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Monthly Archives: January 2014

Winter

Today the temperature is supposed to be in the 50’s, and many people are happy about this.  A lot of people don’t like winter–particularly this winter, since it’s been unseasonably cold.  But I don’t mind it.
 
I’m not that good at small talk, so it’s nice to have something to say if I’m forced to talk to someone I don’t know that well.  I know this is true for a lot of those winter haters, too, even if they don’t admit it.  And I’ve worn all the sweaters that I bought while I lived in Ohio and Pennsylvania, so I’ve had more wardrobe options.
 
Winter is usually a time when people feel more depressed because of the cold and lack of sunlight.  Even though I was depressed in December, I’ve been surprisingly cheerful since the beginning of the year.  I really like living alone.  I like sleeping alone.  So much so that I wonder if I will ever invite someone over again.  I like knitting, making jewelry, watching sports, or writing a blog post without distractions.
 
Adapting to changes in the weather is a good example of how we can get used to just about anything.  Before the first cold spell, I thought I was going to freeze to death when the temperature dropped to 24 degrees.  Now it takes single digits before I think it’s unbearably cold.  The other day one of my friends commented on how last week, when we had a day in the 40’s, it felt so warm she could have played tennis outside.
 
The same is true about living alone.  When you live with someone, they may annoy you, but it seems like it would be worse if you had to come home to an empty house every day.  That’s what I said not too long ago in my post on solitude.  And when you’re used to living alone, you think it would be unbearable to have to deal with all the annoying things about another person, which is how I feel now.  But I’m sure if I started dating again, I’d get used to having someone in my space and it would seem worth it.  Hopefully.
 
In therapy, I often use the weather as a metaphor for feelings.  I tell them to observe what they’re feeling at any particular moment, like Weather on the 8’s.  Sadness with a chance of happiness later in the late afternoon.  Fifty percent chance of an anger outburst tomorrow.   Maybe we don’t like the weather when it’s 7 degrees outside, but it will change eventually.  Maybe even later that day.
 
Ordinarily this is not the way we think about feelings.  We dread when the other shoe will drop and our good mood will be ripped away from us unceremoniously.  But when we’re in a bad mood, we fear that we will be stuck in depression or anxiety for the rest of our lives.  The reality is, you can count on your mood changing, positive or negative, just like the weather.
 
We can also look at the weather in a more impersonal manner.  We don’t blame ourselves if the weather is cold; we didn’t do anything wrong.  And we don’t really have to understand the reason why it is unseasonably cold.  I don’t particularly care about understanding the polar vortex.  But if we feel sad for no reason and we can’t make it go away, we must be weak.  Irrational.  Crazy.
 
The other message I give to clients is that even when we feel sad or anxious, there is still something positive about that moment.  And I don’t mean this in a think happy thoughts kind of way.  When I feel depressed and can’t motivate myself to do anything, I have more compassion when a client says they spent the whole weekend in bed, feeling crappy about themselves.  I have a better understanding of how much pain they are in.  And it helps me to be a better therapist.
 
There is beauty in everything, even in the things we don’t like, but sometimes we have to look for it.
 
 
Photo Courtesy of Allison Szuba

 

As Seen on TV

In my post on midlife, I talked about how I formed my plan for coping with aging by watching TV commercials.  Sadly, I also used TV ads as a guide for how to be normal.
 
I have always been rule-abiding.  Hence, the good grades, the fear of going to hell, the obsessing about following guidelines for sleep and stress management.  And because I grew up in a small town in the middle of nowhere, I was sensitive to the fact that my Filipino family did things differently from other people.  To children, different means bad, and I didn’t want to be bad.
 
Remember those Aqua-Fresh commercials, with the stripes for extra cleaning action and breath freshening?  I made my mom buy that toothpaste.  And I tried to swirl it on my toothbrush exactly like they did in the commercials.  My mom scolded me for using too much toothpaste.
 
Now that I think about it, this was probably a ploy to get you to use more toothpaste so that you would run out sooner.
 
My first husband–the one who referred to himself as a poor, half-breed, bastard–was also sensitive to being different.  He, too, was influenced by the Aqua-Fresh commercials and also tried to create the swirl that used too much toothpaste.  This is sufficient evidence to convince me of the detrimental psychological effects that TV commercials can have on children.
 
You would think that knowledge of these detrimental effects would make me immune to their ploys.  But no.  I still owned the Ab Crunch.  I still use Oil of Olay.  I hear that Crest is coming out with a chocolate-flavored toothpaste.  At least I’m not falling for that one.
 
Often the makers of these products justify their ads by saying that they’re just giving consumers what they want.  No one wants to see fat, ugly, old people.  Those images don’t sell products!  Since I did research on body image, I can say with some authority that advertising may not have created our insecurities, but they definitely exacerbate them.
 
And there really isn’t a good solution to this problem.  Avoiding advertising is like avoiding oxygen; ads are ubiquitous.  The best I have been able to do is to limit how much advertising I expose myself to.  I no longer buy beauty magazines.  I primarily watch TV for sports and the news.  I don’t pay much attention to celebrities.
 
As a result, I didn’t know who Honey Boo Boo and Kim Kardashian were for the longest time, but media illiteracy is a small price to pay for self-acceptance.
 

 

Self-Worth

For the first 35 years of my life, my self-esteem was primarily based on grades.  I made good grades, so you would think that meant I had high self-esteem, but I didn’t.  This is true of any external measure of worth: the positive feeling you get from an accomplishment is short-lived.  But I didn’t know that at the time. 

I remember when I was in my first year of grad school, another student had just defended his dissertation.  He rented a limo and decorated it as though he had just gotten married and was driving around town, honking his horn.  I thought that was a great idea and that I would do the same thing to celebrate once I got my Ph.D.

But that wasn’t what it was like at all.  I thought that I would feel smarter or whole or something.  Instead I felt…exactly the same.  Maybe even worse.  Because by this point, I realized that there was no goal I could accomplish that was going to make me feel better about myself.  I had reached all my goals; there was nowhere else to go.  So I got depressed instead.

These days I don’t talk about self-esteem at all in therapy.  Instead I try to convince clients that they are inherently worthwhile, regardless of their accomplishments.  This is a tough sell in our culture.  Initially they say they don’t believe in inherent worth.  They see themselves as a stock whose value rises and falls depending on their performance.

But like I said in my last post, for an agreeable person, I’m pretty good at arguing.  And this is one of those arguments where I know I’m right.  So I use whatever it takes to convince them of their worth.

Many of them do start to believe it, not so much because of my compelling arguments, but because I believe in them.  Deep down we all know that we are inherently worthwhile; we just need someone to tell us that we can trust that part of ourselves.

So if you didn’t have anyone to tell you to trust that part of yourself before, you do now.

In Agreement

You know that whole “agree to disagree” motto?   I can’t do it.  I don’t like it when people disagree with me.  So much so that I have considered “unfollowing” anyone on FB who expresses an opinion different from my own.  But then I wouldn’t have any friends and there would be no one left to read my blog.
 
People say that if we all shared the same views on everything, life would be boring.  I don’t believe that.  I work at a school where many students come here because they want to be around people just like themselves, and they seem pretty happy about it.
 
It’s like when people say that living in paradise would be boring after awhile.  Unless you’ve actually lived in paradise, you don’t know how you would feel.  There’s lots of research that demonstrates that we are terrible predictors of how we will think, feel, and act in the future.  Check out Stumbling on Happiness if you don’t believe me.
 
Nevertheless, I realize that my attitude is hypocritical.  One of my areas of expertise is diversity, which is about accepting differences.  And I’m pretty good at that in most areas–ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation.  But not politics.  And I feel completely justified in rooting against Virginia Tech every chance I get.  And if someone doesn’t like Roger Federer, I never forget it.
 
In my defense, part of the reason I don’t like disagreeing is that for me, it’s more important to feel connected to other people than it is to point out our differences.  If I go shopping with a friend and they want my opinion on an outfit, I would never say something like “that makes your butt look big.”  If they like the outfit, who am I to tell them not to get it?
 
But I like to be honest.  So instead of giving my opinion, I would ask them a bunch of questions.  How much do you want to spend?  When would you wear it?  Do you have anything in your wardrobe that goes with it?  Then they can decide for themselves if they think it’s worth buying.
 
Even though I don’t like disagreeing, I am not one to shy away from conflict.  My parents tell me that I should have been a lawyer because I like to argue.  I’m sure my previous romantic partners would agree.  In an argument, because I have an excellent memory and high empathy, I would use what they said–and what they felt but didn’t say–against them.
 
Now that I think about it, maybe I’m not that greeable.  In fact, I’ve been making arguments in this post on agreement.  But that’s OK.  We like to think of things as being mutually exclusive but the truth is, we can be both, depending on the circumstances.
 
In this moment, as I mourn Federer’s loss against Nadal in the semi-finals of the Australian Open, I’m feeling pretty disagreeable.  So if you see me today, proceed with caution.
 

 

In Need

I don’t like the word needy. I much prefer the word crazy to needy.  Crazy can have many meanings, and not all of them are negative.  Sometimes crazy can be a compliment.  At least that’s how I interpret it when I’m feeling good about myself.  Neediness, on the other hand, is never a compliment.

I admit I am sensitive to the word because I have been accused of being too needy, too demanding.  I have tried to correct for this, but I don’t know how to distinguish my unreasonable demands from my needs.

I’ve tried to deal with it by giving my partner the benefit of the doubt.  If he couldn’t give me what I needed, then perhaps it was a demand that I mistook for a need.  How important is meaningful conversation anyway, really?  How much contact is actually necessary for the survival of the relationship?

This approach hasn’t gotten me very far.  I seem to have overshot my mark.  My therapist tells me that I cannot disavow my needs in order to make my relationships work.  Sounds good to me.  But how do you separate the needs that are necessary for survival from the ones that make people accuse you of being needy?

Let’s say that you came across a boy who you met in the woods while hiking one day, like the wild boy of Aveyron.  You feel bad for him so you invite him over for dinner.  But he’s really hungry, so he eats all the food in your house and still wants more.  Obviously, you wouldn’t blame the kid for this.  You wouldn’t accuse him of being too hungry, because it’s not his fault he was abandoned in the woods to fend for himself.

Psychological needs are no different.  Neediness is the product of prolonged emotional starvation.  You may not be able to give the person what they need to feel satisfied, but that’s not their fault.  It’s not yours, either.

But it feels like it should be someone’s fault, doesn’t it?  Someone should take the blame!

I prefer to reframe a needy person as someone who is in need.  Perhaps their needs are so great that I can’t help them.  That’s OK; I don’t have to be able to help everyone–although I do still try.

I am trying to think of myself as someone in need, too.  I am just learning what these needs are, because I’ve spent my life focusing on other people.  There are a lot of them, and they have gone unfulfilled for a long time.  I’m not blaming anyone for this, but I’m trying not to blame myself, either.

I’m just trying to make my way out of the woods.

Midlife

I don’t like getting older.  I even obsessed about it as a child.   When I was around 7, I remember asking my dad if you get to choose your age when you go to heaven, and he said yes.  Every year I would choose my current age, because I was sure that the next year would be worse. 
 
I had a plan for what I would do when I got old:  I would use Oil of Olay to prevent wrinkles, Clairol to dye my hair, and Coast soap to bring me back to life–because that was their slogan, which I took literally.  That shows you the power of advertising.
 
I didn’t consider myself middle-aged until I turned 43.  I’m immature for my age in a lot of ways because I still live the life of a college student–a night owl with no children and no spouse whose work revolves around the academic calendar.  
 
Although my mind is still somewhere in my 20’s, my body has proceeded at a normal developmental pace.  Once I hit 43, I became far-sighted.  My knees hurt all the time–not just after playing tennis 5-6 times in a row.  I started dying my hair. 
 
I don’t want other people to get older, either.  Every year I tell my niece that she has to stay the same age. Whenever I leave my parents’ house, I feel anxious at the thought of seeing them sick or debilitated someday.  I am terrified of losing them.  I got a glimpse of what it would be like when my dad was depressed, and I did not handle it well. 
 
I try to practice gratitude, self-compassion, and mindfulness to accept the aging process.  I try to remember what I have to be thankful for in this moment, try to enjoy my blessings while I have them.  I tell myself that lots of people have these fears–it doesn’t make me crazy.  It doesn’t mean I’m a bad person. 
 
It helps some.  But I’m still afraid.
 
There are only two things that I look forward to about getting older.  One is that I will continue to become a better therapist because I will have seen more clients, had more life experience, and will possess more wisdom. 
 
The other thing is that my writing will improve for the same reasons.  I have wanted to write a book since high school.  In the 10th grade we had a writing assignment where we had to project what we would be doing in the future.  I wrote a mock interview where I was 45, answering questions about my book. 
 
So it’s no coincidence that I made my first effort to publish my writing through blogging at the age of 44.  I realized that if I wanted to make something happen for myself, I had to start now. 
 
So I guess that’s one good thing about being middle-aged:  as you reflect on the first half of your life, you realize what you have to do to make the most out of the second half.
 

 

46 Lessons Learned from Blogging

Since the original intent of my blog was to help other people, I thought I’d provide a cheat sheet of the lesson in each post (except for the random ones).  That way, you don’t have to go back and read the whole blog if you don’t want to.  But hopefully you will!

1.  Night Owl Syndrome:  Prejudice against night owls is a form of discrimination that has been perpetuated in part by Ben Franklin.

2.  Massages:  Massages are not as relaxing when you obsess the entire time about how much they cost.

3.  Knitting and Relationships:  Challenge yourself every now and then, but you don’t have to knit a dress.

4.  Positive and Negative Feedback:  It’s easier to believe erroneous negative feedback than it is to accept legitimate positive feedback.

5.  Karaoke Pusher:  Singing in front of other people is a good way to let go of fear.

6.  You Know You’re Filipino If…:  Things that embarrassed you as a kid will make great anecdotes when you get older.

7.  The Courage to be Vulnerable:  Sharing your vulnerabilities with others makes people feel closer to you.

8.  The Unathletic Athlete:  Even if you were picked last in gym class, you can still grow up to be an athlete.

9.  Tennis Courtships:  Someone needs to come up with a website that can help tennis players find a doubles partner.

10.  The Uses of Prayer:  Sometimes God answers your prayers by giving you opportunities rather than results.

11.  Boundaries:  Being Asian makes setting boundaries even more difficult than it already is.

12.  Massages, Part 2:  Don’t drink coffee before a massage–even decaf.

13.  Boundaries, Part 2:  Blogging is a good way to let people know that you don’t want to be told that you’re fat.

14.  Children:  Play with your inner child every now and then.

15.  Can Love Conquer All?  No, but it’s still worth the risk.

16.  Body Image:  Small gains are better than nothing.

17.  Hard Core Fan:  It takes dedication to root for a losing team.

18.  Warriorism:  When things get tough, channel your inner warrior.

19.  Self-Portrait:  You can learn a lot about yourself from doodles.

20.  Solitude:  Sometimes when you think you’re alone, you’re really not.

21.  Self-Acceptance:  We all have different parts of ourselves, many of whom don’t get along.

22.  Meet the Drill Sergeant:  Save your inner drill sergeant for emergencies.

23.  The Inner Critic:  Defy your inner critic every change you get.

24.  Thanksgiving:  Miracles really do happen.

25.  Perfectionism:  Blogging about mistakes can help you accept them.

26.  Stress Management:  Sometimes stress management can be stressful.

27. Self-Care:  Blogging is a good way to put yourself first.

28. Grief:  The best thing we can do for someone who is grieving is to be willing to listen to them talk about their pain.

29.  Yes and No:  Learn to say yes to what you want and no to what you don’t want.

30.  Blogging is My New Boyfriend:  You can’t fail if you never stop trying.

31.  Friendship:  Don’t be afraid to ask for help when you need it.

32.  Empathy:  If you’re high in empathy, choose your friends and partners wisely.

33.  Breakups:  If you’re relationship is ending, try to leave with love rather than hate.

34.  In Times of War:  Make choices you can live with, regardless of the outcome.

35.  Angels:  If you ask people to send you angels when you’re struggling, they will–and it works.

36.  Forgiveness:  For people with a harsh inner critic like me, self-forgiveness is the hardest part.

37.  Gratitude:  Practicing gratitude may not turn your depression into happiness, but do it, anyway.

38.  Love:  Our love may never be perfect, but I think God is OK with that.

39.  Forgetting:  Forgiveness is a process.

40.  Moms:  Moms are often unsung heroes, so thank them every chance you get.

41.  New Year’s Resolutions:  Restating your resolutions every year is not a sign of failure; it demonstrates that you are choosing to live intentionally.

42.  In My Head:  I thought I was weird for thinking so much, but it turns out that it means I’m a writer!

43.  Bipolar and Brilliant:  You can be brilliant and mentally ill, but you can also be dumb and refuse to take your medication.

44.  Night Owl Syndrome, Part 2:  It takes practice to let go of unnecessary guilt.

45.  Competitive Latch-Hooking:  Sometimes the sibling that was your mortal enemy in childhood becomes your most loyal blog follower as an adult.

46.  Honesty and Trust:  Surround yourself with honest people; it takes less energy than being paranoid.