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Category Archives: Relationships

Prince Eggshell

Humpty Dumpty

I have another guest post today from one of my former clients, Elizabeth Barbour, who also wrote the post Self-Disclosure is the Hardest Work I know. In today’s post, Elizabeth talks openly and honestly about the dark side of knights in shining armor and rescue fantasies.

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A previous entry in this blog identified a tendency to judge ourselves harshly for negatively judging the inappropriate behavior of our romantic partners. As if forgiveness trumps self-preservation. As if our emotional freedom and mental health are not in the balance. As if denial is an option. As if yelling is not…well, yelling.

But enough is enough. I have learned that verbal abuse is dangerous to my emotional freedom and mental health. After decades of robust living, four careers, adopting a child during a 20 year marriage that ultimately ended, earning a couple of advanced degrees, and a lot of therapy, I feel blessed with a sense of entitlement to living without being anyone’s emotional hostage or whipping boy. Like the Princess and the pea I developed a feeling for eggshell in my slipper.

My post-divorce Prince swept in on a white horse, a Mercedes and a Porsche and sent poems. Dressed me from head to toe. Added to my larder. And my coffers. He asked me to marry him after, three weeks.

A Prince coming to my rescue fulfilled a story I had inside about being a damsel-in-distress who needed to be rescued. He was as charming, as the sky is blue.  As accommodating, as the day is long. His smile could melt a sidewalk in January. His European accent rang my bell. For a while there was no eggshell in a stocking, on the floor, or anywhere at all.

Then came a few tantrums which my self-possessed teenage child and my wise-best-friend overheard. They both assessed the Prince as needy and over-sensitive. I began to think I was being backed into some kind of submission. The Prince has broken horses and trained hunting dogs and has bred, raised and trained racing pigeons, too. He called me every morning at 8:30 sharp, because it made him feel less anxious about our relationship. He called every night at 9:30 sharp or as soon as I returned home. The reason he gave for this was that as a child his father had beat his mother most often at night, so knowing I was safe allowed him to rest easy. I began to feel over scheduled. He was paranoid and anxious if I did not return his calls or texts right away—and snippy about it happening even when at the time of the not-taken call or text I had clients in front of me. Nipping at my backside, eggshell in my shoe.

Eggshells chaffed the soles of my feet as he talked non-stop for an entire surreal day about our future together. The present moment was nowhere in sight. I felt controlled and exhausted by his incessant chatter and could not claim any inner peace. From the bottom of my soles I said firmly—Enough. Enough. Enough. Stop talking. This was met with a lengthy, heated diatribe about my breach of manners.

Over 16 months a pattern arose of romantic dinners, shopping and gifts, trips to sunny places; and, occasional royal hissy fits over petty items, a few stern talking-tos about what will not do; and, heightened insight into the Prince’s emotional makeup.

On the last day of our union, I mentioned my hope to go on an adventure in a foreign country with my daughter next summer.   The Prince blanched and proceeded to label me too financially reckless; and, therefore fatally flawed to be his wife. My financial state has never stopped me from traveling. If it had, I would never have used a passport. He nearly blew smoke out of his ears as he yelled at me for 30 minutes before he stormed out of my life. I know he was yelling because I worried the neighbors would complain. It wasn’t the first time I knew he was yelling, because several times before I worried about others overhearing his outbursts.

The Prince has shown a pattern of reacting in a hot-tempered, hostile, vitriolic and condemning manner when he does not like what I say. I am not in this lifetime to be upbraided. Nor, am I a damsel in distress. I can meet life on its own terms. The Prince is out of my life and so is the damsel.

Elizabeth Barbour is a perennial student of Life, recent law grad, avowed Late Bloomer, proud Mother, and writer coming into fruition. 

Journaling, Part 2

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There is this space that exists between the relationship that you’re in and the one you dream of. The land of if only. If only he would call more. Compliment me. Say I love you. Put me first. Then everything would be perfect.

I lived in that space for a long time. But it required a lot of denial and distortion. Like a really extreme version of tunnel vision. If I looked at the relationship through one eye and squinted so that everything was sort of blurry, it would faintly resemble something that might give me what I needed.

Until I opened my eyes again.

I often say that the thing I miss the most about being in a relationship is having someone to share my day with. Someone to witness my life–even the mundane things. But recently, when I thought back on my previous relationships, I realized that I actually haven’t had someone to listen to me in a long time, even when I was in a relationship.

At the time I was angry with them for not wanting to listen, but after the relationship ended I was angry with myself for not seeing what was there–or not there–all along.

I so enjoyed reading old journal entries last month when I was feeling down that I’ve been writing every day since then. Not only does it help in the moment, but it provides my future self with ample entertainment.

At first journaling felt like a lame substitute for talking to another person. But now I look forward to it. It has become my favorite nighttime ritual. I keep a running tally throughout the day of the things I want to talk about, just like I did when I was in a relationship.

And there are lots of advantages to writing about my day rather than telling someone about it. Like:

If I want to talk about a dream where I ordered a burger at some diner and they wouldn’t let me add anything other than cheese because that would be too fancy, I can retell every insignificant detail of the dream without boring myself.

Or if I want to talk about every random association I had about this story I heard on the radio about this guy in China who jumped in the river on his wedding day when he saw his bride-to-be for the first time, I can do so without seeming obsessive. (Was he trying to kill himself? Did he still marry her after he got out of the water? Were his parents pissed off? That must have made the bride feel like crap.)

Or if I want to talk about how I cried in session yesterday because I felt my client’s pain, I can do so without worrying about violating confidentiality. And without judging myself for getting so emotional.

Or if I write about the exact same problem for the hundredth time, even though I’ve written about it for pages and pages, I can give myself permission to do so. For as many times and as many pages as I need to, until I no longer feel the need to talk about it.

And when I need to practice self-compassion without being judged or criticized, I can give myself permission to list every single thing that is hurting me in that moment and respond to myself by affirming that this is pain. This is suffering. And I am sorry that you are suffering.

And at some point in the future, when I have forgotten the details of each day, I will delight in rereading these entries–even the sad ones. Because they capture my experience in the moment so perfectly. Because they help me put my life in perspective. Because I’m interested in what that person has to say. She fascinates me. She reminds me a lot of myself.

So now I no longer worry about when I will meet someone who will take pleasure in hearing about all the mundane details of my life. Because I can give myself exactly what I need right now, in this moment.

Empathy vs. Compassion

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I figured that after an entire week of meditating on self-compassion I would be this transformed, kind, loving person to myself. But now I realize that what I learned was just the beginning of a practice that will take a lifetime. I guess that shouldn’t be surprising, but it’s hard to give up on the hope that something will be a quick fix. Especially if it involves pain and suffering.

I’ve written a lot of posts about how I struggle with having too much empathy. I feel other people’s pain as though it were my own–and in addition to my own. Sometimes that’s just too much pain to take, and I end up crashing and burning.

And then I beat myself up for not being able to handle my life. Because other people have spouses and children they have to care for and they still work and go to the grocery store and cook dinner. I, on the other hand, just fall asleep on the couch, tired and hungry, because it’s too much effort to go across the street and get food.

Or I’ll choose a relationship where the person is in pain and feel compelled to help them. And they won’t be able to help me, because when you’re in pain, you’re not really in a position to focus on anyone else. But then I’ll be like, why aren’t you helping me? This relationship sucks! And then we break up.

One of the things I learned in the meditation retreat is there is no such thing as compassion fatigue. There is empathy fatigue, which I described above, but compassion, like love, can expand to encompass all of the people we wish to send it to. In mathematical terms, the formula is:

compassion = empathy + love

I have always wondered why I felt the need to help people who I didn’t even really like. Who I had grown to hate, in some cases. It was tiring and confusing, so I would also berate myself for doing something so hurtful to myself. Which isn’t very compassionate.

Now, instead of exhausting myself from trying to get rid of the other person’s pain and then beating myself up for trying to do something that isn’t even possible, here are some things I can do:

1. I can say, that person is in pain. I will send them compassion.

2. I feel their pain, so I will send compassion to myself, too.

3. Actually, I think I need to focus exclusively on me, so I’m just going to keep sending myself compassion.

4. I feel selfish and guilty for not doing more, but I can have compassion for myself and accept that I have limited resources.

5. I’m mad at that person for asking me for more than what I’m able to give, but I can have compassion for my anger and honor my need to focus on my own well-being.

6. I’m mad at myself because even though I just said I was going to focus on me, I gave the person what they wanted, anyway. But I can have compassion for myself for being human and therefore imperfect.

And I have to say, so far it’s going pretty well. In this moment, at least. But that’s all I need to focus on.

Undeserving, Part 2

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There’s a scene in “Good Will Hunting” where Will and Skylar are in bed, basking in the glory of love, when Skylar asks Will to move to California with her. This scene ends in an argument in which Skylar asks Will to look her in the eye and tell her he doesn’t love her, and he does. Even though he obviously loves her.

People think that when we get the thing we want–the loving relationship, the great job, the coveted degree–we will be happy. But sometimes when we get what we want we get depressed, like I did after I got my Ph.D. Or we start a fight, like Will did. Or we sabotage our marriage, like my first husband did.

I’ve had several students in the past few weeks who became suicidal in the midst of good fortune. I explained to them that sometimes we have to bargain with that part of ourselves that tells us we are not worthwhile. If you just let me have this one good thing, I promise I will pay for it by making myself suffer. I still won’t let myself believe I deserve it. Which they totally understood.

After having this conversation several times on Friday, I finally understood that this is what ended my first marriage. Everyone told me he thought he didn’t deserve me, which I sort of understood on an intellectual level, since he called himself a poor, half-breed bastard. But I never really believed it, because I thought he was the best guy I had ever known. And I still think that.

And I realized intellectually that he tried to end our marriage a month after we finally got the house of his dreams, and we were finally making money, and our lives were finally stable. But it still didn’t make sense in my heart, because even after we signed the divorce papers, he told me it was the saddest day of his life. Which was consistent with what he said on our wedding day, which he said was the happiest day of his life.

But on Friday, I finally understood how he felt. He didn’t deserve to have all of these good things happen to him. He felt like my clients did, who became suicidal when they were about to get what they wanted. Except instead of killing himself, he destroyed our marriage. And it hurt my heart to feel how worthless he felt. I could finally feel his sadness instead of my own.

When I explained the bargain we make with our inner demons to one of these clients, he commented on how overwhelming it was to believe he thought he was that bad. But I reminded him that there is also a part of him that knows he is good. Which is why he is in therapy. Why he is alive today.

This is also why, at the end of the movie, Will decides to move to California with Skylar. Because even though some part of ourselves may tell us we are undeserving, we can ignore that part and choose to love ourselves, anyway.

Learning to Listen to My Inner Bodyguard

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Did you know that the word intuition means to guard or protect? I just learned that in The Gift of Fear, by Gavin De Becker. If you haven’t read it, I strongly recommend that you do. Thanks to De Becker, I can no longer be in denial about my disregard for personal safety.

De Becker says that intuition is always in response to something. That doesn’t mean that we will always make the correct prediction, but we owe it to ourselves to explore what that something is rather than trying to explain away or dismiss our fear.

I’m trying to pay closer attention whenever I get anxious. I’m trying to honor my fear. But I’m having trouble figuring out what my anxiety means because I am never sure what is intuition-based fear and what is pathologically-based fear, since I have an anxiety disorder.

In my relationships, not hearing from the guy felt like life or death. I always thought it meant I was just really insecure. And sometimes that’s what it was. But sometimes it was because that’s how the guy felt about me. And because of the whole hyperempath thing, I couldn’t tell the difference between his fear of separation and my own.

Or sometimes it meant they were up to no good. But there’s always that doubt. Maybe I’m just being paranoid. And it’s not the kind of thing that is easy to confirm. It’s not like they’re going to admit that they’re doing something that would piss me off when they’re not around. But in retrospect, they usually were.

I also have a hard time saying no to any request. De Becker says that you should be wary of the stranger who ignores the word no. A guy who isn’t trying to hurt you would totally understand why you would not let a complete stranger into your house to use your phone.

And yet, back when I was in grad school and the UPS guy asked me if he could use my phone, I said yes. I wanted to say no, but it seemed rude. Maybe he would be offended. Luckily, nothing bad happened. But it’s still hard to forgive myself for putting myself at risk like that. And it’s hard to imagine how I will be able to overcome this deeply ingrained impulse to give people what they want.

It’s hard to trust my instincts because I want to believe that other people are trustworthy. I don’t want to live in a world where I have to be worrying all the time that people may be trying to hurt me. Although De Becker provides some pretty convincing stats for why I should be worried.

In another blog post, I talked about how I am trying to say yes to what I want and no to what I don’t want. Maybe I need to do the same thing with trust. If I have to choose between trusting my instincts and trusting another person, I need to choose me.

I need to let my intuition do its job.

In This Moment

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I’ve always been reluctant to tell people what kind of music I like, because it’s pretty mainstream. In fact, I’ll make that #11 on my list–my preference for Top 40. Some of my friends have criticized me for what they consider my poor taste in music: it’s so unoriginal. So superficial.

And it’s true that the lyrics usually aren’t profound, but sometimes they still touch upon universal feelings. That’s why even the sappiest of love songs can be appealing when you have a broken heart.

Yesterday on my drive home the song “Daylight,” by Maroon 5, came on the radio. Every time I hear this song I think of one of the long distance relationships I was in during high school. My boyfriend went to college 5 hours away, so we didn’t see each other often. And when we did see each other, I was so anxious by Saturday about him leaving on Sunday that I couldn’t enjoy our time together. No amount of reasoning could stop me from obsessing.

That’s what happens when you have an anxiety disorder. The things that other people find difficult, like saying good-bye, are intolerable. Adam Levine can still hold her close for one night, even if he’ll have to go in the daylight. I, on the other hand, would obsess about how sad I was going to be when that moment came and would end up ruining the whole evening.

Despite the intensity of my negative feelings, I have often chosen relationships that have been characterized by a high level of drama. Which doesn’t make any sense, I know. You would think that I wanted to be miserable. But love is like a drug–especially in the early stages–what with all the obsession and longing and all. Even though the cons outweigh the pros, you get addicted, anyway, because it’s not a rational process.

My relationships were like an addiction in that I craved connection, but no amount of contact was ever enough. And I would experience withdrawal during even the smallest periods of separation, yet I still preferred long-distance relationships.

That’s why I’m proud of myself for not being in a relationship. I’m learning how to tolerate my fear of being alone. And I’m learning how to live without the addiction of drama. And my behavior doesn’t seem as crazy and contradictory–in relationships, at least.

Other things have helped with my anxiety, too. I resisted meds for a long time, even though people begged me to take them for their sake, if not for mine. But I have to admit, even though I don’t like taking them, they make my anxiety bearable.

I also have a therapist who I can call when I’m freaking out. I meditate, which has helped me tolerate my feelings. And I practice mindfulness as often as possible.

One of my favorite mindfulness mantras is any sentence that begins with “in this moment.” In this moment, I am anxious. It’s hard to breathe. I am in pain. But in the next moment, I will feel differently.

And I always do.

Life is Not a Test

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Once when I was at Wal-Mart I came across this Filipino cashier. She was excited to see me because there aren’t a lot of Filipinos where I live. So instead of speedily checking me out with as few words as possible, she asked me a bunch of personal questions. Which was a little awkward and probably annoyed the people behind me. But I still tried to answer all of her questions to the best of my ability.

Are you married? Dating someone? Do you have kids? A pet? She became more distraught with every “no” answer. I tried to make light of the situation. I have some plants, and I’m barely keeping them alive. That’s enough of a challenge for me. (Which is true, by the way. I don’t get much light in my place.) She didn’t seem reassured.

After I left Wal-Mart, I sat in the car for a few minutes, trying to think of how I could turn this blow to my ego into a blog post. I couldn’t think of anything at the time. It still hit too close to home.

In my defense, I tried to get the answers right. I got married. I tried to have kids. It’s not completely my fault that my marriages didn’t work out. And it’s definitely not my fault that I didn’t get pregnant. And I didn’t know I was supposed to get a pet if I’m alone. That was not in the study guide.

But to be honest, this is where I want to be. When I was in high school, I said I didn’t want to get married or have kids, but no one believed me. You’re just saying that. You’ll change your mind when you get older. You don’t want to be an old maid, do you?

I took their word for it and did what I was supposed to do. But maybe things haven’t worked out because I did know what I wanted back then, even though I was just a kid. I mean, I knew I wanted to be a psychologist and a writer back then, and those things are still true.

Since the Wal-Mart incident, I’ve gotten better at embracing the fact that the answers to my life make small talk awkward. I tell myself it’s OK. That life is not a test where there are right or wrong answers. So in the spirit of embracing who I am, here are 10 things that I’m taking off my wrong answer list:

1. I still love the song “Let it Go.”

2. I’m not a cat or a dog person. Or an animal person.

3. I bring my karaoke machine to potlucks instead of cooking something.

4. I don’t drink.

5. I count when I pee.

6. I don’t follow most of the advice on how to get your blog noticed.

7. I live my life more like a college student than an adult.

8. I’ve had two divorces.

9. I use an astounding amount of sweetener in my coffee.

10. I don’t change my sheets often enough.

If you have items you’d like to take off your wrong list, I’d love to hear them. It would help me feel more normal.