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May We All Accept Things As They Are

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As a part of my compassion practice, I am currently reading Lovingkindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness, by Sharon Salzberg. Today’s chapter was on equanimity, which is “a radiant calm that allows us to be present fully with all the different changing experiences that constitute our world and our lives.”

I can definitely use some of that. It’s hard to have a “radiant calm” because I have an anxiety disorder, so I obsess all the time. In my last post where I was describing how happy I was on Sunday, I really did obsess about death and bodily injury later that day. Luckily, I was able to focus my attention back to the present moment, which made me happy again.

And sometimes I get depressed for no apparent reason, which is maddening. Or sometimes there is a reason, but that’s still maddening, because I can’t function. The ups and downs that everyone experiences are a bit steeper when you have a mood disorder. Still, I try to accept whatever it is I’m feeling, whether it makes sense or not. To remind myself that this is the natural ebb and flow of life.

And I take my medication.

The equanimity meditation is actually about accepting that you can’t control other people’s behavior. Like getting mad when people don’t take my advice. Which is ill-advised, but I guess people can make bad decisions if they want to.

Seriously, though, one of the things that brings clients the most suffering is that other people aren’t behaving the way they want them to. If they would just text me back. Or put their dishes away. Or not hook up with anyone until we graduate. Then my life would be better.

Most of the meditations on lovingkindness are about sending yourself and others the hope that they are healthy, happy, safe, and free from suffering. Practicing equanimity means that we send these good intentions without trying to control the outcome. We understand that, no matter how much we want good things for other people, ultimately they have to help themselves; they have to take responsibility for their own happiness.

Salzberg refers to this as the release from codependency in psychological terms. Which is ironic, because I never heard the word codependent once when I was getting my Ph.D. in clinical psychology. You don’t read self-help books for your course work, so I had no idea what people meant when they said I was codependent. But now it’s pretty clear that I am. The whole feeling other people’s feelings thing. And trying to control other people’s behavior.

The words you recite in the equanimity meditation are:

All beings are the owners of their karma. Their happiness and unhappiness depend on their actions, not on my wishes for them.

That’s a lot for me to have to remember to say, so I opted for the shorter version when I did the meditation, which is “may we all accept things as they are.”

When I did the meditation earlier tonight I was feeling sad, and after I did the meditation, I can’t say that I felt significantly better. But then I remembered that I can’t practice the meditation with the intention of controlling my feelings; I just have to accept whatever they are in the moment.

But now that a few hours have passed, I do feel better. Which is a reminder that in the ebb and flow of life, happiness will return to you at some point.

If There Were a Prize for Most Likely to Obsess Over Nothing, I Would Totally Win

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Next week I am going to a week-long meditation retreat on self-compassion in California, and I am freaking out about it. I didn’t realize the meditation part would be such a prominent component of the training until after I signed up. After I found out that they recommend that I pack a zafu meditation pillow–which I had to buy–and a yoga mat. And that I need yoga-type clothing.

I do meditate every day, but more of the 5 minute variety before I go to bed. Not the sit-on-the-floor-on-a-zafu-pillow-and-meditate-for-a week kind of meditation.

I am anxious about the typical things that would make someone not choose a meditation retreat, like not being able to get on my phone, iPad, or computer. And flying. And what impact the severe drought in California will have on my trip.

But I am also obsessing about seemingly insignificant and therefore maddening things like, will I be able to sleep if I can’t recline my bed because of my stupid GERD? Would a zafu pillow, a yoga mat, a GERD pillow, and yoga-type clothing all fit into my suitcase? I could bring a gigantic suitcase, but would they think I’m high maintenance?

Do I even have yoga-type clothing? If I wear tennis stuff, would that be weird? Do I need long-sleeve shirts? What will the temperature be? Because sometimes even when it’s hot outside it can be cold inside because of the air conditioning. Although maybe they don’t crank up the air conditioner at a meditation retreat, even when it’s hot. If it is hot.

The list goes on, but you get the idea.

Intellectually, I know people who have chosen to go on a self-compassion retreat probably aren’t going to be judging me for my luggage or for wearing the wrong thing, but I can’t stop obsessing, nonetheless. Which is why I signed up for this retreat.

But I realized something last night that helped me to accept my obsessiveness. I was watching this biography on one of the up-and-coming tennis players, and I noticed that all of the great athletes were super competitive and full of energy even when they were kids. Their parents had to get them involved in something at all times so they wouldn’t explode.

Obsessing is the mental equivalent of a hyperactive child. Sometimes I do it because I’m anxious, but sometimes it’s just because I need something to think about. Even if it’s just what I’m going to have for dinner tomorrow. Or what order I should do my errands in. Or how many inches I should take off when I get my hair cut. There’s all this energy in my brain, and the only way to burn it off is to obsess.

So maybe if I could channel my obsessing into something useful, like those hyperactive kids who became world-class athletes did, I could become famous, too. Maybe I could use my powers for good instead of evil. Well, not evil. But something more productive. So I wrote this blog post to see if that would help. Although I’m pretty sure I’m just going to obsess about the stats after I publish it.

If anyone has ideas about useful ways to channel my obsessive energy, I am open to suggestions.

In This Moment

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I’ve always been reluctant to tell people what kind of music I like, because it’s pretty mainstream. In fact, I’ll make that #11 on my list–my preference for Top 40. Some of my friends have criticized me for what they consider my poor taste in music: it’s so unoriginal. So superficial.

And it’s true that the lyrics usually aren’t profound, but sometimes they still touch upon universal feelings. That’s why even the sappiest of love songs can be appealing when you have a broken heart.

Yesterday on my drive home the song “Daylight,” by Maroon 5, came on the radio. Every time I hear this song I think of one of the long distance relationships I was in during high school. My boyfriend went to college 5 hours away, so we didn’t see each other often. And when we did see each other, I was so anxious by Saturday about him leaving on Sunday that I couldn’t enjoy our time together. No amount of reasoning could stop me from obsessing.

That’s what happens when you have an anxiety disorder. The things that other people find difficult, like saying good-bye, are intolerable. Adam Levine can still hold her close for one night, even if he’ll have to go in the daylight. I, on the other hand, would obsess about how sad I was going to be when that moment came and would end up ruining the whole evening.

Despite the intensity of my negative feelings, I have often chosen relationships that have been characterized by a high level of drama. Which doesn’t make any sense, I know. You would think that I wanted to be miserable. But love is like a drug–especially in the early stages–what with all the obsession and longing and all. Even though the cons outweigh the pros, you get addicted, anyway, because it’s not a rational process.

My relationships were like an addiction in that I craved connection, but no amount of contact was ever enough. And I would experience withdrawal during even the smallest periods of separation, yet I still preferred long-distance relationships.

That’s why I’m proud of myself for not being in a relationship. I’m learning how to tolerate my fear of being alone. And I’m learning how to live without the addiction of drama. And my behavior doesn’t seem as crazy and contradictory–in relationships, at least.

Other things have helped with my anxiety, too. I resisted meds for a long time, even though people begged me to take them for their sake, if not for mine. But I have to admit, even though I don’t like taking them, they make my anxiety bearable.

I also have a therapist who I can call when I’m freaking out. I meditate, which has helped me tolerate my feelings. And I practice mindfulness as often as possible.

One of my favorite mindfulness mantras is any sentence that begins with “in this moment.” In this moment, I am anxious. It’s hard to breathe. I am in pain. But in the next moment, I will feel differently.

And I always do.

Mental Hygiene

Negativity is like a virus. Even if you are vigilant about taking your meds, challenging irrational thoughts, praying, meditating, and practicing self-acceptance, forgiveness, and compassion, it just takes one negative comment–one careless psychological sneeze–and you’re contaminated.

I’ve had 3 people sneeze on me today. In an effort to avoid contaminating you with too much negativity, I’ll just tell you about the most egregious of the 3 incidents.

I had my follow up appointment with my psychiatrist today. Thank goodness I only have to go twice a year. It’s a 3 and 1/2 hour drive round trip for a 30 minute appointment, and there’s very little about that 30 minutes that is therapeutic. While my psychiatrist knows his drugs, he’s not a particularly good therapist, to put it mildly. Which is OK, I guess, because I have a therapist. But I have to talk about something.

Because I have chronic sleep issues due to my night-owlness, I confessed that I’ve been struggling with regulating my sleep cycle now that I’m not working. Every time I tell him what time I go to sleep and wake up, he makes this judgmental face that looks like he just sucked on a lemon. Then he proceeds to tell me what the research says about the importance of waking up at the same time every day, especially when you have a history of depression. How I need to get morning sunlight, I shouldn’t take naps, I need to be more disciplined, blah blah blah.

I am not good at constructive criticism, but I did manage to say that I’m trying. That I spend an inordinate amount of time obsessing about sleep. So much so that it probably interferes with my sleep. He can read my blog if he wants proof.

But I wish I could say something more honest. Something like, you make me feel like crap when you make that stupid face and give me a lecture on sleep hygiene that I already know by heart because I am a clinical psychologist, in case you’ve forgotten. Every time I see you, you just give my inner critic ammunition to tell me how I’m failing at sleep hygiene and that I suck. You are supposed to be helping me with my mental health–not making it worse. Oh, and by the way, your waiting room smells like mold and you need to clean your freaking office and water your damn plants. It doesn’t reflect well on you that your plants are dying! 

But I don’t want to come across as being too negative.

Does anyone ever give their doctor honest feedback when they do something unhelpful? I try to imagine what my reaction would be if a client brought to my attention that my facial expression conveyed blatant disapproval of what a terrible job they’re doing of trying to get better. It would be a shock, no question. But I don’t want to convey disapproval and judgment, so I think I would want to know. I think I would try to be more aware of my facial expressions. But as I mentioned in a previous post, we are terrible predictors of how we will act in the future. So maybe I would just be pissed off.

Maybe I can think of this as an opportunity to practice constructive criticism. Maybe I’ll talk to my therapist about it and see if she thinks it’s worth it to say something. Not what I wrote above, of course. But something.

Or maybe I could just tell him that my latest blog post is dedicated to him so he should read it. That would be hilarious!

I’ll let you know what I do. In the meantime, I encourage all of you to do your part in preventing the spread of negativity. Please remember to cover your mouth before your criticize. (And not in that passive-aggressive way where you cover your mouth while you fake cough and mumble something critical under your breath, either. You know what I’m taking about.)

I think this doodle looks like germs.

Interventions

I’m not good at confronting people. Which is ironic, because one of the things I do in my job is coach students on how to confront their friends about having an eating disorder. And I think I give pretty good advice, too. But I guess I’m not as brave as these students are.

Because confronting their friend will most likely put a strain on their relationship. It’s rare that the person who is being confronted says, you’re right. I do have a problem and I want to get help. Thank you for saying something. Confronting them may just be one step in a long series of steps toward getting help. It may not get the person into the counseling center right away, but it may plant the seed of recovery in their mind.

I’ve had many clients with eating disorders acknowledge that even though they would have denied having a problem at the time, they still wanted someone to say something about their 30 pound weight loss. And I’ve heard many clients in recovery say that although they were mad at the people who tried to help them at the time, they played an important role in the process of accepting their disorder.

I know all of this, but I’m still afraid to do it. Maybe they’ll be angry and yell at me, and I hate being yelled at. Or maybe something else will happen that will feel terrible, but I can’t put into words what it is that I fear. So I have to think about what day I want to ruin. What day I want to be incapacitated. I haven’t found that day yet. But I need to, because I gave my word that I would say something.

I don’t even have to do it in person, since I live so far away. I just have to make a phone call. And in my defense, I have tried to call a few times, but the whole time I was praying that he wouldn’t answer. Luckily for me, he didn’t. He never answered and never called back, which is unusual. Perhaps he knows why I’m calling, and he doesn’t want to have this conversation, either. Which makes it that much harder to force it to happen.

I ordinarily pride myself on accepting challenges, mental toughness, and doing the right thing. But in this case, nothing has motivated me to move closer to having this conversation. Not prayer, or meditation, or talking my therapist. Not even guilt and shame.

So I thought I’d blog about it and see if that helps. I’ll let you know.

The Emotional Life of Your Brain

I just finished reading The Emotional Life of Your Brain, and although I started losing interest towards the end, it presents an interesting view of personality that is worth sharing.

Based on brain research, Davidson identifies 6 dimensions of personality:

1)  Resilience (fast or slow to recover from adversity)

2)  Outlook (negative or positive)

3)  Social Intuition (puzzled or intuitive; A.K.A. emotional intelligence)

4)  Self-Awareness (opaque or aware)

5)  Sensitivity to Context (tuned out or tuned in)

6)  Attention (unfocused or focused)

If you are interested in where you fall on each of these dimensions, click on the link above and you will find a short survey. Here were my results, which probably won’t surprise anyone who reads my blog:

1)  Resilience: fast to recover

2)  Outlook: positive

3)  Social Intuition: very intuitive

4)  Self-Awareness: very self-aware

5)  Sensitivity to Context: very tuned in

6)  Attention: focused

As with most personality dimensions, the goal is to move your set point closer to the middle. In practice, however, one end of the spectrum is usually more desirable than the other. Here are the advantages and disadvantages of each extreme:

1)  Resilience: Being too fast to recover may make you less compassionate and seem unfeeling and insensitive to others. Being slow to recover makes it difficult for you to function and you may focus more on your pain than on other people. But usually people try to learn how to be more resilient.

2)  Outlook: A negative outlook puts you at risk for depression and annoys other people. An overly positive outlook makes it difficult for you to learn from your mistakes and postpone immediate gratification. But usually the goal is to develop a more positive outlook.

3)  Intuition: Being too intuitive may make it difficult to function because you’re constantly picking up other people’s negativity. (Hmmm. That sounds familiar). People who are at the puzzled end may have problems in all aspects of their lives in which they have to interact with other people–which is essentially all aspects of life.

4)  Self-Awareness: Being opaque makes you prone to missing signs of illness and make you unable to take care of yourself. Being too self-aware can make you a hypochondriac. But in general, it’s better to be self-aware.

5)  Sensitivity to Context: Being tuned out might make you feel and act in ways that aren’t appropriate to the situation (e.g., anxiety disorders). Being too tuned in can make you prone to losing touch with your true self because you are constantly changing your behavior to fit the social situation. But usually people try to be more tuned in.

6)  Attention: Being too focused annoys people because you don’t pay attention to them when you’re doing something. And you tend to “not see the forest for the trees.” Being unfocused puts you at risk for ADHD. But usually people want to learn how to be more focused.

Guess what the best way is to move toward the resilient, positive, intuitive, self-aware, tuned in, attentive end? Meditation! My favorite meditation guru is Jack Kornfield, and on his webpage he goes through the 5 basic meditations:

1)  Meditation on Compassion

2)  Walking Meditation

3)  Forgiveness Meditation (which I really need to practice)

4)  Sitting Meditation

5)  Lovingkindness Meditation

Jon Kabat-Zinn also teaches meditation for Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), but you have to pay for his stuff. You could also seek out a therapist who specializes in MBSR.

So there you have it–your cheat sheet for “The Emotional Life of Your Brain.” It took several months for me to get through the book, so feel free to make a donation to the Federer Fund if you found this helpful. Tickets to Grand Slam or ATP Masters 1000 events are also acceptable.

This doodle sort of looks like a brain. And it has 6 different colors–one for each personality dimension.

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.