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Author Archives: Christy Barongan

Wholeheartedly

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I’m reading this book by Pema Chodron Called When Things Fall Apart.” She’s pretty funny for a Tibetan Buddhist. She talks about how she threw a rock at her husband when he said he was leaving her. She’s a nun now. Maybe that’s why.

But I digress. In one chapter she says

if we really knew how unhappy it was making this whole planet that we all try to avoid pain and seek pleasure–how that was making us so miserable and cutting us off from our basic heart and our basic intelligence–then we would practice mediation as if our hair were on fire.

I thought that was hilarious! I mean, I meditate every day, but if my hair were on fire, that is not the first thing that would come to mind as to what I should do. But apparently that’s a popular phrase, because in this meditation conference I just went to, Bill Morgan talked about people’s hair being on fire all the time. Maybe that happened a lot in Asian countries.

The focus of this conference was on how to make meditation practice work for Westerners. He thinks that most people in the West can’t get into meditating because sitting quietly just feels like an opportunity to let demons and thoughts of unworthiness run amok. And our attention span is so short that it feels torturous to sit still for even a few minutes. Plus, because we are so goal-oriented that we spend too much time striving, trying to make something happen.

So we spent the weekend learning ways to start meditating in a gentler, kinder way. Morgan suggested that when we begin a meditation practice, we start by creating an experience of comfort. This is a way we can learn to soothe ourselves. Often we would begin by standing up to stretch, shaking out any discomfort. Then when we sat to meditate we would begin with a memory, sound, or image that we find soothing. The face of your grandmother, perhaps. The sound of the ocean. Thinking about your pet. Playing with your niece.

This was revolutionary for me because, as you know, I really struggle with self-soothing. For the longest time I really had no idea how to comfort myself. I’m still not great at it. I realized during this conference that I primarily try to comfort myself by creating chaos–a common strategy for people with histories of trauma. Peace and quiet feel strange, foreign, so we recreate the experience of the chaos we grew up with, because it at least feels familiar.

My version of creating chaos involves taking on too much–signing up for Talkspace, moving, volunteering to captain a team that I don’t even have time to play on because they need another captain. Or by obsessively trying to practice self-care, which ends up stressing me out more than it reduces my stress. I just did my health assessment for my job and all of my health markers were worse than they were last year. So apparently I’m getting an F in self-care. Sort of like when you study really hard for you Calculus but still end up failing all the tests.

After spending time in meditation during the conference, I think I’ve figured out why practicing self-care hasn’t been helping. I’ve treated living with anxiety, depression, GERD, asthma, and allergies as a chore. I had been practicing self-compassion, but my attempts at self-care were driven by fear of crashing and burning. My routines were done resentfully, begrudgingly. As if I had a child who I thought was a pain in the ass but I have to take care of her because that’s my job.

In the meditations he taught us, he told us to pay attention to ourselves with the heart of a caregiver. I do that for my clients but not for myself. I do not listen to myself wholeheartedly. So that’s what I’m going to do. I’m not just going to go through the motions of checking in with myself. I’m going to try to listen with an open heart, as though I were someone who I cared for deeply. Because I want to be someone who I care for deeply.

Five Years Later

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I’ve been so busy with work that I forgot that the 24th was my blog’s 5th birthday. So happy belated birthday, Normal in Training!

My birthday blog feels more like the beginning of the new year for me than January 1 does. It gives me a chance to reflect on the important thoughts, feelings, and events that have taken place over the past blog year. And now that I post an old post every Thursday on my Facebook page, I read some of my old posts every week, which really helps to put my life in perspective since I started my blog.

I have to say, when I look back at some of the things I have shared, I am surprised at my own bravery. Because I have no desire to share those posts now! But they’re still there, if you want to go back that far and read them. Having a blog is like having a motivational poster in your mind that says, “Have you shared your soul today?” It’s helpful to have that invitation to be vulnerable, because my first instinct is to hide.

Having a blog also reminds me of how unpredictable life is. I remember 2 years ago, before my brother moved in with me, I was thinking about getting Lasik surgery because my eye doctor said it was life-changing. I thought, well my life can use some changing. So why not? Turns out I didn’t need the Lasik after all. Life-changing moments get thrown at you, whether you want them or not. While I would have preferred 20/20 vision, adjusting to my new life is probably making be a better person than Lasik would have.

Now I’m about go to through some major changes again, a few short months after my Feeling Fragile post. I sold my patio home, 3 months after I put it on the market. And the townhouse that I wasn’t going to be able to purchase unless everything fell into place perfectly? Well, everything fell into place perfectly. And if all goes as planned, I should be moving at the end of the year. It seems too good to be true, and things could still go wrong, so I tentatively share this good news with you. Because it affirms what I feel whenever things miraculously seem to work out: God cares.

Having a blog is also a reminder of how some things never change. My first post was about my problems sleeping, my stressful bedtime routine, my overactive brain. Nothing has changed. It’s just as hard to regulate my sleep cycle now as it was 5 years ago. My depression, my anxiety, my stress level, my inability to say no, my crash and burn tendencies–all exactly as they were, despite my devotion to self-care.

There are positive things that have stayed the same, too, though. I still care more about eating after tennis and friendship than winning. Although I still want to win. I’m still a warrior: I don’t stay down for long. I still try to remain positive, see the good in people and in life.

But I’ve also learned that change is possible. I have become a better person in many ways. I am in a relationship for the first time after almost 5 years, which is perhaps my biggest act of bravery this past blog year. It is wonderful and terrifying at the same time. It forces me to face my fears, to be vulnerable, to choose love every day. To let go of the anxiety of not knowing what will happen. To muster the courage to accept whatever does.

I am a better person to myself, too. In this moment, I am most thankful for my blog because it teaches me to practice mindfulness–to be fully present to the unfolding of my life exactly as it is happening. And to practice self-compassion–to be loving and kind to myself, despite all of those quirks and failings that make me feel like I’m not normal.

Everything Ebbs and Flows

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One of the many things that’s helpful about having a blog that I’ve kept up for almost 5 years is that I see how much repetition there is in my life. I guess that shouldn’t be surprising. That’s the reason why therapy doesn’t work in a day. Even if you can identify in that first session what the client needs to do, it takes a lot of repetition to change your mindset and your behavior. And yet, every time I reread an old blog post, I’m like, what the heck? I was doing the exact same thing 4 years ago?

Yesterday I published an old post I had written about my guilt over my sleep cycle on my FB page (which I encourage you to follow, if you aren’t already doing so). In this post my therapist had given me permission to stop obsessing about not being able to regulate my sleep cycle over the break and said that, when I needed to wake up early, I would be able to do it. Which was helpful in forgiving myself for what I perceived as my sleep sins.

And yet, guess what I did this summer? I obsessed about not being able to regulate my sleep cycle. I thought about it nonstop. Tried different strategies, all to no avail. No matter what I do, my sleep cycle naturally gravitates to its night owl pattern– falling asleep around 3-4 am, waking up in the afternoon. My brain is like a manic vampire–I cannot shut it up at night, and it cannot stand the light.

But now I’ve started work and, although I’m not sleeping any earlier, I wake up when I’m supposed to. I’m sleep-deprived, but responsible. So I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s OK if I can’t change my sleep cycle. That when I have to wake up early, I will. The same conclusion I came to on July 27, 2014. The same conclusion that I’ve probably come to after every break.

Sometimes I still get caught up in thinking that if I were more disciplined, more of an adult, perhaps I could get this sleep thing under control. Perhaps I could be more like a normal person. But yesterday, in a presentation that I gave on resilience, I used the following quote from Paul Gilbert, author of “The Compassionate Mind:”

So much of what we are has, in a way, little to do with personal choice. Therefore it makes little sense to blame ourselves for some of our feelings, motives, desires or abilities or lack of them, or for how things turned out.

So I have stopped berating myself (in the moment) and repeat my self-compassion mantra. You’re doing the best that you can. Am I, though? Yes. You really are. You always do. (I have to go through the whole dialogue every time. Obsessive, I know, but I can’t help that, either.)

I also repeat my mindfulness mantra to remind myself that the cyclical nature of my sleep problems is just how it is. Everything ebbs and flows. Everything comes and goes. No matter how hard I try, how disciplined I am, it will always be like this–semesters filled with sleep-deprivation punctuated with periods of night owl syndrome over the breaks. This is the ebb and flow of my life.

So I’m trying to accept it, just as it is.

What I’ve Learned From Being Single

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About 4 and a half years ago, I wrote one of the most personal, painful posts about why I was choosing to be single called Solitude. I decided to be alone after dating almost non-stop since I was 15 because I was beginning to lose respect for myself. I knew I was running away from something that I needed to face, and it made me feel weak, pathetic. I had settled for unsatisfying and sometimes downright traumatic relationships because I thought anything was better than being alone. Four and a half years ago I finally decided that I would be alone or die trying, because the alternative was to hate myself. And it seemed hypocritical to write a blog about self-acceptance if you hated yourself.

And, as you know if you’ve been reading my blog since then, sometimes it’s been rough. I would often lie on the couch or in bed in a half-asleep, half-starved state because I was too tired to get food but too hungry to sleep. And when I did eat, it would be random stuff like peanut butter crackers because that’s all I had in the house.

I worried a lot about what would happen if I got hurt or died and no one found me for days. So I played tennis almost every day to make sure people saw me. And I told my friends to take it seriously if I posted something on FB that said I had fallen and I couldn’t get up.

I didn’t have anyone to talk to about my day, so I wrote in my journal a lot. But that ended up being a great thing. It really helped me to develop my writing. And I thought I was hilarious and loved re-reading old entries. And I was a much better listener than any of the people I had been with, so I allowed myself to go into as much obsessive detail as I wanted to, and to write about the same thing over and over again, without worrying about boring my future self.

Another reason why I stayed single was because I thought I was a terrible person in relationships. I was jealous and controlling. I was rigid, judgmental, and demanding. I was selfish, and nothing the other person did was ever enough. I figured those patterns were so deeply ingrained that there was no way I could forge new neuronal pathways in my brain. There wasn’t enough time. I was already in my mid 40’s.

Now I realize that a lot of those things that I thought were true about me were not me at all. They were thoughts, feelings, and fears that belonged to other people that I had assumed were my own. In psychodynamic theory, this is called projective identification. You unconsciously take on things the other person finds unacceptable to admit about themselves. Things like being jealous, or selfish, or demanding.

There was no way I could have known that these patterns were not as deeply ingrained as I had thought without being by myself. In fact, I am so different from the person I was before my solitude experiment that it’s a little shocking. People tell me that I’m unselfish. Not jealous at all. That I don’t ask for anything. Sometimes I look around and think, are you talking to me? Because that doesn’t sound like me at all.

I think my solitude has been something along the lines of a 4 year meditation retreat. (Not a silent one, obviously.) I’ve spent a lot of time practicing self-acceptance, mindfulness, and self-compassion as ways to face my fear of being alone. And just like everything else, the fear itself was far scarier than the actual experience of being alone.

I have found that the hardest thing to do is to be honest about the things we are ashamed of. We do all kinds of things to avoid really seeing ourselves. Drink. Shop. Binge watch shows on Netflix. Date. Blame other people. Whatever your go-to strategy is, my advice to you is to be still, let things settle, and see what’s there. It won’t be as scary as you think. And the benefits are far greater than you can imagine.

Feeling Fragile

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You know what I feel like? I feel like that vase in the Brady Bunch. The one that the Brady Bunch Boys broke while they were playing football in the house, which they weren’t supposed to be doing. And then they glued it back together so their parents wouldn’t know. But there were little pieces missing, so when Carol used it for flowers and poured water in it, it started leaking. Because it was barely held together.

That’s what I feel like.

Even though I’m off for the summer, I’ve been really stressed. I didn’t realize how badly until I went to get a massage yesterday. Ordinarily I don’t get one in the summer because I don’t need to, but I noticed that my shoulder was tight and I couldn’t get it to release, even though I stretch every day, sometimes twice a day. But she said my whole body was tight. Was worried that she might be hurting me.

And usually it does hurt when I’m tight. But I was obsessing so much about how much it cost, how I need to start doing yoga. Can I make it to the class tonight? Tomorrow? But I want to do strength training! No, your body needs stretching, Christy! Listen to what your body needs! Hey, stop obsessing! This is costing $100! Focus on relaxing your muscles! Pay attention!

So I didn’t even really register the pain.

I’ve been doing a lot more than I would ordinarily do in the summer. I’ve decided to do Talkspace, which is an online therapy platform. Because, you know, my regular job isn’t really stressful enough. But I might be buying a new place.

On the one hand, it’s interesting to see how they work out all the legal and ethical issues that come up with online therapy. And there are a lot of things that I like about it. I think I could get pretty good at it. But it has been a lot of work just to do the training, and I haven’t even started seeing clients yet. I’m in the middle of my first test, but I have to record this 2 minute introductory video that requires me to memorize my script and dress professionally and put makeup on. When I usually just wear workout clothes and don’t even brush my hair. So I decided to procrastinate and write a blog post first.

And apparently everyone fails this first simulation. So I go back and forth between telling myself that it doesn’t have to be perfect, it’s OK if I fail, to channeling my inner warrior and being like, I will win! I will pass it on the first try, gosh darn it! So it’s been this exhausting emotional roller coaster of feelings.

And if that isn’t enough stress, I’ve also decided to sell my house, because of the two people living in the space for one thing. I don’t know for sure if it will sell, and if it sells, I don’t know for sure it will be enough to cover the downpayment for the townhouse I want to buy. So my mind goes back and forth between figuring out how I can rearrange things here if it doesn’t sell to thinking about all of the things I’ll have to do if it does sell. Oh, and I have to keep the place clean. And get my brother to keep his space clean, which is even harder. So another emotional roller coaster.

This isn’t the first time I’ve been in a situation where I felt overwhelmed. Where I had no idea how I was going to handle it all, how things could possibly get better. There were my two divorces. My brother moving in with me. The depression I went through 9 years ago. The 4 other houses I’ve bought. Eventually I just had to put my faith in God. I didn’t have to figure it all out. I didn’t have to envision how it would work for it work. I just had to trust that God would take care of me. And he always has. So that’s what I’m trying to do.

Oh, and I take my Ativan. Because that’s what my psychiatrist told me to do when I’m obsessing. Which is also helpful.

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.

How to Get What You Want

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Here’s a fact that will save you a lot of self-criticism, and help you to understand why people do things that don’t make sense: we are not as rational as we think. That might not seem comforting in a culture where it’s important to be reasonable, stoic, self-sufficient, and in control, but it’s true.

Let me illustrate how illogical we can be. I’m going to give you some examples of how people try to get what they want from others. But let me first say that, if you are relying on others to get what you want, you have already given up some control, because we have far less control over other people than we do over ourselves. And I don’t know about you, but I can barely get myself to do what I want.

Nevertheless, we still try to get what we want by getting other people to change their behavior. We want bullies to stop bullying. We want our kids to come home at curfew. We want our partners to stop leaving wet towels on the floor.

Even in these cases, we often try to change other people’s behavior in ways that aren’t very effective. Maybe they work sometimes, but even when they do, they hurt the relationship.

Usually these strategies involve punishment–guilt trips, shaming the person, passive-aggressive comments, withholding love, the silent treatment. If you’ve never taken an intro psychology course, it may come as a shock to hear that punishment is not an effective way to change people’s behavior, given how often we use it. Rather than lecturing you about the principles of behavior theory, I’ll just give you a few examples to prove my point.

Let’s use bullying as an example. It took me 2 seconds to find this quote about bullying:

Bullying is not a reflection of the victim’s character, but rather a sign of the bully’s lack of character.” 

The message is: bullies are bad people. Don’t be a bad person. Have you ever tried getting someone to stop doing something by telling them to stop being a bad person?

Of course you have. We all have. And I’m guessing what happened is the person got defensive and you had this big argument and you didn’t get what you wanted. Or if you did, it probably resulted in them resenting you more, liking you less. So even if the person stopped leaving their towels on the floor, they pick them up begrudgingly, and it remains a thing between the two of you.

Let’s imagine we try something other than shaming bullies out of their behavior. Perhaps we could try practicing compassion. We could try to understand why this person hurts other people.

Or I can just tell you why. People hurt other people because they are hurting. So if you want to make people stop hurting other people, you have to address their pain, rather than add to it. Asking questions, trying to understand, listening to what they say, and expressing empathy for their pain goes a long way in changing people’s behavior. Yes, that takes longer than telling someone they’re a bad person, but this is how you get what you want. This is how you get a bully to be kind. With kindness.

Another strategy for getting what you want is to use positive reinforcement. The easiest way to use positive reinforcement is to praise someone when they do the thing you want. I’m sure you’ve used this with children, and it is amazing how effectively and immediately it works. Wow, Jane! You are a fast runner! So Jane runs around like a maniac for the next 5 minutes, demonstrating how fast she is. People want praise, so we will keep doing the things that make people praise us.

I encourage you to try out what I’ve just said about punishment and positive reinforcement. See for yourself if it works. And if you do try out your own personal psychological experiment, I’d love to hear about the results.