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Monthly Archives: August 2014

Self-Handicapping

Yesterday Sloane Stephens lost at the U.S. Open to Johanna Larsson, an unranked player. This is sad news for American tennis fans, because Stephens is predicted to be the next great female American player. In musing over why she has not yet lived up to her potential, the commentators observed that Stephens doesn’t play with the same intensity as the top players, perhaps because she is afraid of losing while playing her best.

I had the good fortune of attending a warm-up tournament to the U.S. Open a few weeks ago, and after looking at my photos, I, too, noticed that Stephens did not put the same effort into her shots that the top players did. For example, here is a picture of 17-time Grand Slam champion Roger Federer, hitting his famous forehand.

Notice how intensely focused he is on watching the ball and how he jumps into his shot. This is an aggressively hit forehand.

Now here is a shot of 17-time Grand Slam champion Serena Williams, hitting her equally famous serve.

Again, notice how she is in the air when she hits her serve and the intensity of her facial expression. In fact, she looked downright pissed off and scary in most of the pictures I took.

Now here is a picture of Sloane Stephens hitting a backhand.

In contrast, notice how casually she is hitting the ball. This looks more like the kind of shot you would see in a practice session, where players aren’t trying to hit that hard. So I think there is some truth to their hypothesis that she is afraid to play her best tennis.

In psychology, this phenomenon is called self-handicapping, and it is fairly common. I have worked with students who were so afraid that they would not get an A that they didn’t turn in any work and got an F in the class instead. They all believed that if they had put in the effort, they probably could have gotten an A, which helped to preserve their self-esteem. Sort of. Because they ended up on academic probation, which they were embarrassed and ashamed about.

To my knowledge, I have never sabotaged my chances of succeeding, but I can relate to the fear that my best effort might not be good enough. I have always wanted to be a therapist and thought I could be a good one–until I got to the clinical portion of my training in grad school. Then I started to worry: What if I suck at it? What if I’m no good at this thing that I’ve wanted to do all my life? What am I supposed to do then?

My worst fear came true: I did suck at it at first. I had several supervisors tell me that my anxiety was interfering with my ability to do therapy. (This was the first time I contemplated the possibility that I may have an anxiety disorder). Even though I ordinarily freak out when I’m given negative feedback, I wasn’t that upset. I knew that I could get better if I worked at it. And I think I’m a decent therapist now–although there’s always room for improvement.

The same is true for tennis. I’m not really afraid to go out there and play my best and lose, because my best performance today isn’t the best I can ever hope to play. At least I don’t think so. I always think I can get better, even as I get older. If this is a delusion, then at least it is one that serves me well. That’s why I look so intimidating in this photo:

So if you see me on the court, watch out!

Choices

When it comes to money, my mom and dad are on the opposite ends of the spectrum. My dad loves to buy things and does so often and freely with no regard for cost. My mom, on the other hand, doesn’t buy something unless it’s “half of half of half” off. Depending on the day, I can be on either end of the spectrum, but most of the time I am more like my mom. As a result, my relationship with money is plagued with anxiety and guilt.

For example, when my ex and I were at the airport on the way to our honeymoon, I bought a neck pillow because we had a long flight ahead of us. It had one of those tags that they have on mattresses that you aren’t supposed to remove under penalty of law, but it was annoying me, so I ripped it off, anyway.

Apparently this law exists for a reason, because after I ripped it off, all of those little white things started coming out of the gigantic hole I had created and were spilling all over the place. I had to throw the darn thing away. I was distraught about destroying my pillow less than 5 minutes after purchasing it and wasting $15. It was only fitting that I should have to spend the next 10 hours on the plane with an unsupported neck.

While I was berating myself for my obsessiveness, my ex bought another neck pillow and snuck behind me and put it around my neck. Unlike me, he did not obsess over buying stuff. This became a source of many arguments later, but at the time it was a sweet and loving gesture. He was not great with words, but this one action said everything I needed to know: it’s OK by me that you’re obsessive, and you still deserve a neck pillow.

When memories like these pop up, it activates the same cycle of thoughts. Am I doing the right thing? Is there anything more I could do to make things work? I go through the scenario of what it would be like if we got back together, and I always come to the same conclusion: things would be exactly as they were before.

I wish choices could be more clear-cut, like on a test. But life isn’t like school: answers are rarely 100% right or wrong. I have to remind myself that with any decision, there are things that I will lose. I can’t make the perfect choice. I cannot escape the sadness of having to give up the good parts of our relationship.

Memories like this one make me want to cry. But at the same time, I am also thankful. Even if things didn’t work out, he was a good guy. He was a good choice for many reasons. And even as we finalize our divorce, he continues to be kind and helpful. Not many people can say that at the end of a relationship.

In the Zone

Want to be happier? Try adding some flow to your life.

Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi’s research indicates that engaging in activities that you find pleasurable and absorbing is one of the things that makes life worth living. When you are in flow, you are focused on the here and now. You experience a loss of self-consciousness and lose all sense of time. You feel like you can handle anything that comes your way.

Flow is what athletes feel when they are in the zone. Although I don’t consider myself athletic, I have experienced flow on the tennis court. It doesn’t always happen, but every now and then, the ball does exactly what I want it to. No channeling of inner warriors required: everything is effortless, unconscious.

Flow is not limited to sports. You can experience flow at work, during artistic activities, and in nature. Sometimes I’ve experienced flow with clients in therapy: I feel so connected to them in the moment that I know what they’re trying to say before they say it. Occasionally, I’ve experienced it when blogging: the words and ideas seem to be writing themselves, and they are perfect.

And there are those rare moments–usually when I’m at some lookout point–where I have a moment of clarity. I am Neo at the end of “The Matrix,” when he breaks the code and fights off the Agents with minimal exertion. The mysteries of the universe unfold. I feel joyful and calm at the same time.

Flow can also be interactive. Like Hazel and Augustus in “The Fault in Our Stars,” you stay up all night, sharing your life stories, and time stands still. Or like when you’re catching up with your best friend who you haven’t seen in ages, but you can pick up right where you left off, as if you talked just yesterday.

This weekend I was blessed to experience flow in all of these areas. I was at the Virginia district tournament with my tennis team, and I was in flow on the court. My team was in flow, and we made it to the finals for the first time ever. And all of the moments off the court were filled with joy, celebration, and camaraderie. Even writing about it is effortless. No self-consciousness. No demons. Just a pervasive sense that life is good.

Usually Mondays are hard for me, but today I am happy. In this moment, I am in the zone.

Orange Crush

Positively Selfish

One of the hazards of working in the helping professions is burnout. People who are drawn to helping others run the risk of giving too much of themselves. In my case, however, I run the risk of burnout in my personal relationships more so than I do at work.

There are a lot of advantages to working in a counseling center. Even though you don’t make as much money, you have access to a lot of resources that you don’t have in private practice. I have colleagues, the student health center, deans, RA’s, and peer counselors who share the load. The most stressful periods of my job are predictable and time-limited: they occur around the middle of the semester and end around finals week. There are boundaries that are built into our schedule, as well. Appointments are 50 minutes long at the most. We don’t schedule clients past 5 pm or on the weekends. Students go home for breaks. We don’t see students after they graduate.

My personal life is a different story. Many of the people I love have emotional needs that they expect me to fulfill. Appointments are not time-limited. I am on call 24-7. I usually cannot terminate these relationships, nor do I want to. I have a hard time saying no to whatever they ask of me. And in many cases, I do not feel I am getting back as much as I am putting into the relationship because their emotional resources are more limited than my own. Which is not their fault. It’s just unfortunate for me.

That is part of the reason why I want a hiatus from loving and caring for anyone or anything new. No dating. No pets. Just me and my plants. I’m burned out; I want a more solitary job in my personal life.

I was telling my therapist the other day how this makes me feel selfish. She told me that I’m being honest with myself–more authentic. That we need another word that conveys positive selfishness. Which is kind of sad, really. What does it say about our culture that there would be no word for a healthy focus on oneself?

She nominated the word selful. Full of oneself, but in a good way. More like being whole. But it doesn’t roll off the tongue the way selfish and selfless do. Plus it looks weird. So I am open to suggestions.

Darkness and Light, Part 2

I am deeply saddened by Robin Williams’ death. I love the roles he chose as an actor. He was a comedic genius. And he was full of life–a light that seemed to shine a little brighter than the average star.

As a psychologist, I don’t have any special knowledge about why Robin Williams committed suicide. I wasn’t there. I didn’t know him personally. I wasn’t his therapist. I do know that, no matter how well you think you know someone, it is difficult to fathom the depths of the darkness they live in. Because who wants to share that with other people? Who wants to burden other people with additional darkness? It’s hard enough to deal with our own.

I also know what it’s like to have multiple depressive episodes. My psychiatrist compared relapses to breaking your leg in the same place multiple times: with every break you become more vulnerable to injury; it takes a little longer to recover each time.

My dad had 3 major depressive episodes. His last episode┬áhit when he was 69 and┬álasted for almost 4 years. It was a tremendous amount of work for him–and my mom–to recover again. I know sometimes he didn’t want to try. And I know he felt that way more often than he let on but tried to be strong for my benefit.

In my last depressive episode, there were times when I wanted to give up, too. Well, it’s not so much that I wanted to give up. It’s more like the depression told me that I should. And in my weakened state of mind, it was hard to fight back. I am thankful that I was able to do so in the end. That was my 2nd major depressive episode. I’m trying to do everything within my power to prevent a third.

What if Robin Williams had 5 or 6 depressive episodes? What if the demons of depression never took a break unless he threw himself into something like acting or drugs or alcohol? I don’t drink and I have never used drugs, but if I had to live my life feeling the way I did at my worst, maybe I would. I don’t know that I would have been any stronger. So I don’t think it’s fair to accuse Robin Williams of being weak. Clearly, based on his body of work, he was anything but weak. He was fighting it all the time.

I was also taken aback by the anger that some people felt about his suicide. But I don’t judge them for it. I can understand why, if you have been personally affected by suicide, you would identify more with the people who are left behind and have to make sense of this loss for the rest of their lives. Fortunately, I have never been there, but if my dad had ever given in to his demons, I know I would have been devastated.

I think that people who see mental illness as a weakness, an excuse, or a nonexistent entity fear the darkness in themselves. They try to deny it in themselves and in others as vehemently as possible, lest it find a way to escape. But some of us don’t have that luxury. We can’t lock our depression in a closet and throw away the key; it is too powerful. It does not obey our will.

One positive outcome of having known that kind of pain is that it has deepened my compassion for others. It motivates me to alleviate whatever suffering I can in others. In my opinion, the people who know what it’s like to live in darkness are the ones who are the most motivated to enlighten others. So if Robin Williams inspired more people to become light bearers, then that is at least one good thing that can come from this loss.

 

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The Paradox of Productivity

Have you ever noticed how you’re actually more productive when you have less time?

I had grand plans for all of the stuff I was going to accomplish over the summer. I was going to crank out blog posts 3-4 times a week. Learn how to write a book proposal and a query letter. Find an agent.

I did skim through a book on writing non-fiction. I actually wrote fewer blog posts than I do when I’m at work because I didn’t have very many deep and meaningful thoughts over the summer. I pretty much only thought about my sleep cycle, tennis, and what I’m going to eat. You can only write so many posts about those topics.

I was going to get my jewelry business going again. I was obsessed with making jewelry several years ago and sold a lot of what I made. So I bought all these beads back in January and planned to make some new items over the summer. Take some pictures of them, even. Sell them on Etsy. The only thing I made were some earrings (the purple pair on the left) for my tennis team to match our uniform, but I didn’t make any money. I just wanted my team to look cute!

I was going to knit more. I sell some of my jewelry and knitting at my friend’s store, The Stitchin’ Post, and my knitted items have sold the best, but it takes forever to make the things that I like. I was also going to knit this cute top for myself:

This is the picture from the pattern. I haven’t finished mine yet. I’ve made it to the armholes, but by the time I finish it, I might only have a few weeks left of warm weather, because the top part looks pretty complicated.

I was going to get in better shape. Play more tennis. Add more low-impact cardio like riding my bike. Do some strength training. Throw in some yoga.

I tried to ride my bike, but I couldn’t figure how to put the bike rack on. My ex was kind enough to help me do it, but then I couldn’t load the bike onto the bike rack by myself. And it was going to take 2 weeks to take it to the shop to get a tune up. I bought something to lubricate the chain that was supposed to be easy to apply, but it still seemed too hard and messy to do by myself. In fact, the whole bike preparation experience made me feel so ill-prepared to live my life alone that I stopped trying because it was depressing me.

I did play tennis more, and I stretched almost every night, but that’s about it.

I was going to read more books. I keep track of what books I read throughout the year, and I’m way behind from where I would ordinarily be. So I started reading more when I realized I only had a few weeks left before I had to go back to work. The only problem is, since I read on my iPad, the longer I read, the harder it was to fall asleep because of the back lighting. So then I had to read less so that I could fall asleep before 4 a.m.

All in all, I fell short on almost every goal. Perhaps I was being a tad unrealistic about what I could accomplish in 2 months.

Plus, when I have less time, I get more done because I have to make the most of every minute. Squeeze in a trip to the grocery store right after work, even if I’m tired. Write a blog post if I have a no show. Read a paragraph if my client is running late. When I have all the time in the world, I tell myself that I’ll get stuff done eventually. No need to rush.

But I’m not feeling too bad about myself for falling short of my goals. It’s good for me to set goals, not because I have to meet all of them, but because it gives me something to strive for. After all, isn’t life more about the striving than the end result? At least that’s what I tell myself to feel better.

Beginnings and Endings, Part 2

My job follows the academic calendar, so today is my first day back at work. I was never one of those kids who looked forward to the beginning of school. I didn’t care about seeing my friends; I didn’t want to have to do homework. I didn’t want to have to go to bed and wake up early. I pretty much have the same mentality now that I did when I was in elementary school. Some things never change, I guess.

My summers follow a distinct pattern: I have a hard time transitioning from being stressed and having to be super-productive to not having a whole lot that needs to get done. Boredom doesn’t do justice to the intensity of how badly I feel during that adjustment period. It’s more like, my existence is a complete waste of time. I have nothing of value to offer to the world. I know it’s is my inner critic talking, but it still makes me question my worth. I think that’s why most people would rather be stressed than bored: it makes you feel more useful.

However, by the time I have about 2 weeks of vacation left, I start panicking about having to go back to work. I don’t want to feel stressed out again–to be on call, have back-to-back clients, rush to get my nightly routine completed. By the end of the summer, I feel like I could quit my job altogether. But I have no one to support me, so that’s not an option.

This summer I had the added adjustment of being alone for the first time. Braking down on the side of the freeway alone. Attending weddings alone. Spending holidays and weekends alone. At least when I was working, I was guaranteed to see people every day. Over the summer, I had to make plans to motivate myself to leave the house, and sometimes I couldn’t do it.

Plus, I was also going through the steps to finalize my divorce, so I no longer had the illusion that I could return to the more stable state of matrimony. I didn’t date anyone or even have someone I could fantasize about dating. Well, I guess there’s Federer, but even in his case, the most I could imagine was being one of the nannies for his new twin boys. Not terribly romantic.

Despite the struggles with boredom, reversed sleep cycles, and solitude, I think the highs and lows actually helped me tolerate my emotions better. I would remind myself that boredom and loneliness are painful sometimes, but I’ll be busy eventually. (Usually the next day, because I played in 7 tennis leagues and captained 5 of them over the summer.) And when school starts and I’m feeling overwhelmed, I’ll remind myself that I have a long break to look forward to at the end of the term.

I think it also helped that I spent the past 2 weeks on vacation with family and friends. It was the highlight of the summer, but it was also hard to be around people 24-7. Now that I am accustomed to extended periods of solitude, I realize how much I need down time to feel sane. So by the time my vacation ended on Friday, I was ready to go home. Ready to catch up on tennis, blogging, and even work.

This summer was a good reminder of how, even when something seems intolerable, that feeling will pass. And you might even find value in the experience that you hated so much at that time.