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Full of Myself

Positivity

I’m going to be on TV! It’s just a segment on the local news about tennis in our area, but I’ve never been interviewed on TV, so it’s kind of a big deal for me.  I initially didn’t want to be interviewed because I didn’t want to look fat. Which is superficial, I know, but it’s true. But I have to admit, I was pretty awesome. I love having an audience.

I feel self-conscious about writing this, because it feels like I’m being full of myself. But when I tell my therapist that I’m being full of myself, she says that’s a good thing. Full of yourself can mean being whole. Authentic. Come to think of it, most of the time I’m filled with demons, anxiety, depression, guilt, shame, and self-criticism. So maybe being full of myself isn’t such a bad thing.

In therapy, when clients talk about feeling self-conscious about sharing an accomplishment, I ask them how they distinguish between humility, bragging, and celebrating something good about themselves. Interestingly, the conversation often leads to a discussion about what it means to be a good person. About what God wants from us. Even though I never bring up God unless the client does.

I’m no theologian, but I think that God wants us to share our accomplishments, because they are a reflection of our gifts from Him. That using our gifts is a way of showing our appreciation for them. That sharing our accomplishments with the people who are important to us is a way of inviting them into this celebration.

So in the spirit of sharing my accomplishments with people who are important to me, I thought I would take this opportunity to share with all of you the good things that have happened to me recently.

1. I finally had a good tennis season. I played great and won a lot of tough matches. Except to that one team that beat us three times, which contributed to my bad mood on Sunday. But even those matches were competitive and came down to the wire.

2. I made it through this week without having to miss work! This is one of the weeks with the highest likelihood of a crash and burn episode. So I’m making some progress in my self-care efforts.

3. This is my 3rd post this week, so I met my goal! And my last few posts have gotten me a few more readers, so in the race against my former blogger self, I’m winning!

4. That small taste of the limelight confirmed my belief that if I had my own talk show, I’d be way better than Dr. Phil. (Is that going too far?)

Thanks for allowing me to share my accomplishments with you. I may not be in a relationship, but I do finally have people who care about the minutiae of my everyday life. And for that, I am grateful.

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.

Angels and Demons

spoonflower.com

spoonflower.com

I thought of something I can say to the part of me that tells me I’m undeserving. In fact, I say it all the time. It’s “Shut up demons! You don’t know me!”

People usually think of that little devil on our shoulder as the part of us that tells us to do something bad, like “Go kill that person!” Plus some less extreme things, like “Call that ball out! You’ll win the game!” From a mental health perspective, the devil tells clients to do things like “Get black out drunk instead of staying in to study. And then miss your therapy session so you don’t have to talk about it.”

Sometimes that little devil will disguise itself as the angel and will try to make us believe that we are doing something good when we are actually hurting ourselves. Things like “There are people starving in the world, and here you are eating all of this food that someone else needs more than you. You really shouldn’t be eating at all.” Those are the most insidious messages of all.

When I was depressed I went around yelling at my demons all the time. They were constantly telling me that I should kill myself for stupid reasons. But I didn’t want to die. I knew it wasn’t coming from me. So I would literally go around the house telling the demons to shut up. Which I found hilarious.

My psychiatrist, on the other hand, did not appreciate my sense of humor. When I told him I had started yelling at my demons, he did that stereotypical psychiatrist thing where he just looked down and wrote something on his legal pad. Probably something like “She’s f@%ing crazy!” But whatever. It worked. All that warrior training paid off.

I was really tired on Sunday and Monday. I had been obsessing about my Halloween party for weeks because I have an anxiety disorder. I am in the midst of the busiest part of the semester and rarely have an hour to myself, unless someone doesn’t show up. I’m playing on two tennis teams and am captaining one of them. And the weekend before I drove 4 hours to watch my beloved UVA team blow another lead to lose the game, which was both tiring and depressing.

So for once, when I needed to sleep all day on Sunday and a good part of the day on Monday, I did so without beating myself up about it. Without trying to will myself to be productive. Without telling myself how pathetic I am for being so tired, when the average human being wouldn’t be. Instead, I tried to take care of myself. I would ask myself things like, “What do you need right now? Are you hungry? Do you need to go back to sleep? Would it help to take Advil? How can I make you feel better?”

Sometimes the little angel on our shoulder tells us not to do bad things. But more often, in my case at least, it encourages me to be more loving to myself. So I’m going to counteract messages about being undeserving with love. And by yelling at my demons.

Undeserving

You are listening

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.

Self-Care, Part 2

blue

I had one of those days yesterday where it was hard to get out of bed. I was tired because I played 6 matches last week, and I stayed up until midnight writing a blog post the night before. I had a bunch of errands that I needed to do but nothing to look forward to as a reward for doing them. Eventually I did will myself to get up, and I took care of everything that I needed to do, but it took a lot of coaxing.

This was only a fraction of how bad it feels when I’m depressed. That’s why it’s so scary to think about going back there again. I know I’ve survived it and would probably survive it again, but it’s painful while it’s happening, trying to will yourself to get through every minute of every day.

Daylight savings time ends on October 25. I am nervous, because I can feel it already–the effects of the shorter days, the colder weather. Until a few hours ago, I hadn’t seen the sun in several days, which was contributing to my bad mood. In about a week we will be in the midst of the busiest time of the semester, which is always overwhelming, no matter how hard I try to manage my schedule.

I am trying especially hard this time to make self-care a priority. I’m trying not to let the drill sergeant yell at me unless absolutely necessary. I’m trying to say no to tennis when my body needs a rest. Trying to resist the urge to start writing a post at midnight. Trying to be realistic about what I can do and not compare myself to my colleagues, my family, or my friends.

I am making an effort to practice mindfulness, like I tell my clients to do. I’m making myself eat lunch away from my desk. I make sure I am registering every bite I take, rather than shoving the food into my mouth as quickly as possible. When I feel antsy and want to do several things at once, I take a deep breath, make myself stay in the present moment.

It’s really hard to make self-care a priority. Not only am I fighting my inner demons, but I’m also up against a culture that uses slogans like “I haven’t got time for the pain” and tells me to take drugs so that I can go to work when I’m sick. (I’ve always hated that commercial. I think it was for Dayquil.) And for all our preaching about self-care, mental health professionals aren’t much better at it in my experience, because we’re prone to putting other people’s needs before our own.

But I’m really committed to it this time. Consider this my public declaration to make myself accountable. If you see me publish a post at 1 a.m., remind me that I’m supposed to be in bed. If I’m being too hard on myself, feel free to call me on it. Remind me that I’m supposed to be kind to myself.

I’ll probably be annoyed with you, but that’s OK. You’ll never know, and it will be good for me.

Disaster Preparedness

Disaster Preparedness

A few years ago I went to the Titanic Museum in Knoxville. When you enter, they give you a card with a description of a person who was on the Titanic and you can find items related to that person as you walk though the museum. At the exit, there is a list of the people who survived and who did not. The people who were the most likely to survive were in first class because they had cabins at the top of the ship and had more time to get out, and the crew members because they were the first people to know that the ship was sinking.

I’ve heard of many similar scenarios, and the evidence is pretty convincing that having money increases your likelihood of survival. That’s one of the reasons why I obsess about having enough of it. I worry because I am single and don’t have someone else’s income to rely on if something were to happen to me. I worry because I am not able to save the recommended 6 months worth of salary in case of emergencies. I often have to use my savings just to cover my monthly expenses.

I am the kind of person who takes every safety recommendation to heart. When I went to the Philippines when I was 5, my aunt told me that I was teaching my 3 year old cousin about the dangers of playing with matches and how to stop, drop, and roll if you’re on fire.

After my first divorce, I realized that one of the reasons that I follow every recommendation about how to avoid disaster is because I didn’t have faith in God. I never had that exact thought, and I prayed every night that my husband and I would grow old together, but deep down I believed that making my marriage work was mostly up to me.

Part of the reason why I decided to go on the trip to Germany and Switzerland is because I realized that no amount of money can protect me from disasters. Since then, I’ve been telling myself what I tell my clients who worry about the future: I can have faith that whatever happens, I will have the strength to get through it.

I’m also taking a leap of faith that God will look after me if something bad happens to me. It’s a scary thing to do, because I know that some people lose faith in God in the face of tragedy. But God has always been there for me, so until I’m proven wrong, I’m going to keep on leaping.

Self-Disclosure, Part 2

self-disclosure part 2

Therapists are in that category of people who aren’t supposed to be real–right along with teachers, priests, and parents. They shouldn’t be at UVA football games talking smack with Tech fans. They’re not supposed to have divorces. Plural. (Usually one is acceptable.)  And they certainly aren’t supposed to struggle with anxiety and depression. Even my niece was surprised to learn that psychologists who treat depression can be depressed, and she’s only 8.

Freud is mostly to blame for this. He thought psychoanalysts should be a blank screen onto which patients projected all of their repressed sexual and aggressive urges while he sat behind them smoking cigars and snorting cocaine. And even though I wasn’t trained as a psychoanalyst, in grad school they discouraged us from using self-disclosure and from crying in session. (I really have a problem with that last one. I can’t help it. Sometimes I’m really moved by what clients say.)

But even Freud and my grad school supervisors did not say I should be a blank screen in all areas of my life. I guess it just felt safer to do so because I am terrified of judgment and criticism. That’s why I want to be perfect. That’s how my inner critic is able to manipulate me. That’s why I have developed such good empathy skills: if I can tell that the other person is upset with me, I can change my behavior before they have a chance to say anything.

I started this blog as a way to test out Brene Brown‘s claim that having the courage to share our vulnerabilities with others leads to engagement and meaningful connection. Some posts are still scary to share, but those seem to be the ones that people are the most thankful for because it makes them realize that they are not alone in their struggles. And it has made people who I don’t know very well feel closer to me. There’s this positive energy between us now when we interact. Sometimes they share their own vulnerabilities, which further strengthens our relationship. It really is a nicer way to be in the world.

After almost a year of blogging, I am finally taking the plunge by telling students about my blog. This is the one place where I have been reluctant to share my vulnerabilities because it could potentially undermine my credibility. But it will also serve as evidence that the people who they perceive as having their lives together are dealing with the same issues they deal with. Normalizing their experience, as therapists say.

But normalizing our experience takes practice. We need to be reminded over and over again. We need to repeat it to ourselves with every thought, feeling, and action that makes us worry that we’re crazy. And while everyone doesn’t need to blog about it, it certainly helps me to accept myself as is. So self-disclosure is as much a gift to myself as it is to anyone else who enjoys reading my blog.

 

Imagination

IMG_0267

Once when my brother was manic he thought he was the smartest person in the world. I don’t think he did anything with this newfound knowledge; I think it probably just felt good to believe he was intellectually superior. He also did stuff like show up at people’s houses unexpectedly to collect long overdue debts and convince telemarketers to go out on dates with him. This is one of the reasons why people who are bipolar don’t want to take their meds; who wouldn’t want to feel invincible?

While I haven’t reached the heights of mania that he has, I have what could be considered delusions of grandeur. For example, ever since high school I have been convinced that I am going to be a famous writer some day. I would ask whoever I was with how they felt about the fact I was going to be famous–whether they minded that they would be in the limelight and whether they would feel threatened by my success.

I still believe this. I’ve read all the stuff that says that the J.K. Rowlings and Elizabeth Gilberts of the world are the exception rather than the rule, but I’m not really deterred by  it. I don’t usually admit this to people because it does sound a bit delusional, but it’s a nice reprieve from feeling like I suck.

And it’s a helpful delusion. Anyone who aspires to do something great has to believe the odds are in their favor. Otherwise, why try? It’s hard to walk that line between believing that you are destined for greatness and being manic, but people do it all the time. So why not me? I have decent balance.

In The Secret Life of Bees, Zach is a black kid who wants to be a successful lawyer in the South during the Civil Rights era. Lily tells him she’s never heard of a Negro lawyer. That you have to hear of these things before you can imagine them. He counters that you have to be able to imagine what’s never been.

I would take this a step further. Our imaginations are actually fairly limited; we can’t envision all of the possible outcomes. Perhaps I  won’t write some best seller, like I have always imagined. Perhaps success will happen in a completely different way. Someone could decide to make tennis skirts out of my patterns, for example. Or maybe it will be something else that I can’t conceive of from my limited viewpoint of the present.

I try to bring myself back to reality. Don’t get your hopes up. Maybe all you will accomplish is to help a few more people than you do through therapy–which would be worth it, too.

But I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: you can’t fail if you never stop trying.

Self-Handicapping

Yesterday Sloane Stephens lost at the U.S. Open to Johanna Larsson, an unranked player. This is sad news for American tennis fans, because Stephens is predicted to be the next great female American player. In musing over why she has not yet lived up to her potential, the commentators observed that Stephens doesn’t play with the same intensity as the top players, perhaps because she is afraid of losing while playing her best.

I had the good fortune of attending a warm-up tournament to the U.S. Open a few weeks ago, and after looking at my photos, I, too, noticed that Stephens did not put the same effort into her shots that the top players did. For example, here is a picture of 17-time Grand Slam champion Roger Federer, hitting his famous forehand.

Notice how intensely focused he is on watching the ball and how he jumps into his shot. This is an aggressively hit forehand.

Now here is a shot of 17-time Grand Slam champion Serena Williams, hitting her equally famous serve.

Again, notice how she is in the air when she hits her serve and the intensity of her facial expression. In fact, she looked downright pissed off and scary in most of the pictures I took.

Now here is a picture of Sloane Stephens hitting a backhand.

In contrast, notice how casually she is hitting the ball. This looks more like the kind of shot you would see in a practice session, where players aren’t trying to hit that hard. So I think there is some truth to their hypothesis that she is afraid to play her best tennis.

In psychology, this phenomenon is called self-handicapping, and it is fairly common. I have worked with students who were so afraid that they would not get an A that they didn’t turn in any work and got an F in the class instead. They all believed that if they had put in the effort, they probably could have gotten an A, which helped to preserve their self-esteem. Sort of. Because they ended up on academic probation, which they were embarrassed and ashamed about.

To my knowledge, I have never sabotaged my chances of succeeding, but I can relate to the fear that my best effort might not be good enough. I have always wanted to be a therapist and thought I could be a good one–until I got to the clinical portion of my training in grad school. Then I started to worry: What if I suck at it? What if I’m no good at this thing that I’ve wanted to do all my life? What am I supposed to do then?

My worst fear came true: I did suck at it at first. I had several supervisors tell me that my anxiety was interfering with my ability to do therapy. (This was the first time I contemplated the possibility that I may have an anxiety disorder). Even though I ordinarily freak out when I’m given negative feedback, I wasn’t that upset. I knew that I could get better if I worked at it. And I think I’m a decent therapist now–although there’s always room for improvement.

The same is true for tennis. I’m not really afraid to go out there and play my best and lose, because my best performance today isn’t the best I can ever hope to play. At least I don’t think so. I always think I can get better, even as I get older. If this is a delusion, then at least it is one that serves me well. That’s why I look so intimidating in this photo:

So if you see me on the court, watch out!

In the Zone

Want to be happier? Try adding some flow to your life.

Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi’s research indicates that engaging in activities that you find pleasurable and absorbing is one of the things that makes life worth living. When you are in flow, you are focused on the here and now. You experience a loss of self-consciousness and lose all sense of time. You feel like you can handle anything that comes your way.

Flow is what athletes feel when they are in the zone. Although I don’t consider myself athletic, I have experienced flow on the tennis court. It doesn’t always happen, but every now and then, the ball does exactly what I want it to. No channeling of inner warriors required: everything is effortless, unconscious.

Flow is not limited to sports. You can experience flow at work, during artistic activities, and in nature. Sometimes I’ve experienced flow with clients in therapy: I feel so connected to them in the moment that I know what they’re trying to say before they say it. Occasionally, I’ve experienced it when blogging: the words and ideas seem to be writing themselves, and they are perfect.

And there are those rare moments–usually when I’m at some lookout point–where I have a moment of clarity. I am Neo at the end of “The Matrix,” when he breaks the code and fights off the Agents with minimal exertion. The mysteries of the universe unfold. I feel joyful and calm at the same time.

Flow can also be interactive. Like Hazel and Augustus in “The Fault in Our Stars,” you stay up all night, sharing your life stories, and time stands still. Or like when you’re catching up with your best friend who you haven’t seen in ages, but you can pick up right where you left off, as if you talked just yesterday.

This weekend I was blessed to experience flow in all of these areas. I was at the Virginia district tournament with my tennis team, and I was in flow on the court. My team was in flow, and we made it to the finals for the first time ever. And all of the moments off the court were filled with joy, celebration, and camaraderie. Even writing about it is effortless. No self-consciousness. No demons. Just a pervasive sense that life is good.

Usually Mondays are hard for me, but today I am happy. In this moment, I am in the zone.

Orange Crush