RSS Feed

Tag Archives: compassion

In Transition

transitions-1

If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, perhaps you remember my inner infant–that part of me that gets anxious for apparently no reason but has no words to tell me what she’s upset about. I am still like a new parent who is getting to know their child for the first time. It is a very slow, painstaking process. But I came to a realization last week that has been helpful in being more compassionate towards this anxious baby, who I will call Amygdala for scientific reasons that are too technical to get into, but if you’re interested, you can check out this article.

Every morning when I’m getting ready to leave for work, Amygdala gets anxious and I have to say my standard mantra to her: It’s OK. Everything’s going to be OK. You’re fine. Everything’s going to be fine. And when I’m frustrated, I add although I have no idea what you’re anxious about!  Which is not very compassionate, and therefore not very effective in soothing her.

For some reason, last week I realized that Amygdala gets anxious when I am in transition–from sleep to wakefulness, getting dressed, getting into the car, getting out of the car, leaving work, going to play tennis. I imagined what it would be like for a baby during these times, and I could see why Amygdala would be anxious.

For example, when I am spending the night in a different place for the first time, I will often wake up and have a split second where I don’t recognize my surroundings and not remember where I am. Then I’ll be like, oh yeah. I’m at districts. But babies don’t have very good memories, because their brains aren’t fully formed. So for them, every time they wake up, they probably don’t recognize their room. Or they could have been moved to a different room while they were sleeping. And they’re probably like, where the hell am I?! (If it were a baby that cursed, that is.) What am I doing here? Where is that person who is supposed to be taking care of me?!

Or like how when my niece was younger she never wanted to go to dance class, even though she loves dancing and always enjoys it once she’s there. I never understood why kids do that, since I’m not a parent. But I do know what it feels like to be all content doing whatever you’re doing and then having to get up, change clothes, drive somewhere, and see people, even if it’s to do something I love, like play tennis. It’s hard to overcome the inertia of doing nothing. So I can see why that might be upsetting.

But since I’ve realized this, I’ve figured out something more compassionate to say. Whenever Amygdala cries because I am in transition, I tell her that it’s OK, she’s just anxious because we’re doing something different, but once we get there, everything will be fine. And it usually is.

So maybe I’m becoming a better parent after all.

transitions-2

I found this while I was looking for quotes on transitions. My inner infant has no idea what it means but she thinks it’s funny.

Control What You Can Control

979dae5347bc4abdf9d0f19b72e535eb

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.

A Compassionate Take on Why Misery Loves Company

miserylovescompany

A few years ago I had the pleasure of listening to the the President of Washington and Lee University speak to the parents of the freshman class that year, appraising them of some of the things they could expect to encounter in their child’s first year of college. A frantic call in the middle of the night about something. The transition to being a little fish in a big pond. The Turkey Drop–which happens over this very break, when some poor girlfriend or boyfriend is informed that this long-distance relationship thing just isn’t working out. Hope we can still be friends.

Students in counseling often talk about “losing the breakup.” I like that term, because it so accurately captures that feeling of being left behind with your heart broken, stalking your ex on social media as they post pictures with their new significant other. If I have to suffer, they should have to suffer, gosh darn it! I hope they get what’s coming to them.

It’s true; misery loves company. And sometimes it’s because people who are miserable want other people to be miserable so that we can all feel sucky together. But sometimes it’s not because people are mean and hateful. Sometimes it’s because we don’t want to be left alone in our pain and suffering.

In self-compassion speak, this is called common humanity. It’s one of the things that comforts us in the midst of our pain in suffering. To know that getting your heart broken is an inevitable part of experiencing love. It sucks for everyone. It did not happen to you because you are uniquely unlovable. And it’s not your fault that it hurts so much that your friends are tired of listening to you talk about your ex.

As I mentioned in my last post, it’s that time of year when my inner demon of depression rears its ugly head. It’s better this year. I’ve made it to work every day so far. I have not fallen into a pit of despair. But it’s still painful.

One of the best and most unexpected benefits of having a mental health blog is that, in the midst of my lows, some reader will reach out to me and thank me for sharing my pain because they have known that pain, too, and it’s comforting to know that they are not alone. It is as therapeutic to me as it is to them to know that there are people in the darkness with me, reaching out to me so that I know that they’re there.

Last week, as I was describing to one of my clients the types of obsessive thoughts that often go through people’s heads, she asked me if I knew what this inner dialogue was like because I studied it or from first-hand experience. I was a little taken aback. I’d never had a client ask me directly if I had an anxiety disorder. But I told her the truth. It’s both. I know her pain because I studied it, and I feel her pain because I, too, struggle with it.

I know what it’s like to suffer alone. So I became a therapist. Because misery loves company.

Everyday Miracles

mircales

Today I read a chapter from Harold Kushner’s book, Nine Essential Things I’ve Learned About Life. The reading was about the importance of helping others as a way to live a meaningful, purposeful life. That wasn’t particularly helpful to me because, if anything, I think I focus too much of my energy on helping others, to the detriment of caring for myself. But it’s still good advice, nonetheless.

There was a section of this chapter that gave me pause, however: his description of the miracles that occur in everyday life. The predictability and reliability of nature. The fact that we can count on the sun to rise and set every day, the waxing and waning of the moon, the changes of the seasons. They happen with such accuracy we know sometimes down to the minute when they will happen. According to Kushner, “a faith system attuned to the natural world celebrates the orderliness that makes our lives livable.”

I’ve had the sense of awe and wonderment about these very things, though not every time they happen. I’m not that mindful. But I guess no one is. Like, when I meditate, I begin by focusing on my breathing, and then I shift my focus to my heart, because for some reason, feeling my heart beat, feeling my pulse throughout my body, makes me acutely aware of the life force that is my heart. How, even when I’m sad, when I’m heart-broken, when I can barely summon the will to live, my heart keeps beating for me, carrying me through life. I know the heart isn’t as immutable as the sun, moon, and seasons, but it fills me with a sense of wonderment and awe, just the same.

In a previous blog post I’ve written about how the weather is a metaphor for our feelings–how it varies from day to day, moment to moment. Some weather conditions are more desirable than others–rain during a tennis match is highly undesirable, for example–but we ultimately accept whatever the current conditions are because we have faith that at some point, the weather will change. Plus, we don’t really have a choice.

We can have the same faith in our feelings, but it does not come as naturally. It takes a lot of practice. When I’m anxious or sad, I’m better able to remind myself that if I wait, at some point my feelings will change. It doesn’t really make the pain go away, but it keeps me from wasting energy on wishing I were feeling something else–a small way I can reduce my suffering in the moment. Perhaps this is a miracle, too–the fact that having compassion for our pain has the power to reduce our suffering.

As I read about these everyday miracles, my Inner Critic was quick to point out my failure to appreciate them. You should be thankful for these things more often! You shouldn’t be taking them for granted! My inner critic often turns practicing gratitude into something that leaves me feeling ashamed and inadequate–as far from awe and wonderment as you can get.

So I’m thinking maybe I’ll practice mindfulness by noticing these everyday miracles more often–to pay attention to the changes of the season, the sunrise and sunset, the waxing and waning of the moon. In practicing mindfulness, there is no expectation that you should feel any particular thing at any given moment; you simply notice what’s there. But even the act of noticing creates an opportunity to experience wonderment and awe. So I’ll try it out and see what happens.

5 Things Not to Say to a Depressed Person

Depression is not a choice

Despite the attempts to raise awareness of mental health issues and reduce stigma, people still say hurtful things to people who are depressed. Not because they are mean or uncaring. I think it’s actually because we are not taught more compassionate ways to respond to pain, so we say whatever we think will get the person to stop hurting. Because it hurts to be in the presence of someone who is hurting.

Here are some of the worst offenders:

  1. I don’t believe in depression. I’m not even sure what this means. It’s one thing to say that you don’t believe in ghosts, or God, or the theory of evolution. But how can you say you don’t believe in an illness? No one says I don’t believe in heart disease. That’s not chest pain. Just go take some Rolaids and stop your whining.
  2. Suck it up. Because we value stoicism, we think anyone who copes with their pain by pushing through is strong, and anyone who acknowledges their depression is weak. Maybe even wallowing in their pain. So just get out of bed and go to work. No one wants to hear about how you’re feeling.
  3. Think of all the less fortunate. There are people who don’t have the basic necessities like food, water, and shelter. People who live in war-torn countries. And here you are being all negative just because you don’t feel good. You have nothing to complain about.
  4. Be thankful. This one is similar to #3. In this case, rather than comparing yourself to others, you are encouraged to count your blessings so that you can see that you actually have no reason to be depressed. You just have a bad attitude.
  5. You just want to be depressed. I actually had a boyfriend tell me this when I was in college. Because it was so much fun being in my room, unable to go to class or get dressed or answer the phone and to think about suicide all the time. I was having a ball. I hope I broke up with him after he said that.

Hearing these statements from the people we turn to for support can be even more hurtful than the symptoms of depression themselves. Because we already think that we’re lazy, weak, and pathetic. We already beat ourselves up for having no good reason to be depressed. We already feel like failures.

But if you’ve said some of these things, don’t be too hard on yourself. This is how we’ve been taught to respond to pain, so it’s not your fault. It doesn’t make you a bad person.

One of the things I do in therapy is to teach clients how to practice self-compassion, which in turns teaches them to have compassion for other people’s pain. It’s a surprisingly unnatural thing to do, trying to come up with loving statements to say to ourselves. Which is weird, because you’d think this is what we’d want to hear.

Here are some suggestions:

  1. The only proof I need that I am in pain is that I’m hurting. You don’t have to earn the right do be depressed by having a traumatic childhood or some recent loss. The pain itself is all the evidence you need that you are depressed.
  2. I will be with my own pain for as long as it lasts. Because this is what we do for people who we care about. We sit with them while they are hurting.
  3. My pain counts, too. In the self-compassion retreat I attended, I learned that I can focus on giving myself compassion for as long as I need to before sending it to someone else. I can focus on my pain first.
  4. I can be thankful but still be in pain. Practicing gratitude is helpful, but it is not some magical solution that will make our pain go away. Thankful people with good lives still get depressed.
  5. What can I do to alleviate some of your suffering? Would it help to eat some breakfast? Turn on some music? Call a friend? These are much better alternatives than screaming at yourself for not being able to get out of bed.

Compassion takes practice, just like anything else. So be gentle with yourself as you try to come up with compassionate statements for yourself and for others.

On the Road to Enlightenment

I didn’t realize how many posts I’ve written about Pope Francis until I looked them up just now, in preparation for this one. In one of those posts, I said that I thought Pope Francis was an enlightened human being. And that it was only fitting that as one enlightened being, Nelson Mandela, leaves this world, God would send us another one to restore balance in the universe.

Last week I was astounded by the reception that Pope Francis got in the United States. Apparently, he was, too. He even coined a term to describe his reception in New York: stralimitata–beyond all limits. He was like a rock star, attracting people of all religious and political affiliations. People cried when they saw him–even if it was just on TV.

He was the most popular topic on Facebook and a refreshing change from all the negative posts that I usually try to ignore. Anyone who can make people post about predominantly positive things on Facebook for an entire week has to be enlightened.

I think the most moving thing to me–and Boehner, apparently–is when Pope Francis asked people to pray for him. And, being ever respectful of their religious beliefs, if they couldn’t pray for him, he asked them to send him good wishes. I mean, how awesome is that? The Pope needs us as much as we need him. What a novel idea in a world where leaders seem more interested in proving how powerful they are than in showing their vulnerabilities.

The closest I have come to being in the presence of that kind of compassion was when I went to this conference and listened to the psychologist Peter Levine talk about healing trauma. He didn’t say he practiced compassion, although the techniques he describes for learning to identify the physiological signs of trauma are clearly mindfulness-based.

But when you watched him work, you could hear the compassion in his voice and see it in how closely he paid attention to his clients. It was a palpable, tangible thing that you could feel in the room. I was so struck by his presence that I went to his second talk just so I could sit in the audience and listen to him. The world felt like a safer place when he was around.

In Buddhism, enlightenment is something that anyone can achieve, hypothetically speaking. That seems difficult to imagine in practice, though. Plus it seems like a lot of work. And a lot of pressure. I’m sure my Inner Critic would try its hardest to sabotage my efforts every step of the way. But then again, I guess that’s why you practice self-compassion.

I like the idea that we all have the power to create a palpable, tangible force in the universe. I know how I have felt when I have been in the presence of compassion. And I know that practicing compassion has changed me for the better–both in terms of how I feel about myself and in how I interact with others. So I will keep up my practice and see where it takes me.

Social Pain

mindfulness

I’m all into social pain right now. I mean, not experiencing social pain. I’m not masochistic or anything. At least I don’t think I am. Actually, maybe I am, based on my relationship history. But that’s beside the point.

Let me start over. I’m reading this book on Social Pain, and it is really fascinating. Probably not something you would be interested in reading unless you enjoy learning about brain research, so I’ll just tell you about it, since that’s what I do.

It turns out that social pain–things like rejection, bullying, loss, and separation–registers in the same parts of the brain where we register physical pain. So some researchers thought, hey, I wonder if pain relievers might help people who are experiencing social pain? So they gave people Tylenol for 3 weeks and it turns out that it works! How cool is that?

The other thing that I learned is that we can relive social pain but not physical pain. Which is so true. I hurt my knee 2 months ago playing tennis, and I remember being in pain, but I don’t re-experience the pain when I remember it. But I can remember how rejected I felt when my tennis partner broke up with me because we didn’t win enough.

That’s the other major difference. I take social pain more personally. I felt humiliated by the whole thing. It’s hard to talk to that person now. The rejection is always there, hovering between us. And it has undermined my confidence in my game.

It turns out that social pain hurts so deeply because in our ancestral history, being accepted by your group meant that you would be taken care of. Being an outcast meant that they might tell you to wait in the cave while they go out to hunt and gather and never come back to get you. So being accepted was actually a matter of life or death.

Which is why people are more afraid of public speaking than they are of death. Because speaking in front of others could result in humiliation and rejection, which can feel like death. More so than actual death, apparently.

I guess that’s why I didn’t have to practice compassion when my knee was hurting. I would ice it and take ibuprofen and try not to play. And I’d sort of be pissed off at myself when I played and reinjured it, but I didn’t really beat myself up over it.

Actually, now that I’m writing this, I realize that I haven’t practiced self-compassion over the tennis breakup. So I guess I’ll do it now.

It hurts to be rejected. Everyone feels hurt when they’re rejected. That’s how our brains work. At some point, it will stop hurting, and I will be here with you until it does. In the mean time, I want you to think about something else, because I don’t want you to suffer unnecessarily.

I guess I’ll see if that helps. Maybe I’ll kick ass in tennis tomorrow night.