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Tag Archives: Mental Health

Judgment

There are certain personality types that are sensitive to being judged, and I have one of them.  It takes very little criticism for me to feel ashamed that I have done something wrong.  Sometimes I interpret neutral comments as criticism.  And in some cases, I’ve even interpreted positive feedback as criticism.

Once my first husband was talking about a picture of Alicia Keys and commented on how she had big hips.  I replied with, Are you calling me fat?  Which really annoyed him.  I kind of thought it was funny but true.  Even if I get what is intended to be a compliment about having an athletic build, I take this to mean that I look fat.  This is why it’s better to refrain from comments about women’s bodies in general.

Although I have never had an eating disorder, I can relate to being obsessed about my body.  I also have a similar personality to the types of people who develop anorexia.  I am prone to anxiety and depression.  I am perfectionistic.  I am highly motivated to avoid harming others, even if it means hurting myself.  And I am so sensitive to criticism that I never forget a mistake.

This is why I am drawn to Buddhism–especially the practices of mindfulness and compassion.  I find comfort in the idea of letting go of what I “should” be thinking, feeling, and doing.  That I can accept whatever is true of myself at this point in time, without judgment or criticism–even if it’s something that I hope to change.

I often point out to clients when they are using judgment words to describe their feelings.  For example, if you say I feel pathetic, the word pathetic is not a feeling.  There is no emoticon for pathetic.  Sometimes it’s actually hard to come up with a feeling word.  Usually when you can’t think of one, you’re probably feeling ashamed.

Even when we’re successful in describing our feelings, we often get judged for them.  For example, if I say I feel depressed, someone might say You shouldn’t feel that way.  You should be happy because you have so much going for you.  This is meant to make me feel better about myself, and perhaps it works for some people, but it never works for me.

Sometimes I have tried to point out to the person that they are judging me, but people who judge others are often sensitive to being judged.  So they usually get defensive and say they were just trying to be helpful–that I’m being too sensitive.  So then I judge myself for being too sensitive.

But I am all about controlling what I can control.  Today, I realized that I can’t control whether someone else chooses to practice nonjudgmental acceptance of my feelings.  I can only control what I say to myself.

I can also choose not to share my feelings with people who judge me.  I think I’m going to start doing that, too.

Addiction

I’ve been thinking a lot about addictions lately.  Even before Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s death.  I have never been the addictive type.  My history is so clean I would have made a great political candidate, if I didn’t dislike politics so much.  But Richard Rohr, my spiritual guru, says that everyone is addicted to something.  So I’m trying to be honest with myself about what that might be.

At times my hobbies have been like addictions.  When I first started knitting, I would crank out so much stuff that I made all my Christmas gifts in a month and still had scarves to give away.  Same thing with making jewelry.  I sold a lot of what I made, but all my profits went towards buying more beads.   And I can sing Karaoke for hours.  I hosted a small Karaoke party over the summer and we sang for 6 hours straight.

But knitters tend to be fanatical bunch.  Jewelry makers can be, too.  And for a Filipino, my Karaoke usage is average, at best.  Plus these hobbies tend to go in phases.  I’m in a knitting phase now.  I would describe my interest in these activities as obsessive rather than addictive.

The next addiction candidates would be tennis and sugar.  These two things are a consistent presence in my day-to-day life, and I cannot imagine living without either of them indefinitely.  Giving them up would require some kind of intensive inpatient treatment program, and even then the probability of relapse would be high.

But playing tennis and consuming desserts has not significantly impaired my functioning, and I’ve been able to cut back.  I am only playing 3-4 times a week to prevent injury.  And I don’t eat 3-4 desserts a day any more.  So I would classify myself as a heavy user but not an addict.

As I was thinking about this post, one of my FB friends messaged me and asked me to write something about codependence.  And that’s when it hit me:  I am addicted to unhealthy relationships.  Ostensibly because I want to help people, but needing to be needed is a form of addiction, too.   In the post on solitude I talked about how ashamed I feel for tolerating so much crappiness to avoid being alone.

Based on my experience as a therapist, I know that many people have the same problem.  Often clients come in for a relationship addiction.  Their friends and family are sick of listening to them.  They know they should break it off, but they can’t.  They live in secrecy because they’re still in contact with the other person.  If someone came up with a detox program for unhealthy relationships, they could probably make a fortune.

I guess in a way I have completed my own self-imposed detox program.  And for the first time in 30 years, I did not use another relationship to ease the pain.  I rank this accomplishment right up there with defending my dissertation.  Maybe even higher.  Because after my dissertation I got depressed because there was nothing left for me to accomplish.  But as far as relationships are concerned, it’s all up from here.

Interestingly, I started this blog right before the breakup.  It wasn’t conscious, but I guess at some level I decided that the energy I was investing in my relationship would be better spent writing.  And blogging helped me tremendously during the breakup process.  I don’t think I could have made it this far without it.

So until someone comes up with a detox program for unhealthy relationships, I would highly recommend intensive blogging as a treatment strategy.

Winter

Today the temperature is supposed to be in the 50’s, and many people are happy about this.  A lot of people don’t like winter–particularly this winter, since it’s been unseasonably cold.  But I don’t mind it.
 
I’m not that good at small talk, so it’s nice to have something to say if I’m forced to talk to someone I don’t know that well.  I know this is true for a lot of those winter haters, too, even if they don’t admit it.  And I’ve worn all the sweaters that I bought while I lived in Ohio and Pennsylvania, so I’ve had more wardrobe options.
 
Winter is usually a time when people feel more depressed because of the cold and lack of sunlight.  Even though I was depressed in December, I’ve been surprisingly cheerful since the beginning of the year.  I really like living alone.  I like sleeping alone.  So much so that I wonder if I will ever invite someone over again.  I like knitting, making jewelry, watching sports, or writing a blog post without distractions.
 
Adapting to changes in the weather is a good example of how we can get used to just about anything.  Before the first cold spell, I thought I was going to freeze to death when the temperature dropped to 24 degrees.  Now it takes single digits before I think it’s unbearably cold.  The other day one of my friends commented on how last week, when we had a day in the 40’s, it felt so warm she could have played tennis outside.
 
The same is true about living alone.  When you live with someone, they may annoy you, but it seems like it would be worse if you had to come home to an empty house every day.  That’s what I said not too long ago in my post on solitude.  And when you’re used to living alone, you think it would be unbearable to have to deal with all the annoying things about another person, which is how I feel now.  But I’m sure if I started dating again, I’d get used to having someone in my space and it would seem worth it.  Hopefully.
 
In therapy, I often use the weather as a metaphor for feelings.  I tell them to observe what they’re feeling at any particular moment, like Weather on the 8’s.  Sadness with a chance of happiness later in the late afternoon.  Fifty percent chance of an anger outburst tomorrow.   Maybe we don’t like the weather when it’s 7 degrees outside, but it will change eventually.  Maybe even later that day.
 
Ordinarily this is not the way we think about feelings.  We dread when the other shoe will drop and our good mood will be ripped away from us unceremoniously.  But when we’re in a bad mood, we fear that we will be stuck in depression or anxiety for the rest of our lives.  The reality is, you can count on your mood changing, positive or negative, just like the weather.
 
We can also look at the weather in a more impersonal manner.  We don’t blame ourselves if the weather is cold; we didn’t do anything wrong.  And we don’t really have to understand the reason why it is unseasonably cold.  I don’t particularly care about understanding the polar vortex.  But if we feel sad for no reason and we can’t make it go away, we must be weak.  Irrational.  Crazy.
 
The other message I give to clients is that even when we feel sad or anxious, there is still something positive about that moment.  And I don’t mean this in a think happy thoughts kind of way.  When I feel depressed and can’t motivate myself to do anything, I have more compassion when a client says they spent the whole weekend in bed, feeling crappy about themselves.  I have a better understanding of how much pain they are in.  And it helps me to be a better therapist.
 
There is beauty in everything, even in the things we don’t like, but sometimes we have to look for it.
 
 
Photo Courtesy of Allison Szuba

 

Self-Worth

For the first 35 years of my life, my self-esteem was primarily based on grades.  I made good grades, so you would think that meant I had high self-esteem, but I didn’t.  This is true of any external measure of worth: the positive feeling you get from an accomplishment is short-lived.  But I didn’t know that at the time. 

I remember when I was in my first year of grad school, another student had just defended his dissertation.  He rented a limo and decorated it as though he had just gotten married and was driving around town, honking his horn.  I thought that was a great idea and that I would do the same thing to celebrate once I got my Ph.D.

But that wasn’t what it was like at all.  I thought that I would feel smarter or whole or something.  Instead I felt…exactly the same.  Maybe even worse.  Because by this point, I realized that there was no goal I could accomplish that was going to make me feel better about myself.  I had reached all my goals; there was nowhere else to go.  So I got depressed instead.

These days I don’t talk about self-esteem at all in therapy.  Instead I try to convince clients that they are inherently worthwhile, regardless of their accomplishments.  This is a tough sell in our culture.  Initially they say they don’t believe in inherent worth.  They see themselves as a stock whose value rises and falls depending on their performance.

But like I said in my last post, for an agreeable person, I’m pretty good at arguing.  And this is one of those arguments where I know I’m right.  So I use whatever it takes to convince them of their worth.

Many of them do start to believe it, not so much because of my compelling arguments, but because I believe in them.  Deep down we all know that we are inherently worthwhile; we just need someone to tell us that we can trust that part of ourselves.

So if you didn’t have anyone to tell you to trust that part of yourself before, you do now.

In Need

I don’t like the word needy. I much prefer the word crazy to needy. Crazy can have many meanings, and not all of them are negative. Sometimes crazy can be a compliment. At least that’s how I interpret it when I’m feeling good about myself. Neediness, on the other hand, is never a compliment.

I admit I am sensitive to the word because I have been accused of being too needy, too demanding.  MI have tried to correct for this, but I don’t know how to distinguish my unreasonable demands from my needs.

I’ve tried to deal with it by giving my partner the benefit of the doubt. If he couldn’t give me what I needed, then perhaps it was a demand that I mistook for a need. How important is meaningful conversation anyway, really? How much contact is actually necessary for the survival of the relationship?

This approach hasn’t gotten me very far. I seem to have overshot my mark.  MMy therapist tells me that I cannot disavow my needs in order to make my relationships work. Sounds good to me. But how do you separate the needs that are necessary for survival from the ones that make people accuse you of being needy?

Let’s say that you came across a boy who you met in the woods while hiking one day, like the wild boy of Aveyron.  MYou feel bad for him so you invite him over for dinner. But he’s really hungry, so he eats all the food in your house and still wants more. Obviously, you wouldn’t blame the kid for this. You wouldn’t accuse him of being too hungry, because it’s not his fault he was abandoned in the woods to fend for himself.

Psychological needs are no different. Neediness is the product of prolonged emotional starvation. You may not be able to give the person what they need to feel satisfied, but that’s not their fault.  MIt’s not yours, either.

But it feels like it should be someone’s fault, doesn’t it? Someone should take the blame!

I prefer to reframe a needy person as someone who is in need. Perhaps their needs are so great that I can’t help them. That’s OK; I don’t have to be able to help everyone–although I do still try.

I am trying to think of myself as someone in need, too. I am just learning what these needs are, because I’ve spent my life focusing on other people. M There are a lot of them, and they have gone unfulfilled for a long time. I’m not blaming anyone for this, but I’m trying not to blame myself, either.

I’m just trying to make my way out of the woods.

Midlife

I don’t like getting older. I even obsessed about it as a child.  When I was around 7, I remember asking my dad if you get to choose your age when you go to heaven, and he said yes. Every year I would choose my current age, because I was sure that the next year would be worse.

I had a plan for what I would do when I got old: I would use Oil of Olay to prevent wrinkles, Clairol to dye my hair, and Coast soap to bring me back to life–because that was their slogan, which I took literally. That shows you the power of advertising.

I didn’t consider myself middle-aged until I turned 43. I’m immature for my age in a lot of ways because I still live the life of a college student–a night owl with no children and no spouse whose work revolves around the academic calendar.

Although my mind is still somewhere in my 20’s, my body has proceeded at a normal developmental pace. Once I hit 43, I became far-sighted. My knees hurt all the time–not just after playing tennis 5-6 times in a row. I started dying my hair.

I don’t want other people to get older, either. Every year I tell my niece that she has to stay the same age. Whenever I leave my parents’ house, I feel anxious at the thought of seeing them sick or debilitated someday. I am terrified of losing them. I got a glimpse of what it would be like when my dad was depressed, and I did not handle it well.

I try to practice gratitude, self-compassion, and mindfulness to accept the aging process. I try to remember what I have to be thankful for in this moment, try to enjoy my blessings while I have them. I tell myself that lots of people have these fears–it doesn’t make me crazy. It doesn’t mean I’m a bad person.

It helps some. But I’m still afraid.

There are only two things that I look forward to about getting older. One is that I will continue to become a better therapist because I will have seen more clients, had more life experience, and will possess more wisdom.

The other thing is that my writing will improve for the same reasons. I have wanted to write a book since high school. In the 10th grade we had a writing assignment where we had to project what we would be doing in the future. I wrote a mock interview where I was 45, answering questions about my book.

So it’s no coincidence that I made my first effort to publish my writing through blogging at the age of 44. I realized that if I wanted to make something happen for myself, I had to start now.

So I guess that’s one good thing about being middle-aged: as you reflect on the first half of your life, you realize what you have to do to make the most out of the second half.

46 Lessons Learned from Blogging

Since the original intent of my blog was to help other people, I thought I’d provide a cheat sheet of the lesson in each post (except for the random ones).  That way, you don’t have to go back and read the whole blog if you don’t want to.  But hopefully you will!

1.  Night Owl Syndrome:  Prejudice against night owls is a form of discrimination that has been perpetuated in part by Ben Franklin.

2.  Massages:  Massages are not as relaxing when you obsess the entire time about how much they cost.

3.  Knitting and Relationships:  Challenge yourself every now and then, but you don’t have to knit a dress.

4.  Positive and Negative Feedback:  It’s easier to believe erroneous negative feedback than it is to accept legitimate positive feedback.

5.  Karaoke Pusher:  Singing in front of other people is a good way to let go of fear.

6.  You Know You’re Filipino If…:  Things that embarrassed you as a kid will make great anecdotes when you get older.

7.  The Courage to be Vulnerable:  Sharing your vulnerabilities with others makes people feel closer to you.

8.  The Unathletic Athlete:  Even if you were picked last in gym class, you can still grow up to be an athlete.

9.  Tennis Courtships:  Someone needs to come up with a website that can help tennis players find a doubles partner.

10.  The Uses of Prayer:  Sometimes God answers your prayers by giving you opportunities rather than results.

11.  Boundaries:  Being Asian makes setting boundaries even more difficult than it already is.

12.  Massages, Part 2:  Don’t drink coffee before a massage–even decaf.

13.  Boundaries, Part 2:  Blogging is a good way to let people know that you don’t want to be told that you’re fat.

14.  Children:  Play with your inner child every now and then.

15.  Can Love Conquer All?  No, but it’s still worth the risk.

16.  Body Image:  Small gains are better than nothing.

17.  Hard Core Fan:  It takes dedication to root for a losing team.

18.  Warriorism:  When things get tough, channel your inner warrior.

19.  Self-Portrait:  You can learn a lot about yourself from doodles.

20.  Solitude:  Sometimes when you think you’re alone, you’re really not.

21.  Self-Acceptance:  We all have different parts of ourselves, many of whom don’t get along.

22.  Meet the Drill Sergeant:  Save your inner drill sergeant for emergencies.

23.  The Inner Critic:  Defy your inner critic every change you get.

24.  Thanksgiving:  Miracles really do happen.

25.  Perfectionism:  Blogging about mistakes can help you accept them.

26.  Stress Management:  Sometimes stress management can be stressful.

27. Self-Care:  Blogging is a good way to put yourself first.

28. Grief:  The best thing we can do for someone who is grieving is to be willing to listen to them talk about their pain.

29.  Yes and No:  Learn to say yes to what you want and no to what you don’t want.

30.  Blogging is My New Boyfriend:  You can’t fail if you never stop trying.

31.  Friendship:  Don’t be afraid to ask for help when you need it.

32.  Empathy:  If you’re high in empathy, choose your friends and partners wisely.

33.  Breakups:  If you’re relationship is ending, try to leave with love rather than hate.

34.  In Times of War:  Make choices you can live with, regardless of the outcome.

35.  Angels:  If you ask people to send you angels when you’re struggling, they will–and it works.

36.  Forgiveness:  For people with a harsh inner critic like me, self-forgiveness is the hardest part.

37.  Gratitude:  Practicing gratitude may not turn your depression into happiness, but do it, anyway.

38.  Love:  Our love may never be perfect, but I think God is OK with that.

39.  Forgetting:  Forgiveness is a process.

40.  Moms:  Moms are often unsung heroes, so thank them every chance you get.

41.  New Year’s Resolutions:  Restating your resolutions every year is not a sign of failure; it demonstrates that you are choosing to live intentionally.

42.  In My Head:  I thought I was weird for thinking so much, but it turns out that it means I’m a writer!

43.  Bipolar and Brilliant:  You can be brilliant and mentally ill, but you can also be dumb and refuse to take your medication.

44.  Night Owl Syndrome, Part 2:  It takes practice to let go of unnecessary guilt.

45.  Competitive Latch-Hooking:  Sometimes the sibling that was your mortal enemy in childhood becomes your most loyal blog follower as an adult.

46.  Honesty and Trust:  Surround yourself with honest people; it takes less energy than being paranoid.

 

Honesty and Trust

I have often been accused of being too trusting.  Like it’s a bad thing.  And maybe it is.  It’s caused a lot of problems in my relationships. 

My first husband described himself as a poor, half-breed bastard.  As a result, he had a less trusting world view than I did.  He could spot a liar from a mile away.  Once when I was making conversation with his brother’s girlfriend about her studies in nursing, he told me afterwards that she was lying.  That people often lie while making conversation. 

This was a foreign concept to me.  I figured you should at least have a good reason to lie, even if it didn’t make it excusable.

Once my purse was stolen at Burger King on the way to a bowl game.  I forgot to get it when we walked out the door.  I realized it about a minute later, but in that small amount of time, they took it.  My ex knew who stole it right away and he knew that the employee who took our order was in on it.  He even went up to the guy and confronted him. 

While there were some advantages to his street smarts, ultimately, his lies destroyed our marriage.  I tried to trust him again, but he didn’t trust himself, so we agreed to divorce.  That was one of the many lessons I learned from my first marriage: be wary of people who don’t trust others, because they probably lie, too.

I wish I could say I have been more careful about who I’ve trusted since then, but sadly, I have not.  I seem to be pathologically trusting. 

I dated someone who told me straight up that he had problems with lying.  And I caught him lying several times right away.  Like my first husband, he didn’t think he could be honest, either, but he wanted to change.  I kept rooting for him.  You can do it!  I have faith in you! 

My therapist would repeatedly tell me that if the person says they can’t do it, believe them.  I guess this was the most honest thing they had said to me, but I didn’t want to believe it.  I never wanted to give up on anyone. 

But I finally get it:  you can’t trust people who don’t trust themselves.  You can’t will someone to have faith.

Some people have suggested that perhaps we can be friends down the road.  Yes, he lies, but it won’t matter in a friendship.  Except that it does. 

In the second half of my life, I want to surround myself with people who are honest and trustworthy.  I want to choose people who believe in themselves, so that we can believe in ourselves together.

I found a new art app that creates patterns using mathematical properties.  Artsy and nerdy at the same time.  How cool is that?

Night Owl Syndrome, Part 2

I started this blog with a post about the stress of trying to regulate my sleep cycle.  Particularly since it was the beginning of the year and I had been off for 3 months–plenty of time to revert to my more natural night owl state.
 
I am in the same predicament this week, except that my sleep cycle is even more out of whack than usual.  In addition to the normal job stress and abrupt transition into having nothing to do at the end of the term, I was also dealing with the fallout from the student death and extended periods of loneliness and isolation.  I fell into a pattern of going to bed at 4 am and waking up at 4 pm, with a few hours of wakefulness in between.  And as usual, I was racked with guilt and self-loathing about this.
 
My dad and two of my brothers are also night owls.  While my family was together over Christmas, my dad hardly slept at all, and when he did it was well past 2 am.  One of my brothers went to bed around 6 am.  The other brother woke up around 6 pm.  Yet they did not appear to be racked with the same guilt and self-loathing as me.
 
Which is the reason why I originally started this blog.  Accepting who I am, including my obsessive tendencies, problems with guilt, and wacky sleep schedule, takes continuous practice.  If I neglect to do it, I fall prey to depression and anxiety.
 
And writing about how I was feeling during that period definitely helped.  It was cathartic.  It helped me to remember what I tell my clients. It provided me support, positive feedback, and extra angels.  And some of the most depressing posts were among the most popular ones, so I know I’m not alone.
 
Perhaps I should start recommending blogging as an important component of self-care.  Right up there with sleep, exercise, food, and mindfulness.
 
Last night I went to bed before 1 am without having to rely on extra Ativan.  And I woke up at 7 am because I had a doctor’s appointment.  That’s as close to a “normal” sleep cycle as it gets for me.  So going back to work has been a good thing.  Still,  if I didn’t have to go back this week, I wouldn’t have.
 
Fortunately, sometimes you are forced to do things that are good for you, whether you want to or not.
 

 

Bipolar and Brilliant

I just finished Haldol and Hyacinths, by Melody Moezzi, and it is one of the best memoirs on bipolar disorder that I have ever read. A lawyer and human rights activist, Moezzi talks about how her passion and aspirations come from the same place that her mania and psychosis come from, and sometimes it is difficult to separate the two.  

In An Unquiet Mind, the gold standard of bipolar memoirs, psychologist Kay Redfield Jamison says the same thing: that she was the most productive and most brilliant on the way to mania–until she became psychotic.

From personal experience I would argue that it’s true that for some people, it’s a thin line between brilliance and mania. I have never reached the heights of brilliance and mania that Moezzi and Jamison describe, but I know what it’s like to walk that line between sanity and insanity. Most of the time I stay on the side where I know the rules and try to follow them as obsessively as possible.

But there have been periods where I have had one foot in this world and one foot in the other. A world where the lines between black and white, good and bad, and reality and fantasy are blurred. I have had some of my best insights at those times, but I was also the most reckless during those periods. It is both freeing and dangerous.

At those times, I pay close attention to where I’m standing and do my best to maintain my balance.

Four of the six people in my family are bipolar. The kind of people who light up a room when they walk in. But when they are manic their light is blinding, and they can no longer see how they are hurting themselves and other people with their actions.

Sometimes people with bipolar disorder don’t want to take their meds because they don’t want to dull their creative side, kill their buzz. And it’s true that when you’ve reached the peak of mania the drugs you take are meant to put out the fire, so they dampen everything for awhile.

But there’s a lot you can do to keep from crossing that line. There are a lot of things that are in your control. You can be honest about your diagnosis. You can be compliant with treatment. You can pay attention to the warning signs and intervene right away.

It often takes a person with bipolar disorder many years before they can reach this place of self-acceptance, as these authors demonstrate. But they also demonstrate that you can still be brilliant when you’re stable.