Category: “Shoulds”

“COVID is (Almost) Over: Why Don’t I feel OK?”

This past 15-plus months of pandemic life has been a crash course in tolerating uncertainty. Remember when we weren’t sure how COVID spread? Remember when we weren’t sure if we should be wiping down our newly-purchased cereal boxes and bananas? Remember when we weren’t sure what school was going to look like in the months ahead? (Oh, wait… I think that last one about school is STILL true. Yikes.)

Living with the uncertainty brought on by COVID has been no joke. And the stress is still impacting our bodies even as life returns to some semblance of pre-COVID normalcy. Every week I see clients describing difficulties with concentration and focus and irritability and motivation and – last but not least – exhaustion. Is it possible that these clients are anxious or depressed or have ADHD? Yes, of course. But it’s also true that we’re still reeling from a catastrophe most of us couldn’t have imagined two years ago. We all just experienced – and are still experiencing – an ongoing trauma. Our lives were just turned upside down – and stayed that way for more than a year. Of course we’re not going to feel great. Of course we’re going to be struggling.

This relates to an insidious kind of suffering that I see a lot (and that I’m not immune to myself). It happens when we have an unpleasant experience (like “ugh, I’m exhausted”) and then judge ourselves for that experience (like “I shouldn’t be exhausted”). It has variations: I’m grieving a death or break up, but I should be over it by now. Or: I just had a promotion fall through, and something’s wrong with me because I can’t let it go yet. Or: I am struggling but I have so much, so therefore I am wrong to be struggling. (See: privilege syndrome.)

I find that it’s always useful to help clients set realistic expectations for the time and effort it can take to recover from a difficult experience or a trauma. And just because COVID is almost over, that doesn’t mean your body has gotten the message. Our stress is not, unfortunately, a switch that we can just turn on and off. That’s why – if you go on vacation – you don’t automatically feel relaxed. Your body and mind can be in stress-mode even if you’re wearing a swimsuit drinking a mojito.

Think about it like this: your nervous system has likely been on overdrive for more than a year straight at this point, with many more “fight and flight” moments (complete with the release of stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline) and many fewer “rest and digest” moments. At this point, your body has developed a stressed-out baseline rather than a baseline that’s neutral or even relaxed. So it can take some intentional effort to reset and to re-teach our bodies that we are safe with no imminent threat to ourselves or the people we love.

BUT YOU ARE NOT A LOST CAUSE. YOU DON’T HAVE TO LIVE LIKE THIS FOREVER. There are some things we need to learn to accept in life (the need for sleep; the reality of pollen; the deliciousness of pizza). But feeling agitated, panicky, and anxious ALL THE TIME is NOT something we need to accept.

The brain is beautiful, and complicated, and capable of changing. So is your body. So are you, as a person who has survived long enough to be able to find and read this blog post. You deserve to feel okay, no matter your privilege or lack of privilege. You deserve to feel okay, no matter who you are.

It doesn’t have to be like this. Photo by Aarón Blanco Tejedor on Unsplash.
We Are STILL In A Pandemic

We Are STILL In A Pandemic

We Are STILL In A Pandemic

I say these words multiple times a day, multiple times a week: We are STILL in a pandemic. I say these words when a client with depression can’t figure out why they aren’t feeling better, despite their best efforts: We are still in a pandemic. I say these words when a client with anxiety can’t figure out why therapy and exercise aren’t making them feel zen: We are still in a pandemic. I say these to people suffering from loneliness and grief as well as from chronic professional and financial and relationship uncertainty. We are still in a pandemic.

I say these words because it’s easy to dismiss the effort it takes to act normal – and perform normally – in hugely abnormal times. We think, Oh, it’s been a year, so I should have acclimated. This should be easier. But we are still in a pandemic. We believe, Well, I still have my job/home/health/privilege, so I shouldn’t be struggling. To you I say: We are still in a pandemic.

It doesn’t matter how much privilege we have and how much we have been spared. Chronic stress is real, and we are still existing within an extended period of trauma. This trauma affects not just those who have been sick with COVID, but also those of us (and it’s most of us) who have watched the slow-moving epic disaster of COVID wreak havoc on our communities, neighbors, families, economy, schools, the U.S., and the world.

When we beat ourselves up for feeling stress, loneliness, sadness, or worry, we make ourselves feel worse. When people with financial security wallow in guilt about what we have – when so many others live in scarcity – this does not help. Our self-flagellation serves no one and gets in the way of harnessing the energy to figure out how we can be useful to those around us.

So, in the words of the great Bob Newhart in the skit below: STOP IT. (And sheesh – if only it was that easy!)

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.

 

 

 

Are the holidays tough? If so, you’re not the only one.

There’s no way around it: the season of Thanksgiving and the holidays that follow suck for so many of us. As I’ve written here before, grief can be extra lonely and difficult when everyone around you is wishing you a merry Christmas or Happy Hanukah or meaningful Kwanzaa. All of us with complicated families struggle as we perhaps spend more time with family members than usual – or notice their conspicuous absences. Sure, spontaneous gratitude and good cheer may arise. But also there’s the potential for surges of sadness, sorrow, disappointment, anxiety, and pain.

Here’s what I want you to know:

The cultural myth that you “should” be happy at this time of year is not based in reality. If difficult things are happening or have happened to you, especially in November or December, it would be weird if you were suddenly all cheery. Same too if you have seasonal depression. Your low mood likely makes sense given the situation. And, when you beat yourself up for feeling bad instead of good, you’re adding to your pain.

Also, I want you to know that you are not the only one struggling right now. I have the privilege of sitting with lovely, kind, intelligent people every day who are grappling with how to navigate the holiday season without feeling crazy or eating all the cookies you didn’t actually like in the first place. I wish there was a secret handshake or cool badge people could wear to say you’re part of the club of people who’d rather just skip to January, so you could all know and enjoy each other, but alas… I don’t know of anything like that yet.

So, take good care. I MEAN IT. The only way to get to January is to get through November and December. And as stupid as it sounds, drink water! Sleep regular-ish hours! Take walks! Pet animals! And know you’re not alone. Really.

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.

Revisiting Habits, asking “How’s This Working For Me?”

A month ago I went cold turkey.

No online, paper, or radio news.

No social media.

No falling down the internet rabbit hole.

It wasn’t a particularly well-thought-out, planned-for decision. (Which defies everything we think we know about habit change – right? Conventional wisdom is that habits are easiest to change if we have a plan, have prepared, told significant others, have figured out alternatives, etc.)

But I had no plan. It was an impulsive decision, and I had prepared no one, including myself. I just knew that I felt attached at the hip to the news cycle, and wasn’t sure if it was serving me even though it’s easy to believe that we “should” be paying moment-to-moment attention. Life felt loud, like a bunch of clanging bells always ringing, shaking me out of my own thoughts and efforts. I felt attached at the hip to social media because of FOMO, but didn’t find myself happier or more connected as a result. (The research supports that anxiety and depression and isolation can actually increase because of internet usage!) I’m not morally opposed to the internet, and am grateful for the amazing things that happen on it and because of it. I hold no judgments of other people’s internet habits, but was finding that my own habits weren’t feeling particularly skillful. In other words: was it really worth the time and attention I was giving it?

Now, it’s been almost a month and I find that the impulse to open news and social media websites has mostly faded. Sometimes I find myself staring at my email, wanting there to be something entertaining and new there that somehow I missed, but then I realize – oh, I’m tired – or, oh, I’m not doing anything – and close the computer. Somehow, taking a sabbatical from most of my online world has reduced my stress and quieted the clanging.

I don’t miss the news. I hear from friends or family about what’s happening politically, and am concerned but also don’t miss the roller coaster ride. I’m finding other ways to be involved and engaged – reading more books (like The New Jim Crow and Mindful of Race), getting together more with colleagues, and listening to a series of Tara Brach’s lectures on Mindfulness and Psychotherapy. Somehow it seems like I’m experiencing more spaciousness as well – perhaps because I’m bombarding myself less with stimuli. I certainly don’t feel worse. If anything, I feel a bit healthier – a bit more here, in the present moment, with therapy clients and when I’m with family or alone.

My experience has reminded me that taking a step back to assess a part of our life – even a minute, mostly inconsequential part – can sometimes be useful. In the words of America’s favorite non-therapist therapist, Dr. Phil, “How’s that working for you?” He’s cheesy as hell, but it’s a great question.

 

Put Off The Laundry! Instead: An Important, Overlooked Tool for Habit Changing in the New Year

I should be doing laundry, or scrubbing the toilet, or any number of household tasks. But I’m here to tell you to put those things off. If you have a few moments (and I’m going to guess so, if you’re reading this blog post) it’s likely the most useful way you can spend this time is in the simple act of focused self-reflection.

Studies and anecdotal evidence show that when we take time to reflect on a regular basis, we are often able to grow and make changes in ways that otherwise have been impossible. Last year I posted some year-end reflection questions here, and I just spent an hour looking over my own answers from a year ago and answering the same questions again, from where I am today.

Having time and space to reflect is both a luxury and a necessity (kinda like all those other good things: physical movement, time with people who care about us, nourishing food, etc.). Sure, it would have been helpful to have spent the last hour doing laundry or another hundred household tasks, but when we prioritize the immediate, it makes it harder for us to make medium and long-term changes. I believe strongly that most of the time household tasks can wait – what’s a little extra laundry tomorrow? – in favor of reflection that could have way more long-term payoff. 

So here are a few questions to kickstart some reflection time. Turn off your phone notifications, find a quiet space, and give yourself 10 minutes to reflect.

  1. To the extent I have control and influence over my life, how would I like to start the new year?
  2. What would I like to let go of (self-defeating thoughts, behaviors, relationships, etc.) as 2019 starts? Who and what can support me to do this? What barriers can I anticipate and prevent?
  3. What would I like more of in 2019? Who are what can support me to do this? What barriers can I anticipate and prevent?
  4. What are the values and priorities I want to keep front-and-center in 2019?

Surviving Grief During the Holidays

It’s that season. You know the one – the one where there’s upbeat Christmas music playing in stores, and it seems like everyone’s talking about The Holidays (Christmas, New Years – and, less often, Kwanzaa and Hanukah). It’s a special time of year! we’re told. A time for cheer! And parties! 

And the holidays sometimes really, really suck for people who are living with grief and loss. Those with grief don’t usually get a lot of attention at this time of year, or ask for it. (Who wants to say “oh, I’m decorating the tree thinking about my dear friend who died!” or “Hanukah feels different without my mom”). And yet, there’s a large group of us who are mourning someone who was important to us. And we’re more at risk for depression if we’re grieving and feeling isolated when we’re “supposed” to be feeling cheerful. 

I think it’s worth acknowledging that this particular time of year is chock-full of landmines for those of us grieving. Grieving is different for everyone, but a recipe you love might also be a recipe you associate with someone who’s died. The person you called first thing on New Year’s Day may no longer be around. Or, you might have had a terrible relationship with your cousin, but feel immensely guilty for not missing her. Did I already say this can really, really suck? It can be super stressful, even when we’re trying to be brave or have fun or appreciate what we do have.

Here are some great tips about surviving the holidays while living with grief.

And I want to plug the terrific book It’s OK That You’re Not OK. I don’t get paid to do so; I just sincerely loved this book and found it useful.

Take good care – especially now. Self-care is not a luxury when grieving; it’s a necessity.

 

 

 

 

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.