even in cases when this might be statistically unlikely. In fact, even if your optimism is not based in reality, there is research to suggest that it is still effective in creating positive outcomes and feelings of happiness. One recommendation for how to capitalize on the benefits of optimism is to write your goals down as though you have already accomplished them. (I’m trying this out for myself and have started writing I’ve lost 10 lbs. every day to see if it works. I’ll let you know.) The downside to this strategy is that, from a mindfulness perspective on happiness, we do not need to rely on any particular outcome to be happy. Well-being can be created by learning to be fully present in this moment, whatever it looks like. Assuming that things will turn out the way we want them to, on the other hand, makes our happiness dependent on a favorable outcome.
  3. No expectations. This strategy is best illustrated in the expression “expect nothing but be prepared for everything,” which presumably came from an ancient samurai warrior, according to Jerry Lynch in The Way of the Champion. With this mindset, you do not assume that you will win, but you expect that you will do your best, regardless of the result, because doing your best is all you can control. And you expect that, whatever happens, you will learn more about yourself and become a better person because of it. This strategy is more consistent with a mindfulness approach because it does not assume that we have more control than we actually do. It also does not assume that a negative outcome is necessarily a bad thing. The biggest drawback to this strategy is that it forces us to live with the anxiety of not knowing what will happen. Our fear of uncertainty is so great that imaging ourselves failing out of school and flipping burgers at McDonald’s seems less anxiety-provoking than the ambiguity of the unknown.

It’s probably obvious what my bias is. I encourage my clients to have no expectations. When making predictions about the future, I encourage them to substitute their negative predictions with the mantra “I don’t know what will happen,” and reassure them that whatever happens, they can have faith that they will be able to figure out a solution when the time comes.