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Category Archives: Self-Acceptance

What I’ve Learned From Being Single

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About 4 and a half years ago, I wrote one of the most personal, painful posts about why I was choosing to be single called Solitude. I decided to be alone after dating almost non-stop since I was 15 because I was beginning to lose respect for myself. I knew I was running away from something that I needed to face, and it made me feel weak, pathetic. I had settled for unsatisfying and sometimes downright traumatic relationships because I thought anything was better than being alone. Four and a half years ago I finally decided that I would be alone or die trying, because the alternative was to hate myself. And it seemed hypocritical to write a blog about self-acceptance if you hated yourself.

And, as you know if you’ve been reading my blog since then, sometimes it’s been rough. I would often lie on the couch or in bed in a half-asleep, half-starved state because I was too tired to get food but too hungry to sleep. And when I did eat, it would be random stuff like peanut butter crackers because that’s all I had in the house.

I worried a lot about what would happen if I got hurt or died and no one found me for days. So I played tennis almost every day to make sure people saw me. And I told my friends to take it seriously if I posted something on FB that said I had fallen and I couldn’t get up.

I didn’t have anyone to talk to about my day, so I wrote in my journal a lot. But that ended up being a great thing. It really helped me to develop my writing. And I thought I was hilarious and loved re-reading old entries. And I was a much better listener than any of the people I had been with, so I allowed myself to go into as much obsessive detail as I wanted to, and to write about the same thing over and over again, without worrying about boring my future self.

Another reason why I stayed single was because I thought I was a terrible person in relationships. I was jealous and controlling. I was rigid, judgmental, and demanding. I was selfish, and nothing the other person did was ever enough. I figured those patterns were so deeply ingrained that there was no way I could forge new neuronal pathways in my brain. There wasn’t enough time. I was already in my mid 40’s.

Now I realize that a lot of those things that I thought were true about me were not me at all. They were thoughts, feelings, and fears that belonged to other people that I had assumed were my own. In psychodynamic theory, this is called projective identification. You unconsciously take on things the other person finds unacceptable to admit about themselves. Things like being jealous, or selfish, or demanding.

There was no way I could have known that these patterns were not as deeply ingrained as I had thought without being by myself. In fact, I am so different from the person I was before my solitude experiment that it’s a little shocking. People tell me that I’m unselfish. Not jealous at all. That I don’t ask for anything. Sometimes I look around and think, are you talking to me? Because that doesn’t sound like me at all.

I think my solitude has been something along the lines of a 4 year meditation retreat. (Not a silent one, obviously.) I’ve spent a lot of time practicing self-acceptance, mindfulness, and self-compassion as ways to face my fear of being alone. And just like everything else, the fear itself was far scarier than the actual experience of being alone.

I have found that the hardest thing to do is to be honest about the things we are ashamed of. We do all kinds of things to avoid really seeing ourselves. Drink. Shop. Binge watch shows on Netflix. Date. Blame other people. Whatever your go-to strategy is, my advice to you is to be still, let things settle, and see what’s there. It won’t be as scary as you think. And the benefits are far greater than you can imagine.

Nothing Compares 2 U

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Want to feel better about yourself? Here is a piece of advice that doesn’t require money, self-help books, therapy, dieting, exercise, or youth-enhancing products. Stop comparing yourself. To others, to your former self, to your ideal self. There’s nothing about comparison that will ever make you feel better. Even when you win, you lose.

In my post on What Compassion is Not, I talk about how comparison is not compassionate. Have you ever tried to cheer yourself or someone else up by telling them that there are people who are suffering worse than you? People in war-torn countries? People who are poor, hungry, and sick? Sure you have. This is one of our go-to strategies for making people feel better. But did it?

I know I have used this strategy, and it always makes me feel like crap. And when I’m depressed, it makes me feel even more depressed and worthless. Because what’s my problem? I don’t even have a good reason to be depressed. Yet here I am, unable to function like a normal human being.

Or have you ever felt good about yourself because of an accomplishment–lost a little weight, got a raise, did a good deed–only to find out that someone else has done the same thing, only better? How quickly self-praise turned into self-criticism? Maybe if I had the discipline that she does, I could have lost more weight. Why didn’t I stay after work more often, like my colleagues? I must be selfish for not giving more.

Or how about berating yourself because you are not like your former self? I used to be in better shape! I used to be able to play 3 and a half hour singles matches in 90+ degree heat! Now I feel like I’m going to pass out in the heat while playing doubles if I have to hit more than 3 shots. And throw up after long rallies. I’m old! My body is falling apart! This sucks!

(Although to be honest, I don’t miss singles at all. I just didn’t know any better back then.)

Perhaps the worst comparison of all is failing to live up to the version of yourself that you think you should be. That put-together, in control, polished, successful part of yourself that is always telling you that you suck. What I usually call the Inner Critic, but it can go by different names.

Sometimes in therapy I ask clients to personify this ideal self. And then I ask them how they feel about this “person.” They don’t like them. They’re mean and judgmental. They’re a little afraid of her. They wouldn’t want him as a friend. Isn’t that ironic, that the “perfect” version of ourselves that we so desperately want to be isn’t even someone that we like?

Let’s say that occasionally you’re fortunate enough to hit your target goal. You got straight A’s. Make a six-figure salary. Lost 20 lbs. You’re feeling a bit superior to all of those less-fortunate scrubs who don’t have what it takes to do what you have just done. Even in these cases, enjoyment is fleeting. Because even if you don’t meet someone who has done a better job–even if you “won”–you have to stay on top. You can’t slow down now. So you can never relax and just feel good about being you.

Given our comparison-obsessed culture, what are we supposed to aim for, exactly, if we aren’t trying to be better than someone else? It’s hard to come up with something that isn’t about trying to be better. We don’t even have the vocabulary for it.

I’ve written about my struggles with trying to figure out what I’m supposed to do if I’m not trying to be good. Because being good is a kind of comparison. Most of the time we end up measuring how much better we are than other people (e.g., it’s not that he’s a terrible person; he’s just worse than I am).

So now, rather than trying to focus on being good, I try to focus on being loving–to myself and to others. I try to practice compassion. One of the advantages of practicing compassion is that it’s inherently nonjudgmental, non-evaluative. You can’t do a good or bad job. You can’t succeed or fail at it. You can’t get an A in compassion. (Because if you could, I’d totally try.) You just practice and accept whatever happens.

It’s hard to give up comparisons completely, so I will end by saying that, of all the strategies that I’ve tried to make myself feel better, compassion is the clear winner.

Be Brave

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I once saw a news story where this guy jumped into the river to save a drowning person. When asked how he was able to be so brave, he said he didn’t really think about it. He just did it. While this is an amazing thing to do, I wouldn’t necessarily call it an act of courage, because he wasn’t afraid. There isn’t really anything courageous in doing something that doesn’t scare you. What’s the risk in that?

I asked readers to share the bravest thing they’ve ever done. A lot of them had to do with taking risks like starting a business, joining the army, going back to school. Most people play it safe–stay in the career or relationship or neighborhood that isn’t fulfilling because of the fear that whatever they choose could be worse. Not many things are scarier than the unknown.

Some people said the bravest thing they’ve ever done was to embrace a painful life experience. Going through childbirth alone, without drugs. Facing a diagnosis of a brain tumor. Watching a loved one die. I had not expected this, but I guess it’s true that life will inevitably throw experiences our way that require us to be brave. No one gets through unscathed.

I would say the bravest thing I’ve ever done was to be single. I had been in a relationship nonstop from 15 to 45, and when I knew that one relationship was about to end, I would start another one so that there was no period of time when I was alone. I was ashamed of this, but I was more afraid of being by myself. And I stayed in a lot of unsatisfying relationships because of this fear. So for me, being single for 4 years was pretty courageous.

In my search to discover how to be a good person, the answer I found was unexpected. To be a good person, to be loving, we must be self-aware. We have to look inward and be with all of those things about ourselves that we try so hard not to face. Our flaws. Our mistakes. Our secrets. We have to accept them, forgive ourselves for them, and understand that this, too, is what it means to be human.

Those who do so can be loving because they know that we are all the same. We all have flaws. We’ve all made mistakes. We all harbor secrets. So who am I to say that I am better than anyone else? We’re all traveling the same road, doing the best that we can. We are all deserving of compassion.

I would say that this is the most difficult kind of bravery of all–to face what is inside us. This is the reason that people come to therapy–and why everyone can benefit from therapy. We aren’t taught how to face our demons. We are told to suck it up, push through, instead. And in the midst of a crisis, that is an important skill to have. But in the aftermath, we have to take time to make sense of what we’ve experienced. That’s when we need to spend some time looking within.

In teaching clients how to practice mindfulness, I tell them that they are learning how to feel their feelings but not respond reflexively to them. Just because we’re anxious doesn’t mean we have to avoid flying. We can still book the flight. We can be afraid but do it, anyway. We can be brave.

What will your next act of courage be?

I’m So Tired I Could Cry

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Have you ever felt so tired you could cry? No? Apparently it’s just me. I am the only person I know who still feels like a toddler.

I used to wonder why toddlers cry when they’re tired. And when they don’t want to sleep. And when they wake up. What are the thinking and feeling? I asked a parent once, and they were just like, I don’t know. He always does that. And this is perfectly acceptable behavior. Yet if I were to cry upon awakening and sulk and be out of it for a period of time afterwards, this behavior would be frowned upon. That’s totally unfair.

I have an advantage over toddlers in that they do not have the cognitive development and verbal skills to articulate what they’re thinking and feeling, but I do. So it’s almost like I can read a toddler’s mind. If I had to describe how I feel in that moment, it’s something like, this sucks that I’m struggling to stay up but I still have to stay at work, drive 45 minutes to get home, go to the grocery store, cook dinner, do the dishes, and get ready for bed before I can sleep! I could seriously fall asleep right now!

OK maybe that’s not anything like what toddlers think. But I still feel their pain.

When I feel like crying when I wake up, it’s more like, that wasn’t enough sleep! I don’t want to get up and do a bunch of chores! I’m hungry! I’m anxious! I have to pee! I’m just going to lie here and sulk for a while as a small act of rebellion against adulthood.

This is probably not normal, either.

I fight sleep like a toddler, too. It’s not even conscious. I’ll feel myself drifting off into a dream state and I’ll do something like roll over and wake myself back up again. Maybe it’s because I have to will on a hypomanic episode just to get ready for bed because it takes about an hour. But then once I’m done my brain is still all hyped up and I can’t turn it off. So then I can’t fall asleep and have to take extra Ativan. So then I wake up tired the next morning, and I feel like I want to cry. And the cycle repeats.

These are the kinds of things that make me feel like I’m not handling adulthood well.

But perhaps there are advantages to being in touch with my inner toddler. Maybe it’s a gift to able to access every version of myself from infancy to the present. Maybe it helps me to be more self-aware, to know myself better. Maybe that’s why I’m able to empathize with people so well. Maybe it helps me to be a better therapist.

Or maybe I’m just making all this up and I’m really just crazy.

That’s OK, too. Maybe there is no such thing as normal. Maybe that’s just some idealized version of ourselves that we can never live up to. Maybe it wouldn’t even be a good thing if we could live up to it. Maybe we are all just different degrees of craziness, and on that continuum, I’m probably average. More than just a little crazy, but functioning well enough to write this blog post without crying.

Adult toddler

Words of Wisdom

Be You

I’ve been playing a game with some friends where we alternate asking a question to get to know the other person–and ourselves–better. One of my favorites was: what advice would you give to your 16 year old self? My answer was not to date someone just because you’re afraid of being alone, because that habit gets harder to break with age.

I enjoyed hearing people’s answers so much that I decided to ask the same question to followers on my Facebook page and to share their answers on my blog so that we may all benefit from other people’s wisdom. Many of the answers were similar, so I’ve grouped them into categories and have given some of the actual responses.

  1. Be yourself.
    • Find acceptance within yourself first. Don’t look for acceptance from anyone but you.
    • Don’t believe all you hear about what others think, they may be jealous of what you have accomplished.
    • My 16 year old self would just need to be told that she is loved! That’s ALL! The rest will come.
  2. Be mindful.
    • Slow down!!!! I was in such a rush to be “grown”! Now I miss having just One Day where I don’t have to be an adult!
    • Life is a marathon…not a sprint…be patient and stay focused…the best is yet to come..
    • Enjoy every moment…don’t wish time away!
  3. Be kind.
    •  Kindness is magical; it is a real superpower that saves the world one little life at a time.
    • Love much and forgive often.
    • Whether you are struggling or at your very best, turn around and lend a hand to someone behind you.
  4. Be discerning.
    •  Wait a while longer for intimacy; it’s still too early and a decent guy will understand that.
    • You can’t make someone love you if they don’t.
    • Be careful who you choose as friends… not everyone is your friend.
    • You aren’t going to be an old maid….no really, trust me. Don’t cruise in cars with strangers, as the world isn’t a safe place.
    • Don’t believe any boy when he says “I love you”!
  5. Be open to advice.
    • Listen to the people who truly love you…they know life and will never steer you on a wrong path!
    • Listen to advice from your elders or parents but at the same time search for what is best for yourself.
    • You are not the best driver in the world, the ink isn’t even dry yet.
  6. Be prepared.
    • Study harder, do better in school, it only happens once!
    • Wear clean underwear in case you are in an accident.
    •  Invest in Google, Samsung, Apple, Microsoft, etc. And I’d give myself a list of the winners of every Superbowl, and World Series for 20 years.
  7. Be brave.
    • Take chances- you may not ever get the opportunity again.
    • Don’t be so self conscious! Go for it!!
    • Take setbacks with a grain of salt. Things happen for a reason.
    • Don’t be afraid to go to prom alone.

Thanks to all of the readers who offered advice! If you’re reading this post and your words of wisdom are not represented above, feel free to include yours in the comments section.

Don’t Believe Everything You Think

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Recently I read about a study on self-cyberbullying. I didn’t even know that was a thing. But apparently 1 in 20 teens have anonymously posted mean comments about themselves online. What the?!

As for the reasons why, boys were more likely to say they were just trying to get attention. Girls were more likely to say that they were depressed or psychologically hurt. My guess is that some of the boys may have also been depressed or hurting, but it’s not cool for guys to admit this.

In a way, I guess it’s not that surprising, given the thoughts that go through our heads all day long. Maybe most of us don’t say them out loud or post them online, but they are often as cruel as the things that trolls post to upset people.

I’ve talked about some of the things that go through my head. Stuff like, no one gives a crap about you. Because I’m on to my inner bully, now, it tries to trick me by making it seem like a compassionate statement at first. It’s OK. No one has to care. Even though lots of people care.

In therapy I encourage clients to practice mindfulness by noticing these unkind thoughts and to question their validity. They are so automatic, so ubiquitous, that we think we are our thoughts, when in reality, our brains generate all kinds of statements that aren’t true. I am a terrible person. The world would be better off without me.

Then I tell them to practice self-compassion by replacing that thought with something kind. It’s going to be OK. You’re doing the best that you can. Or if nothing else, to at least replace it with something neutral. Right now I’m in pain, but at some point, I will feel better.

I’ve found a couple of new strategies that work for me. A few months ago I wrote a post about my exercise in accepting love, and that works well. I can actually feel it–the unique sensation of love from each person in my life, as well as the love that people send out into the universe when they practice loving-kindness.

It’s an amazing feeling, but also a little overwhelming–like a wave that comes out of nowhere–and I lose my balance. I brace myself against it, in the same way I brace myself against something painful. And then I have to tell myself that it’s OK. I can let myself feel it. I can let myself be loved.

The other thing I have done is turn on all of the notifications on my phone. I used to find it annoying to have stuff pop up on my screen all the time. But this is when my inner bully is most likely to tell me that there won’t be a message on my phone because no one gives a crap about me.

Granted, most of the notifications are not messages sent by all of the people who love me. Sometimes they are from TJ Maxx, telling me that I haven’t bought the things I left in my cart and I better hurry because there are only a few more items left in stock. But seeing something on there, regardless of the content, is enough to confuse that voice and silence it in the moment.

So take that, troll! I win!

Like a Garden

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Lately I’ve been reading a lot of old journals. I’ve been writing since I was in 7th grade, believe it or not. I haven’t found those particular journals, but based on the ones from 8th grade, I’m guessing they’re not very interesting. Because in the ones from 8th grade, 95% of the entries were about Rick Springfield. Stuff like, “Don’t Talk to Strangers” came on the radio 10 times! I can’t wait to see him perform on Solid Gold on Saturday! I just bought the latest Teen Beat magazine and he’s on the cover!

In my defense, back then you couldn’t hear or see whatever song or video you wanted instantaneously like you can now. If you were really determined, you could call the radio station and request the song. And if you wanted to record it, you had to sit in front of the speaker of your stereo with your finger on the record button, waiting for “Don’t Talk to Strangers” to come on because the DJ said he was playing it next, and hope that he doesn’t talk over it at the beginning or end. And hope that your brothers don’t come into the room fighting or playing or whatever. So it was a bigger deal to hear the song you wanted back then.

But still. It doesn’t make for very interesting reading.

But in between the Rick Springfield stuff, there were glimpses of deep and meaningful things. It has been enlightening to see how I dealt with relationships back then. How I could never be convinced that someone liked me, despite the copious amount of evidence that they did. How little it took for me to believe that someone hated me. How not having contact with a friend for a day would be enough to make me believe I had lost them. My sense of self was so fragile. It’s as though I believed I ceased to exist without constant affirmation.

The sad thing is, that’s still true. All of the things I’ve written about in my blog about how demons are always telling me that no one cares about me, that I’m not important–it’s the exact same thing. I can at least say that I am more self-aware. I understand, at least intellectually, that people’s love for me endures, even when I haven’t heard from them in a day. I understand why it’s hard for me to believe this. I am aware of the ways I have manipulated other people because of this fear. It is the reason why I’m afraid to be in a relationship now–I don’t trust that I have changed. I don’t know if I can be less controlling.

Seeing that I am still essentially my 13-year-old self with more introspection makes me have a better appreciation of the garden metaphor of life. The essence of who we are never changes. Whatever was planted is what will grow there, no matter what I do. But I can do nothing, and nothing will grow at all but weeds. Or I can water, fertilize, prune, and protect, and the best version of what I am can grow. But at any point I can stop caring for myself, and all the work that I’ve done can be lost. Everything can die. Weeds can reappear. It’s a lifetime thing, tending to your garden.

I realize that gardening is how you cultivate wisdom. If you don’t garden, you can go through life and have no more understanding of yourself than you did at 13. You can cease to grow psychologically. You can be in a perpetual state of adolescent angst, wanting to be loved, but going about it in all the wrong ways. The extent of your internal world can be listing the number of times you heard “Don’t Talk to Strangers” on the radio, without ever going any deeper.

So even though I continue to battle the demons that tell me that I am not loved and am not worthwhile, just as I did back then, I am still a more cultivated version of myself. Always a work in progress, but also a beautiful landscape to behold in this moment.