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It’s Complicated

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Have you ever noticed how you can experience two things at the same time that seem contradictory? If you have, you probably berated yourself for being irrational. At least that’s what I always do.

Take my last post on being indispensable, for example. I confessed to all kinds of things that I do in relationships that don’t make any sense. I know I can’t be all things to all people, but I try to do it, anyway. I feel this anxiety in the pit of my stomach about a guy, and I do everything I can to be in a relationship with him. I am devastated when the relationship ends, even though I’m not sure I liked him that much to begin with.

I know it’s not just me. I had 2 clients last week who were beating themselves up for similar things. But as a therapist, I’m much wiser than I am in real life. As a therapist, I tell them that we can experience things that seem mutually exclusive at the same time. People can love you and still make choices that they know will hurt you. You can be afraid, but you can still take a risk. You can be grateful for all of your blessings and still have a right to be sad.

People are complex. We are a mix of loving and hateful feelings. We are both selfish and unselfish. Good and bad. In fact, if you know someone who only seems to be on one side of the good/bad continuum, you probably don’t know them very well.

I just went to lunch with a friend who told me that she was catching up on my blog and realized how little she knew about me. I told her it’s because I’m good at hiding how I feel, which I’ve always taken pride in. But I don’t think it’s such a good thing any more, which is why I blog about honesty.

But my friend pointed out that it can be a good thing and that she was glad that I seem happy and together; it helped her to accept the other things about me. Which seemed insulting at first, but I think I get it.

If my weaknesses were the only things people knew about me, I probably wouldn’t get as many comments about being courageous and honest. I would probably be judged more harshly, fair or not.

But I am not just those things. I am also relatively well-adjusted. I am also someone who strives to be a better person. I am also someone who shares my vulnerabilities so that other people can feel normal.

I am a walking contradiction. I am the entire spectrum. Strengths and weaknesses. Crazy and normal. Perfect and flawed, all at once. And so are you.

I have to admit, even as I write this, I still don’t love all of the contradictions that make me who I am. But at least it gives me lots of material to blog about.

1000 Voices for Compassion

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Last night, instead of going to bed, I decided to read through my old posts to make sure I was thoroughly sleep-deprived today. I noticed that most of my posts of late were about my attempts to practice self-compassion. And I noticed that it’s working.

I know this because I haven’t had anyone tell me that I’m being too hard on myself. I made it through last semester without crashing and burning. I didn’t get depressed. I enjoyed the holidays. I enjoyed being around my family. I didn’t spend my break obsessing about my inability to go to bed early. I spent a week at home alone while I was sick and focused on taking care of myself rather than trying to be productive.

And I noticed that compassion is contagious. My last post, in which I gave myself permission to be angry after a friend attacked me for teaching compassion, elicited the most comments ever. Readers validated my anger. They shared their own difficulties in talking to others about their suffering. They thanked me for writing this post and for the work that I do. It helped to alleviate some of the pain. It was proof that compassion really is the best remedy for unkindness.

Practicing compassion has changed my interactions with others, too. On Monday, MLK Day, I went to the bank at the local grocery store and was surprised to see that it was open on a federal holiday. I asked the teller if this was a new thing, and he said that only in-store banks were open. I felt bad for him that he had to work on a holiday–even though it’s not a holiday where I work, either. I don’t know what possessed me to do it, but for some reason I said, ” Wow. That sucks, huh?”

He burst out laughing. Even though I wasn’t trying to be funny. (Even though ordinarily I think I’m hilarious.) And it changed our interaction. Before it was a typical business transaction. Afterwards it was something that made us both feel better. I thought about it for the rest of the day, and it made me feel good to know that I made him laugh. It still makes me happy to think about it.

What if people made a point of being compassionate, even when they are angry at themselves or someone else? What if, instead of spreading negativity, we validated how hard it is to be human, with all our faults and feelings and pain and suffering? Wouldn’t that be a great experiment? Just to see if it makes a difference?

On February 20, you can find out. Bloggers are invited to publish a post about compassion on that day to flood the blogosphere with kindness. If you’re interested in learning more about this event, check out this post. You can “like” 1000 Voices of Compassion on Facebook here. If you’re interested in posting something on compassion that day, use the hashtag #1000speak to promote this event.

Hope to see you there!

I Don’t Want to Talk About It. (But I Really Do.)

I have always considered myself a fairly open person, but maybe I’m really not. Blogging has made me realize how little I have shared of my suffering with others. Even friends and family. Even when they ask me how I’m doing.

During the summer when I was depressed and my dad was depressed and I was contemplating ending my marriage, I was rushing to a tennis league match, barely able to suppress my tears. One of my players noticed and asked me how I was doing. I just said, “Oh, you know….” To which she replied, “No. I don’t know.” But I still didn’t say anything.

A few months before this I confessed to my parents that I was depressed because I was missing so much work and felt ashamed, weak, and irresponsible. My parents never missed work, and they had far more responsibilities than I did. During my dad’s depressive episodes he still went to work every day, even though it took him forever to do his job. I wanted them to help me with my depression, but I guess I also wanted them to tell me that it was OK that I was struggling. That I wasn’t a terrible person.

But I didn’t tell my brothers. Luckily my mom did it for me, and they each reached out to me and asked me how I was doing. I said I was fine, even though I wasn’t. Even though I had to will myself to go to work and to stay at work every day. It’s only because they read my blog and because I’ve been helping one of my brothers who has been struggling with depression that they now know what that time was like for me.

A few weeks ago I had a client make a public declaration to his friends that he wanted them to approach him if he looked like he was not doing well. And if they asked how he was doing and he said he was fine, he wanted them to push a little harder and make him talk. It terrified him to do this, because he has always valued stoicism, and he’d had a ton of traumatic experiences that he might have to talk about now.

I’m not even sure what possessed him to do something so brave. Even now, I’m not sure I would make such a declaration to my friends and family. I’m trying to make myself ask for help when I need it, and I am more honest now when people ask me how I’m doing. But I haven’t gone so far as to tell them to ask and to hold me accountable if I say I’m fine.

I imagine our work together contributed to his decision to ask for help, but it’s still surprising when clients take steps that are more courageous than anything I have done because of therapy. Sometimes I even use them as inspiration to do something courageous. Sometimes I wish I could tell them how much they inspire me to take risks in my own life.

Maybe I can tell them to read my blog. But I’m still not that brave…yet.

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Ending Stigma One Person at a Time

Pathologically Helpful

Last night I listened to a panel of students share their stories about their mental illness before their peers. Stories about the darkest moments that they have never shared with anyone else. Yet there they were, saying them out loud, often through tears, to a room full of people they didn’t know.

Every year Active Minds, the student group that I advise, hosts two panels: one on mental illness in general, and one on eating disorders. Even though it often ends up being harder than they expect it to be, they tell their stories because they hope that it will help to end stigma by humanizing mental illness.

The closest I’ve come to sharing my deepest, darkest secrets out loud is when I told students in one of my Abormal Psychology classes about my first depressive episode. I had wanted to do it for some time, and it probably took me 3-4 years of teaching to work up the courage to do so. At the end of the semester, one of the students in that class thanked me for talking about my depression. But at the time I was still so ashamed of it that the reminder that I had said it out loud and someone heard it was so mortifying that I never shared my story again.

I started this blog because I read that this is the kind of thing you needed to do if you wanted to get a book published. My vision of the book was initially much more “how to,” with some examples from my personal life thrown in to make it interesting. But when I was researching blogs, I realized that there were already a lot of  “how to” blogs. So I decided that my unique contribution to the blogosphere would be telling my story. I could be a mental health professional who shares those deep, dark secrets that she has never shared with anyone else.

I have written often about how therapists are taught to use self-disclosure with caution to make sure that the focus stays on the client, but also because you want to appear as though you have your act together. But based on the feedback I’ve gotten from readers, perhaps therapists have been wrong about self-disclosure. It seems that sharing our humanity is one of the most healing things that anyone can do to help another person.

I have pushed myself to share my experience in far more detail than I ever imagined that I would. But I know I can push myself further. I, too, could stand before people and share my story out loud, in front of anyone who wants to listen. So now that’s what I hope to do. If writing a book will help me accomplish that goal, then I still want to write one, but that is no longer my end goal. My end goal is to do what those students did last night–to humanize mental illness with my story rather than my expertise.

The Dilemma of Being Human

I am currently reading The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, which is awesome! It’s about this guy who decides to walk several hundred miles to visit an old friend who is dying of cancer because he believes that it will keep her alive. His walk is a form of penance for all of the people he has failed, including himself. To make up for his passivity, he decides to take a leap of faith that he can walk 600 miles in yachting shoes without a cell phone, a map, or a plan, and be redeemed.

I like this book because it explores how loss and grief can change us and our relationships with the people we love. It has always bothered me that someone who had once been so important to us can become someone who we can’t stand the sight of. Even though it’s less romantic, I would prefer to think of love as a weed that sticks around no matter how hard you try to get rid of it rather than some high maintenance flower like a rose that is easy to kill.

I also like the book because I’ve had this fantasy of walking the Camino de Santiago because some Catholics believe it will halve their stay in purgatory. I don’t know if I believe in purgatory, but if it does exist, I would definitely like to shorten my stay there. I can see why a pilgrimage would be therapeutic. It’s like self-therapy with a rigorous physical activity component.

Along the way, Harold meets people who share their own sorrows, which he feels both comforted and burdened by. The other night I read a line in the book that gave me pause: “Harold cold no longer pass a stranger without acknowledging the truth that everyone was the same, and also unique; and this was the dilemma of being human.”

This statement is at the heart of what my blog is about. I have always felt different from others in a way that makes me feel alone in the world. For being Filipino and for not being Filipino enough. For thinking too much and for being too shallow. For not being married, for being divorced, for not having children. For having depression and anxiety. Even without these specific differences to point to, I have felt fundamentally flawed in a way that I can’t quite put into words.

But as I blog about my flaws, I realize that other people feel just like I do–alone in their craziness. The details make us unique, but the pain of feeling separate from others is universal.

So in a way I feel like I am Harold Fry, on my journey to self-acceptance, but with a much less rigorous physical activity component. And as I tell my story, I give others the opportunity to reflect on their own story so that we can share the joy and pain of being human together.

The Dilemma of Being Human

Photo: Maria Roman

Declaration of Independence

I am working with a client who was sexually assaulted and is thinking about taking her case to our judicial board. We talked about the levels of awareness that she went through before she could be ready to take this step. How at first she didn’t want to acknowledge what happened. Then she opened up to a few people who felt safe. Now she wants to make sure he understands that what he did was not OK. To force him to think about it the next time. She hopes to eventually share her story at Take Back the Night so that other people can benefit from it.

She knows that there will be people who won’t believe her. Who will blame her for what happened. She prepares herself by reminding herself that as long as she knows what happened, that’s all that counts. But that’s a hard thing to do–to face the judgment within us and around us. It takes a lot of courage to face that kind of scrutiny.

I like to think of this process as a kind of declaration of independence–from our demons, from judgment, from fear. It happens every time someone goes to AA and admits they’re an alcoholic. Every time someone finds the courage to say I have an eating disorder. I struggle with depression. I live in fear. In making this declaration, they take away the power that their condition has to make them feel weak. Defective. Crazy.

To a lesser extent, I think of my blog as a kind of declaration of independence. I’ve tried to hide these things about myself all my life. I don’t want to be held hostage by them anymore. I want to be able to embrace everything that makes me who I am–especially the things that I am ashamed of.

The president of the student organization I advise, Active Minds, told me that he reads my blog, which kind of freaked me out at first. But he thought it was the most powerful way to fight stigma and to let other students know that they are not alone in their struggles with mental illness, which is the primary goal of Active Minds. So he is finding ways to give students the opportunity to make their own public declarations. It is a wonderful feeling to know that this has come out of my willingness to share my vulnerabilities.

I’ve always liked the expression that freedom isn’t free. You have to fight for it. Although blogging has been a surprisingly supportive and positive experience, I am well aware that there will be times when someone will judge me for what I say. I try to prepare myself for it by doing what my client is doing–to remind myself that ultimately, the only person who counts is me. Then I take a deep breath and hit Publish.

Declaration of Independence

In the Zone

Want to be happier? Try adding some flow to your life.

Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi’s research indicates that engaging in activities that you find pleasurable and absorbing is one of the things that makes life worth living. When you are in flow, you are focused on the here and now. You experience a loss of self-consciousness and lose all sense of time. You feel like you can handle anything that comes your way.

Flow is what athletes feel when they are in the zone. Although I don’t consider myself athletic, I have experienced flow on the tennis court. It doesn’t always happen, but every now and then, the ball does exactly what I want it to. No channeling of inner warriors required: everything is effortless, unconscious.

Flow is not limited to sports. You can experience flow at work, during artistic activities, and in nature. Sometimes I’ve experienced flow with clients in therapy: I feel so connected to them in the moment that I know what they’re trying to say before they say it. Occasionally, I’ve experienced it when blogging: the words and ideas seem to be writing themselves, and they are perfect.

And there are those rare moments–usually when I’m at some lookout point–where I have a moment of clarity. I am Neo at the end of “The Matrix,” when he breaks the code and fights off the Agents with minimal exertion. The mysteries of the universe unfold. I feel joyful and calm at the same time.

Flow can also be interactive. Like Hazel and Augustus in “The Fault in Our Stars,” you stay up all night, sharing your life stories, and time stands still. Or like when you’re catching up with your best friend who you haven’t seen in ages, but you can pick up right where you left off, as if you talked just yesterday.

This weekend I was blessed to experience flow in all of these areas. I was at the Virginia district tournament with my tennis team, and I was in flow on the court. My team was in flow, and we made it to the finals for the first time ever. And all of the moments off the court were filled with joy, celebration, and camaraderie. Even writing about it is effortless. No self-consciousness. No demons. Just a pervasive sense that life is good.

Usually Mondays are hard for me, but today I am happy. In this moment, I am in the zone.

Orange Crush