RSS Feed

Tag Archives: self-compassion

If Only…

waiting-for-happiness

It’s that time of year again–after Daylight Savings Time, shortly before Thanksgiving–when I am the most at risk for a depressive episode. But this year I am determined not to have one. Or at least to control whatever is in my control to prevent one. I mean, that is always my goal, but I do have an added incentive this year: I have to be able to take care of my brother, which means I have to take care of myself.

I am happy to say that I have been much better about setting boundaries as a result of this added motivation. I can only help so many people. I can only worry about so many things at once. I can only take on so many responsibilities.

The biggest problem is that, despite all of the blog posts I’ve written about letting go of those illusions of happiness that people cling to– money, beauty, the perfect relationship, extra hours in the day–I still cling to my illusions of happiness. I feel this restlessness that can’t be soothed. I long for something that will take the edge off. I turn to something that will only provide fleeting moments of relief, at best.

Lately I’ve been turning to shopping. I know it’s compulsive. I know that the relief will be temporary. I repeat this to myself as I fill my cart, put in my credit card information, and hover over the order button.

Sometimes I can talk myself out of it for a few days. But during those days I still obsess over it. Would it really be so bad if I bought another pair of boots? Don’t I deserve some indulgence, given the crappiness of my life?

So I give in and hit order. But a few days later, I have the itch to shop again. And then I have to take money out of savings to pay my credit card bill. And then I obsess about not having any money. And then I feel deprived, so I want to buy more stuff.

The problem is, I need something to think about. And if I’m not going to fill my head with all of these illusions of happiness, then what, exactly, am I supposed to think about?  So then I try to remember what all of those mindfulness books say about happiness.

I list all of the things that I can be thankful for. This is tricky, though, because if I see an accident on the side of the road, I think, I’m glad I haven’t gotten injured in a car accident. But then my obsessive brain will be like, oh my God! What if I get in a car accident?!

So then I have to switch to practicing self-compassion and tell myself that we’re not going to focus on car accidents because that stresses you out. We’re trying to focus on things that will make you feel more content. Like, how nice the weather is today, given that it’s the middle of November.

Or I’ll try to be fully present by focusing on whatever it is I’m supposed to be doing in that moment. Like driving. Or listening to my client. Or watching UVA get killed in football. Or I’ll do something that I enjoy, like knit, or read, or write.

But eventually I give in and shop some more. So then I have to switch to practicing self-compassion again and remind myself that I’m doing the best that I can.

It’s a lot of work, quite honestly. But it does occupy my mind with something other than illusions of happiness. So I’ll keep practicing and see if it keeps me from getting depressed.

shoes

Do you think I bought too many shoes?

Being Present

a92585be5b970c4f342c57d6c618f09f

Every year the student group that I advise, Active Minds, hosts a mental health panel in which students with a mental illness share their stories. A few years ago, during the Q and A portion of the program, I asked the students to say what other people can do to be helpful to someone who is in pain.

I have written often about how, in our attempts to be helpful, we say unhelpful things. We give unwanted advice. Tell people to push through. To look on the bright side. To count their blessings. Or perhaps we are so afraid that we will say the wrong thing that we say nothing at all. Pretend that we don’t see their suffering.

Occasionally students will make an appointment to ask for advice on how to help someone in pain. And the advice that I usually give is to ask the person what they can do to be helpful. But often we don’t know what will be helpful because we are so unaccustomed to caring for ourselves, to practicing self-compassion. So I was genuinely curious about what the students on the panel had to say about what they found most helpful.

All of the students essentially gave the same answer: the thing that they found the most helpful was to have someone be fully present. To listen. To let them be sad, anxious, angry, or whatever else they were feeling. So seemingly simple, yet difficult to do.

I teach clients how to practice mindfulness and self-compassion because we can’t control whether other people will be fully present, but we can always choose to be present with ourselves. And until we are able to sit with our own feelings, we cannot bear witness to other people’s pain.

Although it was not my conscious intent to use my blog for this purpose, often my posts are my attempts to practice being present with my pain. I keep a journal where I do the same thing. I read books on mindfulness and compassion. I meditate regularly. Nevertheless, when I wake up to another day of feeling anxious or depressed, or whatever crappy feeling I’m experiencing, I just want it to go away, just like everybody else.

I have started reading Wisdom and Compassion in Psychotherapy, and today’s chapter was on mindful presence. Tara Brach suggested that, whenever we are feeling something painful, we whisper to ourselves, “I consent.”

I have to admit, my first response when I read this was, what the? I consent? That’s a little more inviting than what I was going for in trying to be fully present. But it’s true that there’s this resistance that I feel in my mind and body when I don’t want to face something painful. This instinctive response to brace myself against it. And today while I was meditating I caught myself doing it and remembered to allow myself to feel the pain, and it did help.

So I’m going to try to give this strategy a shot. No matter what I’m feeling, I’m going to consent to it. Allow it to be heard and felt. I’ll let you know if anything interesting happens.

The Cost-Benefit Analysis of Pain and Suffering

IMG_0581

It was 7 years ago that I had my most severe depressive episode. It began because I decided to try to wean myself off my meds. It was a reasonable thing to try; I had been stable for a while. I got off them very gradually. By the time I was completely off them in January, I could feel the difference immediately. I was a little more easily irritated without them. Things were a little more painful. But I was willing to live with the pain if it meant that I didn’t have to be on meds.

But then things got worse. I remember being on vacation in February and screaming at my husband over fairly insignificant things. I don’t even know how he put up with it. And the last straw was some tennis drama thing in March that would not seem serious enough to make my mind unravel, but that’s how depression is; sometimes it doesn’t make any sense.

It took a long time to get back to “normal,” and I often berated myself for this costly mistake. For sacrificing my mental health so that I didn’t have to take that little pill every day. Now I have to take a bunch of them every day, twice a day, but I do so religiously, because I will do whatever it takes not to feel that way again.

Lately, since I’ve been practicing self-compassion, it strikes me how the road to recovery is complicated by our unwillingness to give up our suffering. Who knows why. Because we don’t believe we are really suffering. Don’t believe we deserve to be free of our suffering. Think we should be able to free ourselves on our own, without help, without drugs.

So taking each of those steps is a long and arduous process. I was depressed in high school but didn’t go to my first therapist until I was 25. The first time I went on antidepressants I was 30. I went back on them when I was 35 and went off them again when I was 39. By the time I was 40, a good 25 years after I first experienced depression, I accepted that I needed to be on meds for good.

Before this last depressive episode, I used to present a more neutral position on medication to my clients. But now I encourage them to give it a shot. I tell them that everyone is willing to tolerate a certain amount of pain in order to be able to say that they are not on meds, but I encourage them to ask themselves at what point this is no longer a good tradeoff.

Had someone phrased the question to me in that way, perhaps I would have taken them sooner. But I did not know how to practice self-compassion back then. I did not understand the concept of being kind to myself because I was in pain. I was not motivated to alleviate whatever suffering was under my control. Because so much of anxiety and depression are not in your control. But asking for help, going to therapy, taking your meds, and learning how to care for yourself are in your control.

I’m not going to lie–depression and anxiety still cause me quite a bit of suffering. Anxiety, in particular, has been kicking my ass today. And being diligent about all of the things that I have to do to strike that delicate balance of mental stability is effortful and time-consuming. But in a cost-benefit analysis, it’s still worth it.

On the Road to Enlightenment, Part 2

25c0e1bebdd359ffd1966e7a37a1714b

So I finished reading “Lovingkindness,” and I’ve concluded that people who dedicate their lives to meditation must not have mental illnesses. This is not to say that I did not get anything out of the book. I loved the book, and I have recommended it to several clients. It’s just that I think you have to have a certain level of mental stability to become enlightened.

When I went to this conference on trauma, Ron Siegel, another mindfulness guru, practically said the same thing. He said that you need to be fairly mentally stable to go on a silent retreat because you realize how much your mood is affected much more by random thoughts than anything that is going on in the external world. When you’re depressed and anxious, those random thoughts can be fairly persecutory, so to be left alone with them without anyone to tell you that they’re not real could be a major mental health hazard.

I’ve been feeling depressed this past week. It shouldn’t come as a surprise, because this is what happens at the end of every term. I should be used to it by now. But how do you get used to the pain? To your brain telling you all of these things that aren’t true? Every time feels like the first time. Maybe that’s why it takes so long for me to admit it’s depression. I keep thinking it’s something else. Something real. Something that might go away if only this thing happens. Or this thing. Why are these things not helping? Oh. It’s because I’m depressed and nothing helps. Nothing stops the pain.

I played tennis today and even that didn’t help. However, it was an unusually frustrating experience because it was so windy. You think you can go out there and do your thing like you always do, but no. The wind has other ideas. The wind is like, you think you have a good serve? See if you can get the ball over the net if I’m in you’re face. You’re not strong enough. I bet you thought that ball was going to be 2 feet out, didn’t you? WRONG! You lose the point. So we ended up stopping early.

I told my friend I needed to write a blog post and she said I should write one about the wind. How it can be a metaphor for something. And the wind actually is a pretty good metaphor for depression. It makes you feel like you suck. Like you don’t know how to play tennis at all. All of your strengths are stripped away from you, and no matter how hard you try to overcome it, you cannot play your game. And during that 2 hours while I was playing in the wind, that’s exactly how I felt about being depressed. I was trying to be in moment, out in the sun, spending time with my friends. I was trying to enjoy myself, be thankful, focus on nothing but the ball. All things that come natural to me when I’m not depressed. But my demons, like the wind, just kept telling me how much I sucked.

There really is so little you can do to stop the pain in the moment when you’re feeling depressed, so I tried to practice self-compassion. To be kind to myself. I ate lunch. I read old journal entries, because I find them hilarious and prophetic. I wrote in my journal. Tried to watch tennis. And then finally I took half an Ativan and took a nap. And now I’m writing a blog post. And I do feel a little better.

I guess if practicing lovingkindness and self-compassion can at least help me battle my demons, that in itself makes it worth the effort.

I Understand Why they Call It Practice

It’s been a year since 1000 Voices Speak for Compassion was created. In honor of its one year anniversary, the topic of the month is to write about what participating in 1000 Voices has meant to us. I love “year in review” posts, and I love writing about compassion, so this topic is right up my alley.

In the past year, I have made a concerted effort to practice self-compassion, and while it continues to be challenging, it is the strategy that has been most effective in battling my demons. I’ve learned from studying compassion, listening to clients in therapy, and observing my own mind, that our instinctive response to coping with pain and suffering is to be unkind to ourselves. To minimize our suffering. To shame ourselves out of our pain. To chastise ourselves for being crazy, selfish, and petty. It’s ironic that, although we all want to be happy and feel good about ourselves, our default is to see ourselves as being flawed and unworthy.

This instinctive response to be self-critical is so strong that it often takes a while for me to come up with a self-compassionate response. Take today, for example. Another day where I’ve slept in and done nothing. Even though other people have probably done things like wake up early, gotten out of bed, tended to their spouses and children, and done some productive things.

I’ve gotten better at not berating myself, which reduces some of my suffering, but I still struggle with coming up with something loving to say to myself. But today I thought of one. Today, I thought that, for someone who struggles with depression, I’m actually a fairly productive person. And this made me feel strong instead of weak. In fact, I’m writing this blog post right now, since I’m feeling better about myself. Granted, I’m still doing it from my bed, but I can have compassion for myself for that, too.

Practicing self-compassion has changed the way I do therapy, because almost every client can identify that self-critical voice. Most of the time it says unkind things about us all day long, and we do nothing to stop it because it seems so natural and it feels true. So I teach clients how to practice mindfulness so that they can become aware of these thoughts without judgment or criticism. And then I teach them to have compassion for their feelings. This is pain; this is suffering. It does not make you crazy or weak; it makes you human. It is not your fault that you have come into the world this way, with this vulnerability; you did not choose it. And given that you are already in pain, let’s focus on whatever is in your control to make yourself feel better.

I understand why you practice self-compassion. There is no finish line. It’s not something that you master and then you can stop doing it. It’s like doing cardio for strengthening your heart, or lifting weights for your muscles. It is a lifetime activity.

The good thing about blogging is that it’s the psychological equivalent of looking in the mirror at the gym and seeing that your workouts are paying off. Hey! I am talking to myself differently! I am kinder to myself! It’s working! So thank you, 1000 Voices of Compassion, for providing me with this opportunity to strengthen my capacity to love.

For more posts on compassion, you can access the link-up here.

You can also find posts on Twitter @1000Speak.

Where the Heart and Mind Meet

Heart and mind

Last week I had someone contact me out of the blue because she needed to interview a mental health counselor. She heard about me through her aunt, who directed her to my blog. I like being interviewed, and I like being helpful, so I said yes. One of her questions was what my theoretical orientation/approach is. I haven’t answered this question in a while, and the longer I practice, the harder it is to answer.

These days I would say that I teach people how to accept and tolerate pain. Which is not a popular response for some clients. Usually their goal is something like, help me get rid of my pain. And believe me, if I had the power to do that, I would. It’s just that pain doesn’t often work that way.

We believe that we can make our pain go away because we think we have more control over our feelings than we actually have. This is a misconception of what it means to have free will. Not everything that happens in our minds is a matter of choice.

For example, I struggle with being obsessive. This seems like it should be under my control, since I should be able to stop my obsessive thoughts. In fact, for a while, one popular cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) technique was called thought-stopping. For some reason, it took decades for researchers to figure out that this doesn’t actually work.

I still try it, though. I tell myself to stop obsessing all day long. In fact, I do all of the CBT strategies that are supposed to help. I challenge my irrational thoughts. I avoid the word “should.” I use positive language. Practice gratitude. But still. The obsessing continues. To those people for whom being rational is sufficient to stop your pain, all I can say is, lucky you.

Most people don’t like medication because needing it seems to signify a lack of control, which signifies personal weakness. I have to admit, I had the same bias. If you read my blog, then you know it took me many years to start and stay on my meds. Even now, I try not to use them until the obsessing becomes unbearable. But then my psychiatrist phrased taking my meds as a way to have control over my anxiety. A novel idea. I like control. So now I take them sooner than I used to.

These days I tell clients to ask themselves, how much pain are you willing to tolerate in order to say that you don’t need meds? Rather than feeling like a failure because they need meds, they can think of taking them as a choice to alleviate their suffering.

The other thing I do is teach clients how to practice self-compassion. All of those rational strategies work better if you express compassion for your pain first. If you say things to yourself like, obsessing is painful. I’m sorry you have to be in pain. It’s not your fault that you can’t make it stop. Why don’t you try ______ and see if that helps? And I go through my arsenal of strategies until something helps. Or until the obsessing subsides.

Having compassion for my suffering frees up some of the energy that I spend on beating myself up for not being rational. Which, paradoxically, allows me to have more control. More free will. Perhaps compassion is the place where the heart and mind meet.

Don’t get me wrong–it’s still hard to practice self-compassion. It does not come naturally to me. My automatic response is still to tell myself to stop being obsessive. But there’s no question that it works. My blog is proof of that. Because it’s been a long time since someone has told me that I’m being too hard on myself after reading one of my posts.

Still Depressed

Image-1

People have been so kind to reach out to me after I published my last post, expressing their hope that I’m feeling better. I wish I could say I do feel better. That it was just a one day thing and I’m no longer feeling depressed. I feel like I’m disappointing everyone.

It’s not like I’m depressed every minute of every day. I made it through work and survived being on call. I played tennis. I went to dinner with friends. I seemed like a normal person when I was around other people.

I continue to be frustrated that all of my efforts to prevent depression have not worked. Maybe if I hadn’t stayed up to watch Federer and Nadal play on Saturday night it would have made a difference. Except I didn’t wake up until 1:30 in the afternoon, so I wasn’t that tired at 2 a.m. And it’s not every day that you get to see Federer and Nadal play, even if it was only a set.

Last night I had a realization that helped me to not beat myself up over all of the things I could have done differently. And that is, it’s not my fault. It’s not my fault that I am prone to depression. Not my fault that I am particularly vulnerable at this time of the year. That I am not able to handle the client overload as well as my colleagues. That my family stresses me out. That I’m not perfect in doing all of the things that are supposed to help with depression. This was the most helpful lesson in Tara Brach’s book Radical Self-Acceptance and Paul Gilbert’s The Compassionate Mind. I’m glad that I remembered it for some reason.

The other realization I had last night was something I learned in the self-compassion retreat that I attended last May. And that is, trying harder doesn’t eliminate pain and suffering. It is not for a lack of effort on my part that I feel the way I do. As much as I like to think that if I just work hard enough I can make everything better, life is filled with pain and suffering, no matter how hard you work. And while this did not make my pain go away, it helped me to accept it more and to beat up on myself less.

I have appealed to God for some salve for my wounds. Something to make the pain more tolerable. But I feel guilty for asking, given all of the things that are going on in the world. All of the people killed in Paris, San Bernardino, Sandy Hook, and other places. All the people who have terminal illnesses. All of the people who are hurting worse than me. Sometimes thinking about these people helps to put my suffering into perspective, but that is not the case at the moment. Right now I can barely tolerate my own suffering. So for now I’ll just have to focus on me.

But I am learning through my practice of self-compassion that it’s OK to focus on me. My pain counts, too. I can wish for my own well-being for as long as I need to.

Perhaps if God has any angels left over after he sends them out to all of those other people, he can send an extra one to me. Just for a little while, until I feel better. An angel in training, even, like Clarence in “It’s a Wonderful Life.” And if you believe in God and angels, please feel free to pray that God will send one my way.