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Big Little Lies

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I’m not much of a TV person. I mostly read and knit in my spare time. And play tennis, when there isn’t a pandemic. When I do watch TV I mainly watch sports and occasionally the news. But these days I try to avoid the news altogether, and there are no sports on TV. So although binge watching is not my thing, I decided to check out the one show that appealed to me, and that’s Big Little Lies. Because I’ve read the book twice.

I have problems watching a movie that has been adapted from a book because the book is always better. It’s impossible to do justice to the complexity of a book in 2 hours. Plot lines and characters have to be eliminated. Directors take liberties in changing the story in ways that I’m sure the authors wouldn’t appreciate. And you don’t get to hear how the characters think. You only hear what they say, see what they do.

But now I see there are advantages to a limited TV series. First, it’s like a 14 hour movie, so you don’t have to leave any of the good parts out. And you can add music, extra plot twists, more character development, and some adult language and nudity to spice things up. You get visual images of expensive houses perched on the beachfront so you can see how rich and lucky they are for having a view of the ocean in every gigantic window.

The one disadvantage of being able to see the abuse is that it made it much more painful than it was in the book. For me, at least. Though I have not experienced physical abuse directly, the feeling of walking on egg shells, being aware of a sudden shift in someone’s mood, knowing when you’ve made a mistake and that you’re going to pay for it–I can totally relate to that. I often found myself crying, afraid, and overstimulated after the show was over. Although, like the book, the show is tempered with humor, the volatility of that particular plot line overshadowed my memory of anything else that had been funny.

I’ve been reading Alice Miller’s “The Body Never Lies.” It’s common knowledge in the trauma literature that trauma can be passed down from generation to generation, and the experience and memory of it can be stored in the body. Even if the abuse is unconscious. Or you’ve spent your life actively trying to forget.

I always figured the transmission of intergenerational trauma was passed down through the ways we’ve learned to communicate in a relationship. Patterns that repeat with each new person–what I’ve referred to as a repetition compulsion. Doing the same thing over and over, hoping that with this person, maybe we can get it right. Maybe I can get the person to love me. To give me what I need.

I’m realizing, because of this show, that trauma is more than learning patterns of relating to other people. It is the actual embodiment of another person’s pain. I can feel it when I’m watching it happen to someone else on a TV show, even though I know it’s a fictional account. And I can feel what happened to my parents, as though they were my memories. As though it happened to me. Even things they never told me.

It is this ability to feel what other people feel that has led me to choose clinical psychology as a profession. It allows me to be helpful to other people, but it also means I can get overwhelmed easily. This is true for most therapists. Usually it’s called burnout. But when you have a trauma history, it’s called being triggered. You are transported back to that moment all over again. Terrified. Confused. Ready to flee, fight, or freeze. Or fake. Those big little lies.

The pandemic has actually been helpful to me, because in the absence of my usual  stressors, I can see what I’m like when nothing much is happening. Turns out that I still get these tremors of anxiety and depression but I have no idea why. I described them to my therapist as after shocks. Like when the earth adjusts to an earthquake that has struck it to its core. Reverberations of tectonic plates colliding, trying to reestablish equilibrium.

In my meditations, I have begun apologizing to my body for the way I’ve treated it–forcing it to do what I want it to do, ignoring what it asked of me. Not eating, not sleeping, pushing it to exhaustion. Shaming it out of its needs. Every time I meditate I renew my commitment to listen, to protect, and to do no harm to myself again.

The buck stops here.

Love and Resentment During a Pandemic

One of the benefits of practicing self-compassion is that it becomes easier to let go of grievances–the ones that we hold against ourselves and others. It’s still hard- to do– a lifelong practice–but one of the most worthy goals we can strive for, I think.

How to be Unsuccessful

Screen Shot 2020-04-15 at 12.29.36 PMLast year I read a book called Perfect Love,Imperfect Relationships.  The book had a profound effect on me then, and I keep thinking about it now during this crisis.  We all have obsessions, and psychology is one of mine.  I guess along with more time for one another we now have more time for our obsessions too.

The author of Perfect Love, Imperfect Relationships, John Welwood, says that we’re all essentially searching for a kind of “perfect love” that is not really available in human relationships.  Essentially, we want someone to love us all the time and never let us down.  So until we learn to experience love on our own, we will always end up disappointed.

Welwood also extensively describes what he calls “un-love”.  When we are rejected or disappointed or ignored, we feel this un-love.  We learn to resent other people for making us feel this way. …

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Trying to Explain Depression

Great blog post on depression!

How to be Unsuccessful

shutterstock_321921797When I was a junior in high school, I was hospitalized for depression.  This followed two previous hospitalizations for anorexia when I was younger.  I was placed in the Adolescent Unit of the hospital, which contained mostly troubled kids from foster families.  They could not understand why I was there. “I don’t get it,” one kid said to me. “Your family has money, you’re cute and athletic” (I had just starred in a basketball game.  I’ve never been good at basketball, but most of the other kids on the Unit smoked instead of doing sports), “and you’re smart.”

I didn’t understand it either.  It did seem like I had a pretty good life compared to most of those kids.  I did well in school and my parents were decent people, still wanted to live with me and didn’t beat me up.  They divorced when I was eight and that was…

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How to Predict the Future

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If you’re psychic, this blog post does not apply to you, because you already know how to predict the future. For the rest of us, there are a range of options for predicting the future, each with their pros and cons. In this blog post, I will review the primary strategies so that you can be more informed and mindful about employing whichever one you choose.

  1. Worst-case scenario. This is the most common strategy I see in therapy. It involves things like predicting you will fail your test, and then your class, and then college altogether, and then you’ll end up flipping burgers at McDonald’s. People who use this strategy are not delusional; they know they are picking the worst-case scenario. Their argument is that if things go poorly they will be mentally prepared, and if things go well they will be pleasantly surprised. The problem with this strategy is that it causes unnecessary stress, since the worst-case scenario is not likely to happen. And, if you’re trying to practice self-care, your goal is to eliminate unnecessary stress. Plus, even if the worst-case scenario does happen, you can prepare for it then, just as well as you can prepare for it now, and save some energy.
  2. Optimism. In this strategy, people assume that things will turn out in their favor, even in cases when this might be statistically unlikely. In fact, even if your optimism is not based in reality, there is research to suggest that it is still effective in creating positive outcomes and feelings of happiness. One recommendation for how to capitalize on the benefits of optimism is to write your goals down as though you have already accomplished them. (I’m trying this out for myself and have started writing I’ve lost 10 lbs. every day to see if it works. I’ll let you know.) The downside to this strategy is that, from a mindfulness perspective on happiness, we do not need to rely on any particular outcome to be happy. Well-being can be created by learning to be fully present in this moment, whatever it looks like. Assuming that things will turn out the way we want them to, on the other hand, makes our happiness dependent on a favorable outcome.
  3. No expectations. This strategy is best illustrated in the expression “expect nothing but be prepared for everything,” which presumably came from an ancient samurai warrior, according to Jerry Lynch in The Way of the Champion. With this mindset, you do not assume that you will win, but you expect that you will do your best, regardless of the result, because doing your best is all you can control. And you expect that, whatever happens, you will learn more about yourself and become a better person because of it. This strategy is more consistent with a mindfulness approach because it does not assume that we have more control than we actually do. It also does not assume that a negative outcome is necessarily a bad thing. The biggest drawback to this strategy is that it forces us to live with the anxiety of not knowing what will happen. Our fear of uncertainty is so great that imaging ourselves failing out of school and flipping burgers at McDonald’s seems less anxiety-provoking than the ambiguity of the unknown.

It’s probably obvious what my bias is. I encourage my clients to have no expectations. When making predictions about the future, I encourage them to substitute their negative predictions with the mantra “I don’t know what will happen,” and reassure them that whatever happens, they can have faith that they will be able to figure out a solution when the time comes.

Cultivating Trust

I’m reading a book on mindfulness called No Time Like the Present: Finding Freedom, Love, and Joy Right Where You Are, by Jack Kornfield. Among the Buddhist psychologists, he is probably my favorite. Unlike most psychologists who write on mindfulness, he has this poetic style. I spend a lot of time making memes from his quotes, so it takes a while to read the chapters, even though they’re short. Today’s chapter was on trust–that things will be OK, that we can trust ourselves, that we can be present to our pain and uncertainty–even to our fears about aging and death.

I have to admit, I was having mini panic attacks the whole time I was reading this chapter. I’m about to turn 50, and it’s one of those ages that seems to have more significance to me than other numbers. I mean, 50 is half of a 100. Well past the middle age mark. That’s old. I don’t even feel like I’m an adult, yet somehow I have gotten old.

I did this tennis clinic the other weekend. I’ve done it a bunch of times in the past, even when when my GERD, asthma, and allergies were at their worst. But this time, in addition to worrying about throwing up, I wasn’t sure if I was in shape enough to survive the clinic itself. In the past, when I have done this clinic, we’d play games, go out to dinner, and do all kinds of things while we weren’t playing tennis. You know what I did this time? Try to recover for the next day by eating, sleeping, and getting in the hot tub. And while I survived the clinic, I was still reeling the next week with fatigue and hunger.

It’s stuff like this–the undeniable signs that my body is not what it used to be–that gives me anxiety attacks.

I know what you’re thinking. Age is just a number. It’s a gift to grow old. It’s all about your state of mind. Be grateful for what you have. Blah blah blah. I try to remind myself of all of these things, but as Paul Gilbert in The Compassionate Mind says, even things that are true are not necessarily compassionate if they don’t feel loving. For me, reminding myself of all these things just makes me even more anxious. So in the spirit of practicing compassion, I tell myself I can forgive myself for all of it. That I’m doing the best that I can.

Although I haven’t had many of them lately, there are moments when I can let go of fear and trying to control the future and trust that somehow everything will be OK, even if I don’t know what the future will look like. And there is this release, this letting go of anxiety, that helps me feel freer. And I have to say, things have always worked out so far. So I have no reason to think that this won’t be the case in the future.

And ultimately the fear itself, the need for control, the pain of life, is a part of what it means to be human. There is nothing that needs to be fixed or changed. Nothing that I’m doing wrong by experiencing it. Just another moment that I can sit with, be fully present to, until it passes and something else arises.

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.

Survivor

Last month I asked my readers on Facebook what 3 things they would bring with them if they had to spend a month in the woods. I was very happy with the level of participation and impressed by how survivor-oriented most of the answers were. Originally, when my friend and I played this game, my answers were Tony Bennett, Roger Federer, and a helicopter. Since I assume none of us can operate a helicopter, I should have probably picked a pilot for one of them. But I’m obviously not that survivor-oriented.

In case you have been waiting in suspense for the results, here they are! The top 3 answers were:

  1. Something to start a fire with
  2. Some kind of sharp tool
  3. Water/water filter

So if you picked these 3, congratulations on your practicality! You could potentially win a survivor contest.

The 3 least survivor-oriented responses, other than mine, were:

  1. A pod that functions as a house with electricity
  2. lip gloss
  3. soccer ball

Good luck to those of you who picked one of those items. You will probably be the first contestant to get kicked out of the woods. Or perhaps that was your goal?

Here are some items that I thought would have gotten more votes:

  1. Phone (cheating, but still…)
  2. Alcohol
  3. Suitcase/backpack, etc.

I may get kicked out of the woods, but I think of myself as a survivor in other ways. In fact, because I am trying to win the Perfect Attendance Award at work, I’ve realized that a lot of the things that I do that I thought were kind of crazy are really ways to improve my mental toughness. If you read my blog, you already know a lot of them–play tennis matches while injured/depressed/throwing up, knit dresses, try to make impossible relationships work. But here are some other things I do:

  1. Pretend that, if I’m going to have to talk to someone and it’s going to be really painful–let’s say going on a 5 hour trip with someone who will talk nonstop and say offensive things, for example–I try to pretend I’m a POW and will myself to withstand whatever torture awaits me.
  2. Whenever I’m stuck somewhere–in traffic, in line at Walmart, etc.–I try to imagine being trapped in an elevator, waiting to be rescued–which for me is the scariest thing imaginable.
  3. When I have to really concentrate in Minesweeper but I’m starting to fall asleep (which is supposed to be the goal), I will myself to focus because maybe I’m going to be in some situation where I have to make life or death decisions in some compromised mental state.

And I have survived a lot of things. Episodes of major depression. Divorces. Being single. And now I’m trying to survive by providing for my brother and me. Hence, the need for the Perfect Attendance Award. Every day I live with the anxiety of not making it in because of my depression. Nevertheless, I still plan on winning this contest.