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Everyday Miracles

mircales

Today I read a chapter from Harold Kushner’s book, Nine Essential Things I’ve Learned About Life. The reading was about the importance of helping others as a way to live a meaningful, purposeful life. That wasn’t particularly helpful to me because, if anything, I think I focus too much of my energy on helping others, to the detriment of caring for myself. But it’s still good advice, nonetheless.

There was a section of this chapter that gave me pause, however: his description of the miracles that occur in everyday life. The predictability and reliability of nature. The fact that we can count on the sun to rise and set every day, the waxing and waning of the moon, the changes of the seasons. They happen with such accuracy we know sometimes down to the minute when they will happen. According to Kushner, “a faith system attuned to the natural world celebrates the orderliness that makes our lives livable.”

I’ve had the sense of awe and wonderment about these very things, though not every time they happen. I’m not that mindful. But I guess no one is. Like, when I meditate, I begin by focusing on my breathing, and then I shift my focus to my heart, because for some reason, feeling my heart beat, feeling my pulse throughout my body, makes me acutely aware of the life force that is my heart. How, even when I’m sad, when I’m heart-broken, when I can barely summon the will to live, my heart keeps beating for me, carrying me through life. I know the heart isn’t as immutable as the sun, moon, and seasons, but it fills me with a sense of wonderment and awe, just the same.

In a previous blog post I’ve written about how the weather is a metaphor for our feelings–how it varies from day to day, moment to moment. Some weather conditions are more desirable than others–rain during a tennis match is highly undesirable, for example–but we ultimately accept whatever the current conditions are because we have faith that at some point, the weather will change. Plus, we don’t really have a choice.

We can have the same faith in our feelings, but it does not come as naturally. It takes a lot of practice. When I’m anxious or sad, I’m better able to remind myself that if I wait, at some point my feelings will change. It doesn’t really make the pain go away, but it keeps me from wasting energy on wishing I were feeling something else–a small way I can reduce my suffering in the moment. Perhaps this is a miracle, too–the fact that having compassion for our pain has the power to reduce our suffering.

As I read about these everyday miracles, my Inner Critic was quick to point out my failure to appreciate them. You should be thankful for these things more often! You shouldn’t be taking them for granted! My inner critic often turns practicing gratitude into something that leaves me feeling ashamed and inadequate–as far from awe and wonderment as you can get.

So I’m thinking maybe I’ll practice mindfulness by noticing these everyday miracles more often–to pay attention to the changes of the season, the sunrise and sunset, the waxing and waning of the moon. In practicing mindfulness, there is no expectation that you should feel any particular thing at any given moment; you simply notice what’s there. But even the act of noticing creates an opportunity to experience wonderment and awe. So I’ll try it out and see what happens.

Being Present

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Every year the student group that I advise, Active Minds, hosts a mental health panel in which students with a mental illness share their stories. A few years ago, during the Q and A portion of the program, I asked the students to say what other people can do to be helpful to someone who is in pain.

I have written often about how, in our attempts to be helpful, we say unhelpful things. We give unwanted advice. Tell people to push through. To look on the bright side. To count their blessings. Or perhaps we are so afraid that we will say the wrong thing that we say nothing at all. Pretend that we don’t see their suffering.

Occasionally students will make an appointment to ask for advice on how to help someone in pain. And the advice that I usually give is to ask the person what they can do to be helpful. But often we don’t know what will be helpful because we are so unaccustomed to caring for ourselves, to practicing self-compassion. So I was genuinely curious about what the students on the panel had to say about what they found most helpful.

All of the students essentially gave the same answer: the thing that they found the most helpful was to have someone be fully present. To listen. To let them be sad, anxious, angry, or whatever else they were feeling. So seemingly simple, yet difficult to do.

I teach clients how to practice mindfulness and self-compassion because we can’t control whether other people will be fully present, but we can always choose to be present with ourselves. And until we are able to sit with our own feelings, we cannot bear witness to other people’s pain.

Although it was not my conscious intent to use my blog for this purpose, often my posts are my attempts to practice being present with my pain. I keep a journal where I do the same thing. I read books on mindfulness and compassion. I meditate regularly. Nevertheless, when I wake up to another day of feeling anxious or depressed, or whatever crappy feeling I’m experiencing, I just want it to go away, just like everybody else.

I have started reading Wisdom and Compassion in Psychotherapy, and today’s chapter was on mindful presence. Tara Brach suggested that, whenever we are feeling something painful, we whisper to ourselves, “I consent.”

I have to admit, my first response when I read this was, what the? I consent? That’s a little more inviting than what I was going for in trying to be fully present. But it’s true that there’s this resistance that I feel in my mind and body when I don’t want to face something painful. This instinctive response to brace myself against it. And today while I was meditating I caught myself doing it and remembered to allow myself to feel the pain, and it did help.

So I’m going to try to give this strategy a shot. No matter what I’m feeling, I’m going to consent to it. Allow it to be heard and felt. I’ll let you know if anything interesting happens.

Joy and Pain, Part 2

So it’s the end of the semester and guess what? I’m feeling exhausted. Depressed. Overwhelmed at the prospect of having to be there for one more person. Even if it’s my family. Especially if it’s my family, actually. It makes me feel guilty, but it’s much more incapacitating to deal with my family’s problems than it is to deal with my clients. I guess because I am much more invested in things getting better with my family. It has much more of an impact on my own well-being. Plus my clients listen to me more.

It’s not that I don’t love them. I mean, look at this picture of my brothers and me.

Jumping for joy

I think it’s awesome! Admittedly, we are not as joyful as we may seem in the photo. One of my brothers bemoaned the fact that I was making him jump, given that he had bad knees and a bad internal organ–a kidney, maybe? Although I’m not sure why that would be impacted by jumping. Yet in the picture, he looks quite athletic (he’s the one on the far right). And they all love the picture. An example of how it’s probably a good idea to do whatever I suggest.

There were actually an unusually high number of joyous events. We test-drove each other’s new cars,

Porsche

Abarth

toured the downtown where the movie Big Stone Gap was filmed,

Big Stone Gap

and hung out with Big Foot at Flag Rock.

Big Foot

But being with my family is often a source of pain, as well. There is a plethora of mental illness to deal with. More severe than what I see in my job. At some level I think I became a psychologist in an attempt to heal my family, yet I have probably been the least helpful to them as a professional. I guess that’s why it’s better to see someone who can be objective.

People have lots of misconceptions about how feelings work. One of them is that positive and negative feelings are mutually exclusive. But that’s not true; joy and pain sit side by side. When your daughter or son walks down the isle, you may be crying both tears of joy and sadness. And when you visit your family, you may be jumping for joy and feeling dread and helplessness at the same time.

I often tell clients that being human requires us to experience the full range of emotions, and loving someone is a good example of this. Sometimes I find it overwhelming. When you feel other people’s feelings to the extent that I do, feeling twice as much joy and pain can be too much, even if they are people that you love. And when your job requires that you sit with pain every day, it can be hard to make it to the end of every term without crashing and burning.

But quitting my job and giving up my family are not an option. So I guess I will have to continue to wrestle with how to find the middle ground between joy and pain, closeness and distance, self-care and self-sacrifice.

Fortunately, blogging really helps.

I’m Bored

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Of all of the feelings I’ve written about, I’ve conveniently avoided describing boredom in detail. Because boredom is perhaps the hardest one of all for me to tolerate. And it’s the hardest one to write about when I’m experiencing it because I have no motivation to do anything.

I think of the way my niece Sadie says she’s bored. A fleeting feeling at a party where she’s been riding go carts, dancing, and playing with her cousins all day because, at the moment, she’s not doing anything exciting. So then she’ll ask me to play with her and she is no longer bored. Problem solved.

As a child, I experienced boredom in the same way. But as an adult, boredom has become much more sinister. It feels personal. Like I have failed at something. Like I am the only loser who is sitting here at home doing absolutely nothing while other people are getting sunshine or being productive or having fun. Which doesn’t make any sense, because I know that at some point I will be motivated to get sunshine and be productive and have fun. But in this moment, I feel trapped in this endless nothingness.

Actually, nothingness doesn’t seem to capture the intensity of how I experience boredom. It is actually some agitated state. Some less extreme hybrid of depression and anxiety combined with paralysis of will. Yes, I could go read my book. Or knit. Or call someone. Or write. Or anything, really. Except I can’t. Boredom has me in its grip, and it won’t release me.

Last week I was having lunch at the lake with some friends, and I asked one of them if she was enjoying retirement. To my surprise, she said no. She was having a hard time with the quietness of lake life. She missed the city. Missed activity and excitement. And she’s been retired for 2 years. That’s a long time to be bored. I felt bad for her, but in a way it was a relief to know that boredom feels as terrible to other people as it does to me.

I know that’s why some people are workaholics. Why some people don’t take vacations and don’t want to retire. Plus there’s a kind of pride in being stressed, even if it’s not enjoyable. It’s almost like a contest. I bet I’ve had less sleep than you! I bet I can juggle way more than you can! Whereas there is nothing to be proud of when you’re bored. No one brags about how they slept 15 hours because they had nothing better to do.

Perhaps boredom is necessary in order to feel excitement. Sort of the way ordinariness is necessary in order to experience something extraordinary. Or how paradise cannot exist without living in some place that you want to escape from. The whole yin yang thing. No one likes darkness, but without it, there can be no light.

Do you think Adam and Eve would have gotten bored in the Garden of Eden eventually, even if they hadn’t eaten from the Tree of Knowledge? Maybe they were already getting bored. Maybe they were like, it might be nice to try some different fruit for a change, just to spice things up.

Maybe boredom is inevitable, even when you live in paradise.

I’m trying to treat boredom the way I treat any other feeling. I remind myself that it’s just a feeling. Nothing to be alarmed about. Everyone experiences boredom. And it will pass eventually. You might even feel better later today.

And you know what? I do feel less bored than I was when I started this post.

Although I still might take a nap.

It’s Just a Memory

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When you’re a therapist, you need to have a good memory, because clients expect you to remember everything they’ve ever said. I’m not trying to brag or anything, but I actually exceed clients’ expectations in this department. They often ask me if I take detailed notes, which I don’t. Sometimes I don’t even look at the note from the last session before I see them.

While I’m thankful for being blessed with a good memory, there are serious drawbacks, because it’s almost like having PTSD. For big things, like when I hydroplaned on the freeway and crashed into the median going backwards. Or any memory during the 4 year period when my dad was depressed. But also for little things, like every fight I’ve ever had with someone. Or anything traumatic that has happened to other people, because of the whole hyperempath thing.

That means when these memories come up, all of the feelings come back. I get anxious every time I pass the site of my accident on the way to work. I cry when I remember that my dad barely had the will to live. I’m angry whenever I remember the lies my ex-boyfriend told me. And I feel physical pain whenever I remember seeing someone getting injured.

And since I’m also obsessive, once the memory comes up, it’s hard to get it out of my head. I keep replaying the scene, even though it just upsets me more. And it’s really, really hard to stop obsessing, even with the help of medication.

Sometimes I’m so sick of listening to myself I literally yell “Stop obsessing!” Even though in a previous post I wrote about how self-talk with words like stop, don’t, no, etc. don’t work. Plus it’s not a very compassionate thing to say to yourself.

The other thing I say to calm myself down is “It’s OK; everything’s going to be OK.” All freaking day long. But it only works if I mean it and I’m not just trying to shut myself up. It’s all in the tone of voice. But then saying it becomes a compulsion, so I get annoyed that I have to repeat it hundreds of times a day.

One of the more effective things I say to myself is “you don’t have to think about that right now while you’re trying to sleep/in session with this client/driving to work. You can think about it later if you want to.” For some reason, if I don’t forbid myself from saying it, I can let the thought go more easily.

And my latest strategy, which is the most helpful to date, is to say, “It’s just a memory of something painful. You don’t have to think about it ever again, if you don’t want to.” Again, giving myself permission not to think about it, rather than telling myself I can’t, seems to be more effective.

I guess the lesson is, whatever you choose to say to yourself, say it with compassion; it will work a lot better.

What Compassion is Not

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It happened again. I was telling some friends about the incident in which I was attacked for my presentation on compassion, and while I was doing so, another friend walked in and said the exact same thing. Compassion just enables people to be lazy, incompetent, unproductive members of society.

I am trying to be compassionate about why some people feel the need to attack compassion. I am going to assume it is because they have misconceptions about what compassion is. So I thought I would take this opportunity to clarify what it is not.

1. Judgmental responses are not compassionate. This one is obvious but still worth mentioning, since judgment is usually our automatic response. You are so lazy. There must be something seriously wrong with you for watching Netflix when you should be working on your paper. 

Judgment is a motivation strategy that is shame-based. Sometimes it’s effective, but even when it works, it rarely makes you feel like you’ve accomplished something. It’s about time you did something! You only wasted the whole freaking day!

An example of a compassionate response would be: It is hard to motivate yourself to do something unpleasant. It’s hard for everyone. And it’s hard to write something knowing that someone else is going to evaluate it. No one likes to be criticized. 

2. Compulsory positive thinking is not compassionate. Telling someone to look on the bright side, count your blessings, or think positive thoughts is not compassionate because it communicates the message that negative feelings are bad and should be avoided at all costs. When we are being compassionate, we accept all of our thoughts and feelings, positive and negative.

An example of a more compassionate response would be: It’s ok that you’re feeling sad. Everyone feels sad sometimes. At some point–maybe even later today–you will feel differently.

3. Comparison is not compassionate. Think of the less fortunate. The people in war-torn countries. The poor, hungry, and sick. What do you have to be unhappy about? These suggestions are well-intended and helpful for some people, but they, too, can convey the message that you have not suffered enough to deserve your feelings.

A more compassionate response would be: This may seem like a small thing, but it causes you pain. And I care about anything that causes you pain. I care about all of your feelings.

4. Self-indulgence is not compassionate. I have to thank Yvonne Spence for leaving this comment on my post Mental Illness Does Not Discriminate, because it hits the nail on the head. People who attack compassion believe that compassion gives people permission to avoid responsibility. Which it does not. You still have to write the paper. Experience pain. Strive to be a better person. But you can do so in a loving way.

I would argue that any advice that you give to someone can be made more effective by prefacing it with a compassionate response. And in my experience, validating someone’s feelings frees up the energy they were using for self-hatred and actually makes them more productive.

Self Disclosure is the Hardest Work I know

Christmas gift

I have another guest post today! This one is from a former client who was different from the students I usually see–older and more worldly with lots of interesting life experiences. I am finally at the point where I feel like I have something to offer students in their 20’s, but not someone like her. She seemed so confident and poised. I was actually kind of intimidated by her in the first session. What could I possibly have that would be helpful to her?

It’s nice to be reassured that giving someone the opportunity to be authentic truly is a gift. And it is a gift to me, as well, to work with people who are willing to take the risk of being vulnerable.

***

I am like a Christmas present. Shiny, alluring; and, there for the taking. What’s inside is a mystery. All wrapped up, I look really good. All wrapped up I am…the full package.

If Christmas morning never came no one could open me and reject me. No one would know I can be snippy, selfish, anxious, needy, human. No one would learn sometimes I am distant, selfishly desirous of the solitude of the privacy of my own mind; sometimes I have anxious feelings about what is between us; sometimes shiny me has a complaint, sometimes there is navigating to do. If Christmas morning never came, no one would find out who I am. All wrapped up, I am the full package all the time. I would rather gird myself in duct tape than disclose my feelings to you.

Fortunately, therapy has given me the vast perspective it takes to find the reasons why doing the business of feelings is complex for me and why I work so hard to perpetuate the illusion of perfect satisfaction in my outward appearance. In lieu of being fully human I am a picture of calm. The pay-off from learning what I have learned through therapy is that this Christmas and in this New Year I will give myself the gift of feeling human through disclosing my feelings to others.

Why? Because packaging how I feel, and not outwardly acknowledging my feelings or your feelings, being preternaturally centered at all times, has started to take a toll on my relationships. Before now, my feelings were kept prisoner in a shiny box and I thought revealing them would doom my relationship with others. Now, I understand that I must practice self-disclosure and feel my feelings in order to thrive. And, in order to be fully engaged in my relationships.

Experiencing the full range of human emotions cannot be done alone. Until I disclose who I fully am to those who I love and who love me, I am an unfinished gift. Pretty on the outside, and such a mystery that it amounts to an unknown inside.

Christmas is coming. I will be under the tree at the end of the day, finally open. My wrapping no longer encumbering me, my many colors of tissue and my many mysteries will be out of the box. All of me open and on display under the tree I will be like any other Christmas presents—some of them pure treasure, some of them so-so, some of them needing alteration, some of them more perfect than anyone imagined, some of them forever gifts, some of them for consumption now. All unwrapped, I still look really good. I am the full package.

Elizabeth Barbour is a perennial student of Life, recent law grad, avowed Late Bloomer, proud Mother, and writer coming into fruition.