RSS Feed

Category Archives: Relationships

Empathy vs. Compassion

self-compassion

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

cd74f09dd7b4a7be6a65c11106701757

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

IMG_0579

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

touchn2btouched.tumblr.com

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

Image-1

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.

Learning to Put Myself First

1000speak

It seems that for some people the idea of compassion entails a complete disregard for or even a sacrifice of their own interests. This is not the case. In fact, you first of all have to have a wish to be happy yourself – if you don’t love yourself like that, how can you love others? – Dalai Lama

***

Last Sunday a friend of mine was talking about how her priest was retiring because of compassion fatigue. That witnessing the suffering of his parishioners all those years had depleted him, and he had nothing left to give.

In the post What Compassion is Not, I talked about the misconceptions that lead some people to believe that compassion enables people to be lazy, unproductive members of society. But there are also misconceptions about compassion that can lead to burnout. Here are some of the ones I’ve written about in my blog.

1. Date your enemies. When Jesus said to love your enemies, I took this a bit too far. Yes, I do try to put myself in the other person’s shoes. To recognize that we are all capable of good and evil. But I also thought it meant that if I didn’t want to date someone because of race, SES, mental illness, red flags, etc., then I was judging them, and judgment is bad. So I should try to overcome my prejudice and go out with the person, anyway.

This has lead to disastrous consequences in my personal life. It would have been kinder to both of us if I had just acknowledged that we were not compatible from the start.

2. Love your neighbor more than yourself. I know that the quote is actually to love your neighbor as yourself, but somewhere along the line, I came to believe that my needs were less important than others. If I could help someone, I should, whether it hurts me or not.

Blogging has been the best reminder to put my needs first. Since I’m always preaching self-care, it would be hypocritical not to take care of myself. Plus, since I have made blogging a priority, before I take on a new task, I ask myself how many blog posts it will cost me. And even if it costs me one post, I won’t do it.

3. Practice compassion perfectly. Technically, evaluation should not be a part of compassion at all, but tell that to my Inner Critic.

In my last relationship, I hated the guy for a year after we broke up, and I felt terrible about this. Despite my best efforts, I could not make myself let go of my anger. But when you are practicing compassion, you must have compassion for yourself first. So I would tell myself that this is where I am at the moment. Not yet ready to let go of my anger toward this person who hurt me. And that’s OK. When I’m ready, it will happen.

And it did.

If you are interested in learning more about how to practice compassion, I recommend Jack Kornfield’s compassion meditation. It is one of my favorites.

Why I Don’t Hate Valentine’s Day

This is the second year in a row that I will be spending Valentine’s Day alone. Well, I’ll be playing in a tennis tournament, so I won’t really be alone. But I probably won’t be getting any chocolates or flowers or anything. And if I do, that actually might be a little creepy.

Still, unlike many single people, I do not hate Valentine’s Day. I sat home alone last year and knitted and watched the Olympics, and that was fine. It wasn’t any worse than being alone on any other holiday.

To defend my pro-Valentine’s Day position, I thought I’d provide rebuttals to the most common anti-Valentine’s Day sentiments.

1. All holidays are made up. The most common objection to Valentine’s Day that I hear is that it is a conspiracy in which Hallmark, FTD, and Russell Stover Candies all got together and made up this day so they can sell more products. But the thing is, all holidays are made up. Think of Labor Day, Memorial Day, and Veteran’s Day. We made those up, too, and nobody is complaining about it.

2. There are lots of consumer-driven holidays. But, you may argue to my response to #1, all of those holidays are not fueled by consumerism. Which isn’t true, either. I’ve seen lots of car commercials offering great deals for Presidents Day, and cars don’t have anything to do with Washington or Lincoln’s birthday.

Plus, have you ever heard of Black Friday? Which now starts on Thursday? The holiday on which people are supposed to spend time with their family eating turkey and pumpkin pie and watching the first Christmas special? Nobody throws anti-Black Friday parties that actually start on Thursday in protest of this consumer-driven conspiracy.

3. Chocolate. Most of the holidays that we don’t get a day off for at least allow us to indulge in something. Green beer on St. Patricks Day. Candy on Halloween. And chocolate on Valentine’s Day. Who could be against a day that celebrates chocolate? And if you’re single, you can go to the grocery store around 10 pm and buy chocolate at 50% off. And it tastes exactly the same.

4. Singlehood is nothing to be ashamed ofIn my opinion, living in a culture that makes people feel bad about being single is much worse than being alone on Valentine’s Day. I avoided being single for the first 45 years of my life, but I have to tell you, trying to pick out a Valentine’s Day gift for someone you don’t love is way worse than spending the day enjoying your own company.

5. I have people who love me. Being single does not mean that you are not loved. As I indicated in my post from last year, the best gifts I’ve ever gotten on Valentine’s Day were from my dad and my baby brother. So even though I am not in a romantic relationship, I know I am loved. I have always been loved, and I have faith that I will always be loved. And it’s nice to have a day that reminds me of this.

robynola.com

robynola.com

Indispensable

Indispensable

My therapist once told me that I try to be everything to my partner–even things that he didn’t know he needs. This was not a conscious strategy. Why in the world would I want to do something so unrealistic?

After I thought about it, I realized that I want to be indispensable so that if the person needs something, I can say, don’t go anywhere! I can fix that! That way he can’t leave me.

This is a pretty common strategy for helpers–professionals and nonprofessionals. Everyone comes to us when they have a problem. We are such good listeners. We give fantastic advice. What would they do without us?

Although being indispensable gives the illusion of safety, in reality, it has not actually prevented people from leaving me. And it has not protected me from heartbreak.

Plus there are other drawbacks. It is impossible to be all things to all people, so I can never succeed. Which increases the likelihood that I will feel like a failure.

And even when someone thinks I am everything he needs, it becomes a burden because then I have to try to convince myself that I love him.

But then when I can’t convince myself, I still can’t leave him, since I tried to be indispensable so he wouldn’t leave me. That would be unfair.

So then I just start another relationship and let the new person’s needs pull me away from my existing relationship. Which is way worse than just breaking up with the person to begin with.

Or if he breaks up with me, I’m all devastated at first, but then I realize I actually didn’t like him all that much. Which makes me feel crazy for having invested so much energy into the relationship.

The biggest problem with trying to be indispensable is that, until recently, I never asked myself what I need in a relationship. This is proving to be a difficult question to answer because, as I indicated in a previous post, I don’t know how to distinguish my wants from my needs.

Usually the guy, my family, and my friends would tell me that I’m being unreasonable. So then I would try to convince myself I don’t really need what I think I need. But that doesn’t seem fair to me.

This is exactly why I am not looking for someone to date. Too many decisions that don’t make any sense.

However, I now realize that I can choose to give myself what I need. I can even choose to give myself what I want.

So now I don’t have to worry about someone else telling me I’m unreasonable. I don’t have to be afraid of being alone. Or force myself to try to love someone. Or try be indispensable so that I won’t be abandoned. In theory, at least.

So for now, that’s what I’m working on. Reminding myself that I am indispensable–to me.

200 Posts!

Image-1

You know what I love about blogging? Unlike birthdays and New Years, I feel different as I reach each landmark. In honor of my 200th post, I thought I would take this opportunity to reflect on what I’ve learned up to this point. Here are the highlights:

1. Vulnerability works. I started this blog in part as an experiment to see if sharing our vulnerabilities really makes people feel more connected to one another. The answer is an emphatic yes. Every time I read posts warning of trollers whose purpose is to write mean comments on your blog, I brace myself for the cruelty. But perhaps it’s harder to be cruel to someone who has already shared their weaknesses with you.

Perhaps there is less of a need to tear someone down when you know they feel just as flawed as you do.

2. Compassion works. You’re not supposed to judge how well you are practicing compassion, so I will just say that at this point, criticism is still my default. However, the more I practice, the more amazed I am at how powerful it is. MLK day was last Monday, and I think about how someone tried to strike down the message of peace and love. But that has only multiplied exponentially the power of Martin Luther King’s message.

Hate might be easier, but love is stronger than hate, so it is well worth the practice.

3. Prayer works. Every time I pray, I throw in a caveat that I totally understand if my prayer isn’t answered, given how trivial my concerns are in the grand scheme of things. And every time, I am surprised that God cares about my problems, big and small. I hate to admit it, but when I’ve heard people say that in the past, I looked down on them. But now I know it’s true. I guess if my parents care about my problems, why wouldn’t God?

It’s good to be reminded that my suffering is never trivial.

4. I love being alone. I have always been one of those people who had to be in a relationship, even if it was a crappy one. Of all my faults and failings, this is the one I have been the most ashamed of. But it turns out that I am happier when I am not in one. I admit, the first year was hard. I imagine it’s sort of how it feels to go through detox. Which gives me a better appreciation of how hard it is to overcome an addiction.

But now that I am “clean,” I have never felt better.

5. I am a writer! Perhaps the biggest philosophical question in the blogosphere is when you can call yourself writer. When you are published? When you receive your first paycheck? When you have declared yourself a writer? For me, it was when I discovered that many writers are night owls. They are always in their heads. They are plagued by demons that tell them that their writing sucks. They write even when they don’t get paid or published. Even when they find out that fame and fortune are unlikely.

I’m not even sure if I care about publishing a book anymore. Or about trying to make my blog popular. I like the freedom of writing about what I want when I want. I write because the joy is in the act of writing itself.

The Dating Interview

This weekend a friend of mine was joking about how she was going to interview any potential dating prospects from now on. Presumably because my judgment has been so poor in this department.

I thought that was hilarious. I asked her what kinds of questions she would ask. She said they would probably be scenarios like, if a terrorist had Christy in one arm and your mom in the other and had a gun to both of their heads, who would you save?

I personally don’t think this particular question should be included in the interview. Even if I were open to the possibility of dating, I do not want to be in a relationship that is so serious that the guy has to pick between me and his mother. But I did think it was funny.

And I like the idea of coming up with some test. I used to teach, so I haven’t made up an exam in a long time. So I’ve been thinking about some potential questions, and here’s what I’ve come up with so far.

First of all, there are 3 people who are automatically approved without an interview:

1. Roger Federer

2. Tony Bennett (UVA head coach–not the 80+ year old singer)

3. Grigor Dimitrov (up and coming tennis player who is really cute and plays just like Federer. His nick name used to be Baby Fed but his coach won’t let people call him that anymore.)

But the first 2 are married and the 3rd is dating Maria Sharapova, so the odds are not in my favor.

And there are some people who are automatically excluded from the dating pool:

1. smokers

2. anyone who roots for Va Tech over UVA

Beyond that, I’ve come up with a few multiple choice questions:

1. What are your views on mental illness?

     a.  I don’t think it exists.

     b. I think people just use it as an excuse to avoid responsibility.

     c. I think you just have to suck it up.

     d. None of the above.

2. How do you deal with conflict?

     a. I avoid the issue for as long as possible until it blows up in my face.

     b. I yell at the other person and make them think it’s their fault.

     c. I shut down and give them the silent treatment.

     d. I prefer to address problems head on.

3. How often do you communicate with your partner during the day?

     a. I don’t.

     b. I occasionally respond to texts.

     c. I will send a text asking how she’s doing and then ignore her response.

     d. I like to touch base throughout the day.

4. What is your philosophy on lying?

     a. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with a little white lie.

     b. I am all for it.

     c. Does a lie of omission count?

     d. I think honesty in a relationship is necessary to build trust.

The correct answer is always D. Is that too obvious?

That’s all I’ve come up with so far, but I’m open to suggestions. In the mean time, I think I’ll just enjoy being single.

IMG_0524