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Cultivating Hope

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Despite my struggles with anxiety and depression, I actually feel like I have been blessed with a good life. In fact, this is true for many people with anxiety and depression. Yet instead of feeling like a blessing, our demons use our good fortune against us. We don’t deserve to be depressed and anxious. We haven’t earned it.

I am often accused of trying to save the world, and I have to admit, I don’t see why that is such a terrible thing. Other than the fact that it’s impossible to achieve. But moving up to 4.0 in my tennis rating may also be impossible to achieve, and I still try to do that. And I will live if it never happens.

Sometimes I think I try to help other people because of something akin to survivor guilt. God has always answered my prayers. I know that many people don’t feel that way, and I am not going to dismiss their bad fortune by saying they deserve it or that they’re not trying hard enough or whatever. I don’t really know how to make sense of all the unfairness in the world.

But I feel like the least I can do is to make good use of my good fortune. I can use my time on earth to alleviate other people’s suffering. Help them to believe they can make it to the other side of pain.

I’m not going to pretend that this is purely motived by altruism. At some level I’m saying, look God! I’m doing all these good things! Please let me continue to be blessed with good fortune. And a part of me feels like I have to pay God back for all that I have been given. Theoretically, I get the idea of grace; I’m just not sure I deserve it.

I think that’s why I have been drawn to practicing compassion. Surely a practice whose very name includes pain and suffering must teach you how to get rid of it. Which is why when I did the self-compassion retreat, I was disappointed to learn that practicing self-compassion does not actually get rid of pain. Damn!

I kind of already knew that. I tell clients this all the time. That our goal is to learn how to sit with our pain, be kind to it, wait patiently for it to pass. But obviously, at some level, I was still secretly hoping I could get rid of it.

I have gone through enough episodes of despair to know that, despite the fact that it may feel as though my pain will never end, it eventually does. That didn’t do much to make the pain go away in the moment. And sometimes the wait seemed endless. But I guess I must have always had hope. And practicing self-compassion seems to help me to cultivate hope, which has made pain and suffering a little easier to bear.

Maybe that’s why there was hope at the bottom of Pandora’s box. (Which was actually a jar.) Even if all of the evils of the world are unleashed upon us, having hope may be enough to survive them.

Declaration of Independence

I am working with a client who was sexually assaulted and is thinking about taking her case to our judicial board. We talked about the levels of awareness that she went through before she could be ready to take this step. How at first she didn’t want to acknowledge what happened. Then she opened up to a few people who felt safe. Now she wants to make sure he understands that what he did was not OK. To force him to think about it the next time. She hopes to eventually share her story at Take Back the Night so that other people can benefit from it.

She knows that there will be people who won’t believe her. Who will blame her for what happened. She prepares herself by reminding herself that as long as she knows what happened, that’s all that counts. But that’s a hard thing to do–to face the judgment within us and around us. It takes a lot of courage to face that kind of scrutiny.

I like to think of this process as a kind of declaration of independence–from our demons, from judgment, from fear. It happens every time someone goes to AA and admits they’re an alcoholic. Every time someone finds the courage to say I have an eating disorder. I struggle with depression. I live in fear. In making this declaration, they take away the power that their condition has to make them feel weak. Defective. Crazy.

To a lesser extent, I think of my blog as a kind of declaration of independence. I’ve tried to hide these things about myself all my life. I don’t want to be held hostage by them anymore. I want to be able to embrace everything that makes me who I am–especially the things that I am ashamed of.

The president of the student organization I advise, Active Minds, told me that he reads my blog, which kind of freaked me out at first. But he thought it was the most powerful way to fight stigma and to let other students know that they are not alone in their struggles with mental illness, which is the primary goal of Active Minds. So he is finding ways to give students the opportunity to make their own public declarations. It is a wonderful feeling to know that this has come out of my willingness to share my vulnerabilities.

I’ve always liked the expression that freedom isn’t free. You have to fight for it. Although blogging has been a surprisingly supportive and positive experience, I am well aware that there will be times when someone will judge me for what I say. I try to prepare myself for it by doing what my client is doing–to remind myself that ultimately, the only person who counts is me. Then I take a deep breath and hit Publish.

Declaration of Independence

Mistakes

You know how I hate making mistakes? Well I made a big one last week, and now my inner critic is in full force. I am having a hard time forgiving myself, so I thought I’d blog about it.

Intellectually, I know that everyone makes mistakes. But my inner critic tells me that everyone else is allowed to make mistakes. I, on the other hand, am on strict probation: one mistake will lead to dire consequences–failing, getting fired, going to hell, losing everyone’s respect, etc. I don’t know what I’ve done to warrant this zero tolerance for errors, but it must have been pretty bad.

I am trying to put things in perspective. I try to remind myself that, although some people could judge me harshly, God does not have a zero tolerance policy for errors. God knows that I am not perfect and does not hold me to the standards that my inner critic does.

I gave a sincere apology for my mistake. I didn’t lie, get defensive, or evade responsibility. I acknowledged what I did wrong and that I am aware of the consequences of my error. That I am committed to making amends. While this should move my transgression into the somewhat healthier guilt category, I am still feeling quite a bit of shame about it.

My inner critic wants to make sure that I am taking this seriously. That I am not one of those people who superficially apologizes without being genuinely sorry. That is one of my pet peeves, and I don’t want to be a hypocrite by doing the same thing. So I keep reminding myself that this is a big deal–which only serves to reactivate the cycle.

I am trying to call to mind all of the sage advice on forgiveness, perfectionism, and letting go. Advice that I, myself, have given to other people. It seems to help them. Why doesn’t it help me? Why am I not improving faster? I envy people who can read an inspirational quote on social media and feel better. People who are simply able to turn off the obsessive soundtrack of shame in their head. Or who listen to a different soundtrack altogether.

So I am also trying to remind myself to honor my own timetable. That self-improvement is not a race that I have to win. In fact, I’d settle for a participation award. I tell myself that at some point in the future, perhaps even later today, I will be able to put things in perspective. And if it takes longer than that, I’m talking to my therapist on Tuesday.

Luckily, tennis is on all day today, which I am hoping will be an effective distraction until I have my moment of clarity.