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Older, Wiser, Better

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If you realize that you aren’t as wise today as you thought you were yesterday, you’re wiser today.

– Bulletin of Detroit Jefferson Avenue Presbyterian Church

Last week I had the pleasure of spending Christmas with my niece. We went ice skating one of those days, but it didn’t last very long because we had different ideas of what constituted skating. Her idea was that I hold her up as we skate around the rink, trying to keep her from knocking us both over. This method probably works well with her dad, but I’m not strong enough to support her body weight for that long.

My idea of skating was to teach her how to skate. Which was a lot more work for her. Which is why our skating session didn’t last very long. Still, she was able to skate on her own for short periods of time. I tried to reinforce her efforts by telling her that she was a much better skater than when we started. This was also my attempt to rationalize spending $20 for less than an hour of skating.

Rather than taking this as a compliment, she interpreted my positive feedback as criticism about not being a good skater to begin with. Which I understand. I am a master at turning compliments into insults. In fact, the next day she told me I was pretty and I asked her if she was making fun of me. Which she did not understand at all. Because it doesn’t make any sense. I don’t know what my problem is.

But I digress.

I tried to explain to Sadie that you can be better at something without being bad at it to begin with. Every year I think I’m a better tennis player than I was the year before, even if my rating and my record suggest otherwise. I mark progress by things that don’t show up in stats, like improving my forehand, picking the right shot, watching the ball.

They say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, and research has supported this–until recently. Now they say that some areas of cognitive functioning continue to improve throughout our lifetime. I never believed the old research, anyway. At least I didn’t think it applied to me. Because I’m going to get better at tennis, doggone it!

Last year I wrote a post on how to make the most of your New Year’s Resolutions, and I have to say, I did pretty well with mine. They were to

1. Blog 2-3x/week. (There were 2 weeks where I only posted once.)

2. Ask for help when I need it. (I’ve even asked readers, some of whom are perfect strangers, to pray for me.)

3. Say yes to what I want and no to what I don’t want. (I have not given in to the urge to save someone when doing so would have compromised my own well-being.)

This year I will aim to blog 1-2x/week and spend more time participating in the blogosphere. But I think I’ll keep the other two resolutions the same.

Because there’s always room for improvement.

Full of Myself

Positivity

I’m going to be on TV! It’s just a segment on the local news about tennis in our area, but I’ve never been interviewed on TV, so it’s kind of a big deal for me.  I initially didn’t want to be interviewed because I didn’t want to look fat. Which is superficial, I know, but it’s true. But I have to admit, I was pretty awesome. I love having an audience.

I feel self-conscious about writing this, because it feels like I’m being full of myself. But when I tell my therapist that I’m being full of myself, she says that’s a good thing. Full of yourself can mean being whole. Authentic. Come to think of it, most of the time I’m filled with demons, anxiety, depression, guilt, shame, and self-criticism. So maybe being full of myself isn’t such a bad thing.

In therapy, when clients talk about feeling self-conscious about sharing an accomplishment, I ask them how they distinguish between humility, bragging, and celebrating something good about themselves. Interestingly, the conversation often leads to a discussion about what it means to be a good person. About what God wants from us. Even though I never bring up God unless the client does.

I’m no theologian, but I think that God wants us to share our accomplishments, because they are a reflection of our gifts from Him. That using our gifts is a way of showing our appreciation for them. That sharing our accomplishments with the people who are important to us is a way of inviting them into this celebration.

So in the spirit of sharing my accomplishments with people who are important to me, I thought I would take this opportunity to share with all of you the good things that have happened to me recently.

1. I finally had a good tennis season. I played great and won a lot of tough matches. Except to that one team that beat us three times, which contributed to my bad mood on Sunday. But even those matches were competitive and came down to the wire.

2. I made it through this week without having to miss work! This is one of the weeks with the highest likelihood of a crash and burn episode. So I’m making some progress in my self-care efforts.

3. This is my 3rd post this week, so I met my goal! And my last few posts have gotten me a few more readers, so in the race against my former blogger self, I’m winning!

4. That small taste of the limelight confirmed my belief that if I had my own talk show, I’d be way better than Dr. Phil. (Is that going too far?)

Thanks for allowing me to share my accomplishments with you. I may not be in a relationship, but I do finally have people who care about the minutiae of my everyday life. And for that, I am grateful.

Self-Disclosure, Part 2

self-disclosure part 2

Therapists are in that category of people who aren’t supposed to be real–right along with teachers, priests, and parents. They shouldn’t be at UVA football games talking smack with Tech fans. They’re not supposed to have divorces. Plural. (Usually one is acceptable.)  And they certainly aren’t supposed to struggle with anxiety and depression. Even my niece was surprised to learn that psychologists who treat depression can be depressed, and she’s only 8.

Freud is mostly to blame for this. He thought psychoanalysts should be a blank screen onto which patients projected all of their repressed sexual and aggressive urges while he sat behind them smoking cigars and snorting cocaine. And even though I wasn’t trained as a psychoanalyst, in grad school they discouraged us from using self-disclosure and from crying in session. (I really have a problem with that last one. I can’t help it. Sometimes I’m really moved by what clients say.)

But even Freud and my grad school supervisors did not say I should be a blank screen in all areas of my life. I guess it just felt safer to do so because I am terrified of judgment and criticism. That’s why I want to be perfect. That’s how my inner critic is able to manipulate me. That’s why I have developed such good empathy skills: if I can tell that the other person is upset with me, I can change my behavior before they have a chance to say anything.

I started this blog as a way to test out Brene Brown‘s claim that having the courage to share our vulnerabilities with others leads to engagement and meaningful connection. Some posts are still scary to share, but those seem to be the ones that people are the most thankful for because it makes them realize that they are not alone in their struggles. And it has made people who I don’t know very well feel closer to me. There’s this positive energy between us now when we interact. Sometimes they share their own vulnerabilities, which further strengthens our relationship. It really is a nicer way to be in the world.

After almost a year of blogging, I am finally taking the plunge by telling students about my blog. This is the one place where I have been reluctant to share my vulnerabilities because it could potentially undermine my credibility. But it will also serve as evidence that the people who they perceive as having their lives together are dealing with the same issues they deal with. Normalizing their experience, as therapists say.

But normalizing our experience takes practice. We need to be reminded over and over again. We need to repeat it to ourselves with every thought, feeling, and action that makes us worry that we’re crazy. And while everyone doesn’t need to blog about it, it certainly helps me to accept myself as is. So self-disclosure is as much a gift to myself as it is to anyone else who enjoys reading my blog.

 

Mental Hygiene

Negativity is like a virus. Even if you are vigilant about taking your meds, challenging irrational thoughts, praying, meditating, and practicing self-acceptance, forgiveness, and compassion, it just takes one negative comment–one careless psychological sneeze–and you’re contaminated.

I’ve had 3 people sneeze on me today. In an effort to avoid contaminating you with too much negativity, I’ll just tell you about the most egregious of the 3 incidents.

I had my follow up appointment with my psychiatrist today. Thank goodness I only have to go twice a year. It’s a 3 and 1/2 hour drive round trip for a 30 minute appointment, and there’s very little about that 30 minutes that is therapeutic. While my psychiatrist knows his drugs, he’s not a particularly good therapist, to put it mildly. Which is OK, I guess, because I have a therapist. But I have to talk about something.

Because I have chronic sleep issues due to my night-owlness, I confessed that I’ve been struggling with regulating my sleep cycle now that I’m not working. Every time I tell him what time I go to sleep and wake up, he makes this judgmental face that looks like he just sucked on a lemon. Then he proceeds to tell me what the research says about the importance of waking up at the same time every day, especially when you have a history of depression. How I need to get morning sunlight, I shouldn’t take naps, I need to be more disciplined, blah blah blah.

I am not good at constructive criticism, but I did manage to say that I’m trying. That I spend an inordinate amount of time obsessing about sleep. So much so that it probably interferes with my sleep. He can read my blog if he wants proof.

But I wish I could say something more honest. Something like, you make me feel like crap when you make that stupid face and give me a lecture on sleep hygiene that I already know by heart because I am a clinical psychologist, in case you’ve forgotten. Every time I see you, you just give my inner critic ammunition to tell me how I’m failing at sleep hygiene and that I suck. You are supposed to be helping me with my mental health–not making it worse. Oh, and by the way, your waiting room smells like mold and you need to clean your freaking office and water your damn plants. It doesn’t reflect well on you that your plants are dying! 

But I don’t want to come across as being too negative.

Does anyone ever give their doctor honest feedback when they do something unhelpful? I try to imagine what my reaction would be if a client brought to my attention that my facial expression conveyed blatant disapproval of what a terrible job they’re doing of trying to get better. It would be a shock, no question. But I don’t want to convey disapproval and judgment, so I think I would want to know. I think I would try to be more aware of my facial expressions. But as I mentioned in a previous post, we are terrible predictors of how we will act in the future. So maybe I would just be pissed off.

Maybe I can think of this as an opportunity to practice constructive criticism. Maybe I’ll talk to my therapist about it and see if she thinks it’s worth it to say something. Not what I wrote above, of course. But something.

Or maybe I could just tell him that my latest blog post is dedicated to him so he should read it. That would be hilarious!

I’ll let you know what I do. In the meantime, I encourage all of you to do your part in preventing the spread of negativity. Please remember to cover your mouth before your criticize. (And not in that passive-aggressive way where you cover your mouth while you fake cough and mumble something critical under your breath, either. You know what I’m taking about.)

I think this doodle looks like germs.

Head Games

Competition can bring out the worst in people. It is not uncommon to see anger outbursts on the tennis court from people who are ordinarily even-tempered. They’ll yell, hit the net, or knock the ball out of the park. You don’t see too many people break their racket at our level, but I had a partner do it once because he was mad that I wasn’t coming to the net.

I actually think that I have a better attitude in tennis than I do in real life.  For example, since I obsess about money, I would never break a $200 racket. Plus, I try to not let my opponents know that I’m upset because that gives them a mental advantage. Plus, I love my racket in part because it’s purple, and if I had to get a new model it would not be purple.


Some people will use head games to gain an advantage. They will intentionally make bad line calls or accuse you of making bad line calls. They will argue about the score, time violations, lineup changes, coaching, and bathroom breaks. Or they’ll do seemingly positive things to disrupt your concentration like crack jokes, be chatty, or tell you how awesome you’re playing.


I admit, sometimes I’ll use positive head games to counteract negative ones. I try to capitalize on the fact that it’s hard to be mean to someone who is being fair and kind. Last year I played against this person who is known for causing drama and making bad line calls, so I was super nice to her from the start. It worked for the most part but she still made one bad call. My partner went ballistic but she insisted the ball was way out, which was a flat out lie. I said “it may have been out, but it wasn’t way out,” just to end the argument. There were no other disputes about line calls and no hard feelings by the end of the match.


In a relationship, however, if my partner uses head games I yell at him for trying to manipulate me.


Another common way to deal with frustration is to blame your partner for blowing the point. If my partner criticizes me I either ignore it, call them on it, or never play with them again. This is one place where I won’t try to make the relationship work at all costs.


I rarely criticize my partner on the court. In fact, I take pride in being able to bring out their best game. I praise them for the things they’re doing well. I help them stay focused and positive. I get them to dig deep when we’re on the verge of losing.


However, in real life I am pretty sure my exes would tell you that I have no problem doling out the criticism.


I am also less critical of myself in tennis than I am in life. Most of the time I’m able to let mistakes go and focus on the next point. I don’t get too upset about losses. In fact, my current record is 7-11. But I play so much tennis that another opportunity to win is just around the corner.


In relationships I focus on all the negative outcomes and wonder what I’m doing wrong. In tennis, I focus more on the process than the result. As long as I’m happy with how I played, I don’t mind losing. And it’s fun to win, but the thrill of winning doesn’t last as long as the joy of trying to get better, looking forward to the next match, and fighting for the win on the court.


Maybe I should treat my next relationship like a tennis season.

Grace

I’ve received a lot of comments from readers lately about being too hard on myself. Which is a little scary, because these comments were in response to posts where I purposely avoided criticizing myself. But perhaps people know me well enough by now to know what I’m thinking, even if I don’t say it out loud.

It’s hard to be honest about how these comments make me feel, because I don’t want to seem ungrateful. But if I’m afraid to say it, that probably means I should say it.

When I read comments that are meant to be supportive, I feel a little angry and defensive. I feel like I’m being told that I’m failing at self-improvement. The words forgiveness, self-compassion, and self-acceptance are in almost every single post, so it’s not like I don’t know that’s my problem; I’m just not getting better at them fast enough, apparently.

This morning as I was driving to work, I realized something about my reaction to these comments. I realized that they are hard to take in because it’s hard to take in love–love from others, love for myself, and love from God.

I have spent the last week in an email exchange with a loyal reader and friend who is trying to convince me that I don’t need to work so hard to earn God’s approval because God already loves me just as I am, in all of my glorious imperfection. I know that’s true for other people, but something in me resists believing that it’s true for me.

You would think it would be a relief to hear the thing that you most want to hear, but it often isn’t. You don’t want to let yourself off the hook. You don’t want to risk being too full of yourself. You might get complacent. You might become a sloth–which is a deadly sin.

That’s how the Inner Critic is for people like me. It’s like an abusive partner who does everything it can to make you feel bad about yourself as a way to keep you dependent on it. It uses the language of morality and turns it against you.

In therapy I address this part by telling clients that once they leave my office, the Inner Critic will try to undo all of the progress we have made. That perhaps it is even talking to them now while we are in session, telling them not to listen to me. It helps to let them know that I know all of its tricks.

I also tell clients that accepting love is a gift, and rejecting it hurts the giver. These clients are highly motivated to do good, so it is often eye-opening to reframe self-criticism as a form of rejecting others.

When I thought I could blog my way to self-acceptance, I assumed that sharing my vulnerabilities with the world would be sufficient. It helps, but it’s not enough. Without feedback from others, it’s still just me and the Inner Critic, duking it out.

In therapy, I tell clients that they are worthwhile as many times as it takes for them to believe it. Maybe that’s how blogging works, too. I will continue to write about what my demons say, and readers will keep telling me that I’m being too hard on myself, and I will get pissed off, but eventually I will believe them. Maybe one day the Inner Critic will lose its power to make me feel bad about myself.

Maybe God works through blogs, too.

Judgment

There are certain personality types that are sensitive to being judged, and I have one of them.  It takes very little criticism for me to feel ashamed that I have done something wrong.  Sometimes I interpret neutral comments as criticism.  And in some cases, I’ve even interpreted positive feedback as criticism.

Once my first husband was talking about a picture of Alicia Keys and commented on how she had big hips.  I replied with, Are you calling me fat?  Which really annoyed him.  I kind of thought it was funny but true.  Even if I get what is intended to be a compliment about having an athletic build, I take this to mean that I look fat.  This is why it’s better to refrain from comments about women’s bodies in general.

Although I have never had an eating disorder, I can relate to being obsessed about my body.  I also have a similar personality to the types of people who develop anorexia.  I am prone to anxiety and depression.  I am perfectionistic.  I am highly motivated to avoid harming others, even if it means hurting myself.  And I am so sensitive to criticism that I never forget a mistake.

This is why I am drawn to Buddhism–especially the practices of mindfulness and compassion.  I find comfort in the idea of letting go of what I “should” be thinking, feeling, and doing.  That I can accept whatever is true of myself at this point in time, without judgment or criticism–even if it’s something that I hope to change.

I often point out to clients when they are using judgment words to describe their feelings.  For example, if you say I feel pathetic, the word pathetic is not a feeling.  There is no emoticon for pathetic.  Sometimes it’s actually hard to come up with a feeling word.  Usually when you can’t think of one, you’re probably feeling ashamed.

Even when we’re successful in describing our feelings, we often get judged for them.  For example, if I say I feel depressed, someone might say You shouldn’t feel that way.  You should be happy because you have so much going for you.  This is meant to make me feel better about myself, and perhaps it works for some people, but it never works for me.

Sometimes I have tried to point out to the person that they are judging me, but people who judge others are often sensitive to being judged.  So they usually get defensive and say they were just trying to be helpful–that I’m being too sensitive.  So then I judge myself for being too sensitive.

But I am all about controlling what I can control.  Today, I realized that I can’t control whether someone else chooses to practice nonjudgmental acceptance of my feelings.  I can only control what I say to myself.

I can also choose not to share my feelings with people who judge me.  I think I’m going to start doing that, too.

In My Head

So remember how I was talking about the movie The Secret Life of Walter Mitty?  I went to see it because I always liked the short story when I read it in high school.  I could relate to someone who lived most of his life in his head.

All my life people have told me that I think too much.  I thought that as I advanced in my education this would change.  It didn’t.  My classmates in grad school thought the same thing.  My colleagues tell me the same thing.  Not as a criticism–just that they’re surprised that I have so much time to think.

The reason why I can’t fall asleep is because I can’t turn off my brain.  I started that New Year’s post at 4 a.m., despite my best efforts to talk myself into waiting until I woke up.  That I could get up early like a normal person, which would have been a few hours from then, so I wouldn’t even have to wait that long.  But no.  My brain wanted to write the post right that minute.  I was pissed off at it, but what can I do?  My brain has a mind of it’s own.

As soon as I wake up in the morning I want to talk to someone.  That’s one of the hardest things about being alone.  It’s not like you can just call your friends as soon as you wake up and say, hey stop what you’re doing.  I want to tell you about this weird dream I had last night.  Granted, it would be in the afternoon, but still.  They have spouses and children and jobs.  They don’t have time to listen to my dreams and random associations.

Often when I’m walking around the mall or the grocery store or even just turning a corner, I run into someone because I’m oblivious of my surroundings.  I actually have to remind myself that someone might be on the other side of the door so that I don’t freak out.

Remember that whole Waco siege that went on for 2 months back in 1993?  I was in grad school at the time and I had no idea it was happening because I spent my free time watching reruns of the Flintstones and Gilligan’s Island.  After the attack my classmates were talking about it and I was like, what’s going on in Waco?  They were appalled and I was humiliated.

So I force myself to watch the news occasionally so if something happens like a typhoon hits the Philippines or the government shuts down, I’ll know what people are talking about.

But you know what?  Blogging is actually a really good thing for people who think too much.  Even if I have to wake up and pee in the middle of the night and decide to check my stats, that’s kind of crazy, but you sort of have to be obsessive about your blog if you want it to succeed.  And writers are always coming up with subject matter at random times because they’re constantly thinking about writing.

So that’s why I’m writing this blog so early in the morning.  Now maybe my brain will let me go back to sleep.

I think this doodle kind of looks like a brain.

 

Forgetting

Based on people’s comments about my post on forgiveness, it seems that forgiving others is more of a problem for most people than forgiving oneself.  So I thought I’d say more about that.

I think that we should forgive but not forget.  We have memories and feelings for a reason; they are survival mechanisms.  If someone has hurt you or someone can’t be trusted, you want to remember that.  You want to avoid people who can hurt you and cause you pain–especially if they have no remorse for doing so.

Forgiveness does not condone the other person’s actions.  And the other person doesn’t have to earn your forgiveness by apologizing.  You forgive them because it benefits you to let go of anger. Because it allows you to take away their power to hurt you.

Although we always deserve an apology when someone has wronged us, we don’t always get one. Sometimes it has to be enough to know that you were wronged and to forgive so that you can control the suffering that is in your control.

However, you might want to reconsider being in a relationship with someone who never apologizes for hurting you.

The part of our brain that houses emotional memories makes no distinction between past, present, or future.  It does not know whether the pain is real or imagined.  It does not remember whether the person apologized or whether you have forgiven them.  The pain is always fresh and new.  This is why people have flashbacks in Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

I don’t have PTSD, but I am an emotional person with an excellent memory.  So it doesn’t take much to trigger a memory of something that someone has said or done to hurt me.  When that happens, it is as though I am living that moment all over again, and my feelings are as intense as they were when it first happened.

This is why forgiveness is an on-going process.  You don’t decide to forgive and suddenly all the anger and hurt are gone.  You forgive, and then the memory comes up, and you forgive again.  And again.  And again.  And maybe in some moments you decide not to forgive because you’re really mad this time.  And then you start all over.

Forgiveness requires patience, because our heart does not follow the time table of our mind.  You cannot will yourself to be ready to forgive; you just have to be open to forgiveness and wait for your heart to follow.

I find great comfort in this because of my excessive guilt problem.  Wherever I am in the forgiveness process is OK–even if it’s more on the “I hate this person” end–because in Buddhism, you accept all of your thoughts and feelings without judgment or criticism.  At some point, I trust that my heart will be in a different place.

I may not be there today, or tomorrow, or next week even, but at some point I will be at peace.

Photo courtesy of Allison Szuba

 

Perfectionism

I consider myself a recovering perfectionist.  I don’t think I can ever be cured of it, but I do what I can to keep this part from causing me unnecessary suffering.

Perfectionists come in many varieties.  I am not the type that is meticulous about my appearance or my house.  I don’t spend hours on assignments or projects trying to get everything just right.  I am more of the variety that cannot tolerate failing, being terrible at something, or making a mistake. 

I was one of those annoying students who thought that a C was failing.  I didn’t get many of them, but when I did I cried hysterically to my professor, begging for some way to redeem myself.  To this day, I think back on the one C I got in college and think, wow I wonder how my life would have been different if had I at least gotten a B in Anthropology.  And then the voice of reality kicks in and reminds me that it wouldn’t have made any difference.

It’s hard for me to do something I’m terrible at.  I once went bowling and played two games.  In the first game I scored a 16 and in the second one I scored a 31.  I’m pretty sure that most 5 year olds could score better than that.  And I’m sure that with practice I could improve my average.  But the thought of doing something where I am at risk of embarrassing myself is too anxiety-provoking, and it’s easier to choose something that I’m good at like tennis.

Making a mistake–particularly one where I am chastised for doing something wrong–is the hardest of all.  As I indicated in a previous post, criticism sends me into a spiral of anxiety, self-doubt, and shame that far exceeds what might ordinarily be expected from the actual remark, which might be something as innocuous as “I thought that ball was in.”  I never forget a mistake, and I try never to make the same mistake twice.

Blogging has been an opportunity to practice something that I do well–writing and talking about myself–along with something where I have no idea what I’m doing—promoting my blog.  While the writing part is going surprisingly well, the promoting part is a constant source of stress. 

For example, I did not realize that publishing multiple posts in a community in a short period of time constitutes spam, and when you do this the administer of the site will remove your posts.  Which means I broke the rules and have been punished accordingly.  Now I’m terrified of doing anything out of fear that I may unknowingly further violate protocol.

So I’ve decided to take a break from promotion and write a blog post instead.  This is the part I really like, anyway.  And I’m trying to remind myself that it is OK to make mistakes.  That no one knows what they’re doing before they do it.  That it doesn’t make me a bad person.  That I don’t have to be perfect.

And then I took an Ativan, because that’s what my psychiatrist told me to do when I’m having an anxiety attack.