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Journaling, Part 2

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There is this space that exists between the relationship that you’re in and the one you dream of. The land of if only. If only he would call more. Compliment me. Say I love you. Put me first. Then everything would be perfect.

I lived in that space for a long time. But it required a lot of denial and distortion. Like a really extreme version of tunnel vision. If I looked at the relationship through one eye and squinted so that everything was sort of blurry, it would faintly resemble something that might give me what I needed.

Until I opened my eyes again.

I often say that the thing I miss the most about being in a relationship is having someone to share my day with. Someone to witness my life–even the mundane things. But recently, when I thought back on my previous relationships, I realized that I actually haven’t had someone to listen to me in a long time, even when I was in a relationship.

At the time I was angry with them for not wanting to listen, but after the relationship ended I was angry with myself for not seeing what was there–or not there–all along.

I so enjoyed reading old journal entries last month when I was feeling down that I’ve been writing every day since then. Not only does it help in the moment, but it provides my future self with ample entertainment.

At first journaling felt like a lame substitute for talking to another person. But now I look forward to it. It has become my favorite nighttime ritual. I keep a running tally throughout the day of the things I want to talk about, just like I did when I was in a relationship.

And there are lots of advantages to writing about my day rather than telling someone about it. Like:

If I want to talk about a dream where I ordered a burger at some diner and they wouldn’t let me add anything other than cheese because that would be too fancy, I can retell every insignificant detail of the dream without boring myself.

Or if I want to talk about every random association I had about this story I heard on the radio about this guy in China who jumped in the river on his wedding day when he saw his bride-to-be for the first time, I can do so without seeming obsessive. (Was he trying to kill himself? Did he still marry her after he got out of the water? Were his parents pissed off? That must have made the bride feel like crap.)

Or if I want to talk about how I cried in session yesterday because I felt my client’s pain, I can do so without worrying about violating confidentiality. And without judging myself for getting so emotional.

Or if I write about the exact same problem for the hundredth time, even though I’ve written about it for pages and pages, I can give myself permission to do so. For as many times and as many pages as I need to, until I no longer feel the need to talk about it.

And when I need to practice self-compassion without being judged or criticized, I can give myself permission to list every single thing that is hurting me in that moment and respond to myself by affirming that this is pain. This is suffering. And I am sorry that you are suffering.

And at some point in the future, when I have forgotten the details of each day, I will delight in rereading these entries–even the sad ones. Because they capture my experience in the moment so perfectly. Because they help me put my life in perspective. Because I’m interested in what that person has to say. She fascinates me. She reminds me a lot of myself.

So now I no longer worry about when I will meet someone who will take pleasure in hearing about all the mundane details of my life. Because I can give myself exactly what I need right now, in this moment.

Why Blogging is Better than Dating

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Last year I told you how blogging is my new boyfriend, second only in my heart to tennis. And after a year of bloggng, I’m proud to say that our relationship keeps getting stronger. I think that’s why I’m in no hurry to find someone. Because blogging is a much more suitable parter in many ways. For example:

1. Blogging is a much better listener. I talk a lot. I want to share every thought that I have about what book I’m reading, what new insight I have from my latest therapy session, what happened in my last tennis match. In my relationships I usually started conversations with, I have a bunch of stuff to tell you! Usually stuff that they didn’t find all that interesting. Go figure. But in my blog I can talk as much I want, whenever I want, and in whatever level of detail I want.

2. I sleep better at night. I know a lot of people say that one of the hardest parts of being single is sleeping alone, but I have to disagree. I sleep much better by myself. My blog doesn’t care about my night owlness and that I don’t get out of bed until the afternoon sometimes. It doesn’t get annoyed because I toss and turn a lot. It never pulls the covers off of me in the middle of the night. And most importantly, blogs don’t snore or sweat or fart.

3. My blog doesn’t care that I’m obsessive. I have to admit, I even annoy myself sometimes with my obsessiveness. So I understand why I get on other people’s nerves. But my blog doesn’t care. I can check my stats a hundred times a day and my blog doesn’t say it needs a break from me. I can talk about the same things over and over again, and my blog won’t be like, you’ve already said that. If I decide to wake up in the middle of the night and send out a bunch of friend requests or look for people to follow, my blog doesn’t tell me I’m crazy.

4. My blog is always there for me. There have been periods over the last year that have been lonely and painful. I don’t think I could have made it without my blog. It has given me an outlet and an audience that I’ve never allowed myself to have. It validates my feelings. It hears my confessions. It helps me to let go, but in my own time. And when I’ve shared some of my lowest moments, it connects me to other people and reminds me that I am not alone. That I am never alone.

So thank you, blog, for helping me develop a better relationship with myself, and with all of you.

The Courage to Be Vulnerable, Part 2

I’m humbled by the feedback that I’m an inspiration, but to be honest, I’m not quite sure what people mean by that. I can understand how people could read my blog and think, wow! I’m not so crazy after all! But I don’t see how it can be an inspiration. Unless it inspires people to be honest about the stuff they are afraid to share with other people.
In one scene in the book A Fault in Our Stars, (which I love!), Hazel and Augustus are in the Anne Frank House watching a video of Otto Frank. After reading Anne’s diary, he concludes that parents don’t really know their children.  I would venture to say that we never really know anyone unless we have the opportunity to read their diary–or blog.

Our inquiries about people’s lives are fairly superficial. We ask people how they’re doing when we greet them, but any response beyond “I’m fine” would be TMI for most. Recently I asked a friend how her husband was doing because I heard he had been sick. She said he has his good and bad days. I’m sure some people don’t want to go into more detail, but maybe some people do. Maybe they feel like the person is just asking to be nice. To let them know they care without really wanting to hear the details.

I am one of those rare individuals who likes to tell people everything that’s going on in my life when I greet them. Well, not everyone. Just the ones who will tolerate it. I’ll even do it before they have a chance to ask me how I’m doing.  I’ll just bombard them with the minutiae of my day the moment I see them. Because I spend most of my time alone with no one to talk to, I am willing to break protocol. Admittedly, this stuff isn’t particularly inspirational, but at least I’m consistent in my self-disclosure.

I do think the world would a better place if we could all risk being a little more vulnerable. If we could all admit that we are human, I think people would feel a lot better about themselves. It does take courage to put yourself out there, but taking that risk also requires good listeners. People who are willing to be present and bear witness to our humanity without judgment.

So I am thankful to all of the readers out there who are willing to bear witness to my humanity. You are the ones who make courage possible.

2014 Blog for Mental Health Project

“I pledge my commitment to the Blog for Mental Health 2014 Project. I will blog about mental health topics not only for myself, but for others. By displaying this badge, I show my pride, dedication, and acceptance for mental health. I use this to promote mental health education in the struggle to erase stigma.”  
A Canvas of the Minds

Sometimes we make the most important decisions in our lives without consciously knowing why we made them at the time.I knew that I wanted to become a psychologist since I was in high school. At the time I wasn’t fully aware of being depressed in the clinical sense. Being anxious was so much a part of my personality that I didn’t think I had an anxiety disorder. And I definitely wasn’t aware of any mental illness in my family. I had no idea at the time that depression, bipolar disorder, and anxiety would impact every aspect of my life–in both positive and negative ways.

It’s probably not surprising that I have been negatively affected by mental illness. But as I write this post, I realize that there have been positive things about it, too. I have learned the most important lessons in life through suffering and loss.

Even as a therapist, when I heard clients make comments about how they had a bad week, it didn’t fully register how horrible that week was for them. In part because clients don’t elaborate unless you ask them to. Unless they are certain that you really want to know. And because they are embarrassed about it. Ashamed, even. But after going through my worst depression 5 years ago, I have much more compassion when clients make these offhanded comments.

I admit, during that period there were times when suicide would cross my mind. But there were two things that kept me from seriously entertaining it. One is that my dad would be devastated, and I feared he would never recover if I went through with it.

The other reason is that if I took my own life, it would undermine everything I ever said to my clients about how pain passes. That one day when they look back they will realize how strong they were at the time. That they will learn lessons from their suffering that it takes some people a lifetime to learn. How can you believe anything your therapist said if she committed suicide? That would be the ultimate betrayal.

So I spent months willing myself to get better. I went back to therapy, started meds again, meditated and prayed, and forced myself to play tennis and spend time with friends. And I did get better. And everything I said about realizing my strength, becoming more compassionate, and acquiring wisdom were all true. I would have never chosen depression, but we usually don’t choose the experiences that teach us the most about life.

People often ask me how I can listen to client’s problems all day long. In all honesty, I can’t imagine what else I would do for a living. It feels more like psychology chose me. And when I hear a client’s story, I always have hope that together we can change the plot for the better. After all, I always root for the underdog. I am the eternal optimist. And I never back down from a challenge.

There was a time when I would never have told this story about my struggles with depression and anxiety to my students or clients. Or even friends and family. But now I want to share it with the world, because every act of courage benefits someone else. My blog is proof of that.

Saving Lives, Part 2

You know that song “It’s Not Easy,” by Five for Fighting? It’s one of my favorites–and not just because it’s a great Karaoke song. I don’t claim to be a superhero, but I can relate to how hard it is to be the one who is expected to help other people.

Today I saw a client who exemplifies why I became a therapist. His life is filled with traumatic stories involving drugs, alcohol, mental illness, and abandonment, yet he is amazingly well-adjusted–on the outside, at least. He’s never had a chance to tell his story. In fact, he’s been coming to the counseling center for almost 2 years, but there’s very little in his chart about his family history.

Not all my motives are altruistic, however. It’s gratifying to give someone what you wish you had received. It feels good to be important to someone. And in all honesty, when you work with clients like him, you are changed just as much in the process. I know it’s cliche to say that I get more out of it than they do, but it’s true.

Not coincidentally, he bears an eerie similarity to my first husband. It’s unfortunate that the compassion that helps me to be an effective therapist has not served me well in my romantic relationships.

I understand why. With my client, I can be there for him, but he doesn’t have to be there for me. Nor should he be. In a romantic relationship, it needs to be closer to 50/50. But when you are in a relationship with someone who has been traumatized, their needs always seem to trump yours.

Some people see the red flags right away and steer clear of these kinds of relationships. But to me, they look like those orange flags that the ground crew at airports wave to direct you to the gate. They are more like a signal to move in closer than a warning sign of imminent danger.

I haven’t yet figured out what to do with my empathy in red flag relationships. How do I ignore someone’s cries for help when every part of me tells me to go to them, comfort them, and help them feel better? Their pain is my pain, and I don’t want to be in pain.

One of the advantages of being alone is that there is finally room for me to register my own feelings. It turns out that I’m not as needy as I thought I was. But I wish I had someone who can do for me what I do for other people. Today, I wish I had someone to come home to so that I could tell him about my day. Blogging about it helps, but it’s not the same.

I am still hopeful that I can find a relationship where someone can be there for me.  But for now, I’ll try to limit my rescue efforts to my clients, my family, my friends, and myself.

Words

I’ve always been a good student. So last night I had to stay up until I finished my homework; I had to finish reading The Book Thief for book club today. I can see why it’s a best seller. It is beautifully written. It’s one of those books that makes me marvel at the power of words–spoken and unspoken.

In the book, Liesel has a love/hate relationship with words. Words were one of Hitler’s most powerful weapons, and she lost many people whom she loved because of them. But words also comforted her, connected her to other people, and ultimately told her story.

I rely a great deal on words in every aspect of my life–except tennis. But even there, you have to at least call out the score. Without words, I wouldn’t be able to sing Karaoke. I guess you can just make a bunch of nonsensical sounds, but that wouldn’t be as fun. The words don’t have to make sense–and I am often surprised to find out what the lyrics are at times–but you have to sing something.

I’m not really artistic. I can’t express myself through drawing or sculpting or dancing like my other family members. But I can write. And I like public speaking. So without words, I wouldn’t have a job. And I wouldn’t be able to blog.

When I write a blog post, I try to keep it as short as possible, so I have to leave a lot of words out. I am always relieved–and surprised–that people understand exactly what I was trying to say in the spaces between the sentences.

Sometimes I have an idea for a post but I’m not quite sure what I want to say. So I just write, because I know the idea is in there somewhere. I usually come up with something I didn’t expect to find. An ending that I hadn’t conceived of at the beginning. Artists often say they don’t create something from nothing; they’re just expressing an idea that’s already there. Sometimes that’s what blogging is like, too.

I spend most of my time listening to and choosing words carefully.  People think the hardest part of therapy is hearing people’s problems, but it’s not.  The hardest part is understanding what clients are trying to tell you and conveying that message back to them.  Again, the idea is in there somewhere, but they don’t quite know how to get it out.  In fact, therapists often say that the nonverbal communication is more important than the words themselves.

I guess that’s why what is left unspoken is meaningful, too. There were many times that Liesel wanted to say things but couldn’t bring herself to do it. I love you. I’m sorry. Don’t go. Sometimes we choose not to say hateful things. Sometimes we punish people with silence.

That’s the paradoxical thing about words. You need them, but you also need the space between them. And good writers like Markus Zusak know how to find the balance between the two.

I was trying to write a message about reading my blog in this doodle, but it ended up looking like someone typing on a computer. But that works, too.

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.