Category: Self-Compassion

What’s “Normal” In the Slow Fade of a Pandemic?

What’s “Normal” In the Slow Fade of a Pandemic?

Even as the pandemic begins a slow fade, the mental health crisis that the pandemic ignited in kids, teens grownups, and caregivers for elders is sticking around. In my therapy office of late, I’ve heard clients name rumination, depression, grief, more alcohol and marijuana, new existential questions about meaning and purpose, relationship challenges, parenting stress, exhaustion, preoccupation about weight, intrusive thoughts, and lots and lots and lots of anxiety (social anxiety, health anxiety, traveling anxiety, etc.) In fact, we now have a name for all the inner debris that the pandemic has left in us: Post Pandemic Stress Disorder. This is on top of all the stress, anxiety, depression, and relationship stuff many of us carry around even in non-pandemic days.

So here are a few points I wish we could all keep track of:

1: Sometimes my clients think that if an event is over, they should be over it. But our brains, nervous systems, and bodies don’t work like light switches. Rather our nervous systems are like cars — needing time to rev up and time to slow down. So it’s normal to not feel normal right now. It’s normal to be experiencing residual exhaustion, more sensitivity to stressors, and to generally feel on edge and like you don’t quite have your social sea legs. Does this mean it’s fun? No. But is having a disrupted nervous system normal given the completely abnormal last 16 months? Yes. Absolutely, yes.

2: During the last year plus, we’ve all been taking stock of our lives: what we like, what we don’t like, what we want more of, and what we want less of in our lives. If you are still looking around trying to figure out what you want your new normal to include and exclude, you are doing something important – and normal. Many of us have had a break from friends, commutes, social obligations, work travel, etc. and now, to some extent, we have some choices in front of us. Do we want to socialize more, less, or differently than before the pandemic? Do we want to advocate for different hours or different amounts of times at our jobs? Do we want to set different boundaries with our families or around our time? These questions are normal. And it’s normal to re-evaluate our priorities following a big, terrible event.

3: If you have gained weight during the last 16 months, congrats on being normal. As far as coping strategies go, eating a bit more than we need is not the worst thing ever. We’ve been going through an ongoing trauma, and our bodies naturally crave sugar and salt when we’re stressed. I hope you can give yourself a break over the weight gain. And maybe even learn about the Health At Every Size movement. Or if you can’t be kind to yourself about your body, please come see me and and let me give you a break.

4: Finally, if you’re feeling bad for feeling bad (as in “I have so much privilege, I don’t deserve to be having a hard time”) then congrats – also normal. Think of this like survivor’s guilt. There’s a guilty feeling that’s hard to shake. But guess what – this too is normal. And while I know it’s hard to stop guilt once it’s ramped up, your guilt does not help anyone.

So – what to do? Consider self-compassion. Surround yourself with people who will be supportive and not make you feel like a weirdo (unless you’re a weirdo in all the good ways). Remind yourself that your experience can be normal AND still be really, really hard. And help your nervous system know it’s now safe to calm down: through regular sleep, nourishing food and relationships, movement, time outside, and – the hardest for many of us – not pushing yourself too hard. Does all that sound impossible? If so, no worries… that’s normal too (and why we therapists are here).

Courtesy of Rahul Jail on Unsplash.com

Happy New Year! Your WEIGHT is NOT your WORTH.

Contemplating a new year’s diet? If so, please first consider these words by Anne Lamott:

We need — I need — to have the same little talk we have every year at this time: I know you might be starting a New Year’s diet. I used to start diets, too. I hated to mention this to my then-therapist. She would say cheerfully, “Oh, that’s great, honey. How much weight are you hoping to gain?”

I got rid of her. No one talks to me that way.

Well, okay, maybe it was 10 years later, after she had helped lead me back home, to myself, to radical self-care, to friendship with my own heart, to a glade that had always existed deep inside me, to mostly healthy eating, but that I’d avoided all those years by achieving, dieting, binging, people-pleasing and so on.

Lamott goes on to say:

It’s really okay, though, to have (or pray for) an awakening around your body. It’s okay to stop hitting the snooze button, and to pay attention to what makes you feel great about yourself, one meal at a time. Unfortunately, it’s yet another inside job. If you are not okay with yourself at 185 pounds, you will not be okay at 150, or even 135. The self-respect and peace of mind you long for is not out there. It’s within. I hate that. I resent that more than I can say. But it’s true.

Sometimes people seek out counseling because of the pesky problem of a diet that just won’t work. Or in the middle of talking about depression or anxiety, a client will also mention a weight gain that’s simply intolerable. If weight’s not in the foreground, it’s always hovering in the background.

And there are good reasons why. In general, here’s the message that our culture gives us:

Weight is something that can and should be controlled: the more tightly the better. Weight – and appearance – matter more than health and happiness. Fat=bad, and too much if any fat makes us undesirable (to self or others). If we don’t fit the current white ideal of beauty, we should feel ashamed and make a massive effort (often using lots of hard-earned money) to “fix” what’s seen as a problem.  If we’re unhappy and dissatisfied, the messaging goes, losing weight will make us happy and satisfied, fixing all our issues with relationships and self-love and self-worth and self-confidence.

Sometimes these messages are so convincing, so embedded in the fabric of white American culture, that we don’t realize these messages are beliefs, not facts. And when we examine them for their truthfulness, it turns out that these beliefs range from complete bull to containing a bit of truthiness to being only partially true if placed appropriately within a larger context.

But here’s what I know.

*Weight can only be controlled to a certain extent.

*While “dieting” acts like it’s on the outs with certain crowds, it’s merely gone underground. It goes by code words now like eating “clean” and eating for “health.”

*The connection between weight and health isn’t as well established as we’ve been led to believe. The Health at Every Size movement and Lizzo (yay!) are challenging those of us who were raised to believe that being healthy means being skinny.

*When people lose weight, it usually doesn’t change how happy they feel.

*The energy that so many women spend trying to control their weight could be used for SO MANY OTHER IMPORTANT THINGS including: self-care, friendships, walks, exploring interests, toppling outdating systems of oppression, etc.

*We need to look at WHY we feel such a desperate need to control, WHY we can’t imagine being happy without being a certain (different size), WHY our self-love is tied up with weight.

I am so excited to be supporting clients to explore weight, body image, self-worth, and to begin to disentangle weight – and the overall need to control – from happiness. Best of luck to you this year as you experiment with different ways of being in – and thinking about – your body.

 

 

 

Managing the Chronic Stress of Parenting during COVID

Managing the Chronic Stress of Parenting during COVID

Photo by Raychan on Unsplash. Parenting can be so isolating, especially right now. Hang in there, folks.

My friend Suzanne, juggling two kids at home and a full-time job, found relief recently when she heard pandemic parenting advice from psychiatrist Dr. Matthew Biel on a podcast (last six minutes or so). “We’re not trying to get it right, get it perfect,” he said. “We’re just trying to do something that feels reasonably responsible.

I’ve been thinking about that advice – to aim for reasonably responsible parenting – ever since Suzanne shared that quote with me. The advice stood out because it goes counter to the belief that many of my counseling clients have that they should be rocking parenting out of the park – even during this COVID catastrophe and the depression, anxiety, stress, and isolation that has come with it. So many parents right now are struggling with a gap between their expectations of themselves as parents and the reality. For instance: Many parents have the expectation that they should always be able to be calm and patient with their kiddos. Next to perfect, really. But the reality is that most parents are struggling to do an impossible juggling act right now, and even under ideal situations it’s impossible to always be our best selves with our children.

I want to say that last bit again: It’s impossible to always be our best selves with our children. It’s not realistic. It sets us up for failure and the belief that we’re “bad parents” the minute we scream or stomp our feet or create an irrational or extreme consequence.

And the truth is that good parents scream and stomp our feet and do things we regret. Especially right now. And for good reasons. For the most part, we have more responsibilities right now and fewer resources (such as childcare, money, community, etc.). More responsibilities+fewer resources=stress. Big stress.

Parents, we need to lower our expectations of ourselves right now. This is not the time to aim for excelling. This is the time to aim simply for being reasonably responsible – making sure our kiddos are alive, safe, eating, drinking and sleeping, and aware most of the time that we love them even when we’re not acting like it. Is it ideal for kids to exist mostly on cheese and bread and cereal? Nope. But these are not ideal times, and they’ll still grow. Good enough. Is it ideal that most kids are spending tons of time on screens right now? Nope. But these are not ideal times, and this screen-gorging will not last forever. Is it ideal that parents are stretched beyond belief? Nope. But these are not ideal times, and our kids will survive our divided attention. If we give ourselves a break and aim simply for “reasonably responsible” so will we.

If I got a dollar every time…

Say I got a dollar every time I heard the following words:

  • “But other people have it worse.”
  • “Yeah I’m depressed and anxious, but I have privilege so I shouldn’t feel this way.”
  • “I’m not sure I deserve to be in counseling.”
  • “I’m worried I’m taking your time away from people who need help more than me.”

How much $$$ would I have at the end of a year if I faithfully put a dollar in a jar each time I heard a variation of these words?

Enough to go out to a great dinner. A really great dinner.

We often wish we could decrease stress and depression and anxiety by reminding ourselves of the hard stuff that other people face. But that’s not how it works.

I’ve written on this blog before about what I call “privilege syndrome” — the belief that if we have privilege in some way, it can be easy to feel guilty or judgmental about the ways in which we struggle. And this is common.

I wish that privilege could buffer us from anxiety. I wish that knowing about climate change or homelessness would mean that people with secure housing and middle class incomes could be immune or invisible from stress or depression or trauma.

But the brain and body don’t work like that. While those of us with stable housing or relationships may be less likely to experience trauma or stress, our nervous systems aren’t designed to tease out nuances of privilege. The body just experiences a flood of stress hormones like cortisol or adrenaline. The body just knows we’re depressed or anxious. The body knows we don’t feel okay, even if we try to use our intellect to convince ourselves we should feel differently.

And the research shows that judging ourselves for our responses and reactions don’t actually do much help.

Instead, I try to help clients cultivate neutrality or even self-compassion for our experience. It’s only by accepting what’s here – the pain, the suffering, the fear, the sadness – that we can begin to move through these difficult feelings. It’s only by acknowledging what’s true for us – whether we like the truth or not – that we can begin to move forward.

I see you, perfectionists.

Perfectionists, I have a heart for you. I get it. You don’t think of yourself as a perfectionist, you just think I don’t like to make mistakes. You know intellectually that your spouse/friend/employer would probably not dump you if you made a mistake… but why risk it? After all, making a mistake feels beyond terrible to perfectionists, like our lives and relationships and careers are on the line and the whole world could implode or explode at any moment.

So no wonder you live with a constant tension, a constant pressure, a constant anxiety, checking and double-checking to make sure nobody can find fault with you (except for you of course). And then of course if you’re critical of yourself—if you let Self Doubt or The Inner Critic be in charge—then maybe it won’t hurt as much if someone finds a flaw in you.

It’s not easy to live as a perfectionist. You might look like you have everything together on the outside—you might be organized, you might show up everywhere on time, your clothes are rarely wrinkled—but the inner reality can be so, so different and so, so difficult. It’s hard to live in fear of mistakes, to believe that mistakes will define us and make us less lovable (if lovable at all). It’s hard living with the belief that we’re one mistake away from unworthiness or that our worth in general stems from our ability to be flawless rather than our humanness. It’s hard to constantly compare ourselves to a version of ourselves we can’t live up to. And of course it’s hard as a perfectionist to open up to others, to admit what’s true: life is hard. Things aren’t easy. (Blog post continues after photo.)

Perfection isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

Usually when perfectionists come to counseling, they’re coming to therapy for issues that they see as distinctly separate from perfectionism. But feeling out of control, experiencing anxiety about personal and the political, and feeling alienated and isolated, can all link back to difficulty allowing ourselves to be human and make mistakes.

There’s sometimes a mistaken belief that perfectionists have that anxiety and perfectionism is helpful, that without that pressure and tension and Inner Critic they may not be as effective. If I don’t beat myself up, how will I do my best?

But research shows that we learn and perform much better when we’re open and curious and allow our humanness to shine (including the messy parts). Shame and self-judgment, it turns out, bite us in the ass more than we think. It is possible to create a different relationship with ourselves, the Inner Critic, Self Doubt, and our lives.

Here’s a perfectionism test if you’re curious to learn more… and you’re always welcome to talk through concerns in our Kirkwood therapy office.

Abortions: When the Political Is Personal

It’s hard to turn on the news in Atlanta right now without hearing about the new anti-abortion bill that’s been passed in Georgia or anti-abortion legislation in other states like Alabama. This legislation fires up people of all beliefs and backgrounds. But it can also be triggering—if not outright re-traumatizing—to women who have made the difficult choice to have an abortion.

And most of the women who find themselves stirred up by all the talk about abortion will likely stay silent. Talking about abortion is still taboo even though an estimated one in four women will have an abortion during their lifetime. For many women, a past abortion is a secret they don’t share out of fear of judgment or because of judgment they impose on themselves. As a result, there can be tremendous shame, guilt, and unresolved grief—often leading to isolation, depression, and increased anxiety.

Grief? Yes grief. It’s totally normal for women who have abortions to need to grieve. Unfortunately it’s also perfectly normal for women to believe they “shouldn’t” need to grieve. But abortion is complicated for many women, a difficult choice at a difficult moment in their lives. Grief is normal and natural.

We know that the antidote to shame and unresolved grief is speaking our truths—the messy, complicated truths—to safe people in safe places. As abortion continues to be a political issue, I sincerely hope that all who have actually experienced an abortion are surrounded by comfort, love, and support. You are not alone.

Taming and Treating “Privilege Syndrome”

 

At some point, with many clients, comes an earnest variant of the same question: Who am I to have pain – or see a therapist – given that so many other people suffer in visible, heartbreaking ways?

I call this the Privilege Syndrome. The reasoning usually sounds like this:

• If I don’t live in a less-developed country where I only have access to one meal of day, I should be happy. (But I’m not.)
• If I have money, I shouldn’t feel depressed. (But I am.)
• If I have a job, I shouldn’t be annoyed with my work. (But I am.)
• If I don’t have to represent my race on a daily basis, or live in fear of violence, then I shouldn’t complain about the challenges I do have. (But I do.)
• If I have a loving family, I shouldn’t be lonely. (But I am.)
• If others respect me, I shouldn’t live in fear of rejection. (But I do.)
• If I haven’t survived one or more traumas, I shouldn’t be suffering. (But I am.)
• If my life looks good on paper, I should be happy. (But I’m not).

How lovely that so many of us know that other people also struggle! How terrible that we deem ourselves not worthy of struggling and suffering because of our privileges!

From a mindfulness perspective, Privilege Syndrome is all about getting caught in a mindstate of comparison, or what I and many other mindfulness practitioners call Comparison Mind. The good news about Comparison Mind is sometimes it makes us feel superior to others! But the bad news… well, you know all about the bad news of comparison. We end up feeling inferior and unworthy – and then judge ourselves for feeling so bad.

The truth is that we increase our suffering when we can’t acknowledge and accept our own pain and heartache. When we dismiss or minimize our own pain because So-and-So has it worse, we are acting from a faulty belief that suffering is reserved only for others.

The only “cure” for Privilege Syndrome is to learn to accept and honor our own suffering – no matter our privilege – while also acknowledging the suffering of others. When we can work toward the end of our suffering and the suffering of others, we stop comparing ourselves. Instead of landing in Comparison Mind, we access compassion. Instead of being better than or worse than others, we’re simply with ourselves and with others. That is connection. That is healing.

 

A Quick Judgment Reality Check: 2 Questions & 3 Fast Facts

A Quick Judgment Reality Check: 2 Questions & 3 Fast Facts

Let’s do a quick reality check in the form of two questions:

  1. Mentally jot down one aspect of your life that you’re worried others judging you about. (Physical appearance? Certain unwanted habits? Your status with work?)
  2. Now ask yourself this: In the last month/6 months/12 months, how many times has someone BESIDES YOURSELF explicitly judged you specifically for those particular things? 

I ask these questions today with curiosity and sincerity. Judgment’s been on my mind since a local magazine writer contacted me to ask about parent shaming for an article she’s writing. (I’ll post a link when the article comes out!)

So often, articles about shame, guilt, and judgment focus on people besides ourselves giving us a hard time. And this does happen. In unhealthy families and friendships and in abusive relationships, we can get torn down and made to feel unworthy for who we are and our choices. And when we go against cultural norms because of values, beliefs, or life circumstances, it can feel like we’re swimming upstream and alone.

But most of the time WE are our worst enemies when it comes to judgment and guilt. Here’s how:

  • We compare ourselves to the curated versions of other people that they showcase online – without accounting for the fact that social media profiles reflect only a very partial reality.
  • We compare ourselves to an ideal version of ourselves – and usually our benchmarks for that ideal self keep moving, meaning we never feel okay just as we are. We “should” be doing more. Right?
  • We have unrealistic expectations of ourselves. We cannot do everything. We cannot be everything to everyone.
  • We spend time around people (and websites or blogs) that add to our already-existing worry about not being enough. 
  • We believe our worst moments mean something big and absolute about us. 

It’s natural to compare ourselves to others, and sometimes it’s useful. But if you find that your mind is full of anxiety, guilt and fear of judgment, it may be worth checking yourself to see where the judgment is actually coming from. You don’t need to beat yourself up. But you can see clearly – and seeing clearly is the first step to knowing what you may want to do differently. 

 

 

When the Political Gets Especially Personal

Sexual desire or its absence. Religious beliefs or the belief that the here-and-now is all we’ve got. The thoughts or experiences that make us feel weird, or embarrassed, or alone.

One reason I’m such a fan of counseling is that it’s a space to talk freely about aspects of our lives that sometimes go unspoken to even our closest friends or family members. We need places in our lives to talk openly about who we are without fear of being judged, criticized, or excommunicated from our most important relationships.

personalpoliticsIt’s been especially important to me lately that clients of all political persuasions know that politics is something they can talk about openly in sessions. Some are excited and hopeful as a result of this new presidential administration. Other clients are finding their anxiety aggravated and their depression worsening as a result of recent political actions. More than one has been in a fight with a loved one about ideology or the “right” way to act or react.

For many clients, the political situation has been a catapult into de
eper exploration of meaning and purpose. I can relate. In and out of session, so many of us are wrestling with questions of how to better translate personal principles into purposeful actions that go well beyond our own self-interests. We are exploring how to live with difficult emotions without acting out or checking out. We are figuring out how to engage in respectful dialogue that avoids condescension and assumes best intent. And, of course, we continue to discern how to respond to our own limits and needs with self-compassion.

This isn’t selfish navel-gazing; rather it’s trying to figure out how to live and stay connected to ourselves and to one another despite sometimes widely different beliefs about how to make the world a better place.

It is an honor to walk with clients through these questions, holding space for uncertainty, acknowledging fears and courage, and helping them connect to their deepest values.

Why You Won’t See Me Quoted In A Magazine Next Month

images-2Last week, my email dinged with a message from a magazine writer asking for an interview. Hurrah! I thought. I love talking about therapy! But then I read closely. The writer wanted my expert tips on how parents should design their children’s rooms for optimal development, including the “right” kinds of toys. I felt my heart slowly sink back to it’s normal position in my chest. For while I love talking about counseling and kids, I hate doing anything to perpetuate parents’ anxiety that they’re not doing enough.

I laughed, thinking about my own kid’s room: a few pieces of used furniture; a motley assortment of stuffed animals (a few of whom have lost plastic eyeballs to our otherwise lovely dog), the usual assortment of kid-related clothing, and lots and lots of books. I’m pretty sure that if I had strong opinions about kids’ rooms, my own child’s room wouldn’t measure up. But the idea that kids only thrive in a very particular set of circumstances simply isn’t true.

So I ended up saying a big fat no to that interview request.

What’s in a kid’s room matters much less than who’s with that kid in life. Research supports that what matters most for healthy childhood development is the presence of caring, mostly-consistent adults, not the presence of particular toys in a certain sort of space.

Is this a missed opportunity for me to spread the good news about good therapy? Perhaps. But I’d rather miss out than spread misinformation and fan the flames of anxiety and guilt.