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Excuses

I pride myself on being a warrior on the court. However, I’m beginning to realize that having a warrior mentality isn’t always a good thing.

I was feeling tired and run down all last week, which confused me. I hadn’t even played that much tennis. My schedule wasn’t too busy yet. What excuse did I have to be tired?

Yesterday I had no choice but to acknowledge that I’ve been tired because I’m sick. I needed to rest. But despite what I said in my last post about listening to my body when it said no, I decided that I should go to tennis practice, anyway, because I needed the steps.

And guess what? I played terribly. But my inner drill sergeant was relentless. Sickness is not an excuse to play badly. Did Jordan complain when he had the flu during the NBA Playoffs? Didn’t he continue to hit amazing shots? Now quit your whining and play better!

But I couldn’t will myself to play better. And I felt even worse when I got home. Then I started panicking because I was afraid that I wasn’t going to feel well enough to go to work.

My drill sergeant kept telling me that I’m not really sick. That’s just an excuse to get out of going to work. Would your colleges be lame and stay home if they were feeling the way you feel right now? Or your parents? Or your overachieving brother? They would not. So suck it up!

This is the problem with that warrior mentality of “no excuses.” Sometimes you push yourself so hard that you just make things worse.

If I had taken my sickness seriously, perhaps I would have gotten a sub for practice, since it was just practice and not the NBA finals.

And if I were being kind to myself, I wouldn’t let my drill sergeant get away with calling me a manipulative liar who is just trying to get out of work by claiming to be sick. Because that’s really not what I’m like at all. Not at all.

I’m not saying there isn’t a place for drill sergeants. Like I said, I am all about being a warrior on the court. But if you treat every practice like the World Championship is on the line, then you’re just going to end up falling asleep on the couch until 3:30 am, having panic attacks, and obsessing about whether you are going to be able to make it to work the next day.

This is a picture of my mixed doubles team, represented by what are supposed to be jungle animals to signify our inner warriors. I am the zebra. Don’t I look intimidating?

photo

Self-Soothing

Self-soothing

While some people acknowledge having an inner child, I have an entire internal family. This includes a child who I call Sophie, but also an inner infant–a part of me that doesn’t have the words or the awareness to express what I’m upset about. This idea of an inner infant was confusing to some readers, so I thought I would describe her in more detail.

It is as though I am a new mother with a baby that is easily upset but I have no idea what’s wrong with her or how to comfort her. And obviously she can’t tell me because she’s a baby. And I am not a patient mother. I am in a hurry. I don’t have time for this.

My therapist would always tell me that I haven’t learned ways to soothe myself–to comfort myself, calm myself down–which is part of the reason why I’m so anxious. I sort of understood but not really. I was kind of like, well then tell me how to soothe myself!

But now I realize that learning how to comfort yourself is a lot like getting to know your baby. You learn from trial and error how to distinguish the hunger cry from the tired cry. You learn the idiosyncratic things that make her feel better–like driving around the block, or putting music on, or cradling her in a certain way.

I’m currently reading The Art of Empathy, and in the chapter I just finished, McLaren gives some examples of ways that babies and children soothe themselves. Some of them I wouldn’t have thought of as attempts to self-soothe–like toe-walking, foot stomping, and fidgeting. It made me realize how often we tell children to stop doing things that are annoying us when they are just trying to make themselves feel better.

I am slowly learning how to be a better parent to myself. I am trying to be more patient when I appear to be anxious for no reason. I am trying to be more compassionate. More comforting. More understanding. It’s unfortunate that being mean to myself comes so naturally but being nice to myself takes so much practice.

But that’s OK. I’m willing to put in the work to get to know myself better. And I have a lifetime to practice.

Self-Disclosure, Part 2

self-disclosure part 2

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.

 

Birthday Reflections

So I’m reading The Fault in Our Stars for book club, which is told from the perspective of a 16 year old girl with cancer, and guess what? I still talk like a teenager. Yup. Some of her comments could have come straight from my blog.

Even though I turn 45 today, I guess I can consider this a compliment, since this is a best seller with a movie that is a box office hit and has gotten great reviews. So if I sound immature, at least it’s in a way that people can relate to. And if you’ve read the book, then you know that Hazel Grace is no ordinary 16 year old. For example, she refutes the adage that without pain, we cannot know joy by pointing out that “the existence of broccoli does not in any way affect the taste of chocolate.” I love that!

Still, I find it ironic to discover that I still talk like a teenager as I hit what is irrefutably middle age. I thought I would be OK with it, because it’s not like I didn’t know I was middle-aged. And as long as I don’t hit a prime number, I’m usually fine. And 45 is divisible by 3 and 5, so I figured I was safe until I turned 47. But no. Mother Nature likes to rub it in your face that you are becoming an old lady, and I received a couple of early birthday gifts just to make sure I was aware of this.

Before someone sends me that quote about how old age is a privilege that not everyone gets to benefit from, let me preempt you by saying that I am grateful for my life. It’s just that signs of getting older bring up that feeling that I talked about in the Beginnings and Endings post. Sadness about the loss of gifts that I had not even been aware of until I began to lose them. Anxiety about the losses to come. Panic about how fleeting time is.

I am afraid I am not one of those brave souls who will embrace aging with grace and dignity. I’m pretty sure I’m going to go kicking and screaming, fighting it every step of the way. I guess this is one of the downsides of being a warrior.

I’ve been thinking about what I could say in this post for several days now. I was really struggling with how to make it positive, since my goal is to be honest, and I have honestly been in a place of sadness and anxiety about getting older.

But I pray about blog posts, too. I pray that God will give me the inspiration to come up with something to say that will be helpful to someone, even if that someone is just me. So far, God has always answered this prayer. Today was no exception.

This morning, as I warned my inner critic that it was not allowed to make me feel guilty about sleeping in on my birthday, I leisurely checked out my birthday messages on my phone and FB, and I was humbled by how many of them there were so early in the morning. Well, early in the morning for me, at least. And I got the message: the one gift that will grow with age is love.

The feelings of love that I have for others will only deepen, as will their love for me. And as I get older, the more people I include in the circle of who I care about. Blogging, which I also consider a gift from God, has dramatically increased the number of people who have been brought into my life. So I have a great deal of love to look forward to, for as long as I may live.

Plus, I will always have an inner infant, Sophie, and now a teenager, as well as a slew of other parts in my internal family. They are always vying for my attention, letting me know that they are there, whether I want to hear from them or not. Through the process of blogging–and aging–I am learning that these parts I’ve been at war with also love me, although they show it in ways that are sometimes annoying.

So I am thankful to God, and to all of you, for reminding me on my birthday how blessed I am with love.

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.