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Anxiety

I have always been an anxious person, but ever since my last depressive episode, my anxiety has gotten worse–especially around sleep. Which is terrible, because I love sleep more than anything. I started having anxiety attacks in the middle of the night. Or when I’m trying to fall asleep. Or when I wake up. Or before, during, and after a nap. In fact, I refer to naps as demon sleep. But I rely on naps to make up for the sleep that I miss out on because of my 1 a.m. bedtime.
 
I don’t want to call these episodes panic attacks, because that does injustice to people who have full-blown panic attacks. I don’t feel like I’m dying or having a heart attack. I’m not completely debilitated. But it does hurt. It’s like I have a bunch of bees buzzing inside my body. Or I have the psychological equivalent of a high pitched noise in my head that I can’t turn off. Or I feel physically and emotionally paralyzed. Or I feel like someone has punched me in the heart. I think that’s why my chest muscles are so tight–I have to absorb anxiety’s blows to my body.
 
I’ve written about how obsessive I am and how easily my inner infant gets rattled. Those forms of anxiety are annoying, but I’ve gotten use to them. I’m learning to accept that they are just a part of how my brain works. But when I have an anxiety attack with no apparent trigger, I feel crazy and weak.
 
It’s funny, because if I’m talking to someone else, I can convince them that they don’t need a reason to be anxious or depressed. That their feelings are valid, even if they don’t make sense. That it doesn’t make them crazy or weak. And they feel better afterwards. But saying these things to myself doesn’t have the same effect.
 
I guess that’s why it helps to tell someone else. Because without someone else’s reassurance, it’s hard to release the power that your inner demons have over you. When it’s just you and your demons, they convince you that you’re letting yourself off the hook too easily. You’re just lying to yourself. You’re really a bad person.
 
Last week when I wrote the self-compassion post, I was beating myself up for my lame excuses for feeling depressed. But after I gave myself permission to write them down, they didn’t seem so lame. And then when I got all these messages from people asking me if I was OK, I started to feel like my suffering might be real. And then I felt better!
 
So I thought I would try it again this week. And I just took half of an Ativan for good measure.
 

The Inner Infant

So my inner child, Sophie, has a younger sister. She is an infant and doesn’t have a name yet. While my relationship with Sophie is pretty good, I confess, I’m a terrible mother to my infant. But I’m working on it.

It’s easier to enjoy Sophie because she is playful, funny, cute, and full of energy. But like most kids, she can be a brat and gets on my nerves sometimes. And she doesn’t like it when I’m alone. She’s afraid something bad will happen to us. She advocated for my last relationship and was terribly anxious whenever she thought we might break up. It took awhile before I learned how to comfort her and assure her that I can take care of her by myself.

I only became aware of the infant about a year ago–mainly because I was neglecting her so badly it was affecting my health. I wouldn’t feed her when she was hungry. I wouldn’t soothe her when she was upset. I yelled at her when she cried for no reason. If Social Services could have seen how I was treating her, they definitely would have intervened. After awhile I was having so many physical problems that I was forced to attend to her needs. It was starting to affect my tennis.

I’ve had to get to know my infant the same way any parent gets to know their child: by paying close attention. You don’t automatically know which cry is the hungry cry, the poop cry, or the tired cry; you learn from experience. She is usually upset when I wake up on the weekends because I sleep in and throw off her feeding cycle. So if I’m feeling depressed or anxious when I wake up, I get something to eat because she’s probably hungry.

Or she could be crying because that’s what infants do when they wake up–especially after a nap. It’s funny that we just accept that young kids cry when they wake up without understanding why and without being mad at them for it. I wonder at what age we start expecting people to have a good reason to cry.

I guess some people do acknowledge that they’re in a crappy mood when they wake up and turn to things like coffee, cigarettes, and drugs to calm them down. Those are not good ways to comfort a baby, though. And maybe they’re not ideal for us, either, really. But that’s for another blog post.

She also gets upset whenever I’m rushing around, which is essentially all the time. She is very sensitive to transitions: leaving for work in the morning, rushing to a tennis match, rushing to the grocery store. I have no idea why. Maybe my stress upsets her. Or maybe I’m neglecting her when I’m on the run. This is the distress that is the hardest for me to be compassionate about.

So now there’s this mantra I have to say multiple times a day to soothe her: It’s OK. Everything’s going to be OK. You’re fine. Everything’s going to be fine. And when I’m frustrated, I add although I have no idea what you’re anxious about!  It’s a process, accepting that she deserves to be upset and comforted, even when it doesn’t make sense to me.

I know this probably sounds silly to some of you, but it works really well. I use this analogy often with clients as a way to get them to pay closer attention to what they need, to honor their feelings, to have compassion for themselves, and to learn how to take better care of themselves. It can work surprisingly quickly, once you reassure them that having all these parts doesn’t mean they’re crazy.

So if you ever find that you are arguing with yourself, or that you’re frustrated because your thoughts/feelings/actions don’t make any sense, you might want to ask what part of yourself you might be neglecting.

Self-Compassion

My compassion reserves are running low. In my last relationship I took the words of Jesus and Buddha literally about how we should be able to love everyone. It was practically a 3 year exercise in compassion. But by the end I wondered if perhaps I had misunderstood what they meant about loving others. It was a lot of work to have to channel Buddha and Christ just to tolerate being in his presence. I feel like I’m experiencing a backlash now. All those feelings I tried to deny are coming out with a vengeance. I guess I was supposed to have compassion for myself, too.

I’m not very good at self-compassion. Every time I try, the Inner Critic berates me for whining about my problems when I have a good life. I don’t know what pain is. I’m not living in a war-torn country. My life hasn’t been devastated by natural disasters or school shootings. All of the people I love are still alive. Who am I to complain?But surely I must have the right to honor my feelings. My suffering must count, too, if God cares about all of us. So I’m going to write about what’s upsetting me, without apologizing for it or justifying it or willing myself to be positive.

This week I will be moving closer to divorce. Filing forms. Getting documents notarized. More tears. More snot. You would think there would be a limit to how much it’s possible to cry over something. That 4 years would be more than enough time. I used to pray to God–plead, even–to tell me what I could do that would allow both of us to be happy. Leaving seemed like it would just make us both miserable. And it has. And I don’t see an end in sight for me, at least. I’m trying not to blame God or myself. But in this moment, my faith in a happy future is wavering and I feel like I deserve the pain.

I have 2 family members who are currently on the opposite ends of the bipolar spectrum. My brother is trying so hard but still feels terrible.  It hurts me that he’s hurting. My dad is manic. Mania feels great for the person experiencing it, but it’s hell for the rest of us. But what power do I have to make him see?  If he were my client, I could make him see our psychiatrist, get him on meds. But as a daughter, I am practically useless.

I’m afraid to answer the phone when my parents call. Which makes me feel horribly guilty, because I know their time on earth is limited and I will regret not talking to them more when they’re gone. But the call is almost always about something bad. Something I’m expected to fix. Or something I don’t want to do. At minimum, I’m supposed to be a receptacle for the stress, but I can’t take it. It’s too much. I’m not able to function afterwards.

So I have to be strategic about when I call or when I answer. It has to be a time when it will be OK if I fall apart. But since it’s hard to choose something where there’s a good chance you’ll fall apart, I often forget to call altogether. Which makes me feel even guiltier and reactivates the vicious cycle. I wish it could be easier. I wish there were some way I could be a good daughter but also protect myself.

It takes a lot of work to maintain my health. Since I have GERD, allergies, and exercise-induced asthma, I have to take shots, nasal sprays, pills, steroid inhalers, rescue inhalers. I’m not supposed to have coffee and chocolate. I can’t eat or drink 3 hours before exercise or bed time. If I drink too much during a match, I’ll even throw up water. It’s frustrating to have to worry about throwing up every time I play. Or brush my teeth, even. But giving up dental hygiene and tennis are not options.

My mental health is always hanging in the balance. It’s work to maintain my sleep cycle because of my night owlness. I can’t miss any of my drugs. I can’t miss Ativan for even one night. I meditate, pray, journal, exercise, and all of the other self-care strategies. But despite my best efforts, I can never make it to the end of the term without burning out before I cross the finish line. I can’t handle the stress of my life. I can’t get out of bed right now. It makes me feel weak. Inadequate. Unable to do the basic tasks of life.

Just got a call from my lawyer friend that my paperwork looks good to go, so I guess I’ll be filing for divorce this week for sure. If you believe in God, feel free to say a prayer for me. If you don’t, send positive vibes my way.

Grace

I’ve received a lot of comments from readers lately about being too hard on myself. Which is a little scary, because these comments were in response to posts where I purposely avoided criticizing myself. But perhaps people know me well enough by now to know what I’m thinking, even if I don’t say it out loud.

It’s hard to be honest about how these comments make me feel, because I don’t want to seem ungrateful. But if I’m afraid to say it, that probably means I should say it.

When I read comments that are meant to be supportive, I feel a little angry and defensive. I feel like I’m being told that I’m failing at self-improvement. The words forgiveness, self-compassion, and self-acceptance are in almost every single post, so it’s not like I don’t know that’s my problem; I’m just not getting better at them fast enough, apparently.

This morning as I was driving to work, I realized something about my reaction to these comments. I realized that they are hard to take in because it’s hard to take in love–love from others, love for myself, and love from God.

I have spent the last week in an email exchange with a loyal reader and friend who is trying to convince me that I don’t need to work so hard to earn God’s approval because God already loves me just as I am, in all of my glorious imperfection. I know that’s true for other people, but something in me resists believing that it’s true for me.

You would think it would be a relief to hear the thing that you most want to hear, but it often isn’t. You don’t want to let yourself off the hook. You don’t want to risk being too full of yourself. You might get complacent. You might become a sloth–which is a deadly sin.

That’s how the Inner Critic is for people like me. It’s like an abusive partner who does everything it can to make you feel bad about yourself as a way to keep you dependent on it. It uses the language of morality and turns it against you.

In therapy I address this part by telling clients that once they leave my office, the Inner Critic will try to undo all of the progress we have made. That perhaps it is even talking to them now while we are in session, telling them not to listen to me. It helps to let them know that I know all of its tricks.

I also tell clients that accepting love is a gift, and rejecting it hurts the giver. These clients are highly motivated to do good, so it is often eye-opening to reframe self-criticism as a form of rejecting others.

When I thought I could blog my way to self-acceptance, I assumed that sharing my vulnerabilities with the world would be sufficient. It helps, but it’s not enough. Without feedback from others, it’s still just me and the Inner Critic, duking it out.

In therapy, I tell clients that they are worthwhile as many times as it takes for them to believe it. Maybe that’s how blogging works, too. I will continue to write about what my demons say, and readers will keep telling me that I’m being too hard on myself, and I will get pissed off, but eventually I will believe them. Maybe one day the Inner Critic will lose its power to make me feel bad about myself.

Maybe God works through blogs, too.

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.

The Emotional Life of Your Brain

I just finished reading The Emotional Life of Your Brain, and although I started losing interest towards the end, it presents an interesting view of personality that is worth sharing.

Based on brain research, Davidson identifies 6 dimensions of personality:

1)  Resilience (fast or slow to recover from adversity)

2)  Outlook (negative or positive)

3)  Social Intuition (puzzled or intuitive; A.K.A. emotional intelligence)

4)  Self-Awareness (opaque or aware)

5)  Sensitivity to Context (tuned out or tuned in)

6)  Attention (unfocused or focused)

If you are interested in where you fall on each of these dimensions, click on the link above and you will find a short survey. Here were my results, which probably won’t surprise anyone who reads my blog:

1)  Resilience: fast to recover

2)  Outlook: positive

3)  Social Intuition: very intuitive

4)  Self-Awareness: very self-aware

5)  Sensitivity to Context: very tuned in

6)  Attention: focused

As with most personality dimensions, the goal is to move your set point closer to the middle. In practice, however, one end of the spectrum is usually more desirable than the other. Here are the advantages and disadvantages of each extreme:

1)  Resilience: Being too fast to recover may make you less compassionate and seem unfeeling and insensitive to others. Being slow to recover makes it difficult for you to function and you may focus more on your pain than on other people. But usually people try to learn how to be more resilient.

2)  Outlook: A negative outlook puts you at risk for depression and annoys other people. An overly positive outlook makes it difficult for you to learn from your mistakes and postpone immediate gratification. But usually the goal is to develop a more positive outlook.

3)  Intuition: Being too intuitive may make it difficult to function because you’re constantly picking up other people’s negativity. (Hmmm. That sounds familiar). People who are at the puzzled end may have problems in all aspects of their lives in which they have to interact with other people–which is essentially all aspects of life.

4)  Self-Awareness: Being opaque makes you prone to missing signs of illness and make you unable to take care of yourself. Being too self-aware can make you a hypochondriac. But in general, it’s better to be self-aware.

5)  Sensitivity to Context: Being tuned out might make you feel and act in ways that aren’t appropriate to the situation (e.g., anxiety disorders). Being too tuned in can make you prone to losing touch with your true self because you are constantly changing your behavior to fit the social situation. But usually people try to be more tuned in.

6)  Attention: Being too focused annoys people because you don’t pay attention to them when you’re doing something. And you tend to “not see the forest for the trees.” Being unfocused puts you at risk for ADHD. But usually people want to learn how to be more focused.

Guess what the best way is to move toward the resilient, positive, intuitive, self-aware, tuned in, attentive end? Meditation! My favorite meditation guru is Jack Kornfield, and on his webpage he goes through the 5 basic meditations:

1)  Meditation on Compassion

2)  Walking Meditation

3)  Forgiveness Meditation (which I really need to practice)

4)  Sitting Meditation

5)  Lovingkindness Meditation

Jon Kabat-Zinn also teaches meditation for Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), but you have to pay for his stuff. You could also seek out a therapist who specializes in MBSR.

So there you have it–your cheat sheet for “The Emotional Life of Your Brain.” It took several months for me to get through the book, so feel free to make a donation to the Federer Fund if you found this helpful. Tickets to Grand Slam or ATP Masters 1000 events are also acceptable.

This doodle sort of looks like a brain. And it has 6 different colors–one for each personality dimension.

Memory

I love the movie “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.” I love the idea that even if you take the memories away, the love between two people remains. And I like the message that we must experience pain in order to experience joy. But lately I’ve been wishing I could erase the painful memories from the past 10 years.

Let me first say that I am thankful for my memory, lest I be struck down with dementia for being ungrateful. It helps in my job because clients expect you to remember everything they’ve told you from the first session on. And when you see 30+ clients a week, that’s a lot of stuff to remember.

The most painful memories help me to have more compassion for other people’s suffering. When I was depressed, I could not conceive of any possible value that could come from my pain. But now that my brother is depressed, I am better able to help him because I know what he’s going through. You’re not afraid to sit with other people’s pain once you know firsthand how lonely it is.

My memory also helps me capture the intensity of my feelings when I write about my experiences, which hopefully makes my blog better. I am guessing that most writers have good memories and intense feelings. But sometimes it can be a tough combination. That’s probably why writers are so neurotic.

Lately there have been some memories that I wish I could forget. Or at least remember without feeling like it’s happening all over again. It’s almost like having PTSD, reliving these hurtful experiences every time they pop up.

Yesterday I remembered how my first husband told me while we were separating that I have a heart of gold. He said it was the happiest day of his life on our wedding day and the saddest day of his life when we signed the divorce papers. How can you feel that way about someone and still choose to leave them? What good does it do to have a heart of gold if it doesn’t help you make a relationship work? In a way I am thankful that he was loving through the entire process, but sometimes I wish I didn’t remember how I felt at all.

The letting go process in my second marriage has been just as painful. It hurts just as much now as it did 4 years ago. It still makes me cry. Every step we take away from each other renews my sadness. When will this grief subside? That whole one year estimation is a bunch of crap. I wish I could just forget the past 4 years–all the pain and all the stupid things I did to try to ease the pain that just made things worse.

The only memories I would miss from the past 4 years are the first trip when my mixed doubles team went to districts, getting Federer’s autograph at the Cincy tournament, and UVA’s basketball season this year. Which makes me seem like some superficial sports fanatic, but it’s true. In my defense, part of what made these experiences memorable is that I shared them with my friends and family. I’m sure there were other positive memories worth holding on to during that period of time, but I can’t think of any at the moment. Right now, all I remember is the pain.

The only good thing about this second divorce is that it helps me understand how you can love someone and still let them go, even when it breaks your heart. I’m not angry at my first husband any more for leaving. I understand why he did it. It doesn’t alleviate the pain of either loss to realize this, but I have a better appreciation for how complex love and marriage are. That’s something.

Today I’m not able to do the things I try to focus on in my blog–practice self-forgiveness, self-acceptance, and self-compassion. But maybe tomorrow I’ll feel differently.

Stop Doing Bad Things

At the risk of sounding completely inconsolable, I have to admit, I don’t find most of the self-help articles on social media helpful.

Take, for example, the article 30 Things to Stop Doing to Yourself. I have no problem with the suggestions themselves, but I don’t like advice that begins with the word stop. In therapy, if after the first session I were to say “You’re problem is that you look exclusively to others for happiness. Stop doing that,” I’m not sure the person would come back.

Research supports the idea that stop statements are not helpful, because when you say something like “stop being idle,” you put the idea of being idle in the person’s head. If you’ve taken psychology classes, you’ve probably heard the example “don’t think about a pink elephant.” You probably weren’t thinking about one before, but you are now.

A lot of people do find advice like this helpful, and that’s great. Personally, it makes me feel more judged than inspired. I respond better to strategies that emphasize empathy and compassion, self-acceptance, and forgiveness. And I prefer suggestions that encourage me to be the best version of myself to admonitions for doing things wrong.

If I were to come up with a list like this, here’s how I would paraphrase their recommendations:

1., 13., 19., & 20. Spend time with people who bring out the best in you.

2. & 23. Have faith in yourself; it’s the best investment you’ll ever make.

3., 25., & 26. Commit to being honest with yourself and to others.

4., 21., & 27. Put your needs first. Period.

6. & 8. Practice forgiveness of yourself and others.

7., 23., & 29. Take risks, even if it means that you will fail.

9., 10., & 28. Happiness cannot be found out there in the future; it comes from within, in this moment.

11. & 12. You can move forward, even when you don’t feel ready.

14. Let people get to know you, even if it scares you.

5., 15., & 16. Make your standard of comparison the best version of yourself rather than someone else or some perfect ideal.

17. & 18. Negative experiences teach us lessons that we wouldn’t have chosen to learn on our own.

22. Think of mindfulness as exercise for your brain.

27. Practice gratitude regularly,  and thank the people who you are grateful for every chance you get.

It takes a lifetime to put these values into practice, so be patient, have faith, and be kind to yourself in the process.

I’m adding designer marbles to my doodle collection.

 

Anger

Have I mentioned that I have problems letting things go?

That’s why I obsess so much. And why I stick with knitting projects that make my life miserable. And why I try to make relationships work at all costs. And why I have a hard time forgiving myself.

It’s also why I can hold on to anger for so long. I know some people like anger because it’s more empowering than feeling hurt, but I hate it. It’s downright painful. If I could will myself to let go of anger–or any emotion, for that matter–I would. And even though I know better, I still get mad at myself for not being able to stop being angry.

Recently I had a friend tell me that when you get older you become more forgiving of yourself. That might be true for normal people, but I’m no so sure it’s true for me. Because I’ve heard women say the same thing about being in their 40’s, and I’m pretty sure I’m just as self-critical and guilt-ridden as I was in my 20’s and 30’s.

I am having a hard time letting go of my anger about my last relationship, even though I’m glad that it’s over. I have made a concerted effort to turn to my friends and share how I feel, but in all honesty, sometimes it just makes me angry at them.

Most people aren’t very good at saying helpful things. Which is why I wrote the post on good intentions. I’m trying not to take it personally. Not everyone can be a good listener. I would be out of a job if everyone were. But it’s still frustrating to try to talk to someone about how angry I am, only to feel worse afterwards.

I’ve tried other things, too. I’ve prayed. I’ve meditated. I even apologized for being angry. Which doesn’t make any sense, really, but I was desperate for some shift in the intensity of my anger.

Today I tried 3 new things. First, I gave myself permission to be angry for a day.  Which had the unintended effect of making my anger seem forced and difficult to sustain. Sort of like the whole reverse psychology thing–although psychologists don’t actually call it that.

I also looked at a journal entry from right before the breakup. It reminded me that there were a lot of things that I tried to be OK with because I thought my anger and sadness and anxiety were a product of my neediness. Or a result of being too demanding. Or were figments of my imagination.

Now I realize that I felt those things for a reason.  I’m mad at him for letting me believe that my feelings were my fault. And I’m mad at myself for not trusting my feelings.  But reading that journal entry reminded me that my feelings are always legitimate–even if they don’t make sense at the time. So I have renewed my commitment to honoring my feelings.

The last thing I did was to give myself permission to blog about my anger. I have thought about doing it for some time now but decided against it until today because I thought it would be too negative. Even though I write a lot about negative things, I try to end on a positive note. I didn’t think there could be a positive note to end on in a post about unrelenting anger.

But then I remembered that the point of my blog isn’t to be positive. The point of my blog is to be honest. And my anger is just as much a part of me as anything else.

And you know what? I actually do feel better…for the moment. So blogging about it helped after all.

I don’t really have any art work that reflects anger so I thought I would feature some self-promotional art work instead.

A Just World

I am having deja vu. Before last term, we had not had a student death related to a car accident in over 10 years. Yet once again, another student died in a car accident earlier this week. Like the student last term, this student was very involved and visible in the community, was known for helping others, and was on the verge of graduating with a bright future ahead of her.

We tell students that there is no right or wrong way to grieve. But some coping mechanisms are more hurtful than others. She was probably driving too fast. People shouldn’t drink and drive. Stupid people die. 

When I was a graduate student, one of my favorite theories was the Just World Hypothesis. Because we want to believe in a just world, when something bad happens we assume that the person must have done something to deserve it.

I often hear just world explanations after a sexual assault. She was making out with him on the dance floor. She went back to his room. She didn’t fight it so she must have wanted it.  

The Just World Hypothesis is closely related to the problems with free will and blame. In order to preserve the belief that we control our destiny, we are willing to take responsibility for things that we don’t actually have control over.  

I can understand the need to believe that if you make the right choices you will be safe from harm. I want to believe this, too. Usually my attempts at control manifest themselves in perfectionism and excessive guilt.

I don’t know how much blame a person should be held responsible for. I don’t know how to make sense of all of the suffering in the world. But I know that the more I blame someone, the less compassion I have for them.

So I try to approach suffering in the same way I try to accept my feelings: it doesn’t have to make sense. I don’t have to know the reason why for suffering to exist. And I try to have faith that when something bad happens, I will be strong enough to handle it.