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Optimism, Part 2

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As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I am a captain who is known for trying to be encouraging and positive, even if our team isn’t that good. Sometimes I make stuff up on the spot to say to my partner to get them to laugh, be relaxed, and fight for the win–even if I think we’re going to lose.

I admit that thinking that we’re going to lose runs counter to the argument that I am inherently an optimistic person, but since I’m at war with myself most of the time, it just makes me want to prove that negative part of myself wrong and win, gosh darn it! So take that, Inner Critic! You don’t know me! I will beat you and your negative thinking!

But I digress. Back to the stuff I make up on the court to encourage my partner. I had a partner last year who kept getting distracted in the match because the pace was really slow. So I told her that she only had to concentrate for 15 seconds at a time, because that’s about how long a doubles point is. Or if my partner has to hold serve to stay in the match but she hasn’t held serve yet, I’ll say, that’s OK. That’s what winners do. They hold serve when it counts. Or I’ll tell my partner that we are capable of getting every ball back. They will not be able to hit a winner against us. I mean, they’re not that good. Or if we’re down 1-6, 0-5, I’ll tell them that I’ve come back from a match being that far behind before. Which is true.

I really believe these things, by the way. I say them to myself all the time. And they do often help me get the win. And even when they don’t, they help me fight until the end and make my opponents work harder than they expected to for their victory. So if I can’t win, I can at least make my opponents suffer, which is a victory in itself.

My latest strategy to keep morale up in the face of defeat is a more extreme form of what I’ll call alternative scoring. Kind of like alternative facts, but without the political controversy. I have always counted tiebreak losses as wins, but I’ve taken this definition of winning a step further. In my summary of the match, I will give the real score (we lost 2-3) and the alternative score (but since I count tiebreak losses as wins, we actually won 5-0). I will point out all of the players who have an “undefeated streak”, which may be defined as 6 straight tiebreak losses. And at the end of the season, I will point out that, rather than coming in last place with an an overall record of 3-6, we actually won 7-2 unofficially and should be going to districts, if USTA were keeping score by my rules.

And the funny thing is, sometimes it works. Last year I had a team advance to districts even though we came in 3rd place, just because we had enough people to go. Just because I tell players to make sure that they are available the weekend of districts. Because you never know….

Actually, I don’t think my positive attitude made that happen, but it was fun to go with the goal of making our opponents lose to a team that came in last place. Because of the whole causing suffering thing as a victory in itself. Which is perhaps a little bit uncompassionate (non-compassionate?), but still positive and encouraging. I think.

Everyday Miracles

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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.

Recovering Control Freak

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So in addition to all of the books I’m reading about God, I am also reading Rick Springfield’s memoir, Late, Late at Night. Because Rick Springfield was my first love. It’s funny, because some of my friends scoffed at how I could love someone I didn’t know, but it turns out that Rick and I (hopefully he doesn’t mind if I call him Rick) are actually very similar: we both struggled with depression since high school, have both named the part of ourselves that is always telling us that we suck. Mine is the Inner Critic. His is Darkness. So perhaps it is possible to sense the darkness in others, whether we know them well or not.

One of the ways people cope with self-hatred is to try to have control over things that they don’t actually have control over. And since this is a futile strategy, it tends to exacerbate one’s suffering.

I am intimately familiar with this strategy. My Inner Critic demands that I control every aspect of my life. That’s why I had straight A’s. Why I’ve never used drugs. Why I had to start a blog to let people know what I’m really like–because my “confessions” reveal just how imperfect I am. I’ve also tried to control other people–particularly the ones I’ve dated. I haven’t quite figured out how to stop doing that, so for now I’ve just decided not to be in a relationship at all.

One of the best things about practicing mindfulness is that it teaches me how not to listen to my Inner Critic. People don’t practice mindfulness because they’re afraid they’ll do it wrong, when in reality there is no right way. There is no particular result you’re aiming for. No specific amount of time you must be focused. I compare it to Weather on the 8’s on the Weather Channel: you’re just checking in with yourself, seeing what’s going on in there. There’s no expectation about what the dew point should be.

When you practice mindfulness, you begin to realize how much of your thoughts are not your own. Random stuff just pops into your head. You can’t stop it from happening. You begin to realize that just because you have a thought–like you suck–that doesn’t mean it’s true. It doesn’t mean that it came from you. And since it’s just one of the hundreds of thoughts that will enter your mind while you meditate, you can just observe it and let it go, just like you do with all the other thoughts.

As I begin to let go of all of the things I can’t control–which are far more numerous than I thought–I realize there is one thing I can control. I can choose my intentions. I can choose to be kind to myself, kind to others. I can choose to live mindfully, to be fully present. And when I become seduced by my Inner Critic once again, I can recommit to my intentions again.

And I have to say, I like myself a lot better this way.

You vs. Your Demon: How to Take Advantage of Voice

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A few weeks ago I had a session with one of my clients that left me crying, I was laughing so hard. She was describing some of the things that her demon was telling her about why she was not a good contributing member of society–my favorite club of the ones listed below–and we were examining the credibility of these statements. By the end of the session she acknowledged that it had gone too far when it compared her to Hitler for not majoring in something more useful. I thought that was so hilarious, I was going to write a blog post about it. But then I decided to let her do it for me.  And I couldn’t have said it better myself.

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Amy Poehler said in her book Yes Please that we all have a “demon.” To paraphrase, our demon is that whiny little voice in our head whose only job is to make us feel like crap about ourselves. Amy tells us about the demons’ superpower of omnipresence; our demon seems to always be there, whether it’s there to call us ugly when we’re talking to a cute stranger, berate us for days over a minor error in a project, or constantly shout offensive, distracting profanities at us during a job interview. She then goes on to give us some tips on how to silence our demons. She suggests imagining yourself brushing your demon off your shoulder, or to think/say the words, “Not now, demon. I’ve got stuff to do.”

I think Poehler is off to a fantastic start here. However, I’d like to take this metaphor a step further: everyone has a demon, and just like we are all different, our demons are all different. And on top of that, especially for folks who struggle with mental illness, demons are exceptional at their jobs. They have literally been hand-picked, hand-crafted and molded since day one to know exactly where to aim, where to hit the hardest. No one can craft an insult, word a passive aggressive dig, or construct an anti-you argument in such a clever and deliciously cruel way that your demon can.

There is an important way that our demons distinguish themselves amongst one another, and that is their voice. Each demon’s voice is going to be totally unique—demons survive on feelings of inadequacy, helplessness and self-loathing, and just like any creature, they evolve according to their environment. So, they will develop skills and adaptations that are most likely to provoke feelings that specifically hurt their host human so they can stay strong. As such, our demons will have their own opinions, ways of speaking, mannerisms, and relationship skills.

Personally, my demon is condescending, snobby, and pretentious. She frames her insults as “corrections” or “feedback.” She wants me to think that by consistently condemning and shaming me, she’s helping me become a better person, so that I can finally join all her exclusive clubs: The Good Friend Club. The Good Student Club. The Good Daughter/Sister Club. And my personal favorite, The Good Contributing Member of Society Club. The problem here is that the standards for entry in my demon’s clubs are so impossibly high that no one could ever imagine gaining membership. However, for a long time, my demon had me tricked into thinking that I’m the only human being on Earth who has yet to crack the code for entry into her cliques. She has even found a way to rationalize why Hitler would gain membership to her clubs before I would.

So how do we combat these demons? Amy Poehler is definitely on to something. She deals with her demon not like a spirit she must exorcise or a condition she must cure, but rather an annoying, socially inept acquaintance who just won’t take a hint. This, I think, is a great tactic, because it allows you to treat your demon like a person rather than this nebulous, amorphous ghost-thing that you can’t quite pin down. These invasive, nasty thoughts become the musings of a particular type of person as well: for Amy, it’s the inane pest on her shoulder. For someone else, it might be helpful to treat their demon like an overbearing helicopter mom. For others, it might be useful to actually visualize their demon as an enemy in combat, where the insults and words really are weapons designed to seriously hurt someone. What’s important is that whatever you choose to fight your demon with, it must come from your original voice.

That’s the demon’s fatal flaw, her Achilles heel, her Kryptonite. There is nothing that terrifies your demon more than being confronted with your original, genuine tone of voice and perspective. If she feeds on feelings related to low self-esteem, she is weakened by feelings related to self-assurance and security.

I think this is why it is difficult to pinpoint how exactly to silence your demon, but also why it is so, so important. I’ve discovered that not one method works for everyone. For me, it’s affirmations that I’ve written to myself in ways that make it sound like something I’d actually say. Listed below are some of my affirmations that I like to say in my head when I find myself obsessing over my flaws or beating myself up over mistakes:

  • You are obsessing because sometimes brains are weird and they like to obsess over dumb things.
  • None of this is real. If you said one of these thoughts out loud to a friend, they would probably be extremely concerned.
  • Your demon is a rude bitch, and she’s straight up lying to you.
  • Literally anything would be more productive than this. Go drink some water or something.
  • You’re not Hitler.

I’m still learning about my demon, too. I’m sure sometime fairly soon she will come up with a new strategy in her never-ending quest to make me feel sad. But it’s okay, because one thing will never change, and that’s her Achilles heel. Conveniently, her Achilles heel is also the one thing she can never take away from me: my voice.

Mansie Hough is a senior at Washington and Lee University. She is a Mass Communications major and is a good contributing member of society.

Psychological Energy Conservation, Part 2

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Despite the psychological energy conservation plan I came up with several months ago, I’m still struggling with the crash and burn problem.

I spent another weekend feeling exhausted and ended up canceling the plans I had been looking forward to. I no longer allow my inner critic to torment me by telling me that I’m just being lazy, because why would I be too lazy to go to a costume party and play tennis? Still, it’s frustrating to spend the entire weekend lying around the house watching TV.

To make matters worse, as soon as I have a little bit of energy, I try to do too much, because I feel like I’ve wasted so much time. And guess what happens? I burn out again, and the cycle repeats itself.

It helps that I have a blog where I have made public declarations about how I’m going to be more proactive about conserving my energy. And I have made some improvements. I am better at setting limits in my relationships. I try to go to bed earlier. I eat more mindfully. But there are other areas where I am still in denial. These include:

1. Hosting. I hosted a Halloween party that I obsessed about for weeks because I have a small place and I never cook and I had to do everything by myself since I’m single. Then my parents came up on Friday and we had another karaoke night, when ordinarily I would be spending the evening unwinding. For some reason, I didn’t think that trading rest for karaoke would affect my energy level.

2. Tennis. In my mind, tennis should not be tiring because it’s fun. In the summer I played 4-5 times a week, but now that I’m working, I only have the energy to play about 3 times a week, which my inner critic does not want to accept. But my body is like, too bad! That’s all I’m doing!

3. Football games. My brothers and I have season tickets, and this year they have been able to come to more games, so I really look forward to going. But it’s an all day affair that ends up affecting my entire weekend, because I don’t have much time to get anything done. Which means I’m really tired the following week. Again, this came as a surprise to me, even though it makes perfect sense.

4. Blogging. I know that blogging takes up energy, but once again, my inner critic is like, why should you be tired? You’re just sitting there typing and reading blogs. How hard can that be? You should be able to write 3 posts a week. But lately two posts a week is all I’ve been able to manage. Otherwise it starts to feel like a job rather than a hobby.

So I guess the lesson is that, while it’s important to have things to look forward to, fun things are tiring, too. Which is probably obvious to all of you, but it is somewhat of an epiphany for me. Guess I need to factor that into my energy conservation plan.

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.

 

In the Zone

Want to be happier? Try adding some flow to your life.

Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi’s research indicates that engaging in activities that you find pleasurable and absorbing is one of the things that makes life worth living. When you are in flow, you are focused on the here and now. You experience a loss of self-consciousness and lose all sense of time. You feel like you can handle anything that comes your way.

Flow is what athletes feel when they are in the zone. Although I don’t consider myself athletic, I have experienced flow on the tennis court. It doesn’t always happen, but every now and then, the ball does exactly what I want it to. No channeling of inner warriors required: everything is effortless, unconscious.

Flow is not limited to sports. You can experience flow at work, during artistic activities, and in nature. Sometimes I’ve experienced flow with clients in therapy: I feel so connected to them in the moment that I know what they’re trying to say before they say it. Occasionally, I’ve experienced it when blogging: the words and ideas seem to be writing themselves, and they are perfect.

And there are those rare moments–usually when I’m at some lookout point–where I have a moment of clarity. I am Neo at the end of “The Matrix,” when he breaks the code and fights off the Agents with minimal exertion. The mysteries of the universe unfold. I feel joyful and calm at the same time.

Flow can also be interactive. Like Hazel and Augustus in “The Fault in Our Stars,” you stay up all night, sharing your life stories, and time stands still. Or like when you’re catching up with your best friend who you haven’t seen in ages, but you can pick up right where you left off, as if you talked just yesterday.

This weekend I was blessed to experience flow in all of these areas. I was at the Virginia district tournament with my tennis team, and I was in flow on the court. My team was in flow, and we made it to the finals for the first time ever. And all of the moments off the court were filled with joy, celebration, and camaraderie. Even writing about it is effortless. No self-consciousness. No demons. Just a pervasive sense that life is good.

Usually Mondays are hard for me, but today I am happy. In this moment, I am in the zone.

Orange Crush