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Tag Archives: self-worth

Olympic Dreams and Self-Esteem

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I’ve really enjoyed watching the Olympics over the past 2 weeks. During the Winter Olympics 0f 2014 I wrote a post about my dream of being an Olympic athlete. I didn’t so much care about being the greatest athlete of all time, but I wanted to be a part of the opening ceremonies, live in the Olympic Village (without getting stuck in an elevator for 40 minutes like Del Potro), and exchange pins with other athletes.

During this year’s Olympics I was struck by how many stories there were about gold medalists (usually men) who felt lost, depressed, even suicidal after their success. How they turned to drugs, alcohol, got in trouble with the law, wandered around purposeless, sometimes homeless, not knowing what their next goal should be. Michael Phelps’ story is probably the most surprising one of all. What would the greatest Olympian of all time have to feel depressed about?

This is the myth that continues to haunt us in our search for happiness. We believe that achieving greatness will transform us into someone who we will finally like. It will bestow upon us a sense of self-worth and belonging. We will feel purposeful, useful, and lovable.

In a previous post I wrote about how I had a similar experience after I got my Ph.D. I was expected to get an education beyond college. Preferably medical school, but in one of my few acts of rebellion, I chose clinical psychology instead. Even in my first year of grad school I had fantasies about how smart and accomplished I’d feel after getting my doctorate. Only to find out that instead I felt…exactly the same. Actually, maybe even a little worse. Because if having a Ph.D. didn’t make me feel better about myself, I realized that nothing would. I had nothing left to channel my energy into. No fantasies about how I was just one accomplishment away from achieving my dream of not feeling sucky.

There are other versions of the dream of transformation. They involve six figure salaries, weight loss, a youthful appearance. The perfect job, the perfect spouse, the perfect children. Everything we ever wanted is waiting for us…right after we accomplish this one thing. Oops. Not that one. The next one. Or maybe the next one.

Yesterday on the ride home from our annual Cincy Tennis Tournament trip, I was telling my friend that my job in therapy is to tell my clients over and over again that they are OK, just the way they are. Every week they bring in a different set of problems, different flaws, different confessions, and I say those are all OK, too. You’re still fine. On the one hand, that may seem like a strategy that is too simple to be transformative, but you should try it some time. It’s surprisingly difficult to believe we’re fine the way we are. That’s why change takes so long; we need to hear it all the time. We are never fully confident that we are good enough.

It’s clear that Michael Phelps still enjoys winning gold medals. It’s obviously still a thrill to train to be the best, to see that his hard work has paid off, and to know that he’s still the greatest. But he also seems more at peace about retiring. After all, he is not just the greatest Olympic athlete of all time; he is also a father and a soon-to-be husband. Will he come back to the Olympics in 4 years? Maybe. But if he does, it will be because he loves the competition–not because he is nothing without it.

I, too, think about accomplishing goals differently than I used to before my Ph.D. I’m still competitive and I want to win, but now it is more about the process of getting better than the result of any particular match. I do think that competing hard, playing fair, and executing my game plan say something about my character. But win or lose, when I walk off the court, I’m still the same person I was before the match began. I’m still me.

And I’m becoming increasingly comfortable with that.

Undeserving, Part 2

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There’s a scene in “Good Will Hunting” where Will and Skylar are in bed, basking in the glory of love, when Skylar asks Will to move to California with her. This scene ends in an argument in which Skylar asks Will to look her in the eye and tell her he doesn’t love her, and he does. Even though he obviously loves her.

People think that when we get the thing we want–the loving relationship, the great job, the coveted degree–we will be happy. But sometimes when we get what we want we get depressed, like I did after I got my Ph.D. Or we start a fight, like Will did. Or we sabotage our marriage, like my first husband did.

I’ve had several students in the past few weeks who became suicidal in the midst of good fortune. I explained to them that sometimes we have to bargain with that part of ourselves that tells us we are not worthwhile. If you just let me have this one good thing, I promise I will pay for it by making myself suffer. I still won’t let myself believe I deserve it. Which they totally understood.

After having this conversation several times on Friday, I finally understood that this is what ended my first marriage. Everyone told me he thought he didn’t deserve me, which I sort of understood on an intellectual level, since he called himself a poor, half-breed bastard. But I never really believed it, because I thought he was the best guy I had ever known. And I still think that.

And I realized intellectually that he tried to end our marriage a month after we finally got the house of his dreams, and we were finally making money, and our lives were finally stable. But it still didn’t make sense in my heart, because even after we signed the divorce papers, he told me it was the saddest day of his life. Which was consistent with what he said on our wedding day, which he said was the happiest day of his life.

But on Friday, I finally understood how he felt. He didn’t deserve to have all of these good things happen to him. He felt like my clients did, who became suicidal when they were about to get what they wanted. Except instead of killing himself, he destroyed our marriage. And it hurt my heart to feel how worthless he felt. I could finally feel his sadness instead of my own.

When I explained the bargain we make with our inner demons to one of these clients, he commented on how overwhelming it was to believe he thought he was that bad. But I reminded him that there is also a part of him that knows he is good. Which is why he is in therapy. Why he is alive today.

This is also why, at the end of the movie, Will decides to move to California with Skylar. Because even though some part of ourselves may tell us we are undeserving, we can ignore that part and choose to love ourselves, anyway.

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!

Do Something that Scares You

Decisions

Sometimes anxiety is a good thing.

The other night I gave a presentation on anxiety to Active Minds, the student organization whose mission is to raise awareness and reduce stigma about mental illness. I began the presentation by reminding everyone that anxiety is not always something we want to get rid of. It motivates us to act. It socializes us. And it warns us when we are about to do something scary.

But sometimes it’s good to do something scary.

When I started my blog, it never occurred to me to use an avatar, because the point was to get people to know me so that they would buy my book someday. Plus, anonymously blogging about vulnerability seemed hypocritical. But I have to admit, sometimes I wonder what the hell I’m doing, telling people all my deep, dark secrets, and I wish there were a way I could take it all back.

Some posts are scarier than others. The post that I wrote a few weeks ago, Undeserving, was one of the scarier ones, because what therapist admits to having the exact same fears that her clients have? Publishing it felt a bit like standing in front of people naked and saying, go ahead; judge my body.

Which nobody did, thank goodness. Not to my face, at least. Although the most vulnerable posts are always the most popular, knowing this won’t make it less scary to bare my soul the next time. Because anxiety has no memory. It does not distinguish between past, present, and future. It does not know the difference between reality and fantasy. In the moment, there is only fear.

Actually, I am growing accustomed to baring my soul before friends, family, and strangers. But the thought of standing naked before students and clients still terrifies me. Therapists are supposed to be blank screens. At minimum, they use self-disclosure with caution. They certainly don’t let clients know that they struggle with anxiety and depression and that they don’t think they deserve to be loved.

Last night a student from the school newspaper emailed me some questions about Seasonal Affective Disorder because she’s writing an article about depression. I realized this was an opportunity to publicize my blog, since my last post was on this very topic. But the thought of doing so gave me an anxiety attack, so I decided to sleep on it.

Plus it was midnight, and I promised myself I wouldn’t start working on stuff after midnight so that I don’t screw up my sleep cycle. Even though I ended up staying up until 1:30 a.m., anyway, doing pointless stuff like playing Sudoku and Minesweeper. What is wrong with me?!

But I digress.

This morning I answered the student’s questions and told her about my blog. Part of me hopes that it will lead to a thousand new followers, and a part of me hopes that she ignores the reference to my blog altogether. In any case, I did it; I pushed myself to do the thing I fear the most, as far as blogging is concerned.

And I have to say, it feels pretty good.

Undeserving

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Today I was reminded of how difficult it is for me to take in good things about myself. I had several small things happen: A friend who said he would miss me. A reminder of how much my parents love me. A client who said I had helped him. In all 3 cases, something in me wanted to resist believing that these things were true. Which is puzzling, because I want them to be true. Why is it so hard to believe good things about myself?

I can give you all of the psychological theories that attempt to explain this paradoxical phenomenon, but I won’t, because people don’t seem to find them as interesting as I do. So I will just say that from my personal experience, I believe it comes down to a question of my worth.

I would say that it’s a universal thing to question our self-worth, but perhaps my perspective is skewed, since my observations are primarily based on my clients and from people who ask me for help. Perhaps there are people who know their worth, but if there are, I’ve never met them.

Lately I have noticed how much the word deserve comes up in my self-talk. You don’t deserve to have a coffee because you slept late. You don’t deserve that compliment because you didn’t really do anything to help that client. You don’t even remember who he is. You deserved to lose your ex because you weren’t a good wife. It sounds terrible to write these things out loud, but they’re true. This is what I hear in my head.

I am often struck by how much more easily many of my clients can be persuaded that they deserve good things because I tell them they do. My therapist tells me the same things, and has done so for years, but I still don’t completely believe her. Why is it so hard for me to be convinced? Do I feel more worthless than my clients do? And if so, how is it that I am able to help anyone?

I saw a client last week who talked about how she feels like she has some fundamental flaw. A crack in her foundation. I said the exact same thing to my therapist several years ago. I didn’t tell her this, of course, but I reassured her that many people feel the same way. Eventually she was able to reframe this metaphor as the cracks that result when a house settles. The cracks that make it unique and give the house character. I couldn’t have said it better myself.

This is a good example of how sometimes you learn as much from clients as they learn from you.

Perhaps it is my client’s comment that has inspired me to be more mindful of when I use the word undeserving. From now on, when I catch myself using it, I’m going to replace the word with something else. I’m not sure what that word is yet, but I am open to suggestions, if anyone has ideas.

Living with No Regrets

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Today I went to the Verizon store to order my new iPhone since the one I have mysteriously started acting up right around the time the iPhone 6 was released. So clever of them to make cell phones that only last 2 years so that you have to buy a new one when your contract is up.

Because I obsess about spending money, I grilled the Verizon guy about every extra expense. Will I have to pay for postage when I mail my old phone in for my rebate? Is there a catch to getting the rebate? Do you make commission off the $10/month insurance policy? Is it possible not to pay the $30 upgrade fee? He seemed to take my questions in stride, even though I accidentally drank his bottle of water.

Despite my dad’s protests about not going into a more money-making career like medicine, I chose psychology, anyway. I wish I could have willed myself to do something that made more money. I just had a student ask me what career I would have chosen if I had not become a psychologist, and I honestly couldn’t think of anything else I’d rather do.

On the one hand, not making a lot of money means I don’t have to feel guilty about living an extravagant lifestyle. But I am still envious of my friends and family for being able to afford things like nice houses and vacations in exotic locations. Although I don’t need those things to be happy, I am still materialistic enough to want them.

I admit, some of my anxiety about money has more to do with my uncertainty about my worth rather than my paycheck. Like a yo-yo dieter who is ever at war with her body, my attitude towards spending ebbs and flows. Once I spent 10 minutes obsessing over whether I deserved to buy a $1 candle. (I didn’t buy it.) Other times I’ve gone on $800 shopping binges to rebel against that part of me that says I don’t deserve a $1 candle.

I am trying to find some balance between these two extremes. I am trying to reflect on what things are worth buying because they make me happy. I hate cooking, so I’ve decided that eating out is worth it. And I love tennis, so I don’t limit how much I can play based on cost.

Last night, after obsessing for 7 months about whether or not to go on a tour of Germany and Switzerland this summer, I decided to take the plunge and go. I can’t deprive myself of experiencing the world until I make more money, because I might not ever make money off my blog. Plus, when I imagined looking back on this decision, I figured that the likelihood that I would regret going was low, but I am almost certain that I would regret it if I didn’t go.

I like the idea of making spending decisions based on regrets. I think I’ll have a much better relationship with money this way.

Beginnings and Endings, Part 2

My job follows the academic calendar, so today is my first day back at work. I was never one of those kids who looked forward to the beginning of school. I didn’t care about seeing my friends; I didn’t want to have to do homework. I didn’t want to have to go to bed and wake up early. I pretty much have the same mentality now that I did when I was in elementary school. Some things never change, I guess.

My summers follow a distinct pattern: I have a hard time transitioning from being stressed and having to be super-productive to not having a whole lot that needs to get done. Boredom doesn’t do justice to the intensity of how badly I feel during that adjustment period. It’s more like, my existence is a complete waste of time. I have nothing of value to offer to the world. I know it’s is my inner critic talking, but it still makes me question my worth. I think that’s why most people would rather be stressed than bored: it makes you feel more useful.

However, by the time I have about 2 weeks of vacation left, I start panicking about having to go back to work. I don’t want to feel stressed out again–to be on call, have back-to-back clients, rush to get my nightly routine completed. By the end of the summer, I feel like I could quit my job altogether. But I have no one to support me, so that’s not an option.

This summer I had the added adjustment of being alone for the first time. Braking down on the side of the freeway alone. Attending weddings alone. Spending holidays and weekends alone. At least when I was working, I was guaranteed to see people every day. Over the summer, I had to make plans to motivate myself to leave the house, and sometimes I couldn’t do it.

Plus, I was also going through the steps to finalize my divorce, so I no longer had the illusion that I could return to the more stable state of matrimony. I didn’t date anyone or even have someone I could fantasize about dating. Well, I guess there’s Federer, but even in his case, the most I could imagine was being one of the nannies for his new twin boys. Not terribly romantic.

Despite the struggles with boredom, reversed sleep cycles, and solitude, I think the highs and lows actually helped me tolerate my emotions better. I would remind myself that boredom and loneliness are painful sometimes, but I’ll be busy eventually. (Usually the next day, because I played in 7 tennis leagues and captained 5 of them over the summer.) And when school starts and I’m feeling overwhelmed, I’ll remind myself that I have a long break to look forward to at the end of the term.

I think it also helped that I spent the past 2 weeks on vacation with family and friends. It was the highlight of the summer, but it was also hard to be around people 24-7. Now that I am accustomed to extended periods of solitude, I realize how much I need down time to feel sane. So by the time my vacation ended on Friday, I was ready to go home. Ready to catch up on tennis, blogging, and even work.

This summer was a good reminder of how, even when something seems intolerable, that feeling will pass. And you might even find value in the experience that you hated so much at that time.