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Control What You Can Control, Part 2

Control

Living with my brother has been an enlightening experience in many ways. I never realized how different our experiences have been, given that I’m 7 years older than him and was not around for much of what happened to him. However, we have experienced enough similarities in our upbringing to struggle with the same problems with relationships–which is why neither of us is in one, we are not married, and we don’t have children.

So far I have dealt with my inability to have a healthy relationship by avoiding them altogether. But at the beginning of this year, I began to panic. Because I really would like to be in a relationship at some point, but I didn’t see how it was possible to change at this stage of my life.

So I have embarked on this self-created intensive relationship rehabilitation treatment program. I have regular phone sessions with my therapist now. I have a syllabus of books that I need to read. I’ve even embraced the term codependence, which I’ve always hated, because it best captures the problems I have with choosing people who have been traumatized, issues of control, and being able to read other people’s feelings but having no idea whether I need to eat, pee, or take an Ativan.

I just finished Breathing Under Water, by Richard Rohr, my spiritual guru. In it he demonstrates how 12 Step Programs are consistent with the teachings of Jesus. So I figured this was a good choice for curing my addiction to unhealthy relationships.

You know how sometimes you really like someone else’s opinion because it confirms your own beliefs? Well, that is not why I liked this book. Most of the stuff he said I would have never in a million years came up with myself. But he made me think, and I want what he says to be true, even though it seems too good to be true.

For example, in the step regarding character defects, he said that the goal is not to fix these defects but to turn them over to God. That’s what people mean when they say to let go and let God. I always wondered. We have to work to admit what our faults are, but once we do, it’s not on us to be able to correct them by ourselves. Which is a relief, because I’ve really, really been trying without much success.

Take jealousy, for example. I used to deal with it by trying to control other people. Don’t do or say anything to make me jealous! Which was not a great strategy. Then I accepted that it was on me and tried to be rational, to practice self-compassion, to distract myself, and every other technique I could think of. But experiencing jealousy hurts in a way that I cannot bear, for reasons that are not my fault. And it’s not my fault that I can’t fix this thing about myself.

So in my attempt to turn my character defects over to God, every time I encounter one, I say something like, OK God, here’s another one. I’ve really tried, but I can’t fix it by myself. I finally get it. I’m not in control. I need your help. I don’t want this thing to hurt me anymore, and I don’t want it to interfere with my ability to love others. So any time you feel like making me whole in this place of brokenness, I’m ready. I’ll just hang out here, waiting patiently. Or I’ll try to wait patiently. Impatience is also one of my character defects that I need help with.

And you know what? It helps. It gives me hope that change is possible, no matter how much trauma I’ve experienced, how old I am, how many times I’ve made the same mistakes, and how long it took me to realize that I can’t control everything.

Don’t get me wrong–I still have my reading list. Because you still have to do the work. You just don’t have to do it all alone.

 

May We All Accept Things As They Are

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As a part of my compassion practice, I am currently reading Lovingkindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness, by Sharon Salzberg. Today’s chapter was on equanimity, which is “a radiant calm that allows us to be present fully with all the different changing experiences that constitute our world and our lives.”

I can definitely use some of that. It’s hard to have a “radiant calm” because I have an anxiety disorder, so I obsess all the time. In my last post where I was describing how happy I was on Sunday, I really did obsess about death and bodily injury later that day. Luckily, I was able to focus my attention back to the present moment, which made me happy again.

And sometimes I get depressed for no apparent reason, which is maddening. Or sometimes there is a reason, but that’s still maddening, because I can’t function. The ups and downs that everyone experiences are a bit steeper when you have a mood disorder. Still, I try to accept whatever it is I’m feeling, whether it makes sense or not. To remind myself that this is the natural ebb and flow of life.

And I take my medication.

The equanimity meditation is actually about accepting that you can’t control other people’s behavior. Like getting mad when people don’t take my advice. Which is ill-advised, but I guess people can make bad decisions if they want to.

Seriously, though, one of the things that brings clients the most suffering is that other people aren’t behaving the way they want them to. If they would just text me back. Or put their dishes away. Or not hook up with anyone until we graduate. Then my life would be better.

Most of the meditations on lovingkindness are about sending yourself and others the hope that they are healthy, happy, safe, and free from suffering. Practicing equanimity means that we send these good intentions without trying to control the outcome. We understand that, no matter how much we want good things for other people, ultimately they have to help themselves; they have to take responsibility for their own happiness.

Salzberg refers to this as the release from codependency in psychological terms. Which is ironic, because I never heard the word codependent once when I was getting my Ph.D. in clinical psychology. You don’t read self-help books for your course work, so I had no idea what people meant when they said I was codependent. But now it’s pretty clear that I am. The whole feeling other people’s feelings thing. And trying to control other people’s behavior.

The words you recite in the equanimity meditation are:

All beings are the owners of their karma. Their happiness and unhappiness depend on their actions, not on my wishes for them.

That’s a lot for me to have to remember to say, so I opted for the shorter version when I did the meditation, which is “may we all accept things as they are.”

When I did the meditation earlier tonight I was feeling sad, and after I did the meditation, I can’t say that I felt significantly better. But then I remembered that I can’t practice the meditation with the intention of controlling my feelings; I just have to accept whatever they are in the moment.

But now that a few hours have passed, I do feel better. Which is a reminder that in the ebb and flow of life, happiness will return to you at some point.

Wants and Needs

The other day I had a session where I was talking to a client about wants and needs.  She said that she knows that she needs to allow herself to be taken care of, but she doesn’t want to do it.  I thought that was interesting.  How can you not want what you need?  But then after I thought about it some more, I realized that there are all kinds of things that people don’t want to need.  They are usually the things that bring people to therapy.

Most people don’t want to need other people.  That would make them dependent, and dependency is bad.  It’s a sign of weakness.  There is even a diagnosis called dependent personality disorder.  Excessive independence, however, is not considered a problem.  In our culture, you can never be too self-reliant.

While I have certainly seen clients who depend too much on others, more frequently I see people who are afraid to rely on anyone, like this client.  Which is strange, because in the animal kingdom, humans have the longest period of dependence on their parents.  And even as independent adults, we still need other people to have babies, to have jobs, and to survive.  Even hunters and gatherers relied on one another.  I don’t think anyone would consider them weak.

Despite this knowledge, I have to admit, I don’t like to rely on other people, either.  I don’t ask for help unless absolutely necessary.  And the flaw that I am most of ashamed of is my need to be in a relationship.  That’s why I’m so proud of myself right now for being alone.  But the truth is, while I’m not in a romantic relationship, I’m not really alone.

The other thing that people don’t want is to feel.  Usually they come to therapy with the hope that I can help them stop feeling.  This includes the feelings that accompany disorders like anxiety and depression, as well as normal feelings like sadness after a breakup or loneliness–because that makes you weak.

Like dependency, feelings are also necessary for survival.  Without feelings, we would have no signal to figure out what is causing us pain.  Without feelings, we aren’t able to empathize with other people.  Without feelings, we would be classified as reptiles in the animal kingdom.

I don’t want to be a reptile, but I do get frustrated with the intensity of my feelings.  Sometimes they reach the level of depression and anxiety.  And then I feel other people’s feelings, too.  That’s a lot of feeling for one person to tolerate.  And some people do find my feelings overwhelming.  I’m too needy. Too sensitive. Too much.

Or maybe they were too reptilian to be able to empathize with me.

I often have to tell clients up front that if what they want is to stop needing and feeling, I can’t help them.  Sometimes they transfer to other therapists, which I understand.  Who wants to be told that they have to accept being human?  But most people stay.  When I point out that only robots have the luxury of not needing or feeling, they acknowledge that they don’t want to be a robot.

But it’s surprisingly hard work, this being human stuff.  It requires a lot of self-compassion, self-acceptance.

Which is why I started this blog.

Addiction

I’ve been thinking a lot about addictions lately.  Even before Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s death.  I have never been the addictive type.  My history is so clean I would have made a great political candidate, if I didn’t dislike politics so much.  But Richard Rohr, my spiritual guru, says that everyone is addicted to something.  So I’m trying to be honest with myself about what that might be.

At times my hobbies have been like addictions.  When I first started knitting, I would crank out so much stuff that I made all my Christmas gifts in a month and still had scarves to give away.  Same thing with making jewelry.  I sold a lot of what I made, but all my profits went towards buying more beads.   And I can sing Karaoke for hours.  I hosted a small Karaoke party over the summer and we sang for 6 hours straight.

But knitters tend to be fanatical bunch.  Jewelry makers can be, too.  And for a Filipino, my Karaoke usage is average, at best.  Plus these hobbies tend to go in phases.  I’m in a knitting phase now.  I would describe my interest in these activities as obsessive rather than addictive.

The next addiction candidates would be tennis and sugar.  These two things are a consistent presence in my day-to-day life, and I cannot imagine living without either of them indefinitely.  Giving them up would require some kind of intensive inpatient treatment program, and even then the probability of relapse would be high.

But playing tennis and consuming desserts has not significantly impaired my functioning, and I’ve been able to cut back.  I am only playing 3-4 times a week to prevent injury.  And I don’t eat 3-4 desserts a day any more.  So I would classify myself as a heavy user but not an addict.

As I was thinking about this post, one of my FB friends messaged me and asked me to write something about codependence.  And that’s when it hit me:  I am addicted to unhealthy relationships.  Ostensibly because I want to help people, but needing to be needed is a form of addiction, too.   In the post on solitude I talked about how ashamed I feel for tolerating so much crappiness to avoid being alone.

Based on my experience as a therapist, I know that many people have the same problem.  Often clients come in for a relationship addiction.  Their friends and family are sick of listening to them.  They know they should break it off, but they can’t.  They live in secrecy because they’re still in contact with the other person.  If someone came up with a detox program for unhealthy relationships, they could probably make a fortune.

I guess in a way I have completed my own self-imposed detox program.  And for the first time in 30 years, I did not use another relationship to ease the pain.  I rank this accomplishment right up there with defending my dissertation.  Maybe even higher.  Because after my dissertation I got depressed because there was nothing left for me to accomplish.  But as far as relationships are concerned, it’s all up from here.

Interestingly, I started this blog right before the breakup.  It wasn’t conscious, but I guess at some level I decided that the energy I was investing in my relationship would be better spent writing.  And blogging helped me tremendously during the breakup process.  I don’t think I could have made it this far without it.

So until someone comes up with a detox program for unhealthy relationships, I would highly recommend intensive blogging as a treatment strategy.