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Category Archives: Self-Acceptance

A History of Trauma

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There were 3 mass shootings last week. Three. Last week. Although there is only talk about 2 of them, because I guess not enough people got killed in the first one. I used to think about how hard it would be to live in the Middle East, where children are trained to be suicide bombers whose goal is to kill as many people as possible before sacrificing their own lives. Have we become a culture that does the same thing?

I just finished reading All the Light We Cannot See. It was interesting to read what WWII was like from the German side. And a reminder of how traumatic war is. It seems the only way to survive was to forget–all that you saw. All that you lost. All of the things you did. All of the things you didn’t do. Forget that you saw dead bodies strewn about, or piled up in large heaps, and just went about your business. Maybe you even contributed in some way, directly or indirectly, to killing them yourself. But what other choice did you have, really, but to focus on your own survival? How could someone who lived through something so horrifying not have PTSD? It’s too much to process. Too horrible to make sense of.

In the book Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma, Peter Levine argues that war is a reenactment of unhealed trauma that repeats itself at the individual, generational, and cultural level. That’s deep. Even in the Bible humanity begins with murder. Brother killing brother. And the aggressor survives, earns his right to pass down his genes to the next generation.

In my own family, I can see the effects of trauma in some of my nieces and nephews and can trace the pain of it back to my grandparents. I’m sure it goes further back than that. I just don’t know their stories. Although I wasn’t consciously aware of it at the time, this is why I chose not to have kids. At some level, I knew that I would do more harm than good. People who know me would say this isn’t true, but I know that trauma happens all the time and is often invisible to us. Even when we see it, we can become desensitized to it. And even when we know it’s happening to people we love, we sometimes look the other way.

I also read Maybe You Should Talk to Someone, by Lori Gottlieb–a therapist who talks about her own therapy, as well as the work with her clients. A book that I had wanted to write, by the way. The very reason I started this blog. So she beat me to the punch. But she isn’t as crazy as I am, so maybe there is room for 2 books about therapists who are also clients.

But I digress. One of the clients she talks about is a woman who is about to turn 70 and is going to commit suicide on her birthday unless Gottlieb can convince her that life is worth living. Talk about pressure! Turns out that part of the problem is that she doesn’t want to be happy. Or rather, she doesn’t deserve to be happy. Among her list of crimes is that when she was married to an alcoholic and abusive man who beat their children, she would walk out of the room. And she didn’t leave him for a long time. She knowingly, willingly, participated in their abuse by looking the other way. None of her children have forgiven her. Why should she?

But what power do I have to stop a cycle of violence that began with the first offspring in the history of humanity?

My client asked me this question yesterday. Felt powerless, disoriented, and anxious in a world where children can buy weapons of mass destruction and are given permission to kill other people—particularly those who are deemed to be less than human. Everyone points fingers, argues about who is to blame, but nothing happens. What can I do to have some control?

In East of Eden, John Steinbeck also wrestled with what to make of the sibling rivalry that kicked off humankind. How do we go forward after we’ve killed our brother? The answer eventually comes from Adam’s Chinese servant Lee. He decided to study Hebrew with some ancient Chinese wisemen for several years. So that he could accurately interpret the 16 lines of the Bible in which Cain’s story is told. Just for kicks. And the answer is: not matter how deep-rooted the sin, there is always a chance for redemption.

In other words, we do have some power to stop the cycle of violence. And, in my opinion, it begins with self-compassion. I told my client that he has the power to be kind to himself. To commit to creating a space in his mind that is loving. That is dedicated to self-care, acceptance, and forgiveness. It takes practice, but with time, healing takes place. And the energy you create within you and around you will be filled with compassion, so that others can feel it when they interact with you. And so forth, and so on, until we create a cycle of love that breaks the cycle of violence.

So I’m trying to take my own advice. The cycle of hatred ends with me, within me.

Self-Forgiveness

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So I am trying out this new strategy in my self-compassion practice. I am trying to focus more on forgiveness. Forgiving others, of course, but more importantly, forgiving myself. Because I beat up on myself way more than I beat up on other people.

In the self-compassion retreat I attended a few years ago, they told us that trying hard will not stop our suffering. In fact, they called trying hard “the subtle aggression of self-improvement.” True acceptance is actually doing less.

We were all like, huh? What the heck are we doing in a 5 day meditation retreat if not trying hard to get rid of our suffering? Isn’t that the whole point?

It is still a difficult concept to wrap my head around. But I remember reading somewhere that we don’t practice self-compassion to get rid of our suffering. We practice it because we are suffering. Because in the midst of our pain, we need to do something that is loving, kind, and comforting, rather than judging, criticizing, and improving ourselves. Because self-improvement implies that it’s my fault that I’m suffering. That I’m the problem. When in reality, suffering is an unavoidable part of life.

One of the things I feel like I need to improve is my fitness. I’ve gained weight since my brother moved in and don’t play tennis as much, and it really shows. I used to play tennis almost every day–sometimes several times a day. I’m not saying that was healthier, but I was physically able to do it. Now I think 4 times a week would be a lot. And while I’ve never had a super great relationship with my body, it has significantly deteriorated in direct proportion to my weight gain. If I have nothing else to obsess about, my body, my fitness level, and my lack of exercise are the things that are on my mind. If I’m not trying to improve, what should my goal be?

The other thing that has taken a hit lately is my belief that I’m a good therapist. Taking that leave at the end of the term last year and all of the fallout that have resulted from it has really been tough on my self-esteem. I constantly have to remind myself that therapy is not about me. My goal is to be there for them. They don’t have to get better working with me so that I can feel like a good therapist.

I’ve tried to reason with myself, although I know that’s not always compassionate. I have tried not to look in the mirror as much, which is a little more compassionate, I think. I meditate and pray. I repeat my “I’m doing the best that I can” motto. Does all of this count as trying too hard?

I don’t think I know how to not try.

This self-forgiveness thing actually does seem to work. For every time I tell myself I’m fat, and then scold myself for telling myself I’m fat, and then reason with myself, and then tell myself that reasoning isn’t compassionate, and then go eat a Drumstick, I forgive myself.

For every client I worry I have disappointed, every time I make it about me, every time I tell myself that I suck, I forgive myself.

I will make mistakes. I will make it about me. I will be hard on myself. I will obsess. This is who I am, and it’s OK. I can forgive myself for all of it. Today, tomorrow, and every time it happens.

Take the One Day Judgment-Free Challenge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Flip Side of Narcissism

We’ve all heard about the narcissistic epidemic. Students feel entitled to A’s, and if they don’t get them, the teacher may hear from their parents about it. At sporting events, we wear giant foam fingers claiming We’re # 1. Because who wants to be #2? Our selfies must be cropped and filtered to show us in our best light. Our houses must be bigger and better than our neighbors. Our salaries must be higher.

And these are just examples of culturally acceptable narcissism. The next level is the narcissistic personality. You know, that person who brags about their kids, their accomplishments, their possessions to no end. They may even point out how much better they are than you–if not to your face, then at least behind your back. And if you have something that they don’t, they’ll be sure to criticize it and devalue it to make themselves feel better about not having it.

Do these people have abnormally high self-esteem? Not in my experience. People who feel good about themselves don’t feel the need to prove how great they are. And they prefer to make other people feel good about themselves rather than tear someone else down. People who feel worthwhile are content to be average–no better, no worse than anyone else.

On the flip side of believing that one is exceptionally good is the belief that they are exceptionally bad. Undeserving of the things that other people are entitled to. They have to get an A, or be #1, because anything less than perfect is failing. They can’t have problems, or go to therapy. They can’t look bad, grow old, or be wrong. They cannot be human. If you point out their humanity, they may become rageful and attack. Or feel unbearable shame. Sometimes you can feel how fragile they are underneath, so you don’t poke holes in their argument because you can sense that they might fall apart.

While it may seem that narcissists suffer from excessive self-love, the reality is that they don’t believe they are lovable. Hence, the need to be perfect. The best. Enviable. Only then can they believe that other people might want to be around them. But because no one is be perfect, the need to accomplish and impress is endless. There is never enough proof that they are worthy of love.

And even when they come close to their goal of seeming perfect, this does not make other people love them. Or sometimes even like them. They are hard to listen to in casual conversation. Hard to be friends with because they have to compete with you. Hard to be in a relationship with because you can never convince them that you love them. Sure, they may draw you in initially with their charisma, but once you get to know them, you can feel how endless their need for admiration and affirmation is. A bottomless pit that you can never fill, no matter how much you try to convince them that they are enough.

I’ve been in so many relationships with narcissistic people that I’ve become an expert on this subject. I have been made to feel not good enough. I’ve been made to earn people’s love. And I am not without my own narcissistic traits. I know I have made other people feel the same way. But I’m trying to change that. I consider myself a narcissist in recovery, because like people in 12 step programs, I believe it’s something that I can never be cured of completely.

Perhaps you recognize yourself in this post and also aspire to be OK with being you. How does one go about doing that, you might ask. Well, it’s not easy, but it begins with self-love. Self-compassion. You remind yourself repeatedly that you are OK exactly as you are–despite every flaw, every mistake, every failure. You don’t have anything to prove. You don’t have to deserve to be loved. You can accept yourself exactly as you are.

Sometimes when I tell clients this in session, they cry. I am guessing that’s because they’ve never heard anyone tell them that they are OK, just as they are. You can’t make other people tell you this, but you can say it to yourself. If I can learn to accept myself, so can you, because we are ultimately all the same. All trying to figure out how to do this being human thing. So I see who you really are, underneath all that narcissism, and I know that you are enough, just as you are.

The Daily Grind

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Sometimes I wonder if other people have to will themselves to get through the day like I do. I know it’s not compassionate to compare myself to other people, but sometimes that’s what I do. Like, when my brother and I were living in a one bedroom apartment and we had even less personal space than we did before we moved out of my 1000 sq ft patio home, I told myself that it’s not as bad as being a refugee fleeing to another country from an oppressive government. They probably have to sleep outside somewhere with people all around them. So suck it up!

Or when I have to come home from work and go by the grocery store and cook dinner and do the dishes and do my light therapy and stretch and then start my nightly routine, I feel like a single parent. Because before my brother lived with me, I wouldn’t cook dinner because it requires meal planning, going to the grocery store, cooking, and dishes. I would just fall asleep from exhaustion when I got home and wake up at midnight and get ready for bed.

So then I’ll be like, well it’s not as bad as being a single parent. Think about what that would be like. You think this is bad? People struggle way more than you do!

Or when I have to wake up in the morning and have a full schedule of clients ahead of me today and every day, knowing that I have no vacation or sick days to take and I have to be perfect, I tell myself to think about that guy from the Coast soap commercial from the 70’s. He could barely get out of bed. It wasn’t until he showered with new deodorant Coast, which brings you back to life, that he was able to face his day with enthusiasm. Other people struggle to get out of bed. So get up!

And then at some point I catch myself and remind myself that these are not compassionate ways to motivate myself. My mental illness is real. There are people who have my conditions and can’t hold a job, don’t make it into work, and can’t perform adequately when they do. I read recently that, according to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) depression is the 2nd most common cause of disability in the world. (Heart disease is the first.)

So then I do my compassionate mantras. What you’re doing really is hard. You’re juggling a lot of things. You’re doing the best that you can. Am I really?¬†Yes, of course you are. You always do.

This semester, instead of running scared at the thought of getting sick when I don’t have any days off, I’m trying to use my inner warrior approach. I checked my balance yesterday, thinking that I had at least 2 days of leave, but I have none. And I panicked.

But then I thought, you know what? I got the perfect attendance award once in 6th grade. I didn’t know until 15 years later after I had to go to my high school to get proof of my existence after my purse got stolen on the way to a UVA bowl game (which is a blog for another day). It was still in my file, unclaimed. Clearly I had missed the day they were giving out awards, but still. I didn’t think I had ever gotten perfect attendance.

So instead of running scared, I have decided to think of it as a challenge. Like the kinds of challenges I always do, but this time it’s not just for kicks. It’s for real. I have to make it in. So I’ve added the Perfect Attendance Award to my New Year’s Resolutions, in addition to letting go. At least for this semester. Enough time to build up some days. I can do it! Warrior! RAAH! (That’s my warrior cry.)

My boyfriend thinks that’s unrealistic. I’m working on some other ideas, but so far this is the best one I’ve come up with. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Falling Apart

I learned something about myself in 2018. I learned that I am not a superhero. I can’t do it all.

I mean, I knew that. I knew that I had reached my limit and I was going to fall apart, but I had kept it all together for so long, you know? I figured it was like knitting some complicated dress pattern. Or winning a tennis match after driving 10 hours and being injured. Just another crazy challenge that I could push myself through. But this time I met my match.

The past two and a half years have been tough for my brother and me. This was not intended to be a long-term living arrangement. I decided to get a new place at my therapist’s suggestion. It would at least give us more personal space–literally a wall between us–which was one small thing I could control.

And it is nice, the new place. But it caused 6 months of additional stress before I could benefit from it. Selling my old place. Moving out and running out of storage space. (How could I get so much stuff into 1000 sq feet?) Staying in a really expensive apartment for several weeks. Not knowing when I was going to have my new place. Changing my address multiple times. Trying to fit all my stuff in my new place. Which should have been easier with double the square footage, but for some reason it wasn’t.

The other thing I took on this year is that online therapy job, in anticipation of the added expense of buying a new place. Even though I can barely see all the clients in my primary job. Plus, it’s really hard to make a connection with someone who you don’t get to interact with face to face. So much of what heals in therapy is what happens when you literally sit with someone, being fully present to their pain, rather than the words themselves. In online therapy, all you have is words.

Plus, you know when someone doesn’t like you, because you get multiple emails telling you the person is transferring. They can even write a terrible review about you. Or file a complaint. And then you have to have a video conference with an expert who specializes in helping you be a less sucky online therapist. Fortunately, the last 2 things didn’t happen. But I did have people transfer. And thank goodness, because what was I thinking, taking all those new people?

Last semester had been particularly stressful at my primary job because one of my colleagues had to be out for the beginning of the term, so things filled up a few weeks earlier than usual. I usually fall apart some time around Thanksgiving, no matter how hard I try to practice self-care, but usually I can bounce back after a mental health day. So when I first fell apart, not surprising. After the second day, I started panicking a little. After the 3rd day, I knew I was in trouble.

I ended up taking an extended leave, and it’s the best thing I’ve done for myself in a long time. I probably should have done it 10 years ago but didn’t because it felt like admitting defeat. An extreme version of retiring from a match. So I just sucked it up, even though I knew I wasn’t doing a great job.

This time I had no choice, because unlike in previous depressive episodes, I couldn’t think. I felt like I had a concussion. I couldn’t remember words, and had a hard time even having a conversation. If I had to make a decision, I would get overwhelmed. Even reading made me anxious, because it activated my brain. I knew there was no way I was going to be able to handle my job, so I accepted defeat.

Having this time to focus solely on self-care (and moving) made me realize how long I had been operating under duress. Some of it was beyond my control, but some of it I put on myself. I push myself relentlessly. I’ve gotten a lot better since practicing self-compassion, but my Drill Sergeant is still active, bossing me around every chance it gets. I was only able to stand up to it because it felt like life or death.

Today is my first day back, and I’m glad I’m the only person here so that I can just catch up on the things I have put on the back burner for the past 6 weeks. I’m feeling pretty good but I still don’t know how much stress I can tolerate, so I’m hoping I can slowly ease my way into the crazy schedule that awaits me.

But I have to do things differently. So this year, my New Year’s Resolution is to let go of as much as possible. Moving has taught me that. A lot of what I had been holding onto went into the trash or to Goodwill. I even gave up plants that I’ve had for over 20 years, because the idea of carrying them up 3 flights of stairs to the one bedroom apartment that my brother and I were going to share didn’t seem worth the effort. When you have to carry all of your belongings around with you, you to learn to let go of material possessions pretty quickly.

I’m going to let go in other ways, too. No more captaining multiple teams because they desperately need another captain. I’m cutting back on the number of people I try to save that are not a part of my job. I’m going to stop beating myself up about working out, sleeping abnormally, and being unlike other people in general. Any thought that causes me distress I will put aside. I will only do what I have to do, because that will still be plenty.

This year, rather than choosing some challenge that pushes me to the limit, I’m going to choose me.

Five Years Later

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I’ve been so busy with work that I forgot that the 24th was my blog’s 5th birthday. So happy belated birthday, Normal in Training!

My birthday blog feels more like the beginning of the new year for me than January 1 does. It gives me a chance to reflect on the important thoughts, feelings, and events that have taken place over the past blog year. And now that I post an old post every Thursday on my Facebook page, I read some of my old posts every week, which really helps to put my life in perspective since I started my blog.

I have to say, when I look back at some of the things I have shared, I am surprised at my own bravery. Because I have no desire to share those posts now! But they’re still there, if you want to go back that far and read them. Having a blog is like having a motivational poster in your mind that says, “Have you shared your soul today?” It’s helpful to have that invitation to be vulnerable, because my first instinct is to hide.

Having a blog also reminds me of how unpredictable life is. I remember 2 years ago, before my brother moved in with me, I was thinking about getting Lasik surgery because my eye doctor said it was life-changing. I thought, well my life can use some changing. So why not? Turns out I didn’t need the Lasik after all. Life-changing moments get thrown at you, whether you want them or not. While I would have preferred 20/20 vision, adjusting to my new life is probably making be a better person than Lasik would have.

Now I’m about go to through some major changes again, a few short months after my Feeling Fragile post. I sold my patio home, 3 months after I put it on the market. And the townhouse that I wasn’t going to be able to purchase unless everything fell into place perfectly? Well, everything fell into place perfectly. And if all goes as planned, I should be moving at the end of the year. It seems too good to be true, and things could still go wrong, so I tentatively share this good news with you. Because it affirms what I feel whenever things miraculously seem to work out: God cares.

Having a blog is also a reminder of how some things never change. My first post was about my problems sleeping, my stressful bedtime routine, my overactive brain. Nothing has changed. It’s just as hard to regulate my sleep cycle now as it was 5 years ago. My depression, my anxiety, my stress level, my inability to say no, my crash and burn tendencies–all exactly as they were, despite my devotion to self-care.

There are positive things that have stayed the same, too, though. I still care more about eating after tennis and friendship than winning. Although I still want to win. I’m still a warrior: I don’t stay down for long. I still try to remain positive, see the good in people and in life.

But I’ve also learned that change is possible. I have become a better person in many ways. I am in a relationship for the first time after almost 5 years, which is perhaps my biggest act of bravery this past blog year. It is wonderful and terrifying at the same time. It forces me to face my fears, to be vulnerable, to choose love every day. To let go of the anxiety of not knowing what will happen. To muster the courage to accept whatever does.

I am a better person to myself, too. In this moment, I am most thankful for my blog because it teaches me to practice mindfulness–to be fully present to the unfolding of my life exactly as it is happening. And to practice self-compassion–to be loving and kind to myself, despite all of those quirks and failings that make me feel like I’m not normal.