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On the Road to Enlightenment

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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

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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.

Cultivating Hope

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Despite my struggles with anxiety and depression, I actually feel like I have been blessed with a good life. In fact, this is true for many people with anxiety and depression. Yet instead of feeling like a blessing, our demons use our good fortune against us. We don’t deserve to be depressed and anxious. We haven’t earned it.

I am often accused of trying to save the world, and I have to admit, I don’t see why that is such a terrible thing. Other than the fact that it’s impossible to achieve. But moving up to 4.0 in my tennis rating may also be impossible to achieve, and I still try to do that. And I will live if it never happens.

Sometimes I think I try to help other people because of something akin to survivor guilt. God has always answered my prayers. I know that many people don’t feel that way, and I am not going to dismiss their bad fortune by saying they deserve it or that they’re not trying hard enough or whatever. I don’t really know how to make sense of all the unfairness in the world.

But I feel like the least I can do is to make good use of my good fortune. I can use my time on earth to alleviate other people’s suffering. Help them to believe they can make it to the other side of pain.

I’m not going to pretend that this is purely motived by altruism. At some level I’m saying, look God! I’m doing all these good things! Please let me continue to be blessed with good fortune. And a part of me feels like I have to pay God back for all that I have been given. Theoretically, I get the idea of grace; I’m just not sure I deserve it.

I think that’s why I have been drawn to practicing compassion. Surely a practice whose very name includes pain and suffering must teach you how to get rid of it. Which is why when I did the self-compassion retreat, I was disappointed to learn that practicing self-compassion does not actually get rid of pain. Damn!

I kind of already knew that. I tell clients this all the time. That our goal is to learn how to sit with our pain, be kind to it, wait patiently for it to pass. But obviously, at some level, I was still secretly hoping I could get rid of it.

I have gone through enough episodes of despair to know that, despite the fact that it may feel as though my pain will never end, it eventually does. That didn’t do much to make the pain go away in the moment. And sometimes the wait seemed endless. But I guess I must have always had hope. And practicing self-compassion seems to help me to cultivate hope, which has made pain and suffering a little easier to bear.

Maybe that’s why there was hope at the bottom of Pandora’s box. (Which was actually a jar.) Even if all of the evils of the world are unleashed upon us, having hope may be enough to survive them.

Good vs. Evil

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Yesterday there was another shooting, but this time it was near my hometown. By another person who was inspired by Columbine, Virginia Tech, and Charleston. Who wanted to go out in a blaze of glory. And killed two young journalists in the process. Two people doing a feature story on the Chamber of Commerce on the morning news–because he wanted to make sure he got on the news.

In general, I believe that love is stronger than hate. That good trumps evil. But in moments like these, I sometimes wonder. Because one person’s hate has the power to destroy so much love. One act of evil can put an end to all of the good that these two people brought to the world.

The killer got his wish. No one may have paid attention to him before, but now he will be remembered forever. People will know his name. His act of evil has been immortalized. If I were to try to do the opposite of what he did–to perform one grand act of love, of goodness–it would not have the same impact. What does that say about the power of good vs. evil?

Still, in my state of helplessness, I do what I can. I pray. I send compassion. I’m sure it does something, but I’m not sure what. If I ask God to send them extra angels–even some of mine, and just leave me one–will they be surrounded by them? Will angels be there with them while they grieve? Will they sit with their pain? Will they make them feel God’s love?

If I send compassion, if I feel their pain, will it lessen their suffering? Make the pain more bearable? If I cry for them, will it absorb some of their tears? Or maybe sending love and compassion becomes a force that sits side by side with the grief, anger, and confusion. Maybe it helps to balance out the good and evil in the universe.

The people affected in these tragedies always say they feel the outpouring of love. During 9/11. Sandy Hook. And yesterday. During natural disasters. And even during our private tragedies. The friends who bring food when we are sick. The people who prayed for my father when he was depressed. Even though they didn’t know him. Just because they love me. I was deeply moved by how much other people cared about my family’s suffering.

When I went on the self-compassion retreat in May, we did this exercise where we imagined someone we knew who was suffering and we sent them compassion. And then we sent it to ourselves, because we felt their pain deeply. The whole time I was doing this, I thought, is this really going to help? Is sending compassion going to actually make a change in this person’s life? They didn’t even know I was doing it.

The instructor’s response to this question was perhaps one of the most helpful things that I learned in this retreat. He said that he didn’t know if it helped the other person to send them compassion, but it helps him to send it.

That’s a good enough reason for me. Sending angels and compassion helps me feel less helpless. And it helps me to put love and goodness at the forefront of my mind.

Because that’s one way that I won’t let that guy win. I won’t let him fill me with hatred.

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Adam Ward and Allison Parker

This is Who I Am

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Once when I was in therapy I remember telling my therapist that I was like Fred Flintstone. I yelled. I wanted to be right all the time. I wasn’t as good of a friend and a spouse as Barney was. In retrospect, I now realize that the show was about Fred, so people clearly liked him, despite all of his flaws. But at the time, it was a painful realization.

This was a common theme in therapy. How ashamed I felt about being all the things that you weren’t supposed to be. Too loud. Too sensitive. Too controlling. Too needy. Too high maintenance. I couldn’t stand being me. And I couldn’t respect anyone who thought I was great. They clearly must not have very good judgment. So I treated them badly. Which made me feel terrible about myself.

That’s why I treated life like a test. I felt like I was the wrong answer. I had the wrong opinion on everything. I listened to the wrong music. I didn’t have good table manners. Didn’t know anything about current events.

That’s why I got a Ph.D. and got married and tried to have kids. Why I changed my oil every 3,000 miles. Why I force myself to eat vegetables. Which doesn’t have anything to do with being a good person, but somehow all of the big and small rules became equally important to follow.

In all of those years of seeing my therapist, the thing I remember the most was when she said she liked it that I felt things deeply. That I made life more vibrant. This was how she rephrased my shame about being too emotional. I had spent my whole life trying to be less. Until that moment, it never occurred to me that my excesses could be assets.

Yes, feeling things deeply means that sometimes I get depressed. I worry about everything. It’s hard for me to let go of my anger. But being emotional also allows me to be passionate about life, expressive in my writing, and compassionate for other people’s suffering. My excesses enable me to have a blog that helps other people feel less crazy about the things that make them who they are.

And my most recent epiphany is that it doesn’t matter if I can’t think of a way to turn one of my flaws into a strength. Like, I have no idea how counting all the time can be interpreted as something useful. But still. That’s what I do. This is who I am. And I want to accept everything that makes me who I am.

And you know what? It’s pretty liberating. It’s easier to write now, knowing that the only thing that matters is that my posts are a true reflection of how I feel and what I think, regardless of whether or not they’re popular.

Although I still want them to be popular. But that’s OK. Being someone who seeks approval is a part of who I am, too.

It’s Just a Memory

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When you’re a therapist, you need to have a good memory, because clients expect you to remember everything they’ve ever said. I’m not trying to brag or anything, but I actually exceed clients’ expectations in this department. They often ask me if I take detailed notes, which I don’t. Sometimes I don’t even look at the note from the last session before I see them.

While I’m thankful for being blessed with a good memory, there are serious drawbacks, because it’s almost like having PTSD. For big things, like when I hydroplaned on the freeway and crashed into the median going backwards. Or any memory during the 4 year period when my dad was depressed. But also for little things, like every fight I’ve ever had with someone. Or anything traumatic that has happened to other people, because of the whole hyperempath thing.

That means when these memories come up, all of the feelings come back. I get anxious every time I pass the site of my accident on the way to work. I cry when I remember that my dad barely had the will to live. I’m angry whenever I remember the lies my ex-boyfriend told me. And I feel physical pain whenever I remember seeing someone getting injured.

And since I’m also obsessive, once the memory comes up, it’s hard to get it out of my head. I keep replaying the scene, even though it just upsets me more. And it’s really, really hard to stop obsessing, even with the help of medication.

Sometimes I’m so sick of listening to myself I literally yell “Stop obsessing!” Even though in a previous post I wrote about how self-talk with words like stop, don’t, no, etc. don’t work. Plus it’s not a very compassionate thing to say to yourself.

The other thing I say to calm myself down is “It’s OK; everything’s going to be OK.” All freaking day long. But it only works if I mean it and I’m not just trying to shut myself up. It’s all in the tone of voice. But then saying it becomes a compulsion, so I get annoyed that I have to repeat it hundreds of times a day.

One of the more effective things I say to myself is “you don’t have to think about that right now while you’re trying to sleep/in session with this client/driving to work. You can think about it later if you want to.” For some reason, if I don’t forbid myself from saying it, I can let the thought go more easily.

And my latest strategy, which is the most helpful to date, is to say, “It’s just a memory of something painful. You don’t have to think about it ever again, if you don’t want to.” Again, giving myself permission not to think about it, rather than telling myself I can’t, seems to be more effective.

I guess the lesson is, whatever you choose to say to yourself, say it with compassion; it will work a lot better.

Questions for God

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This year I sent my parents a Valentine’s card with a religious theme about love, which made them happy. My dad half-jokingly said, “Could it be my prayers have finally been answered?”

I stopped going to church long ago because I didn’t agree with a lot of the doctrines of the Catholic church. When I asked questions, I wasn’t satisfied with the answers, and I couldn’t get on board with a God that wants us to accept his rules without understanding why. I mean, why would he have sent us Jesus if he didn’t care whether or not we understood him?

But that’s not to say I gave up on understanding God. Through years of reading, praying, meditating, and talking to others, I feel much better about my relationship with him. But I still have questions. Many of them have to do with mental illness.

Last week the student group I advise, Active Minds, sponsored a presentation by the JCK Foundation, whose mission is to end stigma associated with OCD and other mental disorders. The foundation was created in honor of John Kelly, who suffered from OCD and eventually took his own life at the age of 25.

One of the problems I had with the Catholic Church was the belief that suicide is an unpardonable sin. It’s obvious that John was an amazing person whose compassion and goodness were felt by anyone who knew him. So much so that his friends and family created this foundation in order to do what John did in his every day life–to help other people who are suffering. Is it possible that this one final act could have nullified all of the good that he brought to the world?

John tried so hard to beat OCD. He kept a journal. He took meds. He went to therapy. Did every kind of alternative treatment in existence. Helped other people. But still, the pain was unbearable. I can imagine how someone who was in that much pain could decide that they could not bear a life where there was seemingly no hope of getting better.

I’ve heard many people say that when their loved one was near death, they gave them permission to let go. Isn’t it possible that God would have done the same for John? That he might have said, you’ve done your job on earth; you don’t have to suffer any longer. Wouldn’t that be something that a loving father might say to a son?

Or did God say, don’t give up! There will be a cure someday. You need to persevere! Even if that’s what God said, he forgives us for being fallible. No sin is supposed to be greater than God’s love. So why wouldn’t he forgive this particular sin?

I have been thinking about John Kelly for the past 5 days, even though the presentation wasn’t that good. But I could feel John’s compassion as his friends and family talked about him, and I was moved by how they have chosen to spread compassion as far as they possibly can in honor of him.

I  choose to believe that God is happy about that.

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After I wrote this post I found this article that says the Catholic Church no longer believes that suicide is an unpardonable sin. That God is the only one who decides who should go to hell. Thank goodness.

Learning to Put Myself First

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It seems that for some people the idea of compassion entails a complete disregard for or even a sacrifice of their own interests. This is not the case. In fact, you first of all have to have a wish to be happy yourself – if you don’t love yourself like that, how can you love others? – Dalai Lama

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Last Sunday a friend of mine was talking about how her priest was retiring because of compassion fatigue. That witnessing the suffering of his parishioners all those years had depleted him, and he had nothing left to give.

In the post What Compassion is Not, I talked about the misconceptions that lead some people to believe that compassion enables people to be lazy, unproductive members of society. But there are also misconceptions about compassion that can lead to burnout. Here are some of the ones I’ve written about in my blog.

1. Date your enemies. When Jesus said to love your enemies, I took this a bit too far. Yes, I do try to put myself in the other person’s shoes. To recognize that we are all capable of good and evil. But I also thought it meant that if I didn’t want to date someone because of race, SES, mental illness, red flags, etc., then I was judging them, and judgment is bad. So I should try to overcome my prejudice and go out with the person, anyway.

This has lead to disastrous consequences in my personal life. It would have been kinder to both of us if I had just acknowledged that we were not compatible from the start.

2. Love your neighbor more than yourself. I know that the quote is actually to love your neighbor as yourself, but somewhere along the line, I came to believe that my needs were less important than others. If I could help someone, I should, whether it hurts me or not.

Blogging has been the best reminder to put my needs first. Since I’m always preaching self-care, it would be hypocritical not to take care of myself. Plus, since I have made blogging a priority, before I take on a new task, I ask myself how many blog posts it will cost me. And even if it costs me one post, I won’t do it.

3. Practice compassion perfectly. Technically, evaluation should not be a part of compassion at all, but tell that to my Inner Critic.

In my last relationship, I hated the guy for a year after we broke up, and I felt terrible about this. Despite my best efforts, I could not make myself let go of my anger. But when you are practicing compassion, you must have compassion for yourself first. So I would tell myself that this is where I am at the moment. Not yet ready to let go of my anger toward this person who hurt me. And that’s OK. When I’m ready, it will happen.

And it did.

If you are interested in learning more about how to practice compassion, I recommend Jack Kornfield’s compassion meditation. It is one of my favorites.

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.

2015 Blog for Mental Health Project

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I pledge my commitment to 2015 Blog for Mental Health Project. I will blog about mental health topics not only for myself, but for others. By displaying this badge, I show my pride, dedication, and acceptance for mental health. I use this to promote mental health education in the struggle to erase stigma.

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For the second year in a row, I am participating in the Blog for Mental Health Project. Many of you already know my story, but if you don’t, check out my post on Why I Blog About Mental Illness. You can also check out my post for the 2014 Blog for Mental Health Project.

I wrote my story about depression last month because Sarah Fader from Stigma Fighters asked me to write a 1000 word essay on my experience with mental illness. Since it’s hard to cram 25 years of depression into 1000 words, I basically just stuck with the facts. And yet, it is the post that has resonated the most with people who have struggled with depression.

I guess that’s because when you say things like, I stopped taking my meds because I didn’t want to rely on them to be normal, and then I relapsed 3 months later, they know exactly what you mean. You don’t have to spell out the shame and self-loathing involved in that process.

When I first started my blog, my goal was to model how to practice self-acceptance, because I need all the practice I can get. I was especially proud of that post because it meant I have finally accepted what it means to be someone who has struggled and will continue to struggle with depression, which is the thing I have been the most ashamed of.

But after I wrote my story, I realized that self-acceptance is not enough. Accepting all of the things that I have to do to prevent a relapse is not the same thing as acknowledging how painful it has been to live with depression. How hard it was to feel like a failure. How isolating it was to hide my depression because I knew that some people would minimize my suffering and make me feel worse about myself.

Until I wrote that post, I had never had compassion for my suffering because I didn’t think I deserved it. So now I’ve upped the ante, so to speak. Now I am modeling how to practice self-compassion. Which is why I’m also participating in 1000 Voices of Compassion, in which 1000+ bloggers will publish posts on compassion on February 20.

I will continue to educate people about mental health and do my part to erase stigma, but ultimately I cannot change what people think about me or anyone else with a mental illness. So I will make sure that I treat myself with the love and kindness that I deserve, and I will encourage other people to do the same.

On a final note, if you read my blog, then you know that I am obsessed with being a warrior. So I thought I would leave you with this article on Mental Illness Warriors, some of whom you may recognize.