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What Love is Not

love freely

Sometimes I’m still not sure I know what love is.

I’ve said I love you many times, but often immediately after the relationship ended I was like, what the hell was I thinking?! It’s as if I had been in a trance, and once the person moved out of my empathy range, I could not understand how I ever convinced myself that I loved that person.

Once the person decided that they loved me, I felt obligated to love them back. I felt like it was my job to give people what they wanted, so I tried my best to focus on the person’s good qualities. In positive psychology research, being able to overlook your partner’s negative qualities is actually one of the best predictors of a happy marriage.

And admittedly, sometimes I would try to change the things I didn’t like about them so that they could be more like someone I could love. That’s part of the reason why I’m afraid to be in a relationship: I don’t trust myself to accept the person as they are. In my defense, sometimes I was responding to their desire to be helped. But sometimes it was just because there were things about the other person I couldn’t stand.

But isn’t that true in loving relationships, too? I’ve often heard couples say that there are days when everything their spouse does gets on their nerves. Just because you love someone doesn’t mean that you feel loving towards them all the time. This is what I would tell myself as a way to justify staying.

And like I’ve said before, if Jesus said we should love our enemies, then surely I can overlook the fact that this grown man picks his nose in public. Even though that was a good enough reason for someone to break up with Seinfeld.

In a couple of relationships I actually felt like I hated the person. My friends would explain away my hatred with the the old adage that there is a thin line between love and hate. But that wasn’t why I hated them. I hated them because they exhibited the kind of narcissism that characterizes psychopaths, and I was their latest victim. And I hated myself for trying to love someone who was a borderline psychopath.

I still have nightmares about one of my exes. I’ve had dreams where somehow I am with him again and I feel panicked and trapped. Like Julia Roberts in the movie “Sleeping with the Enemy” where she walks into her house and sees her husband standing there, even though she faked her death and changed her identity in order to be free from him.

That can’t be good. That hardly sounds like love at all.

I don’t want to give the impression that all of my relationships could be turned into psychological thrillers. Most of them were good guys. And I truly loved the two that I married. The problem is that I never knew for sure whether I really loved someone until the relationship was over. Until they were far enough away that I could distinguish my feelings from theirs.

Yet another example of how empathy isn’t always a good thing.

These are not easy relationship patterns to change. But I have not given up hope. I like challenges. I’ve figured out knitting patterns that were beyond my skill level.  Surely I can learn to choose love, rather than have love choose me.

The Dilemma of Being Human

I am currently reading The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, which is awesome! It’s about this guy who decides to walk several hundred miles to visit an old friend who is dying of cancer because he believes that it will keep her alive. His walk is a form of penance for all of the people he has failed, including himself. To make up for his passivity, he decides to take a leap of faith that he can walk 600 miles in yachting shoes without a cell phone, a map, or a plan, and be redeemed.

I like this book because it explores how loss and grief can change us and our relationships with the people we love. It has always bothered me that someone who had once been so important to us can become someone who we can’t stand the sight of. Even though it’s less romantic, I would prefer to think of love as a weed that sticks around no matter how hard you try to get rid of it rather than some high maintenance flower like a rose that is easy to kill.

I also like the book because I’ve had this fantasy of walking the Camino de Santiago because some Catholics believe it will halve their stay in purgatory. I don’t know if I believe in purgatory, but if it does exist, I would definitely like to shorten my stay there. I can see why a pilgrimage would be therapeutic. It’s like self-therapy with a rigorous physical activity component.

Along the way, Harold meets people who share their own sorrows, which he feels both comforted and burdened by. The other night I read a line in the book that gave me pause: “Harold cold no longer pass a stranger without acknowledging the truth that everyone was the same, and also unique; and this was the dilemma of being human.”

This statement is at the heart of what my blog is about. I have always felt different from others in a way that makes me feel alone in the world. For being Filipino and for not being Filipino enough. For thinking too much and for being too shallow. For not being married, for being divorced, for not having children. For having depression and anxiety. Even without these specific differences to point to, I have felt fundamentally flawed in a way that I can’t quite put into words.

But as I blog about my flaws, I realize that other people feel just like I do–alone in their craziness. The details make us unique, but the pain of feeling separate from others is universal.

So in a way I feel like I am Harold Fry, on my journey to self-acceptance, but with a much less rigorous physical activity component. And as I tell my story, I give others the opportunity to reflect on their own story so that we can share the joy and pain of being human together.

The Dilemma of Being Human

Photo: Maria Roman

Heartbreak

Regret

I’m working with a student right now who is heartbroken. I’ve always been bothered by how adults distinguish puppy love from “real” love.  I remember when I was in grad school a fellow student was talking about how boring it would be to work in a counseling center where all you do is help students with insignificant problems like breakups. No one questions that divorce is painful, but heartbreak as a teenager or young adult is apparently no big deal.

It took me a long time to get over my first love from high school. It also took a long time to get over my divorces.  I can’t say that my pain was more real or more legitimate as an adult than it was in my teens. And to be honest, I’m not sure I have been any wiser about falling in love or more mature at handling heartbreak than I was when I was a teenager. I feel like I keep making the same mistakes over and over again.

I  think that dismissing someone’s feelings as puppy love is just one of many examples of how we trivialize emotions in general. We judge some feelings as being more or less legitimate.  Puppy love is not to be taken seriously. You can’t be angry without a good reason. It’s better to be depressed if you have a “chemical imbalance.”

And because we haven’t learned helpful ways to deal with pain, we try to push people along too quickly.  So we tell them that they are better off. Tell them to suck it up. Shame them out of their feelings if we have to.

I never talked much about how I felt when I’ve had my heart broken. Certainly not as much as I wanted to. I knew that I wouldn’t hear what I needed to hear. At the time I couldn’t even articulate what I needed to hear, but now I can. I needed someone to tell me that my feelings counted. That my pain was real. And that when I was ready to move on, I would.

This is still what I need to hear, even if I’m just saying it to myself. And this is what I tell my clients when they are heartbroken. And I keep repeating it until they are ready to move on.

Nostalgia

Nostalgia

Today I heard a song on the radio that reminded me of my first husband. Memories of him come up every day–sometimes multiple times a day. Depending on the memory, I may feel a variety of emotions, but I almost always miss him. I almost always wish he could still be in my life.

I’ve always liked romantic movies like “Bridges of Madison County” where two people love each other but can’t be together. I guess in some ways the appeal is that you can experience the intensity of their love without having to be in pain yourself. Because in real life it’s pretty terrible, living with so much longing.

I know I’m not unique in this regard. I’ve seen the Facebook posts where people remember someone they love. I’ve heard people say the pain never goes away–that you just get used to living with it. The prospect of losing someone I love and facing a lifetime of pain has always terrified me. And then I remember that it has already happened.

It’s not that I spend my life pining away for him. I have a good life. I have a loving family and good friends. I love my job. I love tennis and blogging and college football. I have things to look forward to–like Federer being in the semifinals of the U.S. Open. (So exciting!) And yet the sadness is still there, right alongside the happiness.

People have this misconception that you can’t experience positive and negative feelings at the same time, and this is perpetuated by the field of positive psychology. That’s why they tell you to think happy thoughts and count your blessings and remind yourself of why you’re better off without him. These strategies help some, but they don’t make the sad feelings go away.

I don’t allow myself to pray that God will put him in my path again. That would be too close to having hope, and I’m afraid to have hope. That seems like a delusion that wouldn’t serve me well.

Today I considered the possibility that God hasn’t put him in my path for a reason. Perhaps he is a different person from the one I knew, and I wouldn’t like this person as much. Perhaps knowing about his life would hurt me more than not knowing.

The scene that stands out to me the most in “Bridges of Madison County” is when Meryl Streep tells Clint Eastwood that she can’t run away with him because eventually it would turn what is extraordinary about their love into something ordinary. That they would grow resentful of one another and their resentment would destroy their love altogether. That the only way to preserve their love is to walk away from it.

I’ve had many opportunities to pursue the ones that got away, and the encounters were ultimately disappointing; the fantasy was always better than the reality. And now I have no fantasies left to sustain me. No daydreams about what might have been if I had chosen a different path. In some ways it’s a good thing because I don’t have to live with regret. But there is something to be said for having something that you can dream about.

Perhaps God is allowing me to keep my dream without giving reality a chance to destroy it. Perhaps God is helping me to preserve the memory of our love as I knew it. That possibility gives me some comfort–for the moment, at least.

Hiatus

I have always prided myself on being open to love, even after heartbreak. I’ve met people who have closed off their hearts after being betrayed by their loved one, and while I don’t judge them for their decision, it is not how I want to live my life. This is also why, although I’ve had partners who have been dishonest, I still choose to start off a relationship trusting the other person.

A few weeks ago, my therapist suggested that I consider getting a cat. She thought it would help to combat my loneliness and to discharge negative energy. As I mentioned in a previous post, I am not an animal person, but I, too, have considered getting a cat. But after talking to my friends about it and imagining what it would be like to have a cat here in my darkest moments, I have decided against it. For now, at least.

I realized after this deliberation process that I am not in a place where I am ready to love, take care of, or lose anyone or anything. I am not necessarily closing off my heart, but I still feel too vulnerable, too raw to be open to love at the moment.

I don’t like the person I have been in relationships. In my most negative moments, my inner critic uses this against me as evidence that I deserve to be alone. I think it has more to do with the super-empath in me who identifies so much with how the other person feels, I cannot separate my wants and needs from theirs. I think that’s one of the reasons I convinced myself that I loved people who loved me; I became what they needed me to be.

As cliche as it sounds, I really don’t know who I am or what I want in a relationship. I am hoping that if I can be free from the wants and needs of others, I will eventually have a better sense of what my own wants and needs are. I have already been surprised by how much I enjoy my solitude–most of the time. How freeing it is not to have my mood be so tied to how my partner is feeling. My mood is all over the place as it is. I now realize how overwhelming it was when I felt everything for the two of us.

So I’m taking a long overdue hiatus from relationships. I am hoping this will lead to wiser decisions about matters of the heart. And if the hiatus ends up being longer than expected, I can always take my therapist’s advice and adopt a cat.

Joy and Pain

I finally saw The Fault in Our Stars the other day. I thought that the movie was true to the book but wasn’t long enough to include all the scenes that I loved. But I guess no one else would be interested in a 10 hour movie.

One of the things they left out was the discussion of whether we need to experience pain in order to know joy. In the book Hazel repeatedly says she doesn’t believe this: “the existence of broccoli in no way affects the taste of chocolate.” I thought that this was such a compelling argument that for awhile I forgot all of the research I’ve read that supports the joy-pain connection.

Hazel worries about how her death will hurt the people who love her. She is afraid that her parents won’t have a life after she dies. She pushes Augustus away because she doesn’t want to be a grenade. But Augustus cannot be dissuaded: “you don’t get to choose if you get hurt in this world, but you do have some say in who hurts you.”

This whole joy and pain thing is actually why I have so much trouble with endings. I look forward to having the summer off but by the 2nd day of summer I start obsessing about how my vacation is running out. I suffer from existential anxiety about death and aging. Even coming to the end of books like this one is difficult because I don’t want to have to say good-bye to characters like Hazel and Augustus.

When I read the book I didn’t fully appreciate Hazel’s obsession with knowing what happens to the characters at the end of “An Imperial Affliction,” which ends in mid-sentence because the narrator dies of cancer. But after watching the movie, I understand. Hazel wants reassurance that life will go on for her parents after she dies.

I’ve always thought that life was kind of cruel in this way. My heart may be broken but the world doesn’t seem to care. Life goes on, despite my pain. It’s kind of insulting, really.

But now I think it’s a good thing. Life isn’t like a book or a movie that begins with joy but ends with pain–and wisdom. Life is more like a series of stories, where we have more joy–and pain–ahead of us. More people to love. More summers to look forward to.  More books to read. So I’m looking forward to the next installment.

I think this doodle looks like lightning bugs.

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.

Swashbucklers Anonymous

My name is Christy Barongan and I am a swashbuckler.

I mentioned in a previous post that I’m reading The Art of Empathy in an attempt to help me with my hyperempath problem. I finished the chapter on empathic love, and it is so true of me that it freaked me out. I almost had a panic attack and had to take a nap afterwards.

In this chapter she lists 4 impediments in a potential mate: 1) a lack of emotional skills, 2) an active addiction, 3) unhealed childhood trauma, and 4) the presence of a toxic ex-mate. These impediments are practically criteria for a relationship for me. I like challenges, but come on! This is ridiculous! Reading this list drove home the fact that most my relationships had little chance of succeeding from the start.

Ironically, reading this chapter also helped me to not beat myself up about my relationship choices. I am drawn to people with these problems for the same reason that I chose to be a psychologist. I want to help people. I believe everyone is capable of turning their life around, and I am confident that I can help them do it. I never back down from a challenge, and I never give up. These are all qualities that I’m proud of.

However, I am beginning to realize that every challenge has a cost. Even if I do something I enjoy, like play tennis, write a blog post, or talk to my brother, it drains me mentally and physically. Which is OK. I love doing these things, so it’s worth it. But in the past, having the ability to help someone was reason enough to do it. Whether I wanted to do it or not was irrelevant because my wants and needs didn’t count. And I never paid attention to the impact that giving so much of myself had on my well-being.

In a way, that’s one of the benefits of being prone to depression and anxiety and of having allergies, GERD, and asthma. Now I have to pay close attention to everything I do and how it will affect me. I have to be intentional about all of my choices. It’s a pain, but it forces me to take care of myself.

Also, when I choose to do something challenging, most of the time I’m not too attached to the outcome–except in relationships. I’d like to move up to 4.0 in tennis, but if I don’t, I’ll just keep trying. Same with writing a best seller. I know the odds aren’t in my favor, but I enjoy the process, and if it never happens I won’t be devastated. I don’t even take it personally when I can’t help a client get better.

If I had the same attitude in relationships–that I gave my best effort, and that’s all I can do–then perhaps I wouldn’t feel like such a failure in them.

It also helps that McLaren calls people like me swashbucklers rather than codependents or love addicts. She describes swashbucklers as people on a heroic journey filled with impossible tasks and mythical beasts. Sort of like relationship warriors. But like Odysseus at the end of his adventures, I think I’m ready to come home.

Maybe I can use my superhero skills to save myself.  After all, who is better qualified to help me than me? I don’t even have to do it alone. I could create a support group for hyperempaths. A 12 step program for swashbucklers, if you will. I think it could be a big hit.

So if you’re interested in participating, let me know.

Strength

In honor of Mental Health Awareness Month and Mother’s Day, I am featuring a guest blogger, my youngest brother Romeo Barongan. He has been featured in several posts, including Hard Core Fan, The Best Valentine’s Day Gift, and Let it Go. This post is an example of how good things can come from depression–like wisdom, gratitude, love, and strength.
 
Strength is not about how I look on the outside; but about what I’m made of on the inside. It’s not about how much weight I can lift; but about the burdens I’m able to bear….what I’m willing to endure when the cause is just. After a life of trying to keep up with the Big Boys in the gym, I’ve learned that strength isn’t about the body but the soul. In honor of Mother’s Day, I wish to acknowledge my own Mom for helping me realize the definition of true strength. While I have been striving to acquire strength of body, my Mom has consistently demonstrated strength of character.
I feel the need to create some context for the journey about which I will relay shortly. My parents are both successful professionals. They reared three over-achieving children. And then I came along to round our family of six. I’m not selling myself short or looking for pity; I’m no failure. But growing up as the youngest child in a household so rift with talent created a seemingly impossible path to follow. To worsen matters, people outside the family often chided me for my privileged upbringing. They would disregard my success with statements like, “Anyone could do that if their parents had the money yours do.” They disparaged me for my work ethic in the classroom & relative inexperience in blue collar affairs. “Spoiled rich boy should learn to do real man’s work & get his hands dirty every once in a while.” I wanted to prove that I was a “real man.” I had to show the world that I wasn’t the sheltered doctor’s son that they accused me of being. I would force the world to see that I was indeed strong.
I hit the gym hard. I tried to be more “blue collar” without the benefit of knowing exactly what being blue collar actually meant. It was an unusually painful separation when I finally moved out of my parent’s house to strike it out on my own. We’re such a close family with traditional Eastern culture values; I think my parent’s perceived it as a mild insult when their then 25-yr-old youngest son decided to leave their house. But I was driven by the need to establish the obligatory self-sufficiency that comes with adulthood. I had to prove not only to the world but to myself that I wasn’t the helpless youngest son of a privileged family. I had to prove I was normal; that I was “strong.”
The older I’ve gotten, the more I appreciate how amazing my parents are. Dealing with the often overwhelming constant bombardment or adult responsibilities is enough to suffocate me on most days. My career barely involves a fraction of the level of pressure & high stakes that characterized my parent’s careers—and yet, they were able to succeed & still have the time to make me feel like I was the center of their universe. All this year, I’ve been struggling with a life crisis that I tried to keep to myself & resolve on my own. I didn’t want to worry my poor Mother who has more than enough on her plate. I just had to “cowboy-up” & go it alone. But I recently broke down & shared my struggle with her. It’s ironic: I spent most of my 20’s trying to establish my independence in an effort to uphold my obligations as an adult. Now in my late 30’s, I realize that no matter how much I “grow up”, I’ll never outgrow a parent’s love. And I’ll never be too old to realize how much I love & need my parent’s in my life.
I used to think that I was strong after a good workout in the gym or after standing up to a bully twice my size. But then I see my Mom at 70-yrs-old adapt to the computerized healthcare industry to order to extend her 40-year career as a doctor. I see her remain active in the Church & community on her off days. I see her remain the dutiful wife to my Father. And I benefit from her seemingly never-ending support in my own life. I was looking at myself in the mirror after a solid workout this morning when I began to think that strength is too great a quality to be measured in a single act; & certainly too immense to assess through anything we can see in a mirror. With my reflection staring back at me, I realized that I had been strong on this day; but there were far more days when I hadn’t been. With Mom, there’s never an off day. Her love knows no limits. Her commitment to those she loves never wavers. Today, I want to thank her for helping me realize where true strength lies—otherwise, I could have spent my whole life looking strength in all the wrong places instead of summoning it from my own heart.  Even on my best day, I’m not half as strong as my Mom is every day. But I am making progress. For example, I used to be afraid of telling the people in my life how important they were to me—-afraid of sounding sappy or weak. But now, all I’m afraid of is failing to be sincere. I love you, Mom. Thanks for everything. And Happy Mother’s Day to you & all the Mothers out there. Oh, & if you haven’t already done so; please don’t be afraid to let your own mom what she means to you. Thanks for reading.
 

 

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.