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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.

Take the One Day Judgment-Free Challenge

Even though I have been practicing and teaching self-compassion for several years now, it is still extraordinarily hard not to judge myself. I’m more aware of when I do it, but I still do it a lot. It is just so deeply rooted in the way we think. So automatic that it’s hard to catch, even when I’m being mindful of my inner dialogue. And so hard to come up with alternative statements. Let me give you some examples of some that I have been struggling with lately.

One thought I’ve been having difficulty with is that I feel fat, because I really have gained weight since my brother moved in with me. I specialize in eating disorders, so I know that fat is not a feeling. Yet it conveys the way I feel better than any feeling words I can think of. Usually my next thought is, I know I shouldn’t be focused on my appearance, but should is a judgment word, too. So now there are 2 sentences I need to change. And need is borderline judgmental. And on and on it goes. It’s hard to even get a sentence out without having to rephrase it.

The should sentence is easier because I practice reframing should statements with students a lot. It could be something like, I feel guilty and ashamed that I still care about how I look. (I would like to end that sentence with, even though I know better, but that’s judgmental, too.) That’s a lot longer to say in my head  than I feel fat, but it doesn’t make me feel like I’ve already failed.

The feeling fat sentence is harder. Maybe it could something like, I’m ashamed of my body in this moment. I kind of feel ashamed for feeling shame, too, but it’s OK to feel whatever we feel. There is no right answer.

Most of the time it is about shame when we judge ourselves or someone else. We think we–or the other person–is a bad person. Maybe they were mean to someone. Maybe they cheated. Maybe they voted for the other party. But I know I’ve done things that I’m ashamed of, and I try not to think of myself as a bad person. So who am I to say that someone else is a bad person? Who am I to say that I am better than anyone else?

Which brings me to the next sentence that I have difficulty coming up with a compassionate alternative for. And that is, I feel pathetic. Like fat, pathetic isn’t a feeling, either. But when I try to come up with other sentences, it’s something like, I feel like a loser, which is equally judgmental. The closest thing I’ve come up with is something like, I feel embarrassed, humiliated that I did that. That’s still painful to admit, but it’s the truth. Whereas being pathetic is not. Hopefully.

When all else fails, I use my favorite mantra: I’m doing the best that I can. Because I know that’s true. And all you can do is all you can do.

Since taking challenges is the in thing to do these days, I’d like to invite you to take a One Day Judgment-Free Day with me. See if you can spend just one day paying attention to whether you use judgmental language. And when you notice that you have, take a few minutes to think about how to rephrase that sentence. It will be tough, and you may find yourself judging yourself for your judgments, but be compassionate about that, too. We all do it. It doesn’t make us bad people.

If you do take on the challenge, let me go how it goes! I’d loved to hear what it was like for you.

The Flip Side of Narcissism

We’ve all heard about the narcissistic epidemic. Students feel entitled to A’s, and if they don’t get them, the teacher may hear from their parents about it. At sporting events, we wear giant foam fingers claiming We’re # 1. Because who wants to be #2? Our selfies must be cropped and filtered to show us in our best light. Our houses must be bigger and better than our neighbors. Our salaries must be higher.

And these are just examples of culturally acceptable narcissism. The next level is the narcissistic personality. You know, that person who brags about their kids, their accomplishments, their possessions to no end. They may even point out how much better they are than you–if not to your face, then at least behind your back. And if you have something that they don’t, they’ll be sure to criticize it and devalue it to make themselves feel better about not having it.

Do these people have abnormally high self-esteem? Not in my experience. People who feel good about themselves don’t feel the need to prove how great they are. And they prefer to make other people feel good about themselves rather than tear someone else down. People who feel worthwhile are content to be average–no better, no worse than anyone else.

On the flip side of believing that one is exceptionally good is the belief that they are exceptionally bad. Undeserving of the things that other people are entitled to. They have to get an A, or be #1, because anything less than perfect is failing. They can’t have problems, or go to therapy. They can’t look bad, grow old, or be wrong. They cannot be human. If you point out their humanity, they may become rageful and attack. Or feel unbearable shame. Sometimes you can feel how fragile they are underneath, so you don’t poke holes in their argument because you can sense that they might fall apart.

While it may seem that narcissists suffer from excessive self-love, the reality is that they don’t believe they are lovable. Hence, the need to be perfect. The best. Enviable. Only then can they believe that other people might want to be around them. But because no one is be perfect, the need to accomplish and impress is endless. There is never enough proof that they are worthy of love.

And even when they come close to their goal of seeming perfect, this does not make other people love them. Or sometimes even like them. They are hard to listen to in casual conversation. Hard to be friends with because they have to compete with you. Hard to be in a relationship with because you can never convince them that you love them. Sure, they may draw you in initially with their charisma, but once you get to know them, you can feel how endless their need for admiration and affirmation is. A bottomless pit that you can never fill, no matter how much you try to convince them that they are enough.

I’ve been in so many relationships with narcissistic people that I’ve become an expert on this subject. I have been made to feel not good enough. I’ve been made to earn people’s love. And I am not without my own narcissistic traits. I know I have made other people feel the same way. But I’m trying to change that. I consider myself a narcissist in recovery, because like people in 12 step programs, I believe it’s something that I can never be cured of completely.

Perhaps you recognize yourself in this post and also aspire to be OK with being you. How does one go about doing that, you might ask. Well, it’s not easy, but it begins with self-love. Self-compassion. You remind yourself repeatedly that you are OK exactly as you are–despite every flaw, every mistake, every failure. You don’t have anything to prove. You don’t have to deserve to be loved. You can accept yourself exactly as you are.

Sometimes when I tell clients this in session, they cry. I am guessing that’s because they’ve never heard anyone tell them that they are OK, just as they are. You can’t make other people tell you this, but you can say it to yourself. If I can learn to accept myself, so can you, because we are ultimately all the same. All trying to figure out how to do this being human thing. So I see who you really are, underneath all that narcissism, and I know that you are enough, just as you are.

Survivor

Last month I asked my readers on Facebook what 3 things they would bring with them if they had to spend a month in the woods. I was very happy with the level of participation and impressed by how survivor-oriented most of the answers were. Originally, when my friend and I played this game, my answers were Tony Bennett, Roger Federer, and a helicopter. Since I assume none of us can operate a helicopter, I should have probably picked a pilot for one of them. But I’m obviously not that survivor-oriented.

In case you have been waiting in suspense for the results, here they are! The top 3 answers were:

  1. Something to start a fire with
  2. Some kind of sharp tool
  3. Water/water filter

So if you picked these 3, congratulations on your practicality! You could potentially win a survivor contest.

The 3 least survivor-oriented responses, other than mine, were:

  1. A pod that functions as a house with electricity
  2. lip gloss
  3. soccer ball

Good luck to those of you who picked one of those items. You will probably be the first contestant to get kicked out of the woods. Or perhaps that was your goal?

Here are some items that I thought would have gotten more votes:

  1. Phone (cheating, but still…)
  2. Alcohol
  3. Suitcase/backpack, etc.

I may get kicked out of the woods, but I think of myself as a survivor in other ways. In fact, because I am trying to win the Perfect Attendance Award at work, I’ve realized that a lot of the things that I do that I thought were kind of crazy are really ways to improve my mental toughness. If you read my blog, you already know a lot of them–play tennis matches while injured/depressed/throwing up, knit dresses, try to make impossible relationships work. But here are some other things I do:

  1. Pretend that, if I’m going to have to talk to someone and it’s going to be really painful–let’s say going on a 5 hour trip with someone who will talk nonstop and say offensive things, for example–I try to pretend I’m a POW and will myself to withstand whatever torture awaits me.
  2. Whenever I’m stuck somewhere–in traffic, in line at Walmart, etc.–I try to imagine being trapped in an elevator, waiting to be rescued–which for me is the scariest thing imaginable.
  3. When I have to really concentrate in Minesweeper but I’m starting to fall asleep (which is supposed to be the goal), I will myself to focus because maybe I’m going to be in some situation where I have to make life or death decisions in some compromised mental state.

And I have survived a lot of things. Episodes of major depression. Divorces. Being single. And now I’m trying to survive by providing for my brother and me. Hence, the need for the Perfect Attendance Award. Every day I live with the anxiety of not making it in because of my depression. Nevertheless, I still plan on winning this contest.