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Self-Forgiveness

self-forgiveness

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.

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.

How to Tell if You’re Lazy

lazy cat

I have clients tell me that they’re lazy all the time. Even though they are all high achieving, perfectionistic, over-scheduled students who work more hours in a day than I do. And I work a pretty full day myself. Why is that, you may ask? That doesn’t make any sense. Because that’s how mental illness is; it doesn’t make any sense.

Usually when people beat themselves up for being lazy it’s a telltale sign that they’re probably depressed. A better word for laziness would be something like fatigue. When people are depressed they have no energy, no motivation. Nothing is enjoyable. Getting out of bed is too much effort. But it can’t be depression. That’s just an excuse. I don’t have real problems. I’m just being lazy.

Sometimes being paralyzed with fear can feel like laziness. Because fight or flight aren’t the only possibilities in the face of fear. Sometimes you freeze, like a deer in headlights. This is usually what happens when students have a paper due the next day but they have been staring at a blank screen on their computer for hours without typing a single word.

We do need a certain amount of anxiety to be motivated to do anything, but it doesn’t take much to go from the kind of anxiety that motivates you to the kind of anxiety that paralyzes you. Especially when you try to motivate yourself by saying you suck, you’re disappointing everyone, you’re going to flunk out of school and end up homeless. Not exactly a pep talk. And yet, this is the kind of stuff we say to ourselves all the time.

The ironic thing is, when I was looking for a meme on laziness, I discovered that people who really are lazy don’t feel bad about it. They’re out there looking for hacks to make the most out of their laziness–trying to figure out how to make it seem like they do yoga, or what comfortable clothes they can buy to lounge around in. There’s no shame about it at all. In fact, many of the memes are about wearing their laziness on their shirts like a badge of honor. Literally. Like this one:

laziness.jpg

And this one:

Not productive

In case you were too lazy to read the whole blog post, I’ll summarize it for you.

Here are 5 signs that you are not really lazy:

  1. Your therapist tells you that you are depressed.
  2. Your therapist tells you that you are anxious.
  3. You think you’re a loser and a terrible person.
  4. You worry about homelessness.
  5. You feel a strong affinity to deer in headlights.

And here are signs that you might actually be lazy:

  1. You’re a cat.
  2. You own one of those t-shirts.
  3. You have a Pinterest board about hacks for lazy people.
  4. You don’t read them because you’re too lazy.
  5. Being lazy doesn’t really bother you.

And if you were too lazy to read those signs, then here is the one-sentence moral of this story:

If you’re beating yourself up about being lazy, then you probably aren’t.

50 Shades of Blue

shades of blue

When I was in grad school, clinical depression was described as this discrete period that occurred in episodes with a clear beginning and ending. It was even called the common cold of mental illness. Like you would know when you had caught it, and then you’d get better and be in remission. If you had a genetic predisposition, you could be at risk of recurring depressive episodes, potentially for life.

You could also have this more chronic but less severe form of depression called dysthymia. Sometimes you could be unfortunate enough to have dysthymia and major depression at the same time. Double depression, it was called. As though you could have carefully measured doses of depression, and double depression has 2 cups of symptoms instead of 1. Which is strange, because you can’t have double of any other mental disorder.

Now that I’m a practicing psychologist, I know that the diagnostic categories are not as neat and clean as they were made out to be. As a person who has been depressed for most of my life, I can say that major depression feels distinct, but it is not always clear when I am depression-free vs having dysthymia. There are times when I didn’t think I was depressed in the moment, but when I look back, it’s clear that I was.

Often we tell clients who are on meds that they can begin tapering off once they are in a period of stability. Over the summer, perhaps. Or some time after they have gotten settled in their new job. Maybe the problem for me is that there is never a period of stability. Never some time when there isn’t some family crisis. When there isn’t some problem that I’m dealing with. If anything, I would say there have been episodes of stability that have broken up the more chronic feeling of being depressed.

I don’t to want give the impression that I’m always miserable, because I’m not. Like I said, sometimes I don’t even realize I’m depressed. Sometimes it only lasts a few hours or a few days. And it doesn’t feel the same every time. So at least there’s some variety to it.

Every now and then I get upset about how unfair it all seems. The depression. The anxiety. The family craziness. The stress that comes with thinking I need to save the world. But life isn’t fair, right? And I am blessed and fortunate in other ways. If I had to choose my suffering, at this point I’d choose mental illness, because at least it’s familiar to me. I know what to expect. I know how to manage it.

And the meds do help. So does therapy, self-care, mindfulness, and self-compassion. I think depression has made me wiser. It has made me a better therapist. I’ve learned to accept the ebbs and flows of my mood, and of life in general, without beating myself as much, because I’m doing the best that I can.

This week is finals week. We are all willing ourselves to make it to the break, exhausted from the semester. Despite taking my meds, talking to my therapist, and practicing self-care, mindfulness, and self-compassion, I’ve still had bad days. But I’m determined to get that Perfect Attendance award, so I’ve made it to work when I’m supposed to be here.

Today I would call my mood cornflower. Which is a pretty shade of blue.

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.

Do I Know You from Somewhere?

soulmate

Our latest book in Remedial Book Club is Wings of Time: Breaking Darkness, by SD Barron. It’s a great book, and she is a local author, so I highly recommend it if you’re looking for a good read. In the book, the 2 main characters, Hallie and Liam, are soulmates. Well, she doesn’t use that word explicitly, but when they kiss for the first time, it feels as though they have missed doing so. As though they had done so in a previous life. If you’ve dated someone in more than one lifetime, that person probably qualifies as a soulmate.

In the biography about Edgar Cayce, There is a River, Cayce says that we will continue to get involved with the same people in our next lives, working out conflicts until we get them right. So he suggests that if you have a problem with your partner now, you might as well get it resolved in this lifetime. If we keep getting involved with the same people in different lifetimes, that also implies we have soulmates. And Cayce was psychic, so he would know.

I looked up what Plato said about soulmates, since he was the first person to talk about them. In his story, Zeus split humans in half because they were a threat to the gods. After that, each human lived in misery, forever searching for their other half. When they find one another, there is an immediate recognition of the other, and they reunite and live happily ever after.

I’ve definitely had the experience of meeting someone who I felt like I already knew. Not just with romantic partners, but with friends and other people, too. Recently I had to call this dietitian that was working with one of my clients (X). The first thing she said to me was, what are we going to do about X? As though we knew each other and had worked together for a while. We laughed and joked a lot in what was supposed to be a consultation between 2 professionals who had never met.

The second time we talked, I told her that I felt as though we already knew each other, and she agreed. We felt like we probably would have been friends if we didn’t live in different states. The last question she asked me before we ended the conversation was what I was dressed up as for Halloween, because it was Halloween that day. Really professional, right? If you know me, then you know that I love dressing up for Halloween. But she doesn’t. Or does she?

So what does that make her? My professional soulmate? Did we work in the same practice together in a former life?  Maybe we have an entire soul neighborhood with the same friends and family and pets but they get spread out all over the world in the next life. Maybe that’s why you can feel that recognition with more than one person.

This is the 5th time I’ve dated my current boyfriend. The first time was 30 years ago when I was taking this 300 level philosophy class. I had dropped my intro philosophy class my first year of college because I thought it was going to be too hard. But the next year I decided I wasn’t going to let philosophy beat me! So I took this esoteric class on Kant and Hume to prove I could do it, and he was in the class because he was a philosophy major.

Our first date was the worst date I’ve ever had. We disagreed about where to eat, what movie to see, what to do, who should walk in front of whom. And yet we still talked and did things together for the rest of that semester. A year later, we dated one summer when we both stayed in Charlottesville, and that went really well. But then he went abroad and we cheated on each other. And then we dated again a year later, shortly after we graduated, and it ended badly. And then again about 15 years ago, and it ended badly. And then we started dating again last year.

I have never dated anyone more than once. I don’t even remain friends or stay in touch with most of my ex’s after the relationship ends. So dating someone 5 times is really unheard of for me. Probably for most people. Especially since it only went well 1 out of the 4 times prior. I’m not sure if I believe in soulmates, but it’s hard to deny that there is something that draws us together over and over. Who knows? Maybe this could be our 100th time if you add up all of our lives. Which would make both of us really slow learners.

If nothing else, it makes for a good story about how we met.

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.