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What Would You Do?

evil and free will

I just finished reading The Nightingale, by Kristin Hannah, and I highly recommend it. I was ambivalent about reading another book about WWII because we read so many of them in book club, but this one got over 34,000 5 star ratings on Amazon. I’ve never even seen a book that’s been read by over 34,000 people, much less one that had a rating of 5 stars. So I figured it had to be good.

There are so many things to like about it. It’s written by a woman and from the perspective of female characters. Hannah’s intention was to educate people on the important contributions women made in the war, because they cannot be found in history books. It did not have the kind of violent and gory descriptions that give me anxiety attacks, like Unbroken did. Don’t get me wrong–I thought Unbroken was a great book; I just didn’t read half of it. It was a love story–a traditional one, and also one about two sisters. And, perhaps most importantly, it made me think about why God allows bad things to happen, and whether I would risk my life to save other people.

I think a lot about the story of Adam and Eve and the Fall. One of the lessons that I get from it is that it is inevitable that we will choose the wrong thing. That is one of the consequences of free will. It’s sort of like the Bill of Rights–having free speech, the right to bear arms, and freedom of the press means that there are a lot of things that we may have to tolerate that we vehemently dislike. That we consider evil.

The only way I can make sense of the Holocaust is to think of it as an extreme case of how much free will we have. We can choose evil if we want to. We can choose to engage in it. We can choose to pretend we don’t see it. We can choose to do nothing about it. To follow orders, keep our heads down, focus on our own survival. Perhaps it’s extreme to think of self-preservation as a form of evil, but had there not been people who risked their lives, Hitler would have won.

I wish I could say that if I had been alive during WWII, I would have been willing to risk my life to save other people. That I have that kind of integrity and courage. I don’t know for sure, because one of the things I’ve learned from psychology, and personal experience, is that you never know what you’re going to do until you’re there, in that moment.

Sometimes I wish we didn’t have so much free will. That there were some safeguards so that we weren’t capable of doing so much damage on such a grand scale. I don’t know if I trust myself–or others–that much. I mean, there are some warning signs. In many of the near-death experiences books, the people always say that when you’re making the wrong choice, you come across many obstacles that make it difficult, but when you make the right choice, everything goes smoothly. I’ve found that to be true, too. Still, that’s obviously not enough of a deterrent to keep people from doing evil on a grand scale.

But then again, in every act of hatred, you can find many acts of love and kindness. They are powerful. They are healing. They help us move on, choose life, find happiness again. People who have faced horrific tragedies talk just as much about the outpouring of love they receive from people who they don’t even know as they do about their losses. So perhaps if I continue to practice compassion, when the time comes, I will be brave and choose love, even when it’s hard to do. That’s what I’m counting on, at least.

I Don’t Want to Talk About It. (But I Really Do.)

I have always considered myself a fairly open person, but maybe I’m really not. Blogging has made me realize how little I have shared of my suffering with others. Even friends and family. Even when they ask me how I’m doing.

During the summer when I was depressed and my dad was depressed and I was contemplating ending my marriage, I was rushing to a tennis league match, barely able to suppress my tears. One of my players noticed and asked me how I was doing. I just said, “Oh, you know….” To which she replied, “No. I don’t know.” But I still didn’t say anything.

A few months before this I confessed to my parents that I was depressed because I was missing so much work and felt ashamed, weak, and irresponsible. My parents never missed work, and they had far more responsibilities than I did. During my dad’s depressive episodes he still went to work every day, even though it took him forever to do his job. I wanted them to help me with my depression, but I guess I also wanted them to tell me that it was OK that I was struggling. That I wasn’t a terrible person.

But I didn’t tell my brothers. Luckily my mom did it for me, and they each reached out to me and asked me how I was doing. I said I was fine, even though I wasn’t. Even though I had to will myself to go to work and to stay at work every day. It’s only because they read my blog and because I’ve been helping one of my brothers who has been struggling with depression that they now know what that time was like for me.

A few weeks ago I had a client make a public declaration to his friends that he wanted them to approach him if he looked like he was not doing well. And if they asked how he was doing and he said he was fine, he wanted them to push a little harder and make him talk. It terrified him to do this, because he has always valued stoicism, and he’d had a ton of traumatic experiences that he might have to talk about now.

I’m not even sure what possessed him to do something so brave. Even now, I’m not sure I would make such a declaration to my friends and family. I’m trying to make myself ask for help when I need it, and I am more honest now when people ask me how I’m doing. But I haven’t gone so far as to tell them to ask and to hold me accountable if I say I’m fine.

I imagine our work together contributed to his decision to ask for help, but it’s still surprising when clients take steps that are more courageous than anything I have done because of therapy. Sometimes I even use them as inspiration to do something courageous. Sometimes I wish I could tell them how much they inspire me to take risks in my own life.

Maybe I can tell them to read my blog. But I’m still not that brave…yet.

onions

Popularity

Pick Me

I was not very popular in high school. At least I don’t think I was. Although several years ago I talked to someone I went to high school with and he commented on how shy I was back then. Shy? Is that why people didn’t talk to me? I thought they just didn’t like me! So I’m open to the possibility that I have a distorted self-image.

At any rate, I know for sure that I did not do a lot of the things that were supposed to lead to popularity. I never drank or smoked or used drugs. I wasn’t a cheerleader, didn’t go to parties, didn’t go on the cool road trips like beach week. I did all my homework and studied for tests. Once I got 100 on a history exam and the teacher gave me a hard time for being a curve buster. The teacher. Talk about unpopular.

But I was OK with the choices I made because if you are a follower of my blog, then you know that I obsess about going to hell. So I was willing to forgo popularity to avoid eternal damnation.

But now, after a lifetime of escaping peer pressure and of preaching about the perils of social media as a psychologist, I find myself vying for popularity. In order to have a successful blog, I need followers, likes, tweets, shares, and comments. I had to open all of these social media accounts even though I have no idea what I’m supposed to do on them. I need to say stuff on these accounts that will make people like me and want to read my blog. The only problem is, self-acceptance never seems to be a trending topic.

I try really, really hard to use all of my knowledge of psychology to avoid getting down about how few followers, likes, tweets, shares, and comments I get. Here are a few of my strategies:

1. Perspective-taking. I remind myself that I have only been blogging for a year as of the 24th (my blog birthday!) and that it takes time to build an audience. In fact, my life will go on even if my readership never grows. And I would be perfectly content to write for this small group of people and for myself.

2. Intrinsic motivation. I remind myself that I am not in a race against other bloggers. I am not trying to win. The thing that drives me is to find out how far I can take it if I give it my all–to find out what I’m capable of.

3. Quality vs. quantity. I will probably never have a post go viral, which is OK. It’s more important to me that my blog is personally meaningful rather than popular–even if the only person it is meaningful to is me.

4. Honesty. Before I publish a post, I prepare myself for the possibility that people won’t think it’s as awesome as I do by reminding myself that the most important thing is that it’s true.

5. Control what you can control. I have limited control over what other people do. I can’t make them follow, like, tweet, share, or comment on my blog. However, I can control what I do, and the best way to get more readers is to write more posts.

So I am one post closer to my goal.

Declaration of Independence

I am working with a client who was sexually assaulted and is thinking about taking her case to our judicial board. We talked about the levels of awareness that she went through before she could be ready to take this step. How at first she didn’t want to acknowledge what happened. Then she opened up to a few people who felt safe. Now she wants to make sure he understands that what he did was not OK. To force him to think about it the next time. She hopes to eventually share her story at Take Back the Night so that other people can benefit from it.

She knows that there will be people who won’t believe her. Who will blame her for what happened. She prepares herself by reminding herself that as long as she knows what happened, that’s all that counts. But that’s a hard thing to do–to face the judgment within us and around us. It takes a lot of courage to face that kind of scrutiny.

I like to think of this process as a kind of declaration of independence–from our demons, from judgment, from fear. It happens every time someone goes to AA and admits they’re an alcoholic. Every time someone finds the courage to say I have an eating disorder. I struggle with depression. I live in fear. In making this declaration, they take away the power that their condition has to make them feel weak. Defective. Crazy.

To a lesser extent, I think of my blog as a kind of declaration of independence. I’ve tried to hide these things about myself all my life. I don’t want to be held hostage by them anymore. I want to be able to embrace everything that makes me who I am–especially the things that I am ashamed of.

The president of the student organization I advise, Active Minds, told me that he reads my blog, which kind of freaked me out at first. But he thought it was the most powerful way to fight stigma and to let other students know that they are not alone in their struggles with mental illness, which is the primary goal of Active Minds. So he is finding ways to give students the opportunity to make their own public declarations. It is a wonderful feeling to know that this has come out of my willingness to share my vulnerabilities.

I’ve always liked the expression that freedom isn’t free. You have to fight for it. Although blogging has been a surprisingly supportive and positive experience, I am well aware that there will be times when someone will judge me for what I say. I try to prepare myself for it by doing what my client is doing–to remind myself that ultimately, the only person who counts is me. Then I take a deep breath and hit Publish.

Declaration of Independence

Self-Disclosure, Part 2

self-disclosure part 2

Therapists are in that category of people who aren’t supposed to be real–right along with teachers, priests, and parents. They shouldn’t be at UVA football games talking smack with Tech fans. They’re not supposed to have divorces. Plural. (Usually one is acceptable.)  And they certainly aren’t supposed to struggle with anxiety and depression. Even my niece was surprised to learn that psychologists who treat depression can be depressed, and she’s only 8.

Freud is mostly to blame for this. He thought psychoanalysts should be a blank screen onto which patients projected all of their repressed sexual and aggressive urges while he sat behind them smoking cigars and snorting cocaine. And even though I wasn’t trained as a psychoanalyst, in grad school they discouraged us from using self-disclosure and from crying in session. (I really have a problem with that last one. I can’t help it. Sometimes I’m really moved by what clients say.)

But even Freud and my grad school supervisors did not say I should be a blank screen in all areas of my life. I guess it just felt safer to do so because I am terrified of judgment and criticism. That’s why I want to be perfect. That’s how my inner critic is able to manipulate me. That’s why I have developed such good empathy skills: if I can tell that the other person is upset with me, I can change my behavior before they have a chance to say anything.

I started this blog as a way to test out Brene Brown‘s claim that having the courage to share our vulnerabilities with others leads to engagement and meaningful connection. Some posts are still scary to share, but those seem to be the ones that people are the most thankful for because it makes them realize that they are not alone in their struggles. And it has made people who I don’t know very well feel closer to me. There’s this positive energy between us now when we interact. Sometimes they share their own vulnerabilities, which further strengthens our relationship. It really is a nicer way to be in the world.

After almost a year of blogging, I am finally taking the plunge by telling students about my blog. This is the one place where I have been reluctant to share my vulnerabilities because it could potentially undermine my credibility. But it will also serve as evidence that the people who they perceive as having their lives together are dealing with the same issues they deal with. Normalizing their experience, as therapists say.

But normalizing our experience takes practice. We need to be reminded over and over again. We need to repeat it to ourselves with every thought, feeling, and action that makes us worry that we’re crazy. And while everyone doesn’t need to blog about it, it certainly helps me to accept myself as is. So self-disclosure is as much a gift to myself as it is to anyone else who enjoys reading my blog.

 

Constructive Criticism

I have trouble giving constructive criticism. I prefer the passive-aggressive route: just avoid the person altogether, or put their call on speaker phone and do my blog homework while they’re talking.

I know this doesn’t reflect positively on me as a psychologist. When I have a client who has problems being assertive, I have all kinds of good suggestions. And they usually take my advice. Which is a perfect example of why I often think my clients are more courageous than I am.

Part of the problem is that I can’t stand hurting other people. If it’s a choice between being annoyed by them or hurting their feelings, I choose to be annoyed. Because I can take it. But all those annoyances start to add up after awhile. Like being bitten by 1000 mosquitos. And I’m allergic to mosquitos, too. That’s why I have to keep reminding myself to pick me.

The other obstacle is the whole hyperempath thing, combined with being highly self-critical. When I think of how I would feel if someone were to tell me that I brag about myself a lot, I would be mortified. I’d probably never speak again.

Sometimes the other person is so sensitive that they, too, will obsess about it for the rest of their lives. We can never have a conversation again where the person doesn’t think about it, apologize for it, justify their behavior. It’s painful. It feels just as bad as when they were annoying me, except now I feel guilty, too.

That’s why I prefer to be so attuned to how other people feel that I can sense their annoyance and figure out why without them having to say a word. Which, admittedly, isn’t a great strategy–especially when you’re prone to depression. Because afterwards you have replay every social interaction over and over, trying to figure out where you offended the other person.

I can do it when it involves tennis. Especially when it involves wasting someone else’s time by being late, not showing up, etc. I may not think my time is valuable, but I won’t tolerate someone in my group or on my team who wastes other people’s time. But sometimes I still obsess about how I did it. Maybe if I had said it differently, I wouldn’t have hurt their feelings.

The reality is, sometimes there’s no way you can give negative feedback without hurting the person. And it’s not really my job to make sure that no one ever feels pain. Sometimes pain is necessary. It lets us know that we need to change something. And if something’s bothering me enough to tell them about it, then I am definitely hoping for change.

Sometimes I wish I could be one of those people who are so oblivious that they don’t care that they’re annoying. Someone who can dismiss criticism with some rationalization. Or someone with a really bad memory for negative feedback. But I can’t. I’m me. Empathic, sensitive, guilt-ridden me.

Perhaps I can think of this as yet another opportunity to practice self-acceptance.

The Courage to Be Vulnerable, Part 2

I’m humbled by the feedback that I’m an inspiration, but to be honest, I’m not quite sure what people mean by that. I can understand how people could read my blog and think, wow! I’m not so crazy after all! But I don’t see how it can be an inspiration. Unless it inspires people to be honest about the stuff they are afraid to share with other people.
In one scene in the book A Fault in Our Stars, (which I love!), Hazel and Augustus are in the Anne Frank House watching a video of Otto Frank. After reading Anne’s diary, he concludes that parents don’t really know their children.  I would venture to say that we never really know anyone unless we have the opportunity to read their diary–or blog.

Our inquiries about people’s lives are fairly superficial. We ask people how they’re doing when we greet them, but any response beyond “I’m fine” would be TMI for most. Recently I asked a friend how her husband was doing because I heard he had been sick. She said he has his good and bad days. I’m sure some people don’t want to go into more detail, but maybe some people do. Maybe they feel like the person is just asking to be nice. To let them know they care without really wanting to hear the details.

I am one of those rare individuals who likes to tell people everything that’s going on in my life when I greet them. Well, not everyone. Just the ones who will tolerate it. I’ll even do it before they have a chance to ask me how I’m doing.  I’ll just bombard them with the minutiae of my day the moment I see them. Because I spend most of my time alone with no one to talk to, I am willing to break protocol. Admittedly, this stuff isn’t particularly inspirational, but at least I’m consistent in my self-disclosure.

I do think the world would a better place if we could all risk being a little more vulnerable. If we could all admit that we are human, I think people would feel a lot better about themselves. It does take courage to put yourself out there, but taking that risk also requires good listeners. People who are willing to be present and bear witness to our humanity without judgment.

So I am thankful to all of the readers out there who are willing to bear witness to my humanity. You are the ones who make courage possible.