Beginning Again with Self-Compassion: Part One

Dear Blogging Friends,

After my last post admitting the fact that I have no clue what I’m doing with my various blogs and social media pages, my faithful reader, Doug, said he voted for having this be more of a personal blog. Although appealing, it scares me for several reasons. One, I’ve been raised to be very private. (Why not just write in a  journal?)  In addition, some of the things I want to write about involve other people, who don’t want their stories told. I respect that. And then there’s this: a personal blog is, well, personal. Do I really want the world to know how messed up I am? I told my husband a few weeks ago, “I thought I’d be more together by age 52.” He so sweetly and earnestly said, “Being together is over-rated.”

You have been taught that there is something wrong with you and that you are imperfect, and there isn’t and you’re not.

-Cheri Huber

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But, at least for today, I’m going to go for it, and tell you what’s really going on with me.

My self-compassion practice has been a joke. My husband told me the other day that he thinks I’m still way too hard on myself.  I said incredulously, “Really?” I hadn’t even noticed. So I retook the self-compassion test on Kristin Neff’s website and I scored horribly–probably lower than I did when I first started this blog. Oh my gosh. I felt badly because I was feeling so badly about myself! Of course, I started to cry.

My first year of blogging went really well. I was learning to be kinder and more gentle with myself; I felt more peaceful. So what happened? I’m not sure, but here are a few theories (maybe not in order of importance–I’m figuring this out as I go):

1. Chronic pain has worn me down.

  • I’ve felt overwhelmed dealing with doctors and new medicine trials. I’ve had hopes dashed when a medicine gave me so many side effects I stopped taking it, and then read in my records I was labeled “noncompliant.”
  • I don’t have doctors I trust. I feel like I’m flip-flopping around too much, but I can’t find anyone I click with.
  • It’s frustrating having to weigh every decision based on whether I think I’ll be able to manage the pain, and how long I’ll take to recover.
  • The things I like to do the most are the things that exacerbate my pain.

One’s dignity may be assaulted, vandalized and cruelly mocked, but it can never be taken away unless it is surrendered.

-Michael J. Fox

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2. Dealing with depression on top of chronic pain really sucks.

  • I’ve had a long, long history of depression, and I’ve come to realize that I have what’s called “treatment-resistant” depression. Despite lots of psychotherapy and lots of different medications, I have a very difficult time maintaining a stable mood. (And going through menopause definitely made me worse!) I’m not Bipolar with highs and lows–I just have varying degrees of lows, with just enough good days sprinkled in to let me know what I’m missing. My last psychiatrist retired, so I’m starting with a new one. Of course, she thinks the previous doc had me on all the wrong things, so I’m trying some new things, which is EXTREMELY scary for me. I am trying really, really hard. I didn’t read any of the information on side effects and am giving this a chance. It’s been two weeks and I’m afraid to be hopeful, but maybe I am, just a little bit.

When we remember we are all mad, the mysteries disappear and life stands explained.

-Mark Twain

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3. I have an over-active reptilian brain.

The reptilian brain is the part of the brain that deals with threats. From an evolutionary perspective, this part of the brain kept us safe from lions and tigers and bears (oh my!). When confronted with perceived danger, adrenaline kicks in and we swiftly move into survival mode. Our nervous system goes on overdrive and we can do amazing things–run quickly, fight off an enemy, or freeze until our enemy thinks we’re dead and leaves us alone. I would have been great in prehistoric times. But now? My brain is constantly scanning for things to go wrong, leaving me in worry-mode much of the time.

Also, as Kristin Neff pointed out: “…when the threat is to our self-concept, self-criticism does not work well. When you view yourself as the problem (I can’t believe I gained those 5 pounds back, I should’ve gotten an A on that test) the reptilian brain kicks in and attacks yourself, thus the self-critical self-talk.”

To top it off, as neuroscientist Rick Hanson describes it, my brain is like teflon for remembering positive events and velcro for remembering negative events. In actuality, the ratio of positive to negative events in my life is in my favor, but it often doesn’t feel this way. I forget the good.

What does this have to do with my self-compassion practice going awry? I think because these grooves are so deeply cut into my brain that I have to be very intentional to move out of this way of being. And I haven’t been very intentional (partly due to #1 and #2)

We have to have compassion for the self critic. Self-criticism comes from a desire to keep ourselves safe.

-Kristin Neff

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This is getting kind of long, but I’m not finished yet! I’ll continue in Part Two, hopefully in a few days. I want you to know how much I appreciate you reading this and all your support. I am going to begin again with self-compassion, this very moment, and know that it is okay. I’m okay, you’re okay, and everything is already alright.

You are imperfect, permanently and inevitably flawed. And you’re beautiful.

-Amy Bloom

Photos by Greg Markway, taken over the past few weeks.

Wise Women Share Thoughts on Self-Compassion

selfcompassionsaturdayUnderneath virtually all of our suffering lies a lack of self-compassion. When Jill Salahub, author of the blog, A Thousand Shades of Gray, realized this, she began the series, Self-Compassion Saturdays. She interviews women bloggers (artists, writers, coaches, and a psychologist—me) all about self-compassion: what it means, what it looks like, and what they still want to learn. Jill is putting together an e-book based on these interviews. Be sure to subscribe to her blog so you don’t miss it when it’s complete!

I’ve shared highlights of each interview on my Psychology Today blog . Sorry to make you click over–search engines (and Psychology Today) don’t like it if you put the same content two places. Click here to read the full post. Thanks!

Every Word Handwritten

I gave away all my scrapbook things. We’re talking everything. New albums. Paper. Pens. Stickers. Funky scissors and rulers. It was really difficult, but it was time. My fine motor skills have gotten worse, and scrapbooking greatly exacerbates my pain.

I’ve been a serious album maker for many years. I got my first stash when our son was a baby. I went to a Creative Memories show and came home with $200 worth of supplies. Back then (well, even now) that was a lot of money. I came in the house and Greg said, “You’d better use that stuff.” I stayed up late that night making my first scrapbook of our son. Since then I’ve made holiday albums, sports albums, ABC albums, quilt albums, heritage albums, everyday happenings albums, anniversary albums, celebration albums… So much time and detail. Every word handwritten. (Link to a cool song that is loosely related)

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One of my favorite memories is walking into our family room and finding my then 10-year-old son and all his neighborhood friends (who all went to school together), gathered around looking at his Kindergarten album. Yes, I have an entire album just for Kindergarten!

It’s been a week and a half since I gave everything away, and I’m still a little sad. Greg has been super nice. I think some guys wouldn’t understand how hard this was. But he did. He also told me, though, that this was a way of taking care of myself.

I found a unique group of young women to give my things to–the “Groovy Girls Collective.” They describe themselves as “a community gathering place devoted to supporting, educating, and mentoring women of all ages, nurturing collaborative creators both locally and worldwide.”  (I may be giving up something, but if it has a world-wide impact, that’s OK with me.) One of my neighbors’ daughters is involved, and I contacted her, who said they would definitely like some scrapbook supplies. Here’s a few pictures from their Facebook page.

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Visiting an animal shelter.

Visiting an animal shelter.

A lemonade stand.

A lemonade stand.

Although I’m sad, I’m also excited, as I can already tell these young women are having lots of fun and great things are happening. Maybe some of these pictures will end up in a scrapbook one day.

50 is the new 60

30-40-50-60-thirties-forties-fifties-old-birthday-ecardI don’t mean to sound negative, but I’m tired of hearing that 40 is the new 30, and 50 is the new 40.

I’m 51 and I feel like 60.

I exercise. I eat fairly well. I take my Centrum Silver one-a-day vitamin. But anyone with chronic health problems will tell you,  the everyday struggles can age you.

I wanted to write a whole post about this, but I lost steam. So instead, I’m rereading some of my own blog. Here are a few posts on taking care of yourself when you’re in pain, or just not feeling well for whatever reason.

Tiny Dreams A reminder to those of us struggling with chronic pain or illness of the need to adjust our expectations (dreams) to fit our current reality. Very short post, with some really nice comments.

People tell you to dream big

but maybe it’s the tiny dreams that matter.

Sometimes my dream

is just to make it through the day.

Coping with Chronic Illness…Compassionately My interview with author of How to Be Sick, Toni Bernhard (be sure and read the whole interview; Toni is awesome):

I always tell people that the single most important thing they can do is to be kind to themselves. I look at it this way. We control so little in our lives, but the one thing we can control is how we treat ourselves. I see no reason for us not to be as kind and gentle with ourselves as we can be. It’s not our fault that we have health problems. We’re in bodies and they get sick and injured. It will happen to everyone. This is how it’s happening to us. I’ve had so many people write to me and say the single most important thing they got out of my book was to give up the self-blame and forgive themselves for being sick or in pain. Many people have said they didn’t even realize they hadn’t forgiven themselves until they read How to Be Sick. Those emails always touch me so much — just to know I’ve been of help to them.

Leaving Judgment Behind A post about a story I told to my husband, who then told it to someone at work, and how it made a difference.

My influence may be less direct, but no less meaningful. And maybe it’s not about producing a quantity of work…maybe its about being as compassionate as I can be, to myself and others, and seeing where that leads me.

A Horse with No Name A quirky little post where I lament that there’s no colored ribbon or bracelet for people without a firm diagnosis.

I’m thinking about all the people who aren’t sure what’s wrong with them. They’ve been to specialists, had all the tests, and carried their MRIs down many a hallway.  I  wish there was a ribbon for people like us. I even went to a paint store to look at paint chips, in hopes of finding the perfect color name for our ribbon. The best one I found was “Mysterious Mauve.” It’s a subtle mix between gray and purple. Beautiful.

Today, know that I believe you. I know you’re not crazy. Doctors do the best they can, but they’re human, too. They make mistakes. They don’t have all the answers. They don’t always have a name for what we have, but that doesn’t make it not real. As Toni said in her interview, “The single most important thing we can do is to be kind to ourselves.”

And maybe 60 isn’t so bad; with age comes wisdom.

I “hang out” the most on Facebook. I’d love it if you join me! You can click here or over on the side (no one ever sees it over there).

 

Self-Compassion and Setbacks

madewithover-12I originally wrote this for Psychology Today, but I think the information may also be useful to my awesome readers here.  Haven’t we all had the experience of trying to change something–maybe exercise more, quit smoking, or eat healthy? We do great for awhile and then boom, we “mess up.” How do we keep a setback from turning into a major relapse, and along with it, feeling awful about ourselves? Here are some gentle suggestions (on Psychology Today, they’d be called “tips.”  Oh, and they’d also be numbered.)

Expect setbacks. Change takes time, and often frequent tries. For example, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, most smokers require 5 to 7 attempts before they finally quit. Did these people fail the 5 to 7 times prior to the final cessation of smoking? Or were these attempts part of their eventual success? Consider thinking of all of these tries as part of the process. It’s all good.

Check your stress level.  An increase in physical or mental stress may be the culprit. For example, if you’ve been sick with the flu, your resistance may be lowered leaving you more susceptible to setbacks. Other kinds of stress, such as work or family problems can leave you feeling drained and less able to cope.

Follow your self-care policies. I’ve learned the importance of making my self-care activities a priority by writing them down, almost like a policy. Everyone’s “policy” will vary, but mine includes things such as getting enough sleep,  time outside in nature, etc. Too often, when we get busy, the things we need the most are the things we let slide. This makes us very vulnerable to a setback. (Here’s a list of over 80 self-care ideas.)

Keep practicing. If your recovery or behavior change plan  involves specific activities—journaling, meditating, walking —make sure you don’t stop doing these things, even if you’re doing well. Sometimes it’s the good times, not the stressful times that take you off guard. Author Judi Hollis makes an apt analogy: “The tight rope walker, so well practiced he almost performs while sleeping, is the one facing slips or near misses. The newly trained aerialist or acrobat exhibits stringent caution. It is the seasoned performer, lulled into false confidence, who takes the fall.”

Identify your personal warning signs. You might notice an increase in physical symptoms, such as a frequent upset stomach, headaches or heart palpitations. Maybe you notice a lot more negative self-talk. Perhaps you find yourself drinking more, worrying, or being irritable. Everyone’s early warning signs will be different, but it’s important to notice any possible patterns.

Recognize it early. This follows closely with identifying your personal warning signs. The sooner you can catch yourself in a setback, the sooner you can get yourself back on track.

Recommit. Remind yourself of your goals and what you deeply care about. Recommit yourself to doing activities aligned with your values. Don’t give up!

Realize you’re human. Psychologist and author Kristin Neff identifies a sense of shared humanity as one of the three main components of self-compassion. We’re all imperfect; it’s part of being human. Remind yourself that setbacks happen to everyone.  It’s okay to make mistakes. You’re not alone.

Live in the gray. Life is a paradox. I like to remind myself that I’m doing the best I can at any given moment, AND I can do better. It’s not a beating-myself-up kind of “I can do better” but a gentle nudge.

Seek out support. If you’re feeling badly about yourself for “screwing up,” your first instinct may be to hide in a hole. But this is exactly the time when you need to reach out to your support system. And if you don’t have one, you just need to look on the Internet and do a little searching, and you’re sure to find someone going through a similar situation.

Remember, life is not linear. Don’t think you have to progress in a perfectly linear fashion. Most people cycle in and out of change. As writer and creativity coach Jenna McGuiggan notes, life is often “one step forward, two steps back, and three to the side for good measure.”

Give yourself credit. Remind yourself of the steps you’ve taken, regardless of how small they might seem to you. I’ve always liked this Chinese proverb: “Be not afraid of going slowly, be afraid only of standing still.”

Don’t let it snowball. Relapse prevention experts use the term abstinence violation effect (AVE) to describe a particularly dangerous form of black-and-white thinking. The classic example is the person on a diet that eats something not on the plan, and then thinks, “What the heck, I’ve already blown it so I might as well keep on eating.” Be on the lookout for this. Try self-soothing statements such as: “It’s okay. One slip up doesn’t mean I have to throw in the towel.” This is not a time to berate yourself. Instead of piling on the criticism, calmly tell yourself that something needs to be adjusted. Maybe you’re being too rigid with yourself… Maybe you need to back off a bit…

You can always begin again.This is the most powerful message I’ve learned from studying meditation. I am a complete novice, yet I’ve already gained so much. Sharon Salzberg, author of Real Happiness, talks about this idea of “beginning again”. When meditating, our mind begins to wander. This is normal and to be expected. What matters is what we do when it happens. This is, as she says, “the magic moment”. Do we beat ourself up? Do we tell ourself we’re a failure? Do we give up and say it’s too hard? Or, do we learn that we can bring our attention back, with gentleness and kindness, again and again? To me, this is a metaphor for life. We don’t have to wait until Monday to start eating healthy again. We can make the choice to honor our intentions with the very next bite of food we put in our mouth.

Regardless of our goals, slow and steady progress, even with a few setbacks sprinkled in, works just fine.

Chronic Resilience

51QsZGoNEEL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_AA278_PIkin4,BottomRight,-67,22_AA300_SH20_OU01_Why do I have chronic pain? It’s a question I’ve wrestled with for years now. I’ve been to surgeons who told me they could cure me, so I’ve gone that route–two back surgeries, one cervical and one lumbar. I’ve had a world-renowned physician tell me I had thoracic outlet syndrome (see this lovely post by my husband). I’ve had a physical medicine doctor tell me I had too little muscle between my shoulder blades and needed to work out more.  (Well, I’m stronger but I still have pain.) I’ve tried physical therapy. I’ve tried massage.  I’ve taken supplements and tried acupuncture. Recently I’ve had a doctor bring up the possibility of fibromyalgia.

In addition, being the psychologist that I am, I’ve explored every mental aspect of this pain thing. I’ve been to therapists and psychiatrists. I’ve read books that said I needed to release some anger.  I’ve learned to meditate and manage my stress. I’ll latch on to one theory, only to find another, and chase that one like a dog chasing after a rabbit. It’s exhausting, and not very productive.

Sunday I was having a bad day and the ruminating began. Why am I in more pain today? Did I sit too long in one position? Did I type too much? Did I work out too hard? Am I stressed out about something?

I tried to distract myself from my worry by surfing the Internet, and I stumbled across a soon to be released book called, Chronic Resilience: 10 Sanity Saving Strategies for Women Coping with the Stress of Illness by Danea Horn. Thanks to Amazon’s “Search Inside” feature, I was able to read some of the first chapter. It was so what I needed!

The author has a chronic health condition and had gone through similar soul searching. She writes, “I searched my psyche for feelings and thoughts that needed to be healed. I prayed to increase my faith…I read book after book, until I had a bookcase filled top to bottom with answers, none of which seemed to miraculously fix what I envisioned as broken.” Years later she asked herself, “Why am I still dealing with the same crap I’ve been dealing with for years?” (I really relate to that question!)

madewithover-10Then it hit her. The answer was simple: She realized that she was human. We come into this world with bodies that can get sick, experience pain, and eventually die. We do anything to resist these truths. We want to think we have more control than we do. She writes, “Each page I turned in all those books was a search for how to get out of being human.”

Of course, I know this. Yeah, I’m human. We’re all human. But somehow, reading her words, it hit me in a profound way. I didn’t cause this. I didn’t wake up one day and say, “Hey, I think I’ll spend the next seven or eight years going to doctors, having surgeries and taking pills.” I think far worse than the pain has been the questioning of my sanity.  (Although I do remember feeling kind of oddly disappointed when my last therapist told me I was normal–just a normal person with chronic pain.)

So, I am super excited to get her book (official release day is tomorrow, August 1).  I love the title, Chronic Resilience. When I first became interested in psychology, I wanted to know what made people go crazy. The more I learned, my question became, “Why don’t more people go crazy?” Life can be hard, yet people survive, and even thrive. From reading the sample on Amazon, reading an interview she did, and looking at the table of contents, the idea isn’t that we have no control. The idea is to let go of asking “Why?” and instead focus on, “What can I do that’s useful?” And for me, I think all this psychoanalyzing has gone too far.  The next time I get stuck in a worry groove asking “Why?” or  “What have I done?”, I’m going to gently tell myself, “Hey, you haven’t done anything wrong. You’ve already got the answer. You’re human.”

Ahhh. To use Danea’s words,  I can feel “all of the cells in my body let out a collective sigh of relief.”

Please join me on Facebook. There’s a button over on the side, but no one ever sees it.

Embrace Change

I hadn’t done a craft project in months, thanks to my companion, chronic pain. But a project was SO calling me, it was worth the inevitable flare.

For Mother’s Day, Greg and Jesse gave me a mobile that you attach photos to. When I saw it, I immediately had an idea in my mind of what I wanted to do. (For some reason I didn’t want to simply attach photos to it.)  I ended up cutting an old Kelly Rae Roberts calendar into bird shapes. I had to do one bird, then stretch, take a break, and maybe an hour later do another bird. It was kind of frustrating because I don’t like having to break the flow. But I’m getting better at pacing myself – well most of the time. I don’t have to give up the things I love, but I do have to change the way I go about them. So this project took me several days, but I love how it turned out.

Another thing I hadn’t done lately is do a photo shoot with Greg. We took the mobile outside in our backyard and I gave him instructions that I wanted “lots of green twinkly things” in the background. The only issue is that we have new neighbors and they’re frequently outside. I feel kind of self-conscious doing all the weird photo things we do out there. The weekend they moved in I was throwing colored tissue paper in the air.

I also had him take a picture of me in my new glasses. I’m still trying to get used to the 51-year-old me. I think I look much better without glasses, but that’s not an option anymore. So here’s to embracing change, and trying to do it gracefully.

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Embrace Change

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Begin. Leap. Take Flight.

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and then she learned to hold joy in her heart

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feel your fears and act anyway

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Shine

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Gratitude

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