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Nothing Compares 2 U

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Want to feel better about yourself? Here is a piece of advice that doesn’t require money, self-help books, therapy, dieting, exercise, or youth-enhancing products. Stop comparing yourself. To others, to your former self, to your ideal self. There’s nothing about comparison that will ever make you feel better. Even when you win, you lose.

In my post on What Compassion is Not, I talk about how comparison is not compassionate. Have you ever tried to cheer yourself or someone else up by telling them that there are people who are suffering worse than you? People in war-torn countries? People who are poor, hungry, and sick? Sure you have. This is one of our go-to strategies for making people feel better. But did it?

I know I have used this strategy, and it always makes me feel like crap. And when I’m depressed, it makes me feel even more depressed and worthless. Because what’s my problem? I don’t even have a good reason to be depressed. Yet here I am, unable to function like a normal human being.

Or have you ever felt good about yourself because of an accomplishment–lost a little weight, got a raise, did a good deed–only to find out that someone else has done the same thing, only better? How quickly self-praise turned into self-criticism? Maybe if I had the discipline that she does, I could have lost more weight. Why didn’t I stay after work more often, like my colleagues? I must be selfish for not giving more.

Or how about berating yourself because you are not like your former self? I used to be in better shape! I used to be able to play 3 and a half hour singles matches in 90+ degree heat! Now I feel like I’m going to pass out in the heat while playing doubles if I have to hit more than 3 shots. And throw up after long rallies. I’m old! My body is falling apart! This sucks!

(Although to be honest, I don’t miss singles at all. I just didn’t know any better back then.)

Perhaps the worst comparison of all is failing to live up to the version of yourself that you think you should be. That put-together, in control, polished, successful part of yourself that is always telling you that you suck. What I usually call the Inner Critic, but it can go by different names.

Sometimes in therapy I ask clients to personify this ideal self. And then I ask them how they feel about this “person.” They don’t like them. They’re mean and judgmental. They’re a little afraid of her. They wouldn’t want him as a friend. Isn’t that ironic, that the “perfect” version of ourselves that we so desperately want to be isn’t even someone that we like?

Let’s say that occasionally you’re fortunate enough to hit your target goal. You got straight A’s. Make a six-figure salary. Lost 20 lbs. You’re feeling a bit superior to all of those less-fortunate scrubs who don’t have what it takes to do what you have just done. Even in these cases, enjoyment is fleeting. Because even if you don’t meet someone who has done a better job–even if you “won”–you have to stay on top. You can’t slow down now. So you can never relax and just feel good about being you.

Given our comparison-obsessed culture, what are we supposed to aim for, exactly, if we aren’t trying to be better than someone else? It’s hard to come up with something that isn’t about trying to be better. We don’t even have the vocabulary for it.

I’ve written about my struggles with trying to figure out what I’m supposed to do if I’m not trying to be good. Because being good is a kind of comparison. Most of the time we end up measuring how much better we are than other people (e.g., it’s not that he’s a terrible person; he’s just worse than I am).

So now, rather than trying to focus on being good, I try to focus on being loving–to myself and to others. I try to practice compassion. One of the advantages of practicing compassion is that it’s inherently nonjudgmental, non-evaluative. You can’t do a good or bad job. You can’t succeed or fail at it. You can’t get an A in compassion. (Because if you could, I’d totally try.) You just practice and accept whatever happens.

It’s hard to give up comparisons completely, so I will end by saying that, of all the strategies that I’ve tried to make myself feel better, compassion is the clear winner.

How to Get What You Want

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Here’s a fact that will save you a lot of self-criticism, and help you to understand why people do things that don’t make sense: we are not as rational as we think. That might not seem comforting in a culture where it’s important to be reasonable, stoic, self-sufficient, and in control, but it’s true.

Let me illustrate how illogical we can be. I’m going to give you some examples of how people try to get what they want from others. But let me first say that, if you are relying on others to get what you want, you have already given up some control, because we have far less control over other people than we do over ourselves. And I don’t know about you, but I can barely get myself to do what I want.

Nevertheless, we still try to get what we want by getting other people to change their behavior. We want bullies to stop bullying. We want our kids to come home at curfew. We want our partners to stop leaving wet towels on the floor.

Even in these cases, we often try to change other people’s behavior in ways that aren’t very effective. Maybe they work sometimes, but even when they do, they hurt the relationship.

Usually these strategies involve punishment–guilt trips, shaming the person, passive-aggressive comments, withholding love, the silent treatment. If you’ve never taken an intro psychology course, it may come as a shock to hear that punishment is not an effective way to change people’s behavior, given how often we use it. Rather than lecturing you about the principles of behavior theory, I’ll just give you a few examples to prove my point.

Let’s use bullying as an example. It took me 2 seconds to find this quote about bullying:

Bullying is not a reflection of the victim’s character, but rather a sign of the bully’s lack of character.” 

The message is: bullies are bad people. Don’t be a bad person. Have you ever tried getting someone to stop doing something by telling them to stop being a bad person?

Of course you have. We all have. And I’m guessing what happened is the person got defensive and you had this big argument and you didn’t get what you wanted. Or if you did, it probably resulted in them resenting you more, liking you less. So even if the person stopped leaving their towels on the floor, they pick them up begrudgingly, and it remains a thing between the two of you.

Let’s imagine we try something other than shaming bullies out of their behavior. Perhaps we could try practicing compassion. We could try to understand why this person hurts other people.

Or I can just tell you why. People hurt other people because they are hurting. So if you want to make people stop hurting other people, you have to address their pain, rather than add to it. Asking questions, trying to understand, listening to what they say, and expressing empathy for their pain goes a long way in changing people’s behavior. Yes, that takes longer than telling someone they’re a bad person, but this is how you get what you want. This is how you get a bully to be kind. With kindness.

Another strategy for getting what you want is to use positive reinforcement. The easiest way to use positive reinforcement is to praise someone when they do the thing you want. I’m sure you’ve used this with children, and it is amazing how effectively and immediately it works. Wow, Jane! You are a fast runner! So Jane runs around like a maniac for the next 5 minutes, demonstrating how fast she is. People want praise, so we will keep doing the things that make people praise us.

I encourage you to try out what I’ve just said about punishment and positive reinforcement. See for yourself if it works. And if you do try out your own personal psychological experiment, I’d love to hear about the results.

 

Adam and Eve Retold

I’ve written a lot of posts about Adam and Eve–trying to make sense of what it means to have free will, to be good, the inevitability of sin, the possibility of boredom in Paradise.  For some people, a story of a God who would put a tree in the middle of Paradise, and a snake that would tempt Adam and Eve to eat from it, and then punishes them for doing so seems fair game. For me, not so much.

But that doesn’t mean that the story isn’t meaningful to me. I believe that the Fall from Paradise is a prelude to the story of our lives. It sets the stage for the lessons that God wants us to learn about what it means to be human. So I’m going to take some liberties in retelling the story of Adam and Eve in a way that makes sense to me.

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Once upon a time, after God had separated heaven from earth, light from darkness, and land from sea, God populated the Earth with vegetation, living creatures, and Adam. He created a place for him to live in the Garden of Eden, and in the middle of the Garden he planted 2 trees–the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. He told Adam to work and keep the Garden and that he may eat from every tree except the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, because he will die if he does. And that would make God sad.

Then God realized that it was not good for Adam to be alone. There was no helper fit for him among the creatures that Adam had named. So while Adam was sleeping, God took one of his ribs and created Eve. They became one flesh, naked before one another, with nothing to be ashamed of.

One day the serpent, the most crafty of all God’s beasts, approached Eve.

“Are you sure you are not to eat of the Tree of Knowledge?” he asked.

“Yes. We will die even from touching it, ” Eve confirmed.

“God would not let you die. Eating from the Tree of Knowledge will open your eyes and make you like God, because you will also know good and evil.”

Eve looked at the fruit on the Tree of Knowledge. It looked delicious. The idea of becoming wise was equally appealing. So she took the fruit and ate, and gave some to her husband, who did the same. Then their eyes were opened, and they became aware of their nakedness. They sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths to cover themselves.

Then they heard God walking in the Garden and they hid. But God called to them and asked them, “Where are you?”

“We’re hiding from you because we’re naked and afraid,” said Adam. Like that reality TV show on the Discovery Channel.

“Who told you that you were naked? Did you eat of the Tree of Knowledge, even though I told you not to?” God asked.

“Eve made me do it,” said Adam.

“The serpent tricked me,” said Eve.

Like any parent dealing with children who have disobeyed them, God was angry. But because he loved them, he was also sad and afraid for them. He had wanted to protect them from all possible harm, so that they would never know pain and suffering. But in choosing knowledge, Adam and Eve could no longer live in blissful ignorance in the Garden of Eden. Like Neo in the Matrix, they had taken the red pill, and now they would have to see how deep the rabbit hole goes with the knowledge of good and evil.

In preparing them for the journey of humanity, God warns them of what lies ahead.

“Children will not be made from dust and ribs. Eve will have to bear them, and it will be painful. And your children will disobey you and break your heart, just as you have done to me. Adam will have to work for food. No more plants and animals free for the taking. And you and your offspring will struggle with the existential angst of how to cope with death, loss, loneliness, and the meaning of life.

But through this journey of humanity, by witnessing pain and suffering, you will develop Compassion, which will teach you to be more loving, and Wisdom, which will give you strength to endure strife. And in developing Compassion and Wisdom, you will understand more deeply my love for you. So that at the end of your journey, when you return to Paradise, I will have a celebration in your honor. For although you are lost, you will be found.”

 

Be Brave

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I once saw a news story where this guy jumped into the river to save a drowning person. When asked how he was able to be so brave, he said he didn’t really think about it. He just did it. While this is an amazing thing to do, I wouldn’t necessarily call it an act of courage, because he wasn’t afraid. There isn’t really anything courageous in doing something that doesn’t scare you. What’s the risk in that?

I asked readers to share the bravest thing they’ve ever done. A lot of them had to do with taking risks like starting a business, joining the army, going back to school. Most people play it safe–stay in the career or relationship or neighborhood that isn’t fulfilling because of the fear that whatever they choose could be worse. Not many things are scarier than the unknown.

Some people said the bravest thing they’ve ever done was to embrace a painful life experience. Going through childbirth alone, without drugs. Facing a diagnosis of a brain tumor. Watching a loved one die. I had not expected this, but I guess it’s true that life will inevitably throw experiences our way that require us to be brave. No one gets through unscathed.

I would say the bravest thing I’ve ever done was to be single. I had been in a relationship nonstop from 15 to 45, and when I knew that one relationship was about to end, I would start another one so that there was no period of time when I was alone. I was ashamed of this, but I was more afraid of being by myself. And I stayed in a lot of unsatisfying relationships because of this fear. So for me, being single for 4 years was pretty courageous.

In my search to discover how to be a good person, the answer I found was unexpected. To be a good person, to be loving, we must be self-aware. We have to look inward and be with all of those things about ourselves that we try so hard not to face. Our flaws. Our mistakes. Our secrets. We have to accept them, forgive ourselves for them, and understand that this, too, is what it means to be human.

Those who do so can be loving because they know that we are all the same. We all have flaws. We’ve all made mistakes. We all harbor secrets. So who am I to say that I am better than anyone else? We’re all traveling the same road, doing the best that we can. We are all deserving of compassion.

I would say that this is the most difficult kind of bravery of all–to face what is inside us. This is the reason that people come to therapy–and why everyone can benefit from therapy. We aren’t taught how to face our demons. We are told to suck it up, push through, instead. And in the midst of a crisis, that is an important skill to have. But in the aftermath, we have to take time to make sense of what we’ve experienced. That’s when we need to spend some time looking within.

In teaching clients how to practice mindfulness, I tell them that they are learning how to feel their feelings but not respond reflexively to them. Just because we’re anxious doesn’t mean we have to avoid flying. We can still book the flight. We can be afraid but do it, anyway. We can be brave.

What will your next act of courage be?

In Transition

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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.

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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

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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

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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.