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Sensitivity

I am reading The Secret Life of Bees for book club, and I love it! I know it’s old, but in our last meeting we discussed which books made us wish we could spend more time with the characters, and one of the members mentioned this one. I can see why. I love all of the characters, too. Well, maybe not June so much. She’s a little too guarded for me. Although I wish I could be more like August, the matriarch of the sisters, I am actually more like May–the fragile one who feels other people’s pain too deeply. Not as deeply as she did, thank goodness. But more so than I would like sometimes.

On the one hand, I recognize that it is a gift to have such a keen sense of empathy. I know I have helped a lot of people because of it. But I am also easily thrown off balance when the people I care about are in pain–especially since I am also prone to depression and anxiety. I have always assumed this meant that I was weak. Fragile. Too sensitive.

I spent time with my brother this weekend–the only one of the four siblings who does not have a mood disorder. In talking to him, it was clear that he does not experience his feelings as intensely as I do. He does not get his feelings hurt very often. He is better able to maintain distance from family drama, and his advice really is to tell them to suck it up.

I envy him for this, but I cannot be him. I can only be me. I feel things intensely. My feelings get hurt easily. And when someone is in pain, I feel what they feel and try to help them, even if it hurts me.

But rather than berate myself for it, I am learning to accept that this is who I am. We all have different vulnerabilities. Some people may be prone to heart disease. Other people have diabetes. I am a hyperempath with depression and anxiety. Therefore, I have to be sure to take care of myself in certain ways: make alone time a priority, set boundaries, and be more selective about who I spend time with.

I used to joke that I’m not trying to save the world–just the people that I meet. But perhaps I will have to narrow down my scope in my life-saving efforts, too.

Hiatus

I have always prided myself on being open to love, even after heartbreak. I’ve met people who have closed off their hearts after being betrayed by their loved one, and while I don’t judge them for their decision, it is not how I want to live my life. This is also why, although I’ve had partners who have been dishonest, I still choose to start off a relationship trusting the other person.

A few weeks ago, my therapist suggested that I consider getting a cat. She thought it would help to combat my loneliness and to discharge negative energy. As I mentioned in a previous post, I am not an animal person, but I, too, have considered getting a cat. But after talking to my friends about it and imagining what it would be like to have a cat here in my darkest moments, I have decided against it. For now, at least.

I realized after this deliberation process that I am not in a place where I am ready to love, take care of, or lose anyone or anything. I am not necessarily closing off my heart, but I still feel too vulnerable, too raw to be open to love at the moment.

I don’t like the person I have been in relationships. In my most negative moments, my inner critic uses this against me as evidence that I deserve to be alone. I think it has more to do with the super-empath in me who identifies so much with how the other person feels, I cannot separate my wants and needs from theirs. I think that’s one of the reasons I convinced myself that I loved people who loved me; I became what they needed me to be.

As cliche as it sounds, I really don’t know who I am or what I want in a relationship. I am hoping that if I can be free from the wants and needs of others, I will eventually have a better sense of what my own wants and needs are. I have already been surprised by how much I enjoy my solitude–most of the time. How freeing it is not to have my mood be so tied to how my partner is feeling. My mood is all over the place as it is. I now realize how overwhelming it was when I felt everything for the two of us.

So I’m taking a long overdue hiatus from relationships. I am hoping this will lead to wiser decisions about matters of the heart. And if the hiatus ends up being longer than expected, I can always take my therapist’s advice and adopt a cat.

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.

The Battle Against Depression

I really wish that so much of my existence did not revolve around obsessing about sleep. I’m tired of writing about it, and I’m sure you’re sick of reading about it. But this is the reality of my existence at the moment, and I am committed to being honest about my current state of mind.
 
Today was another day that was filled with sleep. It makes me feel like such a failure. My colleagues don’t struggle to make it to work because they can’t get out of bed. The physicians in my family never even take a sick day. Some depressed people manage to take care of their families. I can barely take care of myself. What is my excuse for my weakness?
 
Then I thought of physical conditions that leave people debilitated. Migraine headaches. Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. Lyme disease. Do the people who suffer from these conditions feel paralyzed with guilt and shame when they can’t get out of bed? Or do they accept their fatigue as being part of their illness rather than a personal failing?
 
I think about the recommendations I give to clients who are depressed. Exercise. Get sunlight. Be social. Regulate your sleep cycle. If someone had the flu, you would tell them to rest. Listen to your body. But with depression, we tell people to ignore what their bodies and minds are telling them and to do the opposite. Fight it! Don’t give in!
 
Don’t get me wrong. I do all of these things when I can, and they work. After sleeping most of the day, I forced myself to do laundry, get some lunch, wave at my neighbors, put together my tennis schedule for the new league, and play tennis for 3 hours to make up for my lack of steps from yesterday. And I’m writing this blog post now.
 
Because if I gave in to the desire to do nothing, I wouldn’t really be trying to get better. I wouldn’t be taking responsibility for my illness. But I don’t think it’s fair to hold it against someone if their depression is so severe that it’s too much effort to go outside and get sunlight. Because sometimes I’m that person, too.
 
When I have a client who cannot will themselves to follow these recommendations, I don’t judge them for it. But I tell them to keep trying to do them. And no mental health professional that I know would tell a client that if they felt like they need to sleep they should listen to their bodies and rest.
 
There is an article circulating on the internet about how for some depressed people, positive reframing doesn’t work. Telling the person to be positive actually makes them feel worse. That it’s better to support them by expressing empathy for their feelings.
 
Perhaps someday, researchers are going to find that listening to your body when you are depressed is sometimes more effective than fighting it with wakeful activities like forced exercise and socialization–two things that can be difficult to do even when you’re not depressed.
 
I’m going to do my own case study to see if this works.
 

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.

Liebster Award

I would like to thank Somber Scribbler for nominating me for the Liebster Award. I am new to blogging so I always wondered how people got these awards. What a great way to find out! In the words of Sally Field, “You like me! You really like me!”

What is the Liebster Award?

Liebster is a German word that means lovely or valued. It’s an award for relatively new bloggers with less than 200 followers. Nominating someone’s blog is a way of letting them know that you like their work and a way to interact with other bloggers. 

Liebster Rules

In order to participate, Liebster nominees must:

1.  Thank the person who nominated you. (Thanks again to Somber Scribbler, who writes one of my favorite blogs.)


2. Answer the 11 questions given to you.

3. Nominate at least 5 blogs with less than 200 followers (approximately).

4.  Post 11 questions for your nominees to answer.

5.  Post a comment on your nominees’ blogs to let them know that they’ve been nominated.

Questions from Somber Scribbler

1.  Why did you start blogging?

About 2 years ago I started writing a self-help book on self-acceptance, but I thought it was so terrible, I was embarrassed to let anyone read it. I had to figure out some way to let other people read about my ideas, so last September I decided to start a blog, even though I barely even knew what a blog was. It turns out blogging is perfect for my writing style.

2.  If you could describe yourself with one word, what would it be?

At the moment, I would say “hopeful.” That’s why I’m a therapist, why I continue to try to get better at tennis, and why I think I can write a book.

3.  If you could be famous for one thing, what would it be?

That’s a tough one. I’d like to be famous for just about anything, as long as it’s positive. But I’ll say writing a best seller.

4.  What advice would you give to fellow mental health sufferers?

Listen to that voice that tells you to believe in yourself, regardless of how small it may be at the moment.

5.  If you could only eat one thing for the rest of your life, what would it be and why?

Another tough one. I will interpret “thing” as “ingredient” and say anything with sugar, for obvious reasons.

6.  Which fictional character do you relate to the most and why?

Ellen O’Farrell in “The Hypnotist’s Love Story,” by Liane Moriarty. She falls in love with a man whose ex is stalking her and becomes obsessed with her stalker because she has so much compassion for her suffering. That would totally be me. 

7.  What did you want to be when you grew up?

The first thing I remember wanting to be was a cashier when I was 5 because they had access to all that money. But then my parents told me that money wasn’t theirs. So then I wanted to be a bank teller, but my parents said that money wasn’t theirs, either. After that I clearly gave up on any attempt to make money.

8.  What is your greatest strength and your biggest weakness?

I would have to say that my greatest strength is my biggest weakness, which is my empathy and compassion for other people’s suffering. It helps me to help people, but having too much empathy can be overwhelming at times.

9.  What is your dream vacation?

Maui is one of the few places that has lived up to all of my expectations, so that’s where I would go for my dream vacation. With Roger Federer.

10.  Which of the many quotes about mental health speaks to you the most?

My favorite quote is from Kung Fu Panda (although I’m sure it’s originally from somewhere else):

Yesterday is history,
Tomorrow a mystery.
But today is a gift.
That’s why they call it the present.

I have a lot of trouble living in the moment, which is why in my blog I often start sentences with “In this moment….” A lot of suffering can be minimized with the practice of mindfulness.

11.  What is the most positive thing about today?

Today I got to spend time with my niece, Sadie, which is always a gift.

My Nominees

I’m going to interpret “new blogger” loosely so that I can nominate some of my favorite bloggers. So in no particular order, I nominate:

1.  Amy Purdy, who writes Bipolarly. Her blog on bipolar disorder is informative, personal, and from the heart.

2.  Matt Fried, who writes Fried’s Blog, because he is committed to honesty and to eradicating stigma against mental illness.

3.  Tim Clark, who writes Life, Explained, because he rooted for UVA to win the NCAA championship in basketball after his team was eliminated.

4.  Joy Page Manuel, who writes Catharsis, because she is a fellow Filipino and we think alike.

5.  Somber Scribbler, which is probably cheating, but we think alike, she also writes about mental illness, she also includes doodles in her blog, and she would have been my first nominee, had she not nominated me first.

My Questions

1.  What job would make you say, “I can’t believe I get paid to do this!”

2.  What’s the last dream that you remember?

3.  Who was your favorite character on “The Brady Bunch” and why?

4.  What was your New Year’s Resolution this year? 

5.  What do you want to be remembered for? 

6.  What advice would you give to someone who is thinking about starting a blog?

7.  How many jumping jacks can you do in a minute?

8.  If you could put 3 things into a time capsule, what would they be?

9.  Who is your favorite superhero? 

10.  What song best describes you?

11.  What’s the last book that you couldn’t put down?


Here is a random picture of Sadie and me in Legoland.

Swashbucklers Anonymous

My name is Christy Barongan and I am a swashbuckler.

I mentioned in a previous post that I’m reading The Art of Empathy in an attempt to help me with my hyperempath problem. I finished the chapter on empathic love, and it is so true of me that it freaked me out. I almost had a panic attack and had to take a nap afterwards.

In this chapter she lists 4 impediments in a potential mate: 1) a lack of emotional skills, 2) an active addiction, 3) unhealed childhood trauma, and 4) the presence of a toxic ex-mate. These impediments are practically criteria for a relationship for me. I like challenges, but come on! This is ridiculous! Reading this list drove home the fact that most my relationships had little chance of succeeding from the start.

Ironically, reading this chapter also helped me to not beat myself up about my relationship choices. I am drawn to people with these problems for the same reason that I chose to be a psychologist. I want to help people. I believe everyone is capable of turning their life around, and I am confident that I can help them do it. I never back down from a challenge, and I never give up. These are all qualities that I’m proud of.

However, I am beginning to realize that every challenge has a cost. Even if I do something I enjoy, like play tennis, write a blog post, or talk to my brother, it drains me mentally and physically. Which is OK. I love doing these things, so it’s worth it. But in the past, having the ability to help someone was reason enough to do it. Whether I wanted to do it or not was irrelevant because my wants and needs didn’t count. And I never paid attention to the impact that giving so much of myself had on my well-being.

In a way, that’s one of the benefits of being prone to depression and anxiety and of having allergies, GERD, and asthma. Now I have to pay close attention to everything I do and how it will affect me. I have to be intentional about all of my choices. It’s a pain, but it forces me to take care of myself.

Also, when I choose to do something challenging, most of the time I’m not too attached to the outcome–except in relationships. I’d like to move up to 4.0 in tennis, but if I don’t, I’ll just keep trying. Same with writing a best seller. I know the odds aren’t in my favor, but I enjoy the process, and if it never happens I won’t be devastated. I don’t even take it personally when I can’t help a client get better.

If I had the same attitude in relationships–that I gave my best effort, and that’s all I can do–then perhaps I wouldn’t feel like such a failure in them.

It also helps that McLaren calls people like me swashbucklers rather than codependents or love addicts. She describes swashbucklers as people on a heroic journey filled with impossible tasks and mythical beasts. Sort of like relationship warriors. But like Odysseus at the end of his adventures, I think I’m ready to come home.

Maybe I can use my superhero skills to save myself.  After all, who is better qualified to help me than me? I don’t even have to do it alone. I could create a support group for hyperempaths. A 12 step program for swashbucklers, if you will. I think it could be a big hit.

So if you’re interested in participating, let me know.