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Tag Archives: self-compassion

It’s OK to Be Insane

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Remember how I did that self-compassion retreat a few years ago? I’m sure you do, since you’ve been a loyal reader all of these years. Which I greatly appreciate, if I haven’t told you lately. If you don’t remember, you can check out that post and see what it was all about, if you’re interested.

Anyhoo, now I’m doing a mindfulness educational retreat in Cape Cod. All of the Cape Cod conferences are designed to give you a chance to get your continuing education credits while going on an expensive vacation. Which means that, compared to the other one, there isn’t as much meditation and the accommodations and excursions are much better. But, even though it was in the middle of nowhere and you slept in something the size of a closet at the self-compassion retreat, they had awesome food. Organic, locally grown, and all that California stuff. And you could sit or lie down on the floor if you wanted to. So everything has its pros and cons.

Because I like you so much, I thought I’d give a rundown of what I have learned on the very first day as a thank you for reading my blog. Plus, this is a way to remind myself what I learned in the future, since I will put these notes in a filing cabinet and never read them again. Here are the lessons from today:

  1. We spend most of our lives wishing it away because we’re trying to get to the good stuff. The Netflix binge at the end of the day. The house you’ve been saving up for. Retirement, so you can finally relax. And as soon as we get to the place we were anticipating, we immediately look for the next thing. This actually happened to me last night while I was watching the replay of the Federer match. My mind kept wandering, thinking random stuff about what I needed to do to get ready for bed after it was over. I had to be like, pay attention! Federer is about to make grand slam history! In my most compassionate voice, of course. (Not.) The goal, then, is to develop equanimity, which I also discussed in a previous post: may we all except things as they are.
  2. Training the mind is a lot like training a puppy. When you look at your puppy, you think that it’s still lovable and cute, even when it pees and poops when it’s not supposed to and doesn’t listen to what you tell it to do. Well, the mind also pees and poops when it’s not supposed to, and I know mine hardly ever responds to what I tell it to do. Like, right before a point I’ll be like, watch the ball. And then sometimes I’ll swing and miss the ball altogether. Which means there is no possible way I could have been watching the ball. So then I’ll be like, I just told you to watch the ball! But if I had a puppy, I probably wouldn’t be like, why can’t you watch the ball? while we were playing fetch. I’d just throw the ball again.
  3. It’s OK to be insane. When you first learn to mediate, you realize how much random stuff goes through your mind all the time. Usually obsessing about the past, planning for the future, and lots and lots of self-criticism and judgment. You’re feelings will go from one extreme to the other for no apparent reason. You can make up elaborate theories about how someone doesn’t like you based on the smallest piece of information. But guess what? We all do this! We’re all insane. So that crazy thought, that deep, dark secret, that split personality that you thought only you possessed is nothing to be ashamed of. It just means you’re human.

But here’s where I get stuck. Yes, we’re all crazy, but some people are actually mentally ill. In fact, the last time I saw Ron Siegel at a conference a few years ago, he warned against going to a week-long silent mediation retreat if you have a mental illness because it really destabilizes you. Which means, I better not go on one of those. Perhaps ever.

But I guess mental illness is also something I can approach with equanimity and think of it as a part of me that I can learn to accept, just as it is.

Hanging in the Balance

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You know what it’s like having a mental illness? It’s like being Homer Simpson in that episode where he ate that Fugu puffer fish prepared by a rookie chef. That’s the fish that, if not prepared correctly, can kill you. He had to wait 24 hours to find out. Great episode, if you haven’t seen it.

Or it’s like hydroplaning on the highway, trying to figure out which way you need to turn the wheel so you don’t crash. That actually happened to me. I don’t think I turned the wheel the right way. I ended up going backwards in the median, wondering what was going to happen to me when the car finally stopped. Thankfully, miraculously, nothing happened. Except to my car. Which I got rid of.

I found out in the book “The Art of Racing in the Rain”–which is a fantastic book, if you’re looking for something to read–that when you’re hydroplaning, you actually need to accelerate to engage the wheels. It’s a fictional account, but that makes sense to me. So now I drive really slowly in the rain so that I can speed up if I start to skid.

But I digress. The reason why having a mental illness is like the Fugu puffer fish and racing in the rain is that there are so many things you have to do to maintain your balance, and it takes so little to throw it off.

Take sleep, for example. I am a night owl, but I’m not supposed to stay up late, because reversing my sleep cycle triggers a depressive episode. But when I try to go to bed earlier, I can’t fall asleep because my obsessive brain is wide awake, chatting up a storm. I am also supposed to wake up early, but I’m usually too freaking tired. And because I need more sleep than the average person, I still have to take a 3 hour nap.

I have similar difficulties regarding eating that is equally complicated because of my inability to wake up early, restrictions in what and when to eat because of my GERD, my tennis schedule, my inability to tell whether or not I’m hungry, and that I hate planning meals, grocery shopping, and cooking.

I also have to manage my anxiety by avoiding almost everything, lately–Facebook, the news, conversations about Trump, certain family members, relationships, looking at my schedule for the week so that I don’t get overwhelmed (which has gotten me into trouble with my colleagues).

Despite all of this effort I put into maintaining my mental health, I frequently wake up feeling anxious or depressed or both. Because it’s impossible to keep all of this stuff in balance. Which really frustrates me. Sometimes I’m mad at God. Sometimes I wonder if it’s all worth it, all this work to be mentally stable given that I am inherently unstable. Sometimes I feel alone in it, because despite having my brother and friends to talk to, in those moments when you’re lying in bed trying to find a reason to face the day, there’s no one who can really be there for you.

Thankfully, those moments usually pass, often some time later that day. Or at least they fluctuate throughout the day. Or I’ll go play tennis.

On a moment to moment basis, practicing mindfulness and self-compassion are the most helpful tools to make the pain bearable, but it still hurts like hell. I remind myself that it’s OK to be in pain. That this moment will pass. That although my thinking may be irrational but convincing right now, at some point I will be able to see things more clearly. That it’s not my fault. I’m doing the best that I can. And then I try to think of things I can do to make myself feel better. Like watching “Trolls.” Really cute movie, if you haven’t seen it.

The other thing that has helped is reading Richard Rohr’s books. The one I’m reading currently, Eager to Love: The Alternative Way of Francis of Assisi, is a much tougher read, but he says some thought-provoking things. Like, he says that the best healers are people who have suffered greatly themselves. I know for sure that my own experiences have made me better able to sit with and relate to other people’s pain, and I know how much better it feels to talk to someone who really gets it because they, too, have suffered greatly.

We all have roles that we have to take on that will involve pain and suffering–being a parent, a firefighter, a soldier, Wonder Woman (I loved that movie, too), just to name a few. Any role entails pain and suffering, really. I guess the difference is whether you’re going to rail against it or accept it–choose it, even–because there’s something that you care about that makes it worthwhile. And because not choosing it just magnifies your suffering.

I know for sure that I was meant to be a healer. Sometimes I wish I could say no thank you, God, but I appreciate your confidence in me. But I can’t, because I really don’t know what else I would do. So if trying to find that balance moment to moment, day after day, helps me to be a better therapist, then so be it. I will choose it.

If Only…

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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.

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Do you think I bought too many shoes?

Being Present

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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

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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

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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.