RSS Feed

Author Archives: Christy Barongan

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.

 

8cc14db72706f1e300888ae590bd164d

How to Predict the Future

fullsizeoutput_4403

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

self-forgiveness

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

lazy cat

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:

laziness.jpg

And this one:

Not productive

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.

50 Shades of Blue

shades of blue

When I was in grad school, clinical depression was described as this discrete period that occurred in episodes with a clear beginning and ending. It was even called the common cold of mental illness. Like you would know when you had caught it, and then you’d get better and be in remission. If you had a genetic predisposition, you could be at risk of recurring depressive episodes, potentially for life.

You could also have this more chronic but less severe form of depression called dysthymia. Sometimes you could be unfortunate enough to have dysthymia and major depression at the same time. Double depression, it was called. As though you could have carefully measured doses of depression, and double depression has 2 cups of symptoms instead of 1. Which is strange, because you can’t have double of any other mental disorder.

Now that I’m a practicing psychologist, I know that the diagnostic categories are not as neat and clean as they were made out to be. As a person who has been depressed for most of my life, I can say that major depression feels distinct, but it is not always clear when I am depression-free vs having dysthymia. There are times when I didn’t think I was depressed in the moment, but when I look back, it’s clear that I was.

Often we tell clients who are on meds that they can begin tapering off once they are in a period of stability. Over the summer, perhaps. Or some time after they have gotten settled in their new job. Maybe the problem for me is that there is never a period of stability. Never some time when there isn’t some family crisis. When there isn’t some problem that I’m dealing with. If anything, I would say there have been episodes of stability that have broken up the more chronic feeling of being depressed.

I don’t to want give the impression that I’m always miserable, because I’m not. Like I said, sometimes I don’t even realize I’m depressed. Sometimes it only lasts a few hours or a few days. And it doesn’t feel the same every time. So at least there’s some variety to it.

Every now and then I get upset about how unfair it all seems. The depression. The anxiety. The family craziness. The stress that comes with thinking I need to save the world. But life isn’t fair, right? And I am blessed and fortunate in other ways. If I had to choose my suffering, at this point I’d choose mental illness, because at least it’s familiar to me. I know what to expect. I know how to manage it.

And the meds do help. So does therapy, self-care, mindfulness, and self-compassion. I think depression has made me wiser. It has made me a better therapist. I’ve learned to accept the ebbs and flows of my mood, and of life in general, without beating myself as much, because I’m doing the best that I can.

This week is finals week. We are all willing ourselves to make it to the break, exhausted from the semester. Despite taking my meds, talking to my therapist, and practicing self-care, mindfulness, and self-compassion, I’ve still had bad days. But I’m determined to get that Perfect Attendance award, so I’ve made it to work when I’m supposed to be here.

Today I would call my mood cornflower. Which is a pretty shade of blue.

Take the One Day Judgment-Free Challenge

Even though I have been practicing and teaching self-compassion for several years now, it is still extraordinarily hard not to judge myself. I’m more aware of when I do it, but I still do it a lot. It is just so deeply rooted in the way we think. So automatic that it’s hard to catch, even when I’m being mindful of my inner dialogue. And so hard to come up with alternative statements. Let me give you some examples of some that I have been struggling with lately.

One thought I’ve been having difficulty with is that I feel fat, because I really have gained weight since my brother moved in with me. I specialize in eating disorders, so I know that fat is not a feeling. Yet it conveys the way I feel better than any feeling words I can think of. Usually my next thought is, I know I shouldn’t be focused on my appearance, but should is a judgment word, too. So now there are 2 sentences I need to change. And need is borderline judgmental. And on and on it goes. It’s hard to even get a sentence out without having to rephrase it.

The should sentence is easier because I practice reframing should statements with students a lot. It could be something like, I feel guilty and ashamed that I still care about how I look. (I would like to end that sentence with, even though I know better, but that’s judgmental, too.) That’s a lot longer to say in my head  than I feel fat, but it doesn’t make me feel like I’ve already failed.

The feeling fat sentence is harder. Maybe it could something like, I’m ashamed of my body in this moment. I kind of feel ashamed for feeling shame, too, but it’s OK to feel whatever we feel. There is no right answer.

Most of the time it is about shame when we judge ourselves or someone else. We think we–or the other person–is a bad person. Maybe they were mean to someone. Maybe they cheated. Maybe they voted for the other party. But I know I’ve done things that I’m ashamed of, and I try not to think of myself as a bad person. So who am I to say that someone else is a bad person? Who am I to say that I am better than anyone else?

Which brings me to the next sentence that I have difficulty coming up with a compassionate alternative for. And that is, I feel pathetic. Like fat, pathetic isn’t a feeling, either. But when I try to come up with other sentences, it’s something like, I feel like a loser, which is equally judgmental. The closest thing I’ve come up with is something like, I feel embarrassed, humiliated that I did that. That’s still painful to admit, but it’s the truth. Whereas being pathetic is not. Hopefully.

When all else fails, I use my favorite mantra: I’m doing the best that I can. Because I know that’s true. And all you can do is all you can do.

Since taking challenges is the in thing to do these days, I’d like to invite you to take a One Day Judgment-Free Day with me. See if you can spend just one day paying attention to whether you use judgmental language. And when you notice that you have, take a few minutes to think about how to rephrase that sentence. It will be tough, and you may find yourself judging yourself for your judgments, but be compassionate about that, too. We all do it. It doesn’t make us bad people.

If you do take on the challenge, let me go how it goes! I’d loved to hear what it was like for you.