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Monthly Archives: April 2016

You vs. Your Demon: How to Take Advantage of Voice

demon

A few weeks ago I had a session with one of my clients that left me crying, I was laughing so hard. She was describing some of the things that her demon was telling her about why she was not a good contributing member of society–my favorite club of the ones listed below–and we were examining the credibility of these statements. By the end of the session she acknowledged that it had gone too far when it compared her to Hitler for not majoring in something more useful. I thought that was so hilarious, I was going to write a blog post about it. But then I decided to let her do it for me.  And I couldn’t have said it better myself.

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Amy Poehler said in her book Yes Please that we all have a “demon.” To paraphrase, our demon is that whiny little voice in our head whose only job is to make us feel like crap about ourselves. Amy tells us about the demons’ superpower of omnipresence; our demon seems to always be there, whether it’s there to call us ugly when we’re talking to a cute stranger, berate us for days over a minor error in a project, or constantly shout offensive, distracting profanities at us during a job interview. She then goes on to give us some tips on how to silence our demons. She suggests imagining yourself brushing your demon off your shoulder, or to think/say the words, “Not now, demon. I’ve got stuff to do.”

I think Poehler is off to a fantastic start here. However, I’d like to take this metaphor a step further: everyone has a demon, and just like we are all different, our demons are all different. And on top of that, especially for folks who struggle with mental illness, demons are exceptional at their jobs. They have literally been hand-picked, hand-crafted and molded since day one to know exactly where to aim, where to hit the hardest. No one can craft an insult, word a passive aggressive dig, or construct an anti-you argument in such a clever and deliciously cruel way that your demon can.

There is an important way that our demons distinguish themselves amongst one another, and that is their voice. Each demon’s voice is going to be totally unique—demons survive on feelings of inadequacy, helplessness and self-loathing, and just like any creature, they evolve according to their environment. So, they will develop skills and adaptations that are most likely to provoke feelings that specifically hurt their host human so they can stay strong. As such, our demons will have their own opinions, ways of speaking, mannerisms, and relationship skills.

Personally, my demon is condescending, snobby, and pretentious. She frames her insults as “corrections” or “feedback.” She wants me to think that by consistently condemning and shaming me, she’s helping me become a better person, so that I can finally join all her exclusive clubs: The Good Friend Club. The Good Student Club. The Good Daughter/Sister Club. And my personal favorite, The Good Contributing Member of Society Club. The problem here is that the standards for entry in my demon’s clubs are so impossibly high that no one could ever imagine gaining membership. However, for a long time, my demon had me tricked into thinking that I’m the only human being on Earth who has yet to crack the code for entry into her cliques. She has even found a way to rationalize why Hitler would gain membership to her clubs before I would.

So how do we combat these demons? Amy Poehler is definitely on to something. She deals with her demon not like a spirit she must exorcise or a condition she must cure, but rather an annoying, socially inept acquaintance who just won’t take a hint. This, I think, is a great tactic, because it allows you to treat your demon like a person rather than this nebulous, amorphous ghost-thing that you can’t quite pin down. These invasive, nasty thoughts become the musings of a particular type of person as well: for Amy, it’s the inane pest on her shoulder. For someone else, it might be helpful to treat their demon like an overbearing helicopter mom. For others, it might be useful to actually visualize their demon as an enemy in combat, where the insults and words really are weapons designed to seriously hurt someone. What’s important is that whatever you choose to fight your demon with, it must come from your original voice.

That’s the demon’s fatal flaw, her Achilles heel, her Kryptonite. There is nothing that terrifies your demon more than being confronted with your original, genuine tone of voice and perspective. If she feeds on feelings related to low self-esteem, she is weakened by feelings related to self-assurance and security.

I think this is why it is difficult to pinpoint how exactly to silence your demon, but also why it is so, so important. I’ve discovered that not one method works for everyone. For me, it’s affirmations that I’ve written to myself in ways that make it sound like something I’d actually say. Listed below are some of my affirmations that I like to say in my head when I find myself obsessing over my flaws or beating myself up over mistakes:

  • You are obsessing because sometimes brains are weird and they like to obsess over dumb things.
  • None of this is real. If you said one of these thoughts out loud to a friend, they would probably be extremely concerned.
  • Your demon is a rude bitch, and she’s straight up lying to you.
  • Literally anything would be more productive than this. Go drink some water or something.
  • You’re not Hitler.

I’m still learning about my demon, too. I’m sure sometime fairly soon she will come up with a new strategy in her never-ending quest to make me feel sad. But it’s okay, because one thing will never change, and that’s her Achilles heel. Conveniently, her Achilles heel is also the one thing she can never take away from me: my voice.

Mansie Hough is a senior at Washington and Lee University. She is a Mass Communications major and is a good contributing member of society.

Defending Hope

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Guess what the best predictor of suicide is? Here are some possibilities, in multiple choice form, since I used to be a psychology professor.

  1. a diagnosis of depression
  2. a diagnosis of anxiety
  3. feelings of helplessness
  4. feelings of hopelessness
  5. all of the above
  6. none of the above

I just threw in those last 2 options because students hated those. They are a bit sadistic, I have to admit.

The correct answer is…#4. Hopelessness.

I have only recently become aware of Hope. Among the cast of characters in my mind, like the Inner Critic and the Drill Sergeant, you’d think discovering Hope would have been a pleasant surprise. But I was actually annoyed with her. I had been calling her by a different name: Delusions of Grandeur.

In a previous post on optimism, I defended its merits even when it believes in something that is statistically unlikely to happen, like winning that lottery. Or that you’re going to win when you’re down 0-6, 0-5, 0-40 in a tennis match. I don’t feel like I risk too much by being optimistic, because when I lose, it’s really not that devastating. I wasn’t expected to win.

I don’t feel the same way about hope. Hope wants me to believe in things when the stakes are high. She wants me to put my dreams out there, knowing that they may get dashed. To open my heart up, knowing it might get broken. To believe in something, knowing that I might become disillusioned.

I blame a lot of my failed relationships on Hope. I yell at her whenever I think about the pain I’ve endured. How foolish she was. What the hell were you thinking? That was a terrible idea! Why did you not heed the warning signs? Why didn’t you protect me?

That’s why sometimes I am not so kind to her. Especially after I’ve been hurt. Hope must die! I must kill her off! So she hides from me. Slips between the cushions of the couch and throws pillows over herself so I won’t find her. Because I’m really not that thorough in my vacuuming.

Sometimes she tries to placate me. Pretends she agrees with me when I say things like, what’s the point of trying to get a book published? No one will probably read it, anyway. But then she tricks me into writing another blog post. Like tonight. Maybe it will make you feel better, she says. That’s the goal, after all. Not fame and fortune. It’s meant to be for you. Except she still secretly believes I will become a famous writer someday.

The truth is, I need Hope. I mean, she thinks I’m great. How can I kill off a part of myself that thinks I’m great? And she inspires me to do great things. It is because of Hope that I became a therapist. Without her, I would never have been able to help anyone.

And even when she breaks my heart and leaves me disillusioned, she convinces me that things will get better. That is the thing that keeps people alive, even in the midst of depression, after all. The hope that things will get better. So Hope has actually saved my life many times.

So I guess I’ll try to be nicer to her.

 

Joy and Pain, Part 2

So it’s the end of the semester and guess what? I’m feeling exhausted. Depressed. Overwhelmed at the prospect of having to be there for one more person. Even if it’s my family. Especially if it’s my family, actually. It makes me feel guilty, but it’s much more incapacitating to deal with my family’s problems than it is to deal with my clients. I guess because I am much more invested in things getting better with my family. It has much more of an impact on my own well-being. Plus my clients listen to me more.

It’s not that I don’t love them. I mean, look at this picture of my brothers and me.

Jumping for joy

I think it’s awesome! Admittedly, we are not as joyful as we may seem in the photo. One of my brothers bemoaned the fact that I was making him jump, given that he had bad knees and a bad internal organ–a kidney, maybe? Although I’m not sure why that would be impacted by jumping. Yet in the picture, he looks quite athletic (he’s the one on the far right). And they all love the picture. An example of how it’s probably a good idea to do whatever I suggest.

There were actually an unusually high number of joyous events. We test-drove each other’s new cars,

Porsche

Abarth

toured the downtown where the movie Big Stone Gap was filmed,

Big Stone Gap

and hung out with Big Foot at Flag Rock.

Big Foot

But being with my family is often a source of pain, as well. There is a plethora of mental illness to deal with. More severe than what I see in my job. At some level I think I became a psychologist in an attempt to heal my family, yet I have probably been the least helpful to them as a professional. I guess that’s why it’s better to see someone who can be objective.

People have lots of misconceptions about how feelings work. One of them is that positive and negative feelings are mutually exclusive. But that’s not true; joy and pain sit side by side. When your daughter or son walks down the isle, you may be crying both tears of joy and sadness. And when you visit your family, you may be jumping for joy and feeling dread and helplessness at the same time.

I often tell clients that being human requires us to experience the full range of emotions, and loving someone is a good example of this. Sometimes I find it overwhelming. When you feel other people’s feelings to the extent that I do, feeling twice as much joy and pain can be too much, even if they are people that you love. And when your job requires that you sit with pain every day, it can be hard to make it to the end of every term without crashing and burning.

But quitting my job and giving up my family are not an option. So I guess I will have to continue to wrestle with how to find the middle ground between joy and pain, closeness and distance, self-care and self-sacrifice.

Fortunately, blogging really helps.

On the Road to Enlightenment, Part 2

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So I finished reading “Lovingkindness,” and I’ve concluded that people who dedicate their lives to meditation must not have mental illnesses. This is not to say that I did not get anything out of the book. I loved the book, and I have recommended it to several clients. It’s just that I think you have to have a certain level of mental stability to become enlightened.

When I went to this conference on trauma, Ron Siegel, another mindfulness guru, practically said the same thing. He said that you need to be fairly mentally stable to go on a silent retreat because you realize how much your mood is affected much more by random thoughts than anything that is going on in the external world. When you’re depressed and anxious, those random thoughts can be fairly persecutory, so to be left alone with them without anyone to tell you that they’re not real could be a major mental health hazard.

I’ve been feeling depressed this past week. It shouldn’t come as a surprise, because this is what happens at the end of every term. I should be used to it by now. But how do you get used to the pain? To your brain telling you all of these things that aren’t true? Every time feels like the first time. Maybe that’s why it takes so long for me to admit it’s depression. I keep thinking it’s something else. Something real. Something that might go away if only this thing happens. Or this thing. Why are these things not helping? Oh. It’s because I’m depressed and nothing helps. Nothing stops the pain.

I played tennis today and even that didn’t help. However, it was an unusually frustrating experience because it was so windy. You think you can go out there and do your thing like you always do, but no. The wind has other ideas. The wind is like, you think you have a good serve? See if you can get the ball over the net if I’m in you’re face. You’re not strong enough. I bet you thought that ball was going to be 2 feet out, didn’t you? WRONG! You lose the point. So we ended up stopping early.

I told my friend I needed to write a blog post and she said I should write one about the wind. How it can be a metaphor for something. And the wind actually is a pretty good metaphor for depression. It makes you feel like you suck. Like you don’t know how to play tennis at all. All of your strengths are stripped away from you, and no matter how hard you try to overcome it, you cannot play your game. And during that 2 hours while I was playing in the wind, that’s exactly how I felt about being depressed. I was trying to be in moment, out in the sun, spending time with my friends. I was trying to enjoy myself, be thankful, focus on nothing but the ball. All things that come natural to me when I’m not depressed. But my demons, like the wind, just kept telling me how much I sucked.

There really is so little you can do to stop the pain in the moment when you’re feeling depressed, so I tried to practice self-compassion. To be kind to myself. I ate lunch. I read old journal entries, because I find them hilarious and prophetic. I wrote in my journal. Tried to watch tennis. And then finally I took half an Ativan and took a nap. And now I’m writing a blog post. And I do feel a little better.

I guess if practicing lovingkindness and self-compassion can at least help me battle my demons, that in itself makes it worth the effort.