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Learning to Put Myself First

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It seems that for some people the idea of compassion entails a complete disregard for or even a sacrifice of their own interests. This is not the case. In fact, you first of all have to have a wish to be happy yourself – if you don’t love yourself like that, how can you love others? – Dalai Lama

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Last Sunday a friend of mine was talking about how her priest was retiring because of compassion fatigue. That witnessing the suffering of his parishioners all those years had depleted him, and he had nothing left to give.

In the post What Compassion is Not, I talked about the misconceptions that lead some people to believe that compassion enables people to be lazy, unproductive members of society. But there are also misconceptions about compassion that can lead to burnout. Here are some of the ones I’ve written about in my blog.

1. Date your enemies. When Jesus said to love your enemies, I took this a bit too far. Yes, I do try to put myself in the other person’s shoes. To recognize that we are all capable of good and evil. But I also thought it meant that if I didn’t want to date someone because of race, SES, mental illness, red flags, etc., then I was judging them, and judgment is bad. So I should try to overcome my prejudice and go out with the person, anyway.

This has lead to disastrous consequences in my personal life. It would have been kinder to both of us if I had just acknowledged that we were not compatible from the start.

2. Love your neighbor more than yourself. I know that the quote is actually to love your neighbor as yourself, but somewhere along the line, I came to believe that my needs were less important than others. If I could help someone, I should, whether it hurts me or not.

Blogging has been the best reminder to put my needs first. Since I’m always preaching self-care, it would be hypocritical not to take care of myself. Plus, since I have made blogging a priority, before I take on a new task, I ask myself how many blog posts it will cost me. And even if it costs me one post, I won’t do it.

3. Practice compassion perfectly. Technically, evaluation should not be a part of compassion at all, but tell that to my Inner Critic.

In my last relationship, I hated the guy for a year after we broke up, and I felt terrible about this. Despite my best efforts, I could not make myself let go of my anger. But when you are practicing compassion, you must have compassion for yourself first. So I would tell myself that this is where I am at the moment. Not yet ready to let go of my anger toward this person who hurt me. And that’s OK. When I’m ready, it will happen.

And it did.

If you are interested in learning more about how to practice compassion, I recommend Jack Kornfield’s compassion meditation. It is one of my favorites.

Mental Illness Does Not Discriminate

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I don’t like to use my blog for rants, but I am angry. And if I’m being compassionate with myself, then my anger is just as valid as any other feeling. So I’m going to give myself permission to write about my anger.

I was telling a friend recently about the presentation I gave at work on self-compassion, and he responded with hostility and disdain. I was not prepared for the attack. I understand that some people prefer the “suck it up” approach to pain and suffering, but why would it make him angry that I teach people how to be kind to themselves instead?

I also had a conversation with another friend who reminded me that many people don’t think the students I work with have real problems. I work at a counseling center of a college that is made up of predominantly wealthy students. Many of the students who come to counseling are the ones who don’t fit in because they are not white, not rich, not Greek, etc. Other students fit in just fine. Other than their mental illness, that is.

Either way, as far as I’m concerned, their suffering is equally valid.

But I seem to be in the minority. Because when I tell people where I work, they question how these students could possibly be suffering. What do they have to be unhappy about? Their lives are great. They don’t have real problems.

This is a sore spot for me because I was one of those people who didn’t have a good reason for my depression. My parents are both doctors. I was able to go to good schools, get a Ph.D., obtain a good job. I haven’t been traumatized. All of my basic needs were provided for. How could I possibly be depressed?

I don’t deserve compassion. Don’t deserve meds or therapy or any kind of relief because I’m just being weak. Lazy. Selfish.

People don’t claim that someone isn’t really suffering from the flu or that they don’t really have cancer because they have a good life. But for some reason, we believe that the privileged are immune to mental illness. I believed this, too. Which is why I didn’t ask for help.

But mental illness does not care what your background is. It does not discriminate. It is an equal opportunity employer, distributing pain and suffering to the entire human race.

For whatever reason, the hostility of these attacks has hit me full force, and I am angry. I’m trying to figure out how to deal with these comments when they come up in causal conversation without attacking back. But I can’t keep people from judging me or my clients or my profession. Not even my family and friends.

In therapy I tell clients to control what they can control. I cannot make someone see the value of having compassion for themselves and for others, but I can have it for myself. I can remind myself that my pain is real and that I deserve to treat myself with kindness. And I can be a voice for those people who need to be reminded that their pain counts, too.

And I can blog about it, which always helps.

I Just Don’t Get It

I just woke up (don’t judge me) and turned on the TV to find that Wilson will not be indicted for Brown’s shooting. I try not to use my blog for ranting, so instead I will write about my confusion, since I’m almost always confused about something when I write.

Sometimes, despite being a psychologist and despite my super-empath skills, I still can’t understand why some people do the things they do. I studied prejudice and discrimination when I was in grad school, so I can tell you the theories that attempt to explain why some people choose to hurt others to make themselves feel better. Ingroups and outgroups. Competition. Fear of the unknown. Just world theory. Projection of weaknesses. Id impulses.

But sometimes the hatred that fuels prejudice and discrimination is so intense that intellectual theories fail to capture the atrocity of these acts.

And this does not only apply to race relations. It also applies to the backlash that women get when they finally have the courage to come forward and say that they were sexually assaulted. It applies to people who try to share what the darkness is like during a depressive episode, only to have a loved one respond with a dismissive I don’t believe in depression. It applies to the demons that seize every opportunity to make us feel worthless, unlovable.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not immune to darkness. I judge. I criticize. I will attack someone’s vulnerabilities in an argument. I have sinned. I have given in to demons. But I cannot say that my instinctive response to anyone has ever been to hate them without cause. Fear them, perhaps. But not hate them. And I have never had the urge to hurt someone who didn’t hurt me first.

Hatred. Darkness. Evil. Perhaps these are subjects that go beyond what psychology can offer. Perhaps religion and philosophy can do a better job of explaining why. Although I haven’t heard an explanation from these disciplines that I find satisfying, either.

At least psychology has given me something to do during these moments that are beyond my comprehension. In these moments, when I feel helpless to provide any kind of meaningful contribution to make the world a more loving place, I can pray. I can practice compassion and lovingkindness.

And I can blog.

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Do Something that Scares You

Decisions

Sometimes anxiety is a good thing.

The other night I gave a presentation on anxiety to Active Minds, the student organization whose mission is to raise awareness and reduce stigma about mental illness. I began the presentation by reminding everyone that anxiety is not always something we want to get rid of. It motivates us to act. It socializes us. And it warns us when we are about to do something scary.

But sometimes it’s good to do something scary.

When I started my blog, it never occurred to me to use an avatar, because the point was to get people to know me so that they would buy my book someday. Plus, anonymously blogging about vulnerability seemed hypocritical. But I have to admit, sometimes I wonder what the hell I’m doing, telling people all my deep, dark secrets, and I wish there were a way I could take it all back.

Some posts are scarier than others. The post that I wrote a few weeks ago, Undeserving, was one of the scarier ones, because what therapist admits to having the exact same fears that her clients have? Publishing it felt a bit like standing in front of people naked and saying, go ahead; judge my body.

Which nobody did, thank goodness. Not to my face, at least. Although the most vulnerable posts are always the most popular, knowing this won’t make it less scary to bare my soul the next time. Because anxiety has no memory. It does not distinguish between past, present, and future. It does not know the difference between reality and fantasy. In the moment, there is only fear.

Actually, I am growing accustomed to baring my soul before friends, family, and strangers. But the thought of standing naked before students and clients still terrifies me. Therapists are supposed to be blank screens. At minimum, they use self-disclosure with caution. They certainly don’t let clients know that they struggle with anxiety and depression and that they don’t think they deserve to be loved.

Last night a student from the school newspaper emailed me some questions about Seasonal Affective Disorder because she’s writing an article about depression. I realized this was an opportunity to publicize my blog, since my last post was on this very topic. But the thought of doing so gave me an anxiety attack, so I decided to sleep on it.

Plus it was midnight, and I promised myself I wouldn’t start working on stuff after midnight so that I don’t screw up my sleep cycle. Even though I ended up staying up until 1:30 a.m., anyway, doing pointless stuff like playing Sudoku and Minesweeper. What is wrong with me?!

But I digress.

This morning I answered the student’s questions and told her about my blog. Part of me hopes that it will lead to a thousand new followers, and a part of me hopes that she ignores the reference to my blog altogether. In any case, I did it; I pushed myself to do the thing I fear the most, as far as blogging is concerned.

And I have to say, it feels pretty good.

Depression vs. Sadness

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‘Tis the season to be jolly. Unless you are prone to Seasonal Affective Disorder like me. Don’t get me wrong–I still love the holidays. But there’s a better than average chance that I’ll be depressed in the midst of them.

Sometimes people ask me what the difference is between sadness and depression–especially if you have been depressed and are worried that you might be getting depressed again. In a previous post, I admitted that I don’t always know. It’s not like a pregnancy test that you can take and find out that you’re either depressed or “normal.” There are degrees of depression, and I have experienced almost every point on the continuum.

Last year after my breakup, I was alone for the first time since I was 14, and it was tough. I was sad that my phone rarely rang. That I did not automatically have plans for the weekend. That I was helpless when it came to things like changing my air filter.

My sadness turned into depression over the holidays because in addition to being alone, I had to be around my family, which stresses me out, tennis season was over so I wasn’t exercising and didn’t see friends, and my sleep was out of whack because I was off for 2 weeks. Still, it was nothing like the full-blown major depressive episode I had several years ago.

If sadness vs. depression were an SAT question, then sadness is to a cold as depression is to the flu. You can barely get out of bed. You do not have the energy to do simple tasks. You are in pain. You feel like you may die. But the difference is, when you have the flu, you may blame yourself somewhat for not getting your flu shot or for kissing a sick person, but you don’t hate yourself for being sick.

One of the ways I distinguish between depression and sadness is in how I respond to the “think of people who are worse off than you” strategy. When I was too exhausted to do anything the past few weekends, I would think about all of those people who are bedridden and how awful that must feel. And then I wanted to do something about it. So I said one of my neurotic prayers: God, if there’s any way that my praying for these people who are sick and bedridden can help them feel better, then please let that happen.

When I’m depressed, I think about people who live in war-torn countries, and how that’s far worse than being depressed. So who am I to complain? This is nothing. I don’t even have a good reason for being depressed. I’m just lazy and irresponsible. So get off the couch and do something, damn it!

Since this is the time of year when I am vulnerable to depression, I am hypervigilant of possible signs. So far I’m tired and stressed, but no self-loathing. And I haven’t missed any work (knock on wood). Maybe I’ll make it through this year unscathed.

Judgment, Part 2

I have always been an equal opportunity dater: I do not discriminate based on ethnicity, age, SES, marital status, or diagnosis. I have even dated people for the sole purpose of overcoming some form of prejudice against them. It was sort of like radical empathy training.

But it did not go well in many cases. Like that time I dated someone who was 23 when I was 35. I didn’t discriminate based on age, which in my mind was a good thing, but it was hard to have a meaningful conversation with someone that much younger than me. I’m actually kind of embarrassed about the whole thing. I never admit that I dated him whenever I see him on the tennis court–which rarely happens, thank goodness. Although he did introduce me to the movie “Elf,” for which I am eternally grateful.

I think I have taken the Christian and Buddhist mandate to be nonjudgmental too literally. I took the idea of having an open mind about someone to such an extreme that I rarely said no to anyone who asked me out. And then I tried to make the relationship work, even if I didn’t like the person.

I’m beginning to think that’s not what Jesus and Buddha meant at all about being nonjudgmental. When Jesus said to love our enemies, he probably didn’t mean we should date all of them.

Plus, if we aren’t supposed to judge people ever, that would also mean that we shouldn’t say that someone is a good person, either. How can we say that Nelson Mandela was an exceptional human being without comparing him to others who are less exceptional? Some judgement of others is unavoidable.

So maybe it’s OK to decide not to date someone based on ethnicity, age, SES, marital status, or diagnosis in a non-discriminatory way. Maybe I can even decide to say no just because they eat their peas one at a time, like Seinfeld did. Maybe I don’t have a moral obligation to give everyone a chance.

Maybe I really do think too much.

Despite the logical argument I have laid out here, I still feel bad when I imagine turning someone down because I have judged them to be undesirable in some way. But I guess choosing not to date someone isn’t the same thing as saying someone is a bad person. And really, that is the judgment that Jesus and Buddha seem to be the most concerned about.

This picture has nothing to do with this post, but my friend took it and I think it’s cool.

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Photo: Allison Szuba

Declaration of Independence

I am working with a client who was sexually assaulted and is thinking about taking her case to our judicial board. We talked about the levels of awareness that she went through before she could be ready to take this step. How at first she didn’t want to acknowledge what happened. Then she opened up to a few people who felt safe. Now she wants to make sure he understands that what he did was not OK. To force him to think about it the next time. She hopes to eventually share her story at Take Back the Night so that other people can benefit from it.

She knows that there will be people who won’t believe her. Who will blame her for what happened. She prepares herself by reminding herself that as long as she knows what happened, that’s all that counts. But that’s a hard thing to do–to face the judgment within us and around us. It takes a lot of courage to face that kind of scrutiny.

I like to think of this process as a kind of declaration of independence–from our demons, from judgment, from fear. It happens every time someone goes to AA and admits they’re an alcoholic. Every time someone finds the courage to say I have an eating disorder. I struggle with depression. I live in fear. In making this declaration, they take away the power that their condition has to make them feel weak. Defective. Crazy.

To a lesser extent, I think of my blog as a kind of declaration of independence. I’ve tried to hide these things about myself all my life. I don’t want to be held hostage by them anymore. I want to be able to embrace everything that makes me who I am–especially the things that I am ashamed of.

The president of the student organization I advise, Active Minds, told me that he reads my blog, which kind of freaked me out at first. But he thought it was the most powerful way to fight stigma and to let other students know that they are not alone in their struggles with mental illness, which is the primary goal of Active Minds. So he is finding ways to give students the opportunity to make their own public declarations. It is a wonderful feeling to know that this has come out of my willingness to share my vulnerabilities.

I’ve always liked the expression that freedom isn’t free. You have to fight for it. Although blogging has been a surprisingly supportive and positive experience, I am well aware that there will be times when someone will judge me for what I say. I try to prepare myself for it by doing what my client is doing–to remind myself that ultimately, the only person who counts is me. Then I take a deep breath and hit Publish.

Declaration of Independence