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The Inner Critic

While I spend a lot of my time with the drill sergeant, the inner critic is my constant companion.  The two of them are great friends and they often like to show up together:  the drill sergeant will tell me what I should be doing, and the inner critic will give a running commentary of what a terrible job I’m doing.

Take this morning, for example.  I finally felt well enough to get out of bed and eat, so I was looking forward to making some coffee and oatmeal.  I even had enough energy last night to do the dishes.  One of the dishes was that plate that goes in the microwave that lets the food rotate while it cooks. 
So I was putting that plate back in the microwave, and I guess I must have hit the front glass on the door because the entire glass panel shattered, spraying shards everywhere. 

The inner critic had a field day with this.  Look at what you’ve done!  You’re so uncoordinated, you can’t even put the plate in the microwave without destroying the whole thing.  Now you have to clean up all the glass and you better make sure there isn’t a single shard anywhere.  And now you’re going to have to buy a new microwave so don’t think that you have any spending money this month.

I am trying to practice acceptance of this part of myself but this one is tough because it just seems abusive.  It seems like the inner critic wants me to be perfect so that nothing bad ever happens, but that doesn’t make me feel any compassion toward it.  I guess I need to think about this one some more.

The best I have been able to do is to channel my inner optimist to counteract the inner critic.  I’ve needed her a lot the last few days since I’ve been sick at home alone with no one to check on me.  Plus now I have two light bulbs out, so my place is even darker than it was last weekend.

So the optimist jumps right in whenever the inner critic talks and says things like, well at least the glass didn’t get in your eyes and blind you.  Or you could have gotten cut badly and had to go to the emergency room.  And now you have a good excuse to call your friend over to change your light bulbs because he will have to install the microwave, too.  So really it all worked out for the best. 

Tomorrow I’m going microwave shopping.  I’ve talked to my friend and he’s going to come over next Sunday and play handyman for me.  And I finally felt well enough today to play tennis and even had dinner with a friend.  All in all, after a shaky start, it ending up being a pretty good day.

So take that, inner critic!

Optimism, Part 2

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As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I am a captain who is known for trying to be encouraging and positive, even if our team isn’t that good. Sometimes I make stuff up on the spot to say to my partner to get them to laugh, be relaxed, and fight for the win–even if I think we’re going to lose.

I admit that thinking that we’re going to lose runs counter to the argument that I am inherently an optimistic person, but since I’m at war with myself most of the time, it just makes me want to prove that negative part of myself wrong and win, gosh darn it! So take that, Inner Critic! You don’t know me! I will beat you and your negative thinking!

But I digress. Back to the stuff I make up on the court to encourage my partner. I had a partner last year who kept getting distracted in the match because the pace was really slow. So I told her that she only had to concentrate for 15 seconds at a time, because that’s about how long a doubles point is. Or if my partner has to hold serve to stay in the match but she hasn’t held serve yet, I’ll say, that’s OK. That’s what winners do. They hold serve when it counts. Or I’ll tell my partner that we are capable of getting every ball back. They will not be able to hit a winner against us. I mean, they’re not that good. Or if we’re down 1-6, 0-5, I’ll tell them that I’ve come back from a match being that far behind before. Which is true.

I really believe these things, by the way. I say them to myself all the time. And they do often help me get the win. And even when they don’t, they help me fight until the end and make my opponents work harder than they expected to for their victory. So if I can’t win, I can at least make my opponents suffer, which is a victory in itself.

My latest strategy to keep morale up in the face of defeat is a more extreme form of what I’ll call alternative scoring. Kind of like alternative facts, but without the political controversy. I have always counted tiebreak losses as wins, but I’ve taken this definition of winning a step further. In my summary of the match, I will give the real score (we lost 2-3) and the alternative score (but since I count tiebreak losses as wins, we actually won 5-0). I will point out all of the players who have an “undefeated streak”, which may be defined as 6 straight tiebreak losses. And at the end of the season, I will point out that, rather than coming in last place with an an overall record of 3-6, we actually won 7-2 unofficially and should be going to districts, if USTA were keeping score by my rules.

And the funny thing is, sometimes it works. Last year I had a team advance to districts even though we came in 3rd place, just because we had enough people to go. Just because I tell players to make sure that they are available the weekend of districts. Because you never know….

Actually, I don’t think my positive attitude made that happen, but it was fun to go with the goal of making our opponents lose to a team that came in last place. Because of the whole causing suffering thing as a victory in itself. Which is perhaps a little bit uncompassionate (non-compassionate?), but still positive and encouraging. I think.

Perception is Reality

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In “A Beautiful Mind” John Nash, a Nobel Laureate in Economics, talks about how he learns to cope with his hallucinations by ignoring him. That is a pretty amazing thing to do for someone who has schizophrenia. There are several disorders in which the person’s thoughts are so convincing, despite being false, that it is difficult to cope with them by deciding that you’re not going to listen to them.

For example, someone with anorexia may truly see herself as being fat, even though intellectually she knows that she is not. But her inner critic is so persecutory in its insistence that she not eat, not take up space in the universe, that she ultimately gives in. People with eating disorders often conceptualize their inner critic as having a relationship with ED, and ED is the most abusive partner I have ever met in therapy.

Or someone who is psychotic might be convinced that he is going to win a million dollars because Publisher’s Clearing House has told him that he may have already done so. And despite the fact that the check has not arrived in the mail after several years, he makes outlandish purchases based on the prize money that he is convinced is on the way.

I do not have delusional thoughts, but sometimes my obsessive brain tries to convince me of things that are not as insidious but still cause me to suffer. No one gives a crap about me. I am incompetent. Sometimes I can convince myself otherwise with objective evidence, but sometimes my inner critic is relentless in trying to convince me of the veracity of these assertions. It will repeat them hundreds of times a day. The effort to refute them is exhausting.

My psychiatrist tells me that I should put myself out of my misery at the beginning of this barrage by taking an Ativan as soon as the thoughts begin. But often I don’t because, despite all I’ve said about the importance of taking meds, sometimes I still don’t want to. And because, unlike depression, anxiety feels so normal that sometimes I forget that it is not. The meds definitely help. Most of the time I know that when the thoughts come, they are not true. But sometimes it takes a lot of work to keep them at bay.

Practicing mindfulness helps, too. One of the benefits of practicing is that it helps you understand the nature of the mind. Even for “normal” people, this is how the brain works. Random thoughts will pop up. They may not be based in reality, may not reflect what you actually believe. And in the next moment, the thoughts may be completely different.

But it’s really hard. Maybe if I dedicated my life to meditation like Buddhist monks do, my inner critic would be less effective in undermining my self-worth. Or maybe Buddhist monks don’t suffer from mental illness.

But my psychiatrist supports my mindfulness practice, in addition to my meds. He confirmed that it works, even for people with mental illness. But it takes a long time, and it happens very slowly. I know it works because I remember what I used to be like. And now when I go several days without meditating, in my moments of weakness the thoughts creep in and become more convincing.

So I continue to practice, and in the moment, I feel loved, competent, and worthwhile. So I’m writing this post to remind myself that this is true because, in the next moment, I may feel differently.

Everyday Miracles

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Today I read a chapter from Harold Kushner’s book, Nine Essential Things I’ve Learned About Life. The reading was about the importance of helping others as a way to live a meaningful, purposeful life. That wasn’t particularly helpful to me because, if anything, I think I focus too much of my energy on helping others, to the detriment of caring for myself. But it’s still good advice, nonetheless.

There was a section of this chapter that gave me pause, however: his description of the miracles that occur in everyday life. The predictability and reliability of nature. The fact that we can count on the sun to rise and set every day, the waxing and waning of the moon, the changes of the seasons. They happen with such accuracy we know sometimes down to the minute when they will happen. According to Kushner, “a faith system attuned to the natural world celebrates the orderliness that makes our lives livable.”

I’ve had the sense of awe and wonderment about these very things, though not every time they happen. I’m not that mindful. But I guess no one is. Like, when I meditate, I begin by focusing on my breathing, and then I shift my focus to my heart, because for some reason, feeling my heart beat, feeling my pulse throughout my body, makes me acutely aware of the life force that is my heart. How, even when I’m sad, when I’m heart-broken, when I can barely summon the will to live, my heart keeps beating for me, carrying me through life. I know the heart isn’t as immutable as the sun, moon, and seasons, but it fills me with a sense of wonderment and awe, just the same.

In a previous blog post I’ve written about how the weather is a metaphor for our feelings–how it varies from day to day, moment to moment. Some weather conditions are more desirable than others–rain during a tennis match is highly undesirable, for example–but we ultimately accept whatever the current conditions are because we have faith that at some point, the weather will change. Plus, we don’t really have a choice.

We can have the same faith in our feelings, but it does not come as naturally. It takes a lot of practice. When I’m anxious or sad, I’m better able to remind myself that if I wait, at some point my feelings will change. It doesn’t really make the pain go away, but it keeps me from wasting energy on wishing I were feeling something else–a small way I can reduce my suffering in the moment. Perhaps this is a miracle, too–the fact that having compassion for our pain has the power to reduce our suffering.

As I read about these everyday miracles, my Inner Critic was quick to point out my failure to appreciate them. You should be thankful for these things more often! You shouldn’t be taking them for granted! My inner critic often turns practicing gratitude into something that leaves me feeling ashamed and inadequate–as far from awe and wonderment as you can get.

So I’m thinking maybe I’ll practice mindfulness by noticing these everyday miracles more often–to pay attention to the changes of the season, the sunrise and sunset, the waxing and waning of the moon. In practicing mindfulness, there is no expectation that you should feel any particular thing at any given moment; you simply notice what’s there. But even the act of noticing creates an opportunity to experience wonderment and awe. So I’ll try it out and see what happens.

Recovering Control Freak

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So in addition to all of the books I’m reading about God, I am also reading Rick Springfield’s memoir, Late, Late at Night. Because Rick Springfield was my first love. It’s funny, because some of my friends scoffed at how I could love someone I didn’t know, but it turns out that Rick and I (hopefully he doesn’t mind if I call him Rick) are actually very similar: we both struggled with depression since high school, have both named the part of ourselves that is always telling us that we suck. Mine is the Inner Critic. His is Darkness. So perhaps it is possible to sense the darkness in others, whether we know them well or not.

One of the ways people cope with self-hatred is to try to have control over things that they don’t actually have control over. And since this is a futile strategy, it tends to exacerbate one’s suffering.

I am intimately familiar with this strategy. My Inner Critic demands that I control every aspect of my life. That’s why I had straight A’s. Why I’ve never used drugs. Why I had to start a blog to let people know what I’m really like–because my “confessions” reveal just how imperfect I am. I’ve also tried to control other people–particularly the ones I’ve dated. I haven’t quite figured out how to stop doing that, so for now I’ve just decided not to be in a relationship at all.

One of the best things about practicing mindfulness is that it teaches me how not to listen to my Inner Critic. People don’t practice mindfulness because they’re afraid they’ll do it wrong, when in reality there is no right way. There is no particular result you’re aiming for. No specific amount of time you must be focused. I compare it to Weather on the 8’s on the Weather Channel: you’re just checking in with yourself, seeing what’s going on in there. There’s no expectation about what the dew point should be.

When you practice mindfulness, you begin to realize how much of your thoughts are not your own. Random stuff just pops into your head. You can’t stop it from happening. You begin to realize that just because you have a thought–like you suck–that doesn’t mean it’s true. It doesn’t mean that it came from you. And since it’s just one of the hundreds of thoughts that will enter your mind while you meditate, you can just observe it and let it go, just like you do with all the other thoughts.

As I begin to let go of all of the things I can’t control–which are far more numerous than I thought–I realize there is one thing I can control. I can choose my intentions. I can choose to be kind to myself, kind to others. I can choose to live mindfully, to be fully present. And when I become seduced by my Inner Critic once again, I can recommit to my intentions again.

And I have to say, I like myself a lot better this way.

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.

 

Moving Beyond Post-Apocalyptic Strategies for Motivation

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When I’m teaching clients how to practice self-compassion, I tell them that they cannot rely on using fear and shame to motivate themselves. And I should know, because I do it all the time.

If you read my blog, then you know I often say things like, other people have spouses and children and are still able to go to the grocery store and make dinner. So what the hell is your problem? This has the effect of making me feel like crap, but it doesn’t do much to make me get off the couch, even if I am hungry.

With my clients, I’ll use examples like, why do you keep watching episodes of The Walking Dead? Get in there and work on that paper! Do you want to fail? Because that’s exactly what is going to happen!

The problem with fear-based motivation is that, even when it works, which is usually a few hours before the paper is due, you still won’t feel good about yourself. Because your inner critic will say, well, if you had started the paper earlier, you would have done a much better job. 

So my brother is still anxious and depressed. His primary motivational strategy to get himself to go to work is the zombie apocalypse. How do you think you’re going to save your family when the world is ending when you can’t even log in? It worked for a while, but you can only motivate yourself with fear for so long.

What people don’t realize when they create a crisis to motivate themselves is that we don’t always fight. Sometimes we take flight or freeze. And once we’ve shut down, no amount of fear can make us act. So we get stuck in this vicious cycle of shame in which we avoid everyone and everything.

Fortunately, a recent episode of The Walking Dead echoed these same sentiments, which added to my credibility. Since I don’t watch it, I’ll quote his epiphany:

Even Rick Grimes has had to take a break from berserk mode on the show. He became a man of peace for an entire season when he realized how misguided his young son had become; someone who was too quick to resort to violence & unwilling to give diplomacy a chance. It served a lesson relatable to life—if even our heroes during the zombie apocalypse cannot remain in crisis mode, then it certainly can’t be a winning formula for us during normal times. My problem is I’ve motivated myself through such extreme emotions—anger, resentment, fear—for so long, that I’m left with no clue as to how I can jump-start my resolve right now.

So what do we do if we’re not going to motivate ourselves with fear? We motivate ourselves with love. So obvious when we think about how we motivate the people we care about, but it rarely occurs to us to do so with ourselves.

Unless you’re some enlightened being like the Dalai Lama or Pope Francis. I’m sure they motivate themselves with love.

This morning was the first day that I did not want to get out of bed. It’s that time of year when it happens, shortly after daylight savings time ends. So I tried to practice what I preach and thought about how I could make it easier to get up and get ready. I played my favorite song. Turned up the heat. Talked to myself in a loving way. And today it worked.

Maybe it won’t always work. It’s a long time until spring, after all. But even when being loving doesn’t get me out of bed, it still uses up a lot less energy than berating myself.

On the Road to Enlightenment

I didn’t realize how many posts I’ve written about Pope Francis until I looked them up just now, in preparation for this one. In one of those posts, I said that I thought Pope Francis was an enlightened human being. And that it was only fitting that as one enlightened being, Nelson Mandela, leaves this world, God would send us another one to restore balance in the universe.

Last week I was astounded by the reception that Pope Francis got in the United States. Apparently, he was, too. He even coined a term to describe his reception in New York: stralimitata–beyond all limits. He was like a rock star, attracting people of all religious and political affiliations. People cried when they saw him–even if it was just on TV.

He was the most popular topic on Facebook and a refreshing change from all the negative posts that I usually try to ignore. Anyone who can make people post about predominantly positive things on Facebook for an entire week has to be enlightened.

I think the most moving thing to me–and Boehner, apparently–is when Pope Francis asked people to pray for him. And, being ever respectful of their religious beliefs, if they couldn’t pray for him, he asked them to send him good wishes. I mean, how awesome is that? The Pope needs us as much as we need him. What a novel idea in a world where leaders seem more interested in proving how powerful they are than in showing their vulnerabilities.

The closest I have come to being in the presence of that kind of compassion was when I went to this conference and listened to the psychologist Peter Levine talk about healing trauma. He didn’t say he practiced compassion, although the techniques he describes for learning to identify the physiological signs of trauma are clearly mindfulness-based.

But when you watched him work, you could hear the compassion in his voice and see it in how closely he paid attention to his clients. It was a palpable, tangible thing that you could feel in the room. I was so struck by his presence that I went to his second talk just so I could sit in the audience and listen to him. The world felt like a safer place when he was around.

In Buddhism, enlightenment is something that anyone can achieve, hypothetically speaking. That seems difficult to imagine in practice, though. Plus it seems like a lot of work. And a lot of pressure. I’m sure my Inner Critic would try its hardest to sabotage my efforts every step of the way. But then again, I guess that’s why you practice self-compassion.

I like the idea that we all have the power to create a palpable, tangible force in the universe. I know how I have felt when I have been in the presence of compassion. And I know that practicing compassion has changed me for the better–both in terms of how I feel about myself and in how I interact with others. So I will keep up my practice and see where it takes me.

Just An Ordinary Day

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Sometimes I think God tries to help me wake up with text messages. And by having to pee every hour after 6 a.m.

Even though I keep my phone on vibrate at night, I still wake up when I get a text. Am I that light of a sleeper that I can hear the buzz? Am I so happy to get a message that I can sense it in my sleep?

Whatever the reason, for me, the typical pattern in the morning is to wake up, check my phone, go to the bathroom, and go back to sleep. Repeat every hour until I finally get out of bed. Which is usually several hours later.

Even in this state between sleep and wakefulness, my inner critic is hard at work. Right before I look at my phone, it says no one gives a crap about you. Which kind of hurts my feelings. I guess it’s trying to be helpful by mentally preparing me for the disappointment of not seeing a message. As I have mentioned in several blog posts, not having anyone to check in with in the morning is one of the hardest parts of being single.

Yesterday, however, I woke up to several texts. (Take that, inner critic!) One of them was from a friend who asked me if I had gotten the paper. For people who keep up with the news on a daily basis, their first association would probably be to the newspaper. But since I am not one of those people, I had no idea what she was talking about.

Like my inner critic, my anxiety was also wide awake and coming up with catastrophic situations that this mysterious paper might be referring to. Did I mess something up? Was there a 9/11 type attack going on? Was there some kind of tennis emergency?

Luckily, she was referring to an editorial about a former NFL player who struggled with bipolar disorder but did not know it until much later in life. Whew! I mean, I felt bad that the guy had to suffer, and I was glad that he was making the public aware of the importance of funding for mental health issues, but I was also glad that the world wasn’t coming to an end.

Even in this half-asleep/half-awake state, it made me think about how much we take for granted that ordinariness can be a good thing. When something bad happens, we are acutely aware of how in a moment’s notice, our lives can be turned upside down. An illness. An accident. An affair.

I’m not trying to be morbid or anything. In fact, I was genuinely happy that, in that moment, my life was exactly the same as it had been when I had gone to bed. Ordinarily I would have felt bad about waking up at noon, but in the grand scheme of things, it’s really not that big of a deal. It was par for the course. Just an ordinary day.

Thank God for ordinary days.

What Goes Up…

Remember how I was still riding the high from my trip to Europe in my last post? Well it’s gone now. Now it’s back to boredom, sadness, anxiety, and loneliness. Interspersed with tennis and dinner with friends, thank goodness. But still. It was nice to be free from random anxiety attacks. From my drill sergeant making up chores for me to do to make my existence seem worthwhile. From figuring out what to do on days when I was not going to have any human interaction.

I guess that’s one of the disadvantages of experiencing something so wonderful: its extraordinariness is only possible when juxtaposed next to the ordinariness of your every day life.

This weekend I had no evening plans so I decided to watch “Still Alice.” I don’t know what I was thinking. I knew it was going to be depressing. Maybe my inner critic made me watch it as a way to shame me out of my sadness: At least you don’t have Early Onset Alzheimer’s, so stop moping around! And I have to say, it was effective in putting my pain in perspective.

The whole time I watched, I was bracing myself for the agony of watching Alice’s cognitive decline. And it was painful, but it was also beautiful, in a way. I was moved by how courageous and mindful Alice was about the process of losing her memory. How determined she was to stay connected to the person she was and to the people she loved.

There is a scene where Alice gives a speech at an Alzheimer’s conference about her personal experience with the disease. She tells the audience that even though she may forget this experience tomorrow, she treasures it in this moment, because speaking in front of them allows her to feel like her old ambitious self: an expert in linguistics who was fascinated with communication.

My other favorite scene is when Alice explains to her daughter why she wears a butterfly necklace. As a child she was distraught when she found out that butterflies had such a short life. Her mother reassured her that although their lives are short, butterflies have a beautiful life.

Alice’s mother and sister died in a car accident. Alice also has a short but beautiful life. She was intelligent and successful, with a great job and a loving family. In one moment, we can be on top of the world, celebrating how great our lives are. In the next moment, everything can change.

It made me think about how all of the wonderful things in our lives are gifts, and no gift lasts forever. And we don’t know when the expiration date is. The most we can do is to fully enjoy them and appreciate them while we have them.

At some level, I think I hoped that practicing mindfulness would somehow protect me from pain, like some kind of psychological talisman. But it doesn’t. Saying good-bye to vacations, to memories, and to aspects of my identity that I hold dear still terrifies me, despite my attempts to blog, meditate, and be in the moment.

But I practice mindfulness anyway, because being fully present allows me to extract all of the joy out of every experience that I possibly can. I guess that’s the most that any of us can hope for.

Photo courtesy of Allison Gentry Szuba