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Be Brave

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I once saw a news story where this guy jumped into the river to save a drowning person. When asked how he was able to be so brave, he said he didn’t really think about it. He just did it. While this is an amazing thing to do, I wouldn’t necessarily call it an act of courage, because he wasn’t afraid. There isn’t really anything courageous in doing something that doesn’t scare you. What’s the risk in that?

I asked readers to share the bravest thing they’ve ever done. A lot of them had to do with taking risks like starting a business, joining the army, going back to school. Most people play it safe–stay in the career or relationship or neighborhood that isn’t fulfilling because of the fear that whatever they choose could be worse. Not many things are scarier than the unknown.

Some people said the bravest thing they’ve ever done was to embrace a painful life experience. Going through childbirth alone, without drugs. Facing a diagnosis of a brain tumor. Watching a loved one die. I had not expected this, but I guess it’s true that life will inevitably throw experiences our way that require us to be brave. No one gets through unscathed.

I would say the bravest thing I’ve ever done was to be single. I had been in a relationship nonstop from 15 to 45, and when I knew that one relationship was about to end, I would start another one so that there was no period of time when I was alone. I was ashamed of this, but I was more afraid of being by myself. And I stayed in a lot of unsatisfying relationships because of this fear. So for me, being single for 4 years was pretty courageous.

In my search to discover how to be a good person, the answer I found was unexpected. To be a good person, to be loving, we must be self-aware. We have to look inward and be with all of those things about ourselves that we try so hard not to face. Our flaws. Our mistakes. Our secrets. We have to accept them, forgive ourselves for them, and understand that this, too, is what it means to be human.

Those who do so can be loving because they know that we are all the same. We all have flaws. We’ve all made mistakes. We all harbor secrets. So who am I to say that I am better than anyone else? We’re all traveling the same road, doing the best that we can. We are all deserving of compassion.

I would say that this is the most difficult kind of bravery of all–to face what is inside us. This is the reason that people come to therapy–and why everyone can benefit from therapy. We aren’t taught how to face our demons. We are told to suck it up, push through, instead. And in the midst of a crisis, that is an important skill to have. But in the aftermath, we have to take time to make sense of what we’ve experienced. That’s when we need to spend some time looking within.

In teaching clients how to practice mindfulness, I tell them that they are learning how to feel their feelings but not respond reflexively to them. Just because we’re anxious doesn’t mean we have to avoid flying. We can still book the flight. We can be afraid but do it, anyway. We can be brave.

What will your next act of courage be?

Words of Wisdom, Part 2

UVA basketball 2018

I don’t know if you know this about me, but I love Tony Bennett. Almost as much as I love Federer. In fact, Bennett might have a slight edge because he’s local, and Federer is rarely in the U.S. Not that locality increases my odds of being with either of them, but it is easier to be in the same building with Bennett, at least. The last 3 tennis tournaments I’ve gone to for Federer I did not get to see him. But when I go to a game, Bennett is always there.

By the way, if you don’t follow basketball, I’m not talking about the 80 something year old Tony Bennett who sings “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.” This is the men’s coach for the University of Virginia basketball team. Not only is he really, really good-looking, he is also a great coach, a great leader, and a great human being.

Last weekend UVA had a loss in the NCAA basketball tournament that has been described as the biggest upset in all of sports. Not exactly the way you want to make history, some might argue. Although my brothers and I take a more positive spin on it: if it’s the greatest upset ever, we must be that good.

And we are. We are the only team to start the season unranked and end the season as the unanimous #1 seed in the country. The ACC regular season and tournament champions. The only team to go undefeated on the road in the ACC. The only team to win after being down by 4 points with .9 seconds left on the clock. The overall #1 seed in the NCAA tournament. A huge favorite to make it to the Final Four. To win it all for the first time ever.

And then we lost to a 16 seed. The weakest 16 seed in the tournament. And we lost badly. Embarrassingly. The worst loss we’ve had all season. Praise for Tony Bennett as the favorite for National Coach of the Year has turned into criticism of how he isn’t capable of winning in the tournament. Doesn’t have what it takes. Maybe UVA should just fire him.

It was painful and heartbreaking to watch them lose. I couldn’t bear to watch the Retrievers celebrate their victory. I went to my room and lay down on my bed and thought about crying. Because, as you know from my last post, I’m on the verge of crying all the time.

But I didn’t. I thought about what I teach clients about mindfulness–how what goes up must come down. Happiness, sadness. Success, failure. Love, loss. They all come in waves. When you’re up, be sure to take it in. Be fully present to it. Savor it. Memorize it with all 5 of your senses, rather than focus on when the other shoe will drop. Because it will drop. That is how life goes. That’s the ebb and flow of it.

And when you’re down, take that in, too. Comfort yourself. Console yourself. Then put things into a larger perspective. And know that you will not always be down, because that, too, is the ebb and flow of life.

But the next morning I still didn’t want to get out of bed. I had been looking forward to watching basketball all day, and now I would just hear about UVA’s loss over and over again. But eventually I got hungry so I had to get up. And I was going to avoid social media so that I wouldn’t have to see what all the haters had to say, but then I decided to just get it over with.

Luckily, one of the first things I came across was Tony Bennett’s press conference after the game. I was so moved by it that I have included the majority of it below:

A week ago we were cutting down the nets at the ACC tournament. They had a historic season, they really did. And then we had a historic loss, being the first 1 seed to lose. And that’s life. The adulation, the praise, we got a lot of it this year. But then on the other side there will be blame. But in the end that can’t define these guys, or our team, or us. Because it was a remarkable season. But we got thoroughly outplayed, and that’s the reality of it. If you play this game and step into the arena, this stuff can happen. Good basketball knows no divisions, or limits, or qualities. All that matters is who plays the best. They earned their right to play in this tournament and we earned our right. They earned their right to move on. It’s who played the best for those 40 minutes and they absolutely did.

It must be so great to have a coach who can say this to you after what may be the worst loss you will ever experience as a player. Someone who tells you to enjoy the highs, accept the lows, and know that none of it defines you. Don’t get too caught up in the hype, and don’t believe the haters. Be the same person in victory and defeat.

If you watch UVA, then you know that’s exactly what they do. What Tony Bennett teaches them to do. As an alum, I am loyal to UVA, win, lose, or draw. And right now I couldn’t be prouder to be a Wahoo, even after the biggest upset in all of sports, because of Tony Bennett.

Tony Bennett

Don’t Believe Everything You Think

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Recently I read about a study on self-cyberbullying. I didn’t even know that was a thing. But apparently 1 in 20 teens have anonymously posted mean comments about themselves online. What the?!

As for the reasons why, boys were more likely to say they were just trying to get attention. Girls were more likely to say that they were depressed or psychologically hurt. My guess is that some of the boys may have also been depressed or hurting, but it’s not cool for guys to admit this.

In a way, I guess it’s not that surprising, given the thoughts that go through our heads all day long. Maybe most of us don’t say them out loud or post them online, but they are often as cruel as the things that trolls post to upset people.

I’ve talked about some of the things that go through my head. Stuff like, no one gives a crap about you. Because I’m on to my inner bully, now, it tries to trick me by making it seem like a compassionate statement at first. It’s OK. No one has to care. Even though lots of people care.

In therapy I encourage clients to practice mindfulness by noticing these unkind thoughts and to question their validity. They are so automatic, so ubiquitous, that we think we are our thoughts, when in reality, our brains generate all kinds of statements that aren’t true. I am a terrible person. The world would be better off without me.

Then I tell them to practice self-compassion by replacing that thought with something kind. It’s going to be OK. You’re doing the best that you can. Or if nothing else, to at least replace it with something neutral. Right now I’m in pain, but at some point, I will feel better.

I’ve found a couple of new strategies that work for me. A few months ago I wrote a post about my exercise in accepting love, and that works well. I can actually feel it–the unique sensation of love from each person in my life, as well as the love that people send out into the universe when they practice loving-kindness.

It’s an amazing feeling, but also a little overwhelming–like a wave that comes out of nowhere–and I lose my balance. I brace myself against it, in the same way I brace myself against something painful. And then I have to tell myself that it’s OK. I can let myself feel it. I can let myself be loved.

The other thing I have done is turn on all of the notifications on my phone. I used to find it annoying to have stuff pop up on my screen all the time. But this is when my inner bully is most likely to tell me that there won’t be a message on my phone because no one gives a crap about me.

Granted, most of the notifications are not messages sent by all of the people who love me. Sometimes they are from TJ Maxx, telling me that I haven’t bought the things I left in my cart and I better hurry because there are only a few more items left in stock. But seeing something on there, regardless of the content, is enough to confuse that voice and silence it in the moment.

So take that, troll! I win!

I’m Obsessing

Worrier

I’ve written several blog posts about being obsessive (Obsessiveness, If There were a Prize For Most Likely to Obsess Over Nothing I Would Totally Win, Perception is Reality), and I haven’t written one in a while, so I thought I’d give you an update on whether I’m cured.

The answer is…no. I’m not cured. My brain has a mind of its own, and it really likes to think about the same things. Over and over. All the time.

Yesterday I was particularly obsessive for some reason. I repeated some items that I needed to write down on my grocery list over and over while I was trying to take a nap because I didn’t want to forget them. Which was really conducive to sleep, as you can imagine. Getting up and writing down the items would have been the obvious solution, but for some reason obsessing seemed like the easier choice.

And then there are those important decisions about the future that plague me like, what am I going to eat for lunch 3 days from now? Should I wear jeans on Friday? Should I weigh myself, since the results will probably be depressing? How can I stop from weighing myself, given that I’m obsessive? Should I risk eating chocolate today? Or am I willing to throw up over it?

The good news is, there are things that help me to obsess less. Medication helps. The other day I was remembering how often people use to tell me that they heard wonderful things about meds and I should really try them. I realize now that I was annoying the hell out of them and they wanted me to do something about it. And I have to admit, sometimes I annoy myself. But I am much less annoying than I used to be. So that’s something.

Practicing mindfulness and self-compassion helps. When I am in the midst of an obsessive episode, logic and reasoning are a waste of time. Telling myself to stop doesn’t do much, either. So I tell myself that I’m just obsessing. This is what the mind does. It’s not my fault. I’m doing the best that I can. It’s painful, but at some point it will subside. And then I try to be nice to myself until it does, no matter how long that takes.

Tennis helps. Regardless of whether I win or lose, I feel better afterwards. My mindset shifts, and the things I obsessed about all day become a distant, irrational memory. I had a meditation instructor tell me that I like tennis because it’s a way of practicing mindfulness, so maybe tennis is the most effective way of practicing mindfulness for me.

Blogging helps. The act of writing down all of the things I’m thinking about is therapeutic. It’s a way of listening to myself rather than trying to cut myself off, telling myself I don’t want to hear it. And sometimes people read these posts and like them. Sometimes they even comment on them. So that’s more people who are listening, which makes me feel really good.

So if you have an obsessive loved one, listening is truly one of the most healing gifts you can give. They’ll be much happier with you than if you give them advice or tell them they’re annoying you and they should just stop talking. You don’t even need professional training to do it well. It may not cure the problem, and it is a strategy that is always at your disposal if you remember to use it.

And then you can refer them to this blog post and they will feel much less crazy.

 

Starting Over

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I’m always a little disappointed when people say they don’t believe in New Year’s resolutions. Call me Pollyannaish, but I believe in starting the new year with the intention to improve on the person I was before. Even if it means renewing my commitment to the same resolution, year after year.

Here’s why. After years of practicing and teaching mindfulness and self-compassion, and helping people choose goals that are actually in their control, I’ve come to realize that we don’t have control over a lot of things. Our genes. Our upbringing. The circumstances we find ourselves in. The behavior of others. None of this is in our control.

In fact, we can have the goal of being mindful and do something mindless a few minutes later. We can say I’m giving up chocolate and then eat some right before working out and get sick. (Which I did last night.) We can have the goal of working out but then decide to start tomorrow. (Which I didn’t do. I talked myself into working out. Yay!)

As intentional as I try to be, I make the same mistakes over and over. Pick ill-advised shots in tennis. Weigh myself three times in a row. Screw my sleep cycle up. Say yes instead of no.

But I don’t beat myself up over it…as much. I am more self-forgiving. Recently on my blog FB page I posted quotes from Mother Teresa, one of which says “God doesn’t require us to succeed, he only requires that you try.” I have always believed this to be true. This is how I reconcile the goal of being good with the inevitability of failure, given that we’re human. Knowing that we’re going to fail isn’t a reason not to try. It’s not about the end goal; it’s about how you choose to live your life.

I think of New Year’s resolutions as a way to embrace this philosophy, whether or not you believe in God. It’s a chance for us to decide what intention we want to begin the year with. How do we want to try to live our lives? If it happens to be the same resolution that you had last year, then that just means that your values haven’t changed.

This year my goal is to be more disciplined. Which seems simple but it applies to every aspect of my life. Disciplined in my sleep routine. In watching the ball. In practicing mindfulness. But mainly the 2 things I’m working on are strength training, because you don’t have to be athletic or talented to get in shape, and cooking, because I struggle with feeding myself.

I actually started working on these goals a few months ago. I joined the gym where Romeo works and work out at home when I can’t make it. And we started doing the Hello Fresh meals, which are expensive and a chore to cook and we’re both still hungry afterwards. But we don’t have to come up with meals on our own or grocery shop as much, and we’re becoming better cooks. And it’s harder to blow off cooking if you know you spent 20 freaking dollars on that meal.

Before I wrote this post I looked up my New Year’s resolutions for last year, and they were to focus on being mindful, compassionate, and accepting. And to write more blog posts. Being mindful, compassionate, and accepting have become a way of life for me, so I would say that I “succeeded” in those goals. But I only wrote half as many blog posts as I did in 2016. So I guess I’ll renew my commitment to blogging and see if I can improve in 2018.

Accepting Love

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I always find reading previous journal entries enlightening. Here’s an excerpt from 7 years ago about my struggle to be “normal”:

There’s always this doubt that I’m doing things right. Like if I’m passing for a normal human being. I have to learn what normal people do from observation and piece it all together. Like maybe the way someone feels when they have a learning disability in a non-disabled world. You kind of don’t want to have to point out to people that you don’t get it so you pretend that you do.

A clear precursor to Normal in Training.

I mentioned in my last post that I’ve been reading journals from way back. Once I got past the entries about Rick Springfield and started having real relationships, it was difficult to read some of them with compassion because I was so frickin’ crazy. I know I still struggle with accepting love, but back then I was downright out of touch with reality.

In one entry, a friend of mine would repeatedly call me in the middle of the night to tell me that he loved me. Granted, he was drunk every time, but based on my experience in working with college students, it is when a person is drunk that they often reveal their deep, dark secrets. I have an eating disorder. I think about suicide. I’m in love with you.

My response in my journal was, I wonder what he means by that? I’m going to have to ask him next time. As I read this, I was like, what the hell is wrong with you? Are you delusional?! Is it not obvious what someone means when they tell you they love you? And then the next line was, why doesn’t anyone like me? Which was even more maddening to read. No wonder my ex boyfriends would tell me that nothing was ever enough.

I get it now, though. I couldn’t take in anything good. I didn’t believe I was lovable, and there was nothing that anyone could say to convince me otherwise.

I have been depressed for the past few weeks because, even though I did a much better job of saying no and conserving my psychological energy, eventually my work load was beyond what I am capable of carrying. Because I have such good friends, many of them recognized the signs (not being social, turning down tennis) and checked on me, invited me to dinner, sent me food. Because they know me well enough to know that I never have food.

It was difficult for me to accept their love. I have the same reaction to love as I do to pain. I can feel myself tightening up, trying to brace myself against it. It’s the craziest thing. But since I was practicing mindfulness, I did what I do when I realize I’m trying not to experience pain–I let myself feel it. Consent to it. I imagined giving the love space, letting it move within me and around me, and to express itself in whatever way it wanted to. I told myself that it was OK to let them love me.

I often tell clients that receiving love is not selfish. It is a gift, and refusing it hurts the person who is giving it. That it is more generous to accept it with gratitude than to tell the person that you don’t deserve it and list all of the reasons why. I actually told a client this yesterday.

I also told a friend that this is what I’ve been trying to do to make myself feel better, so now he reminds me that I have great friends who love me, and that I need to let them. Which pisses me off. Because even though it’s good advice–my advice–I still don’t like to be told what to do. He knows about this flaw, as well as all of my other flaws, but he loves me, anyway. I’m trying to let myself believe that, at least.

And you know what? It really did help. So I’m going to add it to my list of strategies of what to do when I’m depressed–to let people love me.

What Winners Do

Winning

I have a running joke with one of my tennis partners where we make up all these statements about what winners do. It started when we played our first match of the season and we were on the verge of elimination. I told her that winners hold their serve and break serve when it counts. Which we did. And we won. But then we just started making up stuff that wasn’t particularly profound because it was funny and it helped us relax on the court. Winners win! Winners wear tennis shoes instead of sandals when they play!

I actually think a lot about what winners do. Often people think that they need to improve their skills to win–develop a topspin forehand, for example. The problem with this strategy is that it takes a long time to improve a skill, and working on a weakness will still not make it one of your strengths. I’ve been working on a topspin forehand for 15 years now, but it’s still not my go-to shot when the game is on the line.

It’s actually much better to focus on your mental game, and it doesn’t take years to get better at it. I don’t consider myself to be naturally gifted as an athlete, but I am a psychologist, so I make sure I capitalize on whatever mental strategy that allows me to have the advantage in a match. I am aware of when people are using head games and don’t let them get to me. I compliment my opponents to make them feel guilty about using head games. I frame my goals in terms of what I want to do instead of what I don’t want to do (e.g., reach up and follow through rather than don’t double fault). I give my partner positive feedback, pump them up by reminding them what winners do.

I’ve been noticing lately that a lot of what winners do involves practicing mindfulness. Federer and Nadal, arguably the two greatest tennis players in the men’s game, illustrate this perfectly. Federer is known for how long he can keep his eye on the ball. How easily he shrugs off losses, puts things in perspective. He savors his victories because he is in his twilight years. Nadal often says that he knows that any win could be his last, so he doesn’t take playing for granted. He attributes his success to what he can control–his effort, his practice. All players talk about how they try to focus on this match rather than looking too far ahead. They give themselves time to enjoy their victory. They express gratitude for the people who put on the tournament, their team, their fans when they make their speech in the finals.

Sure, some of this stuff is probably scripted–things they know they should say, whether they mean it or not. But I believe that winners do mean it. They are focused. They take things one game at a time. They don’t fixate on mistakes. They are grateful. They savor the moment.

I know practicing mindfulness has made me a better player, if for no other reason than it helps me to watch the ball–which is often my only strategy when I’m playing. Practicing mindfulness doesn’t guarantee a win, but it makes every aspect of the game, on and off the court, more enjoyable. Which counts as a win in my book.