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Self-Disclosure, Part 2

self-disclosure part 2

Therapists are in that category of people who aren’t supposed to be real–right along with teachers, priests, and parents. They shouldn’t be at UVA football games talking smack with Tech fans. They’re not supposed to have divorces. Plural. (Usually one is acceptable.)  And they certainly aren’t supposed to struggle with anxiety and depression. Even my niece was surprised to learn that psychologists who treat depression can be depressed, and she’s only 8.

Freud is mostly to blame for this. He thought psychoanalysts should be a blank screen onto which patients projected all of their repressed sexual and aggressive urges while he sat behind them smoking cigars and snorting cocaine. And even though I wasn’t trained as a psychoanalyst, in grad school they discouraged us from using self-disclosure and from crying in session. (I really have a problem with that last one. I can’t help it. Sometimes I’m really moved by what clients say.)

But even Freud and my grad school supervisors did not say I should be a blank screen in all areas of my life. I guess it just felt safer to do so because I am terrified of judgment and criticism. That’s why I want to be perfect. That’s how my inner critic is able to manipulate me. That’s why I have developed such good empathy skills: if I can tell that the other person is upset with me, I can change my behavior before they have a chance to say anything.

I started this blog as a way to test out Brene Brown‘s claim that having the courage to share our vulnerabilities with others leads to engagement and meaningful connection. Some posts are still scary to share, but those seem to be the ones that people are the most thankful for because it makes them realize that they are not alone in their struggles. And it has made people who I don’t know very well feel closer to me. There’s this positive energy between us now when we interact. Sometimes they share their own vulnerabilities, which further strengthens our relationship. It really is a nicer way to be in the world.

After almost a year of blogging, I am finally taking the plunge by telling students about my blog. This is the one place where I have been reluctant to share my vulnerabilities because it could potentially undermine my credibility. But it will also serve as evidence that the people who they perceive as having their lives together are dealing with the same issues they deal with. Normalizing their experience, as therapists say.

But normalizing our experience takes practice. We need to be reminded over and over again. We need to repeat it to ourselves with every thought, feeling, and action that makes us worry that we’re crazy. And while everyone doesn’t need to blog about it, it certainly helps me to accept myself as is. So self-disclosure is as much a gift to myself as it is to anyone else who enjoys reading my blog.

 

Psychological Energy Conservation

Being single has its advantages. I never realized how much energy I was expending on compromising and trying to make things work. It’s lonely at times but much more relaxing. So much so that I think I’m going to give up all of my high maintenance relationships. Maybe it will help me cut down on my crash and burn days.
 
In fact, I’m thinking about promoting a psychological energy conservation campaign modeled after Go Green. Instead of Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, my slogan is Refrain, Reframe, Reevaluate. Since my tag line is less intuitive, let me elaborate.
 
1.  Refrain.  I’m going to do a better job of setting boundaries. Before, if someone asked me to do something, I felt like I had to do it if I was capable of doing so. Whether I wanted to or not was irrelevant. Or whether it was in my best interest to do so. But you know what? I can just say no. No, I’m not available at that time. No, I don’t want to go to that wedding. No, I don’t have room for you on my team.
 
I can also resist the urge to help people when helping them means hurting myself. My rationale in the past has been that I can take it, so it’s OK. I can lose sleep. I can get my heart broken. I can sacrifice my time. But it’s not OK. I always tell clients that you have to put yourself first, because you can’t rely on other people to do so, even if they love you. If its a choice between you and someone else, pick you. So I’m picking me.
 
2.  Reframe.  I waste a lot of time beating myself up for things I can’t control. Like being angry, or anxious, or exhausted. So I’m trying to reframe my feelings in a way that helps me to be more accepting of them.
 
Lately, when my inner critic gives me a hard time for obsessing, I stand up for myself. Of course I’m obsessing! That’s my thing. That’s what I do. Why wouldn’t I be doing it right now? That shuts him up. And it actually helps me to stop obsessing.
 
And I’ve come up with another part to help me be more forgiving of myself for my anger. I think of my anger as a bouncer who is trying to keep people who have hurt me from getting back into the club. Because I’m standing at the door saying, of course you can come in! Make yourself comfortable. Can I get you anything? The bouncer gets mad at me when I do this, and who can blame him, really. Someone needs to be strong enough to kick these people out.
 
3.  Reevaluate.  I need to do an energy assessment after I crash and burn, rather than assume it happened because I’m a crazy, weak, bad person. If I choose to blog during lunch instead of take a nap and catch up on sleep, I might be tired later in the week.  Same thing with staying up until 2 a.m. Or choosing to captain 2 teams at the same time. Or playing 5 times a week. I can do it, but I have to be ready to pay the consequences later.
 
I can become more aware of what I need, rather than judge myself for what I think I should need, if I were a normal person. I can allow myself to do what works best for me. I’m the most productive after 7 p.m., so that’s when I’m going to get my chores done. I’d rather work nonstop for 2 hours than leisurely spend the day working. And my favorite time of day is between 11 p.m. and 2 a.m., so I’m going to let myself enjoy those hours, even if it means that I’ll sleep until noon the next day.
 
I’m thinking this campaign could really catch on. Think how much more energy we would all have for the things that are important to us if we used it more wisely. Heck, I might even win the Nobel Prize like Al Gore.
 

Losing Control

I am seeing a couple of clients whose lives revolve around not losing control of their emotions. They both have a parent who is very out of control–addictions, emotional outbursts, marginally functional–the kind of people who seem beyond hope. “Black hole people,” as my client calls them. These clients fear that if they let their emotions out, they will get lost in them like their parents.

This is a common fear. Most people think that having feelings makes you needy. Weak. Crazy. It’s better to do whatever you can to avoid feelings altogether. Ironically, it is the things that people do to control their feelings that brings them to therapy.

Eating disorders are a good example of this. Every client says that their eating disorder began as a way to have control. They can’t control any other aspect of their lives, but they can control what goes into and comes out of their bodies. Stuff down their feelings with food. Numb themselves by restricting and exercising. Get rid of feelings by purging.

At some point they lose control over this strategy. They think about food, exercise, bodies, and weight all day long, every day. They eat in isolation. They lose friends because they are constantly lying and hiding. When it gets really bad, a dean forces them to come to the counseling center. But no one can help them until they are willing to let go. Until they are willing to feel, to be vulnerable.

We all have ways that we try to control our emotions. Mine is to help other people. I don’t have problems. I don’t need anyone. I’ve got all the answers; I don’t need help.

A client recently asked if I had any flaws. I told her that I have all kinds of flaws. She seemed relieved. I almost told her about my blog–but I’m not ready to go that far.

So what do we do with all of these feelings if we don’t suppress them, deny them, or push them away? How do we keep from falling into the black hole?

One of my favorite movies is “The Matrix.” By the end of the movie, Neo realizes that all of his fears are an illusion. He has to die first to realize this, but once he is outside of the matrix, his fears no longer control him. Feelings are the same way. Your feelings are a part of you, and you are larger than any of your parts.

Sometimes you have to let go before you can discover that you have control.

Friendship, Part 2

Warriors in Training

When I was in grad school, I didn’t have many visitors because it was a long drive and there was not a lot to do in the middle of Ohio.  So I saw my family and friends infrequently, and every time I said good-bye I felt this overwhelming sadness–and not just because I wouldn’t see them for a long time.  I was also sad because when I was with them, I was completely myself, and I rarely felt free to be myself.

Part of the problem was that the feeling of being different followed me well into my adult years.  I wasn’t like the other grad students.  I watched reruns of The Flintstones and Gillian’s Island rather than keeping up with what Koresh was doing in Waco.   I wasn’t spending 70-80 hours a week on grad school stuff.  I didn’t listen to the right music, didn’t hang out at the cool coffee places.

I moved around a lot during that time, too.  While I was with my first husband, we moved almost every year because he was never happy where we were–which turned out to be more about him than our location.  Still, I didn’t mind the excuse to not get too close to anyone.

When I finally moved back to Virginia and became a part of the tennis community here, I was a little freaked out.  There was no way I could avoid being a part of the gossip, what with my failed marriages and all.  Plus, I only dated tennis players, so everyone knew who they were.  I had no place to hide; giving up tennis was not an option.  I had to let people know what I was really like.

Of all the gifts that tennis has given me, my tennis family is the best one of all.  These are the only other people who I can be myself around without obsessing afterwards about what I said or did.  They have seen me throw up on the court.  They’ve been there when I’ve gotten kicked out of restaurants for being too loud.  They don’t judge me for always being hungry and constantly having to pee.  They don’t expect me to make anything for potluck dinners because they know I can’t cook.  (But I do bring the Karaoke and board games.)  They even indulge my grandiosity by calling me the Queen.

Often the feedback I get about my blog is about how honest I am.  In an I wouldn’t do it, but good for you! kind of way.  I’m tired of hiding.  I spent the first half of my life trying to be like everyone else.  I want to spend the second half being myself.

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

 

As Seen on TV

In my post on midlife, I talked about how I formed my plan for coping with aging by watching TV commercials.  Sadly, I also used TV ads as a guide for how to be normal.
 
I have always been rule-abiding.  Hence, the good grades, the fear of going to hell, the obsessing about following guidelines for sleep and stress management.  And because I grew up in a small town in the middle of nowhere, I was sensitive to the fact that my Filipino family did things differently from other people.  To children, different means bad, and I didn’t want to be bad.
 
Remember those Aqua-Fresh commercials, with the stripes for extra cleaning action and breath freshening?  I made my mom buy that toothpaste.  And I tried to swirl it on my toothbrush exactly like they did in the commercials.  My mom scolded me for using too much toothpaste.
 
Now that I think about it, this was probably a ploy to get you to use more toothpaste so that you would run out sooner.
 
My first husband–the one who referred to himself as a poor, half-breed, bastard–was also sensitive to being different.  He, too, was influenced by the Aqua-Fresh commercials and also tried to create the swirl that used too much toothpaste.  This is sufficient evidence to convince me of the detrimental psychological effects that TV commercials can have on children.
 
You would think that knowledge of these detrimental effects would make me immune to their ploys.  But no.  I still owned the Ab Crunch.  I still use Oil of Olay.  I hear that Crest is coming out with a chocolate-flavored toothpaste.  At least I’m not falling for that one.
 
Often the makers of these products justify their ads by saying that they’re just giving consumers what they want.  No one wants to see fat, ugly, old people.  Those images don’t sell products!  Since I did research on body image, I can say with some authority that advertising may not have created our insecurities, but they definitely exacerbate them.
 
And there really isn’t a good solution to this problem.  Avoiding advertising is like avoiding oxygen; ads are ubiquitous.  The best I have been able to do is to limit how much advertising I expose myself to.  I no longer buy beauty magazines.  I primarily watch TV for sports and the news.  I don’t pay much attention to celebrities.
 
As a result, I didn’t know who Honey Boo Boo and Kim Kardashian were for the longest time, but media illiteracy is a small price to pay for self-acceptance.
 

 

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.  I 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.  My 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.  You 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.  It’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.  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.