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Sixth Sense

elephant

I read recently that elephants can detect rain storms from 150 miles away. This is a helpful ability to have in Nambia, where it rains very little. Researchers aren’t exactly sure what the elephants are sensing but suspect that it might be related to their ability to hear very low frequency sounds, since this is also how elephants communicate with one another in herds.

I have been really anxious lately. Sometimes for no reason, which is really annoying. I know this sounds crazy, but sometimes I’m anxious about something that hasn’t happened yet. And it’s not because I’m worrying about something in the future. And it’s not that I’m psychic. I have no idea why I’m feeling anxious. But then something happens, and my anxiety makes sense. Except that the cause and effect is reversed.

I think I might be like an elephant. I think there’s something that I sense that goes beyond the usual 5 senses. I can sense distress from far away. Anxiety, like sound, is also a way that herds communicate. If you are in a pack of gazelles and one of the gazelles in the back sees a lion, it’s not like the gazelle can say, hey everybody! Run for your lives! We are about to be attacked! And whatever means of communication they use has to be instantaneous–like when we break suddenly to avoid hitting a deer. Even though you’re not supposed to do that.

People can feel it when someone is anxious, too. I think that’s why people try to stop other people from feeling. Because they don’t want to feel anxious. And usually the anxiety isn’t adaptive. These days we usually aren’t feeling anxious because we are about to be attacked by wild animals. We’re anxious about something that isn’t life threatening at all–like an interview. Or because we slept through our alarm clock and are running late. Or because we are imagining how we would get to work if we broke our leg without having to call our ex. (I was really worrying about that a few days ago for some reason.)

The problem is, my instinct to move towards the source of distress isn’t like an elephant moving towards water. Moving towards water is adaptive. Moving towards danger is not. If anything, I should be running for my life, like the gazelles.

But then again, there are people who run towards danger. Like the firefighters and police officers in 9/11. In fact, when you talk to someone who has done something heroic, like jump into a river to save a stranger’s life, and you ask them what they were thinking, they say they weren’t thinking anything. They were just responding. So we do need people whose instinct is to run towards danger.

I have always considered myself risk averse, but maybe I’m not when it comes to psychological things. Maybe I’m like a psychological fire fighter. That doesn’t sound so crazy after all.

The Dilemma of Being Human

I am currently reading The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, which is awesome! It’s about this guy who decides to walk several hundred miles to visit an old friend who is dying of cancer because he believes that it will keep her alive. His walk is a form of penance for all of the people he has failed, including himself. To make up for his passivity, he decides to take a leap of faith that he can walk 600 miles in yachting shoes without a cell phone, a map, or a plan, and be redeemed.

I like this book because it explores how loss and grief can change us and our relationships with the people we love. It has always bothered me that someone who had once been so important to us can become someone who we can’t stand the sight of. Even though it’s less romantic, I would prefer to think of love as a weed that sticks around no matter how hard you try to get rid of it rather than some high maintenance flower like a rose that is easy to kill.

I also like the book because I’ve had this fantasy of walking the Camino de Santiago because some Catholics believe it will halve their stay in purgatory. I don’t know if I believe in purgatory, but if it does exist, I would definitely like to shorten my stay there. I can see why a pilgrimage would be therapeutic. It’s like self-therapy with a rigorous physical activity component.

Along the way, Harold meets people who share their own sorrows, which he feels both comforted and burdened by. The other night I read a line in the book that gave me pause: “Harold cold no longer pass a stranger without acknowledging the truth that everyone was the same, and also unique; and this was the dilemma of being human.”

This statement is at the heart of what my blog is about. I have always felt different from others in a way that makes me feel alone in the world. For being Filipino and for not being Filipino enough. For thinking too much and for being too shallow. For not being married, for being divorced, for not having children. For having depression and anxiety. Even without these specific differences to point to, I have felt fundamentally flawed in a way that I can’t quite put into words.

But as I blog about my flaws, I realize that other people feel just like I do–alone in their craziness. The details make us unique, but the pain of feeling separate from others is universal.

So in a way I feel like I am Harold Fry, on my journey to self-acceptance, but with a much less rigorous physical activity component. And as I tell my story, I give others the opportunity to reflect on their own story so that we can share the joy and pain of being human together.

The Dilemma of Being Human

Photo: Maria Roman

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

Empathy, Part 2

I had an epiphany a few weeks ago. I realized that I don’t have to like someone to have empathy for them.

That helps to explain why, when I worked in daycare, the toddlers who cried all day every day for weeks on end were attached to me. Because I picked them up and held them, which you weren’t supposed to do. I didn’t particularly like them at that point, because I didn’t really get to know them until they stopped crying, but I couldn’t stand it that they were in pain.

According to The Art of Empathy, empathy is not limited to human beings. You can have empathy for art, nature, music, books, and animals. This helps to explain another aspect of my behavior that I have always found puzzling. I am not a big animal lover, but I feel bad for animals when I think they’re unhappy.

When I went to Busch Gardens in Florida, which has awesome habitats for animals because of its Africa theme, I did psychological assessments of all the animals. Most of them were happy. The otters swam right up to us to greet us. This hippo put on a show for us. The gazelles were happy because they didn’t have to worry about predators attacking them. This hyena seemed downright neurotic, pacing back and forth right in front of the window. The gorillas seemed pensive and potentially depressed.

So maybe I’m not so crazy after all. Maybe that’s just that one of the downsides of being a super-empath–it’s hard to turn off that instinct to help others. If I meet a guy and he has one of those 4 impediments in a potential mate, I think, that’s the guy for me! And the more impediments, the better. Even if don’t like him that much. Even if he lies, which I detest.

From now on, my #1 criterion when I decide to date again is that I have to like the guy. Which would probably be an obvious pick for most people, but I can be a slow learner sometimes.

Change

You know how I said I’m not good with endings? Well, I’m not that good with beginnings, either. I think I just don’t like change, in general.

I’m like my niece in that way. When we were on vacation last month, she threw a fit when she found out that she was going to start summer camp when she got back home. Even though she knew she was going to summer camp before we left for vacation. And she goes to summer camp every year. She cried about it right up until she had to go on Monday morning. Of course, when I asked my brother how her first day of camp went, she thought it was awesome.

It’s funny how our brains work that way. There is some part of us that is like a child, and no amount of reasoning or memory-jogging can talk us out of our dread of something that we are actually going to enjoy. The difference is, when it happens with kids, you accept it as being irritating but normal. When you’re an adult, you think it’s crazy. Well, that’s how I think of myself, at least.

This past weekend I went to my friend’s wedding. I wasn’t looking forward to it because I was going to have to drive to Florida by myself and go to the wedding dateless. I tried to squeeze in as many visits with friends as possible to break up the trip and to have more to look forward to. I tried to tell myself it could be like a romantic comedy where I meet some great guy. But my inner child Sophie was having none of it; she whined and cried just the same.

Because of my night-owlness, I could not fall asleep the night before, so I woke up late as usual. Which filled me with guilt and shame for being a bad friend. I was speeding the whole way down there, trying to make it in time for at least some of the rehearsal dinner. Until my car broke down. My 4 hour drive turned into an 8 hour drive, a good portion of which was spent on the shoulder of I-95 talking to unhelpful people who supposedly deal with roadside emergencies. It felt like punishment for having a bad attitude.

I didn’t meet some guy at the wedding. And I still don’t have my car. And the car rental and repairs are going to cost me about a grand. But that’s OK. It was still worth it. I had a good time at the wedding, and I was honored to be included in my friend’s innermost circle. Things could have turned out much worse with my car. Plus, I’m getting an extra day of vacation out of it.

I guess that’s one important difference between being a child and having an inner child. In the latter case, hopefully you also have a part that is an adult who can make you do things that you don’t feel like doing. Because the adult knows that you’ll be OK in the end. Perhaps that’s what it means to be an adult–to be someone who understands the nature of change.

Who knows? Maybe I’ll get there someday.

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.

Psychological Energy Conservation

Being single has its advantages. I never realized how much energy I was expending on compromising and trying to make things work. It’s lonely at times but much more relaxing. So much so that I think I’m going to give up all of my high maintenance relationships. Maybe it will help me cut down on my crash and burn days.
 
In fact, I’m thinking about promoting a psychological energy conservation campaign modeled after Go Green. Instead of Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, my slogan is Refrain, Reframe, Reevaluate. Since my tag line is less intuitive, let me elaborate.
 
1.  Refrain.  I’m going to do a better job of setting boundaries. Before, if someone asked me to do something, I felt like I had to do it if I was capable of doing so. Whether I wanted to or not was irrelevant. Or whether it was in my best interest to do so. But you know what? I can just say no. No, I’m not available at that time. No, I don’t want to go to that wedding. No, I don’t have room for you on my team.
 
I can also resist the urge to help people when helping them means hurting myself. My rationale in the past has been that I can take it, so it’s OK. I can lose sleep. I can get my heart broken. I can sacrifice my time. But it’s not OK. I always tell clients that you have to put yourself first, because you can’t rely on other people to do so, even if they love you. If its a choice between you and someone else, pick you. So I’m picking me.
 
2.  Reframe.  I waste a lot of time beating myself up for things I can’t control. Like being angry, or anxious, or exhausted. So I’m trying to reframe my feelings in a way that helps me to be more accepting of them.
 
Lately, when my inner critic gives me a hard time for obsessing, I stand up for myself. Of course I’m obsessing! That’s my thing. That’s what I do. Why wouldn’t I be doing it right now? That shuts him up. And it actually helps me to stop obsessing.
 
And I’ve come up with another part to help me be more forgiving of myself for my anger. I think of my anger as a bouncer who is trying to keep people who have hurt me from getting back into the club. Because I’m standing at the door saying, of course you can come in! Make yourself comfortable. Can I get you anything? The bouncer gets mad at me when I do this, and who can blame him, really. Someone needs to be strong enough to kick these people out.
 
3.  Reevaluate.  I need to do an energy assessment after I crash and burn, rather than assume it happened because I’m a crazy, weak, bad person. If I choose to blog during lunch instead of take a nap and catch up on sleep, I might be tired later in the week.  Same thing with staying up until 2 a.m. Or choosing to captain 2 teams at the same time. Or playing 5 times a week. I can do it, but I have to be ready to pay the consequences later.
 
I can become more aware of what I need, rather than judge myself for what I think I should need, if I were a normal person. I can allow myself to do what works best for me. I’m the most productive after 7 p.m., so that’s when I’m going to get my chores done. I’d rather work nonstop for 2 hours than leisurely spend the day working. And my favorite time of day is between 11 p.m. and 2 a.m., so I’m going to let myself enjoy those hours, even if it means that I’ll sleep until noon the next day.
 
I’m thinking this campaign could really catch on. Think how much more energy we would all have for the things that are important to us if we used it more wisely. Heck, I might even win the Nobel Prize like Al Gore.