Archives for December, 2012
As we wave goodbye to another year and welcome in a new one, I wanted to share with you the inspiring message from December's edition of "Good News for Eating Disorders Recovery". You ARE Good at Recovery Recently I got a message from a Facebook friend. She asked a question I have heard all too often over the years - "What if I am just NO GOOD at recovery?" The implication was clear. What if she simply wasn't made of the right stuff to pull this "recovery" thing off? What if she tried .... and failed? I spent years thinking this way, worrying myself sick that I was no good at recovery, that I would never ever recover, that everyone would laugh at me for even trying (or already was). But then I recovered.
Often when I fall in love with a movie, it starts with a single line that hits home. For instance, let's take the original "Pirates of the Caribbean" movie. I know there have been like a zillion new ones since the original, but I am still stuck on the first one. It is because of "the guidelines" (otherwise known as the "Pirate's Code"). When Elizabeth (Keira Knightley) invokes the rule of parlay and is told only after being imprisoned aboard the Black Pearl that the Code is not a rule, per se, but more like a set of guidelines, I was hooked. I see this as how all of life is - or at least how it is in my life. I try to make rules. "I will never do this." "I will always do that." "This is the most important goal in my life." "I will not put up with that any more in my life." And then I do....or I don't. What feels absolutely wrong one day, or in one moment or situation, might be absolutely the right choice for another. It has taken me a long, long, LONG time to figure out that this is how my life works.
I don't know what it is about the holiday season, but it seems like, every year at about this time, everybody I know starts worrying out loud about whether they are doing enough or getting enough out of life. Perhaps all that family crowded into such a small space brings up old memories about what we dreamed about being or doing when we were kids. Or maybe it is the looming threat of January 1 and our as-yet-unset resolutions. Whatever it is, I too often find myself falling victim to holiday anxiety about years past, present and future. As human beings, perhaps we are programmed to automatically begin a life-inventory every so many months, and the ending of one calendar year and the beginning of the next just happens to be a convenient time to work this in. Add to this that, courtesy of our respective employers, many of us get a few extra days off, and it may just be that we suddenly find ourselves with both the motive and the means to conduct our inventory. For me personally, since my birthday and the Christmas holidays and New Year's all fall right around the same time, I sometimes feel like I get the triple dose of holiday navel-gazing. But this year, things have felt a bit different. I turned 42 a few days ago, and I feel more settled now in my own skin than I have ever felt before in my life. In fact, this is the first year ever that I didn't text my mentor for holiday support! That has to count for something (although I texted her anyway just to tell her I love her).
I was at a friend's birthday party last Friday night and I had an interesting conversation. Of course, nearly every conversation will be interesting once someone asks me the inevitable question, "So what do you do?" "Oh, I'm a writer and a speaker." "Well, what do you write and speak about?" "Eating disorders. And mentoring." That pretty much does it - from there I can sit back and listen. The person usually either chooses to regale me with their "best hits" collection of eating disorder jokes ("I have an eating disorder, too - I eat too much hahahaha!") or to share their mentoring stories with me. This particular woman shared her story of being mentored while in graduate school. She was learning how to debate and she was quite good at it, save for one notable flaw. She couldn't seem to hide her opinions during a conversation. While my brother was heavily into debate in high school, I never did get involved in it, so I didn't realize that part of being a good debater is being able to remain open to hearing the other side's argument. Apparently, the point of staying receptive and open is not to see if the other side can change your opinion, but so that you can have more information you can use to win the debate. If you don't fully take in and comprehend your opponent's reasoning and point of view, you may miss valuable clues that can give you the advantage later on in the debate. Also, people tend to share more when they feel heard, so maintaining a neutral expression and open body language can get your opponent to open up and share more. This woman told me that her mentor sat her down and told her that in every way, from her stance to her body language to the expression on her face and the look in her eyes, she made it clear that she was not open to even listening to other debater's perspective. He told her, "You are just having a conversation. It is okay to hear the other person's point of view."
Labels. They are EVERYWHERE. Labels are affixed to our clothing and glued to the sides of our food packages. They are displayed on the front of buildings, in our online dating profiles, and on our driver's licenses. Most of all, they exist, prominently and for most of us, for the balance of our natural lifetimes, inside our heads. They separate you from me, and us from them. They train us to see opposite genders, differing sexual preferences, and different faith backgrounds as separate and apart, desirable or undesirable, dangerous or safe. In all of these labels, we are frequently so busy staring at what we think are different species of trees that we miss the unified forest we form together in our shared humanness. Beneath all those labels, underneath all of our individual surface differences, what we will universally find is a single human being deep inside each of us - a human being who feels, thinks, fears, cries, loves and dreams right alongside ourselves. On the one hand, labels can be helpful. For instance, it can be mighty uncomfortable (and all too, um, revealing) to misread the labels displayed on the front of a set of twin public restroom doors. In the same way, if you are allergic to a certain food, you for sure want a label on what you are about to consume that clearly states "don't eat this!" - that sort of thing is life-saving to my precious two-year-old nephew, Gavin. Perhaps most interesting to note, labels are not bad, harmful, or unwelcome on their own.
As I have mentioned several times to date here, I don’t spend a lot of time reading magazines. Partly this is because I feel morally opposed to using my hard-won cash to support publications which are often packed to the gills with advertising I disagree with. Partly, it is because I don’t have time. Partly, it is because my bird, Pearl, chews through the pages before I can read them. But that is a topic for a different post. Let’s take Time magazine, for instance. When it arrives, I first quickly scan the cover to see if I have any hopes of comprehending the cover story (usually the answer here is “no”). Then I flip to the back and glance through the “top 10 questions” with the celebrity guest of the month. Then I read Joel Stein, who seems to intuitively grasp that his one-page column will likely be the only article in the whole issue that I will readily understand. When I am done with Joel, I then promptly pop the magazine in the recycling bag. But every so often I just have a feeling about a certain issue, and then I go thumbing through it, looking for whatever article is calling for my attention. This month the article was in the magazine Real Simple, and it was called “The Conversation That Changed Me”. There were several short stories in the piece, and I read them all. They were all very moving. But when I got to the one called “My boss taught me to stop trying to impress everyone”, I paused for a while. The woman who wrote the piece, Meredith Maran, shared that as a naturally extroverted, Type A personality, she had grown accustomed in social settings to bouncing about a room, talking to everyone she met, introducing herself, and “getting it done”, whether from a networking or a friendship perspective. As an introvert myself, I could only relate to her typical way of being from the networking perspective, as this is what I have often forced myself to do when I have attended conferences and conventions, and certainly during my speaking events when I am the only person I am likely to recognize in the room. But then one day, Meredith’s boss, a kind and gentle man and a practicing Buddhist from how she described him, pulled her aside.
Recently I received a question from a reader that relates to this post about something I call "habitual anxiety". She wrote: Thank you for this. I am exactly here, at this very moment, and your post is invaluable. I do have a question though. Could you explain a little more about how not to suppress the anxiety while challenging it? I find combining acceptance and challenging thoughts confusing. Thanks! I think this is a great question. So great in fact that I am tempted to go ask someone else for "the answer". But unfortunately, I already know that there is no one answer that will fit each individual's situation when it comes to habitual, or habit-forming, anxiety. So instead, I will just share what works for me. I actually have a series of steps I follow when I work with my own anxiety. Roughly, here they are (I've never tried to actually write them down before!): I notice my anxiety and name it - "Aha. I am feeling 'anxious'." I congratulate myself for noticing and naming my emotion correctly. I say to myself, "I am feeling anxious....and that is okay." The "okay" part reduces any shame or vulnerability I may be feeling about feeling anxious. It defuses one of my "hot buttons", which is my belief that I am an anxious person who is weakened by her anxiety. I remind myself that anxiety is just a feeling like any other - it does not have any meaning other than the one I give it, and it does not define me as a person. I take some deep breaths. As I breathe in and out, I allow the anxious feelings to bubble up, through and out of me. If I notice myself trying to hold the anxiety in, push it down, control its intensity or ignore it, I refocus on my breath and remind myself that I will be okay - if I let the anxiety out, it is coming out so it can LEAVE. Yahoo!! I do the deep breathing and feeling part until I am feeling less anxious. Sometimes I need to call my mentor or a friend if I am quite anxious, so I also do that at this point if needed. Once I feel less anxious, that is when I have an opportunity to work through the issue, memory or whatever else may be causing the anxiety. Trying to work through it while it feels very intense is not productive and can even damage my self-esteem. At no point do I "challenge" the anxiety, so to speak. I don't challenge its right to be there or the truth of its presence. Rather, I inquire of it what lesson it has come to teach me. I know that some people like to challenge tough emotions head-on but that actually doesn't work for me so I can't speak to that. For me, it just makes the emotion that much stronger and more bullheaded about sticking around and making me miserable. Trying to welcome it as a necessary visitor for as-yet-to-be-determined reasons works better for me. I then try to determine what "type" of anxiety it is. More on that in the rest of this post.... So these are the basic steps I tend to follow when addressing my own anxious feelings. I don't always do all nine, and I don't always do them exactly in order, but I have done all of them in the past and they are each helpful in a different way. As well, these days I often follow the meditation technique I described in my earlier post on this topic and that helps greatly. Next, I try to determine what type of anxiety it is.
In a society that lives, breathes even, on the credo of "more, better, faster", I often feel like I am chasing ghosts in my search for inner contentment. Don't get me wrong - I am not giving up. But so often I spend an entire day chasing what I think is "contentment", only to discover by day's end that it was just another desire. For instance, recently I realized that the state of "happiness" and the state of "contentment" are not one and the same. They cannot possibly be. When I look at the examples of the lives of the great ones - Gandhi, Mother Teresa, the Dalai Lama, Jesus, Buddha, Moses and others- I see so much hardship as well as joy. Yet these are the same beings who continually advocated a peaceful approach, an approach where each day is a whole life lived in and of itself, and one's inner state is entirely dependent upon one's own intention about the same. The definition of "contentment" I find in modern language dictionaries is similarly confusing. For instance, Dictionary.com states that contentment means "a state of happiness and satisfaction". But contrast this with what the Bible (and probably other great holy texts) say contentment means: "An internal satisfaction which does not demand changes in external circumstances". This second definition, to me, much more fully describes what I am attempting to cultivate in my own life. When I am feeling happy (which is usually because I am getting something I want) it is easy to be contented. But what about when I am not feeling so happy? What about when I feel depressed or sad, angry or lonely? Where is contentment then? If contentment is not the same as happiness, not the same as satisfaction, then it must still be there, hiding underneath the endless surf of my emotions. It has to be there - or otherwise the entire concept of "contentment" is a myth - an urban legend.
For years therapists (and others) have been telling me that I too easily appropriate the emotions of others for my own. For years, I have had no idea what they were talking about. I cannot begin to express how much time and money and effort I have spent attempting to heal from "my" emotional wounds over the years, only to encounter yet another treatment professional who would solemnly pronounce, "but don't you see how you are taking on your parents'/brother's/ex-boyfriend's/friend's/colleague's jealousy/anger/guilt/shame/fear as your own? In my politeness-person moments I might nod sagely (I hoped) and agree that yes, I most certainly did. Most of the time, however, I would just gaze at the person I had just paid whatever amount of money to, hoping that my expression would convey whatever it needed to in order to get me off the hook. Rarely, I would admit that no, I really didn't, but I soon learned that only earned me a repeat performance of the initial explanation - you know, the one I hadn't understood. But then, the other day, all of a sudden it made sense to me. I was lying in bed (here, I could substitute "showering", "jogging", "cleaning" or other similar activity - really, anywhere but in the aforementioned treatment professional's office) and it was like - "aha! I GET it."