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In Need

I don’t like the word needy. I much prefer the word crazy to needy. Crazy can have many meanings, and not all of them are negative. Sometimes crazy can be a compliment. At least that’s how I interpret it when I’m feeling good about myself. Neediness, on the other hand, is never a compliment.

I admit I am sensitive to the word because I have been accused of being too needy, too demanding.  MI have tried to correct for this, but I don’t know how to distinguish my unreasonable demands from my needs.

I’ve tried to deal with it by giving my partner the benefit of the doubt. If he couldn’t give me what I needed, then perhaps it was a demand that I mistook for a need. How important is meaningful conversation anyway, really? How much contact is actually necessary for the survival of the relationship?

This approach hasn’t gotten me very far. I seem to have overshot my mark.  MMy therapist tells me that I cannot disavow my needs in order to make my relationships work. Sounds good to me. But how do you separate the needs that are necessary for survival from the ones that make people accuse you of being needy?

Let’s say that you came across a boy who you met in the woods while hiking one day, like the wild boy of Aveyron.  MYou feel bad for him so you invite him over for dinner. But he’s really hungry, so he eats all the food in your house and still wants more. Obviously, you wouldn’t blame the kid for this. You wouldn’t accuse him of being too hungry, because it’s not his fault he was abandoned in the woods to fend for himself.

Psychological needs are no different. Neediness is the product of prolonged emotional starvation. You may not be able to give the person what they need to feel satisfied, but that’s not their fault.  MIt’s not yours, either.

But it feels like it should be someone’s fault, doesn’t it? Someone should take the blame!

I prefer to reframe a needy person as someone who is in need. Perhaps their needs are so great that I can’t help them. That’s OK; I don’t have to be able to help everyone–although I do still try.

I am trying to think of myself as someone in need, too. I am just learning what these needs are, because I’ve spent my life focusing on other people. M There are a lot of them, and they have gone unfulfilled for a long time. I’m not blaming anyone for this, but I’m trying not to blame myself, either.

I’m just trying to make my way out of the woods.

Wants and Needs

The other day I had a session where I was talking to a client about wants and needs.  She said that she knows that she needs to allow herself to be taken care of, but she doesn’t want to do it.  I thought that was interesting.  How can you not want what you need?  But then after I thought about it some more, I realized that there are all kinds of things that people don’t want to need.  They are usually the things that bring people to therapy.

Most people don’t want to need other people.  That would make them dependent, and dependency is bad.  It’s a sign of weakness.  There is even a diagnosis called dependent personality disorder.  Excessive independence, however, is not considered a problem.  In our culture, you can never be too self-reliant.

While I have certainly seen clients who depend too much on others, more frequently I see people who are afraid to rely on anyone, like this client.  Which is strange, because in the animal kingdom, humans have the longest period of dependence on their parents.  And even as independent adults, we still need other people to have babies, to have jobs, and to survive.  Even hunters and gatherers relied on one another.  I don’t think anyone would consider them weak.

Despite this knowledge, I have to admit, I don’t like to rely on other people, either.  I don’t ask for help unless absolutely necessary.  And the flaw that I am most of ashamed of is my need to be in a relationship.  That’s why I’m so proud of myself right now for being alone.  But the truth is, while I’m not in a romantic relationship, I’m not really alone.

The other thing that people don’t want is to feel.  Usually they come to therapy with the hope that I can help them stop feeling.  This includes the feelings that accompany disorders like anxiety and depression, as well as normal feelings like sadness after a breakup or loneliness–because that makes you weak.

Like dependency, feelings are also necessary for survival.  Without feelings, we would have no signal to figure out what is causing us pain.  Without feelings, we aren’t able to empathize with other people.  Without feelings, we would be classified as reptiles in the animal kingdom.

I don’t want to be a reptile, but I do get frustrated with the intensity of my feelings.  Sometimes they reach the level of depression and anxiety.  And then I feel other people’s feelings, too.  That’s a lot of feeling for one person to tolerate.  And some people do find my feelings overwhelming.  I’m too needy. Too sensitive. Too much.

Or maybe they were too reptilian to be able to empathize with me.

I often have to tell clients up front that if what they want is to stop needing and feeling, I can’t help them.  Sometimes they transfer to other therapists, which I understand.  Who wants to be told that they have to accept being human?  But most people stay.  When I point out that only robots have the luxury of not needing or feeling, they acknowledge that they don’t want to be a robot.

But it’s surprisingly hard work, this being human stuff.  It requires a lot of self-compassion, self-acceptance.

Which is why I started this blog.

It Matters to Me

IMG_0546

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.

Friendship

Last night we had our 2nd Annual Charlie Brown Christmas Party.  The party was named after last year’s tree, which looked like this:
 
 
This year the tree was more normal looking but my friends were more comedic, as you can see in this picture:

We even had prizes for Christmas attire:  Ugliest sweater, Most Festive, and Prettiest Sweater.  Guess which person won each prize from the picture below:

I am so thankful to have such good friends.

In my first marriage my husband and I were everything to each other–just like in love songs and romantic movies–but we didn’t have many friends.  Perhaps at some level we feared that if we told people what our relationship was really like, they would see how fragile our marriage was.

I believe that lessons are often learned from tragedy, pain, and hardship–particularly lessons you don’t want to learn.  What I learned from that relationship is that no single person can be everything you need.  And when you lose that person who has tried to be your everything, you are left with nothing. 

So I vowed never to allow myself to be that socially isolated again, and I have done a pretty good job of honoring that commitment.  In addition to playing and captaining all of those tennis teams, I also organize most of our social events and play the MC at the parties, making sure that our time is evenly spent between eating, singing karaoke, and playing board games. 

However, I am still more inclined to play the role of therapist with my friends than friend in need.  And I use all the same excuses that my clients use for not asking for help:  I am a burden, a broken record, a person whose feelings may be too much for other people to handle.  A person who is too needy, too demanding.

I’ve spent today the way I spend most Saturdays–tired and alone.  I did text a few friends.  And I talked to my brother.  And I’m writing this blog post.  So I’m trying to reach out.  But it will always be more natural for me to help than to be helped.

Perhaps whenever I have doubts about whether my friends want to be there for me, I can look at the deranged elf pictured above and remind myself that only someone who cared deeply about me would pose for a picture that can be posted for all the world to see.

Meet the Drill Sergeant

Allow me to introduce you to the Drill Sergeant–one of my most challenging parts. Many of you may have a similar part. My drill sergeant demands productivity at all costs, and not in a nice way.

I am not a morning person, as I indicated in my first post. The drill sergeant doesn’t give a crap. He (I think of it as a he) doesn’t give a crap if it’s a weekend, either; he still wants me to get up. I don’t listen to him, of course, but I pay the price. For every extra hour of sleep I try to get, the drill sergeant yells at me, telling me how other people are up doing normal people productive things, while I am lying in bed wasting my life away.

It doesn’t matter if I don’t have anything pressing to do. The drill sergeant will make up random to do lists as though these things are of the utmost importance. You need to wash those bath mats! There are scraps of paper all over the house that need to be put in the recycling! I’m pretty sure there’s a mug in the sink that needs to be washed! Get up!

I have been sick for the last few days, which is very frustrating for the drill sergeant. I always get sick at this time of the year because, despite my best attempts to manage the stress of my job, I still get exhausted and can’t function. The drill sergeant is frustrated because I was just two days from making it to Thanksgiving break, but I had to miss a day of work, anyway. And I have to say, that frustrates me, too. But what can I do? I don’t even feel like playing tennis. Or eating! If you know me, you know that’s bad if I don’t want to play tennis or eat.

In my efforts to practice self-acceptance, I’m trying to get to know the drill sergeant better, understand his point of view. I can see how he’s trying to prevent me from a life of sloth-hood. And I do have to wake up early to get to work. And occasionally you really do need your drill sergeant–like when you have to channel your inner warrior on the tennis court.

So I’ve struck a deal with my drill sergeant. As long as I am waking up when I need to, fulfilling my obligations, and being a productive member of society, he can be at ease. But I have promised to call upon him when I am in need of some ass-kicking motivation.

So far, it seems to be working.

This doodle reflects my less positive emotional state at the moment. I think it looks like some kind of scary octopus with floating eyeballs, albeit in pretty colors.

 

Solitude

Solitude

I am about to share with you my most shameful flaw so please don’t judge me. And this post isn’t that funny. (Although I always think I’m kind of funny, even when I’m being serious). But it’s the truth, so I have to say it.

I have been in a relationship non-stop since I was 14. That’s 30 years of relationships, and not just to one person. So no pearls for me. That’s the 30 year anniversary gift, in case you didn’t know. I just looked it up.) And sometimes the relationships were slightly overlapping towards the end. And often they were not very good relationships. And I knew this at the time, but I stayed in them, anyway.

In my defense, the marriages were both relationships with two very good guys, but that doesn’t guarantee that a relationship will work, as I indicated in my previous blog. But most of the other relationships were not very good. I stayed in them because: 1) I’m drawn to guys who need psychological help and 2) I am terrified of being alone and am in need of psychological help myself. My attitude was that something was better than nothing.  I didn’t have any empirical evidence to support this, but that’s how fear is. It feels true, even when it’s not.

So in addition to channeling all of my energy into my long-standing dream of becoming a writer, I have also decided to be alone for the first time.

A lot of my married friends say, oh I would love to be alone. I look forward to the times when my husband and kids are not in the house. I, too, appreciated my alone time when I was in a relationship. But it’s different when you go home and no one will be there, and you don’t know if or when someone will ever be there.

It’s different when you could fall and hurt your back and not be able to reach your phone and call for help and people might not notice that you haven’t been around until you stop showing up to work for a few days. Then they would have to send someone down to find you because you’re not answering your phone. That’s not the same thing as having a break from your husband and kids at all.

Last night I tried to change one of the flood lights in my bedroom, but I couldn’t reach it. I tried to use that thingy that allows you to reach light bulbs that are really high up but the floodlight was too big. I probably wouldn’t have been able to get the thingy to work, anyway. I considered getting out the ladder but that would definitely result in bodily injury and/or death. I don’t want to call one of my guy friends and ask them to come over and change one light bulb, so I’ll probably have to wait until several bulbs burn out and exist in semi-darkness in the meantime.

Don’t get me wrong–I know that in the grand scheme of things, I’m a very lucky person. I have a loving family and a great group of friends, I can support myself and I love my job, I have a nice place, and I am hopeful that at some point another relationship opportunity will present itself. Still, there’s no amount of self-talk that can change the fact that sometimes it sucks to be alone.

I’m a big proponent of learning how to sit with negative feelings. This is what I tell my clients all the time. I’m often amazed that they start doing it because I tell them to.  They’re better at taking my advice than I am. I’m amazed that I can give them the courage to break up with their boyfriend or girlfriend, even though they were terrified of doing so. At those times I think, why is it that I can help them do it but not myself? It doesn’t work to be your own therapist, apparently.

But now I’m ready. I’m going to face sadness and loneliness and fear if it kills me. I am going to find out whether or not it’s true that it’s better to be in a bad relationship than none at all. Obviously it’s not true, but like I said, fear is not always logical.

And it’s going OK so far. Sometimes it does suck, but it’s not as bad as I thought it would be. Because when I was in a bad relationship, I still felt sad and lonely and afraid, but I also beat myself up for staying in a relationship just because I was afraid of being alone. It’s much better without that last part.

The thing I miss the most is having someone to talk to–someone to share how my day went, to talk about the book I’m reading, or to share any deep and meaningful revelations I’ve had. But now that I have this blog, I have all of you to listen to me. And that helps a lot.

And you know what else? My neighbor called me this morning to check on me because she hadn’t seen me in awhile and wanted to make sure I was OK. I was afraid she was going to tell me she hit my car or accidentally. Or opened my mail again or try to get me to come to church with her. Because those are reasons she has called in the past. But no.  She was checking on me.

I take that as a sign that God is looking out for me.

Housekeeper for a Day

I can see why parents say that having kids provides hours of entertainment–expensive entertainment if you ask me–but entertainment nonetheless.  That’s one advantage of being an aunt: you get the entertainment for free.  Or at least at a reduced rate.

When my niece Sadie came up to visit last weekend she was obsessed about raising money for this school project in which her class was going to make a donation to some place in Africa so that they could build a well and have fresh water.  At first I thought she said a whale and I couldn’t figure out how a whale could survive on fresh water in Africa, even with the most generous donations.

Rather than the usual route of selling candles and tin cans of popcorn, the kids are supposed to earn the money through performing chores, so Sadie was anxious to get back to my place and clean. In fact, she was so exited that she followed me into the bathroom when we got back, asking me for assignments.

So first I asked her to water the plants. I had to show her where the watering can was and she asked her dad to fill it with water and then I had to show her where all the plants were.

It took her less than a minute to water them.

Sadie:  What else can I do?

Me: You’re done already?

Sadie: Yes.

Me:  Did you get the plants on the other wall?  (My brother points out the wall.)

Sadie:  Of course!  Now what can I do?  (I make a mental note to water the plants tomorrow.)

Me:  Why don’t you put these magazines in the recycling bin? (I show her where the bags are and her dad shows her where the recycling bin is.)

Me:  You forgot a magazine.

Sadie:  I’ll just stick it back in the magazine rack.

Me:  That’s not really helping me.

Sadie:  I’m afraid to go in the garage.  It’s dark and scary.  (I walk with her to the garage and turn on the light.)

Sadie:  Now what can I do?

By this point I realize that whatever task I give her is going to mean work for me so I’m reluctant to give her any more assignments.

Sadie:  I can cook you something.

Me:  What can you make?

Sadie:  I can get you a bowl of cereal.

Me:  That’s ok. I’m not hungry.

Sadie:  I can vacuum.

The rug does need to be vacuumed.  But then I envision having to get the vacuum out, move the furniture, show her how to turn the vacuum on, help her push it, and then put everything back in its original place.  I’m too tired to vacuum so I hand her the Swiffer instead.

It takes her a minute to do my entire place.

Me:  Are you sure you got every room?

Sadie: Yes.

Me: What about this room, and this room?

Sadie:  Of course!

I’m not convinced she actually cleaned anything so she sweeps the living room again. She takes her time and does a better job.

Me:  You seem to be enjoying yourself.

Sadie:  Well I have to raise money for the poor!  Is there anything else I can do? This is fun.

By now I’m tired of cleaning so I give her the $5 and commend her for her noble goal. She runs to her dad and excitedly gives him the bill for safe keeping.  He is on Skype with his wife so Sadie tells her mom that she just raised money for building a well in Africa so that they can have fresh water.

I enjoyed being a part of her first lesson in being helpful to people in need and admired how she really took it to heart.  It was definitely entertaining, as well as good exercise.  And the memory of the housekeeping incident will keep me entertained until I see her again. All for the bargain price of $5.

Cultivating Trust

I’m reading a book on mindfulness called No Time Like the Present: Finding Freedom, Love, and Joy Right Where You Are, by Jack Kornfield. Among the Buddhist psychologists, he is probably my favorite. Unlike most psychologists who write on mindfulness, he has this poetic style. I spend a lot of time making memes from his quotes, so it takes a while to read the chapters, even though they’re short. Today’s chapter was on trust–that things will be OK, that we can trust ourselves, that we can be present to our pain and uncertainty–even to our fears about aging and death.

I have to admit, I was having mini panic attacks the whole time I was reading this chapter. I’m about to turn 50, and it’s one of those ages that seems to have more significance to me than other numbers. I mean, 50 is half of a 100. Well past the middle age mark. That’s old. I don’t even feel like I’m an adult, yet somehow I have gotten old.

I did this tennis clinic the other weekend. I’ve done it a bunch of times in the past, even when when my GERD, asthma, and allergies were at their worst. But this time, in addition to worrying about throwing up, I wasn’t sure if I was in shape enough to survive the clinic itself. In the past, when I have done this clinic, we’d play games, go out to dinner, and do all kinds of things while we weren’t playing tennis. You know what I did this time? Try to recover for the next day by eating, sleeping, and getting in the hot tub. And while I survived the clinic, I was still reeling the next week with fatigue and hunger.

It’s stuff like this–the undeniable signs that my body is not what it used to be–that gives me anxiety attacks.

I know what you’re thinking. Age is just a number. It’s a gift to grow old. It’s all about your state of mind. Be grateful for what you have. Blah blah blah. I try to remind myself of all of these things, but as Paul Gilbert in The Compassionate Mind says, even things that are true are not necessarily compassionate if they don’t feel loving. For me, reminding myself of all these things just makes me even more anxious. So in the spirit of practicing compassion, I tell myself I can forgive myself for all of it. That I’m doing the best that I can.

Although I haven’t had many of them lately, there are moments when I can let go of fear and trying to control the future and trust that somehow everything will be OK, even if I don’t know what the future will look like. And there is this release, this letting go of anxiety, that helps me feel freer. And I have to say, things have always worked out so far. So I have no reason to think that this won’t be the case in the future.

And ultimately the fear itself, the need for control, the pain of life, is a part of what it means to be human. There is nothing that needs to be fixed or changed. Nothing that I’m doing wrong by experiencing it. Just another moment that I can sit with, be fully present to, until it passes and something else arises.

How to Tell if You’re Lazy

lazy cat

I have clients tell me that they’re lazy all the time. Even though they are all high achieving, perfectionistic, over-scheduled students who work more hours in a day than I do. And I work a pretty full day myself. Why is that, you may ask? That doesn’t make any sense. Because that’s how mental illness is; it doesn’t make any sense.

Usually when people beat themselves up for being lazy it’s a telltale sign that they’re probably depressed. A better word for laziness would be something like fatigue. When people are depressed they have no energy, no motivation. Nothing is enjoyable. Getting out of bed is too much effort. But it can’t be depression. That’s just an excuse. I don’t have real problems. I’m just being lazy.

Sometimes being paralyzed with fear can feel like laziness. Because fight or flight aren’t the only possibilities in the face of fear. Sometimes you freeze, like a deer in headlights. This is usually what happens when students have a paper due the next day but they have been staring at a blank screen on their computer for hours without typing a single word.

We do need a certain amount of anxiety to be motivated to do anything, but it doesn’t take much to go from the kind of anxiety that motivates you to the kind of anxiety that paralyzes you. Especially when you try to motivate yourself by saying you suck, you’re disappointing everyone, you’re going to flunk out of school and end up homeless. Not exactly a pep talk. And yet, this is the kind of stuff we say to ourselves all the time.

The ironic thing is, when I was looking for a meme on laziness, I discovered that people who really are lazy don’t feel bad about it. They’re out there looking for hacks to make the most out of their laziness–trying to figure out how to make it seem like they do yoga, or what comfortable clothes they can buy to lounge around in. There’s no shame about it at all. In fact, many of the memes are about wearing their laziness on their shirts like a badge of honor. Literally. Like this one:

laziness.jpg

And this one:

Not productive

In case you were too lazy to read the whole blog post, I’ll summarize it for you.

Here are 5 signs that you are not really lazy:

  1. Your therapist tells you that you are depressed.
  2. Your therapist tells you that you are anxious.
  3. You think you’re a loser and a terrible person.
  4. You worry about homelessness.
  5. You feel a strong affinity to deer in headlights.

And here are signs that you might actually be lazy:

  1. You’re a cat.
  2. You own one of those t-shirts.
  3. You have a Pinterest board about hacks for lazy people.
  4. You don’t read them because you’re too lazy.
  5. Being lazy doesn’t really bother you.

And if you were too lazy to read those signs, then here is the one-sentence moral of this story:

If you’re beating yourself up about being lazy, then you probably aren’t.

50 Shades of Blue

shades of blue

When I was in grad school, clinical depression was described as this discrete period that occurred in episodes with a clear beginning and ending. It was even called the common cold of mental illness. Like you would know when you had caught it, and then you’d get better and be in remission. If you had a genetic predisposition, you could be at risk of recurring depressive episodes, potentially for life.

You could also have this more chronic but less severe form of depression called dysthymia. Sometimes you could be unfortunate enough to have dysthymia and major depression at the same time. Double depression, it was called. As though you could have carefully measured doses of depression, and double depression has 2 cups of symptoms instead of 1. Which is strange, because you can’t have double of any other mental disorder.

Now that I’m a practicing psychologist, I know that the diagnostic categories are not as neat and clean as they were made out to be. As a person who has been depressed for most of my life, I can say that major depression feels distinct, but it is not always clear when I am depression-free vs having dysthymia. There are times when I didn’t think I was depressed in the moment, but when I look back, it’s clear that I was.

Often we tell clients who are on meds that they can begin tapering off once they are in a period of stability. Over the summer, perhaps. Or some time after they have gotten settled in their new job. Maybe the problem for me is that there is never a period of stability. Never some time when there isn’t some family crisis. When there isn’t some problem that I’m dealing with. If anything, I would say there have been episodes of stability that have broken up the more chronic feeling of being depressed.

I don’t to want give the impression that I’m always miserable, because I’m not. Like I said, sometimes I don’t even realize I’m depressed. Sometimes it only lasts a few hours or a few days. And it doesn’t feel the same every time. So at least there’s some variety to it.

Every now and then I get upset about how unfair it all seems. The depression. The anxiety. The family craziness. The stress that comes with thinking I need to save the world. But life isn’t fair, right? And I am blessed and fortunate in other ways. If I had to choose my suffering, at this point I’d choose mental illness, because at least it’s familiar to me. I know what to expect. I know how to manage it.

And the meds do help. So does therapy, self-care, mindfulness, and self-compassion. I think depression has made me wiser. It has made me a better therapist. I’ve learned to accept the ebbs and flows of my mood, and of life in general, without beating myself as much, because I’m doing the best that I can.

This week is finals week. We are all willing ourselves to make it to the break, exhausted from the semester. Despite taking my meds, talking to my therapist, and practicing self-care, mindfulness, and self-compassion, I’ve still had bad days. But I’m determined to get that Perfect Attendance award, so I’ve made it to work when I’m supposed to be here.

Today I would call my mood cornflower. Which is a pretty shade of blue.