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Monthly Archives: December 2013

In Times of War

I find it fascinating to read accounts of the things people do to survive in times of war.  I will never forget reading this memoir of a refugee from Korea.  She described how one mother threw her baby in the river while she was fleeing.  That has become my symbol of survival at all costs–throwing your baby in the river.

One of the things I love about tennis is that you get to see what people would be like in times of war.  Competition can bring out the best and worst in people.  There are tennis players like Federer and Nadal, who are warriors but also class acts on and off the court.

And then there are players who couldn’t be nicer off the court, but get them in a losing match and you’ve got rackets, curse words, and insults flying everywhere.  They question every line call.  They cheat.  They resort to gamesmanship.  They do whatever it takes to win.  You probably know some of these people.  I have no doubt that in a war, these people would have a better chance of surviving than I would.

But I also read this book called The Noonday Demon where the author interviewed people all over the world to get different perspectives on depression.  One of the interviews was with this tribe that fought bitterly in a civil war to survive, but once the war was over many of them committed suicide. 

Apparently, the things you have to do to survive make it hard to live with yourself after you’ve won.

I try to play with people who are competitive but are still the same person on and off the court.  That’s why in my mixed doubles partner ad, I said I wanted a partner who demonstrates good sportsmanship, has a positive attitude, and never stops fighting for the win.  I want to win, but most importantly, I want to be around people whose company I enjoy.

I think that for the most part, I am the person I strive to be on the court.  In fact, I find it easier to be the person I want to be in tennis than I do in real life.  But because I don’t want to win at all costs, combined with the excessive empathy problem, I’d probably reduce my chances of survival by doing something like helping someone who has no chance of making it.

But then again, we never know how things are going to turn out.  We don’t know if we’re going to win or lose, survive or perish–because all the factors aren’t in our control.  So I try to make choices that I can live with, regardless of the outcome.

Breakups

I have always found it strange that you can be so close to someone that you know all their habits, quirks, and life history, and then you break up and you have nothing to do with them.

Before, you knew what they’re schedule was for the day, what they ate for breakfast, what deep and meaningful thoughts they’ve had, if any.  Now you don’t know anything because you’re not there anymore, sharing the same space, sleeping in the same bed.

But you also find out that you didn’t know the person as well as you thought.  The process of breaking up itself teaches you things about your partner–how they deal with loss, how important you are, how hard they’ll fight for something they believe in.

To me, the saddest thing of all is how cruel the other person can be in the breaking up process.  How they can act like someone who never loved you at all.  As though you had never made vows to spend the rest of your lives together.  Suddenly they can become a person who despises you and your sadness.

I’ve had the good fortune of not being broken up with in this way, but I have to admit, I understand why people do it.  Personally, I preferred the passive approach.  I always had an exit strategy–a guy who conveniently fell in love with me and could help me leave.  A guy whose needs I could focus on to drown out the pain of hurting the other person.

It’s shameful to admit, and it’s so inconsistent with the person I see myself as being, the person that I strive to be.  But there it is, example after example of exit strategies in my relationship history.

In my second marriage, I toyed with anger and exit strategies, but in the end I decided that I was going to have to stay in the relationship until I could leave in a respectful way.  I had to find a way to be loving to both of us, or I wasn’t allowed to leave at all.

I am proud that I did at least honor that commitment.  But I can see why people don’t leave in this way.  It’s easier to vilify the person to justify why you’ve left.  Much easier than it is to hurt a good person who didn’t do anything to deserve it.

This is the hardest part of the empathy/pick me thing.  Because no matter what happens, you’re still going to get hurt.  To this day, it still makes me cry, even as I write this, knowing that I caused him pain.  I think I might even be sadder about it than he is at this point.

The only consolation I can find is that if you at least try to leave in love rather than hate, you minimize whatever pain is in your control.

Empathy

Sometimes you can have too much empathy.

One of the reasons why it seems like I want to save the world (which I don’t–just the people I’ve met) is because I can feel other people’s pain as though it were my own.  When they are hurting, I’m hurting. So it’s really for selfish reasons that I help other people; I don’t like being in pain.

When I worked in day care after I graduated from college, the children who had the most difficult time adjusting were the ones who were attached to me.  In case you are worried about your children being in day care, rest assured that there were some kids who loved it so much that they didn’t want to go home. 

But not these kids.  These were the kids who cried from the moment their parents dropped them off until they picked them up in the afternoon.  And this would go on for weeks.  It actually drove me crazy.  I didn’t feel positively towards them at all.  Which is why I could never understand why they were attached to me.

Now I think it’s because I could feel their pain, so I would break the rules and hold them all day because it’s the only thing that comforted them.  And it turns out that being held is one of the best ways to soothe people.  So next time you’re feeling upset, ask for a hug from someone you care about.  Or do something that feels like a hug, like take a warm bath or wrap yourself up in a blanket.

Sometimes I feel like I’m a receiver that picks up the emotional equivalent of radio waves.  I’m bombarded by all of these feelings, all the time.  Sometimes I don’t even know where they’re coming from.  I wish I could just turn the receiver off every now and then, or at least turn down the volume.  Anything to have some relief from the constant noise.

The best solution I’ve been able to come up with is the yes and no thing: yes to what I want, no to what I don’t want.  I need to choose the people who I’m around more carefully.  If it’s someone who doesn’t take responsibility for dealing with their own feelings, I need to stay away.  I can barely deal with my own feelings.

It sounds cold and calculated, but I always tell clients that if it comes down to you and someone else, you have to pick you, because there’s no guarantee that anyone else will.

So from now on, I’m going to try to pick me.

Photo courtesy of  Maria Roman

Q & A

Since no one asked me any questions in my recent blog survey, I thought I would just make up some questions and answer them, because I like to pretend I’m being interviewed.  Who knows?  Maybe I will be interviewed one day.

Q:  Do you ever worry that your clients are going to read your blog and decide that you’re too crazy to be their therapist?

A:  Yes.  All the time.

In fact, I recently found out that a parent of one of my clients read my blog on perfectionism, and for a moment it made me reconsider this whole blogging thing.  But she didn’t tell her daughter to transfer, so that was encouraging.  I’ve had clients transfer to other therapists before, so if they decided to transfer after reading my blog, I guess I can live with that.  You can’t be all things to all people.  Although I do still try to be.

Q:  Are the posts where you write about different parts of yourself based on any particular theory?

A:  The idea of conceptualizing our problems into separate parts of ourselves actually comes from two of my favorite theories: narrative therapy and internal family systems therapy.  In narrative therapy, a mental disorder is conceptualized as an entity separate from the client.  This helps the client and family stay focused on treating the problem rather than blaming the client for not getting better.  “Life without Ed,” by Jenni Schaefer, is one of the most well-known books that illustrates how this therapy works with eating disorders.

Internal Family Systems therapy is the other form of treatment that focuses on parts of the client.  The main premise is that these parts have become extreme in their efforts to help the person.  So for example, the inner critic tries to motivate you to do your best, but in an eating disorder this may mean starving yourself to be thin enough.  So in working with this part, you acknowledge that it has good intentions and try to come up with other ways that it can be helpful.  Ordinarily, we just feel overwhelmed by self-loathing, so this is a much better alternative.

I think the idea of parts can be useful for anyone as a way to have self-compassion and self-acceptance of the aspects of ourselves that we don’t like.  Usually these parts have a sort of archetypal feel to them, which is why people have the experience of thinking exactly like I do.  The reality is, this is how everyone thinks.  It’s just that no one wants to admit it because they’re afraid that it means they’re crazy.

Q:  Have you ever suffered from a mental illness?

A:  Yes.  I struggle with anxiety all the time.  In fact, I have been so consistently anxious all my life that I didn’t realize that it was severe enough to be a disorder until after I got my Ph.D.

I am also prone to depression and had a fairly severe episode at the same time my dad did about 4 years ago.  The other severe bout of depression that I had was when I was 18, and that was the last time my dad was depressed, too.  I’ve had a lot of less intense episodes of depression, as well.  I probably had dysthymia (a more chronic, lower grade depression) from the age of 13 until I started meds for the first time, which was when I was about 30.

I have to do a lot to make sure that I don’t trigger anxiety and depressive episodes, which is why I obsess so much about sleep, eating, exercise, meds, relaxation, etc.  Sometimes it doesn’t matter what I do, because sometimes life is just stressful and overwhelming.  But it is scary when I start feeling like I’m going back to that dark place.  Particularly with depression.  When I’m feeling anxious I can take an Ativan and that’s often enough.  When I’m depressed, there’s sometimes nothing I can do in the moment to feel better.  I can see why people self-medicate with alcohol and other drugs.  It is very painful to be depressed.

Q:  You mention that you want to turn your blog into a book.  What would the book be about?

A:  My plan is to blog until I have 100 posts.  Then I’ll pick the most popular posts and turn them into longer anecdotes. That way, even if someone has read my entire blog, they would still have a reason to buy the book.  A book would allow me to reach even more people, because then I’d get to make public appearances and have more visibility.

Although I am surprised at how much these posts are helping people already.  And if it turns out that I never get my book published, I will reach more people through this blog than I could ever reach through individual therapy alone. Plus blogging is a gift to myself, so I will continue to blog no matter what happens.

But I will get my book published, even if I have to do it myself.

Friendship

Last night we had our 2nd Annual Charlie Brown Christmas Party.  The party was named after last year’s tree, which looked like this:
 
 
This year the tree was more normal looking but my friends were more comedic, as you can see in this picture:

We even had prizes for Christmas attire:  Ugliest sweater, Most Festive, and Prettiest Sweater.  Guess which person won each prize from the picture below:

I am so thankful to have such good friends.

In my first marriage my husband and I were everything to each other–just like in love songs and romantic movies–but we didn’t have many friends.  Perhaps at some level we feared that if we told people what our relationship was really like, they would see how fragile our marriage was.

I believe that lessons are often learned from tragedy, pain, and hardship–particularly lessons you don’t want to learn.  What I learned from that relationship is that no single person can be everything you need.  And when you lose that person who has tried to be your everything, you are left with nothing. 

So I vowed never to allow myself to be that socially isolated again, and I have done a pretty good job of honoring that commitment.  In addition to playing and captaining all of those tennis teams, I also organize most of our social events and play the MC at the parties, making sure that our time is evenly spent between eating, singing karaoke, and playing board games. 

However, I am still more inclined to play the role of therapist with my friends than friend in need.  And I use all the same excuses that my clients use for not asking for help:  I am a burden, a broken record, a person whose feelings may be too much for other people to handle.  A person who is too needy, too demanding.

I’ve spent today the way I spend most Saturdays–tired and alone.  I did text a few friends.  And I talked to my brother.  And I’m writing this blog post.  So I’m trying to reach out.  But it will always be more natural for me to help than to be helped.

Perhaps whenever I have doubts about whether my friends want to be there for me, I can look at the deranged elf pictured above and remind myself that only someone who cared deeply about me would pose for a picture that can be posted for all the world to see.

Blogging is My New Boyfriend

I always tell people that tennis is my one true love.  It’s the only relationship where if there are problems it’s all my fault.  How can tennis be wrong?  But recently I’ve become a two-timer:  blogging is my new boyfriend.  And I am immersed in it with all of the obsessive frenzy that I apply to any relationship.

When I first started playing tennis again about 12 years ago, I played 4-5 times a week–sometimes several times a day–and even more in the summer when I’m off.  I captain and play every league.  I play tournaments.  I went to the US Open in August.  My TV is almost always on Tennis Channel.  I love Roger Federer.  The list goes on and on.

I love everything about the game.  It’s the only exercise I can motivate myself to do and wake up in the morning for.  I love the competitive aspect and I love trying to get better at it.  I’ve met almost all of my close friends through tennis, and they have become like a second family.

But since I started blogging a few months ago, I spend every free moment thinking about it in some way.  In the morning I check my stats to help me wake up.  I love that it gives me a reason to write and that I’m achieving my goal of helping people feel better about themselves.  I even like the challenge of the business aspect of it–learning more about social media, promoting my blog.

And there are rewards that I didn’t anticipate.  I didn’t expect that I would get so much benefit from writing about my problems and that I would receive so much support in doing so.  I didn’t think I would get to have a relationship that is all about me.  I didn’t expect that I would connect to other bloggers–that I would look forward to their posts, and they would look forward to mine. 

I never expected that starting a blog would be such a great investment in myself.

The funny thing is that for the longest time, my demons would keep me from writing because they’d be sitting there telling me how much I sucked every time I tried.  So I would just write in my journal because I didn’t care what it sounded like, but the content was so mundane.

Recently I was looking at my journal entries from this past summer.  I had written over and over about how much trouble I was having with sleep and how writing about it wasn’t helping me become a writer at all.  And then my first post was about sleep.  And it turns out that lots of random subjects became posts.

So it really is true that it helps to write, regardless of whether you think you’re accomplishing anything.  You never know where your writing might take you.

I have never considered myself an athlete, and my dad sucked the joy out of tennis when I was younger, so falling in love with it was a pleasant surprise.  But I always knew I wanted to be a writer.  It’s harder to pursue something that you care about because the consequences of failing are so much greater. 

But I have always said that I can’t fail if I never stop trying.  I am thankful that my effort and determination has paid off in this relationship.

Yes and No

Being alone isn’t as bad as I thought it would be.  Relationships are an area where I take on challenges without asking myself whether it is worth the effort, so it’s a nice change of pace to have energy to expend on myself. 

When I was in school, the reason why I was a good student is that I did what teachers told me to do.  It never occurred to me that not doing the reading or homework and not studying were an option.  I also try to fulfill my job responsibilities because I’m afraid that if I make one mistake I’ll get fired.  

I think it’s partly due to my Catholic upbringing.  I’m a rule-follower to begin with, but I also fear that if I break the rules I will go to hell.  If I call a ball out, I’m afraid I’ll go to hell because I wanted the point so badly.  So usually I just call everything in, which is sometimes to my advantage because my opponent wasn’t expecting to play a ball that was a foot out.

I used to have this prayer where I would ask God to forgive me for all my sins, intentional and unintentional, because I thought, what if I’ve sinned and I didn’t realize it?  Then I couldn’t ask for forgiveness and I might go to hell.  So I figured this prayer covered all the bases.

Most of my relationships weren’t of my choosing.  If someone liked me, I would date him because I thought that would make him happy.  Feeling ambivalent was not a good enough reason to say no because my feelings didn’t count.  And it’s hard for me to end relationships because I’m not allowed to hurt anyone.  Although I often ended up hurting them, anyway.

This is also the reason I became a psychologist and feel compelled to save the world.  If someone is hurting, then it’s my job to help them if I’m able to do so.  It doesn’t matter if I want to do so, whether I like the person or not, how stressed I am, or how much energy I have to expend.

My superhero family members also share this sentiment, as I mentioned in a previous post.  They are even more extreme in terms of putting other people’s needs first, even if it hurts them.  So I really haven’t had good role models for setting limits.

But thanks to this blog, I’m beginning to set limits.  I’ve quit that crazy writing job where I was spending 10-12 hours on articles that gave the most superficial advice possible for $25.  I ended a relationship and am learning to be alone.  I have narrowed down my extra-curricular activities to tennis, knitting that dress for my niece, and writing/promoting my blog.  Which is still a lot, but it’s an improvement for me.

My new rule is to say yes to what I want and no to what I don’t want.  I said this 3 years ago, but sometimes it takes awhile to do what you know you need to do.  So I’m trying not to beat myself up about that. 

So from now on, it’s yes and no.  Hopefully.