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Angels and Demons, Part 2

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I remember once when my parents invited this visiting priest to our house for lunch, my mom was relating this incident in which she didn’t have an alarm clock and prayed to God to wake her up at 6 am. And he did.

At the time I thought that was ridiculous. It’s not that I didn’t believe in God. I just figured he was too busy to care about things as mundane as whether or not my mom woke up at 6 am.

But then, as I mentioned in a previous post, I read this near-death experience book called My Descent Into Death. He spent an entire chapter talking about angels. I had never really given much thought about the role of angels. I wasn’t even sure I had a guardian angel. But after reading his book, I thought about angels a lot more.

Now I can feel their presence. Every day.

One day last week I spilled my coffee just as I was about to head out the door to leave for work, as I sometimes do. And I was pissed off about it, as I usually am. But as I was cleaning up, I said a prayer. God, if somehow spilling my coffee is supposed to protect me from something, then thank you.

Which was bizarre. I had never thanked God for spilling my coffee in my life and had no idea how that could be helpful in any way.

A few minutes later, as I was driving to work, a car pulled out in front of me and was driving on the wrong side of the road, heading straight towards me. I was aware that there was a car to the right of me so it was a little tricky to get out of the way.

Had I not spilled my coffee, I probably would have been drinking it at that moment. Or I would have at least been holding the mug. And even if I had successfully been able to swerve out of the way with one hand on the steering wheel, I probably would have spilled coffee all over myself.

And it was only as an afterthought that I remembered the prayer I had said earlier.

On the flip side, I am also more aware of demons. I used to be the kind of person who never wanted to see the bad in people. I thought I was being judgmental if someone made me anxious and would ignore the warning signs that I should stay away. But after reading The Gift of Fear, I trust my gut feeling that someone isn’t safe.

I am also more aware of my inner demons and how insidious they are, because they sound like me. They have my voice. They are not ostensibly telling me to do anything wrong. They are just saying things like, nobody cares about you. You’re not important. Which seems plausible.

Even when I’m feeling good about myself, it only takes the smallest opening for these thoughts to creep in. A poor night’s sleep. The slightest rejection. Extended periods of isolation.

It seems like it should be obvious which voice is the angel and which is the devil, but sometimes it isn’t. Because most of the time, it’s not a debate between big moral issues of right or wrong. They are small choices that potentially lead you to harm or turn you against yourself.

Things like, you’ve proven you can stay sober. Go ahead and have a drink. One drink won’t kill you.

Or, nobody wants to hear about your problems. Don’t bother calling anyone. You’re just setting yourself up for rejection.

For some reason, my demons are easier to believe. But lately I’ve been trying this experiment where I try to believe the loving voice. The one that tells me that people care about me and that I can have faith in myself. It’s hard to have faith in that voice, because what if it’s wrong? What if I am just setting myself up for disappointment?

So far that hasn’t happened. And it’s a much more peaceful way to live, listening to my angel.

Just An Ordinary Day

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Sometimes I think God tries to help me wake up with text messages. And by having to pee every hour after 6 a.m.

Even though I keep my phone on vibrate at night, I still wake up when I get a text. Am I that light of a sleeper that I can hear the buzz? Am I so happy to get a message that I can sense it in my sleep?

Whatever the reason, for me, the typical pattern in the morning is to wake up, check my phone, go to the bathroom, and go back to sleep. Repeat every hour until I finally get out of bed. Which is usually several hours later.

Even in this state between sleep and wakefulness, my inner critic is hard at work. Right before I look at my phone, it says no one gives a crap about you. Which kind of hurts my feelings. I guess it’s trying to be helpful by mentally preparing me for the disappointment of not seeing a message. As I have mentioned in several blog posts, not having anyone to check in with in the morning is one of the hardest parts of being single.

Yesterday, however, I woke up to several texts. (Take that, inner critic!) One of them was from a friend who asked me if I had gotten the paper. For people who keep up with the news on a daily basis, their first association would probably be to the newspaper. But since I am not one of those people, I had no idea what she was talking about.

Like my inner critic, my anxiety was also wide awake and coming up with catastrophic situations that this mysterious paper might be referring to. Did I mess something up? Was there a 9/11 type attack going on? Was there some kind of tennis emergency?

Luckily, she was referring to an editorial about a former NFL player who struggled with bipolar disorder but did not know it until much later in life. Whew! I mean, I felt bad that the guy had to suffer, and I was glad that he was making the public aware of the importance of funding for mental health issues, but I was also glad that the world wasn’t coming to an end.

Even in this half-asleep/half-awake state, it made me think about how much we take for granted that ordinariness can be a good thing. When something bad happens, we are acutely aware of how in a moment’s notice, our lives can be turned upside down. An illness. An accident. An affair.

I’m not trying to be morbid or anything. In fact, I was genuinely happy that, in that moment, my life was exactly the same as it had been when I had gone to bed. Ordinarily I would have felt bad about waking up at noon, but in the grand scheme of things, it’s really not that big of a deal. It was par for the course. Just an ordinary day.

Thank God for ordinary days.

Faking Good

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Did you know that some personality tests are sophisticated enough to detect when a person might be faking bad or faking good? When I took one in grad school, the computer report said that I could either be faking bad, or that I’m just really hard on myself. Talk about sophistication! My Inner Critic was detected right away.

In general, I think people are more likely to fake good than fake bad. I am no exception. Most people can’t tell when I’m upset. Even when I tell people I’m upset, they don’t believe me because I’ll be smiling–like when I bought my mattress. So even when I’m trying to be honest, my face is still faking good.

Facebook is the perfect example of millions of people faking good every hour of every day. Even though I know from experience that things are often not what they seem, I still feel like my life pales in comparison to my friends with their happy spouses who declare their undying love for each other on their anniversary. Or their children who are winning sports competitions and getting good grades and saying funny things. Or their vacations to exotic places while I’m stuck at home because of the snow.

But then again, sometimes I’ll scroll through my pictures and wonder if people feel the same way about me. All of the happy pictures with my family. Pictures at sporting events, tennis tournaments, and karaoke parties with my friends. Pictures of my latest knitting project or the jewelry I just made.

Even if we want to be more honest on social media, it’s hard to do because it’s so visually oriented. Like, it never occurred to me to take a picture when I was getting my divorce papers notarized. Or to take a selfie of me lying on the couch, too depressed to do anything. I guess I could have taken a picture of that time I shattered my microwave door and had to sweep up hundreds of shards of glass, but I was too busy being pissed off.

The most honest posts I’ve seen are the ones where people say how they still miss a loved one on their birthday. I have not yet lost someone close to me, and the thought of doing so fills me with fear. And now I know that the sadness stays with you for the rest of your life. It exists right alongside of those happy family posts. But at least it makes the picture of their life seem more realistic, and therefore more relatable.

If you scroll through my wall, amidst the posts of family and friends, sports and crafts, you’ll see my blog posts. Verbal snapshots of my obsessiveness in action. Guilt and shame over failed relationships. Evidence of how difficult it is for me to be kind to myself. To believe that I deserve to be loved. That I’m worthwhile. This is my attempt to be honest through social media. My tribute to the complexities of real life.

But not everyone has a blog. So if you have ideas for how to stop faking good on social media, I’d love to hear them. It could be the beginning of a campaign. Like the one to stop bullying. We can work on the catchy phrase later.

It Matters to Me

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Last week in our body image support group, every single client prefaced an anecdote about something that upset them with a disclaimer about how it’s not that big of a deal. This thing that bothered them enough to bring it up. Not important at all, in the grand scheme of things.

Why do we do this to ourselves? Trivialize our feelings? I do it all the time, but it’s more noticeable when other people do it because it sounds so mean.

For example, if I tell my opponents before a tennis match not to be alarmed if I throw up, I feel like I’m just trying to get attention. Because I secretly enjoy telling them about my GERD/asthma/allergies and listing all the drugs I take for each of these conditions. And if they make some comment about what a trooper I am for continuing to play, I feel guilty. Am I misleading them into thinking that I am strong? Maybe I’m exaggerating how bad it is.

I get it that this is a defense mechanism. I am going to beat you to the punch. I am going to say upfront that I know this thing I am about to tell you is trivial so that you can’t hurt me by not caring about it. I am going to shame myself out of being upset to try to make the feeling go away. I am going to compare my pain to other people who are suffering more than I am so that I will feel guilty and stop complaining. I’m going to repeat to myself how stupid it is to be upset every day, hundreds of times a day, until the pain goes away.

Except it doesn’t make the pain go away. So we just end up invalidating our feelings hundreds of times a day, every day. Or, if you’re successful in being able to cut yourself off from your feelings, then you end up invalidating other people’s feelings, too. Which is why they preface all of their comments to you with a disclaimer about how what they are about to tell you is not that big of a deal.

Even though I am now aware of the harm I am doing to myself with these comments, it is effortful and time-consuming to come up with something nicer to say. Which is a bit disconcerting, that being kind to myself would be so difficult.

It was even more difficult for those clients, who did not even realize they were invalidating their feelings until I brought it to their attention. They sat in silence for a few minutes, straining their brains to come up with something they could say to themselves that would be more compassionate.

Which is exactly why we need to practice.

That’s why I help clients come up with mantras in advance to counteract their inner demons; it saves time and energy. So if you are in need of something to say, here’s one you can use: it matters to me, and that’s all that matters.

Mantras

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It is in our faults and failings, not in our virtues, that we touch each other, and find sympathy. It is in our follies that we are one.

– Jerome K. Jerome

Last semester I had a client who was talking about how a close friend seemed to be taking an interest in her, but she wouldn’t let herself believe it. Even though she wanted to believe that someone could find her attractive and desirable. Part of that whole undeserving thing I talked about in a previous post.

Lately I’ve been trying to help clients come up with mantras to counteract their inner critics. In this case, her inner critic kept saying, “Why me?” Why would he like me? What do I have to offer?  To which I replied, “Why not you?”

So this became her mantra. And I liked it so much, it has become one of mine, as well. Along with other mantras that I have come up with to counter my inner critic.  Here are a few of them:

1. Why not me?  This mantra now replaces the oft-repeated “Who do you think you are?” To think that you can find the one decent guy who is not in a relationship. To think that you can find an agent. A publisher. Readers. To think that you can improve your rating in tennis.

Other people do it. It’s not beyond the realm of possibilities. Might as well tell myself this instead and see what happens.

2. Everything’s going to be OK.  This may sound overly Pollyanish to some, but for me it is a source of comfort. After all, this is what we say to babies and children to calm them down. And as you know, I am a new parent, just beginning to learn how to soothe my inner infant.

3. I’m doing the best that I can.  This is to counteract my inner critic’s relentless evaluation that I suck. I can’t function without sleep like “normal” people. I can’t make it through a semester without crashing and burning unless I vigilantly focus on taking care of myself. My blog isn’t widely read. I can’t cook. I throw up when I play tennis. I don’t make enough money.

But I really am trying. And I’m trying to be OK with effort rather than results.

4. The purpose of life isn’t to be productive.  I was sick for my entire vacation this week. Five days in my house doing nothing but watching bowl games and knitting. No steps. No meals with friends. No tennis. No New Year’s celebrations.

My drill sergeant has tried to bully me into being productive, admittedly with some success. But for the most part, I’ve been able to tell myself that my only task at the moment is to get better. To rest. To care for myself. Regardless of what other people do when they’re sick. My life is worthwhile, whether I get my laundry done or not.

5. I’m just like everyone else. No better, no worse. I’m still a recovering perfectionist, but recovery is progressing quite nicely. Through blogging I have found that the kindness I receive in sharing my perceived flaws means as much to me as the compliments I get from my perceived successes.

So what’s your mantra? If you don’t have any, feel free to borrow mine if they help!

Depression vs. Sadness

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‘Tis the season to be jolly. Unless you are prone to Seasonal Affective Disorder like me. Don’t get me wrong–I still love the holidays. But there’s a better than average chance that I’ll be depressed in the midst of them.

Sometimes people ask me what the difference is between sadness and depression–especially if you have been depressed and are worried that you might be getting depressed again. In a previous post, I admitted that I don’t always know. It’s not like a pregnancy test that you can take and find out that you’re either depressed or “normal.” There are degrees of depression, and I have experienced almost every point on the continuum.

Last year after my breakup, I was alone for the first time since I was 14, and it was tough. I was sad that my phone rarely rang. That I did not automatically have plans for the weekend. That I was helpless when it came to things like changing my air filter.

My sadness turned into depression over the holidays because in addition to being alone, I had to be around my family, which stresses me out, tennis season was over so I wasn’t exercising and didn’t see friends, and my sleep was out of whack because I was off for 2 weeks. Still, it was nothing like the full-blown major depressive episode I had several years ago.

If sadness vs. depression were an SAT question, then sadness is to a cold as depression is to the flu. You can barely get out of bed. You do not have the energy to do simple tasks. You are in pain. You feel like you may die. But the difference is, when you have the flu, you may blame yourself somewhat for not getting your flu shot or for kissing a sick person, but you don’t hate yourself for being sick.

One of the ways I distinguish between depression and sadness is in how I respond to the “think of people who are worse off than you” strategy. When I was too exhausted to do anything the past few weekends, I would think about all of those people who are bedridden and how awful that must feel. And then I wanted to do something about it. So I said one of my neurotic prayers: God, if there’s any way that my praying for these people who are sick and bedridden can help them feel better, then please let that happen.

When I’m depressed, I think about people who live in war-torn countries, and how that’s far worse than being depressed. So who am I to complain? This is nothing. I don’t even have a good reason for being depressed. I’m just lazy and irresponsible. So get off the couch and do something, damn it!

Since this is the time of year when I am vulnerable to depression, I am hypervigilant of possible signs. So far I’m tired and stressed, but no self-loathing. And I haven’t missed any work (knock on wood). Maybe I’ll make it through this year unscathed.

Mental Hygiene

Negativity is like a virus. Even if you are vigilant about taking your meds, challenging irrational thoughts, praying, meditating, and practicing self-acceptance, forgiveness, and compassion, it just takes one negative comment–one careless psychological sneeze–and you’re contaminated.

I’ve had 3 people sneeze on me today. In an effort to avoid contaminating you with too much negativity, I’ll just tell you about the most egregious of the 3 incidents.

I had my follow up appointment with my psychiatrist today. Thank goodness I only have to go twice a year. It’s a 3 and 1/2 hour drive round trip for a 30 minute appointment, and there’s very little about that 30 minutes that is therapeutic. While my psychiatrist knows his drugs, he’s not a particularly good therapist, to put it mildly. Which is OK, I guess, because I have a therapist. But I have to talk about something.

Because I have chronic sleep issues due to my night-owlness, I confessed that I’ve been struggling with regulating my sleep cycle now that I’m not working. Every time I tell him what time I go to sleep and wake up, he makes this judgmental face that looks like he just sucked on a lemon. Then he proceeds to tell me what the research says about the importance of waking up at the same time every day, especially when you have a history of depression. How I need to get morning sunlight, I shouldn’t take naps, I need to be more disciplined, blah blah blah.

I am not good at constructive criticism, but I did manage to say that I’m trying. That I spend an inordinate amount of time obsessing about sleep. So much so that it probably interferes with my sleep. He can read my blog if he wants proof.

But I wish I could say something more honest. Something like, you make me feel like crap when you make that stupid face and give me a lecture on sleep hygiene that I already know by heart because I am a clinical psychologist, in case you’ve forgotten. Every time I see you, you just give my inner critic ammunition to tell me how I’m failing at sleep hygiene and that I suck. You are supposed to be helping me with my mental health–not making it worse. Oh, and by the way, your waiting room smells like mold and you need to clean your freaking office and water your damn plants. It doesn’t reflect well on you that your plants are dying! 

But I don’t want to come across as being too negative.

Does anyone ever give their doctor honest feedback when they do something unhelpful? I try to imagine what my reaction would be if a client brought to my attention that my facial expression conveyed blatant disapproval of what a terrible job they’re doing of trying to get better. It would be a shock, no question. But I don’t want to convey disapproval and judgment, so I think I would want to know. I think I would try to be more aware of my facial expressions. But as I mentioned in a previous post, we are terrible predictors of how we will act in the future. So maybe I would just be pissed off.

Maybe I can think of this as an opportunity to practice constructive criticism. Maybe I’ll talk to my therapist about it and see if she thinks it’s worth it to say something. Not what I wrote above, of course. But something.

Or maybe I could just tell him that my latest blog post is dedicated to him so he should read it. That would be hilarious!

I’ll let you know what I do. In the meantime, I encourage all of you to do your part in preventing the spread of negativity. Please remember to cover your mouth before your criticize. (And not in that passive-aggressive way where you cover your mouth while you fake cough and mumble something critical under your breath, either. You know what I’m taking about.)

I think this doodle looks like germs.