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Author Archives: Christy Barongan

What Winners Do

Winning

I have a running joke with one of my tennis partners where we make up all these statements about what winners do. It started when we played our first match of the season and we were on the verge of elimination. I told her that winners hold their serve and break serve when it counts. Which we did. And we won. But then we just started making up stuff that wasn’t particularly profound because it was funny and it helped us relax on the court. Winners win! Winners wear tennis shoes instead of sandals when they play!

I actually think a lot about what winners do. Often people think that they need to improve their skills to win–develop a topspin forehand, for example. The problem with this strategy is that it takes a long time to improve a skill, and working on a weakness will still not make it one of your strengths. I’ve been working on a topspin forehand for 15 years now, but it’s still not my go-to shot when the game is on the line.

It’s actually much better to focus on your mental game, and it doesn’t take years to get better at it. I don’t consider myself to be naturally gifted as an athlete, but I am a psychologist, so I make sure I capitalize on whatever mental strategy that allows me to have the advantage in a match. I am aware of when people are using head games and don’t let them get to me. I compliment my opponents to make them feel guilty about using head games. I frame my goals in terms of what I want to do instead of what I don’t want to do (e.g., reach up and follow through rather than don’t double fault). I give my partner positive feedback, pump them up by reminding them what winners do.

I’ve been noticing lately that a lot of what winners do involves practicing mindfulness. Federer and Nadal, arguably the two greatest tennis players in the men’s game, illustrate this perfectly. Federer is known for how long he can keep his eye on the ball. How easily he shrugs off losses, puts things in perspective. He savors his victories because he is in his twilight years. Nadal often says that he knows that any win could be his last, so he doesn’t take playing for granted. He attributes his success to what he can control–his effort, his practice. All players talk about how they try to focus on this match rather than looking too far ahead. They give themselves time to enjoy their victory. They express gratitude for the people who put on the tournament, their team, their fans when they make their speech in the finals.

Sure, some of this stuff is probably scripted–things they know they should say, whether they mean it or not. But I believe that winners do mean it. They are focused. They take things one game at a time. They don’t fixate on mistakes. They are grateful. They savor the moment.

I know practicing mindfulness has made me a better player, if for no other reason than it helps me to watch the ball–which is often my only strategy when I’m playing. Practicing mindfulness doesn’t guarantee a win, but it makes every aspect of the game, on and off the court, more enjoyable. Which counts as a win in my book.

Four Years Later…

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My blog is 4 years old today! Can you believe it? That is a lot of writing. And a lot of self-disclosure. I’m relieved that you have to sort through almost 300 posts to get to some of the more personal ones. If you’re that dedicated to my blog, then you’re entitled to hear my deep, dark secrets. The ones I’ve written about, at least.

Like the title of my blog says, my goal has been to practice self-acceptance. To accept that I don’t have to try to fit myself into some narrow definition of what it means to be normal. And I think I’ve come a long way. I’m kinder to myself and others. I’m more accepting of the curve balls that life throws at me. I worry less about the future and other things I can’t control.

Patience is still not one of my strong points. It drives me crazy how slowly change occurs. I went to a meditation conference this summer and the presenter said some quote about how changing ourselves through mindfulness is like changing a mountain with a feather or something really soft. I can’t remember exactly what he said, but I remember thinking, seriously? It takes that long? Why not just blow the freaking thing up? I need progress and I need it now, gosh darn it!

But I guess we’ve seen what happens when our strategy is to blow up the things that we want to change. So I’m slowly learning what my mind and body need, how to soothe myself, to set boundaries, to say no. I try to pace myself, to be realistic about what I can accomplish, to accept all my feelings and flaws. But I make a lot of mistakes. So I also practice forgiveness, remind myself that I’m doing the best that I can.

I’m still not in a relationship, which sometimes feels like an accomplishment and sometimes a failure. But I guess it’s not something I’m graded on. I’m proud of myself for breaking the pattern of needing to be in a relationship, no matter how unhealthy it was, as though my life depended on it. I haven’t given up hope on the possibility of finding a healthy one. But it’s difficult to imagine how I can carve new neuronal pathways in the Grand Canyon of my mind. I don’t want to keep going down all of those well-traveled routes that have led to so much heartache. In the meantime, spending time with my friends and playing tennis will have to suffice.

Living with my brother has helped with practicing mindfulness and gratitude. I feel especially thankful that he has taken over most of the cooking responsibilities. It allowed me to come home last Monday night after a weekend of tennis at sectionals and a full day of clients and go to bed early without worrying about what and how I was going to eat. So even though I took him in a year ago to take care of him, he is taking care of me, as well. A good reminder that things really do turn out OK, no matter how dire they seem at the time.

A few weeks ago, in an effort to teach her how to practice self-compassion, I told one of my clients that everything about her is ok exactly as it is. Every thought. Every feeling. Even as they change from one extreme to the other, moment to moment, day after day. Even if they don’t make any sense, last longer than she wants them to. That she can accept every flaw, forgive every weakness, because all of this is what it looks like to be human.

This would actually be a good thing to repeat to myself. My personal affirmation. I am, and will always be, a work in progress. But the more I write, the more I believe that I am ok, exactly as I am.

 

Happiness is…

Sectionals

It’s been a year since my brother got out of the hospital and I invited him to live with me. The past week has been a series of anniversaries of traumatic events, and in that series, today was the worst day.

A year later, I am having a stellar beginning to my academic year. Further proof of the benefits of practicing mindfulness–the reminder that all things pass, and ultimately you will be OK. I have also learned how to look for happiness when it seems as though there’s nothing to be happy about, and how to savor it when I experience it.

This year began with my tennis team advancing to sectionals. If you don’t know anything about league tennis, this is a big deal. It’s sort of like advancing to the Elite Eight in the NCAA Basketball Tournament. And if you don’t watch basketball, then just think of it as a once in a lifetime experience.

One of the lessons on happiness that I often write about is that you never know how you will feel about something until you get there. I had always imagined that advancing to sectionals would be a joyful thing. And it was joyful, but it was many other things, too. That seems to be the general rule–we never feel just one thing. Instead, we feel multiple, often contradictory things. I was happy we won but it didn’t make me a happier person in general. I still worried about the same things, had the same insecurities. Winning didn’t make me less neurotic, and it didn’t change my life for the better. It was a reminder that, because all things pass, happiness is also fleeting.

During the weekend of the tournament I had the opportunity to get to know two players who I had never spoken to before beyond saying hello. Although they barely knew me, when I needed a place to stay, they invited me to stay in their room on the spot–which helped tremendously with my obsessing about money. Many of my friends helped in whatever way they could–negotiated a lower rate for my room, shared their food with me. It was a reminder that making meaningful connections with other people is the thing that brings me the greatest happiness. It’s why I have the job that I do. Why I captain so many teams. Why I want everyone go out to dinner after our matches.

In a few weeks, we will be off to sectionals, and I am excited about the chance to advance to nationals. I will enjoy the challenge. I will channel my inner warrior. I will go all out to win. But win, lose, or draw, I know that the time off court with friends old and new will give me plenty to be happy about. And after the thrill of victory or the agony of defeat fades, the friendships will still remain.

What Would You Do?

evil and free will

I just finished reading The Nightingale, by Kristin Hannah, and I highly recommend it. I was ambivalent about reading another book about WWII because we read so many of them in book club, but this one got over 34,000 5 star ratings on Amazon. I’ve never even seen a book that’s been read by over 34,000 people, much less one that had a rating of 5 stars. So I figured it had to be good.

There are so many things to like about it. It’s written by a woman and from the perspective of female characters. Hannah’s intention was to educate people on the important contributions women made in the war, because they cannot be found in history books. It did not have the kind of violent and gory descriptions that give me anxiety attacks, like Unbroken did. Don’t get me wrong–I thought Unbroken was a great book; I just didn’t read half of it. It was a love story–a traditional one, and also one about two sisters. And, perhaps most importantly, it made me think about why God allows bad things to happen, and whether I would risk my life to save other people.

I think a lot about the story of Adam and Eve and the Fall. One of the lessons that I get from it is that it is inevitable that we will choose the wrong thing. That is one of the consequences of free will. It’s sort of like the Bill of Rights–having free speech, the right to bear arms, and freedom of the press means that there are a lot of things that we may have to tolerate that we vehemently dislike. That we consider evil.

The only way I can make sense of the Holocaust is to think of it as an extreme case of how much free will we have. We can choose evil if we want to. We can choose to engage in it. We can choose to pretend we don’t see it. We can choose to do nothing about it. To follow orders, keep our heads down, focus on our own survival. Perhaps it’s extreme to think of self-preservation as a form of evil, but had there not been people who risked their lives, Hitler would have won.

I wish I could say that if I had been alive during WWII, I would have been willing to risk my life to save other people. That I have that kind of integrity and courage. I don’t know for sure, because one of the things I’ve learned from psychology, and personal experience, is that you never know what you’re going to do until you’re there, in that moment.

Sometimes I wish we didn’t have so much free will. That there were some safeguards so that we weren’t capable of doing so much damage on such a grand scale. I don’t know if I trust myself–or others–that much. I mean, there are some warning signs. In many of the near-death experiences books, the people always say that when you’re making the wrong choice, you come across many obstacles that make it difficult, but when you make the right choice, everything goes smoothly. I’ve found that to be true, too. Still, that’s obviously not enough of a deterrent to keep people from doing evil on a grand scale.

But then again, in every act of hatred, you can find many acts of love and kindness. They are powerful. They are healing. They help us move on, choose life, find happiness again. People who have faced horrific tragedies talk just as much about the outpouring of love they receive from people who they don’t even know as they do about their losses. So perhaps if I continue to practice compassion, when the time comes, I will be brave and choose love, even when it’s hard to do. That’s what I’m counting on, at least.

Love and Hate

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Last summer I was on a spiritual quest to figure out how we are supposed to strive to be good, knowing that we are going to fail at times. I know God doesn’t expect us to be perfect, but what would a passing grade be, exactly? Would a D- be enough to get us into heaven? Because that’s all you need to get in a Pass/Fail class. My guess is no. You have to do better than that.

In case you didn’t read that post, I’ll tell you what the conclusion was from my research. Our task in life is not to be good; it is to know ourselves. By knowing ourselves, I don’t mean “finding ourselves.” It’s more along the lines of what twelve step programs call a personal inventory of our character defects. Being honest with ourselves about the things we are ashamed of. Our sins, basically.

Because this is what leads to addiction. This is what makes us deny, distort, and avoid reality. What leads us to hurt other people, even. We want to believe we are good people. We don’t want to be anything like those murderers, adulterers, terrorists, Republicans, or Democrats. Those people are a totally different breed.

When we are willing to be honest with ourselves, we will find that we are capable of being all things–the heroes and the villains, the victims and the perpetrators. This is what it means to be human. This realization can release us from self-hated and hatred of others. Who am I to judge you, when I have darkness inside me, as well?

I’m reading Small Great Things for our next book club. It’s a great book, and particularly exceptional in terms of its exploration of racism. There is a character that represents every opinion on the spectrum, from angry black person to white supremacist.

There’s a minor character in the book who explains why he gave up being a white supremacist once he had a daughter. He realized that all of the hatred that he felt towards other people was a way of keeping him from realizing how much he hated himself. He felt bad all the time, and he couldn’t beat up enough people to make that feeling go away. He realized that he didn’t want his daughter to grow up feeling that way. He wanted her to feel good about herself.

A year and even more books later, I would refine my answer to how we are supposed to be good, knowing that we are inherently flawed. Our task is first to know ourselves. Once we are able to forgive ourselves for all of the unpleasant aspects of being human, then our goal is to be loving–to ourselves, to others, and to God. Not because a failing grade will keep us out of heaven, but because being loving helps us to feel better about ourselves and others right here and now, while we are on earth.

I admit, it is not an easy task. I mentioned in my last post that I can’t watch the news anymore. I can’t even read what’s trending on Facebook, because even that small dose of negativity causes me distress. Sometimes being loving to myself means walking away when people start talking about politics. Sometimes being loving to others means reminding myself that we can see things differently and still all be good people. Sometimes being loving to God means accepting that experiencing self-hatred and hatred of others is also a part of the human condition.

It’s a challenge, but it makes me feel a lot better about myself to think about how I can be more loving than to feel like I’m failing at being good enough.

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.

Hanging in the Balance

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You know what it’s like having a mental illness? It’s like being Homer Simpson in that episode where he ate that Fugu puffer fish prepared by a rookie chef. That’s the fish that, if not prepared correctly, can kill you. He had to wait 24 hours to find out. Great episode, if you haven’t seen it.

Or it’s like hydroplaning on the highway, trying to figure out which way you need to turn the wheel so you don’t crash. That actually happened to me. I don’t think I turned the wheel the right way. I ended up going backwards in the median, wondering what was going to happen to me when the car finally stopped. Thankfully, miraculously, nothing happened. Except to my car. Which I got rid of.

I found out in the book “The Art of Racing in the Rain”–which is a fantastic book, if you’re looking for something to read–that when you’re hydroplaning, you actually need to accelerate to engage the wheels. It’s a fictional account, but that makes sense to me. So now I drive really slowly in the rain so that I can speed up if I start to skid.

But I digress. The reason why having a mental illness is like the Fugu puffer fish and racing in the rain is that there are so many things you have to do to maintain your balance, and it takes so little to throw it off.

Take sleep, for example. I am a night owl, but I’m not supposed to stay up late, because reversing my sleep cycle triggers a depressive episode. But when I try to go to bed earlier, I can’t fall asleep because my obsessive brain is wide awake, chatting up a storm. I am also supposed to wake up early, but I’m usually too freaking tired. And because I need more sleep than the average person, I still have to take a 3 hour nap.

I have similar difficulties regarding eating that is equally complicated because of my inability to wake up early, restrictions in what and when to eat because of my GERD, my tennis schedule, my inability to tell whether or not I’m hungry, and that I hate planning meals, grocery shopping, and cooking.

I also have to manage my anxiety by avoiding almost everything, lately–Facebook, the news, conversations about Trump, certain family members, relationships, looking at my schedule for the week so that I don’t get overwhelmed (which has gotten me into trouble with my colleagues).

Despite all of this effort I put into maintaining my mental health, I frequently wake up feeling anxious or depressed or both. Because it’s impossible to keep all of this stuff in balance. Which really frustrates me. Sometimes I’m mad at God. Sometimes I wonder if it’s all worth it, all this work to be mentally stable given that I am inherently unstable. Sometimes I feel alone in it, because despite having my brother and friends to talk to, in those moments when you’re lying in bed trying to find a reason to face the day, there’s no one who can really be there for you.

Thankfully, those moments usually pass, often some time later that day. Or at least they fluctuate throughout the day. Or I’ll go play tennis.

On a moment to moment basis, practicing mindfulness and self-compassion are the most helpful tools to make the pain bearable, but it still hurts like hell. I remind myself that it’s OK to be in pain. That this moment will pass. That although my thinking may be irrational but convincing right now, at some point I will be able to see things more clearly. That it’s not my fault. I’m doing the best that I can. And then I try to think of things I can do to make myself feel better. Like watching “Trolls.” Really cute movie, if you haven’t seen it.

The other thing that has helped is reading Richard Rohr’s books. The one I’m reading currently, Eager to Love: The Alternative Way of Francis of Assisi, is a much tougher read, but he says some thought-provoking things. Like, he says that the best healers are people who have suffered greatly themselves. I know for sure that my own experiences have made me better able to sit with and relate to other people’s pain, and I know how much better it feels to talk to someone who really gets it because they, too, have suffered greatly.

We all have roles that we have to take on that will involve pain and suffering–being a parent, a firefighter, a soldier, Wonder Woman (I loved that movie, too), just to name a few. Any role entails pain and suffering, really. I guess the difference is whether you’re going to rail against it or accept it–choose it, even–because there’s something that you care about that makes it worthwhile. And because not choosing it just magnifies your suffering.

I know for sure that I was meant to be a healer. Sometimes I wish I could say no thank you, God, but I appreciate your confidence in me. But I can’t, because I really don’t know what else I would do. So if trying to find that balance moment to moment, day after day, helps me to be a better therapist, then so be it. I will choose it.