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Hope Forward: Surviving and Thriving through Emotional Pain: August 2008

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Body Shopping

Used to be that going to the beach was really a day at the beach. Sun, sand, waves, the amazing smell of the ocean (and french fries) and what mattered was how to get a great tan without getting fried, and how to blot out the people around you so you could float away into the golden universe of vacation.

But now, I hear, its about body shopping. Not that this is new. Truth is, I've known about it for a while. And certainly, there is nothing new about women comparing their bodies to the bodies around them. Happens all the time everywhere. Dressing rooms, pools, grocery stores. Competitive creatures that we are, and well trained by society and every message at every turn, to attain the perfect body, women are still as consumed as ever with perfecting our look. What I really find awesome though, is how completely absorbing this habit can be. Its like the great blinder, it allows those who do it to forgo any pleasure at actually being in the day, in the warmth of the sand, the ease of the ocean air and be totally focused on the shape, size and structure of the bodies around them.

So here is how I've heard body shopping defined: It is the habit or art of looking around you for the body or bodies that you would most like to have, that you envy, covet and crave. When you find such a body, you can first fill up with jealousy and awe, and then you can start to think really hateful self pitying thougths about your own body. You can make this the most important idea in life. Her good body, and your terrible one. You can assume that everyone on the beach, and in the universe for that matter, knows that your body is awful, and that other bodies are much much better.

The whole world of course, notices this and thinks that nothing in the world matters except the look of the body. Forget that you can hear great music with your ears, or the sound of the waves crashing onto the shore. Forget that you can see all the way out to the horizon where sea meets sky and the blues and greys and whites are so pure that it almost hurts, and forget that you can smell saltwater and feel sea spray and walk on two feet with sand squished between your toes. Or that your heart is beating, your lungs are filling up on without you having to remind them, and that your knees bend so you can walk without stiffness.

What a thief body shopping is. Most women do it to some degree. Some of us have agreed on some deep level to let body shopping take over as our guide to feeling good or bad. If our body rates better than most, we are good. If its worse than most, we are bad. Our measuring stick is not what's inside us, but whats around us.

We size each other up and down, and sooner or later we lose. Its not a day at the beach to live like that. We miss out on so much. Just wondering, what if. What if the next time we start to indulge, we could just thank our liver for functioning so well, and take a deep breath and enjoy our lungs, and look at the sky and think: wow.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Vampire Love, Comfort and Guides

Lately I've been hearing a lot about Stephenie Meyer and her books on vampires and love. I have to admit that I have not yet read them... though I am hoping to. But I am thinking a lot about the themes that come up in my office that are connected to these books.

Love, for one. And pain. And decision making. Oh, and growing up, dealing with difficult parents, and having someone to protect, and comfort you, and someone to consult with. Just to name a few.

No wonder lots of you are gobbling up her books, escaping into dreamy desperate love and connecting to the agony of difficult decisions. And maybe, looking for clues about how to live life and get through when its all so crazy sometimes.

The thing about hurting is this: it helps to be able to say it all out to someone reliable. Not someone who will (oh, forgive this) bite you. Talking to someone who you can trust not to tell you that you should "get over it," snap out of it," "forget about it," someone who will really give you a solid dose of understanding, goes a long way. Of course, finding such a someone is not always easy. It has to be someone who has the ablility to tolerate their own feelings of discomfort and yours as well. Someone who is willing to take a seat next to the part of you that is aching, and just be with you for a bit.

Lots of times people who are close to you are in a hurry to fix your pain, fix the problem or make it go away. Sometimes its out of love, sometimes fear, and sometimes, just not knowing what to do. Sometimes its other things that get in the way. They may never have been listened to well themselves, and don't know how. Either way, you may not get the understanding and guidance that you might want or need.

What to do? A few things. Know that its very human to need someone to trust, guide and comfort you. But you may not be able to get all that from one source. You may have to look to a few different sources. But look. Consider all your options: a teacher, a peer, a parent, a counselor, a therapist, a religious leader, a family friend.

And consider telling them what you need: a good ear, some understanding, some comfort. And advice only when you ask for it. You may have to be willing to train someone, but it will be worth it.

And if you are not finding a human so quickly, you can create your own comfort guide. You can dream up in your mind the ideal guide, a protective angel, a loving counselor. Give him or her all the best traits you can imagine. And let them only say good, kind, loving and reassuring things to you. Guides are positive, and direct you toward safety, grace and life. They remind you that you are valuable and good and that things can get better.

Give yourself the freedom to bring some company into your weary heart. It helps.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Down Dark Hallways

Why do we go? Over and over again I hear folks tell me that they go to places that they know are not safe. I am not talking about real places even, though that too. Certainly that. But to cyber places and mental places. I have been thinking most recently about ruminating and perseverating. About going over and over again in our mind a particular event, memory or idea. Trying to grind our fists together to reverse time, or work out a problem or change history. Or figure out why someone acted or spoke the way they did.

How is it that we pursue relief by excessive thinking? And hurt ourselves at the same time.

The twelve step folks will tell you that this is downright dangerous; thinking that we can think our way out of something on our own. Thinking that we can control something or someone, or get relief by obsessive reviewing in our mind by ourselves.

Some of us, being altogether too human, recoil at the idea that we may have made some mistakes along the way, that if we were wrong, then we are worthless. (five mistakes a day says a pal of mine - ten if part of the time we are awake). So we review, rethink, revisit ad nausium so as to try not to have been wrong. Or to punish ourselves if we think we were. Often times self name calling goes along with this kind of mind wringing ("you idiot," "what were you thinking?" "Dummy," "screwed it up again, " or worse, and you know what I mean!). We take ourselves down over things. And we forget to build ourselves back up.

Some of us go to cyber hell. A friend of mine just got divorced, and before the ink was dry on the papers, her ex-husband remarried. She knew it was coming, but still. Of course the new couple has a web page and a blog of their happiness and joy. So what does my friend do? She checks out that blog almost everyday. She saw the blow by blow of the honeymoon (para sailing at sunset in Hawaii), and lots of very cuddly pics of the newly wed bliss. And my friend goes into convulsions of emotional angst. She thinks about all the times that he promised her a vacation and never would plan one. She remembers all the things she thinks she could have done to keep him from leaving (the "if only I had just...), and she remembers what a louse he was (in her opinion), and she signs onto the computer and looks at him now and puts logs on the fire of her pain.

Down the dark hallway into dark dark rooms.

I am not suggesting we don't revisit painful experiences and reflect on our role, and our lives. (I am a therapist after all!), but I am suggesting we don't go alone, and we don't stay too long at any given time.

And that we leave a trail back out of the woods so that we don't get totally lost. A few crumbs of truth, like that we can move forward, that our value is still intact, that while we are shaped by grief, loss, disappointment, regret and anger, we don't have to be ruled by it. That feelings are not always facts. We can agree with ourselves that we will leave room to meditate on the positive, recall our strengths, accomplishments, gratitudes (yes, we all have them, you can come up with at least a few in each category!)

A little grace goes a long way. Especially to hurt souls.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Serious Stuff, This Pain

Its amazing how badly we can hurt. How deeply we feel things. I have heard many descriptions of emotional pain over the years. I have had people describe where in their bodies they feel things, what color the pain is.

I ask. Does it ache, or throb, or sting? Or feel like a gong in the chest? Or all of the above.

Do you forget about it for bit, only to have it come back and stab you in the middle? Or does it start to percolate somewhere in your lungs and spread through your limbs? Does it feel like its following you around pinching you from behind?

Forgive the drama, but if you hurt, then you know what I mean. You know that in the quiet of the night, and bright of the day, if you are wounded in your soul, there is sometimes no good enough description. The closest we can come is to talk about the heavy cloak of darkness and the wonderment that we can even go, barely, about our business.

And why is it that when we feel our lonliest, we isolate the most? Somehow in the midst of the hurt, we hide. We retreat to that place in our mind where we can be alone with our sorrow. Sometimes wanting someone to rescue us and sometimes wanting to be left with our righteous certainty that no one in the world would understand us.

All sorts of thoughts go flashing through our minds, like lightening during the day. Its there, but we don't see it. We hear the thunder though.

Whenever we have a really bad feeling, its usually preceeded by a thought. The trick is to slow our brain down and recall what thoughts are flashing, and flashing so fast that we dont see them, and causing all the pain.

Sometimes its the "voice" (more on this is future posts). The negative, self attacking thougths that get us. The big ones are usually to the tune of "You are worthless," "You are an idiot," "You screwed that up so badly," "Why bother?" "You can't stand this." Etc. Sometimes the messages and name calling are a lot worse than that and abundantly present. Like a bad tape that just goes on playing forever. (for more on the voice, check out the book The Deadly Diet by Dr. Terry Sandbeck).

And sometimes the pain is from an event. Or things that have happened to us. Being left, hurt, critisized, misunderstood, mistreated. We can unpack it of course. Trace it back to the source. Like remembering who punched you and why. Sometimes the voice jumps on the bandwagon too. Like when you remember that your partner has just left you, and as if thats not bad enough, the voice chimes in with how you will never have love again, must've deserved it, can't manage a relationship and are just an all round screw up. More pain, just layers and layers of it.

Another source of pain is thinking we have made a mistake that is unforgiveable. Many people feel their worst when they think they have screwed up. A good friend of mine says that we are allowed to make five mistakes a day. Ten if we are awake. And not attack ourselves for it. No self flagalation over messing up. A tall order for those among us who really excel at the art of self attack.

Whatever the source of the pain, an event, a mistake, the negative voice that won't shut up, we have options. We have tools and choices and the possiblitiy of tending tenderly to our black and blue psyches.

Somewhere in the heaviness of it all, we have to know that its serious stuff, this pain. That we have to honor it, consider it, and tend to it. In whatever ways we can. Stay Tuned.

Stuck and Unstuck: Starting Points

"It doesnt matter how long we may have been stuck in a sense of our limitations. If we go into a darkened room and turn on the light, it does not matter if the room has been dark for a day, a week or ten thousand years. We turn on the light and the room is illuminated" Sharon Salzberg

Stuckness means that you have not yet understood well enough what it is that keeps you from moving forward. Perhaps it has not been talked about deeply, not everything has been said, or said enough.

I have always believed that our stuckness is there for a good reason. Often people tell me that they want to move forward, to feel better, to get out of the problem and into the solution, but that there is something in the way. They don't know what.

Sometimes it helps to unpack the possibilities. In therapy speak, to figure out the "secondary gain," of whats keeping you from doing what it takes to do what it takes. I often recommend making a "guess list". Talk it out with someone safe, or write it out. What do you get from not moving forward? Why are those things important? What are the possible next right things to a therapist?, say more to the one you have?, go to a 12 Step meeting?, write a letter?, research information? etc.... and then guess at what might be in the way of doing those things...fear of failure, fear of people, fear of change, fear of being disappointed, (lots of times its fear of something, more on this in future posts).

Sometimes its anger. We want someone else to change, or we think that if we make the move it will be admitting defeat, or fault.

Or that if we move away from the problem then we will be nothing without it. We will have to face some kind of emptiness, void or loss. What will replace it? Who would we be without it?

How much in a hurry are you? Can you study things for a bit? Or is it urgent? What if it takes some time? Often there is someone else in picture who is pushing (or shoving), demanding a solution faster than one can happen. I find this a lot when I work with teenagers and young women. Parents want it fixed now, yesterday. No one wants to suffer or see someone they love suffering. But forcing action is not always the way to go, sometimes a gentler approach yields a better outcome.

We need to be ready to be unstuck. And to grace and study the stuckness. The movement will come when its time. And light will be light, no matter how long it was dark.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Hope Forward: Getting Through Emotional Pain and Moving Forward


Stay tuned for stories and thoughts and tools on recovery, bearing the unbearable and making life when you feel like death.

Over the last 20 years I have been listening to the stories of emotional pain, trauma, trouble and addiction. While many people come in to consult on a particular problem, or to learn more about what they want in life, and what's in the way of them getting it (and how to move forward), there are many who, in one form or another, and for many different reasons, hurt their bodies.

As a way of coping with the persistent and unbearable currents of hurt, grief, distress, frustration, anger and anxiety, many of you ritually cut, burn, binge, purge, and bang your heads into walls. This blog is for anyone suffering from emotional pain of any kind, but most especially for those of you who are living life, thinking about death, and hurting yourselves with food, razors, matches, and other weapons of self destruction, masquerading as tools of salvation and relief.

Truth is, I know there is a way out. Its not fast or easy, but I believe that the work it takes to get there is worth it. I do a lot of listening, and now its my turn to offer up some of the things that I know help, and some ideas about recovery, and finding your voice and a life you can and want to live. So Stay tuned!