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Monthly Archives: December 2013

New Year’s Resolutions

I don’t ordinarily give specific psychological advice in my blog, but since I think New Year’s resolutions are an important opportunity for personal growth, I’m breaking that pattern.The #1 New Year’s resolution every year is to lose weight. I’m not advocating that you give up this goal, but I encourage you to add goals that will help you move closer to the person that you want to be–ways to live according to your values.

If you’ve been reading my blog, my resolutions will come as no surprise.  They are to:

  1. Blog 2-3x/week.
  2. Ask for help when I need it.
  3. Say yes to what I want and no to what I don’t want.

The biggest problem with New Year’s resolutions is that they are usually forgotten by February. But not this year! Here are some tips for making the most out of your resolutions:

  1. Make your goals public. Tell your friends and family.  Tweet, post, and blog about it. Whatever will keep you accountable.
  2. Use positive language.  Rather than having the goal of losing weight, reframe it as eating healthier, exercising more, learning a new sport.
  3. Make specific goals.  Make a plan for how you will exercise more: I’ll go to the gym 3x/week, I’ll take tennis lessons.
  4. Focus on the process.  Life is more about how we choose to live it than the end result.  Most of our lives are spent in the process; the outcome is just a pit stop.
  5. Take stock of your progress.  I suggest that you do it periodically throughout the year. At the end of the year you can decide if you want to recommit to this goal.
If you feel discouraged about your progress this past year, I leave you with one of my favorite inspirational poems. My favorite lines are: “You are a child of the universe no less than the trees and stars; you have a right to be here.  Whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.”
So take heart that you are on the right path, even if it seems that you are lost.  And take this opportunity to set an intention for the direction that you want your life to take.

Moms

I watched the Secret Life of Walter Mitty on Christmas (Warning: Spoiler Alert!).  In addition to the theme of what it means to live a full life, I also liked the more subtle theme about how mom’s save the day.

For example, it is the mom’s cake that is used as currency for passage into forbidden territories. The mom’s piano is sold to cover Mitty’s worldly adventures.  The mom’s photograph of the piano leads Mitty to Sean O’Connell.  And ultimately, it is the mom’s rescue of the wallet that allows us to find out what the shot was on negative 25.

Yes, we want a life filled with risks and adventures.  But these risks and adventures are often made possible thanks to the home base that mom’s provide through their more mundane, everyday activities.

My mom is a superhero.  While I was home for Christmas, she hosted our Christmas Eve party. She cooked every day.  She went to work on Thursday and Friday–as a physician, no less–while the rest of us lounged around the house.  She carefully packed up our food in ice as my brothers and I left for home, one by one.  The only gift she asked for was that we all come home for Christmas.  This is the only gift she ever asks for, regardless of the occasion.

But there are disadvantages to having a superhero for a mom.  It’s impossible to live up to the example that she has set.  She often does know best, and I hate being wrong.  She is aware of her superhero status and takes every opportunity to remind me of it.  But I guess she has earned her bragging rights, and then some.

Often it is when children become parents themselves that they fully appreciate all that their moms have done for them.  I do not have children and do not plan on having any unless it is through divine intervention.  So the best I can do is to practice gratitude for all the big and small things that my mom has done to help me become the person I am today.

So this blog is dedicated to her, and to moms everywhere.

Forgetting

Based on people’s comments about my post on forgiveness, it seems that forgiving others is more of a problem for most people than forgiving oneself.  So I thought I’d say more about that.

I think that we should forgive but not forget.  We have memories and feelings for a reason; they are survival mechanisms.  If someone has hurt you or someone can’t be trusted, you want to remember that.  You want to avoid people who can hurt you and cause you pain–especially if they have no remorse for doing so.

Forgiveness does not condone the other person’s actions.  And the other person doesn’t have to earn your forgiveness by apologizing.  You forgive them because it benefits you to let go of anger. Because it allows you to take away their power to hurt you.

Although we always deserve an apology when someone has wronged us, we don’t always get one. Sometimes it has to be enough to know that you were wronged and to forgive so that you can control the suffering that is in your control.

However, you might want to reconsider being in a relationship with someone who never apologizes for hurting you.

The part of our brain that houses emotional memories makes no distinction between past, present, or future.  It does not know whether the pain is real or imagined.  It does not remember whether the person apologized or whether you have forgiven them.  The pain is always fresh and new.  This is why people have flashbacks in Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

I don’t have PTSD, but I am an emotional person with an excellent memory.  So it doesn’t take much to trigger a memory of something that someone has said or done to hurt me.  When that happens, it is as though I am living that moment all over again, and my feelings are as intense as they were when it first happened.

This is why forgiveness is an on-going process.  You don’t decide to forgive and suddenly all the anger and hurt are gone.  You forgive, and then the memory comes up, and you forgive again.  And again.  And again.  And maybe in some moments you decide not to forgive because you’re really mad this time.  And then you start all over.

Forgiveness requires patience, because our heart does not follow the time table of our mind.  You cannot will yourself to be ready to forgive; you just have to be open to forgiveness and wait for your heart to follow.

I find great comfort in this because of my excessive guilt problem.  Wherever I am in the forgiveness process is OK–even if it’s more on the “I hate this person” end–because in Buddhism, you accept all of your thoughts and feelings without judgment or criticism.  At some point, I trust that my heart will be in a different place.

I may not be there today, or tomorrow, or next week even, but at some point I will be at peace.

Photo courtesy of Allison Szuba

 

Love

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
***

I don’t mean to sound blasphemous, but I’ve always had a problem with this definition of love.  I have never been able to love anyone in this way, nor have I ever been loved in this way.  Not from another human being, at least.  This may be the way that God loves us, but for me, this standard minimizes the value of the imperfect love that we offer to one another.

Being with my family for several days is a prime example of how painful and complicated love can be. We have all been impatient, unkind, envious, and proud with one another at some point.  I could go through the entire paragraph, but you get the idea.  Yet I have never questioned my love for my family or their love for me. It is the most enduring love that I have known and that I will know in this lifetime.

Perhaps it is my harsh superego and my perfectionism that tortures me with quotes like this one.  My demons turn what is supposed to be a helpful guideline for how to love into something that makes me feel inadequate and guilty. But I know that I am not the only one who feels this way.  I know many people who berate themselves and others for not being able to give and receive this kind of love.

The messages about love that have been most helpful to me are that God is love, and that we are to love our neighbor as ourselves.  I take this to mean that love for self, others, and God are all the same; you cannot truly experience one without the others.

This should come as no surprise to you if you have been following my blog, but for me the most difficult part is loving myself.  And this is often true for the people I see in therapy, too.  It helps to commit to loving myself when I think of it as a necessary part of the equation.

Surprisingly, blogging has been an opportunity to experience this trinity of love.  As I have mentioned in a previous post, I started this blog with the intention of helping other people.  I was not expecting it to be a way of receiving help.  And I certainly wasn’t expecting it to bring me closer to God.  Yet here is another post that ends with God.

Striving to give and receive this kind of love is still a tall order, but for me, it’s a more hopeful goal than striving to love perfectly.

Gratitude

Over the past few weeks I have been praying for a way to take in what I love about Christmas. Singing Christmas songs.  The lights and decorations.  The food.  Having my entire family together. And reflecting on the significance of having our Savior born in the most humble beginnings.

I looked at the news headlines about the homily Pope Francis gave last night, and true to my prediction, it was a message of acceptance and forgiveness.  The quote that stood out to me was the reminder that Jesus was all-powerful but he made himself vulnerable for us.  There is great strength in vulnerability; it is His vulnerability that redeems us.

In this blog I have made myself vulnerable by sharing all of the thoughts and feelings that I usually keep to myself.  After writing my post on forgiveness and reading people’s responses, that was the most vulnerable I have felt thus far.

People who have never been depressed do not realize what a dark place it is to be in.  For example, “normal” people can make themselves happier by practicing gratitude, by reflecting on people who are less fortunate than themselves, by counting their blessings.  The assumption is that sadness and gratitude are mutually exclusive.

When you are depressed, your demons turn this well-meaning advice into further evidence that you are a bad person for being depressed because you are not able to snap out of it, despite all the things you have to be thankful for.  So it is especially difficult to practice gratitude when you are depressed because it often makes you feel worse.

However, my spiritual guru is the Franciscan Priest Richard Rohr, and one of the most helpful things that he emphasizes is that spirituality is not either/or, as we tend to think in Western religions. It is not good or bad, right or wrong.  Spirituality is both/and.  So I can practice gratitude and still be depressed.  They can both be true, and that’s OK.

Today I am already thankful for many things.  I am thankful that the party wasn’t as overwhelming as I feared it would be.  That the homily last night had a message that was meaningful to me.  That I’ve had meaningful conversations with two of my brothers, and in a few hours my other brother and his family will be here.  I am thankful for the friends who have already sent me texts to wish me Merry Christmas.

And I am thankful for this blog.  I think God gave me this blog because He knew that these next few months would be difficult.  So He gave me a way to share my pain, to reach out to others, and to ask for help.  It really is true that making ourselves vulnerable may be the most powerful thing we can do to experience love and connect with other people.  I think that this is what Jesus would want us to experience most of all on His birthday.

So I am thankful to all of you who have taken the time to read my blog on Christmas Day.  And I thank my friend Sharon for giving me the cartoon below.

 

Forgiveness

In Buddhism, one of my favorite meditations is the one on forgiveness.  In this meditation, you reflect on the 3 types of forgiveness:  asking forgiveness from those whom you have hurt, forgiving those who have hurt you, and forgiving yourself for self-harm.

As I mentioned in a previous post, because of my fear of going to hell, I have no problem asking for forgiveness for real and imagined sins.  I also do my best to forgive those who have hurt me because I believe it is a gift to myself to do so.  Sometimes the best I can do is to have the intention to forgive, but in Buddhism that is enough.

From my personal and professional experience, self-forgiveness is often the hardest one to practice. One of my parts is a judge who doles out punishments for non-existent crimes.  This is fairly common for people who struggle with depression and anxiety.

This weekend I had to repeatedly remind myself that it’s not my fault that I’m depressed.  I cannot even articulate what I have done wrong, yet somehow I feel I have failed at something.  I didn’t wake up early enough.  I went to bed too late.  I didn’t make enough of an effort to ask for help.  I am being too needy.  I stayed too long in my previous relationship.  I’m not being forgiving enough or letting go of anger fast enough.

This is how the internal judge is: it can argue both ways, and either way it’s your fault.

I think that one of the reasons that we neglect to practice self-forgiveness is that it’s not emphasized as much as the other two.  For example, in the Our Father, we ask God to forgive us for our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.  I am certain that God would also want us to forgive ourselves, but there’s no line in there explicitly giving us permission to do so.

But I am hopeful that this will change with Pope Francis.  I confess, I have never been excited about a pope before, but I believe that Pope Francis is an enlightened being.  I believe that Mandela was one, as well.  So it’s only fitting that as one enlightened being leaves this world, God gives us another one to maintain equilibrium in the universe.  I am hopeful that we will hear more from him about acceptance and forgiveness and less about judgement and sin.

So take that, Judge!

I picked this doodle because it sort of looks like snow.

Angels

I’ve been thinking about writing a post on angels, but since I’ve been feeling down it didn’t really fit my state of mind.  But then “It’s a Wonderful Life” happened to be on last night, so I took that as a sign that I should go ahead and write the post.

For a long time I wasn’t sure what to believe about God.  I was raised Catholic, but a lot of the beliefs of the Catholic church were not consist with my idea of God.  Although Pope Francis is changing this, to some degree.

I read lots of different books to try to find God.  As I mentioned in a previous post, the books on Near Death Experiences (NDE) were the ones that were the most helpful.  For one thing, they are poorly written.  The authors have clearly never aspired to be writers, and often they didn’t want to write the book at all.  So writing a book about their near death experience didn’t seem like a ploy to get published.

The most convincing of these books was “My Descent into Death,” by Howard Storm, because he went to hell before he went to heaven.  Who would admit to that?  Plus, throughout the book he continued to argue and complain to God and never seemed particularly pious, which made his account seem even more genuine.

Storm dedicates an entire chapter to angels at the end of his book.  I have always liked the idea of angels but did not realize they were so numerous and so involved in our lives.  I thought we might have a guardian angel and that there were a bunch in heaven, singing and rejoicing when we arrived, but that’s about it.

Storm says that angels always want to intervene and help us but aren’t allowed to do so unless God gives them permission.  And when people with NDE’s come back to earth and are depressed about it, usually because they have sustained horrible injuries from their accident that take years to recover from, angels appear to them to give them encouragement.

Even research shows that praying for other people helps.  My theory is that when we pray for someone else, God allows angels to intervene.  So now most of my prayers include angels.  If I’m having a really hard time, I ask God to temporarily send me a few extra angels to get me through. Or if someone I know is suffering, I tell God to send that person one of my angels so they can have extra.

And of course, when UVA is losing, I occasionally resort to prayer and ask God to send an angel to help them win.

The winter is always a hard time for me, because most forms of depression are affected by lack of sunlight.  Plus I am still getting used to being alone and having to be proactive if I want to see anyone, and I don’t have much energy to do so.  And this holiday I don’t have a lot planned to look forward to. Ordinarily, even if I’m feeling depressed, I can still get into Christmas.  But not this year.  I haven’t even bought my gifts yet, and usually I am compulsively early about everything.

But there’s still time, and I’m hopeful that at some point something will kick in and I will be able to embrace the holidays with the enthusiasm that I apply to all of the things I love.  At least that’s what I pray for.

And if you believe in angels, feel free to ask God to send a couple of extras my way.

Photo courtesy of Jennifer Harvey Frye