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Monthly Archives: March 2014

Let it Go

I love Disney movies. And Disney’s latest, Frozen, is one of my favorites, not only because the music is awesome, but also because it is a story about self-acceptance and love between two sisters.

Elsa is the heir to the throne in the kingdom of Arendale. She has spent her life locked in her room, afraid of her power to create ice and snow, because she accidentally injured her sister Anna when they were children. At her coronation, Elsa’s powers are revealed when she sets off an eternal winter. When she sings the theme song, she is exhilarated that she no longer has to hide her secret. She creates her own palace of ice and snow on an isolated mountain top.

Although Elsa is free from her secret, she still doesn’t want to let her sister into her life. And ironically, in her effort to protect her sister, she accidentally freezes Anna’s heart, which almost kills her. But even then, she still tries to push Anna away, for fear that her powers will do even more damage.

It is not until the end of the movie, when Anna sacrifices her life to save her sister, that Elsa understands that surrendering to love is the answer to controlling her power. She is then able to unfreeze the kingdom and open the doors to the palace.

Tonight my brother called me because he has been depressed and struggling to make it to work. For the first time I shared with him how I had gone through the same thing 5 years ago in an effort to convince him to get on meds and to reassure him that this is not a sign of weakness. He was surprised that I had suffered as he had and that he had not known about it. But it wasn’t his fault, because I didn’t tell any of my brothers about it.

Although I had been on and off meds for several years, this episode forced me to accept that they would have to be a permanent part of my life. As humbling as this was to acknowledge, it was also freeing. But even after I felt better, I still remained in my kingdom of isolation, afraid to let people know.

Writing this blog is the first time I have been completely honest about how dark my depression was. And perhaps sharing my story will save someone else. But in this moment, the most important thing to me is that it saves my brother’s life.

We all have the power to create barriers to keep our loved ones away from the darkness inside us. Yet the real answer is to let go and to bring that darkness into the light.

Inner Beauty

There’s a lot of talk these days about redefining beauty to include people who don’t look like supermodels. And more of an emphasis on inner beauty, as indicated by the number of FB posts of people with some kind of physical defect.  (“Like” if you agree! Ignore if you’re a terrible person.)

I’m all for focusing on inner beauty, but this tactic is problematic because, by definition, inner beauty is not something that you can see in a picture. I guess we’re supposed to infer that the person is beautiful on the inside, but that doesn’t tell us what inner beauty actually “looks” like. So I’ve been thinking about people who exemplify inner beauty to me.

When I was in grad school I met this guy who had a cappuccino cart in the hotel lobby where I was on vacation. This was the era before Starbucks, so I had never heard of a cappuccino.  He was thrilled to tell me what it was, how it’s made, and what makes it so great. After that, I bought a cappuccino every day while I was there. And it tasted that much better because of how much he enjoyed making them. I thought it was a thing of beauty to see someone who loved their job that much.

I don’t remember what he looked like.

I had a similar experience once while I was picking up a package at the post office, which always annoys me. There was a long line, too. But the woman behind the counter seemed so happy to give everyone their packages that I couldn’t help but smile. I don’t think it was because she loved her job like Mr. Cappuccino; I think that’s just who she was. And there is something beautiful about someone who can be happy, regardless of what they’re doing.

I don’t remember what she looked like, either.

When I was depressed 5 years ago, I had 2 friends who called me every day to check on me. Ordinarily I can talk up a storm, but I didn’t have a whole lot to say when all I had done that day was lie on the couch and will myself to exist. I don’t remember what we talked about, but I remember that they were there for me.

When I was depressed back in December, I hardly saw anyone because tennis season was over, I was off for winter break, and everyone was busy preparing for the holidays. Once again, I had one friend who checked on me regularly, even though she didn’t really know me that well at the time. Occasionally I would venture out of the house and we would see a movie or have dinner.  If it weren’t for her, I could have easily gone weeks without any human interaction.

I am blessed to have such beautiful friends.

A picture may be worth a thousand words, but sometimes you have to be there to fully appreciate what it means to be in the presence of beauty.

Stop Doing Bad Things

At the risk of sounding completely inconsolable, I have to admit, I don’t find most of the self-help articles on social media helpful.

Take, for example, the article 30 Things to Stop Doing to Yourself. I have no problem with the suggestions themselves, but I don’t like advice that begins with the word stop. In therapy, if after the first session I were to say “You’re problem is that you look exclusively to others for happiness. Stop doing that,” I’m not sure the person would come back.

Research supports the idea that stop statements are not helpful, because when you say something like “stop being idle,” you put the idea of being idle in the person’s head. If you’ve taken psychology classes, you’ve probably heard the example “don’t think about a pink elephant.” You probably weren’t thinking about one before, but you are now.

A lot of people do find advice like this helpful, and that’s great. Personally, it makes me feel more judged than inspired. I respond better to strategies that emphasize empathy and compassion, self-acceptance, and forgiveness. And I prefer suggestions that encourage me to be the best version of myself to admonitions for doing things wrong.

If I were to come up with a list like this, here’s how I would paraphrase their recommendations:

1., 13., 19., & 20. Spend time with people who bring out the best in you.

2. & 23. Have faith in yourself; it’s the best investment you’ll ever make.

3., 25., & 26. Commit to being honest with yourself and to others.

4., 21., & 27. Put your needs first. Period.

6. & 8. Practice forgiveness of yourself and others.

7., 23., & 29. Take risks, even if it means that you will fail.

9., 10., & 28. Happiness cannot be found out there in the future; it comes from within, in this moment.

11. & 12. You can move forward, even when you don’t feel ready.

14. Let people get to know you, even if it scares you.

5., 15., & 16. Make your standard of comparison the best version of yourself rather than someone else or some perfect ideal.

17. & 18. Negative experiences teach us lessons that we wouldn’t have chosen to learn on our own.

22. Think of mindfulness as exercise for your brain.

27. Practice gratitude regularly,  and thank the people who you are grateful for every chance you get.

It takes a lifetime to put these values into practice, so be patient, have faith, and be kind to yourself in the process.

I’m adding designer marbles to my doodle collection.

 

Anger

Have I mentioned that I have problems letting things go?

That’s why I obsess so much. And why I stick with knitting projects that make my life miserable. And why I try to make relationships work at all costs. And why I have a hard time forgiving myself.

It’s also why I can hold on to anger for so long. I know some people like anger because it’s more empowering than feeling hurt, but I hate it. It’s downright painful. If I could will myself to let go of anger–or any emotion, for that matter–I would. And even though I know better, I still get mad at myself for not being able to stop being angry.

Recently I had a friend tell me that when you get older you become more forgiving of yourself. That might be true for normal people, but I’m no so sure it’s true for me. Because I’ve heard women say the same thing about being in their 40’s, and I’m pretty sure I’m just as self-critical and guilt-ridden as I was in my 20’s and 30’s.

I am having a hard time letting go of my anger about my last relationship, even though I’m glad that it’s over. I have made a concerted effort to turn to my friends and share how I feel, but in all honesty, sometimes it just makes me angry at them.

Most people aren’t very good at saying helpful things. Which is why I wrote the post on good intentions. I’m trying not to take it personally. Not everyone can be a good listener. I would be out of a job if everyone were. But it’s still frustrating to try to talk to someone about how angry I am, only to feel worse afterwards.

I’ve tried other things, too. I’ve prayed. I’ve meditated. I even apologized for being angry. Which doesn’t make any sense, really, but I was desperate for some shift in the intensity of my anger.

Today I tried 3 new things. First, I gave myself permission to be angry for a day.  Which had the unintended effect of making my anger seem forced and difficult to sustain. Sort of like the whole reverse psychology thing–although psychologists don’t actually call it that.

I also looked at a journal entry from right before the breakup. It reminded me that there were a lot of things that I tried to be OK with because I thought my anger and sadness and anxiety were a product of my neediness. Or a result of being too demanding. Or were figments of my imagination.

Now I realize that I felt those things for a reason.  I’m mad at him for letting me believe that my feelings were my fault. And I’m mad at myself for not trusting my feelings.  But reading that journal entry reminded me that my feelings are always legitimate–even if they don’t make sense at the time. So I have renewed my commitment to honoring my feelings.

The last thing I did was to give myself permission to blog about my anger. I have thought about doing it for some time now but decided against it until today because I thought it would be too negative. Even though I write a lot about negative things, I try to end on a positive note. I didn’t think there could be a positive note to end on in a post about unrelenting anger.

But then I remembered that the point of my blog isn’t to be positive. The point of my blog is to be honest. And my anger is just as much a part of me as anything else.

And you know what? I actually do feel better…for the moment. So blogging about it helped after all.

I don’t really have any art work that reflects anger so I thought I would feature some self-promotional art work instead.

A Just World

I am having deja vous.  Before last term, we had not had a student death related to a car accident in over 10 years. Yet once again, another student died in a car accident earlier this week. Like the student last term, this student was very involved and visible in the community, was known for helping others, and was on the verge of graduating with a bright future ahead of her.

We tell students that there is no right or wrong way to grieve. But some coping mechanisms are more hurtful than others. She was probably driving too fast. People shouldn’t drink and drive.  Stupid people die. 

When I was a graduate student, one of my favorite theories was the Just World Hypothesis. Because we want to believe in a just world, when something bad happens we assume that the person must have done something to deserve it.

I often hear just world explanations after a sexual assault. She was making out with him on the dance floor. She went back to his room. She didn’t fight it so she must have wanted it.  

The Just World Hypothesis is closely related to the problems with free will and blame. In order to preserve the belief that we control our destiny, we are willing to take responsibility for things that we don’t actually have control over.  

I can understand the need to believe that if you make the right choices you will be safe from harm. I want to believe this, too. Usually my attempts at control manifest themselves in perfectionism and excessive guilt.

I don’t know how much blame a person should be held responsible for. I don’t know how to make sense of all of the suffering in the world. But I know that the more I blame someone, the less compassion I have for them.

So I try to approach suffering in the same way I try to accept my feelings: it doesn’t have to make sense. I don’t have to know the reason why for suffering to exist. And I try to have faith that when something bad happens, I will be strong enough to handle it.

Loyalty

When it comes to sports, I am loyal to a fault.

In a previous post, I talked about the delusional level of optimism that my brothers and I must channel at times to continue to cheer for UVA football. My brother emailed me recently to ask if I wanted to renew our season tickets–which I did. Even though we only won 2 whole games last season.

I captain several tennis leagues every year. And every year, I invite all of the players from the previous season back to the team unless they’ve done something I consider egregious–like not show up for a match. Or not respond to my emails. Or cause drama on or off the court. I can tolerate a player with a losing record, but I won’t tolerate a person who disrespects me or other people.

There are many captains who have the opposite recruiting strategy: they will tolerate a strong but less likeable player but get rid of a nice person who is a weak player.  Because the point of forming a team is to win, after all. I get that. And I’ve had winning teams. But I’ll admit, I sometimes choose loyalty over winning.

I’ve had friends leave my team and play for other captains because of this. I can’t really fault them for wanting to be on a winning team. But I am grateful for the friends who continue to play for me, because it makes our team feel more like a family. In fact, the tennis family that I featured in a previous post are all long-standing members of my mixed doubles team.

This team happens to be my winnningest team, too.  So loyalty does pay off sometimes.

This year, for the first time in 38 years, UVA won the ACC tournament in basketball. And for the first time ever, we were both the regular season and tournament champions. And we did it without any superstar athletes.  Without anyone noticing, really. Because when you win with defense, it’s not flashy.  So we didn’t get as much press as some of the high profile teams in our conference.

I was there when they won the tournament, and what impressed me the most about them–other than how awesome they are–is how humble they are. No one sticking their faces in the camera talking smack about how they proved their haters wrong. Not even any “we’re number one” stuff. No ego at all. Just a joyful celebration of their accomplishment as a team. As a basketball family.

It takes faith at every level to be loyal to a losing team. In the post-game interview, Tony Bennett thanked God for getting his team through the low times. Bennett had faith that a team without a single McDonald’s All-American player could accomplish great things. The players had faith that defense and unselfish play could win championships. And UVA fans had faith that someday, our basketball team could return to the glory days of the Ralph Sampson era.

So this post is dedicated to the 2014 ACC regular season and tournament champs. See you in Texas at the Final Four!

Good Intentions

You know that expression “the road to hell is paved with good intentions?” It’s probably slightly overstated, but I think it’s essentially true.

First of all, it’s not often that we have the intention of hurting other people.  And when we do, we know we’re being bad. That’s why in an argument you want to think long and hard before you say something cruel, because it’s not going to work to say I didn’t mean that afterwards. You can’t take it back. Whether you meant it or not, your intentions weren’t good.

In my experience, most of the time when someone uses the good intentions excuse, they were just as concerned–if not more concerned–with seeming helpful. That’s why they get defensive rather than apologize.

I am no exception to this. Especially since I’ve dedicated my life to helping others. So you better be helped, damn it! And you better appreciate my help!

The other reason people say well-intended but unhelpful things is because they want you to stop hurting, but they don’t know how to make that happen. So they tell you to stop in ways that are sometimes downright hurtful.

Some of my personal favorites are I’m suffering more than you, in response to my first divorce. And well, at least you have 3 other kids, in response to my brother’s coma that resulted from falling out of the car when he was 4.

Some clients are aware of how offensive good intentions can be, so they ask for advice about what to say. I tell them to ask the person directly what they can do. Maybe the person won’t know in that moment, but they know they can ask you for help when they need it.

The other thing I tell them is to listen carefully to what the person has to say.  This isn’t easy, because most of us aren’t very good at bearing witness to other people’s pain. So you have to practice by starting with yourself.

You know all those unhelpful things you say to yourself to try to feel better?  You have to replace them with accepting, nonjudmental statements about how it’s OK that you’re upset.  That it doesn’t have to make sense.  That you don’t have to know the reason why.  And that you will be by your side for as long as it takes until you start to feel better.

When we can be good to ourselves in this way, we will have more to offer than just good intentions.