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Category Archives: Relationships

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.

Control What You Can Control, Part 2

Control

Living with my brother has been an enlightening experience in many ways. I never realized how different our experiences have been, given that I’m 7 years older than him and was not around for much of what happened to him. However, we have experienced enough similarities in our upbringing to struggle with the same problems with relationships–which is why neither of us is in one, we are not married, and we don’t have children.

So far I have dealt with my inability to have a healthy relationship by avoiding them altogether. But at the beginning of this year, I began to panic. Because I really would like to be in a relationship at some point, but I didn’t see how it was possible to change at this stage of my life.

So I have embarked on this self-created intensive relationship rehabilitation treatment program. I have regular phone sessions with my therapist now. I have a syllabus of books that I need to read. I’ve even embraced the term codependence, which I’ve always hated, because it best captures the problems I have with choosing people who have been traumatized, issues of control, and being able to read other people’s feelings but having no idea whether I need to eat, pee, or take an Ativan.

I just finished Breathing Under Water, by Richard Rohr, my spiritual guru. In it he demonstrates how 12 Step Programs are consistent with the teachings of Jesus. So I figured this was a good choice for curing my addiction to unhealthy relationships.

You know how sometimes you really like someone else’s opinion because it confirms your own beliefs? Well, that is not why I liked this book. Most of the stuff he said I would have never in a million years came up with myself. But he made me think, and I want what he says to be true, even though it seems too good to be true.

For example, in the step regarding character defects, he said that the goal is not to fix these defects but to turn them over to God. That’s what people mean when they say to let go and let God. I always wondered. We have to work to admit what our faults are, but once we do, it’s not on us to be able to correct them by ourselves. Which is a relief, because I’ve really, really been trying without much success.

Take jealousy, for example. I used to deal with it by trying to control other people. Don’t do or say anything to make me jealous! Which was not a great strategy. Then I accepted that it was on me and tried to be rational, to practice self-compassion, to distract myself, and every other technique I could think of. But experiencing jealousy hurts in a way that I cannot bear, for reasons that are not my fault. And it’s not my fault that I can’t fix this thing about myself.

So in my attempt to turn my character defects over to God, every time I encounter one, I say something like, OK God, here’s another one. I’ve really tried, but I can’t fix it by myself. I finally get it. I’m not in control. I need your help. I don’t want this thing to hurt me anymore, and I don’t want it to interfere with my ability to love others. So any time you feel like making me whole in this place of brokenness, I’m ready. I’ll just hang out here, waiting patiently. Or I’ll try to wait patiently. Impatience is also one of my character defects that I need help with.

And you know what? It helps. It gives me hope that change is possible, no matter how much trauma I’ve experienced, how old I am, how many times I’ve made the same mistakes, and how long it took me to realize that I can’t control everything.

Don’t get me wrong–I still have my reading list. Because you still have to do the work. You just don’t have to do it all alone.

 

Satisfaction Guraranteed

enough

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joy and Pain, Part 2

So it’s the end of the semester and guess what? I’m feeling exhausted. Depressed. Overwhelmed at the prospect of having to be there for one more person. Even if it’s my family. Especially if it’s my family, actually. It makes me feel guilty, but it’s much more incapacitating to deal with my family’s problems than it is to deal with my clients. I guess because I am much more invested in things getting better with my family. It has much more of an impact on my own well-being. Plus my clients listen to me more.

It’s not that I don’t love them. I mean, look at this picture of my brothers and me.

Jumping for joy

I think it’s awesome! Admittedly, we are not as joyful as we may seem in the photo. One of my brothers bemoaned the fact that I was making him jump, given that he had bad knees and a bad internal organ–a kidney, maybe? Although I’m not sure why that would be impacted by jumping. Yet in the picture, he looks quite athletic (he’s the one on the far right). And they all love the picture. An example of how it’s probably a good idea to do whatever I suggest.

There were actually an unusually high number of joyous events. We test-drove each other’s new cars,

Porsche

Abarth

toured the downtown where the movie Big Stone Gap was filmed,

Big Stone Gap

and hung out with Big Foot at Flag Rock.

Big Foot

But being with my family is often a source of pain, as well. There is a plethora of mental illness to deal with. More severe than what I see in my job. At some level I think I became a psychologist in an attempt to heal my family, yet I have probably been the least helpful to them as a professional. I guess that’s why it’s better to see someone who can be objective.

People have lots of misconceptions about how feelings work. One of them is that positive and negative feelings are mutually exclusive. But that’s not true; joy and pain sit side by side. When your daughter or son walks down the isle, you may be crying both tears of joy and sadness. And when you visit your family, you may be jumping for joy and feeling dread and helplessness at the same time.

I often tell clients that being human requires us to experience the full range of emotions, and loving someone is a good example of this. Sometimes I find it overwhelming. When you feel other people’s feelings to the extent that I do, feeling twice as much joy and pain can be too much, even if they are people that you love. And when your job requires that you sit with pain every day, it can be hard to make it to the end of every term without crashing and burning.

But quitting my job and giving up my family are not an option. So I guess I will have to continue to wrestle with how to find the middle ground between joy and pain, closeness and distance, self-care and self-sacrifice.

Fortunately, blogging really helps.

Boundaries, Part 3

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Last night I was reading “The Girl on the Train” for book club, and one of the characters describes how she feels like someone has been in her house and has touched all of her stuff, even though nothing is out of place. I don’t know why yet, but my guess is that her intuition is correct.

It reminded me of this time when I came home and felt the same way. Except something was out of place. The TV was on some channel that I never watch. I was momentarily afraid. Then I called my boyfriend at the time and he said he had gone into my house to hang out for a while because he was hiding from his ex-wife. I thought that was weird. Why in the world would he not have told me that? Or asked me if he could go to my place? Why did he just feel like he could go over there like it belonged to him?

There were other similar things that he did that used to drive me crazy. Use my mugs and then take them home and put them in his cabinets. Go into my drawers and wear my t-shirts and then take them home and put them in his drawers. Pick up my computer and start using it without asking me. Change the saved radio stations in my car to the ones that he listened to. No matter how many times I told him not to do these things. It enraged me.

There were psychological boundary violations, too. He would purposely not respond to my calls and texts when he was up to something and would then accuse me of being too needy. In retrospect, it’s pretty clear that he was the one who needed me, but it struck a cord with me, so I didn’t know which one of us was crazy. Maybe we both were.

Although it was mostly him.

When these memories come up, I’m glad that I’m not in a relationship. I continue to struggle with not knowing when I’m feeling someone else’s feelings. It all feels the same to me. It makes it a little easier if there’s no one here in my life, invading my physical and psychological space. But how long do I have to be alone before I know that it’s safe to invite someone back in?

This ex who could not differentiate my stuff from his own once told me that as a kid he used to have nightmares of being in a room with no walls. That would be a terrifying thing. I imagine maintaining or protecting boundaries is easier to do if there are already walls built into the spaces in your mind. But how do you know where to put them, if all of your life there’s just been this undefined space?

I still don’t have the answer for that. Although one clue seems to be that, if I meet someone and the thought of them makes me anxious or angry, that’s probably a sign that I might not want to go out with them.

Two Year Progress Report

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Today is my blog’s 2nd birthday. Woo hoo! And I have to say, I’m really proud of myself. I started this blog because I wanted to write a book and this seemed like the best way to force myself to show my writing to other people and to develop content. I also wanted to prove to myself, and to others, that sharing our vulnerabilities is the best way to accept ourselves.

I did not, however, expect to make so many meaningful connections with other people–even though intellectually I knew this is also one of the benefits of sharing our vulnerabilities. And I did not expect my blog to be the best therapy I’ve ever received.

I know a lot of people share tips on how to have a successful blog on their birthdays, but I thought I’d share the things I’ve learned about myself through blogging that have made my life better instead.

1. Self-care is hard work. As a therapist, I preach about self-care all the time. And I thought I was pretty good about taking care of myself. But through blogging, I now realize there have been obstacles to my self-care that I have overlooked because I think I am superhuman.

Like, if I play tennis 6 times in a row, I’m too tired to function the next day. And it hurts my knees. Or if I spend all my energy on helping my family and my clients and my romantic partners, I get depressed. And I have a lot of expectations about how much I should be able to do that my body and mind don’t always agree with.

So now I treat taking care of myself as though my life depends on it. And it kind of does.

2. I can have more faith in God. I used to spend a lot of time worrying about the fact that I have very little money in savings. Or that if I were to become disabled, I don’t have anyone else’s income to rely on. Or if I were to fall and couldn’t get up, no one would find me until I didn’t show up for my tennis match. Which is partly why I play so much.

I’m not going to lie and say I don’t worry about those things anymore, but I worry about them less. Because blogging has shown me that somehow, things always work out. Like that time when I had a nail in my tire and my ex just happened to see it and let me know.

So I try to stop worrying so much about how things will work out and just trust that God will take care of me.

3. It pays to be nice to yourself. I used to spend a lot of time motivating myself with shame. Yelling at myself to get out of bed, get off the couch, go to work, and go to the grocery store like a normal person. Other people who have spouses and kids do it. What’s your excuse? But practicing compassion has helped tremendously, and I accomplish much more by motivating myself with kindness than I do with shame.

So now I tell myself things like, I’m doing the best that I can. And I really am.

4. I can be alone and still feel loved. Before I started my blog, I had been in relationships non-stop since I was 14. The thought of not being in one was anxiety-provoking. Now I’ve been single for almost 2 years, and it is the most mentally stable I’ve ever felt. Apparently, relationships make me crazy.  But more importantly, I have become much more aware of how many people are there for me. My family loves me. My friends look out for me. Even readers care about when I’m having a bad day.

Perhaps some day I will find someone who I can add to this list, but in the mean time, I’m pretty happy with things just as they are.

That’s it for this year. Looking forward to seeing the person I become in the next year. And thanks for accompanying me on the journey!

Social Pain

mindfulness

I’m all into social pain right now. I mean, not experiencing social pain. I’m not masochistic or anything. At least I don’t think I am. Actually, maybe I am, based on my relationship history. But that’s beside the point.

Let me start over. I’m reading this book on Social Pain, and it is really fascinating. Probably not something you would be interested in reading unless you enjoy learning about brain research, so I’ll just tell you about it, since that’s what I do.

It turns out that social pain–things like rejection, bullying, loss, and separation–registers in the same parts of the brain where we register physical pain. So some researchers thought, hey, I wonder if pain relievers might help people who are experiencing social pain? So they gave people Tylenol for 3 weeks and it turns out that it works! How cool is that?

The other thing that I learned is that we can relive social pain but not physical pain. Which is so true. I hurt my knee 2 months ago playing tennis, and I remember being in pain, but I don’t re-experience the pain when I remember it. But I can remember how rejected I felt when my tennis partner broke up with me because we didn’t win enough.

That’s the other major difference. I take social pain more personally. I felt humiliated by the whole thing. It’s hard to talk to that person now. The rejection is always there, hovering between us. And it has undermined my confidence in my game.

It turns out that social pain hurts so deeply because in our ancestral history, being accepted by your group meant that you would be taken care of. Being an outcast meant that they might tell you to wait in the cave while they go out to hunt and gather and never come back to get you. So being accepted was actually a matter of life or death.

Which is why people are more afraid of public speaking than they are of death. Because speaking in front of others could result in humiliation and rejection, which can feel like death. More so than actual death, apparently.

I guess that’s why I didn’t have to practice compassion when my knee was hurting. I would ice it and take ibuprofen and try not to play. And I’d sort of be pissed off at myself when I played and reinjured it, but I didn’t really beat myself up over it.

Actually, now that I’m writing this, I realize that I haven’t practiced self-compassion over the tennis breakup. So I guess I’ll do it now.

It hurts to be rejected. Everyone feels hurt when they’re rejected. That’s how our brains work. At some point, it will stop hurting, and I will be here with you until it does. In the mean time, I want you to think about something else, because I don’t want you to suffer unnecessarily.

I guess I’ll see if that helps. Maybe I’ll kick ass in tennis tomorrow night.