Tuesday, December 31, 2013

New Year's Resolutions

I don't ordinarily give specific psychological advice in my blog, but since I think New Year's resolutions are an important opportunity for personal growth, I'm breaking that pattern.

The #1 New Year's resolution every year is to lose weight. I'm not advocating that you give up this goal, but I encourage you to add goals that will help you move closer to the person that you want to be--ways to live according to your values.

If you've been reading my blog, my resolutions will come as no surprise.  They are to:
  1. Blog 2-3x/week.
  2. Ask for help when I need it.
  3. Say yes to what I want and no to what I don't want.
The biggest problem with New Year's resolutions is that they are usually forgotten by February. But not this year! Here are some tips for making the most out of your resolutions:
  1. Make your goals public. Tell your friends and family.  Tweet, post, and blog about it. Whatever will keep you accountable.
  2. Use positive language.  Rather than having the goal of losing weight, reframe it as eating healthier, exercising more, learning a new sport.
  3. Make specific goals.  Make a plan for how you will exercise more: I'll go to the gym 3x/week, I'll take tennis lessons.
  4. Focus on the process.  Life is more about how we choose to live it than the end result.  Most of our lives are spent in the process; the outcome is just a pit stop.
  5. Take stock of your progress.  I suggest that you do it periodically throughout the year. At the end of the year you can decide if you want to recommit to this goal.
If you feel discouraged about your progress this past year, I leave you with one of my favorite inspirational poems. My favorite lines are: "You are a child of the universe no less than the trees and stars; you have a right to be here.  Whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should."

So take heart that you are on the right path, even if it seems that you are lost.  And take this opportunity to set an intention for the direction that you want your life to take.

Monday, December 30, 2013


I watched the Secret Life of Walter Mitty on Christmas (Warning: Spoiler Alert!).  In addition to the theme of what it means to live a full life, I also liked the more subtle theme about how mom's save the day.

For example, it is the mom's cake that is used as currency for passage into forbidden territories. The mom's piano is sold to cover Mitty's worldly adventures.  The mom's photograph of the piano leads Mitty to Sean O'Connell.  And ultimately, it is the mom's rescue of the wallet that allows us to find out what the shot was on negative 25.

Yes, we want a life filled with risks and adventures.  But these risks and adventures are often made possible thanks to the home base that mom's provide through their more mundane, everyday activities.

My mom is a superhero.  While I was home for Christmas, she hosted our Christmas Eve party. She cooked every day.  She went to work on Thursday and Friday--as a physician, no less--while the rest of us lounged around the house.  She carefully packed up our food in ice as my brothers and I left for home, one by one.  The only gift she asked for was that we all come home for Christmas.  This is the only gift she ever asks for, regardless of the occasion.

But there are disadvantages to having a superhero for a mom.  It's impossible to live up to the example that she has set.  She often does know best, and I hate being wrong.  She is aware of her superhero status and takes every opportunity to remind me of it.  But I guess she has earned her bragging rights, and then some.

Often it is when children become parents themselves that they fully appreciate all that their moms have done for them.  I do not have children and do not plan on having any unless it is through divine intervention.  So the best I can do is to practice gratitude for all the big and small things that my mom has done to help me become the person I am today.

So this blog is dedicated to her, and to moms everywhere.

Sunday, December 29, 2013


Based on people's comments about my post on forgiveness, it seems that forgiving others is more of a problem for most people than forgiving oneself.  So I thought I'd say more about that.

I think that we should forgive but not forget.  We have memories and feelings for a reason; they are survival mechanisms.  If someone has hurt you or someone can't be trusted, you want to remember that.  You want to avoid people who can hurt you and cause you pain--especially if they have no remorse for doing so.

Forgiveness does not condone the other person's actions.  And the other person doesn't have to earn your forgiveness by apologizing.  You forgive them because it benefits you to let go of anger. Because it allows you to take away their power to hurt you.

Although we always deserve an apology when someone has wronged us, we don't always get one. Sometimes it has to be enough to know that you were wronged and to forgive so that you can control the suffering that is in your control.

However, you might want to reconsider being in a relationship with someone who never apologizes for hurting you.

The part of our brain that houses emotional memories makes no distinction between past, present, or future.  It does not know whether the pain is real or imagined.  It does not remember whether the person apologized or whether you have forgiven them.  The pain is always fresh and new.  This is why people have flashbacks in Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

I don't have PTSD, but I am an emotional person with an excellent memory.  So it doesn't take much to trigger a memory of something that someone has said or done to hurt me.  When that happens, it is as though I am living that moment all over again, and my feelings are as intense as they were when it first happened.

This is why forgiveness is an on-going process.  You don't decide to forgive and suddenly all the anger and hurt are gone.  You forgive, and then the memory comes up, and you forgive again.  And again.  And again.  And maybe in some moments you decide not to forgive because you're really mad this time.  And then you start all over.

Forgiveness requires patience, because our heart does not follow the time table of our mind.  You cannot will yourself to be ready to forgive; you just have to be open to forgiveness and wait for your heart to follow.

I find great comfort in this because of my excessive guilt problem.  Wherever I am in the forgiveness process is OK--even if it's more on the "I hate this person" end--because in Buddhism, you accept all of your thoughts and feelings without judgment or criticism.  At some point, I trust that my heart will be in a different place.

I may not be there today, or tomorrow, or next week even, but at some point I will be at peace.

Photo courtesy of Allison Szuba

Saturday, December 28, 2013


Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

I don't mean to sound blasphemous, but I've always had a problem with this definition of love.  I have never been able to love anyone in this way, nor have I ever been loved in this way.  Not from another human being, at least.  This may be the way that God loves us, but for me, this standard minimizes the value of the imperfect love that we offer to one another.

Being with my family for several days is a prime example of how painful and complicated love can be. We have all been impatient, unkind, envious, and proud with one another at some point.  I could go through the entire paragraph, but you get the idea.  Yet I have never questioned my love for my family or their love for me. It is the most enduring love that I have known and that I will know in this lifetime.

Perhaps it is my harsh superego and my perfectionism that tortures me with quotes like this one.  My demons turn what is supposed to be a helpful guideline for how to love into something that makes me feel inadequate and guilty. But I know that I am not the only one who feels this way.  I know many people who berate themselves and others for not being able to give and receive this kind of love.

The messages about love that have been most helpful to me are that God is love, and that we are to love our neighbor as ourselves.  I take this to mean that love for self, others, and God are all the same; you cannot truly experience one without the others.

This should come as no surprise to you if you have been following my blog, but for me the most difficult part is loving myself.  And this is often true for the people I see in therapy, too.  It helps to commit to loving myself when I think of it as a necessary part of the equation.  

Surprisingly, blogging has been an opportunity to experience this trinity of love.  As I have mentioned in a previous post, I started this blog with the intention of helping other people.  I was not expecting it to be a way of receiving help.  And I certainly wasn't expecting it to bring me closer to God.  Yet here is another post that ends with God.

Striving to give and receive this kind of love is still a tall order, but for me, it's a more hopeful goal than striving to love perfectly.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013


Over the past few weeks I have been praying for a way to take in what I love about Christmas. Singing Christmas songs.  The lights and decorations.  The food.  Having my entire family together. And reflecting on the significance of having our Savior born in the most humble beginnings.

I looked at the news headlines about the homily Pope Francis gave last night, and true to my prediction, it was a message of acceptance and forgiveness.  The quote that stood out to me was the reminder that Jesus was all-powerful but he made himself vulnerable for us.  There is great strength in vulnerability; it is His vulnerability that redeems us.

In this blog I have made myself vulnerable by sharing all of the thoughts and feelings that I usually keep to myself.  After writing my post on forgiveness and reading people's responses, that was the most vulnerable I have felt thus far.

People who have never been depressed do not realize what a dark place it is to be in.  For example, "normal" people can make themselves happier by practicing gratitude, by reflecting on people who are less fortunate than themselves, by counting their blessings.  The assumption is that sadness and gratitude are mutually exclusive.

When you are depressed, your demons turn this well-meaning advice into further evidence that you are a bad person for being depressed because you are not able to snap out of it, despite all the things you have to be thankful for.  So it is especially difficult to practice gratitude when you are depressed because it often makes you feel worse.

However, my spiritual guru is the Franciscan Priest Richard Rohr, and one of the most helpful things that he emphasizes is that spirituality is not either/or, as we tend to think in Western religions. It is not good or bad, right or wrong.  Spirituality is both/and.  So I can practice gratitude and still be depressed.  They can both be true, and that's OK.

Today I am already thankful for many things.  I am thankful that the party wasn't as overwhelming as I feared it would be.  That the homily last night had a message that was meaningful to me.  That I've had meaningful conversations with two of my brothers, and in a few hours my other brother and his family will be here.  I am thankful for the friends who have already sent me texts to wish me Merry Christmas.

And I am thankful for this blog.  I think God gave me this blog because He knew that these next few months would be difficult.  So He gave me a way to share my pain, to reach out to others, and to ask for help.  It really is true that making ourselves vulnerable may be the most powerful thing we can do to experience love and connect with other people.  I think that this is what Jesus would want us to experience most of all on His birthday.

So I am thankful to all of you who have taken the time to read my blog on Christmas Day.  And I thank my friend Sharon for giving me the cartoon below.

Monday, December 23, 2013


In Buddhism, one of my favorite meditations is the one on forgiveness.  In this meditation, you reflect on the 3 types of forgiveness:  asking forgiveness from those whom you have hurt, forgiving those who have hurt you, and forgiving yourself for self-harm.

As I mentioned in a previous post, because of my fear of going to hell, I have no problem asking for forgiveness for real and imagined sins.  I also do my best to forgive those who have hurt me because I believe it is a gift to myself to do so.  Sometimes the best I can do is to have the intention to forgive, but in Buddhism that is enough.

From my personal and professional experience, self-forgiveness is often the hardest one to practice. One of my parts is a judge who doles out punishments for non-existent crimes.  This is fairly common for people who struggle with depression and anxiety.

This weekend I had to repeatedly remind myself that it's not my fault that I'm depressed.  I cannot even articulate what I have done wrong, yet somehow I feel I have failed at something.  I didn't wake up early enough.  I went to bed too late.  I didn't make enough of an effort to ask for help.  I am being too needy.  I stayed too long in my previous relationship.  I'm not being forgiving enough or letting go of anger fast enough.

This is how the internal judge is: it can argue both ways, and either way it's your fault.

I think that one of the reasons that we neglect to practice self-forgiveness is that it's not emphasized as much as the other two.  For example, in the Our Father, we ask God to forgive us for our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.  I am certain that God would also want us to forgive ourselves, but there's no line in there explicitly giving us permission to do so.

But I am hopeful that this will change with Pope Francis.  I confess, I have never been excited about a pope before, but I believe that Pope Francis is an enlightened being.  I believe that Mandela was one, as well.  So it's only fitting that as one enlightened being leaves this world, God gives us another one to maintain equilibrium in the universe.  I am hopeful that we will hear more from him about acceptance and forgiveness and less about judgement and sin.

So take that, Judge!

I picked this doodle because it sort of looks like snow.

Saturday, December 21, 2013


I've been thinking about writing a post on angels, but since I've been feeling down it didn't really fit my state of mind.  But then "It's a Wonderful Life" happened to be on last night, so I took that as a sign that I should go ahead and write the post.

For a long time I wasn't sure what to believe about God.  I was raised Catholic, but a lot of the beliefs of the Catholic church were not consist with my idea of God.  Although Pope Francis is changing this, to some degree.

I read lots of different books to try to find God.  As I mentioned in a previous post, the books on Near Death Experiences (NDE) were the ones that were the most helpful.  For one thing, they are poorly written.  The authors have clearly never aspired to be writers, and often they didn't want to write the book at all.  So writing a book about their near death experience didn't seem like a ploy to get published.

The most convincing of these books was "My Descent into Death," by Howard Storm, because he went to hell before he went to heaven.  Who would admit to that?  Plus, throughout the book he continued to argue and complain to God and never seemed particularly pious, which made his account seem even more genuine.

Storm dedicates an entire chapter to angels at the end of his book.  I have always liked the idea of angels but did not realize they were so numerous and so involved in our lives.  I thought we might have a guardian angel and that there were a bunch in heaven, singing and rejoicing when we arrived, but that's about it.

Storm says that angels always want to intervene and help us but aren't allowed to do so unless God gives them permission.  And when people with NDE's come back to earth and are depressed about it, usually because they have sustained horrible injuries from their accident that take years to recover from, angels appear to them to give them encouragement.

Even research shows that praying for other people helps.  My theory is that when we pray for someone else, God allows angels to intervene.  So now most of my prayers include angels.  If I'm having a really hard time, I ask God to temporarily send me a few extra angels to get me through. Or if someone I know is suffering, I tell God to send that person one of my angels so they can have extra.

And of course, when UVA is losing, I occasionally resort to prayer and ask God to send an angel to help them win.

The winter is always a hard time for me, because most forms of depression are affected by lack of sunlight.  Plus I am still getting used to being alone and having to be proactive if I want to see anyone, and I don't have much energy to do so.  And this holiday I don't have a lot planned to look forward to. Ordinarily, even if I'm feeling depressed, I can still get into Christmas.  But not this year.  I haven't even bought my gifts yet, and usually I am compulsively early about everything.

But there's still time, and I'm hopeful that at some point something will kick in and I will be able to embrace the holidays with the enthusiasm that I apply to all of the things I love.  At least that's what I pray for.

And if you believe in angels, feel free to ask God to send a couple of extras my way.

Photo courtesy of Jennifer Harvey Frye

Thursday, December 19, 2013

In Times of War

I find it fascinating to read accounts of the things people do to survive in times of war.  I will never forget reading this memoir of a refugee from Korea.  She described how one mother threw her baby in the river while she was fleeing.  That has become my symbol of survival at all costs--throwing your baby in the river.

One of the things I love about tennis is that you get to see what people would be like in times of war.  Competition can bring out the best and worst in people.  There are tennis players like Federer and Nadal, who are warriors but also class acts on and off the court.

And then there are players who couldn't be nicer off the court, but get them in a losing match and you've got rackets, curse words, and insults flying everywhere.  They question every line call.  They cheat.  They resort to gamesmanship.  They do whatever it takes to win.  You probably know some of these people.  I have no doubt that in a war, these people would have a better chance of surviving than I would.

But I also read this book called The Noonday Demon where the author interviewed people all over the world to get different perspectives on depression.  One of the interviews was with this tribe that fought bitterly in a civil war to survive, but once the war was over many of them committed suicide. 

Apparently, the things you have to do to survive make it hard to live with yourself after you've won.

I try to play with people who are competitive but are still the same person on and off the court.  That's why in my mixed doubles partner ad, I said I wanted a partner who demonstrates good sportsmanship, has a positive attitude, and never stops fighting for the win.  I want to win, but most importantly, I want to be around people whose company I enjoy.

I think that for the most part, I am the person I strive to be on the court.  In fact, I find it easier to be the person I want to be in tennis than I do in real life.  But because I don't want to win at all costs, combined with the excessive empathy problem, I'd probably reduce my chances of survival by doing something like helping someone who has no chance of making it.

But then again, we never know how things are going to turn out.  We don't know if we're going to win or lose, survive or perish--because all the factors aren't in our control.  So I try to make choices that I can live with, regardless of the outcome.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013


I have always found it strange that you can be so close to someone that you know all their habits, quirks, and life history, and then you break up and you have nothing to do with them.

Before, you knew what they're schedule was for the day, what they ate for breakfast, what deep and meaningful thoughts they've had, if any.  Now you don't know anything because you're not there anymore, sharing the same space, sleeping in the same bed.

But you also find out that you didn't know the person as well as you thought.  The process of breaking up itself teaches you things about your partner--how they deal with loss, how important you are, how hard they'll fight for something they believe in.

To me, the saddest thing of all is how cruel the other person can be in the breaking up process.  How they can act like someone who never loved you at all.  As though you had never made vows to spend the rest of your lives together.  Suddenly they can become a person who despises you and your sadness.

I've had the good fortune of not being broken up with in this way, but I have to admit, I understand why people do it.  Personally, I preferred the passive approach.  I always had an exit strategy--a guy who conveniently fell in love with me and could help me leave.  A guy whose needs I could focus on to drown out the pain of hurting the other person.

It's shameful to admit, and it's so inconsistent with the person I see myself as being, the person that I strive to be.  But there it is, example after example of exit strategies in my relationship history.

In my second marriage, I toyed with anger and exit strategies, but in the end I decided that I was going to have to stay in the relationship until I could leave in a respectful way.  I had to find a way to be loving to both of us, or I wasn't allowed to leave at all.

I am proud that I did at least honor that commitment.  But I can see why people don't leave in this way.  It's easier to vilify the person to justify why you've left.  Much easier than it is to hurt a good person who didn't do anything to deserve it.

This is the hardest part of the empathy/pick me thing.  Because no matter what happens, you're still going to get hurt.  To this day, it still makes me cry, even as I write this, knowing that I caused him pain.  I think I might even be sadder about it than he is at this point.

The only consolation I can find is that if you at least try to leave in love rather than hate, you minimize whatever pain is in your control.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013


Sometimes you can have too much empathy.

One of the reasons why it seems like I want to save the world (which I don't--just the people I've met) is because I can feel other people's pain as though it were my own.  When they are hurting, I'm hurting. So it's really for selfish reasons that I help other people; I don't like being in pain.

When I worked in day care after I graduated from college, the children who had the most difficult time adjusting were the ones who were attached to me.  In case you are worried about your children being in day care, rest assured that there were some kids who loved it so much that they didn't want to go home. 

But not these kids.  These were the kids who cried from the moment their parents dropped them off until they picked them up in the afternoon.  And this would go on for weeks.  It actually drove me crazy.  I didn't feel positively towards them at all.  Which is why I could never understand why they were attached to me.

Now I think it's because I could feel their pain, so I would break the rules and hold them all day because it's the only thing that comforted them.  And it turns out that being held is one of the best ways to soothe people.  So next time you're feeling upset, ask for a hug from someone you care about.  Or do something that feels like a hug, like take a warm bath or wrap yourself up in a blanket.

Sometimes I feel like I'm a receiver that picks up the emotional equivalent of radio waves.  I'm bombarded by all of these feelings, all the time.  Sometimes I don't even know where they're coming from.  I wish I could just turn the receiver off every now and then, or at least turn down the volume.  Anything to have some relief from the constant noise.

The best solution I've been able to come up with is the yes and no thing: yes to what I want, no to what I don't want.  I need to choose the people who I'm around more carefully.  If it's someone who doesn't take responsibility for dealing with their own feelings, I need to stay away.  I can barely deal with my own feelings.

It sounds cold and calculated, but I always tell clients that if it comes down to you and someone else, you have to pick you, because there's no guarantee that anyone else will.

So from now on, I'm going to try to pick me.

Photo courtesy of  Maria Roman

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Q & A

Since no one asked me any questions in my recent blog survey, I thought I would just make up some questions and answer them, because I like to pretend I'm being interviewed.  Who knows?  Maybe I will be interviewed one day.

Q:  Do you ever worry that your clients are going to read your blog and decide that you're too crazy to be their therapist?

A:  Yes.  All the time. 

In fact, I recently found out that a parent of one of my clients read my blog on perfectionism, and for a moment it made me reconsider this whole blogging thing.  But she didn't tell her daughter to transfer, so that was encouraging.  I've had clients transfer to other therapists before, so if they decided to transfer after reading my blog, I guess I can live with that.  You can't be all things to all people.  Although I do still try to be.

Q:  Are the posts where you write about different parts of yourself based on any particular theory?

A:  The idea of conceptualizing our problems into separate parts of ourselves actually comes from two of my favorite theories: narrative therapy and internal family systems therapy.  In narrative therapy, a mental disorder is conceptualized as an entity separate from the client.  This helps the client and family stay focused on treating the problem rather than blaming the client for not getting better.  "Life without Ed," by Jenni Schaefer, is one of the most well-known books that illustrates how this therapy works with eating disorders.

Internal Family Systems therapy is the other form of treatment that focuses on parts of the client.  The main premise is that these parts have become extreme in their efforts to help the person.  So for example, the inner critic tries to motivate you to do your best, but in an eating disorder this may mean starving yourself to be thin enough.  So in working with this part, you acknowledge that it has good intentions and try to come up with other ways that it can be helpful.  Ordinarily, we just feel overwhelmed by self-loathing, so this is a much better alternative.

I think the idea of parts can be useful for anyone as a way to have self-compassion and self-acceptance of the aspects of ourselves that we don't like.  Usually these parts have a sort of archetypal feel to them, which is why people have the experience of thinking exactly like I do.  The reality is, this is how everyone thinks.  It's just that no one wants to admit it because they're afraid that it means they're crazy.

Q:  Have you ever suffered from a mental illness?

A:  Yes.  I struggle with anxiety all the time.  In fact, I have been so consistently anxious all my life that I didn't realize that it was severe enough to be a disorder until after I got my Ph.D. 

I am also prone to depression and had a fairly severe episode at the same time my dad did about 4 years ago.  The other severe bout of depression that I had was when I was 18, and that was the last time my dad was depressed, too.  I've had a lot of less intense episodes of depression, as well.  I probably had dysthymia (a more chronic, lower grade depression) from the age of 13 until I started meds for the first time, which was when I was about 30.

I have to do a lot to make sure that I don't trigger anxiety and depressive episodes, which is why I obsess so much about sleep, eating, exercise, meds, relaxation, etc.  Sometimes it doesn't matter what I do, because sometimes life is just stressful and overwhelming.  But it is scary when I start feeling like I'm going back to that dark place.  Particularly with depression.  When I'm feeling anxious I can take an Ativan and that's often enough.  When I'm depressed, there's sometimes nothing I can do in the moment to feel better.  I can see why people self-medicate with alcohol and other drugs.  It is very painful to be depressed.

Q:  You mention that you want to turn your blog into a book.  What would the book be about?

A:  My plan is to blog until I have 100 posts.  Then I'll pick the most popular posts and turn them into longer anecdotes. That way, even if someone has read my entire blog, they would still have a reason to buy the book.  A book would allow me to reach even more people, because then I'd get to make public appearances and have more visibility. 

Although I am surprised at how much these posts are helping people already.  And if it turns out that I never get my book published, I will reach more people through this blog than I could ever reach through individual therapy alone. Plus blogging is a gift to myself, so I will continue to blog no matter what happens.

But I will get my book published, even if I have to do it myself.

Saturday, December 14, 2013


Last night we had our 2nd Annual Charlie Brown Christmas Party.  The party was named after last year's tree, which looked like this:
This year the tree was more normal looking but my friends were more comedic, as you can see in this picture:

We even had prizes for Christmas attire:  Ugliest sweater, Most Festive, and Prettiest Sweater.  Guess which person won each prize from the picture below:

I am so thankful to have such good friends.

In my first marriage my husband and I were everything to each other--just like in love songs and romantic movies--but we didn't have many friends.  Perhaps at some level we feared that if we told people what our relationship was really like, they would see how fragile our marriage was.

I believe that lessons are often learned from tragedy, pain, and hardship--particularly lessons you don't want to learn.  What I learned from that relationship is that no single person can be everything you need.  And when you lose that person who has tried to be your everything, you are left with nothing. 

So I vowed never to allow myself to be that socially isolated again, and I have done a pretty good job of honoring that commitment.  In addition to playing and captaining all of those tennis teams, I also organize most of our social events and play the MC at the parties, making sure that our time is evenly spent between eating, singing karaoke, and playing board games. 

However, I am still more inclined to play the role of therapist with my friends than friend in need.  And I use all the same excuses that my clients use for not asking for help:  I am a burden, a broken record, a person whose feelings may be too much for other people to handle.  A person who is too needy, too demanding.

I've spent today the way I spend most Saturdays--tired and alone.  I did text a few friends.  And I talked to my brother.  And I'm writing this blog post.  So I'm trying to reach out.  But it will always be more natural for me to help than to be helped.

Perhaps whenever I have doubts about whether my friends want to be there for me, I can look at the deranged elf pictured above and remind myself that only someone who cared deeply about me would pose for a picture that can be posted for all the world to see.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Blogging is My New Boyfriend

I always tell people that tennis is my one true love.  It's the only relationship where if there are problems it's all my fault.  How can tennis be wrong?  But recently I've become a two-timer:  blogging is my new boyfriend.  And I am immersed in it with all of the obsessive frenzy that I apply to any relationship.

When I first started playing tennis again about 12 years ago, I played 4-5 times a week--sometimes several times a day--and even more in the summer when I'm off.  I captain and play every league.  I play tournaments.  I went to the US Open in August.  My TV is almost always on Tennis Channel.  I love Roger Federer.  The list goes on and on.

I love everything about the game.  It's the only exercise I can motivate myself to do and wake up in the morning for.  I love the competitive aspect and I love trying to get better at it.  I've met almost all of my close friends through tennis, and they have become like a second family.

But since I started blogging a few months ago, I spend every free moment thinking about it in some way.  In the morning I check my stats to help me wake up.  I love that it gives me a reason to write and that I'm achieving my goal of helping people feel better about themselves.  I even like the challenge of the business aspect of it--learning more about social media, promoting my blog.

And there are rewards that I didn't anticipate.  I didn't expect that I would get so much benefit from writing about my problems and that I would receive so much support in doing so.  I didn't think I would get to have a relationship that is all about me.  I didn't expect that I would connect to other bloggers--that I would look forward to their posts, and they would look forward to mine. 

I never expected that starting a blog would be such a great investment in myself.

The funny thing is that for the longest time, my demons would keep me from writing because they'd be sitting there telling me how much I sucked every time I tried.  So I would just write in my journal because I didn't care what it sounded like, but the content was so mundane.

Recently I was looking at my journal entries from this past summer.  I had written over and over about how much trouble I was having with sleep and how writing about it wasn't helping me become a writer at all.  And then my first post was about sleep.  And it turns out that lots of random subjects became posts.

So it really is true that it helps to write, regardless of whether you think you're accomplishing anything.  You never know where your writing might take you.

I have never considered myself an athlete, and my dad sucked the joy out of tennis when I was younger, so falling in love with it was a pleasant surprise.  But I always knew I wanted to be a writer.  It's harder to pursue something that you care about because the consequences of failing are so much greater. 

But I have always said that I can't fail if I never stop trying.  I am thankful that my effort and determination has paid off in this relationship.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Yes and No

Being alone isn't as bad as I thought it would be.  Relationships are an area where I take on challenges without asking myself whether it is worth the effort, so it's a nice change of pace to have energy to expend on myself. 

When I was in school, the reason why I was a good student is that I did what teachers told me to do.  It never occurred to me that not doing the reading or homework and not studying were an option.  I also try to fulfill my job responsibilities because I'm afraid that if I make one mistake I'll get fired.  

I think it's partly due to my Catholic upbringing.  I'm a rule-follower to begin with, but I also fear that if I break the rules I will go to hell.  If I call a ball out, I'm afraid I'll go to hell because I wanted the point so badly.  So usually I just call everything in, which is sometimes to my advantage because my opponent wasn't expecting to play a ball that was a foot out.

I used to have this prayer where I would ask God to forgive me for all my sins, intentional and unintentional, because I thought, what if I've sinned and I didn't realize it?  Then I couldn't ask for forgiveness and I might go to hell.  So I figured this prayer covered all the bases.

Most of my relationships weren't of my choosing.  If someone liked me, I would date him because I thought that would make him happy.  Feeling ambivalent was not a good enough reason to say no because my feelings didn't count.  And it's hard for me to end relationships because I'm not allowed to hurt anyone.  Although I often ended up hurting them, anyway.

This is also the reason I became a psychologist and feel compelled to save the world.  If someone is hurting, then it's my job to help them if I'm able to do so.  It doesn't matter if I want to do so, whether I like the person or not, how stressed I am, or how much energy I have to expend.

My superhero family members also share this sentiment, as I mentioned in a previous post.  They are even more extreme in terms of putting other people's needs first, even if it hurts them.  So I really haven't had good role models for setting limits.

But thanks to this blog, I'm beginning to set limits.  I've quit that crazy writing job where I was spending 10-12 hours on articles that gave the most superficial advice possible for $25.  I ended a relationship and am learning to be alone.  I have narrowed down my extra-curricular activities to tennis, knitting that dress for my niece, and writing/promoting my blog.  Which is still a lot, but it's an improvement for me.

My new rule is to say yes to what I want and no to what I don't want.  I said this 3 years ago, but sometimes it takes awhile to do what you know you need to do.  So I'm trying not to beat myself up about that. 

So from now on, it's yes and no.  Hopefully.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Audience Participation

So I read this blog about blogging, and it said that in order to be successful you need to find out what your audience wants and give it to them.  I'm good at giving people what they want, but as you know if you have been following my blog, I'm bad at receiving feedback, so I've been avoiding it.  But if I'm going to be a writer I guess I better get used to it!

Plus I'm trying to get to 50 blogs by the end of the year and this counts as one, even though it's short!

I'm starting to get a better sense of which posts are popular.  I try to make them high quality, short, and personal.  But I could give a more professional perspective occasionally and include more theory and research if people wanted that. 

Also, do people prefer the funny ones?  The serious ones?  Does the length matter?  I was worried that the grief one was too long and I didn't think it was that good but it turned out to be a lot of people's favorite.  In fact, that's the one that prompted me to ask people what they like because I was completely wrong about how that post would be received.

And about visual aids.  If my child-like doodles and family pictures are getting old, do you have suggestions for other original visual aids that I could also try to include?  In fact, if you have photos/drawings/art work that you would like to submit and have me include in my blog, I would totally give you credit for them!  I know some of you are artists!

Also, do you have any suggestions of how I should post the blogs on FB so that they stand out when you're quickly scanning through your news feed?  Is the gigantic shot of my head effective?  Or are the doodles better?  Do the psychological tactics work?  Does it help if I tell you what the blog is about?  Or are you such a loyal reader that it doesn't matter what I do; you will dutifully seek out my blog and read my latest post?

I am ambivalent about whether I want to try to make money off my blog.  How would you feel if ads suddenly appeared on my blog?  Would that scare you?  Would it be a turnoff?  I would be sure to warn you before it happened!

Finally, if there are enough questions, I will include a Q&A post.  So feel free to ask me about anything you'd like to know more about from my blogs or my life, psychological questions, or even random things that you have questions about.  For example, I know who is going to win the Heisman this weekend, in case you're interested.

Feel free to comment on this post, send me an email, or use FB to respond.  But don't tweet me because I still have no idea what I'm doing on Twitter.  In fact, can you even tweet a specific person?  This is why I haven't been using my account.


Tonight I went to the memorial for the student who was killed in the car accident a week ago.  I didn't know the student and wanted to have a better sense of who she was and to feel more of the grief that the community is experiencing. 

Handling crises is my least favorite part of my job. I don't do well with things like grief.  My emotions are naturally very intense even at baseline, so when there's a crisis, I shut down.  I guess this is my brain's way of protecting me from being overwhelmed by my feelings.  In a way it's helpful, since I need to be there for the students, but sometimes I'm afraid I'm so emotionally removed that it's affecting how much support I can provide.

I do feel bad for the parents.  I don't have children but I can imagine how hard it would be to lose a child, how unnatural and unfair that is.  I wonder if they will celebrate Christmas this year, and if Christmas will ever be a happy time for them again. 

And I feel bad for the driver.  He may go to jail for drunk driving, and for the rest of his life he will have to live with the burden of her death.  I hope that he finds a way to forgive himself for what happened and find peace.

Often my friends on FB will post something on the birthday of a loved one who has died and say how the sadness never goes away.  It's daunting to imagine living with never-ending pain--a hole in your heart that never gets filled.  That's why death scares me so much.

For awhile I was really into books about near-death experiences.  I think I read them as a way to be OK with the idea of death.  I found comfort in reading that all of the people who went to heaven and came back to earth thought heaven was so great that they were depressed when they didn't get to stay. 

My favorite part of these books is where they describe how entering heaven is like a pep rally where all of these people, including your loved ones, are there cheering you on and welcoming you.  I don't know if you get to pick your job when you're in heaven, but I think I would be an awesome greeter.  That makes the idea of dying a little easier, too.

The biggest loss I've experienced so far is losing my first husband.  He didn't die but we are not in contact and he does not wish to have a relationship with me, so it's been like a death to me.  

I know I'm probably taking this too literally, but sometimes I wonder, if it's really true that your loved ones greet you when you get to heaven, would he be there to greet me, since we're no longer married?  Or would he just be there for his second wife when she dies?  I imagine that when you are in heaven you can be in two places at once and you don't have to choose which loved ones you will be with like you have to do on earth.

Even though it's been almost 10 years since we've been apart, I still miss him.  We shared so much together that every day I encounter something that triggers a memory of him.  But at the same time, I am happy with my life and feel fortunate that I will get to know more people than I would have if we had stayed married.  So it's possible to be happy and sad at the same.  It's possible to miss someone but still go on with your life.

I guess since we all experience losses throughout our lives, these losses just become a part of who we are.  I have always felt that if I had to do my life all over again, I wouldn't change anything, because every mistake and every loss has played a role in the person I have become.

Plus I believe that our task in this lifetime is to experience what it means to be human, and suffering and death are a part of the package.  Often in therapy clients want me to take away their pain, and I have to tell them that I can't, but I am willing to sit with them while they are hurting.  I guess that is the best gift we can give to anyone who is grieving.  So at least I'm getting that part right.

This is my favorite doodle because it looks like a magical land, like Oz, minus the yellow brick road.

Saturday, December 7, 2013


Remember how I said I was following all the stress management guidelines and still feeling overwhelmed?  Well that day there was a car accident with 11 students involved, 1 who died and 3 who are still in critical condition.  The entire college community is grieving, and we have been slammed at the counseling center.   

Every day, multiple times a day, I preach the importance of self-care, which includes:
  • Sleep: I get at least 6 hours but could use more.
  • Eating:  I never skip a meal and eat relatively healthy.
  • Exercise:  I try to play tennis 3x/week and stretch before bedtime.
  • Down Time:  I give myself plenty of down time.  One of the perks of living alone.
  • Putting your needs first:  I am terrible at this. 
In my defense, most helping professionals are pathologically helpful and run the risk of burnout.  In fact, if there were an award for Most Likely to Help Other People Until You Collapse, the physicians in my family would be competing for first place.

I forced my dad to read the blog about him, and after he read it he admitted that spending decades on call 24-7, covering every physician who went out of town over the holidays while we stayed home, probably contributed to his depression.  When my dad was sick, my mom saw both of their patients and took care of my dad.  My brother recently had sinus surgery and was told to take off at least a week from work but went back after 3 days.

So relatively speaking, I'm actually a slacker in my family.

I have been feeling the loss of not having someone to come home to, someone who I can talk about my day with.  I have made an effort to reach out to friends, and they have been incredibly helpful, but it doesn't take the place of having that person who knows everything that's going on with you on a day-to-day basis, whether they want to or not. 

So I'm doing what I can to take care of myself.  I went to dinner with friends last night.  I was dead tired but it was a rare opportunity to see my tennis mom, who recently abandoned me by moving to South Carolina.  She reminded me of the hazards of my "save the world" mentality.  I defended myself by saying that I'm not trying to save the world--just the people I meet.  It just so happens that I'm meeting a lot of people right now.

And I'm going to a movie tonight after I go into work to facilitate a debriefing session.  I'm a little worried about being too drained afterwards but I'm making an effort to do something other than sit at home alone all weekend.

And I'm writing this blog.  This is the one place where everything gets to be about me.  I get to talk as much as I want without being interrupted, there are people who are interested in what I have to say, and the feedback is almost always positive.  And for this I am thankful.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Children, Part 2

I babysat for my niece over the Thanksgiving break, which was tiring but a lot of fun.  I never had a sister growing up but really wanted one, so it's fitting that Sadie likes to pretend that we're sisters.  I told her about Sophie and she wasn't phased at all.  I guess kids don't think it's crazy when you tell them that you have an inner child because so much of their play revolves around their imagination.

Sadie has recently discovered that she's a really good singer, so we started off the day belting out country songs and show tunes on Youtube during breakfast. The song "Tomorrow" has been running through my head for over a week now.  I promised Sadie I would wake up early so the singing started around 7:30 a.m. while I drank my coffee and tried to wake up.

Then, because snow is a rare occurrence in Knoxville, we went sledding in the back yard.  I was never big on sledding even as a kid so I was not expecting this to be much fun but it turned out to be a blast.  I usually try to get exercise by playing tennis or obsessively counting steps, but it's much more fun if you do it by playing, like kids do.  So I counted that as my workout for the day.

After that I took Sadie shopping to buy her very first Christmas gifts with her own money. It was sweet and hilarious to see how excited she was about it.  Not only was this a good lesson in altruism, but it also taught her the value of money.  By the last gift she realized that she didn't have enough to buy a My Pretty Pony or whatever those things are called, so she asked me to buy it for her since she'd been so generous.  How could I say no to that?

We treated ourselves to lunch at the Cheesecake Factory and shared the pumpkin cheesecake.  Which was awesome!  When we got home I helped Sadie wrap her gifts and drank more coffee.  I was still really tired by then so we watched Brady Bunch episodes until her parents came home.  At which point she made them open their Christmas gifts and told them that she bought them with her own money but now she didn't have any left.  They reassured her that she would probably get more money for Christmas. 

I took a nap shortly after their arrival.

One of the less intuitive findings on happiness is that having children does not make people happier on a day-to-day basis, but parents believe that children make them happier to justify all of the hard work in raising them.  Sort of like the principle behind hazing as a way to bond with your fraternity.

I'm not sure I buy that explanation.  Having children isn't about happiness.  It's about love.  And love doesn't always make you happy.  In fact, sometimes it makes you miserable.  But when you choose to love someone, you do it because you want to experience the full range of what it means to be human--even the negative stuff.  And children definitely allow you to experience that full range.

I wrote this blog post because Sadie asked me to write another one about her last week but I never got around to it.  Here is a picture of her modeling her sledding attire.

And here is Sophie's drawing of Sadie and me.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Stress Management

Sometimes stress management is stressful.

Apparently, it is possible to follow all of the guidelines for reducing your stress and still be so overwhelmed that you can barely function.  In fact, if stress management were a course, it would be the kind where I was going to all of the classes and doing all of the homework and extra credit and still failing the tests.  Which is a C for me, but still.  All that work should be getting me an A.

I am still sick, which really pisses me off.  It's been almost two weeks now.  I know that I cannot control how much rest my body needs to recuperate, but being exhausted is making it hard to do my job, play tennis, and enjoy life in general.  Usually I am the kind of person who is singing Christmas carols in July, but right now the thought of getting out the 5 Christmas ornaments I was going to put up throws me into a panic and I can't think about it.

And I know you're not supposed to compare yourself to other people, but it makes me feel inadequate to think of all of those people out there who have spouses and kids in addition to jobs.  And they probably cook dinner for their families and keep their homes clean and get all of their errands done, even when they're sick.  And they're still better tennis players than me!

This is why therapists still need a therapist.  Because even if you know the answers, it's different when someone else says them to you.  It's different when someone else says It's OK that you're still sick.  It's not your fault.  It doesn't make you weak.  It doesn't make you a failure.  I can say those things all day long to clients and mean it, but I can't give myself permission to believe it.

It does help to keep a journal.  That's one way of gaining perspective.  Sometimes I'll look at entries where I was depressed and anxious and berating myself for not having a legitimate reason to feel this way--even though I tell clients that you don't need to know the reason why for your feelings to be legitimate. 

And then when I read about all the stuff that was going on at that point in my life, I think, what the?  Why in the world did I think that going on vacation with my anxious mom and depressed dad and having my boyfriend's ex-wife attempt suicide and leave him with custody of his ADHD son were not good enough reasons to be anxious and depressed?!

That's another reason why it helps to talk to someone objective:  sometimes you can't see the reason, even if it's obvious to everyone else.

I guess I've had unrealistic expectations about what stress management can accomplish.  At some level I assumed that if I took all of the correct steps to manage my stress, then I would be stress-free, even though my life has never been stress-free.  In fact, I seek out challenges because if something is too easy (i.e., not stressful), then it's boring.  I choose to work with people with psychological problems.  I captain 5 tennis teams a year!  Nobody does that when they're trying to live a stress-free life.

So maybe I need to have another goal.  I'll have to think some more about what that goal should be.  For now, maybe I can just have the goal of not beating myself up for being stressed out.  That would definitely be a good start.