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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.

Learning to Put Myself First

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It seems that for some people the idea of compassion entails a complete disregard for or even a sacrifice of their own interests. This is not the case. In fact, you first of all have to have a wish to be happy yourself – if you don’t love yourself like that, how can you love others? – Dalai Lama

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Last Sunday a friend of mine was talking about how her priest was retiring because of compassion fatigue. That witnessing the suffering of his parishioners all those years had depleted him, and he had nothing left to give.

In the post What Compassion is Not, I talked about the misconceptions that lead some people to believe that compassion enables people to be lazy, unproductive members of society. But there are also misconceptions about compassion that can lead to burnout. Here are some of the ones I’ve written about in my blog.

1. Date your enemies. When Jesus said to love your enemies, I took this a bit too far. Yes, I do try to put myself in the other person’s shoes. To recognize that we are all capable of good and evil. But I also thought it meant that if I didn’t want to date someone because of race, SES, mental illness, red flags, etc., then I was judging them, and judgment is bad. So I should try to overcome my prejudice and go out with the person, anyway.

This has lead to disastrous consequences in my personal life. It would have been kinder to both of us if I had just acknowledged that we were not compatible from the start.

2. Love your neighbor more than yourself. I know that the quote is actually to love your neighbor as yourself, but somewhere along the line, I came to believe that my needs were less important than others. If I could help someone, I should, whether it hurts me or not.

Blogging has been the best reminder to put my needs first. Since I’m always preaching self-care, it would be hypocritical not to take care of myself. Plus, since I have made blogging a priority, before I take on a new task, I ask myself how many blog posts it will cost me. And even if it costs me one post, I won’t do it.

3. Practice compassion perfectly. Technically, evaluation should not be a part of compassion at all, but tell that to my Inner Critic.

In my last relationship, I hated the guy for a year after we broke up, and I felt terrible about this. Despite my best efforts, I could not make myself let go of my anger. But when you are practicing compassion, you must have compassion for yourself first. So I would tell myself that this is where I am at the moment. Not yet ready to let go of my anger toward this person who hurt me. And that’s OK. When I’m ready, it will happen.

And it did.

If you are interested in learning more about how to practice compassion, I recommend Jack Kornfield’s compassion meditation. It is one of my favorites.

Turning Pain into Posts

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Yesterday was not a good day.

Yesterday, for the first time in his 16 year career, Federer withdrew from a major tournament, and I had planned my entire day around watching the match. That may not sound like a big deal to most of you, but to a Federer fanatic like me, it’s downright traumatic.

Then I played tennis and lost to the same team for the 3rd time in a row. Plus my opponent accused me of making a bad call. Which would ordinarily make me worry about going to hell, but instead it just pissed me off.

Then my doubles partner thought it would be funny to insult Federer because he knows how much I love him. Which was the last straw. So I punched him in the arm. Hard. Twice. No, three times. Twice in his right arm, and then when he turned away from me in self-defense, I punched him in the left arm. Then I paid for his dinner because I felt guilty about my violent outburst. Although I still think he deserved it.

During dinner he gave me the same old advice that everyone gives whenever someone is upset. Something along the lines of how it’s all about your attitude and he doesn’t even let the big things bother him. Which pissed me off even more. But instead of hitting him again, I just told him he was lucky.

Sometimes I can tell myself to think about all those people whose lives suck more than mine does and it helps me put things in perspective. Like when I had to pay $1000 to replace my water heater and reminded myself that at least I don’t have Ebola.

When I’m depressed, it just makes me feel ashamed that I can’t think positive thoughts, count my blessings, and call to mind the less fortunate. What right do I have to be depressed, given that I have a good life?

When I’m anxious, these strategies just freak me out, because I start thinking about how someday someone that I love will be in poor health. Someone that I love will die. Someday I will be less fortunate than I am now. So then I start panicking about the passage of time and I have to take an Ativan.

And sometimes it just makes me mad. Because I’m a psychologist so it’s not like I’ve never thought of these strategies. In fact, I practice them all the time. They obviously haven’t been reading my blog! But then I feel guilty because they’re just trying to help. I’m just being too sensitive. And I can’t just go around punching people when they piss me off.

Last night I tried to tell myself that in the grand scheme of things, nothing that happened that day was a big deal. I counted my blessings. I thought of Ebola. Nothing worked. So finally, I gave up fighting it and told myself that it’s ok that I’m upset about Federer’s injury. About jokes that I find mean-spirited. About losing. Being called a cheater. Having to listen to unhelpful advice. About being in a bad mood in general. I reminded myself that at some point, I would not be upset anymore. Perhaps I would even feel differently in the morning.

I did feel better when I woke up. Not happy, but better. Then I remembered that pain makes for good blog posts. So I started writing, which finally gave me something to be happy about.

So when all else fails, there’s always blogging.

Psychological Energy Conservation

Being single has its advantages. I never realized how much energy I was expending on compromising and trying to make things work. It’s lonely at times but much more relaxing. So much so that I think I’m going to give up all of my high maintenance relationships. Maybe it will help me cut down on my crash and burn days.
 
In fact, I’m thinking about promoting a psychological energy conservation campaign modeled after Go Green. Instead of Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, my slogan is Refrain, Reframe, Reevaluate. Since my tag line is less intuitive, let me elaborate.
 
1.  Refrain.  I’m going to do a better job of setting boundaries. Before, if someone asked me to do something, I felt like I had to do it if I was capable of doing so. Whether I wanted to or not was irrelevant. Or whether it was in my best interest to do so. But you know what? I can just say no. No, I’m not available at that time. No, I don’t want to go to that wedding. No, I don’t have room for you on my team.
 
I can also resist the urge to help people when helping them means hurting myself. My rationale in the past has been that I can take it, so it’s OK. I can lose sleep. I can get my heart broken. I can sacrifice my time. But it’s not OK. I always tell clients that you have to put yourself first, because you can’t rely on other people to do so, even if they love you. If its a choice between you and someone else, pick you. So I’m picking me.
 
2.  Reframe.  I waste a lot of time beating myself up for things I can’t control. Like being angry, or anxious, or exhausted. So I’m trying to reframe my feelings in a way that helps me to be more accepting of them.
 
Lately, when my inner critic gives me a hard time for obsessing, I stand up for myself. Of course I’m obsessing! That’s my thing. That’s what I do. Why wouldn’t I be doing it right now? That shuts him up. And it actually helps me to stop obsessing.
 
And I’ve come up with another part to help me be more forgiving of myself for my anger. I think of my anger as a bouncer who is trying to keep people who have hurt me from getting back into the club. Because I’m standing at the door saying, of course you can come in! Make yourself comfortable. Can I get you anything? The bouncer gets mad at me when I do this, and who can blame him, really. Someone needs to be strong enough to kick these people out.
 
3.  Reevaluate.  I need to do an energy assessment after I crash and burn, rather than assume it happened because I’m a crazy, weak, bad person. If I choose to blog during lunch instead of take a nap and catch up on sleep, I might be tired later in the week.  Same thing with staying up until 2 a.m. Or choosing to captain 2 teams at the same time. Or playing 5 times a week. I can do it, but I have to be ready to pay the consequences later.
 
I can become more aware of what I need, rather than judge myself for what I think I should need, if I were a normal person. I can allow myself to do what works best for me. I’m the most productive after 7 p.m., so that’s when I’m going to get my chores done. I’d rather work nonstop for 2 hours than leisurely spend the day working. And my favorite time of day is between 11 p.m. and 2 a.m., so I’m going to let myself enjoy those hours, even if it means that I’ll sleep until noon the next day.
 
I’m thinking this campaign could really catch on. Think how much more energy we would all have for the things that are important to us if we used it more wisely. Heck, I might even win the Nobel Prize like Al Gore.
 

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.

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