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Losing Control

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I am seeing a couple of clients whose lives revolve around not losing control of their emotions. They both have a parent who is very out of control–addictions, emotional outbursts, marginally functional–the kind of people who seem beyond hope. “Black hole people,” as my client calls them. These clients fear that if they let their emotions out, they will get lost in them like their parents.

This is a common fear. Most people think that having feelings makes you needy. Weak. Crazy. It’s better to do whatever you can to avoid feelings altogether. Ironically, it is the things that people do to control their feelings that brings them to therapy.

Eating disorders are a good example of this. Every client says that their eating disorder began as a way to have control. They can’t control any other aspect of their lives, but they can control what goes into and comes out of their bodies. Stuff down their feelings with food. Numb themselves by restricting and exercising. Get rid of feelings by purging.

At some point they lose control over this strategy. They think about food, exercise, bodies, and weight all day long, every day. They eat in isolation. They lose friends because they are constantly lying and hiding. When it gets really bad, a dean forces them to come to the counseling center. But no one can help them until they are willing to let go. Until they are willing to feel, to be vulnerable.

We all have ways that we try to control our emotions. Mine is to help other people. I don’t have problems. I don’t need anyone. I’ve got all the answers; I don’t need help.

A client recently asked if I had any flaws. I told her that I have all kinds of flaws. She seemed relieved. I almost told her about my blog–but I’m not ready to go that far.

So what do we do with all of these feelings if we don’t suppress them, deny them, or push them away? How do we keep from falling into the black hole?

One of my favorite movies is “The Matrix.” By the end of the movie, Neo realizes that all of his fears are an illusion. He has to die first to realize this, but once he is outside of the matrix, his fears no longer control him. Feelings are the same way. Your feelings are a part of you, and you are larger than any of your parts.

Sometimes you have to let go before you can discover that you have control.

How to Save a Life

A few years ago a client told me that I saved his life. Well, he didn’t tell me directly.  He told my colleague when he was drunk at a gala. But he told her to tell me. Although I’m not sure he remembers doing so. Still, I was humbled by this. I knew therapy was important to him, but I didn’t think his life was in danger. But then again, even when clients are in therapy, they don’t always tell you the full story.

Once I had to cancel a session with this client and he stopped coming in for about a month. Apparently he got depressed because he felt like I had abandoned him. A professor contacted him because he had also stopped going to class. When he came back to therapy, he told me that his professor saved his life. That was the first time I really understood how much therapy means to some clients, even when they say they’re not sure they want to be there.

Last week I went to a threat assessment training, and the first case that the presenter discussed was a student who had to go to the police department because she told her roommate she was suicidal. While she was there, she asked for a piece of paper and a pen. She drew what appeared to be a bunch of random doodles. But later when they looked at the drawing, they saw that she had embedded the word help three times.

This, too, reminded me that people may say they don’t want help but their actions tell you otherwise.

Before I started blogging, I thought blogs were just another example of our narcissistic culture in that journaling, which is supposed to be a private experience, was turned into something that you shared with the world and everyone was free to comment. But now I realize that blogs can be a way for people who have never had a voice to connect with people like themselves.

My favorite blog is by Nelly N. She writes passionately and honestly about her struggles with obsessive-compulsive disorder, among other things. She shares her most painful experiences so that other people who suffer in silence will realize that they are not alone. And it works.

A few days ago the student group that I advise had their annual eating disorder panel. It consists of students in recovery who are brave enough to share their story. On our campus, people with eating disorders are blamed and judged more harshly than any other disorder. Not surprisingly, no one wants to admit to having one publicly.

Every year, at least one student seeks treatment after attending the panel. And the next year, those students volunteer to speak on the panel so that they can help someone else who is alone with their eating disorder. Sometimes they use the opportunity to speak as motivation to get better.

We don’t have to be able to leap tall buildings to save someone’s life. Sometimes heroes are ordinary people who take action when someone needs help.

                    

Judgment

There are certain personality types that are sensitive to being judged, and I have one of them.  It takes very little criticism for me to feel ashamed that I have done something wrong.  Sometimes I interpret neutral comments as criticism.  And in some cases, I’ve even interpreted positive feedback as criticism.

Once my first husband was talking about a picture of Alicia Keys and commented on how she had big hips.  I replied with, Are you calling me fat?  Which really annoyed him.  I kind of thought it was funny but true.  Even if I get what is intended to be a compliment about having an athletic build, I take this to mean that I look fat.  This is why it’s better to refrain from comments about women’s bodies in general.

Although I have never had an eating disorder, I can relate to being obsessed about my body.  I also have a similar personality to the types of people who develop anorexia.  I am prone to anxiety and depression.  I am perfectionistic.  I am highly motivated to avoid harming others, even if it means hurting myself.  And I am so sensitive to criticism that I never forget a mistake.

This is why I am drawn to Buddhism–especially the practices of mindfulness and compassion.  I find comfort in the idea of letting go of what I “should” be thinking, feeling, and doing.  That I can accept whatever is true of myself at this point in time, without judgment or criticism–even if it’s something that I hope to change.

I often point out to clients when they are using judgment words to describe their feelings.  For example, if you say I feel pathetic, the word pathetic is not a feeling.  There is no emoticon for pathetic.  Sometimes it’s actually hard to come up with a feeling word.  Usually when you can’t think of one, you’re probably feeling ashamed.

Even when we’re successful in describing our feelings, we often get judged for them.  For example, if I say I feel depressed, someone might say You shouldn’t feel that way.  You should be happy because you have so much going for you.  This is meant to make me feel better about myself, and perhaps it works for some people, but it never works for me.

Sometimes I have tried to point out to the person that they are judging me, but people who judge others are often sensitive to being judged.  So they usually get defensive and say they were just trying to be helpful–that I’m being too sensitive.  So then I judge myself for being too sensitive.

But I am all about controlling what I can control.  Today, I realized that I can’t control whether someone else chooses to practice nonjudgmental acceptance of my feelings.  I can only control what I say to myself.

I can also choose not to share my feelings with people who judge me.  I think I’m going to start doing that, too.

Listen Carefully

Last night I gave a presentation to some students about how to provide support to those who have been affected by the accident last November.  My advice is simple yet difficult to do:  listen carefully.

Most of the time we’re too focused on ourselves to listen to what others are saying.  We’re thinking about what we want to say, what we don’t want to say, whether the other person is listening to what we’re saying, what we’re going to do once this conversation ends.  You get the idea.

As I got better at listening, I noticed that people put out feelers about important aspects of themselves, just to test the waters–to see if anyone notices.

Once I was watching my ex play in a basketball tournament, and I had to sit with a bunch of wives I didn’t know who were also watching their spouses play.  I was having the usual conversation when I meet someone new.  What do you do for a living?  I’m a psychologist.  Oh, I bet you’re psychoanalyzing me right now!  Yup.  I’ve got you all figured out.

This was not the response she expected.  But she still asked more questions.  Do you specialize in anything?  Eating disorders, multicultural identity, positive psychology.  Interesting!  I had an eating disorder once.

Of course this got my attention.  It was my turn to ask questions.  At first I worried that she would be offended by my prying into her mental health history, but it was the exact opposite.   She had never told her story to anyone.  Back then no one talked about eating disorders.  Bulimia wasn’t even a diagnosis.  She wanted someone to hear what she went through.

This is always the response I get when I follow up on those feelers that people throw out there.

There’s nothing magical about being a good listener.  Anyone can do it.  The best way to get better at it is to pay closer attention to yourself.  We spend so much time trying to will ourselves to think, feel, and do what we think we should think, feel, and do that we don’t really know ourselves.  This is often what I do therapy:  teach people how to observe themselves without judgment.

It’s not easy to do.  It takes practice.  This blog is one of the ways that I practice listening to myself, and you can see how hard it is for me to do so in a nonjudgmental way.  But I am trying to treat myself the way I would treat anyone who I care about deeply, and I suggest that you do the same.

Because hopefully you are someone who you care about deeply.

Self-portrait

Unlike the men in my family who can draw and sculpt and make replicas of batman masks out of construction paper, I am not artistically-inclined. I can’t even draw a straight line. Or a round circle. I knit, but you just have to follow a pattern.  And I make jewelry, but for some reason I don’t think that counts, either. And I was an English major and love to write, but I don’t think I’m creative enough to write a novel, so I just write about myself.

This past weekend I went to an eating disorders conference because that’s what I specialize in. This year I decided to do all the touchy-feely workshops rather than the research ones. My favorite workshop was the one on art therapy. We had to do 6 different drawings of a bunch of doodles. Then we had to pick the 2 that we felt the most strongly about. Then we had to tear out the shape of our body for the #1 pick and glue it to the #2 pick. This was supposed to tell us something about ourselves.

I’m all about symbolic expression, but I was a little skeptical that this exercise could reveal anything meaningful about me. But then she showed us examples of self-portraits from eating disordered patients, and it was remarkable how much they revealed their struggles with their bodies, food, and emotions. Then she asked for volunteers to show their art work.

Ordinarily I would be too self-conscious to show my work, even if it is just a bunch of doodles. But I really wanted to get some feedback about my self-portrait. I thought that it might have something to do with being stressed out, since there was so much going on outside of me in the picture–almost like colorful asteroids knocking me over. And I had just gotten the rejection email minutes before the workshop, so I figured that must have played a role, but I wasn’t sure how.

After the workshop I asked her for some feedback, and then I spent some time looking at my self-portrait. I can’t explain how I came to this conclusion, but the drawing made me realize that I needed to stop doing the freelance writing job–which really fascinates me.

Maybe creativity is like athleticism: we think it’s some innate ability that we either have or we don’t, but maybe it’s possible to get better at it. She recommended that we take time out every day to play by doodling pictures, and I thought that was a great idea. I have been doing it every night before I go to bed. If there’s any chance that it can help me get my blog turned into a book by enhancing my creativity, then I’m all for it! I have no idea whether it’s working, but it does make me feel like a kid again.

I am so proud of my self-portrait that I’ve shown it to a few friends, and one of them said that it’s multicolored/multifaceted, like me. I really love that interpretation! I am open to other interpretations, too, if you have one.

Body Image

When I was 0-22 years old, I never worried about my weight.  I was naturally thin and my parents were always telling me that I ate like a bird.  But then something happened when I graduated from college:  my clothes no longer fit.

At first I thought, no big deal.  I’ll just start exercising, since I never did.  But I continued to gain weight.  So then I thought, I’ll just exercise every day and watch what I eat.  Still gained weight, but more slowly.  Finally, I resorted to obsessing about being fat 24-7, exercising every day, and watching what I ate.  Again, very slow weight gain plus a lot of suffering.  Maybe my metabolism started slowing down at 23.

Ironically, all of that time that I was gaining weight, I was still pretty thin.  Until I reached 40.  Now I look like I thought I did all of those years that I obsessed about being fat.  I know I’m not fat, but I’ve gained enough weight that my dad told me that I needed to eat less and he mailed me some appetite suppressants.  And I would still like to lose weight, although I’m not as motived as I was when I was younger. 

I specialize in eating disorders so I never do fad diets, starve myself, throw up, or anything else that would make me a poor role model.  Plus I love food.  So here are the middle-aged strategies I’ve tried for weight loss, based on effectiveness:

Not Effective:

  • Buy a gym membership and never use it.  I know a lot of people do this, but I obsess about money and I used to go to the gym every day, so I really thought it might work for me.
  • Obsess all day about exercising and when you get home fall asleep on the couch instead. 
  • Try to eat the recommended 1500 calories for weight loss and then binge at the end of the day because you’re starving.
  • Stare at your gut in the mirror every time you go to the bathroom.
  • Eat fast food for dinner because you hate grocery shopping and cooking.

Effective:

  • Play tennis as many times a week as your body will allow. 
  • Use a pedometer and obsess about getting steps.
  • Don’t look in the mirror.
  • Don’t look at any pictures or videos of yourself and only take head shots.
  • Look at pictures of other people your age who have gained weight so that you realize that this is just a part of getting older.
  • Cut 500 calories out of your 3,000 calorie diet.
  • Go on the GERD diet where you have to cut out all of the things you love to eat and avoid eating 3 hours before bedtime and before exercising. 

I am happy to say that I’m slowly losing weight at the rate of about .25 pounds every 2 months.  No one is going to use me as a poster child for weight loss, but as I say to my clients, something is better than nothing.