Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Moving to WordPress

I have moved my blog over to WordPress, so I hope you follow me over there!  My new address is normalintraining.com. If you are signed up via email or RSS feed, be sure to sign up on my new account.  Thanks!

Monday, September 1, 2014

Sensitivity

I am reading The Secret Life of Bees for book club, and I love it! I know it's old, but in our last meeting we discussed which books made us wish we could spend more time with the characters, and one of the members mentioned this one. I can see why. I love all of the characters, too. Well, maybe not June so much. She's a little too guarded for me. Although I wish I could be more like August, the matriarch of the sisters, I am actually more like May--the fragile one who feels other people's pain too deeply. Not as deeply as she did, thank goodness. But more so than I would like sometimes.

On the one hand, I recognize that it is a gift to have such a keen sense of empathy. I know I have helped a lot of people because of it. But I am also easily thrown off balance when the people I care about are in pain--especially since I am also prone to depression and anxiety. I have always assumed this meant that I was weak. Fragile. Too sensitive.

I spent time with my brother this weekend--the only one of the four siblings who does not have a mood disorder. In talking to him, it was clear that he does not experience his feelings as intensely as I do. He does not get his feelings hurt very often. He is better able to maintain distance from family drama, and his advice really is to tell them to suck it up.

I envy him for this, but I cannot be him. I can only be me. I feel things intensely. My feelings get hurt easily. And when someone is in pain, I feel what they feel and try to help them, even if it hurts me.

But rather than berate myself for it, I am learning to accept that this is who I am. We all have different vulnerabilities. Some people may be prone to heart disease. Other people have diabetes. I am a hyperempath with depression and anxiety. Therefore, I have to be sure to take care of myself in certain ways: make alone time a priority, set boundaries, and be more selective about who I spend time with.

I used to joke that I'm not trying to save the world--just the people that I meet. But perhaps I will have to narrow down my scope in my life-saving efforts, too.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

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!

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Choices

When it comes to money, my mom and dad are on the opposite ends of the spectrum. My dad loves to buy things and does so often and freely with no regard for cost. My mom, on the other hand, doesn't buy something unless it's "half of half of half" off. Depending on the day, I can be on either end of the spectrum, but most of the time I am more like my mom. As a result, my relationship with money is plagued with anxiety and guilt.

For example, when my ex and I were at the airport on the way to our honeymoon, I bought a neck pillow because we had a long flight ahead of us. It had one of those tags that they have on mattresses that you aren't supposed to remove under penalty of law, but it was annoying me, so I ripped it off, anyway.

Apparently this law exists for a reason, because after I ripped it off, all of those little white things started coming out of the gigantic hole I had created and were spilling all over the place. I had to throw the darn thing away. I was distraught about destroying my pillow less than 5 minutes after purchasing it and wasting $15. It was only fitting that I should have to spend the next 10 hours on the plane with an unsupported neck.

While I was berating myself for my obsessiveness, my ex bought another neck pillow and snuck behind me and put it around my neck. Unlike me, he did not obsess over buying stuff. This became a source of many arguments later, but at the time it was a sweet and loving gesture. He was not great with words, but this one action said everything I needed to know: it's OK by me that you're obsessive, and you still deserve a neck pillow.

When memories like these pop up, it activates the same cycle of thoughts. Am I doing the right thing? Is there anything more I could do to make things work? I go through the scenario of what it would be like if we got back together, and I always come to the same conclusion: things would be exactly as they were before.

I wish choices could be more clear-cut, like on a test. But life isn't like school: answers are rarely 100% right or wrong. I have to remind myself that with any decision, there are things that I will lose. I can't make the perfect choice. I cannot escape the sadness of having to give up the good parts of our relationship.

Memories like this one make me want to cry. But at the same time, I am also thankful. Even if things didn't work out, he was a good guy. He was a good choice for many reasons. And even as we finalize our divorce, he continues to be kind and helpful. Not many people can say that at the end of a relationship.

Monday, August 25, 2014

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

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Positively Selfish

One of the hazards of working in the helping professions is burnout. People who are drawn to helping others run the risk of giving too much of themselves. In my case, however, I run the risk of burnout in my personal relationships more so than I do at work.

There are a lot of advantages to working in a counseling center. Even though you don't make as much money, you have access to a lot of resources that you don't have in private practice. I have colleagues, the student health center, deans, RA's, and peer counselors who share the load. The most stressful periods of my job are predictable and time-limited: they occur around the middle of the semester and end around finals week. There are boundaries that are built into our schedule, as well. Appointments are 50 minutes long at the most. We don't schedule clients past 5 pm or on the weekends. Students go home for breaks. We don't see students after they graduate.

My personal life is a different story. Many of the people I love have emotional needs that they expect me to fulfill. Appointments are not time-limited. I am on call 24-7. I usually cannot terminate these relationships, nor do I want to. I have a hard time saying no to whatever they ask of me. And in many cases, I do not feel I am getting back as much as I am putting into the relationship because their emotional resources are more limited than my own. Which is not their fault. It's just unfortunate for me.

That is part of the reason why I want a hiatus from loving and caring for anyone or anything new. No dating. No pets. Just me and my plants. I'm burned out; I want a more solitary job in my personal life.

I was telling my therapist the other day how this makes me feel selfish. She told me that I'm being honest with myself--more authentic. That we need another word that conveys positive selfishness. Which is kind of sad, really. What does it say about our culture that there would be no word for a healthy focus on oneself?

She nominated the word selful. Full of oneself, but in a good way. More like being whole. But it doesn't roll off the tongue the way selfish and selfless do. Plus it looks weird. So I am open to suggestions.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Darkness and Light, Part 2

I am deeply saddened by Robin Williams' death. I love the roles he chose as an actor. He was a comedic genius. And he was full of life--a light that seemed to shine a little brighter than the average star.

As a psychologist, I don't have any special knowledge about why Robin Williams committed suicide. I wasn't there. I didn't know him personally. I wasn't his therapist. I do know that, no matter how well you think you know someone, it is difficult to fathom the depths of the darkness they live in. Because who wants to share that with other people? Who wants to burden other people with additional darkness? It's hard enough to deal with our own.

I also know what it's like to have multiple depressive episodes. My psychiatrist compared relapses to breaking your leg in the same place multiple times: with every break you become more vulnerable to injury; it takes a little longer to recover each time. 

My dad had 3 major depressive episodes. His last episode hit when he was 69 and lasted for almost 4 years. It was a tremendous amount of work for him--and my mom--to recover again. I know sometimes he didn't want to try. And I know he felt that way more often than he let on but tried to be strong for my benefit. 

In my last depressive episode, there were times when I wanted to give up, too. Well, it's not so much that I wanted to give up. It's more like the depression told me that I should. And in my weakened state of mind, it was hard to fight back. I am thankful that I was able to do so in the end. That was my 2nd major depressive episode. I'm trying to do everything within my power to prevent a third. 

What if Robin Williams had 5 or 6 depressive episodes? What if the demons of depression never took a break unless he threw himself into something like acting or drugs or alcohol? I don't drink and I have never used drugs, but if I had to live my life feeling the way I did at my worst, maybe I would. I don't know that I would have been any stronger. So I don't think it's fair to accuse Robin Williams of being weak. Clearly, based on his body of work, he was anything but weak. He was fighting it all the time.

I was also taken aback by the anger that some people felt about his suicide. But I don't judge them for it. I can understand why, if you have been personally affected by suicide, you would identify more with the people who are left behind and have to make sense of this loss for the rest of their lives. Fortunately, I have never been there, but if my dad had ever given in to his demons, I know I would have been devastated.

I think that people who see mental illness as a weakness, an excuse, or a nonexistent entity fear the darkness in themselves. They try to deny it in themselves and in others as vehemently as possible, lest it find a way to escape. But some of us don't have that luxury. We can't lock our depression in a closet and throw away the key; it is too powerful. It does not obey our will.

One positive outcome of having known that kind of pain is that it has deepened my compassion for others. It motivates me to alleviate whatever suffering I can in others. In my opinion, the people who know what it's like to live in darkness are the ones who are the most motivated to enlighten others. So if Robin Williams inspired more people to become light bearers, then that is at least one good thing that can come from this loss.

Dead Poets Society First saw this in 7th grade and it is still one of my favorite Robin Williams movies.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

The Paradox of Productivity

Have you ever noticed how you're actually more productive when you have less time?

I had grand plans for all of the stuff I was going to accomplish over the summer. I was going to crank out blog posts 3-4 times a week. Learn how to write a book proposal and a query letter. Find an agent.

I did skim through a book on writing non-fiction. I actually wrote fewer blog posts than I do when I'm at work because I didn't have very many deep and meaningful thoughts over the summer. I pretty much only thought about my sleep cycle, tennis, and what I'm going to eat. You can only write so many posts about those topics.

I was going to get my jewelry business going again. I was obsessed with making jewelry several years ago and sold a lot of what I made. So I bought all these beads back in January and planned to make some new items over the summer. Take some pictures of them, even. Sell them on Etsy. The only thing I made were some earrings (the purple pair on the left) for my tennis team to match our uniform, but I didn't make any money. I just wanted my team to look cute!



I was going to knit more. I sell some of my jewelry and knitting at my friend's store, The Stitchin' Post, and my knitted items have sold the best, but it takes forever to make the things that I like. I was also going to knit this cute top for myself:


This is the picture from the pattern. I haven't finished mine yet. I've made it to the armholes, but by the time I finish it, I might only have a few weeks left of warm weather, because the top part looks pretty complicated.

I was going to get in better shape. Play more tennis. Add more low-impact cardio like riding my bike. Do some strength training. Throw in some yoga.

I tried to ride my bike, but I couldn't figure how to put the bike rack on. My ex was kind enough to help me do it, but then I couldn't load the bike onto the bike rack by myself. And it was going to take 2 weeks to take it to the shop to get a tune up. I bought something to lubricate the chain that was supposed to be easy to apply, but it still seemed too hard and messy to do by myself. In fact, the whole bike preparation experience made me feel so ill-prepared to live my life alone that I stopped trying because it was depressing me.

I did play tennis more, and I stretched almost every night, but that's about it.

I was going to read more books. I keep track of what books I read throughout the year, and I'm way behind from where I would ordinarily be. So I started reading more when I realized I only had a few weeks left before I had to go back to work. The only problem is, since I read on my iPad, the longer I read, the harder it was to fall asleep because of the back lighting. So then I had to read less so that I could fall asleep before 4 a.m.

All in all, I fell short on almost every goal. Perhaps I was being a tad unrealistic about what I could accomplish in 2 months.

Plus, when I have less time, I get more done because I have to make the most of every minute. Squeeze in a trip to the grocery store right after work, even if I'm tired. Write a blog post if I have a no show. Read a paragraph if my client is running late. When I have all the time in the world, I tell myself that I'll get stuff done eventually. No need to rush.

But I'm not feeling too bad about myself for falling short of my goals. It's good for me to set goals, not because I have to meet all of them, but because it gives me something to strive for. After all, isn't life more about the striving than the end result? At least that's what I tell myself to feel better.

Monday, August 18, 2014

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.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

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.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Good Fortune

Money can't buy happiness. Beauty is only skin deep. Age is just a number. It may be an illusion that wealth, beauty, and youth bring happiness, but I have to admit, sometimes it's still a convincing one.

Earlier this summer, when I was stranded in South Carolina waiting for my car to be fixed, I had the good fortune of staying with a friend from graduate school and her family. At the time, I had been on this kick about destiny, so her daughter recommended that I read Holes, by Louis Sachar. It's about a boy who is sentenced to work at a camp for delinquent boys for a crime he didn't commit. Although it didn't seem like it at the time, he was exactly where he was supposed to be. I was working hard to stay positive about my situation, so I wondered if my reading "Holes" was meant to be, as well.

I asked my young friend what else I should read, and she recommended Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, by Grace Lin. It's about a Chinese girl named Minli who goes on a long journey to try to change her family's fortune. In the end, she learns that family is the greatest fortune of all.

Every year my college friend and I have an Inner Child Reunion. During our first reunion a few years ago, I introduced her to Sophie and she realized that she had a part of herself that was not allowed to play. So we make it a priority to get together for a few days over the summer for an extended play date. This year we could not find a mutual time to meet, so she decided to bring her son and meet me at my brother's house because I had to babysit my niece. So it was a double reunion since she, my brother, and I all went to UVA.

As usual, my friend and I lamented over the very adult burdens of money, weight gain, and aging, but without the same level of obsessiveness as before. Perhaps it was because spending several days with 4 adults and 2 actual children, in addition to our inner children, left us with less energy for lamentations. Or perhaps it was because being together helped us to be more grateful for what we have.

I'm not gonna lie. We did not become enlightened beings over the past few days. We would still like to make a little more money, lose a little weight, and slow down the aging process. But we were also reminded that we are blessed to have family and friends who enjoy singing and recording "Let It Go" for hours on end, several days in a row. How many other people can say that? (I would post one of the videos but it's kind of embarrassing.)

Perhaps it is no coincidence that I finished "Where the Mountain Meets the Moon" last night, at the conclusion of our Inner Child/College Reunion. Grace Lin was right: gratitude brings good fortune.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Almost Whole

"Things that are broken can be made whole." That's my favorite line in Little Princes.

Conor Grennan did not volunteer at the orphanage in Nepal for religious purposes. When he decided to start a non-profit organization for the sole purpose of rescuing 7 of the orphans he met from drug traffickers, he still did not think he was doing God's will. But there were so many miraculous incidents that allowed him to succeed in his mission of finding these orphans, and their parents, and reuniting their families, that he decided to buy a Bible so that he could rediscover God.

This line was actually spoken by Conor's friend, Liz, who would eventually become his wife. She confessed to him that she was married and divorced by her mid-twenties. She felt so broken and ashamed at the time that she stopped going to church. She tells Conor that "God used that time of great sadness to reclaim me, to redeem me. Things that are broken can be made whole."

Isn't therapy, too, about making people whole? Isn't that what I'm trying to do with my blog? I have never thought of it in those terms.

I have always feared that there was something fundamentally wrong with me. Like I was born with some kind of crack in my foundation that becomes apparent whenever I make another mistake. My therapist said that perhaps these cracks are there to allow me to breathe. I didn't believe her when she said this, and I was annoyed that she was trying to turn my fundamental flaw into something positive. Those darn therapists! Always trying to see the positive side of things.

I signed and notarized the divorce papers a few days ago. Usually every step forward makes me cry, but this one did not. Not yet, at least. Maybe it was because I had it notarized by my tennis partner after our match and went to lunch with my team afterwards, which did not leave me any time for self-reflection. Or maybe I'm finally beginning to accept that this is the right thing for both of us.

In any case, I did not beat myself up for leaving or for failing to make things work, as I usually do. I did not let my inner critic tell me that this is what I deserve. I can't say that I am at peace with the whole thing, but I am further along than I was when I wrote the first post on divorce.

In this moment, I am focusing more on my blessings than my losses. Perhaps this means I am on my way to becoming whole.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Survival of the Fittest

I'm reading Little Princes, by Conor Grennan, and it's making me reflect on how poor my survival skills are.

It's about this guy who decides to volunteer in an orphanage in Nepal for 3 months to justify taking a year off to blow his savings and travel around the world. He ends up doing a lot more than that--reunites the kids with their parents, opens his own orphanage--which is both impressive and a little daunting.

One of the very first things that Conor describes is eating daal bhat with his host family. It is a dish made of rice and lentils and is very spicy. He suffers through a lot more than just eating a spicy dish, but that was enough for me to conclude that I am not fit to save orphans in Nepal. My GERD alone would lead to starvation, because this is what they eat for 90% of their meals.

Last year I was reading On Gold Mountain, by Lisa See, and there was one paragraph describing how families who were riding out west in covered wagons did not stop to pick up their kids when they fell out because they needed to make it out there before winter. That's the only thing I really remember from the book, even though it had very little to do with the story.

I had no idea that riding out west in a covered wagon was so dangerous. I always imagined that their biggest problem was entertaining themselves without movies and iPods and video games. I didn't realize they had to fight for survival. If I were alive back then, I think someone would have "accidentally" knocked me out of the wagon, what with my allergies and asthma and all. What good could I possibly be in anything that required sustained cardiovascular effort, like killing wild animals or chopping firewood?

I guess I don't have to volunteer in Nepal or be able to survive in a covered wagon, but these are the kinds of random things that my inner critic will use against me. The whole time I'm reading this book, it lectures me on how I should be tougher, stronger, and more altruistic like Conor. And I call myself a warrior. Puh! I don't think so.

I am always having to demonstrate to my inner critic why my life is worthwhile. I'm a psychologist. That's something. And I captain a bunch of tennis teams. People hate captaining, so that's doing something helpful. And I'm writing this blog, which is also helping other people. Isn't that enough to justify my existence?

I'd like to think that there are many ways to save the world. We aren't all fit to rescue orphans. Maybe some people focus on saving whales. Others minimize their carbon footprint. And some help the survival of our species by having children and raising a family.

And some people dedicate their lives to helping people practice self-acceptance. To helping people realize that they are worthwhile, regardless of what they can or can't do.

So take that, inner critic!

Friday, August 1, 2014

Hiatus

I have always prided myself on being open to love, even after heartbreak. I've met people who have closed off their hearts after being betrayed by their loved one, and while I don't judge them for their decision, it is not how I want to live my life. This is also why, although I've had partners who have been dishonest, I still choose to start off a relationship trusting the other person.

A few weeks ago, my therapist suggested that I consider getting a cat. She thought it would help to combat my loneliness and to discharge negative energy. As I mentioned in a previous post, I am not an animal person, but I, too, have considered getting a cat. But after talking to my friends about it and imagining what it would be like to have a cat here in my darkest moments, I have decided against it. For now, at least.

I realized after this deliberation process that I am not in a place where I am ready to love, take care of, or lose anyone or anything. I am not necessarily closing off my heart, but I still feel too vulnerable, too raw to be open to love at the moment.

I don't like the person I have been in relationships. In my most negative moments, my inner critic uses this against me as evidence that I deserve to be alone. I think it has more to do with the super-empath in me who identifies so much with how the other person feels, I cannot separate my wants and needs from theirs. I think that's one of the reasons I convinced myself that I loved people who loved me; I became what they needed me to be.

As cliche as it sounds, I really don't know who I am or what I want in a relationship. I am hoping that if I can be free from the wants and needs of others, I will eventually have a better sense of what my own wants and needs are. I have already been surprised by how much I enjoy my solitude--most of the time. How freeing it is not to have my mood be so tied to how my partner is feeling. My mood is all over the place as it is. I now realize how overwhelming it was when I felt everything for the two of us.

So I'm taking a long overdue hiatus from relationships. I am hoping this will lead to wiser decisions about matters of the heart. And if the hiatus ends up being longer than expected, I can always take my therapist's advice and adopt a cat.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Darkness and Light

Sometimes I feel like a less murderous version of Jekyll and Hyde. That's one of the reasons why it's so hard to get my sleep cycle under control.

I feel the most alive late at night. Before I go to bed I have all these ambitious plans for what I'm going to get done the next day. My mind is racing with ideas for my blog. It's all I can do to keep myself from starting a post at 3 a.m. But I can't, because I'll run the risk of staying up all night and reversing my sleep cycle. A big no-no when you struggle with depression. So I take drugs to force myself to fall asleep, even though I like this version of myself the best.

By morning that cheery, motivated version of me is replaced by this sullen person who prefers sleep over life itself. No amount of yelling, begging, or bribing can get her out of bed before she wants to. And even after she gets up, she's still in a bad mood for several hours. Why would anyone want to go to sleep at night if that's who you have to face the next day?

In Jungian psychology, Jekyll and Hyde is an example of the persona/shadow archetype. Jung argued that, although most people would prefer to identify with their persona, it is important to acknowledge our shadow in order to be whole. Dr. Jekyll is so horrified by his dark side that he commits suicide in order to destroy it--which is the exact opposite of being whole.

This blog is probably the first time that I've publicly acknowledged my shadow. And I have to say, it is the thing that people thank me for the most. Because it gives them permission to acknowledge their own darkness. It assures them that they are not the only ones who feel and think the way they do. So Jung has a point. Who would have thought that acknowledging one's darkness would be the thing that makes people feel the most connected to one another?

So maybe I shouldn't be so hard on that sullen person I will see when I wake up tomorrow afternoon. She's given me a lot of material for blog posts.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Guilt

I talked to my therapist last week. She gave me permission to stop feeling guilty about my sleep cycle. Told me that I have no reason to get up early, so I don't need to worry about it. That when I have to wake up, I will do so.

It helped some. Today I woke up early for a tennis clinic. But then I took a nap afterwards, which was well-deserved but still somewhat guilt-laden. But I'm writing a blog post now, to prove to my inner critic that I am not completely worthless.

Those quotes about letting go kind of annoy me. If guilt were something I could just let go of, I would have done so long ago. It's like telling someone who is anorexic to just eat. Put food in your mouth. Chew. Swallow. What's so hard about that? I envy those people who find it so easy to be free of their demons.

Therapists often ask clients what it is that they fear will happen if they let go. I guess I fear that without guilt, I really will become a terrible person. Someone who doesn't care if she hurts other people. Someone who is not living her life with integrity. Maybe I'll go too far in the other direction. I've done it before.

In Shame and Guilt, Tangeny and Dearing argue that guilt is a healthy emotion. It let's you know that you have done something wrong and motivates you to make amends, correct it. When you feel shame, however, you don't just feel like you've done something wrong; you feel like there is something fundamentally wrong with you. You are broken beyond repair. Shame leads people to lash out and project their faults onto others, or to lie and hide.

I guess I am somewhere in-between, because I worry that there is something wrong with me, but I am motivated--determined, even--to become a better person.

My latest strategy for coping with guilt about the past is to tell myself that I don't have to continue entertaining this memory. I can take it out of the rotation. Throw that record out. Or in more modern terms, remove it from the playlist. I have enough things to feel guilty about in the present without revisiting every mistake I've ever made in the past.

For whatever reason, it works. In part because I think it's funny, imagining myself tossing all these record albums behind me. It doesn't get rid of all of the guilt, but it creates some space in my head for more guilt-free thoughts. That's something.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Empathy, Part 2

I had an epiphany a few weeks ago. I realized that I don't have to like someone to have empathy for them.

That helps to explain why, when I worked in daycare, the toddlers who cried all day every day for weeks on end were attached to me. Because I picked them up and held them, which you weren't supposed to do. I didn't particularly like them at that point, because I didn't really get to know them until they stopped crying, but I couldn't stand it that they were in pain.

According to The Art of Empathy, empathy is not limited to human beings. You can have empathy for art, nature, music, books, and animals. This helps to explain another aspect of my behavior that I have always found puzzling. I am not a big animal lover, but I feel bad for animals when I think they're unhappy.

When I went to Busch Gardens in Florida, which has awesome habitats for animals because of its Africa theme, I did psychological assessments of all the animals. Most of them were happy. The otters swam right up to us to greet us. This hippo put on a show for us. The gazelles were happy because they didn't have to worry about predators attacking them. This hyena seemed downright neurotic, pacing back and forth right in front of the window. The gorillas seemed pensive and potentially depressed.

So maybe I'm not so crazy after all. Maybe that's just that one of the downsides of being a super-empath--it's hard to turn off that instinct to help others. If I meet a guy and he has one of those 4 impediments in a potential mate, I think, that's the guy for me! And the more impediments, the better. Even if don't like him that much. Even if he lies, which I detest.

From now on, my #1 criterion when I decide to date again is that I have to like the guy. Which would probably be an obvious pick for most people, but I can be a slow learner sometimes.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Honesty and Trust, Part 2

"You should know; you're a psychologist."

Sometimes I don't know. Sometimes I, too, am puzzled as to why people do the things they do.

I've been trying to make sense of why, despite my commitment to honesty, I remained in relationships with people who consistently lied to me. And I didn't even like them very much. I have this tendency to try to make relationships work at all costs, even when I don't like the person. Even when they do things that are inconsistent with my values, like lying. It's maddening.

One of my exes told me up front that he was a liar. Still, my first instinct was to believe him. It's too much work not to trust people, I think. But sometimes it was more costly to make myself believe that he was being honest. It's hard not to beat myself up for trusting a self-proclaimed liar. Why would anyone do such a crazy thing?

My best guess is that I stayed with these guys because I wanted to believe in the version of themselves that they were selling. It's who they wanted to be, and who I wanted them to be. I wanted to help them get there, even. You can do it! I have faith in you!

Plus, I knew they were lying because they were ashamed of who they really were. I was trying to do the whole unconditional positive regard thing that therapists do. Because that is the most healing gift that we can give to others. It works well in therapy, but not so much in romantic relationships. I realize now that there is a limit to how much you can allow someone to hurt you in order to prove to them that they are lovable.

I understand what it's like to fear that people won't love you or respect you if they knew what you're really like. That is the purpose of this blog, after all. To challenge myself to show the world what I'm really like. And while I haven't outright lied about who I am, I haven't always shared the things that I'm ashamed of. Not even to my family--the people who do love me unconditionally.

So I guess we can all challenge ourselves to be more honest. Some people have further to go than others, but as long as we're making the effort, that's what counts, isn't it?  Anyway, it makes me feel better about myself to frame my tolerance of dishonesty in this way, so that's what I'm going with.

But I'm still going to be more selective about who I choose to be with from now on.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Wins and Losses

So I've decided that I love winning more than I hate losing.

After 11 losses spanning 2 seasons on my 7.0 mixed teams, I finally won last night. A hard-fought win that came down to the wire--my favorite kind. And my team won, too. Winning isn't everything, but it sure helped my mood. And these days, I'll take anything I can get to feel happy about.

I actually had 2 teams playing at the same time last night, because I play every league since I get depressed when I don't have anything to do, as you know. We lost all 5 courts on that team, but that did not dampen my mood. Because like I said in the post on motivation, at the end of the day, I still had dinner with my friends afterwards. And there were a lot of them last night, spanning 3 different teams, including the opposing team.

I've had friends reach out to me because of my last two posts, reminding me that I can always call them when I'm feeling down. But in all honesty, the last thing I want to do when I'm feeling depressed is to contaminate someone else with my negative mood.

I once dated someone who accused me of wanting to be depressed--I guess because he couldn't talk me into feeling better. I think depressed people are accused of liking their depression because it's hard to be in the presence of someone who you can't cheer up. That's why people who are just trying to be helpful say unhelpful things, which makes you feel even more depressed. So I just avoid it.

But thankfully, God gave me tennis. No matter how bad I'm feeling, I can almost always motivate myself to play tennis. And the desire to win is so great that I forget everything and focus on hitting that ball. And after a few hours of doing this, regardless of whether I've won or lost, I feel like a different person. Plus we usually eat out afterwards, and I love food, too.

Tennis, friends, food, and blogging. That is a winning recipe for treating depression in my book.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

The Battle Against Depression

I really wish that so much of my existence did not revolve around obsessing about sleep. I'm tired of writing about it, and I'm sure you're sick of reading about it. But this is the reality of my existence at the moment, and I am committed to being honest about my current state of mind.

Today was another day that was filled with sleep. It makes me feel like such a failure. My colleagues don't struggle to make it to work because they can't get out of bed. The physicians in my family never even take a sick day. Some depressed people manage to take care of their families. I can barely take care of myself. What is my excuse for my weakness?

Then I thought of physical conditions that leave people debilitated. Migraine headaches. Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. Lyme disease. Do the people who suffer from these conditions feel paralyzed with guilt and shame when they can't get out of bed? Or do they accept their fatigue as being part of their illness rather than a personal failing?

I think about the recommendations I give to clients who are depressed. Exercise. Get sunlight. Be social. Regulate your sleep cycle. If someone had the flu, you would tell them to rest. Listen to your body. But with depression, we tell people to ignore what their bodies and minds are telling them and to do the opposite. Fight it! Don't give in!

Don't get me wrong. I do all of these things when I can, and they work. After sleeping most of the day, I forced myself to do laundry, get some lunch, wave at my neighbors, put together my tennis schedule for the new league, and play tennis for 3 hours to make up for my lack of steps from yesterday. And I'm writing this blog post now. 

Because if I gave in to the desire to do nothing, I wouldn't really be trying to get better. I wouldn't be taking responsibility for my illness. But I don't think it's fair to hold it against someone if their depression is so severe that it's too much effort to go outside and get sunlight. Because sometimes I'm that person, too.

When I have a client who cannot will themselves to follow these recommendations, I don't judge them for it. But I tell them to keep trying to do them. And no mental health professional that I know would tell a client that if they felt like they need to sleep they should listen to their bodies and rest.

There is an article circulating on the internet about how for some depressed people, positive reframing doesn't work. Telling the person to be positive actually makes them feel worse. That it's better to support them by expressing empathy for their feelings. 

Perhaps someday, researchers are going to find that listening to your body when you are depressed is sometimes more effective than fighting it with wakeful activities like forced exercise and socialization--two things that can be difficult to do even when you're not depressed.

I'm going to do my own case study to see if this works.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Being Neighborly

Today was one of those tough, lonely days. Even when the day starts out slowly, I usually have tennis in the afternoon, which helps me to feel productive. But no tennis tonight because of the rain. So it was hard to will myself to wake up after a long nap when there was nothing to look forward to but errands.

I did finally manage to bribe myself to get up with kettle corn. (I ate all of it, so I'll have to think of something else for tomorrow.) And I talked myself into walking to the mailbox to get some steps. I ran into some of my neighbors, who chastised me in a friendly way for not being social. Which made me feel like a terrible person, of course.

I mentioned in a previous blog that I don't socialize with my neighbors as much as they would like me to. In addition to not being retired, playing tennis almost every day, and not having much in common with senior citizens, the truth is, I've never been very neighborly. I think it's because I hate small talk. I avoid it at all costs.

To make matters worse, when I am home alone I am usually sleeping because it's so unbearable to be awake when I have nothing to look forward to. I thought about telling my neighbors that. How I'm often too depressed to overcome my aversion to making small talk to be neighborly. That leaving the house to check my mail was a big step for me. But that seemed like TMI.

I know they genuinely want to get to know me and want me to feel welcomed, but I wanted to cry after talking to them. I felt like this was just one more thing I should be doing that I was failing at. Right up there with regulating my sleep cycle, adhering to my GERD diet, and getting 10,000 steps. I hate it that my inner critic turns everything into an opportunity to fail.

So I'm blogging about this incident to diminish my inner critic's power to make me feel bad about myself. I'm doing the best I can do. There will always be more that I could be doing. I can only focus on my goals for today. I made it to my dentist appointment. I freaking walked to Kroger, which is a huge accomplishment (but sadly, only got me about 3,000 steps). And I am writing this blog post.

And I talked to my neighbors when I got my mail. Which wasn't even on my list. So there!

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Motivation

In the Wimbledon final today, the commentators were discussing how Federer loves winning more than he hates losing, which is why he can shake off losses and stay motivated. However, in Andre Agassi's autobiography Open, Agassi repeatedly states that he hated tennis, but he hated losing more, and that mindset worked pretty well for him. 

It got me thinking: is it better to be motivated by love or hate?

There have been times in my life when I've been more motivated by hate than love. Even though I did well in school, I didn't love it. I just hated failing, and anything less than a B was failing. So I mostly got A's, but I can't say that it brought me much joy to get them.

I used to be obsessed with my weight when I was in my 20's and 30's, so I was much more disciplined back then about exercising and watching what I ate. I weigh more now, which doesn't thrill me, but I can't say that I was happier when I was thinner. Every now and then I will get into that obsessive mindset again, but then I decide that I'm just going to stop looking in the mirror so much. Because even if it's an effective weight loss strategy, it's just too painful to hate my body.

I know I said in a previous post how it's more important for me to play with friends than it is to win, but I have to admit, losing is starting to get to me. I haven't had a single win in either of my mixed doubles teams this year. Still, losing hasn't diminished my love for the game or my motivation to get better. I can't say whether I love winning or hate losing more. I think it's more accurate to say that I love competing and I love the fight, and that is all the motivation that I need.

Plus, win or lose, at the end of the day, you still get to have dinner with friends afterwards. And for me, food is the greatest motivator of all.

Here is a picture of my only winning team this season. Which I am not captaining, of course.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Blessings in Disguise

Remember how my car broke down on the way to my friend's wedding? Well, it turned out to be more of an inconvenience than an extra day and $1000. Try 2 extra days and $3000.

I tried my best to have a good attitude about it. I made a list of the things I was thankful for. I tried to put a positive spin on everything. It helped some, but it was still annoying.

You know what helped the most? I looked at the service ticket when I got home and it turned out that my rear brakes were 95% worn. I kind of thought they were unresponsive, but I didn't think it was that bad. I'm actually thankful that my car broke down. I was speeding because I was late for the rehearsal dinner, and if I had to break suddenly, things could have been much worse. Maybe breaking down wasn't a punishment for having a bad attitude after all. Maybe God was looking out for me.

I often tell clients that the events that they think are terrible at the time may turn out to be blessings in disguise. This is also supported by research on happiness. I mentioned in a previous post how people who become paraplegics from car accidents return to their baseline level of happiness after about a year. Sometimes they are even thankful for the accident, because it moved their lives in a more positive direction.

I guess if you're really cynical, you could argue that they're just rationalizing to make themselves feel better. I don't think this is true, but even if it were, so what? Our beliefs are more compelling than reality, anyway. I'd love to be irrationally grateful.

This holiday weekend has been tough for me. Holidays are the hardest because they are supposed to be filled with family, friends, and food. And in this case, fireworks. I am 0-4. I think about how I've spent the 4th of July in the past. Some of the most recent ones were far worse than I could have imagined. Now that I'm single, the best I can hope for is that holidays won't be as lonely and depressing as I think they will be. This one is about what I expected. (Unless Federer wins tomorrow. Then it will all be worthwhile.)

My tendency is to beat myself up for my single status. I must deserve it because of all the terrible relationship decisions I've made. Or maybe I'm just unlucky. Or maybe at some point in the future, I'll look back and realize that this period of solitude was also a blessing in disguise. I'm not completely convinced of this, but I'm trying to be hopeful.

These are the flowers from the wedding. It has nothing to do with blessings, but I think it's a cool picture.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Change

You know how I said I'm not good with endings? Well, I'm not that good with beginnings, either. I think I just don't like change, in general.

I'm like my niece in that way. When we were on vacation last month, she threw a fit when she found out that she was going to start summer camp when she got back home. Even though she knew she was going to summer camp before we left for vacation. And she goes to summer camp every year. She cried about it right up until she had to go on Monday morning. Of course, when I asked my brother how her first day of camp went, she thought it was awesome.

It's funny how our brains work that way. There is some part of us that is like a child, and no amount of reasoning or memory-jogging can talk us out of our dread of something that we are actually going to enjoy. The difference is, when it happens with kids, you accept it as being irritating but normal. When you're an adult, you think it's crazy. Well, that's how I think of myself, at least.

This past weekend I went to my friend's wedding. I wasn't looking forward to it because I was going to have to drive to Florida by myself and go to the wedding dateless. I tried to squeeze in as many visits with friends as possible to break up the trip and to have more to look forward to. I tried to tell myself it could be like a romantic comedy where I meet some great guy. But my inner child Sophie was having none of it; she whined and cried just the same.

Because of my night-owlness, I could not fall asleep the night before, so I woke up late as usual. Which filled me with guilt and shame for being a bad friend. I was speeding the whole way down there, trying to make it in time for at least some of the rehearsal dinner. Until my car broke down. My 4 hour drive turned into an 8 hour drive, a good portion of which was spent on the shoulder of I-95 talking to unhelpful people who supposedly deal with roadside emergencies. It felt like punishment for having a bad attitude.

I didn't meet some guy at the wedding. And I still don't have my car. And the car rental and repairs are going to cost me about a grand. But that's OK. It was still worth it. I had a good time at the wedding, and I was honored to be included in my friend's innermost circle. Things could have turned out much worse with my car. Plus, I'm getting an extra day of vacation out of it.

I guess that's one important difference between being a child and having an inner child. In the latter case, hopefully you also have a part that is an adult who can make you do things that you don't feel like doing. Because the adult knows that you'll be OK in the end. Perhaps that's what it means to be an adult--to be someone who understands the nature of change.

Who knows? Maybe I'll get there someday.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Stories

So I was having dinner at a Thai restaurant with my tennis mom and her family, and one of them asked me if I believe that everything happens for a reason. Which I do. Now. But that wasn't always the case. Before I struggled with how to make sense of accidents and cancer and infant deaths. And to be honest, I still do. So now I try to stay focused on making sense of my own path, which is hard enough.

Then the conversation turned into a very pointed inquisition about what I believe to be true about God and the nature of the universe. Which I thought was weird, because what the heck do I know? Clearly these people have not been reading my blog.

Afterwards we came home and watched The Lego Movie, which was awesome! Just like the theme song says. That may seem completely unrelated, but I think it happened for a reason. Because the basic line of questioning was, how do you know that what you believe to be true isn't just some made up story?

Emmet is an ordinary construction worker who is so average that no one can say anything that stands out about him. But then he finds The Piece of Resistance, which is the sign that he is "the special"--the one who the prophesy foretold is destined to save the world. It turns out that the wise old man Vitruvius made the prophesy up, yet it was still true that Emmet was chosen as the hero by some higher power.

The Lego Movie is also a made up story. So is Avatar, The Matrix, and Kung Fu Panda--my 3 favorite movies. They've all made tons of money, and I think this is because they all have a message about how understanding our destiny and the nature of the universe requires a leap of faith in ourselves.

I'm no theologian, but I believe that God is ok with whatever story makes sense to us, as long as it brings us closer to him.

I think this doodle looks like legos.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Joy and Pain

I finally saw The Fault in Our Stars the other day. I thought that the movie was true to the book but wasn't long enough to include all the scenes that I loved. But I guess no one else would be interested in a 10 hour movie.

One of the things they left out was the discussion of whether we need to experience pain in order to know joy. In the book Hazel repeatedly says she doesn't believe this: "the existence of broccoli in no way affects the taste of chocolate." I thought that this was such a compelling argument that for awhile I forgot all of the research I've read that supports the joy-pain connection.

Hazel worries about how her death will hurt the people who love her. She is afraid that her parents won't have a life after she dies. She pushes Augustus away because she doesn't want to be a grenade. But Augustus cannot be dissuaded: "you don't get to choose if you get hurt in this world, but you do have some say in who hurts you."

This whole joy and pain thing is actually why I have so much trouble with endings. I look forward to having the summer off but by the 2nd day of summer I start obsessing about how my vacation is running out. I suffer from existential anxiety about death and aging. Even coming to the end of books like this one is difficult because I don't want to have to say good-bye to characters like Hazel and Augustus.

When I read the book I didn't fully appreciate Hazel's obsession with knowing what happens to the characters at the end of "An Imperial Affliction," which ends in mid-sentence because the narrator dies of cancer. But after watching the movie, I understand. Hazel wants reassurance that life will go on for her parents after she dies.

I've always thought that life was kind of cruel in this way. My heart may be broken but the world doesn't seem to care. Life goes on, despite my pain. It's kind of insulting, really.

But now I think it's a good thing. Life isn't like a book or a movie that begins with joy but ends with pain--and wisdom. Life is more like a series of stories, where we have more joy--and pain--ahead of us. More people to love. More summers to look forward to.  More books to read. So I'm looking forward to the next installment.

I think this doodle looks like lightning bugs.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Mental Hygiene

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 I think this doodle looks like germs.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Constructive Criticism

I have trouble giving constructive criticism. I prefer the passive-aggressive route: just avoid the person altogether, or put their call on speaker phone and do my blog homework while they're talking.

I know this doesn't reflect positively on me as a psychologist. When I have a client who has problems being assertive, I have all kinds of good suggestions. And they usually take my advice. Which is a perfect example of why I often think my clients are more courageous than I am.

Part of the problem is that I can't stand hurting other people. If it's a choice between being annoyed by them or hurting their feelings, I choose to be annoyed. Because I can take it. But all those annoyances start to add up after awhile. Like being bitten by 1000 mosquitos. And I'm allergic to mosquitos, too. That's why I have to keep reminding myself to pick me.

The other obstacle is the whole hyperempath thing, combined with being highly self-critical. When I think of how I would feel if someone were to tell me that I brag about myself a lot, I would be mortified. I'd probably never speak again.

Sometimes the other person is so sensitive that they, too, will obsess about it for the rest of their lives. We can never have a conversation again where the person doesn't think about it, apologize for it, justify their behavior. It's painful. It feels just as bad as when they were annoying me, except now I feel guilty, too.

That's why I prefer to be so attuned to how other people feel that I can sense their annoyance and figure out why without them having to say a word. Which, admittedly, isn't a great strategy--especially when you're prone to depression. Because afterwards you have replay every social interaction over and over, trying to figure out where you offended the other person.

I can do it when it involves tennis. Especially when it involves wasting someone else's time by being late, not showing up, etc. I may not think my time is valuable, but I won't tolerate someone in my group or on my team who wastes other people's time. But sometimes I still obsess about how I did it. Maybe if I had said it differently, I wouldn't have hurt their feelings.

The reality is, sometimes there's no way you can give negative feedback without hurting the person. And it's not really my job to make sure that no one ever feels pain. Sometimes pain is necessary. It lets us know that we need to change something. And if something's bothering me enough to tell them about it, then I am definitely hoping for change.

Sometimes I wish I could be one of those people who are so oblivious that they don't care that they're annoying. Someone who can dismiss criticism with some rationalization. Or someone with a really bad memory for negative feedback. But I can't. I'm me. Empathic, sensitive, guilt-ridden me.

Perhaps I can think of this as yet another opportunity to practice self-acceptance.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Interventions, Part 2

In the book Stumbling on Happiness, psychologist Daniel Gilbert gives multiple examples of how we are terrible at predicting what will make us happy. I'm sure you've heard some of the studies. How people who are paraplegics from car accidents and people who win the lottery both return to their baseline level of happiness after about a year.

I often tell clients the same thing when they're catastophizing about what will happen in the future. How they'll be flipping burgers at McDonald's because they got an F on their chemistry exam. How they will never find love. How they will be depressed for the rest of their lives. We don't know what the future holds. We know that we don't know, but we still act like we do.

So how are we supposed to make decisions if we're so terrible at predicting the future? Gilbert recommends that we ask someone who has made a similar decision and find out how they feel about it. Psychologists say that the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior. Still, there are no guarantees. Ultimately important decisions often come down to a leap of faith.

A few weeks ago I shared my anxiety about having to do an intervention. I asked for advice from my psychiatrist, my therapist, and from God. They all said I had to do it. But I couldn't make myself do it. Because based on the two suggestions above, the forecast looked pretty gloomy. But a promise is a promise.

I've been reading Thomas Merton's "No Man Is an Island," and he says that God is involved in every aspect of our lives, guiding our every step, trying to move us closer to where we need to be. I wasn't sure if I believed that, but it was comforting to think that it might be true. That perhaps God was moving me closer to this conversation, even though I felt like I wasn't getting anywhere.

I decided to blog about it because that always seems to help. One reader said that perhaps the opportunity would naturally present itself. She was right; I got my opportunity. I did my part, expecting that my concerns would be completely dismissed, but they weren't. My words had an impact. Things are in motion, moving in the direction they're supposed to go. And I am thankful.

When I pray for courage, I feel like God tells me that if I do my part, He will do his. And while that has always been true, I'm always still afraid to take the next step. Will it happen this time? Was I just lucky before? Will God really be there on the other side?

Sometimes it takes awhile, but I usually take that leap of faith. I may not know what is on the other side, but I know I can't stay stuck on this side forever.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Why I Have a Superhero Complex

When I was a kid I remember going to K-Mart with my dad, trying to get him to buy me a toy, as usual. We passed by the jewelry section, and he said he needed to buy something first. He had promised one of his patients that if she lived he would buy her some jewelry. He said that he didn't expect her to live, but since she did, he wanted to keep his promise.

I never forgot this incident because it impressed upon me what a good doctor my dad was. I could imagine him talking to this patient as he made rounds at the hospital. I could see him greet her with his unmistakable laugh, reassuring her that she was going to get better. All of his patients loved him. I wouldn't be surprised if she got better just for him.

My dad was equally dedicated to his family.  During his periods of depression, the thing that plagued him the most was his fear that he had not spent enough time with us because of work. I was shocked when I heard this. My dad attended every tennis match, awards ceremony, and piano recital we were in. Even now, although we all live in different cities, we try to get together for birthdays and holidays because being together as a family has always been a priority. He has his faults, but failing to spend time with us is definitely not one of them.

Above all else, the reason my dad was a dedicated doctor and father is because this is how he has chosen to serve God. I must admit, it bothered me to hear this when I was a kid. Kind of like when the flight attendant tells parents to put their oxygen mask on before helping their children. As a child, I didn't want my dad to love God more than he loved me. But as an adult, I appreciate how admirable it is to live your life with that level of commitment. 

One of the reasons why I berate myself when I'm not able to function is because depression never stopped my dad from performing his duties. Once he confessed to me how bad things were for him when he was depressed. How it would take him forever to dictate his notes because his cognitive abilities were so compromised. How he would obsess about forgetting some detail and would drive back to the hospital. How there were times when he wanted to give up. But he didn't. He still went to work every day, came home every night, and made us pray together as a family before we went to bed.

People give me a hard time because I want to save the world. But with a dad like mine, how can I expect anything less of myself? It is a high standard to try to live up to, but if I have to struggle with something, there are worse things than having a superhero for a father.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Escape in the Moment

Back by popular demand, here is another post by my brother, Romeo Barongan, in honor of Father's Day.


ESCAPE IN THE MOMENT:
A Father’s Day Reflection

I have always dreaded change. Even as a child, my happiest moments were plagued by the knowledge that the more time I spent in the moment, the closer I had come to its end. Lately, the dread of watching my free time evaporate each night with the dawning of a new day, a new shift, & set of new obligations has returned. To offset the gloominess, I have been going to the beach every morning before preparing for the day for no more than 20 minutes. At first, I just did it because I was told that I needed more sunlight & I knew I at least had to go through the motions of feeling better; but truthfully, I didn’t expect any results. But then, after just a few minutes of staring at the peaceful water of the bay with the sun in my face & the sea breeze blanketing me from the summer heat, something happened. I felt peace. All the apprehensions that had kept me up the night before disappeared for just a moment in a place where sand met sea & sea met sky. When I left, it no longer bothered me that my moment of peace was so brief & that obligations still loomed before me; I had a sudden appreciation for the concept of balance.

My morning visits to the beach brought to mind one of my favorite myths from Greek mythology---the story of Icarus & Daedalus. Daedalus is a brilliant Greek inventor who, among other things, creates the Labyrinth that houses the Minotaur of Crete. Icarus is Daedalus’s young adult son. Somehow or another, Daedalus & his son manage to cross Crete’s King Minos. In order to escape punishment, Daedalus crafts wings made of bird feathers & held together with wax. His plan is to escape the island kingdom of King Minos through the air. He teaches his son to fly.


Daedalus, being older & more experienced, warns his son not to fly too close to the water for fear of the moisture loosening the wax that holds the wings together. It would be equally important not to fly too high for fear of the sun’s heat melting the wax that holds the wings in place. The father warns the son to strike a balance somewhere in the middle. Sadly, Icarus becomes too intoxicated with the majesty of flight & soars too close to the sun. Its powerful rays melt the wax, the wings crumble apart, & the young man plummets to the sea. The son fails to heed the father’s lesson of moderation & balance.


While this myth has a sad ending, I think it summarizes the dynamic of fatherhood well. Our fathers push us to reach our potential---they teach us to fly. We, as sons, benefit from their experience & advice. We are given opportunities that we would have been hard-pressed to come by on our own. And finally, we are given guidelines on how to best manage the opportunities we are given. We are taught to strike a balance.


Today, I invite my Father to enjoy his own perfect moment of peace & satisfaction. This day, while only a single day on the calendar, embodies innumerable days collected over the years wherein my Dad crafted two pairs of wings out of feathers & waxed & taught me to fly….Not too high as to touch the sun, & not too low as to dip into the waves, but in a place of balance & equilibrium. Hopefully, I can do a better job of heeding my own father’s advice than Icarus of the myth heeded the advice of his own. 


When I’m tempted to ignore my own responsibilities for a day, I’ll remember my Father’s clock-work commitment to his own profession. Before I mourn the end of a free moment, I’ll remember my father’s example of striving for a balanced life that accommodates both time for recreation & time for focused productivity. On this Father’s Day, I encourage my Dad to live in his own moment of serenity & satisfaction similar to the place I found the day I saw the sand meet the sea & the sea meet the sky. Happy Father’s Day.