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Monthly Archives: November 2016

A Compassionate Take on Why Misery Loves Company

miserylovescompany

A few years ago I had the pleasure of listening to the the President of Washington and Lee University speak to the parents of the freshman class that year, appraising them of some of the things they could expect to encounter in their child’s first year of college. A frantic call in the middle of the night about something. The transition to being a little fish in a big pond. The Turkey Drop–which happens over this very break, when some poor girlfriend or boyfriend is informed that this long-distance relationship thing just isn’t working out. Hope we can still be friends.

Students in counseling often talk about “losing the breakup.” I like that term, because it so accurately captures that feeling of being left behind with your heart broken, stalking your ex on social media as they post pictures with their new significant other. If I have to suffer, they should have to suffer, gosh darn it! I hope they get what’s coming to them.

It’s true; misery loves company. And sometimes it’s because people who are miserable want other people to be miserable so that we can all feel sucky together. But sometimes it’s not because people are mean and hateful. Sometimes it’s because we don’t want to be left alone in our pain and suffering.

In self-compassion speak, this is called common humanity. It’s one of the things that comforts us in the midst of our pain in suffering. To know that getting your heart broken is an inevitable part of experiencing love. It sucks for everyone. It did not happen to you because you are uniquely unlovable. And it’s not your fault that it hurts so much that your friends are tired of listening to you talk about your ex.

As I mentioned in my last post, it’s that time of year when my inner demon of depression rears its ugly head. It’s better this year. I’ve made it to work every day so far. I have not fallen into a pit of despair. But it’s still painful.

One of the best and most unexpected benefits of having a mental health blog is that, in the midst of my lows, some reader will reach out to me and thank me for sharing my pain because they have known that pain, too, and it’s comforting to know that they are not alone. It is as therapeutic to me as it is to them to know that there are people in the darkness with me, reaching out to me so that I know that they’re there.

Last week, as I was describing to one of my clients the types of obsessive thoughts that often go through people’s heads, she asked me if I knew what this inner dialogue was like because I studied it or from first-hand experience. I was a little taken aback. I’d never had a client ask me directly if I had an anxiety disorder. But I told her the truth. It’s both. I know her pain because I studied it, and I feel her pain because I, too, struggle with it.

I know what it’s like to suffer alone. So I became a therapist. Because misery loves company.

If Only…

waiting-for-happiness

It’s that time of year again–after Daylight Savings Time, shortly before Thanksgiving–when I am the most at risk for a depressive episode. But this year I am determined not to have one. Or at least to control whatever is in my control to prevent one. I mean, that is always my goal, but I do have an added incentive this year: I have to be able to take care of my brother, which means I have to take care of myself.

I am happy to say that I have been much better about setting boundaries as a result of this added motivation. I can only help so many people. I can only worry about so many things at once. I can only take on so many responsibilities.

The biggest problem is that, despite all of the blog posts I’ve written about letting go of those illusions of happiness that people cling to– money, beauty, the perfect relationship, extra hours in the day–I still cling to my illusions of happiness. I feel this restlessness that can’t be soothed. I long for something that will take the edge off. I turn to something that will only provide fleeting moments of relief, at best.

Lately I’ve been turning to shopping. I know it’s compulsive. I know that the relief will be temporary. I repeat this to myself as I fill my cart, put in my credit card information, and hover over the order button.

Sometimes I can talk myself out of it for a few days. But during those days I still obsess over it. Would it really be so bad if I bought another pair of boots? Don’t I deserve some indulgence, given the crappiness of my life?

So I give in and hit order. But a few days later, I have the itch to shop again. And then I have to take money out of savings to pay my credit card bill. And then I obsess about not having any money. And then I feel deprived, so I want to buy more stuff.

The problem is, I need something to think about. And if I’m not going to fill my head with all of these illusions of happiness, then what, exactly, am I supposed to think about?  So then I try to remember what all of those mindfulness books say about happiness.

I list all of the things that I can be thankful for. This is tricky, though, because if I see an accident on the side of the road, I think, I’m glad I haven’t gotten injured in a car accident. But then my obsessive brain will be like, oh my God! What if I get in a car accident?!

So then I have to switch to practicing self-compassion and tell myself that we’re not going to focus on car accidents because that stresses you out. We’re trying to focus on things that will make you feel more content. Like, how nice the weather is today, given that it’s the middle of November.

Or I’ll try to be fully present by focusing on whatever it is I’m supposed to be doing in that moment. Like driving. Or listening to my client. Or watching UVA get killed in football. Or I’ll do something that I enjoy, like knit, or read, or write.

But eventually I give in and shop some more. So then I have to switch to practicing self-compassion again and remind myself that I’m doing the best that I can.

It’s a lot of work, quite honestly. But it does occupy my mind with something other than illusions of happiness. So I’ll keep practicing and see if it keeps me from getting depressed.

shoes

Do you think I bought too many shoes?

Why the Incredible Hulk is a Poor Role Model for Stress Management

incredible-hulk

In a previous post, I made the argument that post-apocalyptic strategies for motivation like inducing the fight-or-flight response, our bodies’ emergency system reserved for life-or-death situations, is not the most efficient use of our psychological energy. It is akin to setting off the fire alarm in your house to wake up in the morning.

Despite its inefficiency, it is still our go-to response. Perhaps it’s a product of our culture, where being stressed and overworked is a sign of being important. We’re always rushing to meetings, trying to make deadlines, eating lunch while we work.

Perhaps it’s because we value the warrior mentality. We like the idea that we can push ourselves to the limit, overcoming Mother Nature, physical exhaustion, and psychological duress. This is the premise behind many reality TV shows. It’s what makes sports and war movies entertaining.

I, too, like the thrill of pushing myself to the limit. I take great pride in channeling my inner warrior on the court. Which I did last night in the deciding game in our tennis match. And it was worth it, because now my team advances to districts.

Even the role models for our children idealize using extreme psychological states for motivation. Take, for example, the Incredible Hulk. In the TV series (my favorite version), the Incredible Hulk got his powers from a Jekyll and Hyde-type experiment in which Dr. David Banner was trying to figure out how to summon superhuman strength after his wife died in a car accident. However, his attempt to capitalize on the fight-or-flight response lead to an accidental overexposure to gamma radiation. Afterwards, whenever he became angry, the ordinarily mild-mannered Banner turned into the gigantic green creature with superhuman strength that we know and love.

In addition to his less than desirable appearance, the other drawback to the radiation overdose is that his rage is uncontrollable and usually leads to random mass destruction. Luckily, most of the time his rage hits the target and the bad guys pay the price. But it is far from an effective strategy for what Banner had originally sought, which was the power to save lives.

Don’t get me wrong; I like the Incredible Hulk. I loved the TV show. I’ve even seen several of the movies. And, admittedly, a mentally stable person who is committed to self-care and psychological energy conservation probably wouldn’t make for a very interesting Marvel comic book hero. Certainly not someone you would put on a t-shirt.

hulk-t-shirt

But in real life, having a superhero complex is detrimental to your well-being. I’ve spent my life trying to save my family, friends, romantic partners, and clients. Sometimes even random strangers who happen to attend a presentation. It’s pretty taxing. It has lead to numerous depressive and anxiety episodes. I don’t recommend it.

Despite my commitment to non-catostrophic motivational strategies, I’m still prone to pushing myself to the limit over things that are not life-or-death. Like playing tennis 7 days in a row in 100 degree weather for no good reason. Still, I am more selective about who I try to save, what fires I choose to put out, and what challenges are worth taking on. And it has really helped with my depression and anxiety.

So it turns out that giving up post-apocalyptic strategies has been a life-saver.