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Appearances Can Be Deceiving

not perfect

You know what’s hard about having depression and anxiety? Having to go about your day, looking like you feel fine when you’re not. I know everyone feels this way at times, but it’s something that I have to focus on a lot. Like, perhaps people have to prepare for the possibility of a thunderstorm every now and then, but it is a daily threat for me. So I always have to carry an umbrella and think about what shoes I want to wear. Whether my outfit is appropriate. Whether or not I’m at risk of getting struck by lightning.

But then again, perhaps I underestimate how bad the weather is for everyone. Because when I listen to my clients and read my friends’ Facebook status updates, I am reminded that there are all kinds of people walking around in pain, looking normal on the outside. We all feel broken in one way or another. It’s so convincing, though, when people look like they have it all, isn’t it? So easy to believe that you are alone in your pain.

When people tell me they read my blog, they always say something about how vulnerable I am in it. They mean it as a compliment, but even though I’ve been doing it for over 3 years now, it always makes me feel self-conscious. Have I said too much? Did they read something that makes me look bad? Do they think less of me as a person? As a psychologist?

Still, it has been worth the risk, both because of how much I have helped other people and because of how freeing it has been. Of all of the things that I have done to battle my demons, blogging has been one of my most powerful weapons. And if there are clients who choose not to see me after reading my blog, I am learning to accept that I can’t be all things to all people.

I realized recently that choosing vulnerability is like choosing love: it’s risky, and you’re bound to get hurt, but it’s better than spending a lifetime trying to play it safe. It’s still hard to put myself out there and risk judgment and criticism, but most of the time it results in a meaningful connection with someone–perhaps even a complete stranger. Because now they know they are not alone. And I am reminded that I’m not alone, either.

Wouldn’t it be nice if more people were willing to take the risk of being vulnerable? If instead of seeming like we had it all together, we could be honest about our pain? I know it would be unrealistic to go around telling everyone about the holes in our hearts all the time. Sometimes when someone asks how you are, you just have to say fine or you won’t have time to get a coffee before your first client. But if you want to know the truth about how I’m feeling, I’ll tell you. And if you read my blog, you will definitely find out.

Satisfaction Guraranteed

enough

I’ve read a lot of books on happiness. I’m practically an expert on the subject, as far as my library is concerned. The book that has been on my mind recently is by Thich Nhat Hanh, Living Buddha, Living Christ. Which doesn’t sound like a book on happiness, but of all the books I’ve read so far, I think he gives the best advice on how to be happy.

This will probably not come as a surprise to you if you read my blog, but the key to happiness is to practice mindfulness. Well, actually, it was still surprising to me, because even though I do practice mindfulness, I’m not sure I am necessarily any happier than I was before I started doing so. So I was anxious to find out what I needed to be doing differently.

Here’s how it works: in any given moment, there will be good things and bad things. (Although I think he refrains from using the words good and bad, because Buddhism tries to avoid judgment and criticism. But I can’t remember what phrase he used.). We often imagine that if some aspect of our lives were different, we would be happier. If only we had a better job. More hours in the day. Eternal summer. In reality, even if we could get everything we wanted, it would just change the content of the good and bad things in our lives at that moment.

For example, lately I’ve been feeling increasingly dissatisfied with my single status. I tried to have a positive attitude on Valentine’s Day, but it would have been nice to have some guy other than my allergist wish me Happy Valentine’s Day. And he probably only said that because he kept me waiting for an hour before he finally saw me.

But when I really think about it, I thought it was sucky to be in a relationship, too. I don’t miss arguing about stupid stuff like where to put the plants. I don’t miss those periods of feeling disconnected during arguments. Being in a relationship didn’t even make me feel any more secure. The fear of rejection and abandonment was always looming. Every day my clients remind me of all of the pain and heartache that come with love, and I don’t miss that pain at all.

In many ways, my current life has been an exercise in learning how to be happy with what I have. When I got divorced I lost more than half my income and constantly stressed about the safety that comes with having money. Now I’m also supporting my brother and have even less than I did before. But I worried about money when I had more of it, too. So I really can’t say that money has made me happy, because my fear about not having enough of it has always kept me unhappy, no matter how much I had in my bank account.

Even though I still find myself wishing my life were different every day, multiple times a day, I do believe that happiness comes from accepting whatever life is in this moment. This mixture of joy and pain, good and bad. My relationship status. My income. Even my ability to access happiness.

When I teach clients how to practice mindfulness, I tell them that the goal is not to be successful at staying in the moment, but rather to become aware of when they are not and to bring their focus back to the present. So that’s what I do. A thought about how my life sucks pops into my head, and I remind myself that it is possible even in the midst of my pain to access happiness. Over and over again, until I get to that moment.

Control What You Can Control

My friends on my tennis teams and in my groups often tell me, in a teasing way, that I am bossy. And I have to admit, it’s true. But it’s sort of necessary if you want to make sure that people show up to matches and for court times, because it’s very bad when people don’t. Which is exactly why people don’t like to captain and be in charge of groups. Who wants all that responsibility? No normal person, that’s for sure. So really, I’m doing everyone a favor.

One of the things that all of the books on compassion emphasize is how little control we actually have over our thoughts, feelings, and behavior. Our genetic makeup, our upbringing, our circumstances in life are not in our control. In some ways, it’s a little disconcerting, given that so much of our culture is focused on the idea that we control our own destiny. This is why people don’t want to take meds (they’re for the weak-minded). Why we blame people who find themselves in less fortunate circumstances than our own (they’re just lazy). Why our failures are our fault.

When I tell people about this aspect of practicing compassion, skeptics are quick to respond with, you’re just letting people off the hook. You’re just giving people excuses for not taking responsibility. Which is not the case at all. Because the one thing that we are in control of is our intentions. To be loving or hateful. Forgiving or vengeful. Accepting or judgmental. And our instinctive response with ourselves and others is to be critical and judgmental. It takes a considerable amount of discipline and practice to counteract these negative responses. It is far more work than controlling, blaming, and shaming ourselves and other people.

I know it’s negative, but as I reflect on this past year, the first thought that comes to mind is that it really sucked. I know people have it worse, that people have harder lives than me, but a lot of it was still sucky. It would be unrealistic to aspire to a normal life, given how predominantly mental illness factors into every aspect of my life, but sometimes I wish it could be a tad easier. Just a little less painful.

I tell myself all kinds of things to try to keep from falling into a pit of despair. The most helpful strategy is a compassionate one. I cannot entertain these thoughts because they cause me suffering, and I don’t have enough energy to spare on unnecessary suffering. I must take care of myself or I won’t be able to function. I remind myself that I’m doing the best that I can. That all I can do is focus on getting through this moment. I need to take advantage of whatever small thing I can do to make myself feel even the tiniest bit better.

So this year my New Year’s resolution is to exercise more control over my intentions, which are to be mindful, compassionate, and accepting. Which means that I need to write more blog posts.

Reincarnation and Karma

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Personally, I really like the idea of reincarnation. Having one lifetime to get our act together seems like the equivalent of a timed test. Since God is so forgiving, it makes more sense to me that He would give us as much time as we need to get it right.

In a previous post I wrote about reading Edgar Cayce’s biography. He is one of the few known documented psychics, and his readings are Christian-based. One of the things that I found most interesting is that Cayce said that reincarnation is consistent with Christianity. That in the period during which they were trying to promote Christianity over paganism, the powers that be left out the part about reincarnation because they thought it would be too discouraging: it’s hard enough to try to be good in one lifetime, let alone multiple lifetimes.

Also, Cayce found that when he would do readings where he told people about their past lives, people would become complacent if they found out they had been something loftier in a previous life. While it might be cool to find out that you were once a King or Queen, in reality this means that you have fallen from grace and need to work harder in this life to move back up the Karmic ladder.

I also like the idea of Karma because, while it gives us feedback on how to live our lives, it does so without judgment. In “Lovingkindness,” Sharon Salzberg says that there is no reason to condemn others because in our past lives we have done everything:

We have loved, hated, feared, killed, raped, stolen, given, served….Through beginingless and ongoing rounds of rebirth, we are all one another’s parents, children, friends, lovers, and enemies, over and over again….How then can we feel self-righteous or removed from anyone or any action?

And just as Karma is not about judging others, it is also not about judging ourselves and beating ourselves up for our mistakes. Rather, people who commit loving acts live in good health, strength, and abundance, while people who commit harmful acts experience pain, disease, and weakness. This was really helpful to read, because I judge myself based on what I think I deserve and don’t deserve all the time. And it does kind of hurt my feelings when I say stuff like that.

Salzberg says that we create a field of influences which is made up of skillful and unskillful (not good and bad) actions. If we have many more unskillful than skillful acts, this creates a field that makes it more likely that we will experience negative consequences. If, on the other hand, we commit to restraint, mindfulness, and lovingkindness with an occasional unskillful act–because nobody’s perfect and we all do harmful things, as she said in the quote above–the flow of our lives becomes like a vast and open space in which the impact of the unskillful acts is diluted.

I have to admit, because of my obsessive nature, I would like a more precise recommendation on the ratio of skillful to unskillful acts to get a better sense of whether I’m on the right track. But I’m hoping that if you spend time reading books on lovingkindness, that adds to the spaciousness of your field of influences.

I Understand Why they Call It Practice

It’s been a year since 1000 Voices Speak for Compassion was created. In honor of its one year anniversary, the topic of the month is to write about what participating in 1000 Voices has meant to us. I love “year in review” posts, and I love writing about compassion, so this topic is right up my alley.

In the past year, I have made a concerted effort to practice self-compassion, and while it continues to be challenging, it is the strategy that has been most effective in battling my demons. I’ve learned from studying compassion, listening to clients in therapy, and observing my own mind, that our instinctive response to coping with pain and suffering is to be unkind to ourselves. To minimize our suffering. To shame ourselves out of our pain. To chastise ourselves for being crazy, selfish, and petty. It’s ironic that, although we all want to be happy and feel good about ourselves, our default is to see ourselves as being flawed and unworthy.

This instinctive response to be self-critical is so strong that it often takes a while for me to come up with a self-compassionate response. Take today, for example. Another day where I’ve slept in and done nothing. Even though other people have probably done things like wake up early, gotten out of bed, tended to their spouses and children, and done some productive things.

I’ve gotten better at not berating myself, which reduces some of my suffering, but I still struggle with coming up with something loving to say to myself. But today I thought of one. Today, I thought that, for someone who struggles with depression, I’m actually a fairly productive person. And this made me feel strong instead of weak. In fact, I’m writing this blog post right now, since I’m feeling better about myself. Granted, I’m still doing it from my bed, but I can have compassion for myself for that, too.

Practicing self-compassion has changed the way I do therapy, because almost every client can identify that self-critical voice. Most of the time it says unkind things about us all day long, and we do nothing to stop it because it seems so natural and it feels true. So I teach clients how to practice mindfulness so that they can become aware of these thoughts without judgment or criticism. And then I teach them to have compassion for their feelings. This is pain; this is suffering. It does not make you crazy or weak; it makes you human. It is not your fault that you have come into the world this way, with this vulnerability; you did not choose it. And given that you are already in pain, let’s focus on whatever is in your control to make yourself feel better.

I understand why you practice self-compassion. There is no finish line. It’s not something that you master and then you can stop doing it. It’s like doing cardio for strengthening your heart, or lifting weights for your muscles. It is a lifetime activity.

The good thing about blogging is that it’s the psychological equivalent of looking in the mirror at the gym and seeing that your workouts are paying off. Hey! I am talking to myself differently! I am kinder to myself! It’s working! So thank you, 1000 Voices of Compassion, for providing me with this opportunity to strengthen my capacity to love.

For more posts on compassion, you can access the link-up here.

You can also find posts on Twitter @1000Speak.

Heaven and Hell

One of the problems I’ve always had with the concept of hell is that I can’t imagine who would be in it. On the one hand, I obsess about going to hell over things like calling a ball out. If that really is the kind of thing that would get you into hell, I can’t imagine who would be in heaven.

Still, just to be on the safe side, I always pray to be forgiven for all my sins, intentional and unintentional, just to cover all bases. Just in case I’m sinning but I’m in denial or rationalizing my actions. It’s kind of obsessive, I know, but in case you haven’t noticed, I am obsessive.

At the same time, I have a hard time imagining who would be bad enough to go to hell. I’m sure serial killers are in there, but beyond that I can’t think of anyone who is more bad than good. Perhaps I am too forgiving. Although I’m sure some of my exes would disagree.

I struggle with having other people say with authority what constitutes hell-worthy acts. Because if there’s a judgment day, then it shouldn’t already be predetermined who goes to hell, right? Just like when you commit a crime on earth. You don’t know what the outcome is going to be until the judge or jury makes a decision, even if you think the outcome should be obvious. Like the OJ Simpson case, for example.

Since the terrorist attacks on Paris, I think about all of those suicide bombers who have been told since they were kids that their sacrifice will be rewarded by virgins in the afterlife. On the one hand, all wars involve killing innocent people, so it seems too extreme to say that killing people in the name of war is a sin.

However, it’s difficult for me to imagine that someone’s reward in the afterlife would be an orgy with a bunch of virgins. I’m not trying to criticize their religious beliefs, but I’ve just never heard of a heaven that is described in sexual terms.

In the near death experience book that I always talk about, My Descent Into Death, Howard Storm went to hell–or to the doorstep of hell, at least–before he went to heaven. I actually read the book because I wanted to see what kind of person was bad enough to go to hell.

And I have to say, I would not have pegged him as someone who would be damned for all eternity. He just seemed like an average guy. Just some art history professor with a wife and kids. Granted, he wasn’t religious and was a bit prideful. I think if demons were attacking me and a voice told me to call out God’s name, I would do it, rather than argue about how that was a ridiculous idea like Storm did.

You know what comforted me the most about that book? Even when Storm was on the doorstep of hell, God was still trying to save him. God was still saying, say my name! Ask for help! And as soon as Storm did, he went to heaven. That is more consistent with what I believe to be true about God. That he is someone who is trying to get us to choose heaven, right up until the very end.

That’s how I have reconciled the idea of hell. We can choose it if we want to, because we have free will. We can choose not to ask for help. Not to love or forgive. We can judge ourselves or other people as being lost causes. But God always wants us to say yes to him. So I do.

 

Angels and Demons, Part 2

spoonflower.com

spoonflower.com

I remember once when my parents invited this visiting priest to our house for lunch, my mom was relating this incident in which she didn’t have an alarm clock and prayed to God to wake her up at 6 am. And he did.

At the time I thought that was ridiculous. It’s not that I didn’t believe in God. I just figured he was too busy to care about things as mundane as whether or not my mom woke up at 6 am.

But then, as I mentioned in a previous post, I read this near-death experience book called My Descent Into Death. He spent an entire chapter talking about angels. I had never really given much thought about the role of angels. I wasn’t even sure I had a guardian angel. But after reading his book, I thought about angels a lot more.

Now I can feel their presence. Every day.

One day last week I spilled my coffee just as I was about to head out the door to leave for work, as I sometimes do. And I was pissed off about it, as I usually am. But as I was cleaning up, I said a prayer. God, if somehow spilling my coffee is supposed to protect me from something, then thank you.

Which was bizarre. I had never thanked God for spilling my coffee in my life and had no idea how that could be helpful in any way.

A few minutes later, as I was driving to work, a car pulled out in front of me and was driving on the wrong side of the road, heading straight towards me. I was aware that there was a car to the right of me so it was a little tricky to get out of the way.

Had I not spilled my coffee, I probably would have been drinking it at that moment. Or I would have at least been holding the mug. And even if I had successfully been able to swerve out of the way with one hand on the steering wheel, I probably would have spilled coffee all over myself.

And it was only as an afterthought that I remembered the prayer I had said earlier.

On the flip side, I am also more aware of demons. I used to be the kind of person who never wanted to see the bad in people. I thought I was being judgmental if someone made me anxious and would ignore the warning signs that I should stay away. But after reading The Gift of Fear, I trust my gut feeling that someone isn’t safe.

I am also more aware of my inner demons and how insidious they are, because they sound like me. They have my voice. They are not ostensibly telling me to do anything wrong. They are just saying things like, nobody cares about you. You’re not important. Which seems plausible.

Even when I’m feeling good about myself, it only takes the smallest opening for these thoughts to creep in. A poor night’s sleep. The slightest rejection. Extended periods of isolation.

It seems like it should be obvious which voice is the angel and which is the devil, but sometimes it isn’t. Because most of the time, it’s not a debate between big moral issues of right or wrong. They are small choices that potentially lead you to harm or turn you against yourself.

Things like, you’ve proven you can stay sober. Go ahead and have a drink. One drink won’t kill you.

Or, nobody wants to hear about your problems. Don’t bother calling anyone. You’re just setting yourself up for rejection.

For some reason, my demons are easier to believe. But lately I’ve been trying this experiment where I try to believe the loving voice. The one that tells me that people care about me and that I can have faith in myself. It’s hard to have faith in that voice, because what if it’s wrong? What if I am just setting myself up for disappointment?

So far that hasn’t happened. And it’s a much more peaceful way to live, listening to my angel.

Weakness? I Don’t Think So

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I talk a lot about how I pride myself on being a warrior on the tennis court. Evidenced by the fact that, despite having several conditions that lead me to throw up on the court every now and then, I continue to play. Giving up tennis is not an option.

Admittedly, sometimes I take this to an extreme. It’s probably better to retire from a match when you’re having an asthma attack. But I didn’t say it’s always smart to be a warrior. Sometimes it’s smarter to know when to walk away.

But it’s hard to know when to fight and when to accept defeat. Especially when you struggle with a mental illness. It feels like you should be able to will yourself out of it. Even though no one would accuse someone with pneumonia of being weak when they can’t will themselves out of it. But we are not always fair in our judgment of other people. Or ourselves.

It wasn’t until I started my blog 2 years ago that my family and friends found out how debilitating my depression has been at times. So I was able to hide it somewhat. Still, there were days I would wake up and know I wasn’t going to be able to go to work. No amount of shaming and screaming at myself was going make me get out of bed. So I would stay home and spend the rest of the day feeling like a loser.

If you are an avid tennis fan, then you know that Mardy Fish played his last match as a professional tennis player yesterday. It was particularly meaningful because he has not played for the past 3 years after developing panic disorder. He was unable to leave his house for 3 months. And even though his disorder is better controlled, he still has difficulty traveling and sleeping alone. So being a professional tennis player has not been an option.

Despite how paralyzing his anxiety disorder has been, Fish decided he didn’t want it to dictate how his career ended. So he faced his fears and entered the U.S. Open for one last tournament.

And what a match it was. He was serving for the match at 5-4 in the 4th set but double-faulted 3 times because of nerves. He ended up losing in the 5th set because he started cramping. Not exactly a fairy tale ending.

Still, choking and losing leads are part of the game. It happens to the best of players. Being a warrior doesn’t guarantee that you’ll win–just that you’ll fight until the bitter end. And Mardy Fish did just that.

Fish demonstrated his strength of character when he decided to end his career on his own terms. But an even greater testament to his strength is that he shared his story with the world. Our demons grow in darkness and silence. Only the most courageous are willing to show people their vulnerabilities.

Which is why those who are open about their mental illness are among the strongest people I know.

Prince Eggshell

Humpty Dumpty

I have another guest post today from one of my former clients, Elizabeth Barbour, who also wrote the post Self-Disclosure is the Hardest Work I know. In today’s post, Elizabeth talks openly and honestly about the dark side of knights in shining armor and rescue fantasies.

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A previous entry in this blog identified a tendency to judge ourselves harshly for negatively judging the inappropriate behavior of our romantic partners. As if forgiveness trumps self-preservation. As if our emotional freedom and mental health are not in the balance. As if denial is an option. As if yelling is not…well, yelling.

But enough is enough. I have learned that verbal abuse is dangerous to my emotional freedom and mental health. After decades of robust living, four careers, adopting a child during a 20 year marriage that ultimately ended, earning a couple of advanced degrees, and a lot of therapy, I feel blessed with a sense of entitlement to living without being anyone’s emotional hostage or whipping boy. Like the Princess and the pea I developed a feeling for eggshell in my slipper.

My post-divorce Prince swept in on a white horse, a Mercedes and a Porsche and sent poems. Dressed me from head to toe. Added to my larder. And my coffers. He asked me to marry him after, three weeks.

A Prince coming to my rescue fulfilled a story I had inside about being a damsel-in-distress who needed to be rescued. He was as charming, as the sky is blue.  As accommodating, as the day is long. His smile could melt a sidewalk in January. His European accent rang my bell. For a while there was no eggshell in a stocking, on the floor, or anywhere at all.

Then came a few tantrums which my self-possessed teenage child and my wise-best-friend overheard. They both assessed the Prince as needy and over-sensitive. I began to think I was being backed into some kind of submission. The Prince has broken horses and trained hunting dogs and has bred, raised and trained racing pigeons, too. He called me every morning at 8:30 sharp, because it made him feel less anxious about our relationship. He called every night at 9:30 sharp or as soon as I returned home. The reason he gave for this was that as a child his father had beat his mother most often at night, so knowing I was safe allowed him to rest easy. I began to feel over scheduled. He was paranoid and anxious if I did not return his calls or texts right away—and snippy about it happening even when at the time of the not-taken call or text I had clients in front of me. Nipping at my backside, eggshell in my shoe.

Eggshells chaffed the soles of my feet as he talked non-stop for an entire surreal day about our future together. The present moment was nowhere in sight. I felt controlled and exhausted by his incessant chatter and could not claim any inner peace. From the bottom of my soles I said firmly—Enough. Enough. Enough. Stop talking. This was met with a lengthy, heated diatribe about my breach of manners.

Over 16 months a pattern arose of romantic dinners, shopping and gifts, trips to sunny places; and, occasional royal hissy fits over petty items, a few stern talking-tos about what will not do; and, heightened insight into the Prince’s emotional makeup.

On the last day of our union, I mentioned my hope to go on an adventure in a foreign country with my daughter next summer.   The Prince blanched and proceeded to label me too financially reckless; and, therefore fatally flawed to be his wife. My financial state has never stopped me from traveling. If it had, I would never have used a passport. He nearly blew smoke out of his ears as he yelled at me for 30 minutes before he stormed out of my life. I know he was yelling because I worried the neighbors would complain. It wasn’t the first time I knew he was yelling, because several times before I worried about others overhearing his outbursts.

The Prince has shown a pattern of reacting in a hot-tempered, hostile, vitriolic and condemning manner when he does not like what I say. I am not in this lifetime to be upbraided. Nor, am I a damsel in distress. I can meet life on its own terms. The Prince is out of my life and so is the damsel.

Elizabeth Barbour is a perennial student of Life, recent law grad, avowed Late Bloomer, proud Mother, and writer coming into fruition. 

This is Who I Am

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Once when I was in therapy I remember telling my therapist that I was like Fred Flintstone. I yelled. I wanted to be right all the time. I wasn’t as good of a friend and a spouse as Barney was. In retrospect, I now realize that the show was about Fred, so people clearly liked him, despite all of his flaws. But at the time, it was a painful realization.

This was a common theme in therapy. How ashamed I felt about being all the things that you weren’t supposed to be. Too loud. Too sensitive. Too controlling. Too needy. Too high maintenance. I couldn’t stand being me. And I couldn’t respect anyone who thought I was great. They clearly must not have very good judgment. So I treated them badly. Which made me feel terrible about myself.

That’s why I treated life like a test. I felt like I was the wrong answer. I had the wrong opinion on everything. I listened to the wrong music. I didn’t have good table manners. Didn’t know anything about current events.

That’s why I got a Ph.D. and got married and tried to have kids. Why I changed my oil every 3,000 miles. Why I force myself to eat vegetables. Which doesn’t have anything to do with being a good person, but somehow all of the big and small rules became equally important to follow.

In all of those years of seeing my therapist, the thing I remember the most was when she said she liked it that I felt things deeply. That I made life more vibrant. This was how she rephrased my shame about being too emotional. I had spent my whole life trying to be less. Until that moment, it never occurred to me that my excesses could be assets.

Yes, feeling things deeply means that sometimes I get depressed. I worry about everything. It’s hard for me to let go of my anger. But being emotional also allows me to be passionate about life, expressive in my writing, and compassionate for other people’s suffering. My excesses enable me to have a blog that helps other people feel less crazy about the things that make them who they are.

And my most recent epiphany is that it doesn’t matter if I can’t think of a way to turn one of my flaws into a strength. Like, I have no idea how counting all the time can be interpreted as something useful. But still. That’s what I do. This is who I am. And I want to accept everything that makes me who I am.

And you know what? It’s pretty liberating. It’s easier to write now, knowing that the only thing that matters is that my posts are a true reflection of how I feel and what I think, regardless of whether or not they’re popular.

Although I still want them to be popular. But that’s OK. Being someone who seeks approval is a part of who I am, too.