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Author Archives: Christy Barongan

The Power of the Pause

being present

Remember how I said I have trouble with transitions? Well, it turns out that everyone has trouble with transitions. And I thought it was just me! (By the way, if you ever think that something is just you, it’s not true. This is really how everyone thinks and feels.)

This summer, in an effort to recoup after a challenging academic year, I decided to up my mindfulness practice by pausing more often in transition from one thing to the next. Because I had this mini epiphany that mindfulness is actually about creating pauses. At the most basic level, it’s about pausing between a thought or feeling and how I respond to it.

For example, I started having anxiety attacks the week before work started because I kept getting work emails asking me to answer questions, check my schedule, review this thing, take this assessment, etc. I tried to ignore them, but once they popped up on my screen, I had to read them. You know. Because I’m OCD. If you’re thinking, well why don’t you just turn off those notifications, Christy? It’s because while I was single for 4 years and never got any texts, every time I looked at my phone, my inner demons would be like, don’t even bother checking. No one gives a crap about you. So I turned on my notifications for everything so I could be like, take that, demons! You don’t know me!

But I digress. What was I saying? Oh yeah. Pauses. Actually, that’s a good example of a pause. Those inner demons are constantly trying to make us think we are worthless, and without taking a pause, we believe them. If you put a pause between the thought no one gives a crap about you and the automatic thought that comes up after that, which is something like, I’m unlovable, lots of useful things can happen. You can ask yourself, is that thought true? No, actually. It’s not. I just had dinner with a friend last night. And I’m playing tennis with more friends tonight. So some people must like me. That’s just my inner demons, doing what they always do. Persistent little buggers.

So then, based on something a client said (clients often have really good ideas), I decided to insert more pauses into my daily routine. Before I ate something to give thanks. Before I turned on the TV to see if there was something else that would be more helpful. Before reading the next chapter, to let what I just read sink in.

And it really helped. Before I used to go through my self-care routine like a to do list. Meditate–check. Take meds–check. Stretch–check. Just going through the motions, trying to get them out of the way. But then I remembered how another client had talked about a book she was reading that encouraged treating even the most mundane activity as though it were sacred. Which is what mindfulness is about. This moment, while you’re folding clothes, matters. Regardless of how you feel about it. Or what you have to do afterwards. Be here. Experience it. It will never come again.

Perhaps sometimes that’s what we want when we’re bored or sad. Or filled with dread about school starting. But perhaps when you look back at some point you’ll think, wow, I spent that last week of vacation obsessing about school so much that I didn’t even get to enjoy it. Or, remember when I had a job? Those were the good old days. Or some other thought that makes you realize that there were a lot of good things going on in that moment when you thought it wasn’t so great.

And you know how we can try not to take those things for granted? With pauses. They require no special training. No therapy needed. No self-help books. You can’t do it wrong. And even taking one will make a difference.

Try it out. See what you think.

A History of Trauma

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There were 3 mass shootings last week. Three. Last week. Although there is only talk about 2 of them, because I guess not enough people got killed in the first one. I used to think about how hard it would be to live in the Middle East, where children are trained to be suicide bombers whose goal is to kill as many people as possible before sacrificing their own lives. Have we become a culture that does the same thing?

I just finished reading All the Light We Cannot See. It was interesting to read what WWII was like from the German side. And a reminder of how traumatic war is. It seems the only way to survive was to forget–all that you saw. All that you lost. All of the things you did. All of the things you didn’t do. Forget that you saw dead bodies strewn about, or piled up in large heaps, and just went about your business. Maybe you even contributed in some way, directly or indirectly, to killing them yourself. But what other choice did you have, really, but to focus on your own survival? How could someone who lived through something so horrifying not have PTSD? It’s too much to process. Too horrible to make sense of.

In the book Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma, Peter Levine argues that war is a reenactment of unhealed trauma that repeats itself at the individual, generational, and cultural level. That’s deep. Even in the Bible humanity begins with murder. Brother killing brother. And the aggressor survives, earns his right to pass down his genes to the next generation.

In my own family, I can see the effects of trauma in some of my nieces and nephews and can trace the pain of it back to my grandparents. I’m sure it goes further back than that. I just don’t know their stories. Although I wasn’t consciously aware of it at the time, this is why I chose not to have kids. At some level, I knew that I would do more harm than good. People who know me would say this isn’t true, but I know that trauma happens all the time and is often invisible to us. Even when we see it, we can become desensitized to it. And even when we know it’s happening to people we love, we sometimes look the other way.

I also read Maybe You Should Talk to Someone, by Lori Gottlieb–a therapist who talks about her own therapy, as well as the work with her clients. A book that I had wanted to write, by the way. The very reason I started this blog. So she beat me to the punch. But she isn’t as crazy as I am, so maybe there is room for 2 books about therapists who are also clients.

But I digress. One of the clients she talks about is a woman who is about to turn 70 and is going to commit suicide on her birthday unless Gottlieb can convince her that life is worth living. Talk about pressure! Turns out that part of the problem is that she doesn’t want to be happy. Or rather, she doesn’t deserve to be happy. Among her list of crimes is that when she was married to an alcoholic and abusive man who beat their children, she would walk out of the room. And she didn’t leave him for a long time. She knowingly, willingly, participated in their abuse by looking the other way. None of her children have forgiven her. Why should she?

But what power do I have to stop a cycle of violence that began with the first offspring in the history of humanity?

My client asked me this question yesterday. Felt powerless, disoriented, and anxious in a world where children can buy weapons of mass destruction and are given permission to kill other people—particularly those who are deemed to be less than human. Everyone points fingers, argues about who is to blame, but nothing happens. What can I do to have some control?

In East of Eden, John Steinbeck also wrestled with what to make of the sibling rivalry that kicked off humankind. How do we go forward after we’ve killed our brother? The answer eventually comes from Adam’s Chinese servant Lee. He decided to study Hebrew with some ancient Chinese wisemen for several years. So that he could accurately interpret the 16 lines of the Bible in which Cain’s story is told. Just for kicks. And the answer is: not matter how deep-rooted the sin, there is always a chance for redemption.

In other words, we do have some power to stop the cycle of violence. And, in my opinion, it begins with self-compassion. I told my client that he has the power to be kind to himself. To commit to creating a space in his mind that is loving. That is dedicated to self-care, acceptance, and forgiveness. It takes practice, but with time, healing takes place. And the energy you create within you and around you will be filled with compassion, so that others can feel it when they interact with you. And so forth, and so on, until we create a cycle of love that breaks the cycle of violence.

So I’m trying to take my own advice. The cycle of hatred ends with me, within me.

No Fairy Tale

Once upon a time that was a deer named Bambi who lived in the woods with her mother. Bambi’s best friend was a bunny named Thumper. Thumper would often come to Bambi’s neck of the woods and Bambi’s mom would give them milk and homemade cookies.

One day when Bambi and Thumper were out playing in a meadow nearby, a big scary metal thing with wheels came and cut down all the trees. Bambi’s home was destroyed and her mom was killed. Bambi cried and cried, and didn’t know where to go or what to do. Then Thumper told her that she knew a girl named Goldilocks who was looking for some help with cooking and cleaning. Bambi was a good cook because her mom taught her how so she decided to apply for the job.

Goldilocks lived with a family of bears. When she knocked on the door to apply for the job, Baby Bear warned her that Goldilocks was high maintenance and everyone who took the job quit within a week. But Bambi had no other choice so she applied anyway.

Because there were no other applicants, Bambi got the position. But Baby Bear was right; Goldilocks was scary. She was always complaining that nothing was ever good enough. Her food was either too hot or too cold. Her bed was too soft or too hard. Her chair was uncomfortable. Goldilocks would get mad and yell at everyone so loudly that the windows would shake.

Goldilocks liked to throw parties because she needed to be the center of attention. So at the last minute, she told Bambi she had invited a bunch of her friends and Bambi needed to clean the house and have food ready for that night. Bambi was really stressed about this but she did the best that she could, hiding stuff in closets and under beds. She didn’t have time to cook so she just bought some things from Sam’s that she could heat up quickly.

That night everyone came dressed as characters from fairy tales, because Goldilocks liked all of her parties to have a theme. The seven dwarves were there, and all the Disney princesses, and Shrek and his wife Fiona. At first everyone was having a good time, eating and singing and dancing. But then Goldilocks wanted the whole group to get together so that she could take a picture and put it on social media. She wanted to show the world how fun her parties were.

Bambi didn’t come right away when Goldilocks called because she was in the kitchen frying egg rolls. So Goldilocks had a really bad temper tantrum because she had been drinking. She screamed at Bambi in front of everyone and told her that she was stupid and ugly. Usually Goldilocks didn’t let people see this side of her so all of the guests were scared and ran away.

Bambi was scared, too, so she ran back to what was left of the woods that were her home and decided that she would sleep there for the night until Goldilocks cooled down. While she was sleeping, Bambi had a dream that her mom’s spirit came to her and whispered in her ear. Don’t go back, her mom said. Anything is better than this life. You can make it on your own. I have faith in you. Bambi felt comforted by her mom’s voice and didn’t want the dream to end.

But when she woke up, she felt alone and afraid again. The world felt unsafe, and even if Goldilocks was mean sometimes, she was also nice sometimes, and that seemed better than nothing. So she went back to Goldilocks’s house and apologized for not coming right away when Goldilocks wanted to take the picture for social media.

The family of bears moved out shortly after the party because Goldilocks’s public temper tantrum was the last straw for them. So they wished Bambi luck and gave her their new address if she ever needed them. Thumper also begged her to leave Goldilocks, but Bambi knew she would never leave so she spent less and less time with Thumper because she felt guilty and ashamed. So Bambi was left alone with Goldlocks and kept trying to find ways to please this person who would never be happy.

Bambi would often take the piece of paper out and look at the address for The Bears and try to convince herself that she was strong enough to leave and start over again. But she believed that she was stupid, because that’s what Goldilocks said to her all the time. So she stayed with Goldilocks and lived unhappily ever after.

The moral of the story: Get out of a bad situation, no matter how scary it may seem.

 

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How to Predict the Future

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If you’re psychic, this blog post does not apply to you, because you already know how to predict the future. For the rest of us, there are a range of options for predicting the future, each with their pros and cons. In this blog post, I will review the primary strategies so that you can be more informed and mindful about employing whichever one you choose.

  1. Worst-case scenario. This is the most common strategy I see in therapy. It involves things like predicting you will fail your test, and then your class, and then college altogether, and then you’ll end up flipping burgers at McDonald’s. People who use this strategy are not delusional; they know they are picking the worst-case scenario. Their argument is that if things go poorly they will be mentally prepared, and if things go well they will be pleasantly surprised. The problem with this strategy is that it causes unnecessary stress, since the worst-case scenario is not likely to happen. And, if you’re trying to practice self-care, your goal is to eliminate unnecessary stress. Plus, even if the worst-case scenario does happen, you can prepare for it then, just as well as you can prepare for it now, and save some energy.
  2. Optimism. In this strategy, people assume that things will turn out in their favor, even in cases when this might be statistically unlikely. In fact, even if your optimism is not based in reality, there is research to suggest that it is still effective in creating positive outcomes and feelings of happiness. One recommendation for how to capitalize on the benefits of optimism is to write your goals down as though you have already accomplished them. (I’m trying this out for myself and have started writing I’ve lost 10 lbs. every day to see if it works. I’ll let you know.) The downside to this strategy is that, from a mindfulness perspective on happiness, we do not need to rely on any particular outcome to be happy. Well-being can be created by learning to be fully present in this moment, whatever it looks like. Assuming that things will turn out the way we want them to, on the other hand, makes our happiness dependent on a favorable outcome.
  3. No expectations. This strategy is best illustrated in the expression “expect nothing but be prepared for everything,” which presumably came from an ancient samurai warrior, according to Jerry Lynch in The Way of the Champion. With this mindset, you do not assume that you will win, but you expect that you will do your best, regardless of the result, because doing your best is all you can control. And you expect that, whatever happens, you will learn more about yourself and become a better person because of it. This strategy is more consistent with a mindfulness approach because it does not assume that we have more control than we actually do. It also does not assume that a negative outcome is necessarily a bad thing. The biggest drawback to this strategy is that it forces us to live with the anxiety of not knowing what will happen. Our fear of uncertainty is so great that imaging ourselves failing out of school and flipping burgers at McDonald’s seems less anxiety-provoking than the ambiguity of the unknown.

It’s probably obvious what my bias is. I encourage my clients to have no expectations. When making predictions about the future, I encourage them to substitute their negative predictions with the mantra “I don’t know what will happen,” and reassure them that whatever happens, they can have faith that they will be able to figure out a solution when the time comes.

Self-Forgiveness

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So I am trying out this new strategy in my self-compassion practice. I am trying to focus more on forgiveness. Forgiving others, of course, but more importantly, forgiving myself. Because I beat up on myself way more than I beat up on other people.

In the self-compassion retreat I attended a few years ago, they told us that trying hard will not stop our suffering. In fact, they called trying hard “the subtle aggression of self-improvement.” True acceptance is actually doing less.

We were all like, huh? What the heck are we doing in a 5 day meditation retreat if not trying hard to get rid of our suffering? Isn’t that the whole point?

It is still a difficult concept to wrap my head around. But I remember reading somewhere that we don’t practice self-compassion to get rid of our suffering. We practice it because we are suffering. Because in the midst of our pain, we need to do something that is loving, kind, and comforting, rather than judging, criticizing, and improving ourselves. Because self-improvement implies that it’s my fault that I’m suffering. That I’m the problem. When in reality, suffering is an unavoidable part of life.

One of the things I feel like I need to improve is my fitness. I’ve gained weight since my brother moved in and don’t play tennis as much, and it really shows. I used to play tennis almost every day–sometimes several times a day. I’m not saying that was healthier, but I was physically able to do it. Now I think 4 times a week would be a lot. And while I’ve never had a super great relationship with my body, it has significantly deteriorated in direct proportion to my weight gain. If I have nothing else to obsess about, my body, my fitness level, and my lack of exercise are the things that are on my mind. If I’m not trying to improve, what should my goal be?

The other thing that has taken a hit lately is my belief that I’m a good therapist. Taking that leave at the end of the term last year and all of the fallout that have resulted from it has really been tough on my self-esteem. I constantly have to remind myself that therapy is not about me. My goal is to be there for them. They don’t have to get better working with me so that I can feel like a good therapist.

I’ve tried to reason with myself, although I know that’s not always compassionate. I have tried not to look in the mirror as much, which is a little more compassionate, I think. I meditate and pray. I repeat my “I’m doing the best that I can” motto. Does all of this count as trying too hard?

I don’t think I know how to not try.

This self-forgiveness thing actually does seem to work. For every time I tell myself I’m fat, and then scold myself for telling myself I’m fat, and then reason with myself, and then tell myself that reasoning isn’t compassionate, and then go eat a Drumstick, I forgive myself.

For every client I worry I have disappointed, every time I make it about me, every time I tell myself that I suck, I forgive myself.

I will make mistakes. I will make it about me. I will be hard on myself. I will obsess. This is who I am, and it’s OK. I can forgive myself for all of it. Today, tomorrow, and every time it happens.

Cultivating Trust

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How to Tell if You’re Lazy

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

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

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

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

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

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And this one:

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

Here are 5 signs that you are not really lazy:

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

And here are signs that you might actually be lazy:

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

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

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