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Self Disclosure is the Hardest Work I know

Christmas gift

I have another guest post today! This one is from a former client who was different from the students I usually see–older and more worldly with lots of interesting life experiences. I am finally at the point where I feel like I have something to offer students in their 20’s, but not someone like her. She seemed so confident and poised. I was actually kind of intimidated by her in the first session. What could I possibly have that would be helpful to her?

It’s nice to be reassured that giving someone the opportunity to be authentic truly is a gift. And it is a gift to me, as well, to work with people who are willing to take the risk of being vulnerable.

***

I am like a Christmas present. Shiny, alluring; and, there for the taking. What’s inside is a mystery. All wrapped up, I look really good. All wrapped up I am…the full package.

If Christmas morning never came no one could open me and reject me. No one would know I can be snippy, selfish, anxious, needy, human. No one would learn sometimes I am distant, selfishly desirous of the solitude of the privacy of my own mind; sometimes I have anxious feelings about what is between us; sometimes shiny me has a complaint, sometimes there is navigating to do. If Christmas morning never came, no one would find out who I am. All wrapped up, I am the full package all the time. I would rather gird myself in duct tape than disclose my feelings to you.

Fortunately, therapy has given me the vast perspective it takes to find the reasons why doing the business of feelings is complex for me and why I work so hard to perpetuate the illusion of perfect satisfaction in my outward appearance. In lieu of being fully human I am a picture of calm. The pay-off from learning what I have learned through therapy is that this Christmas and in this New Year I will give myself the gift of feeling human through disclosing my feelings to others.

Why? Because packaging how I feel, and not outwardly acknowledging my feelings or your feelings, being preternaturally centered at all times, has started to take a toll on my relationships. Before now, my feelings were kept prisoner in a shiny box and I thought revealing them would doom my relationship with others. Now, I understand that I must practice self-disclosure and feel my feelings in order to thrive. And, in order to be fully engaged in my relationships.

Experiencing the full range of human emotions cannot be done alone. Until I disclose who I fully am to those who I love and who love me, I am an unfinished gift. Pretty on the outside, and such a mystery that it amounts to an unknown inside.

Christmas is coming. I will be under the tree at the end of the day, finally open. My wrapping no longer encumbering me, my many colors of tissue and my many mysteries will be out of the box. All of me open and on display under the tree I will be like any other Christmas presents—some of them pure treasure, some of them so-so, some of them needing alteration, some of them more perfect than anyone imagined, some of them forever gifts, some of them for consumption now. All unwrapped, I still look really good. I am the full package.

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

No Offense

No Offense

There’s a lot of drama of late about the political correctness of wishing someone a Merry Christmas. Although the goal of political correctness is to help people be less offensive, it seems to have created the opposite effect. It sort of defeats the purpose to post something like, I’m wishing you a Merry Christmas, damn it! And you can’t stop me!  That’s not very merry at all.

I have mixed feelings about political correctness. My main problem is that any rule about what you should not say becomes a source of anxiety for me. I’m so terrified of saying the wrong thing that I err on the side of not saying anything at all. Which can also be construed as offensive.

Perhaps the more pertinent question is whether it should be our goal to avoid offending other people. While that has always been my goal, I’m not sure it’s always a healthy one–in part because it’s impossible to achieve.

In my relationships, one of my biggest problems was that I tried to get the other person to say things that I thought would make me feel better about myself. But even when they said them, they didn’t actually make me feel better about myself. Because in reality, if you don’t feel good about yourself, it doesn’t really matter what anyone says to you.

Now I preach the importance of controlling what you can control. I tell clients that you can’t control what other people say or do; you can only control your own behavior. You can stand up for yourself, or leave the room, or end the relationship, but you can’t force the other person to be respectful. And I’m trying to practice what I preach, too, which is why I’m single.

Wouldn’t the same logic apply to political correctness? I mean, if someone thinks less of me because I am a woman or because I’m Asian or because I struggle with depression, it doesn’t make a difference to me if they call me a woman instead of girl. Or Asian American instead of Oriental. Or a person with depression instead of a crazy person. I would still know their judging me.

I do my best to practice accepting everything that makes me who I am, but I don’t expect other people to do the same. But if they don’t, I try not to waste my time on them any more.

Plus, there are lots of things that people say that offend me that are not covered under political correctness. Like talking about politics, in general. In fact, I think the world would be a better place if unsolicited comments about politics were considered politically incorrect.

The holidays are supposed to be about spreading good cheer, generosity of spirit, and peace on earth. OK, maybe peace on earth is a stretch, but we are certainly capable of the other two. So rather than focusing on what we shouldn’t say, perhaps we can focus on communicating these sentiments genuinely, and hope that the other person will receive our well wishes as the gift that they are intended to be.

Moms

I watched the Secret Life of Walter Mitty on Christmas (Warning: Spoiler Alert!).  In addition to the theme of what it means to live a full life, I also liked the more subtle theme about how mom’s save the day.

For example, it is the mom’s cake that is used as currency for passage into forbidden territories. The mom’s piano is sold to cover Mitty’s worldly adventures.  The mom’s photograph of the piano leads Mitty to Sean O’Connell.  And ultimately, it is the mom’s rescue of the wallet that allows us to find out what the shot was on negative 25.

Yes, we want a life filled with risks and adventures.  But these risks and adventures are often made possible thanks to the home base that mom’s provide through their more mundane, everyday activities.

My mom is a superhero.  While I was home for Christmas, she hosted our Christmas Eve party. She cooked every day.  She went to work on Thursday and Friday–as a physician, no less–while the rest of us lounged around the house.  She carefully packed up our food in ice as my brothers and I left for home, one by one.  The only gift she asked for was that we all come home for Christmas.  This is the only gift she ever asks for, regardless of the occasion.

But there are disadvantages to having a superhero for a mom.  It’s impossible to live up to the example that she has set.  She often does know best, and I hate being wrong.  She is aware of her superhero status and takes every opportunity to remind me of it.  But I guess she has earned her bragging rights, and then some.

Often it is when children become parents themselves that they fully appreciate all that their moms have done for them.  I do not have children and do not plan on having any unless it is through divine intervention.  So the best I can do is to practice gratitude for all the big and small things that my mom has done to help me become the person I am today.

So this blog is dedicated to her, and to moms everywhere.

Gratitude

Over the past few weeks I have been praying for a way to take in what I love about Christmas. Singing Christmas songs.  The lights and decorations.  The food.  Having my entire family together. And reflecting on the significance of having our Savior born in the most humble beginnings.

I looked at the news headlines about the homily Pope Francis gave last night, and true to my prediction, it was a message of acceptance and forgiveness.  The quote that stood out to me was the reminder that Jesus was all-powerful but he made himself vulnerable for us.  There is great strength in vulnerability; it is His vulnerability that redeems us.

In this blog I have made myself vulnerable by sharing all of the thoughts and feelings that I usually keep to myself.  After writing my post on forgiveness and reading people’s responses, that was the most vulnerable I have felt thus far.

People who have never been depressed do not realize what a dark place it is to be in.  For example, “normal” people can make themselves happier by practicing gratitude, by reflecting on people who are less fortunate than themselves, by counting their blessings.  The assumption is that sadness and gratitude are mutually exclusive.

When you are depressed, your demons turn this well-meaning advice into further evidence that you are a bad person for being depressed because you are not able to snap out of it, despite all the things you have to be thankful for.  So it is especially difficult to practice gratitude when you are depressed because it often makes you feel worse.

However, my spiritual guru is the Franciscan Priest Richard Rohr, and one of the most helpful things that he emphasizes is that spirituality is not either/or, as we tend to think in Western religions. It is not good or bad, right or wrong.  Spirituality is both/and.  So I can practice gratitude and still be depressed.  They can both be true, and that’s OK.

Today I am already thankful for many things.  I am thankful that the party wasn’t as overwhelming as I feared it would be.  That the homily last night had a message that was meaningful to me.  That I’ve had meaningful conversations with two of my brothers, and in a few hours my other brother and his family will be here.  I am thankful for the friends who have already sent me texts to wish me Merry Christmas.

And I am thankful for this blog.  I think God gave me this blog because He knew that these next few months would be difficult.  So He gave me a way to share my pain, to reach out to others, and to ask for help.  It really is true that making ourselves vulnerable may be the most powerful thing we can do to experience love and connect with other people.  I think that this is what Jesus would want us to experience most of all on His birthday.

So I am thankful to all of you who have taken the time to read my blog on Christmas Day.  And I thank my friend Sharon for giving me the cartoon below.

 

Angels

I’ve been thinking about writing a post on angels, but since I’ve been feeling down it didn’t really fit my state of mind. But then “It’s a Wonderful Life” happened to be on last night, so I took that as a sign that I should go ahead and write the post.

For a long time I wasn’t sure what to believe about God. I was raised Catholic, but a lot of the beliefs of the Catholic church were not consist with my idea of God. Although Pope Francis is changing this, to some degree.

I read lots of different books to try to find God. As I mentioned in a previous post, the books on Near Death Experiences (NDE) were the ones that were the most helpful. For one thing, they are poorly written. The authors have clearly never aspired to be writers, and often they didn’t want to write the book at all. So writing a book about their near death experience didn’t seem like a ploy to get published.

The most convincing of these books was “My Descent into Death,” by Howard Storm, because he went to hell before he went to heaven. Who would admit to that? Plus, throughout the book he continued to argue and complain to God and never seemed particularly pious, which made his account seem even more genuine.

Storm dedicates an entire chapter to angels at the end of his book. I have always liked the idea of angels but did not realize they were so numerous and so involved in our lives. I thought we might have a guardian angel and that there were a bunch in heaven, singing and rejoicing when we arrived, but that’s about it.

Storm says that angels always want to intervene and help us but aren’t allowed to do so unless God gives them permission. And when people with NDE’s come back to earth and are depressed about it, usually because they have sustained horrible injuries from their accident that take years to recover from, angels appear to them to give them encouragement.

Even research shows that praying for other people helps. My theory is that when we pray for someone else, God allows angels to intervene. So now most of my prayers include angels. If I’m having a really hard time, I ask God to temporarily send me a few extra angels to get me through. Or if someone I know is suffering, I tell God to send that person one of my angels so they can have extra.

And of course, when UVA is losing, I occasionally resort to prayer and ask God to send an angel to help them win.

The winter is always a hard time for me, because most forms of depression are affected by lack of sunlight. Plus I am still getting used to being alone and having to be proactive if I want to see anyone, and I don’t have much energy to do so. And this holiday I don’t have a lot planned to look forward to. Ordinarily, even if I’m feeling depressed, I can still get into Christmas. But not this year. I haven’t even bought my gifts yet, and usually I am compulsively early about everything.

But there’s still time, and I’m hopeful that at some point something will kick in and I will be able to embrace the holidays with the enthusiasm that I apply to all of the things I love. At least that’s what I pray for.

And if you believe in angels, feel free to ask God to send a couple of extras my way.

Photo courtesy of Jennifer Harvey Frye

Grief

Tonight I went to the memorial for the student who was killed in the car accident a week ago.  I didn’t know the student and wanted to have a better sense of who she was and to feel more of the grief that the community is experiencing. 

Handling crises is my least favorite part of my job. I don’t do well with things like grief.  My emotions are naturally very intense even at baseline, so when there’s a crisis, I shut down.  I guess this is my brain’s way of protecting me from being overwhelmed by my feelings.  In a way it’s helpful, since I need to be there for the students, but sometimes I’m afraid I’m so emotionally removed that it’s affecting how much support I can provide.

I do feel bad for the parents.  I don’t have children but I can imagine how hard it would be to lose a child, how unnatural and unfair that is.  I wonder if they will celebrate Christmas this year, and if Christmas will ever be a happy time for them again. 

And I feel bad for the driver.  He may go to jail for drunk driving, and for the rest of his life he will have to live with the burden of her death.  I hope that he finds a way to forgive himself for what happened and find peace.

Often my friends on FB will post something on the birthday of a loved one who has died and say how the sadness never goes away.  It’s daunting to imagine living with never-ending pain–a hole in your heart that never gets filled.  That’s why death scares me so much.

For awhile I was really into books about near-death experiences.  I think I read them as a way to be OK with the idea of death.  I found comfort in reading that all of the people who went to heaven and came back to earth thought heaven was so great that they were depressed when they didn’t get to stay. 

My favorite part of these books is where they describe how entering heaven is like a pep rally where all of these people, including your loved ones, are there cheering you on and welcoming you.  I don’t know if you get to pick your job when you’re in heaven, but I think I would be an awesome greeter.  That makes the idea of dying a little easier, too.

The biggest loss I’ve experienced so far is losing my first husband.  He didn’t die but we are not in contact and he does not wish to have a relationship with me, so it’s been like a death to me.  

I know I’m probably taking this too literally, but sometimes I wonder, if it’s really true that your loved ones greet you when you get to heaven, would he be there to greet me, since we’re no longer married?  Or would he just be there for his second wife when she dies?  I imagine that when you are in heaven you can be in two places at once and you don’t have to choose which loved ones you will be with like you have to do on earth.

Even though it’s been almost 10 years since we’ve been apart, I still miss him.  We shared so much together that every day I encounter something that triggers a memory of him.  But at the same time, I am happy with my life and feel fortunate that I will get to know more people than I would have if we had stayed married.  So it’s possible to be happy and sad at the same.  It’s possible to miss someone but still go on with your life.

I guess since we all experience losses throughout our lives, these losses just become a part of who we are.  I have always felt that if I had to do my life all over again, I wouldn’t change anything, because every mistake and every loss has played a role in the person I have become.

Plus I believe that our task in this lifetime is to experience what it means to be human, and suffering and death are a part of the package.  Often in therapy clients want me to take away their pain, and I have to tell them that I can’t, but I am willing to sit with them while they are hurting.  I guess that is the best gift we can give to anyone who is grieving.  So at least I’m getting that part right.

This is my favorite doodle because it looks like a magical land, like Oz, minus the yellow brick road.