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Life is Not a Test

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Once when I was at Wal-Mart I came across this Filipino cashier. She was excited to see me because there aren’t a lot of Filipinos where I live. So instead of speedily checking me out with as few words as possible, she asked me a bunch of personal questions. Which was a little awkward and probably annoyed the people behind me. But I still tried to answer all of her questions to the best of my ability.

Are you married? Dating someone? Do you have kids? A pet? She became more distraught with every “no” answer. I tried to make light of the situation. I have some plants, and I’m barely keeping them alive. That’s enough of a challenge for me. (Which is true, by the way. I don’t get much light in my place.) She didn’t seem reassured.

After I left Wal-Mart, I sat in the car for a few minutes, trying to think of how I could turn this blow to my ego into a blog post. I couldn’t think of anything at the time. It still hit too close to home.

In my defense, I tried to get the answers right. I got married. I tried to have kids. It’s not completely my fault that my marriages didn’t work out. And it’s definitely not my fault that I didn’t get pregnant. And I didn’t know I was supposed to get a pet if I’m alone. That was not in the study guide.

But to be honest, this is where I want to be. When I was in high school, I said I didn’t want to get married or have kids, but no one believed me. You’re just saying that. You’ll change your mind when you get older. You don’t want to be an old maid, do you?

I took their word for it and did what I was supposed to do. But maybe things haven’t worked out because I did know what I wanted back then, even though I was just a kid. I mean, I knew I wanted to be a psychologist and a writer back then, and those things are still true.

Since the Wal-Mart incident, I’ve gotten better at embracing the fact that the answers to my life make small talk awkward. I tell myself it’s OK. That life is not a test where there are right or wrong answers. So in the spirit of embracing who I am, here are 10 things that I’m taking off my wrong answer list:

1. I still love the song “Let it Go.”

2. I’m not a cat or a dog person. Or an animal person.

3. I bring my karaoke machine to potlucks instead of cooking something.

4. I don’t drink.

5. I count when I pee.

6. I don’t follow most of the advice on how to get your blog noticed.

7. I live my life more like a college student than an adult.

8. I’ve had two divorces.

9. I use an astounding amount of sweetener in my coffee.

10. I don’t change my sheets often enough.

If you have items you’d like to take off your wrong list, I’d love to hear them. It would help me feel more normal.

Mind and Body

Truce

My body has a mind of its own.

For example, when I’m playing singles, I’ll tell myself not to hit a low percentage shot, like an overhead from 3 feet behind the baseline. But then my arm will be like, I can totally hit this shot from back here! It will be ESPN-worthy! And it will defy me and hit an overhead from 3 feet behind the baseline. And then I’ll yell at my arm: Are you trying to lose? Because that’s what’s going to happen if you keep hitting that shot!

This is why I don’t tell people what I’m saying to myself during a match when they ask.

Weight loss is the same way. I can eat healthy and exercise and count calories and nothing happens. Sometimes my body will even defy the laws of nature and I will gain weight. However, if I go through a divorce, I lose weight without even trying. Apparently, my body doesn’t like marriage. Which is fine, I guess, but divorce is a pretty radical weight loss strategy, and you can only get so many of them.

My body also likes the GERD diet, in which I can’t have anything 3 hours before bedtime or before exercise. Which is ironic, because I used to make sure I ate during these times, thinking I was doing my body a favor by preventing hypoglycemia. It’s also unfortunate, because I happen to like food.

I’m trying to get my body and mind to realize that we are all on the same team. Lately when I play tennis, the conversation goes more like this:

Mind: You’re good at defense, right?

Body: Yes! I am awesome at defense!

Mind: Well if you can just get all her shots back in this next game, there’s a good chance we can win it. Don’t try to put it away. Just keep it in play.

Body: I can totally do that!

Mind: Great! I have faith in you!

I know. It’s weird. But I swear, it works.

Since I’m on a relationship hiatus, I’ve been much more emotionally stable, so my body is pretty happy about that. The GERD diet, however, continues to be a struggle. I need food before a match, and sometimes I’m not awake long enough to give myself a 3 hour window before eating. And the matches are usually at night, so I can’t always finish eating 3 hours before bedtime without staying up even later than usual. And I cannot live without coffee and chocolate indefinitely.

So I’m trying a mindfulness approach where I check in with myself and see how my body is responding. I test the limits of what and how much I can eat, how much I can play tennis, and how little sleep I can get away with before my body rebels. But when it says no, I don’t push any more. I back off.

My mind and body are getting along better these days, but it is by no means a perfectly harmonious relationship. I’m committed to making this relationship work, though, because divorce is not an option.

Disaster Preparedness

Disaster Preparedness

A few years ago I went to the Titanic Museum in Knoxville. When you enter, they give you a card with a description of a person who was on the Titanic and you can find items related to that person as you walk though the museum. At the exit, there is a list of the people who survived and who did not. The people who were the most likely to survive were in first class because they had cabins at the top of the ship and had more time to get out, and the crew members because they were the first people to know that the ship was sinking.

I’ve heard of many similar scenarios, and the evidence is pretty convincing that having money increases your likelihood of survival. That’s one of the reasons why I obsess about having enough of it. I worry because I am single and don’t have someone else’s income to rely on if something were to happen to me. I worry because I am not able to save the recommended 6 months worth of salary in case of emergencies. I often have to use my savings just to cover my monthly expenses.

I am the kind of person who takes every safety recommendation to heart. When I went to the Philippines when I was 5, my aunt told me that I was teaching my 3 year old cousin about the dangers of playing with matches and how to stop, drop, and roll if you’re on fire.

After my first divorce, I realized that one of the reasons that I follow every recommendation about how to avoid disaster is because I didn’t have faith in God. I never had that exact thought, and I prayed every night that my husband and I would grow old together, but deep down I believed that making my marriage work was mostly up to me.

Part of the reason why I decided to go on the trip to Germany and Switzerland is because I realized that no amount of money can protect me from disasters. Since then, I’ve been telling myself what I tell my clients who worry about the future: I can have faith that whatever happens, I will have the strength to get through it.

I’m also taking a leap of faith that God will look after me if something bad happens to me. It’s a scary thing to do, because I know that some people lose faith in God in the face of tragedy. But God has always been there for me, so until I’m proven wrong, I’m going to keep on leaping.

One Year Progress Report

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Today is my blog’s one year birthday. Woo hoo! Who would have thought that I could write 159 posts? Before I started this blog, I never showed anyone a single paragraph of anything I had written. And I had to do all this research just to figure out what a blog was. So blogging for a year is truly an accomplishment.

In honor of this special day, I thought I would see how far I’ve come in my practice of self-acceptance. My first 4 posts covered some of the most common themes in my blog, so I thought I would give an update on where things stand in these areas.

1. Night Owl Syndrome. I have come to the conclusion that, although my mood is vastly improved when I abide by a “normal” sleep cycle, I cannot get up early unless I absolutely have to. Now that I’m working again, I’ve been going to bed earlier (12-1 a.m.) and waking up earlier (7:30 a.m.), with an occasional short nap thrown in when I have time. Even though I prefer to sleep more, I function pretty well on 6-7 hours.

The only problem is, knowing this will not make me wake up early when I’m on vacation again. But I’m not going to worry about that right now. I’m just going to enjoy being in a good mood.

2. Divorces. As of August 14, 2014, I am officially divorced and am finally at peace with it. We are on as good of terms as we can be. In fact, he just strung my racket last week and informed me that I had a nail in my tire. My first reaction when he pointed out the nail was fear about not having someone around to inform me of things like the condition of my tires.

But then I thought that perhaps it wasn’t an accident that my ex happened to be there when I dropped my racket off and that he happened to notice the nail in my tire. Maybe God was looking out for me, just like when my car broke down on the freeway over the summer. So I will try to have faith that He will continue to do so.

3. Massages and Stress Relief. I love my job, but it is stressful. The commute is hard on my body, and seeing back-to-back clients is mentally and emotionally taxing. I’ve started getting massages again, but unlike a year ago, I don’t obsess about how much they cost anymore. I accept that it’s something I have to do for my body. I also have a phone session with my therapist once a month, even if I think I don’t need it, because I feel better when I talk to her.

And this year, I’m going to try working from home one day a week to cut down on my driving and to preserve my time for blogging. I’m a little nervous about waking up early and being productive that day I work from home, and about fitting all my clients in the other 4 days, but we’ll see how it goes.

4. Knitting and Relationships. I still love a challenge. I still like complicated patterns and I am still drawn to complicated relationships. I am proud to say that I have been single for almost a year, and I am surprised to find that I enjoy my freedom. I’m actually a little afraid to start dating again, because I don’t yet trust myself to know when a relationship may not be worth the effort. So for now, I’ll limit my challenges to complicated patterns.

My latest project received the most likes of anything I have ever posted on Facebook. Not sure whether to take it as a compliment or an insult that my knitted top looks better than I do.

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Heartbreak

Regret

I’m working with a student right now who is heartbroken. I’ve always been bothered by how adults distinguish puppy love from “real” love.  I remember when I was in grad school a fellow student was talking about how boring it would be to work in a counseling center where all you do is help students with insignificant problems like breakups. No one questions that divorce is painful, but heartbreak as a teenager or young adult is apparently no big deal.

It took me a long time to get over my first love from high school. It also took a long time to get over my divorces.  I can’t say that my pain was more real or more legitimate as an adult than it was in my teens. And to be honest, I’m not sure I have been any wiser about falling in love or more mature at handling heartbreak than I was when I was a teenager. I feel like I keep making the same mistakes over and over again.

I  think that dismissing someone’s feelings as puppy love is just one of many examples of how we trivialize emotions in general. We judge some feelings as being more or less legitimate.  Puppy love is not to be taken seriously. You can’t be angry without a good reason. It’s better to be depressed if you have a “chemical imbalance.”

And because we haven’t learned helpful ways to deal with pain, we try to push people along too quickly.  So we tell them that they are better off. Tell them to suck it up. Shame them out of their feelings if we have to.

I never talked much about how I felt when I’ve had my heart broken. Certainly not as much as I wanted to. I knew that I wouldn’t hear what I needed to hear. At the time I couldn’t even articulate what I needed to hear, but now I can. I needed someone to tell me that my feelings counted. That my pain was real. And that when I was ready to move on, I would.

This is still what I need to hear, even if I’m just saying it to myself. And this is what I tell my clients when they are heartbroken. And I keep repeating it until they are ready to move on.

Self-Disclosure, Part 2

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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.

 

Choices

When it comes to money, my mom and dad are on the opposite ends of the spectrum. My dad loves to buy things and does so often and freely with no regard for cost. My mom, on the other hand, doesn’t buy something unless it’s “half of half of half” off. Depending on the day, I can be on either end of the spectrum, but most of the time I am more like my mom. As a result, my relationship with money is plagued with anxiety and guilt.

For example, when my ex and I were at the airport on the way to our honeymoon, I bought a neck pillow because we had a long flight ahead of us. It had one of those tags that they have on mattresses that you aren’t supposed to remove under penalty of law, but it was annoying me, so I ripped it off, anyway.

Apparently this law exists for a reason, because after I ripped it off, all of those little white things started coming out of the gigantic hole I had created and were spilling all over the place. I had to throw the darn thing away. I was distraught about destroying my pillow less than 5 minutes after purchasing it and wasting $15. It was only fitting that I should have to spend the next 10 hours on the plane with an unsupported neck.

While I was berating myself for my obsessiveness, my ex bought another neck pillow and snuck behind me and put it around my neck. Unlike me, he did not obsess over buying stuff. This became a source of many arguments later, but at the time it was a sweet and loving gesture. He was not great with words, but this one action said everything I needed to know: it’s OK by me that you’re obsessive, and you still deserve a neck pillow.

When memories like these pop up, it activates the same cycle of thoughts. Am I doing the right thing? Is there anything more I could do to make things work? I go through the scenario of what it would be like if we got back together, and I always come to the same conclusion: things would be exactly as they were before.

I wish choices could be more clear-cut, like on a test. But life isn’t like school: answers are rarely 100% right or wrong. I have to remind myself that with any decision, there are things that I will lose. I can’t make the perfect choice. I cannot escape the sadness of having to give up the good parts of our relationship.

Memories like this one make me want to cry. But at the same time, I am also thankful. Even if things didn’t work out, he was a good guy. He was a good choice for many reasons. And even as we finalize our divorce, he continues to be kind and helpful. Not many people can say that at the end of a relationship.