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Monthly Archives: February 2015

It’s Just a Memory

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When you’re a therapist, you need to have a good memory, because clients expect you to remember everything they’ve ever said. I’m not trying to brag or anything, but I actually exceed clients’ expectations in this department. They often ask me if I take detailed notes, which I don’t. Sometimes I don’t even look at the note from the last session before I see them.

While I’m thankful for being blessed with a good memory, there are serious drawbacks, because it’s almost like having PTSD. For big things, like when I hydroplaned on the freeway and crashed into the median going backwards. Or any memory during the 4 year period when my dad was depressed. But also for little things, like every fight I’ve ever had with someone. Or anything traumatic that has happened to other people, because of the whole hyperempath thing.

That means when these memories come up, all of the feelings come back. I get anxious every time I pass the site of my accident on the way to work. I cry when I remember that my dad barely had the will to live. I’m angry whenever I remember the lies my ex-boyfriend told me. And I feel physical pain whenever I remember seeing someone getting injured.

And since I’m also obsessive, once the memory comes up, it’s hard to get it out of my head. I keep replaying the scene, even though it just upsets me more. And it’s really, really hard to stop obsessing, even with the help of medication.

Sometimes I’m so sick of listening to myself I literally yell “Stop obsessing!” Even though in a previous post I wrote about how self-talk with words like stop, don’t, no, etc. don’t work. Plus it’s not a very compassionate thing to say to yourself.

The other thing I say to calm myself down is “It’s OK; everything’s going to be OK.” All freaking day long. But it only works if I mean it and I’m not just trying to shut myself up. It’s all in the tone of voice. But then saying it becomes a compulsion, so I get annoyed that I have to repeat it hundreds of times a day.

One of the more effective things I say to myself is “you don’t have to think about that right now while you’re trying to sleep/in session with this client/driving to work. You can think about it later if you want to.” For some reason, if I don’t forbid myself from saying it, I can let the thought go more easily.

And my latest strategy, which is the most helpful to date, is to say, “It’s just a memory of something painful. You don’t have to think about it ever again, if you don’t want to.” Again, giving myself permission not to think about it, rather than telling myself I can’t, seems to be more effective.

I guess the lesson is, whatever you choose to say to yourself, say it with compassion; it will work a lot better.

Questions for God

Questions for God

This year I sent my parents a Valentine’s card with a religious theme about love, which made them happy. My dad half-jokingly said, “Could it be my prayers have finally been answered?”

I stopped going to church long ago because I didn’t agree with a lot of the doctrines of the Catholic church. When I asked questions, I wasn’t satisfied with the answers, and I couldn’t get on board with a God that wants us to accept his rules without understanding why. I mean, why would he have sent us Jesus if he didn’t care whether or not we understood him?

But that’s not to say I gave up on understanding God. Through years of reading, praying, meditating, and talking to others, I feel much better about my relationship with him. But I still have questions. Many of them have to do with mental illness.

Last week the student group I advise, Active Minds, sponsored a presentation by the JCK Foundation, whose mission is to end stigma associated with OCD and other mental disorders. The foundation was created in honor of John Kelly, who suffered from OCD and eventually took his own life at the age of 25.

One of the problems I had with the Catholic Church was the belief that suicide is an unpardonable sin. It’s obvious that John was an amazing person whose compassion and goodness were felt by anyone who knew him. So much so that his friends and family created this foundation in order to do what John did in his every day life–to help other people who are suffering. Is it possible that this one final act could have nullified all of the good that he brought to the world?

John tried so hard to beat OCD. He kept a journal. He took meds. He went to therapy. Did every kind of alternative treatment in existence. Helped other people. But still, the pain was unbearable. I can imagine how someone who was in that much pain could decide that they could not bear a life where there was seemingly no hope of getting better.

I’ve heard many people say that when their loved one was near death, they gave them permission to let go. Isn’t it possible that God would have done the same for John? That he might have said, you’ve done your job on earth; you don’t have to suffer any longer. Wouldn’t that be something that a loving father might say to a son?

Or did God say, don’t give up! There will be a cure someday. You need to persevere! Even if that’s what God said, he forgives us for being fallible. No sin is supposed to be greater than God’s love. So why wouldn’t he forgive this particular sin?

I have been thinking about John Kelly for the past 5 days, even though the presentation wasn’t that good. But I could feel John’s compassion as his friends and family talked about him, and I was moved by how they have chosen to spread compassion as far as they possibly can in honor of him.

I  choose to believe that God is happy about that.

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After I wrote this post I found this article that says the Catholic Church no longer believes that suicide is an unpardonable sin. That God is the only one who decides who should go to hell. Thank goodness.

If That’s the Definition of Insanity, Then We’re All Insane

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I wish I could say it only took 2 punches for me to come to my senses. I have been knocked down more times than I care to admit and kept on fighting, even when I should have thrown in the towel. But I’m not going to beat myself up about that anymore. Someone has to be in my corner; it might as well be me.

It was Albert Einstein who said insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. With all due respect, he may have been a genius when it comes to mass and energy, but he obviously did not know much about psychology. Because people do this all the time.

For example, I struggled with depression for decades before I went to therapy. I went on and off meds until I had a relapse that terrified me. I’ve been in countless relationships that should have ended before they began. I’ve been working on my forehand for 10+ years but keep hitting it the same way. And I keep buying all this dried fruit in an attempt to eat healthier and end up throwing it all away.

It definitely feels crazy when you’re knowingly making the same mistakes over and over, that’s for sure. But if everyone is doing it, then insanity is normal.

Plus, seemingly irrational behaviors have a certain logic to them. Here are some reasons why we choose to stay in the boxing ring:

1. We’re not supposed to give up. Have you ever seen a motivational poster that says throw in the towel after you’ve been punched in the face twice? Our culture glorifies the fight to the death mentality. If we don’t give up, maybe we’ll be like Rudy and finally get put in the game. Or we’ll be David and slay the giant. Or we’ll come back from 0-6, 0-5 and win the match.

It’s the people who persevere despite all odds who accomplish great things.

2. One trial learning only works for food poisoning. You only have to get sick from a bad crab once to develop an aversion to it. Everything else takes many, many repetitions before we get it right. That’s how tennis pros are able to make a living.

3. Our brains prefer the road well-traveled. The road was paved long ago in our neuronal pathways before we could make our own travel plans, and it is the only path we’ve ever known. That’s why recovery is a process, even when we’re ready for change: it takes time for our neurons to get on board.

4. Change is scary. It’s much safer to have a predictable yet crappy outcome than it is to venture into the unknown. What if I leave this relationship or this job or this city, foregoing comfort and familiarity, only to have things turn out even worse than they were before? How do I know it won’t be a big waste of time and energy?

We don’t know for sure. That’s why change is not for the faint of heart. It requires a tremendous leap of faith in ourselves.

So I’d like to offer a new definition of insanity. Insanity is having the courage to try something different in order to get a different result.

May we all strive to be at least a little bit insane.

Learning to Put Myself First

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It seems that for some people the idea of compassion entails a complete disregard for or even a sacrifice of their own interests. This is not the case. In fact, you first of all have to have a wish to be happy yourself – if you don’t love yourself like that, how can you love others? – Dalai Lama

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Last Sunday a friend of mine was talking about how her priest was retiring because of compassion fatigue. That witnessing the suffering of his parishioners all those years had depleted him, and he had nothing left to give.

In the post What Compassion is Not, I talked about the misconceptions that lead some people to believe that compassion enables people to be lazy, unproductive members of society. But there are also misconceptions about compassion that can lead to burnout. Here are some of the ones I’ve written about in my blog.

1. Date your enemies. When Jesus said to love your enemies, I took this a bit too far. Yes, I do try to put myself in the other person’s shoes. To recognize that we are all capable of good and evil. But I also thought it meant that if I didn’t want to date someone because of race, SES, mental illness, red flags, etc., then I was judging them, and judgment is bad. So I should try to overcome my prejudice and go out with the person, anyway.

This has lead to disastrous consequences in my personal life. It would have been kinder to both of us if I had just acknowledged that we were not compatible from the start.

2. Love your neighbor more than yourself. I know that the quote is actually to love your neighbor as yourself, but somewhere along the line, I came to believe that my needs were less important than others. If I could help someone, I should, whether it hurts me or not.

Blogging has been the best reminder to put my needs first. Since I’m always preaching self-care, it would be hypocritical not to take care of myself. Plus, since I have made blogging a priority, before I take on a new task, I ask myself how many blog posts it will cost me. And even if it costs me one post, I won’t do it.

3. Practice compassion perfectly. Technically, evaluation should not be a part of compassion at all, but tell that to my Inner Critic.

In my last relationship, I hated the guy for a year after we broke up, and I felt terrible about this. Despite my best efforts, I could not make myself let go of my anger. But when you are practicing compassion, you must have compassion for yourself first. So I would tell myself that this is where I am at the moment. Not yet ready to let go of my anger toward this person who hurt me. And that’s OK. When I’m ready, it will happen.

And it did.

If you are interested in learning more about how to practice compassion, I recommend Jack Kornfield’s compassion meditation. It is one of my favorites.

It Matters to Me

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Last week in our body image support group, every single client prefaced an anecdote about something that upset them with a disclaimer about how it’s not that big of a deal. This thing that bothered them enough to bring it up. Not important at all, in the grand scheme of things.

Why do we do this to ourselves? Trivialize our feelings? I do it all the time, but it’s more noticeable when other people do it because it sounds so mean.

For example, if I tell my opponents before a tennis match not to be alarmed if I throw up, I feel like I’m just trying to get attention. Because I secretly enjoy telling them about my GERD/asthma/allergies and listing all the drugs I take for each of these conditions. And if they make some comment about what a trooper I am for continuing to play, I feel guilty. Am I misleading them into thinking that I am strong? Maybe I’m exaggerating how bad it is.

I get it that this is a defense mechanism. I am going to beat you to the punch. I am going to say upfront that I know this thing I am about to tell you is trivial so that you can’t hurt me by not caring about it. I am going to shame myself out of being upset to try to make the feeling go away. I am going to compare my pain to other people who are suffering more than I am so that I will feel guilty and stop complaining. I’m going to repeat to myself how stupid it is to be upset every day, hundreds of times a day, until the pain goes away.

Except it doesn’t make the pain go away. So we just end up invalidating our feelings hundreds of times a day, every day. Or, if you’re successful in being able to cut yourself off from your feelings, then you end up invalidating other people’s feelings, too. Which is why they preface all of their comments to you with a disclaimer about how what they are about to tell you is not that big of a deal.

Even though I am now aware of the harm I am doing to myself with these comments, it is effortful and time-consuming to come up with something nicer to say. Which is a bit disconcerting, that being kind to myself would be so difficult.

It was even more difficult for those clients, who did not even realize they were invalidating their feelings until I brought it to their attention. They sat in silence for a few minutes, straining their brains to come up with something they could say to themselves that would be more compassionate.

Which is exactly why we need to practice.

That’s why I help clients come up with mantras in advance to counteract their inner demons; it saves time and energy. So if you are in need of something to say, here’s one you can use: it matters to me, and that’s all that matters.

Why I Don’t Hate Valentine’s Day

This is the second year in a row that I will be spending Valentine’s Day alone. Well, I’ll be playing in a tennis tournament, so I won’t really be alone. But I probably won’t be getting any chocolates or flowers or anything. And if I do, that actually might be a little creepy.

Still, unlike many single people, I do not hate Valentine’s Day. I sat home alone last year and knitted and watched the Olympics, and that was fine. It wasn’t any worse than being alone on any other holiday.

To defend my pro-Valentine’s Day position, I thought I’d provide rebuttals to the most common anti-Valentine’s Day sentiments.

1. All holidays are made up. The most common objection to Valentine’s Day that I hear is that it is a conspiracy in which Hallmark, FTD, and Russell Stover Candies all got together and made up this day so they can sell more products. But the thing is, all holidays are made up. Think of Labor Day, Memorial Day, and Veteran’s Day. We made those up, too, and nobody is complaining about it.

2. There are lots of consumer-driven holidays. But, you may argue to my response to #1, all of those holidays are not fueled by consumerism. Which isn’t true, either. I’ve seen lots of car commercials offering great deals for Presidents Day, and cars don’t have anything to do with Washington or Lincoln’s birthday.

Plus, have you ever heard of Black Friday? Which now starts on Thursday? The holiday on which people are supposed to spend time with their family eating turkey and pumpkin pie and watching the first Christmas special? Nobody throws anti-Black Friday parties that actually start on Thursday in protest of this consumer-driven conspiracy.

3. Chocolate. Most of the holidays that we don’t get a day off for at least allow us to indulge in something. Green beer on St. Patricks Day. Candy on Halloween. And chocolate on Valentine’s Day. Who could be against a day that celebrates chocolate? And if you’re single, you can go to the grocery store around 10 pm and buy chocolate at 50% off. And it tastes exactly the same.

4. Singlehood is nothing to be ashamed ofIn my opinion, living in a culture that makes people feel bad about being single is much worse than being alone on Valentine’s Day. I avoided being single for the first 45 years of my life, but I have to tell you, trying to pick out a Valentine’s Day gift for someone you don’t love is way worse than spending the day enjoying your own company.

5. I have people who love me. Being single does not mean that you are not loved. As I indicated in my post from last year, the best gifts I’ve ever gotten on Valentine’s Day were from my dad and my baby brother. So even though I am not in a romantic relationship, I know I am loved. I have always been loved, and I have faith that I will always be loved. And it’s nice to have a day that reminds me of this.

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It’s Complicated

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Have you ever noticed how you can experience two things at the same time that seem contradictory? If you have, you probably berated yourself for being irrational. At least that’s what I always do.

Take my last post on being indispensable, for example. I confessed to all kinds of things that I do in relationships that don’t make any sense. I know I can’t be all things to all people, but I try to do it, anyway. I feel this anxiety in the pit of my stomach about a guy, and I do everything I can to be in a relationship with him. I am devastated when the relationship ends, even though I’m not sure I liked him that much to begin with.

I know it’s not just me. I had 2 clients last week who were beating themselves up for similar things. But as a therapist, I’m much wiser than I am in real life. As a therapist, I tell them that we can experience things that seem mutually exclusive at the same time. People can love you and still make choices that they know will hurt you. You can be afraid, but you can still take a risk. You can be grateful for all of your blessings and still have a right to be sad.

People are complex. We are a mix of loving and hateful feelings. We are both selfish and unselfish. Good and bad. In fact, if you know someone who only seems to be on one side of the good/bad continuum, you probably don’t know them very well.

I just went to lunch with a friend who told me that she was catching up on my blog and realized how little she knew about me. I told her it’s because I’m good at hiding how I feel, which I’ve always taken pride in. But I don’t think it’s such a good thing any more, which is why I blog about honesty.

But my friend pointed out that it can be a good thing and that she was glad that I seem happy and together; it helped her to accept the other things about me. Which seemed insulting at first, but I think I get it.

If my weaknesses were the only things people knew about me, I probably wouldn’t get as many comments about being courageous and honest. I would probably be judged more harshly, fair or not.

But I am not just those things. I am also relatively well-adjusted. I am also someone who strives to be a better person. I am also someone who shares my vulnerabilities so that other people can feel normal.

I am a walking contradiction. I am the entire spectrum. Strengths and weaknesses. Crazy and normal. Perfect and flawed, all at once. And so are you.

I have to admit, even as I write this, I still don’t love all of the contradictions that make me who I am. But at least it gives me lots of material to blog about.