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Monthly Archives: February 2016

Boundaries, Part 3

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Last night I was reading “The Girl on the Train” for book club, and one of the characters describes how she feels like someone has been in her house and has touched all of her stuff, even though nothing is out of place. I don’t know why yet, but my guess is that her intuition is correct.

It reminded me of this time when I came home and felt the same way. Except something was out of place. The TV was on some channel that I never watch. I was momentarily afraid. Then I called my boyfriend at the time and he said he had gone into my house to hang out for a while because he was hiding from his ex-wife. I thought that was weird. Why in the world would he not have told me that? Or asked me if he could go to my place? Why did he just feel like he could go over there like it belonged to him?

There were other similar things that he did that used to drive me crazy. Use my mugs and then take them home and put them in his cabinets. Go into my drawers and wear my t-shirts and then take them home and put them in his drawers. Pick up my computer and start using it without asking me. Change the saved radio stations in my car to the ones that he listened to. No matter how many times I told him not to do these things. It enraged me.

There were psychological boundary violations, too. He would purposely not respond to my calls and texts when he was up to something and would then accuse me of being too needy. In retrospect, it’s pretty clear that he was the one who needed me, but it struck a cord with me, so I didn’t know which one of us was crazy. Maybe we both were.

Although it was mostly him.

When these memories come up, I’m glad that I’m not in a relationship. I continue to struggle with not knowing when I’m feeling someone else’s feelings. It all feels the same to me. It makes it a little easier if there’s no one here in my life, invading my physical and psychological space. But how long do I have to be alone before I know that it’s safe to invite someone back in?

This ex who could not differentiate my stuff from his own once told me that as a kid he used to have nightmares of being in a room with no walls. That would be a terrifying thing. I imagine maintaining or protecting boundaries is easier to do if there are already walls built into the spaces in your mind. But how do you know where to put them, if all of your life there’s just been this undefined space?

I still don’t have the answer for that. Although one clue seems to be that, if I meet someone and the thought of them makes me anxious or angry, that’s probably a sign that I might not want to go out with them.

I Understand Why they Call It Practice

It’s been a year since 1000 Voices Speak for Compassion was created. In honor of its one year anniversary, the topic of the month is to write about what participating in 1000 Voices has meant to us. I love “year in review” posts, and I love writing about compassion, so this topic is right up my alley.

In the past year, I have made a concerted effort to practice self-compassion, and while it continues to be challenging, it is the strategy that has been most effective in battling my demons. I’ve learned from studying compassion, listening to clients in therapy, and observing my own mind, that our instinctive response to coping with pain and suffering is to be unkind to ourselves. To minimize our suffering. To shame ourselves out of our pain. To chastise ourselves for being crazy, selfish, and petty. It’s ironic that, although we all want to be happy and feel good about ourselves, our default is to see ourselves as being flawed and unworthy.

This instinctive response to be self-critical is so strong that it often takes a while for me to come up with a self-compassionate response. Take today, for example. Another day where I’ve slept in and done nothing. Even though other people have probably done things like wake up early, gotten out of bed, tended to their spouses and children, and done some productive things.

I’ve gotten better at not berating myself, which reduces some of my suffering, but I still struggle with coming up with something loving to say to myself. But today I thought of one. Today, I thought that, for someone who struggles with depression, I’m actually a fairly productive person. And this made me feel strong instead of weak. In fact, I’m writing this blog post right now, since I’m feeling better about myself. Granted, I’m still doing it from my bed, but I can have compassion for myself for that, too.

Practicing self-compassion has changed the way I do therapy, because almost every client can identify that self-critical voice. Most of the time it says unkind things about us all day long, and we do nothing to stop it because it seems so natural and it feels true. So I teach clients how to practice mindfulness so that they can become aware of these thoughts without judgment or criticism. And then I teach them to have compassion for their feelings. This is pain; this is suffering. It does not make you crazy or weak; it makes you human. It is not your fault that you have come into the world this way, with this vulnerability; you did not choose it. And given that you are already in pain, let’s focus on whatever is in your control to make yourself feel better.

I understand why you practice self-compassion. There is no finish line. It’s not something that you master and then you can stop doing it. It’s like doing cardio for strengthening your heart, or lifting weights for your muscles. It is a lifetime activity.

The good thing about blogging is that it’s the psychological equivalent of looking in the mirror at the gym and seeing that your workouts are paying off. Hey! I am talking to myself differently! I am kinder to myself! It’s working! So thank you, 1000 Voices of Compassion, for providing me with this opportunity to strengthen my capacity to love.

For more posts on compassion, you can access the link-up here.

You can also find posts on Twitter @1000Speak.

This is My Life

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You often hear tennis players accuse other players of not having a life. Like the people who go ballistic over a line call. Or the ones who cheat or resort to head games to win. Or the people who so spend much time on the court that they seem to be neglecting their spouses and children.

While I admit that tennis is my life, none of those things are true about me. I have a really positive attitude about tennis. And while I want to win, I do not resort to cheating, head games, or blaming anyone for my losses. And I don’t have any spouses or children to neglect.

Plus, what if tennis is my life? What’s so bad about that? Sure, it’s just a game, but lots of people have jobs that center around tennis. Like tennis players. And coaches. And commentators. And all the people who work for the Tennis Channel. And sports psychologists. In fact, I could totally be a sports psychologist.

In many ways, I am a more balanced person as a tennis player than I am in my real life. For example, in my real life, I will often take on so many responsibilities that I will have mental breakdowns. But in tennis, I have learned to turn down opportunities to play so that I don’t get injured.

And in tennis, I’ve stopped playing with people who suck all the joy out of tennis. Because if I can only play so many times a week to prevent injury, then I need to be selective about who I play with. Whereas in my real life, I am drawn to people who suck all the joy out of life.

When I went to that compassion retreat back in May, one of the teachers said that she thought I loved tennis because it was a great way to practice mindfulness. Meaning I am focused, in the moment, and accepting of whatever happens. And this is true. Tennis is the only activity that can quiet my obsessive brain and help me feel better, now matter how crappy of a day I’m having.  Plus, when I play, I’m practicing mindfulness for 2 hours, multiple times a week. That might be more practice than some Buddhist monks get in a week.

OK, maybe not. But still. That’s a lot of mindfulness practice.

Plus, if it weren’t for tennis, I would have no social life. In fact, I would have very little human contact outside of work. Because this weekend I don’t have any tennis until Sunday at 6, and I already know that it will be effortful to leave my house and go across the street to the grocery store.

When I play tennis, we often eat out afterwards, so I don’t starve like I do when I’m home alone. And, as I mentioned in a previous post, thanks to tennis, I find out about really good deals like Free Pie Wednesday at O’Charley’s. And who doesn’t like free pie?

So the next time someone tells me to get a life, I’ll tell them that I like the one I have just fine.

Where the Heart and Mind Meet

Heart and mind

Last week I had someone contact me out of the blue because she needed to interview a mental health counselor. She heard about me through her aunt, who directed her to my blog. I like being interviewed, and I like being helpful, so I said yes. One of her questions was what my theoretical orientation/approach is. I haven’t answered this question in a while, and the longer I practice, the harder it is to answer.

These days I would say that I teach people how to accept and tolerate pain. Which is not a popular response for some clients. Usually their goal is something like, help me get rid of my pain. And believe me, if I had the power to do that, I would. It’s just that pain doesn’t often work that way.

We believe that we can make our pain go away because we think we have more control over our feelings than we actually have. This is a misconception of what it means to have free will. Not everything that happens in our minds is a matter of choice.

For example, I struggle with being obsessive. This seems like it should be under my control, since I should be able to stop my obsessive thoughts. In fact, for a while, one popular cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) technique was called thought-stopping. For some reason, it took decades for researchers to figure out that this doesn’t actually work.

I still try it, though. I tell myself to stop obsessing all day long. In fact, I do all of the CBT strategies that are supposed to help. I challenge my irrational thoughts. I avoid the word “should.” I use positive language. Practice gratitude. But still. The obsessing continues. To those people for whom being rational is sufficient to stop your pain, all I can say is, lucky you.

Most people don’t like medication because needing it seems to signify a lack of control, which signifies personal weakness. I have to admit, I had the same bias. If you read my blog, then you know it took me many years to start and stay on my meds. Even now, I try not to use them until the obsessing becomes unbearable. But then my psychiatrist phrased taking my meds as a way to have control over my anxiety. A novel idea. I like control. So now I take them sooner than I used to.

These days I tell clients to ask themselves, how much pain are you willing to tolerate in order to say that you don’t need meds? Rather than feeling like a failure because they need meds, they can think of taking them as a choice to alleviate their suffering.

The other thing I do is teach clients how to practice self-compassion. All of those rational strategies work better if you express compassion for your pain first. If you say things to yourself like, obsessing is painful. I’m sorry you have to be in pain. It’s not your fault that you can’t make it stop. Why don’t you try ______ and see if that helps? And I go through my arsenal of strategies until something helps. Or until the obsessing subsides.

Having compassion for my suffering frees up some of the energy that I spend on beating myself up for not being rational. Which, paradoxically, allows me to have more control. More free will. Perhaps compassion is the place where the heart and mind meet.

Don’t get me wrong–it’s still hard to practice self-compassion. It does not come naturally to me. My automatic response is still to tell myself to stop being obsessive. But there’s no question that it works. My blog is proof of that. Because it’s been a long time since someone has told me that I’m being too hard on myself after reading one of my posts.

I Must Be Feeling Better

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About 2 months ago I wrote a post about feeling depressed again. I knew I was at risk of it because it was winter, and we were at our busiest time of the semester at work, and I had spent an extended period of time with my family over Thanksgiving. But often when I am in the midst of something difficult, I try so hard to be positive that I do not fully process how miserable I am in the moment–like when I hurt my back.

But that day in December I could no longer deny it–I was officially depressed. Evidenced by the fact that I was not looking forward to our cookie exchange party. Because I really like sweets. If I had been my “normal” self, I would have been singing the Cookie Monster song. You know the one. C is for cookie, that’s good enough for me! Oh, cookie cookie cookie starts with C! 

In fact, not singing out loud in public is also a sign that I’m probably depressed.

Don’t get me wrong–I still went to the party and I still ate a bunch of cookies. And I brought home a bunch of cookies and ate those, too. But I was much less joyful about it than I ordinarily would be.

The good news is, I’m better now. Because last night my friends and I went out to dinner at O’Charley’s after our tennis match, and our waitress told us that it was free pie Wednesday.

Initially, we were in a state of disbelief. It’s what? We get a free pie? Are you serious? That is awesome! Is this a limited time offer? So you mean every Wednesday we can get free pie? How long have you worked here? You’re sure it’s not going to end? If we stay here all day do we get more than one piece?

And then throughout the night I would spontaneously yell out “free pie Wednesdays!” I told my brother when he called me last night. And this morning I texted my friends who were there to remind them about free pie Wednesdays. Although I’m pretty sure they remembered.

This is what my normal state is like. Celebration of sweets to an annoying degree. But come on! Free pie! That’s the best promotion I’ve ever heard of. Still, had it been a couple of months ago, I would have been much less exuberant. I mean, I still would have gotten it and eaten my pie, but I might not have kept yelling “free pie Wednesdays!” every few minutes.

And then a couple of weeks ago I ordered some new tennis shoes and did not realize that they glow in the dark until we turned out the lights at the indoor tennis facility where we play–the one that is closing at the end of the month–and they were glowing in the dark. I couldn’t believe it. I was like, these are the most awesome tennis shoes ever!

Since then, I’ve been thinking about starting glow tennis. All of the lines and the net and the balls would glow in the dark. Plus, in addition to shoes, we could have glow-in-the-dark clothing, hats, wrist and head bands, overgrips, and strings. This would be a great way to get kids interested in tennis. And it would save electricity. There may be a slightly increased risk of injury from running around in the dark, but we could get everyone to sign a waiver and tell them to play at their own risk. No one listens to those warnings, anyway. Like running at the pool. Or diving in the shallow end.

And I could make a bunch of money if it were successful. Heck, I wouldn’t even need to win the lottery anymore. And I would get to wear my new shoes. And then after playing glow tennis I can go to O’Charley’s and eat free pie.

The only problem is, this semester may be busier than last semester, so I may be headed for a mental breakdown again in a few weeks. Knowing this in advance does not always make it possible for me to prevent it because, despite all of the work that I put into maintaining my mental state, some things are not in my control.

But in this moment, I am happy, so I’m just going to enjoy it for as long as it lasts. And wear my new shoes. And eat free pie on Wednesdays.

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