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Judgment, Part 2

I have always been an equal opportunity dater: I do not discriminate based on ethnicity, age, SES, marital status, or diagnosis. I have even dated people for the sole purpose of overcoming some form of prejudice against them. It was sort of like radical empathy training.

But it did not go well in many cases. Like that time I dated someone who was 23 when I was 35. I didn’t discriminate based on age, which in my mind was a good thing, but it was hard to have a meaningful conversation with someone that much younger than me. I’m actually kind of embarrassed about the whole thing. I never admit that I dated him whenever I see him on the tennis court–which rarely happens, thank goodness. Although he did introduce me to the movie “Elf,” for which I am eternally grateful.

I think I have taken the Christian and Buddhist mandate to be nonjudgmental too literally. I took the idea of having an open mind about someone to such an extreme that I rarely said no to anyone who asked me out. And then I tried to make the relationship work, even if I didn’t like the person.

I’m beginning to think that’s not what Jesus and Buddha meant at all about being nonjudgmental. When Jesus said to love our enemies, he probably didn’t mean we should date all of them.

Plus, if we aren’t supposed to judge people ever, that would also mean that we shouldn’t say that someone is a good person, either. How can we say that Nelson Mandela was an exceptional human being without comparing him to others who are less exceptional? Some judgement of others is unavoidable.

So maybe it’s OK to decide not to date someone based on ethnicity, age, SES, marital status, or diagnosis in a non-discriminatory way. Maybe I can even decide to say no just because they eat their peas one at a time, like Seinfeld did. Maybe I don’t have a moral obligation to give everyone a chance.

Maybe I really do think too much.

Despite the logical argument I have laid out here, I still feel bad when I imagine turning someone down because I have judged them to be undesirable in some way. But I guess choosing not to date someone isn’t the same thing as saying someone is a bad person. And really, that is the judgment that Jesus and Buddha seem to be the most concerned about.

This picture has nothing to do with this post, but my friend took it and I think it’s cool.

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Photo: Allison Szuba

Judgment

There are certain personality types that are sensitive to being judged, and I have one of them.  It takes very little criticism for me to feel ashamed that I have done something wrong.  Sometimes I interpret neutral comments as criticism.  And in some cases, I’ve even interpreted positive feedback as criticism.

Once my first husband was talking about a picture of Alicia Keys and commented on how she had big hips.  I replied with, Are you calling me fat?  Which really annoyed him.  I kind of thought it was funny but true.  Even if I get what is intended to be a compliment about having an athletic build, I take this to mean that I look fat.  This is why it’s better to refrain from comments about women’s bodies in general.

Although I have never had an eating disorder, I can relate to being obsessed about my body.  I also have a similar personality to the types of people who develop anorexia.  I am prone to anxiety and depression.  I am perfectionistic.  I am highly motivated to avoid harming others, even if it means hurting myself.  And I am so sensitive to criticism that I never forget a mistake.

This is why I am drawn to Buddhism–especially the practices of mindfulness and compassion.  I find comfort in the idea of letting go of what I “should” be thinking, feeling, and doing.  That I can accept whatever is true of myself at this point in time, without judgment or criticism–even if it’s something that I hope to change.

I often point out to clients when they are using judgment words to describe their feelings.  For example, if you say I feel pathetic, the word pathetic is not a feeling.  There is no emoticon for pathetic.  Sometimes it’s actually hard to come up with a feeling word.  Usually when you can’t think of one, you’re probably feeling ashamed.

Even when we’re successful in describing our feelings, we often get judged for them.  For example, if I say I feel depressed, someone might say You shouldn’t feel that way.  You should be happy because you have so much going for you.  This is meant to make me feel better about myself, and perhaps it works for some people, but it never works for me.

Sometimes I have tried to point out to the person that they are judging me, but people who judge others are often sensitive to being judged.  So they usually get defensive and say they were just trying to be helpful–that I’m being too sensitive.  So then I judge myself for being too sensitive.

But I am all about controlling what I can control.  Today, I realized that I can’t control whether someone else chooses to practice nonjudgmental acceptance of my feelings.  I can only control what I say to myself.

I can also choose not to share my feelings with people who judge me.  I think I’m going to start doing that, too.

Nothing Compares 2 U

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Want to feel better about yourself? Here is a piece of advice that doesn’t require money, self-help books, therapy, dieting, exercise, or youth-enhancing products. Stop comparing yourself. To others, to your former self, to your ideal self. There’s nothing about comparison that will ever make you feel better. Even when you win, you lose.

In my post on What Compassion is Not, I talk about how comparison is not compassionate. Have you ever tried to cheer yourself or someone else up by telling them that there are people who are suffering worse than you? People in war-torn countries? People who are poor, hungry, and sick? Sure you have. This is one of our go-to strategies for making people feel better. But did it?

I know I have used this strategy, and it always makes me feel like crap. And when I’m depressed, it makes me feel even more depressed and worthless. Because what’s my problem? I don’t even have a good reason to be depressed. Yet here I am, unable to function like a normal human being.

Or have you ever felt good about yourself because of an accomplishment–lost a little weight, got a raise, did a good deed–only to find out that someone else has done the same thing, only better? How quickly self-praise turned into self-criticism? Maybe if I had the discipline that she does, I could have lost more weight. Why didn’t I stay after work more often, like my colleagues? I must be selfish for not giving more.

Or how about berating yourself because you are not like your former self? I used to be in better shape! I used to be able to play 3 and a half hour singles matches in 90+ degree heat! Now I feel like I’m going to pass out in the heat while playing doubles if I have to hit more than 3 shots. And throw up after long rallies. I’m old! My body is falling apart! This sucks!

(Although to be honest, I don’t miss singles at all. I just didn’t know any better back then.)

Perhaps the worst comparison of all is failing to live up to the version of yourself that you think you should be. That put-together, in control, polished, successful part of yourself that is always telling you that you suck. What I usually call the Inner Critic, but it can go by different names.

Sometimes in therapy I ask clients to personify this ideal self. And then I ask them how they feel about this “person.” They don’t like them. They’re mean and judgmental. They’re a little afraid of her. They wouldn’t want him as a friend. Isn’t that ironic, that the “perfect” version of ourselves that we so desperately want to be isn’t even someone that we like?

Let’s say that occasionally you’re fortunate enough to hit your target goal. You got straight A’s. Make a six-figure salary. Lost 20 lbs. You’re feeling a bit superior to all of those less-fortunate scrubs who don’t have what it takes to do what you have just done. Even in these cases, enjoyment is fleeting. Because even if you don’t meet someone who has done a better job–even if you “won”–you have to stay on top. You can’t slow down now. So you can never relax and just feel good about being you.

Given our comparison-obsessed culture, what are we supposed to aim for, exactly, if we aren’t trying to be better than someone else? It’s hard to come up with something that isn’t about trying to be better. We don’t even have the vocabulary for it.

I’ve written about my struggles with trying to figure out what I’m supposed to do if I’m not trying to be good. Because being good is a kind of comparison. Most of the time we end up measuring how much better we are than other people (e.g., it’s not that he’s a terrible person; he’s just worse than I am).

So now, rather than trying to focus on being good, I try to focus on being loving–to myself and to others. I try to practice compassion. One of the advantages of practicing compassion is that it’s inherently nonjudgmental, non-evaluative. You can’t do a good or bad job. You can’t succeed or fail at it. You can’t get an A in compassion. (Because if you could, I’d totally try.) You just practice and accept whatever happens.

It’s hard to give up comparisons completely, so I will end by saying that, of all the strategies that I’ve tried to make myself feel better, compassion is the clear winner.

It’s OK to Be Insane

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Remember how I did that self-compassion retreat a few years ago? I’m sure you do, since you’ve been a loyal reader all of these years. Which I greatly appreciate, if I haven’t told you lately. If you don’t remember, you can check out that post and see what it was all about, if you’re interested.

Anyhoo, now I’m doing a mindfulness educational retreat in Cape Cod. All of the Cape Cod conferences are designed to give you a chance to get your continuing education credits while going on an expensive vacation. Which means that, compared to the other one, there isn’t as much meditation and the accommodations and excursions are much better. But, even though it was in the middle of nowhere and you slept in something the size of a closet at the self-compassion retreat, they had awesome food. Organic, locally grown, and all that California stuff. And you could sit or lie down on the floor if you wanted to. So everything has its pros and cons.

Because I like you so much, I thought I’d give a rundown of what I have learned on the very first day as a thank you for reading my blog. Plus, this is a way to remind myself what I learned in the future, since I will put these notes in a filing cabinet and never read them again. Here are the lessons from today:

  1. We spend most of our lives wishing it away because we’re trying to get to the good stuff. The Netflix binge at the end of the day. The house you’ve been saving up for. Retirement, so you can finally relax. And as soon as we get to the place we were anticipating, we immediately look for the next thing. This actually happened to me last night while I was watching the replay of the Federer match. My mind kept wandering, thinking random stuff about what I needed to do to get ready for bed after it was over. I had to be like, pay attention! Federer is about to make grand slam history! In my most compassionate voice, of course. (Not.) The goal, then, is to develop equanimity, which I also discussed in a previous post: may we all except things as they are.
  2. Training the mind is a lot like training a puppy. When you look at your puppy, you think that it’s still lovable and cute, even when it pees and poops when it’s not supposed to and doesn’t listen to what you tell it to do. Well, the mind also pees and poops when it’s not supposed to, and I know mine hardly ever responds to what I tell it to do. Like, right before a point I’ll be like, watch the ball. And then sometimes I’ll swing and miss the ball altogether. Which means there is no possible way I could have been watching the ball. So then I’ll be like, I just told you to watch the ball! But if I had a puppy, I probably wouldn’t be like, why can’t you watch the ball? while we were playing fetch. I’d just throw the ball again.
  3. It’s OK to be insane. When you first learn to mediate, you realize how much random stuff goes through your mind all the time. Usually obsessing about the past, planning for the future, and lots and lots of self-criticism and judgment. You’re feelings will go from one extreme to the other for no apparent reason. You can make up elaborate theories about how someone doesn’t like you based on the smallest piece of information. But guess what? We all do this! We’re all insane. So that crazy thought, that deep, dark secret, that split personality that you thought only you possessed is nothing to be ashamed of. It just means you’re human.

But here’s where I get stuck. Yes, we’re all crazy, but some people are actually mentally ill. In fact, the last time I saw Ron Siegel at a conference a few years ago, he warned against going to a week-long silent mediation retreat if you have a mental illness because it really destabilizes you. Which means, I better not go on one of those. Perhaps ever.

But I guess mental illness is also something I can approach with equanimity and think of it as a part of me that I can learn to accept, just as it is.

Appearances Can Be Deceiving

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You know what’s hard about having depression and anxiety? Having to go about your day, looking like you feel fine when you’re not. I know everyone feels this way at times, but it’s something that I have to focus on a lot. Like, perhaps people have to prepare for the possibility of a thunderstorm every now and then, but it is a daily threat for me. So I always have to carry an umbrella and think about what shoes I want to wear. Whether my outfit is appropriate. Whether or not I’m at risk of getting struck by lightning.

But then again, perhaps I underestimate how bad the weather is for everyone. Because when I listen to my clients and read my friends’ Facebook status updates, I am reminded that there are all kinds of people walking around in pain, looking normal on the outside. We all feel broken in one way or another. It’s so convincing, though, when people look like they have it all, isn’t it? So easy to believe that you are alone in your pain.

When people tell me they read my blog, they always say something about how vulnerable I am in it. They mean it as a compliment, but even though I’ve been doing it for over 3 years now, it always makes me feel self-conscious. Have I said too much? Did they read something that makes me look bad? Do they think less of me as a person? As a psychologist?

Still, it has been worth the risk, both because of how much I have helped other people and because of how freeing it has been. Of all of the things that I have done to battle my demons, blogging has been one of my most powerful weapons. And if there are clients who choose not to see me after reading my blog, I am learning to accept that I can’t be all things to all people.

I realized recently that choosing vulnerability is like choosing love: it’s risky, and you’re bound to get hurt, but it’s better than spending a lifetime trying to play it safe. It’s still hard to put myself out there and risk judgment and criticism, but most of the time it results in a meaningful connection with someone–perhaps even a complete stranger. Because now they know they are not alone. And I am reminded that I’m not alone, either.

Wouldn’t it be nice if more people were willing to take the risk of being vulnerable? If instead of seeming like we had it all together, we could be honest about our pain? I know it would be unrealistic to go around telling everyone about the holes in our hearts all the time. Sometimes when someone asks how you are, you just have to say fine or you won’t have time to get a coffee before your first client. But if you want to know the truth about how I’m feeling, I’ll tell you. And if you read my blog, you will definitely find out.

Satisfaction Guraranteed

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I’ve read a lot of books on happiness. I’m practically an expert on the subject, as far as my library is concerned. The book that has been on my mind recently is by Thich Nhat Hanh, Living Buddha, Living Christ. Which doesn’t sound like a book on happiness, but of all the books I’ve read so far, I think he gives the best advice on how to be happy.

This will probably not come as a surprise to you if you read my blog, but the key to happiness is to practice mindfulness. Well, actually, it was still surprising to me, because even though I do practice mindfulness, I’m not sure I am necessarily any happier than I was before I started doing so. So I was anxious to find out what I needed to be doing differently.

Here’s how it works: in any given moment, there will be good things and bad things. (Although I think he refrains from using the words good and bad, because Buddhism tries to avoid judgment and criticism. But I can’t remember what phrase he used.). We often imagine that if some aspect of our lives were different, we would be happier. If only we had a better job. More hours in the day. Eternal summer. In reality, even if we could get everything we wanted, it would just change the content of the good and bad things in our lives at that moment.

For example, lately I’ve been feeling increasingly dissatisfied with my single status. I tried to have a positive attitude on Valentine’s Day, but it would have been nice to have some guy other than my allergist wish me Happy Valentine’s Day. And he probably only said that because he kept me waiting for an hour before he finally saw me.

But when I really think about it, I thought it was sucky to be in a relationship, too. I don’t miss arguing about stupid stuff like where to put the plants. I don’t miss those periods of feeling disconnected during arguments. Being in a relationship didn’t even make me feel any more secure. The fear of rejection and abandonment was always looming. Every day my clients remind me of all of the pain and heartache that come with love, and I don’t miss that pain at all.

In many ways, my current life has been an exercise in learning how to be happy with what I have. When I got divorced I lost more than half my income and constantly stressed about the safety that comes with having money. Now I’m also supporting my brother and have even less than I did before. But I worried about money when I had more of it, too. So I really can’t say that money has made me happy, because my fear about not having enough of it has always kept me unhappy, no matter how much I had in my bank account.

Even though I still find myself wishing my life were different every day, multiple times a day, I do believe that happiness comes from accepting whatever life is in this moment. This mixture of joy and pain, good and bad. My relationship status. My income. Even my ability to access happiness.

When I teach clients how to practice mindfulness, I tell them that the goal is not to be successful at staying in the moment, but rather to become aware of when they are not and to bring their focus back to the present. So that’s what I do. A thought about how my life sucks pops into my head, and I remind myself that it is possible even in the midst of my pain to access happiness. Over and over again, until I get to that moment.

Control What You Can Control

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My friends on my tennis teams and in my groups often tell me, in a teasing way, that I am bossy. And I have to admit, it’s true. But it’s sort of necessary if you want to make sure that people show up to matches and for court times, because it’s very bad when people don’t. Which is exactly why people don’t like to captain and be in charge of groups. Who wants all that responsibility? No normal person, that’s for sure. So really, I’m doing everyone a favor.

One of the things that all of the books on compassion emphasize is how little control we actually have over our thoughts, feelings, and behavior. Our genetic makeup, our upbringing, our circumstances in life are not in our control. In some ways, it’s a little disconcerting, given that so much of our culture is focused on the idea that we control our own destiny. This is why people don’t want to take meds (they’re for the weak-minded). Why we blame people who find themselves in less fortunate circumstances than our own (they’re just lazy). Why our failures are our fault.

When I tell people about this aspect of practicing compassion, skeptics are quick to respond with, you’re just letting people off the hook. You’re just giving people excuses for not taking responsibility. Which is not the case at all. Because the one thing that we are in control of is our intentions. To be loving or hateful. Forgiving or vengeful. Accepting or judgmental. And our instinctive response with ourselves and others is to be critical and judgmental. It takes a considerable amount of discipline and practice to counteract these negative responses. It is far more work than controlling, blaming, and shaming ourselves and other people.

I know it’s negative, but as I reflect on this past year, the first thought that comes to mind is that it really sucked. I know people have it worse, that people have harder lives than me, but a lot of it was still sucky. It would be unrealistic to aspire to a normal life, given how predominantly mental illness factors into every aspect of my life, but sometimes I wish it could be a tad easier. Just a little less painful.

I tell myself all kinds of things to try to keep from falling into a pit of despair. The most helpful strategy is a compassionate one. I cannot entertain these thoughts because they cause me suffering, and I don’t have enough energy to spare on unnecessary suffering. I must take care of myself or I won’t be able to function. I remind myself that I’m doing the best that I can. That all I can do is focus on getting through this moment. I need to take advantage of whatever small thing I can do to make myself feel even the tiniest bit better.

So this year my New Year’s resolution is to exercise more control over my intentions, which are to be mindful, compassionate, and accepting. Which means that I need to write more blog posts.

Reincarnation and Karma

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Personally, I really like the idea of reincarnation. Having one lifetime to get our act together seems like the equivalent of a timed test. Since God is so forgiving, it makes more sense to me that He would give us as much time as we need to get it right.

In a previous post I wrote about reading Edgar Cayce’s biography. He is one of the few known documented psychics, and his readings are Christian-based. One of the things that I found most interesting is that Cayce said that reincarnation is consistent with Christianity. That in the period during which they were trying to promote Christianity over paganism, the powers that be left out the part about reincarnation because they thought it would be too discouraging: it’s hard enough to try to be good in one lifetime, let alone multiple lifetimes.

Also, Cayce found that when he would do readings where he told people about their past lives, people would become complacent if they found out they had been something loftier in a previous life. While it might be cool to find out that you were once a King or Queen, in reality this means that you have fallen from grace and need to work harder in this life to move back up the Karmic ladder.

I also like the idea of Karma because, while it gives us feedback on how to live our lives, it does so without judgment. In “Lovingkindness,” Sharon Salzberg says that there is no reason to condemn others because in our past lives we have done everything:

We have loved, hated, feared, killed, raped, stolen, given, served….Through beginingless and ongoing rounds of rebirth, we are all one another’s parents, children, friends, lovers, and enemies, over and over again….How then can we feel self-righteous or removed from anyone or any action?

And just as Karma is not about judging others, it is also not about judging ourselves and beating ourselves up for our mistakes. Rather, people who commit loving acts live in good health, strength, and abundance, while people who commit harmful acts experience pain, disease, and weakness. This was really helpful to read, because I judge myself based on what I think I deserve and don’t deserve all the time. And it does kind of hurt my feelings when I say stuff like that.

Salzberg says that we create a field of influences which is made up of skillful and unskillful (not good and bad) actions. If we have many more unskillful than skillful acts, this creates a field that makes it more likely that we will experience negative consequences. If, on the other hand, we commit to restraint, mindfulness, and lovingkindness with an occasional unskillful act–because nobody’s perfect and we all do harmful things, as she said in the quote above–the flow of our lives becomes like a vast and open space in which the impact of the unskillful acts is diluted.

I have to admit, because of my obsessive nature, I would like a more precise recommendation on the ratio of skillful to unskillful acts to get a better sense of whether I’m on the right track. But I’m hoping that if you spend time reading books on lovingkindness, that adds to the spaciousness of your field of influences.

I Understand Why they Call It Practice

It’s been a year since 1000 Voices Speak for Compassion was created. In honor of its one year anniversary, the topic of the month is to write about what participating in 1000 Voices has meant to us. I love “year in review” posts, and I love writing about compassion, so this topic is right up my alley.

In the past year, I have made a concerted effort to practice self-compassion, and while it continues to be challenging, it is the strategy that has been most effective in battling my demons. I’ve learned from studying compassion, listening to clients in therapy, and observing my own mind, that our instinctive response to coping with pain and suffering is to be unkind to ourselves. To minimize our suffering. To shame ourselves out of our pain. To chastise ourselves for being crazy, selfish, and petty. It’s ironic that, although we all want to be happy and feel good about ourselves, our default is to see ourselves as being flawed and unworthy.

This instinctive response to be self-critical is so strong that it often takes a while for me to come up with a self-compassionate response. Take today, for example. Another day where I’ve slept in and done nothing. Even though other people have probably done things like wake up early, gotten out of bed, tended to their spouses and children, and done some productive things.

I’ve gotten better at not berating myself, which reduces some of my suffering, but I still struggle with coming up with something loving to say to myself. But today I thought of one. Today, I thought that, for someone who struggles with depression, I’m actually a fairly productive person. And this made me feel strong instead of weak. In fact, I’m writing this blog post right now, since I’m feeling better about myself. Granted, I’m still doing it from my bed, but I can have compassion for myself for that, too.

Practicing self-compassion has changed the way I do therapy, because almost every client can identify that self-critical voice. Most of the time it says unkind things about us all day long, and we do nothing to stop it because it seems so natural and it feels true. So I teach clients how to practice mindfulness so that they can become aware of these thoughts without judgment or criticism. And then I teach them to have compassion for their feelings. This is pain; this is suffering. It does not make you crazy or weak; it makes you human. It is not your fault that you have come into the world this way, with this vulnerability; you did not choose it. And given that you are already in pain, let’s focus on whatever is in your control to make yourself feel better.

I understand why you practice self-compassion. There is no finish line. It’s not something that you master and then you can stop doing it. It’s like doing cardio for strengthening your heart, or lifting weights for your muscles. It is a lifetime activity.

The good thing about blogging is that it’s the psychological equivalent of looking in the mirror at the gym and seeing that your workouts are paying off. Hey! I am talking to myself differently! I am kinder to myself! It’s working! So thank you, 1000 Voices of Compassion, for providing me with this opportunity to strengthen my capacity to love.

For more posts on compassion, you can access the link-up here.

You can also find posts on Twitter @1000Speak.

Heaven and Hell

One of the problems I’ve always had with the concept of hell is that I can’t imagine who would be in it. On the one hand, I obsess about going to hell over things like calling a ball out. If that really is the kind of thing that would get you into hell, I can’t imagine who would be in heaven.

Still, just to be on the safe side, I always pray to be forgiven for all my sins, intentional and unintentional, just to cover all bases. Just in case I’m sinning but I’m in denial or rationalizing my actions. It’s kind of obsessive, I know, but in case you haven’t noticed, I am obsessive.

At the same time, I have a hard time imagining who would be bad enough to go to hell. I’m sure serial killers are in there, but beyond that I can’t think of anyone who is more bad than good. Perhaps I am too forgiving. Although I’m sure some of my exes would disagree.

I struggle with having other people say with authority what constitutes hell-worthy acts. Because if there’s a judgment day, then it shouldn’t already be predetermined who goes to hell, right? Just like when you commit a crime on earth. You don’t know what the outcome is going to be until the judge or jury makes a decision, even if you think the outcome should be obvious. Like the OJ Simpson case, for example.

Since the terrorist attacks on Paris, I think about all of those suicide bombers who have been told since they were kids that their sacrifice will be rewarded by virgins in the afterlife. On the one hand, all wars involve killing innocent people, so it seems too extreme to say that killing people in the name of war is a sin.

However, it’s difficult for me to imagine that someone’s reward in the afterlife would be an orgy with a bunch of virgins. I’m not trying to criticize their religious beliefs, but I’ve just never heard of a heaven that is described in sexual terms.

In the near death experience book that I always talk about, My Descent Into Death, Howard Storm went to hell–or to the doorstep of hell, at least–before he went to heaven. I actually read the book because I wanted to see what kind of person was bad enough to go to hell.

And I have to say, I would not have pegged him as someone who would be damned for all eternity. He just seemed like an average guy. Just some art history professor with a wife and kids. Granted, he wasn’t religious and was a bit prideful. I think if demons were attacking me and a voice told me to call out God’s name, I would do it, rather than argue about how that was a ridiculous idea like Storm did.

You know what comforted me the most about that book? Even when Storm was on the doorstep of hell, God was still trying to save him. God was still saying, say my name! Ask for help! And as soon as Storm did, he went to heaven. That is more consistent with what I believe to be true about God. That he is someone who is trying to get us to choose heaven, right up until the very end.

That’s how I have reconciled the idea of hell. We can choose it if we want to, because we have free will. We can choose not to ask for help. Not to love or forgive. We can judge ourselves or other people as being lost causes. But God always wants us to say yes to him. So I do.