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Wholeheartedly

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I’m reading this book by Pema Chodron Called When Things Fall Apart.” She’s pretty funny for a Tibetan Buddhist. She talks about how she threw a rock at her husband when he said he was leaving her. She’s a nun now. Maybe that’s why.

But I digress. In one chapter she says

if we really knew how unhappy it was making this whole planet that we all try to avoid pain and seek pleasure–how that was making us so miserable and cutting us off from our basic heart and our basic intelligence–then we would practice mediation as if our hair were on fire.

I thought that was hilarious! I mean, I meditate every day, but if my hair were on fire, that is not the first thing that would come to mind as to what I should do. But apparently that’s a popular phrase, because in this meditation conference I just went to, Bill Morgan talked about people’s hair being on fire all the time. Maybe that happened a lot in Asian countries.

The focus of this conference was on how to make meditation practice work for Westerners. He thinks that most people in the West can’t get into meditating because sitting quietly just feels like an opportunity to let demons and thoughts of unworthiness run amok. And our attention span is so short that it feels torturous to sit still for even a few minutes. Plus, because we are so goal-oriented that we spend too much time striving, trying to make something happen.

So we spent the weekend learning ways to start meditating in a gentler, kinder way. Morgan suggested that when we begin a meditation practice, we start by creating an experience of comfort. This is a way we can learn to soothe ourselves. Often we would begin by standing up to stretch, shaking out any discomfort. Then when we sat to meditate we would begin with a memory, sound, or image that we find soothing. The face of your grandmother, perhaps. The sound of the ocean. Thinking about your pet. Playing with your niece.

This was revolutionary for me because, as you know, I really struggle with self-soothing. For the longest time I really had no idea how to comfort myself. I’m still not great at it. I realized during this conference that I primarily try to comfort myself by creating chaos–a common strategy for people with histories of trauma. Peace and quiet feel strange, foreign, so we recreate the experience of the chaos we grew up with, because it at least feels familiar.

My version of creating chaos involves taking on too much–signing up for Talkspace, moving, volunteering to captain a team that I don’t even have time to play on because they need another captain. Or by obsessively trying to practice self-care, which ends up stressing me out more than it reduces my stress. I just did my health assessment for my job and all of my health markers were worse than they were last year. So apparently I’m getting an F in self-care. Sort of like when you study really hard for you Calculus but still end up failing all the tests.

After spending time in meditation during the conference, I think I’ve figured out why practicing self-care hasn’t been helping. I’ve treated living with anxiety, depression, GERD, asthma, and allergies as a chore. I had been practicing self-compassion, but my attempts at self-care were driven by fear of crashing and burning. My routines were done resentfully, begrudgingly. As if I had a child who I thought was a pain in the ass but I have to take care of her because that’s my job.

In the meditations he taught us, he told us to pay attention to ourselves with the heart of a caregiver. I do that for my clients but not for myself. I do not listen to myself wholeheartedly. So that’s what I’m going to do. I’m not just going to go through the motions of checking in with myself. I’m going to try to listen with an open heart, as though I were someone who I cared for deeply. Because I want to be someone who I care for deeply.

Everything Ebbs and Flows

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One of the many things that’s helpful about having a blog that I’ve kept up for almost 5 years is that I see how much repetition there is in my life. I guess that shouldn’t be surprising. That’s the reason why therapy doesn’t work in a day. Even if you can identify in that first session what the client needs to do, it takes a lot of repetition to change your mindset and your behavior. And yet, every time I reread an old blog post, I’m like, what the heck? I was doing the exact same thing 4 years ago?

Yesterday I published an old post I had written about my guilt over my sleep cycle on my FB page (which I encourage you to follow, if you aren’t already doing so). In this post my therapist had given me permission to stop obsessing about not being able to regulate my sleep cycle over the break and said that, when I needed to wake up early, I would be able to do it. Which was helpful in forgiving myself for what I perceived as my sleep sins.

And yet, guess what I did this summer? I obsessed about not being able to regulate my sleep cycle. I thought about it nonstop. Tried different strategies, all to no avail. No matter what I do, my sleep cycle naturally gravitates to its night owl pattern– falling asleep around 3-4 am, waking up in the afternoon. My brain is like a manic vampire–I cannot shut it up at night, and it cannot stand the light.

But now I’ve started work and, although I’m not sleeping any earlier, I wake up when I’m supposed to. I’m sleep-deprived, but responsible. So I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s OK if I can’t change my sleep cycle. That when I have to wake up early, I will. The same conclusion I came to on July 27, 2014. The same conclusion that I’ve probably come to after every break.

Sometimes I still get caught up in thinking that if I were more disciplined, more of an adult, perhaps I could get this sleep thing under control. Perhaps I could be more like a normal person. But yesterday, in a presentation that I gave on resilience, I used the following quote from Paul Gilbert, author of “The Compassionate Mind:”

So much of what we are has, in a way, little to do with personal choice. Therefore it makes little sense to blame ourselves for some of our feelings, motives, desires or abilities or lack of them, or for how things turned out.

So I have stopped berating myself (in the moment) and repeat my self-compassion mantra. You’re doing the best that you can. Am I, though? Yes. You really are. You always do. (I have to go through the whole dialogue every time. Obsessive, I know, but I can’t help that, either.)

I also repeat my mindfulness mantra to remind myself that the cyclical nature of my sleep problems is just how it is. Everything ebbs and flows. Everything comes and goes. No matter how hard I try, how disciplined I am, it will always be like this–semesters filled with sleep-deprivation punctuated with periods of night owl syndrome over the breaks. This is the ebb and flow of my life.

So I’m trying to accept it, just as it is.

What I’ve Learned From Being Single

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About 4 and a half years ago, I wrote one of the most personal, painful posts about why I was choosing to be single called Solitude. I decided to be alone after dating almost non-stop since I was 15 because I was beginning to lose respect for myself. I knew I was running away from something that I needed to face, and it made me feel weak, pathetic. I had settled for unsatisfying and sometimes downright traumatic relationships because I thought anything was better than being alone. Four and a half years ago I finally decided that I would be alone or die trying, because the alternative was to hate myself. And it seemed hypocritical to write a blog about self-acceptance if you hated yourself.

And, as you know if you’ve been reading my blog since then, sometimes it’s been rough. I would often lie on the couch or in bed in a half-asleep, half-starved state because I was too tired to get food but too hungry to sleep. And when I did eat, it would be random stuff like peanut butter crackers because that’s all I had in the house.

I worried a lot about what would happen if I got hurt or died and no one found me for days. So I played tennis almost every day to make sure people saw me. And I told my friends to take it seriously if I posted something on FB that said I had fallen and I couldn’t get up.

I didn’t have anyone to talk to about my day, so I wrote in my journal a lot. But that ended up being a great thing. It really helped me to develop my writing. And I thought I was hilarious and loved re-reading old entries. And I was a much better listener than any of the people I had been with, so I allowed myself to go into as much obsessive detail as I wanted to, and to write about the same thing over and over again, without worrying about boring my future self.

Another reason why I stayed single was because I thought I was a terrible person in relationships. I was jealous and controlling. I was rigid, judgmental, and demanding. I was selfish, and nothing the other person did was ever enough. I figured those patterns were so deeply ingrained that there was no way I could forge new neuronal pathways in my brain. There wasn’t enough time. I was already in my mid 40’s.

Now I realize that a lot of those things that I thought were true about me were not me at all. They were thoughts, feelings, and fears that belonged to other people that I had assumed were my own. In psychodynamic theory, this is called projective identification. You unconsciously take on things the other person finds unacceptable to admit about themselves. Things like being jealous, or selfish, or demanding.

There was no way I could have known that these patterns were not as deeply ingrained as I had thought without being by myself. In fact, I am so different from the person I was before my solitude experiment that it’s a little shocking. People tell me that I’m unselfish. Not jealous at all. That I don’t ask for anything. Sometimes I look around and think, are you talking to me? Because that doesn’t sound like me at all.

I think my solitude has been something along the lines of a 4 year meditation retreat. (Not a silent one, obviously.) I’ve spent a lot of time practicing self-acceptance, mindfulness, and self-compassion as ways to face my fear of being alone. And just like everything else, the fear itself was far scarier than the actual experience of being alone.

I have found that the hardest thing to do is to be honest about the things we are ashamed of. We do all kinds of things to avoid really seeing ourselves. Drink. Shop. Binge watch shows on Netflix. Date. Blame other people. Whatever your go-to strategy is, my advice to you is to be still, let things settle, and see what’s there. It won’t be as scary as you think. And the benefits are far greater than you can imagine.

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

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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

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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.