You Can’t Fix It Today And It’s Not Yours To Fix Anyway

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I’ve got a proactive personality type. When I see a to do list, all I want to do is start getting stuff done and checking off items. This can be really helpful when it comes to work or chores, but it’s not really a very helpful mentality when it comes to relationships.

Here are some things that I’m learning about relationships right now. They may be helpful to other people, they may clarify to others why a friend or family member acts the way they do, or they might just be me clarifying to myself what I think and what I’ve learned. But I’m going to write them here anyway because I find it helpful.

When you are in a relationship (of any kind: romantic, friendly, family) with another person, it’s likely that the other person will have times of difficulty and problems in their life. It’s even possible that they might have some serious work they need to do in terms of their emotions and mental well being. They might realize they’re depressed, they might decide they want to improve their communication skills, or maybe they have some really unhealthy habits in relationships. Whatever it might be, it’s highly likely that someone you are in a relationship with will have some personal long term problem that they try to solve.

Oftentimes when that happens, it’s easy to see it as a problem in the relationship. Even if you know that at least partially it’s something that the other person needs to own, if it causes stress and difficulties in the relationship, it’s easy to see it as something that both people need to work on, as something that you can help to solve because it is affecting you.

For the go-getters among us, it also is easy to think that it needs to get solved. Every day that goes by without closure, without a normal, safe conversation, leaves us feeling off balance and worried. Lesson #1: you cannot fix this yet. You can and will tolerate those feelings of discomfort if you want a healthy resolution. Things like depression don’t fix themselves overnight. They take years of serious therapy, and if someone you love is trying to sort through a big issue like not knowing how to communicate or serious anxiety, it will be at the very least months before you start to see the pay off of hard work. You just have to wait.

It sucks. It feels miserable. I am at least in part writing this blog so that I can refer to it in the next months to remind myself that I just have to wait, and show up, and keep offering any support I can. But when I try to hurry the process or force conversations that will “resolve” things, or expect the other person to be totally “fixed” after we talk things out once, I’m going to be disappointed and I’m just going to be more hurt. Recovery takes time.

But even more than that, no matter how hard you want to fix the problem, no matter how much it might seem like you know what the other person needs to do or feel like you can explain just the right way, this is not your problem to solve.

Some relationship problems are for both people. Figuring out how to communicate with each other, negotiating boundaries and support, working through finance things, talking through intimacy and sex, making long term plans about how you want your relationship to look…these are all relational issues. One partner is depressed/anxious/dealing with serious problems at work or home or school is not a relational issue. Of course if one partner is dealing with problems, it makes sense that they would ask for support, talk about it, and try to deal with how it affects the relationship. But the hard work of dealing with the root problem? That’s their work.

I don’t get to cure someone’s depression. I don’t get to force them into therapy and make them talk. I don’t get to deal with their employment or money problems. These are not for me to solve. Just as I need to learn how to relinquish my need for control when it comes to timing, I also need to learn to relinquish my need for control when it comes to problem solving. I can ask, support, help, cajole, explain how a problem affects me…I can make my opinion known that something is a problem. But my family/friend/partner’s problems are their own and they get to own them. And if I expect them to deal with those problems the way I would, at the pace I would, or simply because I would, I am going to be hurt and disappointed.

So despite my huge need to make it better, work on it until that uneasy feeling disappears, I simply can’t. And neither can you. This problem is not yours.

Patience, Meta-Conversation, Mental Illness

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One of the skills that is most commonly cited in DBT is the use of what’s called “wise mind.” I really dislike the name because it sounds incredibly woo woo, but the concept of wise mind is actually a very simple, incredibly practical idea.

Wise mind is the part of your mind that incorporates both emotion and rationality. Most people can rely on either one of these individually, and they tend to cause problems for themselves when they do that, but when you’re in the middle, validating and recognizing emotions while also trying to incorporate facts into your perspective, you are typically better at reaching goals and behaving kindly to yourself and others.

I only recently started to actually try using wise mind. It’s actually one of the hardest skills because it requires a kind of meta-awareness of how you’re thinking and behaving. That’s why it relies pretty heavily on mindfulness, because it requires the ability to take a moment and actually look at your situation before acting. It also requires simply being aware of what you’re feeling and what’s happening around you, two important elements of mindfulness.

In many past situations I haven’t quite understood how wise mind is a skill of its own. But recently I’ve had a few rough conversations with people I’m close to, conversations that quickly pushed all my buttons and got me riled up into angry and defensive states of mind. These were the times that I started to notice I needed to use something like wise mind: I needed to take stock of what parts of my brain were giving me which thoughts and whether those parts were really helpful at a given moment.  It took a great deal of effort, but thanks to a lot of the other skills I’ve been working on I was able to take the time to shut my mouth and think without just running through all the things I wanted to say next. I was aware of how sorting through information and feeling confused about what was reasonable actually was the push and pull of emotions vs. the desire to be “good” vs. actual facts about the situation, which made me more capable of accurately assessing the situation.

So I’m incredibly glad that I’m starting to incorporate this skill into my wheelhouse, especially since it looks like there’s going to be a need for some communication and negotiation in relationships in my future (just like there are in basically all relationships). Unfortunately, the skill didn’t function quite the way I wanted it to. All of this skill is internal. Taking time to sit and think can often look like the silent treatment or disengagement. Extended silence are often interpreted as rude by other people. It’s confusing when your partner just stops talking in the middle of a serious conversation.

There are two pieces to how I think this needs to be addressed. First, I am not the only person in the world who needs to take more quiet time in the middle of hard conversations. Lots of people are trying to learn how to wait and think before talking. But there seems to be a partner skill to that skill, which is patience. Especially if you’re a support person for someone who is recovering or in recovery from a mental illness (or simply working on skills to deal with a mental illness), give them some time. Big conversations require a lot of emotional work, which is further complicated when you have a mental illness. If you’re worried or think you’re being ignored, a simple “do you need some time?” or “do you want to let me in on what’s going on in your head right now?” can help bring both people to the same place.

However if your partner hasn’t quite gotten that skill down pat, someone who’s recovering and working on skills can use a partner skill to their wise mind/checking the facts. For those in the DBT know, it’s something like GIVE. One of the most important elements of being validating and gentle is giving the other person some idea of what your’e thinking. You have to let the other person in on the skills that you’re using.

Now obviously not every relationship is going to be well suited to in the moment updates about what skills are being used. Your boss? Not the right person to be this open with. But your spouse? Your family? Your closest friends? The people you trust and rely on are ones that you can work on this with. It might be scary to tell someone what’s happening in the moment, but it’s also incredibly practical if everyone needs to know what’s happening in a given conversation.

When I say “if you’re using skills, give your partner an update” I don’t mean spew all the thoughts and feelings that you have without censoring anything. This is actually a meta endeavor. If you can identify the ways that you’re interacting with your emotions and the information you have, you should tell the other person what you’re doing. So step one is figuring out what you’re actually doing: are you getting defensive and coming up with reasons the other person sucks? Are you comparing this experience to times when other people got defensive with you to see if you’re being unreasonable? Are you trying to connect the current situation to past experiences that left you sore? All of those are separate facets of thinking something out, and once you figure out which ones you’re doing you can share that.

A script might look something like “I feel x, but I’m not sure if it makes sense to feel that way. I’m also trying to consider y and z from your perspective and remember that bad experience a might be coming back and making me feel worse about this. I also think that I’m being distracted by behavior b that you engaged in.”

This gives both participants space to feel their feelings but also discuss the actual situation.

Of course this is an incredibly difficult thing to do because it requires linking together quite a few skills, including wise mind and mindfulness, GIVE, and FAST (for those who don’t know the acronyms, check out my series at Teen Skepchick giving a DBT overview). Since it involves lots of hard things put together, it can take longer to learn and require more emotional energy.

This kind of linking together of skills is something that only seems to make sense once I’m in a situation that calls for them, and doesn’t tend to be covered in classes. I hope that individuals who use DBT skills (or any therapy skills) can communicate with each other enough to get feedback about different ways to actually use skills in the real world and find out which ones pair together well. This one was somewhat revelatory for me.

Why Everyone Should Ask For Compliments

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Most people in the U.S. believe that it’s socially inappropriate to ask for or even subtly hint at a need for compliments. There are many reasons for this, among them that the compliment would supposedly not be heartfelt if you asked for it, that it’s self involved or selfish to want to hear nice things about yourself, or that it puts the person you’re asking in an awkward and uncomfortable position and is therefore rude. But at the heart of it seems to be the idea that needing validation or wanting someone to say something nice is vain, and only people who are shallow, manipulative, or not very nice would try to get other people to say nice things about them.

Excuse my French, but that is a big old pile of bullshit.

It’s a very human need to want validation and kindness from others. Very few people are capable of thinking nice things about themselves all the time, and in many other circumstances it’s considered normal and acceptable to ask for help if you can’t think of an idea for something, if you don’t know how to do something, or if you just need it. Asking someone to say something nice about you is a way of asking for help. In most cases, it’s shorthand for “I am having a hard time seeing nice things about me right now and I’d like to get an outside perspective. Can you help?”

Even in the cases where it’s not, it just straight out feels good to have someone compliment you, or to know why they like you, or to know what you do that’s helpful and welcomed. All of those things not only feel good but also give you important information about what other people like and what you can capitalize on in your personality. And (here’s the important part) there’s nothing wrong with wanting to feel good about yourself. There’s nothing wrong with asking other people to help you feel good about yourself. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to have an external source of validation and kindness sometimes. And it’s never wrong to ask for something if you’re feeling like it would improve your life.

I am utterly perplexed by the idea that it’s inappropriate to ask the people who are your friends/family/support system WHY they are that. People who choose to be in your life do so for a reason, and they choose to be around you. Those choices shouldn’t be a taboo subject, from either end. Not only should it be 100% ok to ask a friend for a pick me up, it should also not be considered weird to out of the blue tell a friend why you love them because that is information that is helpful, important, kind, and just good for you.

For the more scientifically minded, having other people affirm that your emotions are valid, that your life choices are valid, and that your beliefs is valid, is statistically really good for your mental health. When people don’t offer those validations, or specifically invalidate you, you’re way more likely to develop mental illnesses and other problems. So just from a straight out efficacy and health standpoint, asking other people for validation is a great preventative measure against sucky and costly problems down the road.

So please, for your sake the sake of your relationships, ask someone to compliment you today. Accept that you deserve love and kindness, and that you get to talk about that with people you love. And offer a few compliments to someone else, because they really are just great things. It can take some practice, and it can be terrifying to ask, but more often than not the people who love you will come through with some amazing things you didn’t even know you brought to the table. And you’ll both feel way better.

Playing, Introverts, The Highly Sensitive, and Bodies

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I’ve been thinking a lot lately about play. I don’t play very much. I write, I do trivia games sometimes, I crossword, and I watch TV. But I don’t play. I’ve never played sports (I just work out), I’ve never played video games. I only recently started playing board and RP games. From the moment I learned how to read as a kid, it was my chosen form of entertainment. I’d spend hours and hours in the summer holed up in my room curled around a book, ignoring the outside world.

Oh sure sometimes I’d play with my beanie babies or make up stories with my friends, but I wasn’t very good at doing anything like that myself. I was already creating involved to do lists by the age of 12. I never simply explored.

There’s a lot of evidence that play is really good for human beings. It’s how we learn things, it’s one of the ways we become comfortable with our bodies and our environments, it makes us more creative and better at problem solving, and it often creates social connections that go a long way towards making us more comfortable with people more quickly.

Basically, play is great. It makes us happier, better connected, smarter, and better workers.

In concert with thinking about play, I’ve been reading a lot about introverts and highly sensitive people lately. I am a pretty classic introvert, and I am definitely what’s called a highly sensitive person. For those who aren’t familiar with that term, it refers to someone who reacts to physical, emotional, and social stimuli more strongly than others. That means on a physiological level, not simply in the behavior they have in response.

These characteristics tend to lead a person to want to control their environment. You’re more likely to seek out calm environments, dark spaces, less people, intellectual and internal stimuli rather than outside interests. And I pretty well fit those descriptions. When I did seek outside stimuli, I did so in very structured ways: I joined clubs and classes and activities because they made sense and had a clear structure and order to them that I could rely on.

Exploring things has always been scary to me. New foods, new sounds, new places are highly overwhelming because I just feel a lot. Unfortunately, that’s made play, especially individual, explorational play, really hard for me. I didn’t do a lot of playing in the dirt or wandering around on my own or poking at things when I was little, and I still prefer things to be in a clear order rather than just jumping in and messing around with something new. I can’t color or do arts because there’s no clear end point. I can’t just listen to music, I have to be doing something else with a point. I have a really hard time with these things.

So: I’m introverted and highly sensitive, which means I’m not much good at explorative play. I’ve managed to do ok when it comes to creativity and connection through some hard work with my therapist. But what’s still giving me serious trouble is my relationship with my body. I have serious difficulties seeing my body as part of myself, something necessary and innate, something that is me rather than just an annoying extra feature that I’d rather get rid of.

Theory: play helps us understand our own bodies. It helps us develop the senses that locate where the parts of our bodies are, it helps us understand the limitations and abilities of our bodies and respect what they can and can’t do for us. In many anecdotes about bold kids who play often and without fear, I hear that they grow up to be people who are pretty at home with their physical presence and not afraid of being hurt.

The more you play, the more you realize that a body is part of being human. It lets you learn and interact. Kids who don’t play, but instead read or work or practice an instrument, or whatever, don’t learn how to just exist with their body and be ok with it. They need something external to help them along. There are lots of people who don’t play enough anymore. Humans pretty naturally play throughout their whole lives, unlike many other animals. But we keep forgetting to do that, which may be leading to some disconnects from our bodies.

It seems highly likely to me that kids who are introverted or highly sensitive might need a little more effort on the part of their parents to give them space to play. They might need quieter spaces with less color and less stimulation. Maybe they need to play with one other person instead of lots, and be allowed to take the lead in their play. Maybe they need a yard that’s fenced in so they know what to expect. Maybe as adults, we introverts and sensitives need to make these kinds of spaces for ourselves.

Let’s try an experiment: I’m going to play more this week. I’m going to climb, I’m going to play in the rain, I’m going to roll around with my kitten and doodle and get messy in the kitchen. I’m going to buy a ball or some nerf swords and see what I can do with them. Play will be my task. One thing that I’ve found works incredibly well for me when it’s warm is to go somewhere I can climb or run or swim with a friend and a camera, and just go on a photo adventure. What works for you?

A Few Thoughts on the Germanwings Crash

As most people probably know already, there was a fairly significant plane crash earlier this week on the Germanwings line. A co-pilot locked his pilot out of the cockpit and crashed the plane.

The man was diagnosed with depression and had struggled with feeling suicidal. Of course. Of course of course of course, this is considered the most relevant information by nearly everyone commenting on the event. People are wondering whether those who have been diagnosed should be allowed in positions like pilot, how we can fix the mental health system to prevent things like this from happening again, and whether the pilot’s doctors should have done more to keep him out of the cockpit.

I am tired. I am tired of the only stories about mental illness that come across my radar in the mainstream media are ones that link violence and mental illness. I’m tired of these being the faces of depression, instead of the thousands of average people just going about their lives. I’m tired of writing this blog post over and over again, to remind everyone that people with depression are more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators, to remind people that incidents like this are not the appropriate time to talk about mental healthcare, to tell you all that mental illness is not something to be afraid of, it’s just hard and it hurts us way more than it hurts you.

I wish I didn’t have to remind everyone again that if this is a suicide that doesn’t mean he was weak or selfish or bad, it means there was something horribly wrong and he was very sick. I wish I didn’t have to say that none of us will ever know what he was thinking or feeling, and we can’t make assumptions about any of it.

It feels so obvious now that we need to be doing more for people with depression all the time, not just when we’re afraid that they’re going to hurt us. And it seems so obvious that violence is not the exclusive purview of the mentally ill.

Confidence as a Behavior

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There are some things that we tend to think of as traits, things that you naturally are or aren’t. You can act outside of your natural tendency for a while but after a while it will be too exhausting or feel too uncomfortable. There are some things that psychology has found do tend to be like this: introversion/extroversion, neuroticism, and the other Big Five traits, but it seems to me that a lot of the things we view as traits are emotions plus behaviors. We can’t necessarily change our emotions but we can change our behaviors to gain some of the social benefits of traits we don’t have.

Here’s a thing:

I am not generally a confident, jump in and get stuff done kind of a person. I often seem lazy because if I don’t know that I’m supposed to do something I don’t do it. I wait for instructions, I need some coaching, and I need to know the “rules” of whatever situation I’m in before I feel comfortable making decisions and choosing my own actions. I’ve found that this need for comfort has really gotten in the way of my ability to be the kind of friend/housemate/employee/etc. that I want to be, and so I’ve decided that I want to change it.

Now I can’t just make myself feel confident. I will never be able to choose not to be worried. I will never naturally start doing things unless I really think about it and choose to do those things. But what I can do is mimic the behaviors of confident people. The other day I was playing basketball with some friends. I’m real bad at basketball. But I told myself that I was going to at least try to do things, even if I couldn’t do them well. That meant not pulling myself back if I was going to make contact with someone, running hard, and trying to notice what other people were doing to make myself try it too. I’ve been doing this in all areas of my life. “Are there things that could be done right now? I will do them.”

That behavior of simply going ahead and doing something whether you’ve been asked or not often gets read as confidence, or at least willingness to try (which is its own brand of confidence). I still don’t feel confident, but I’m getting read that way more often. I may not have looked super confident on the basketball court, but I made myself get up and try anyway, which looked much better than my first impulse (which was to hide behind my boyfriend).

It’s important to distinguish between behaviors that are helpful and emotions and traits that are valid. My shyness and nervousness are valid. However a lot of the time they aren’t helpful if I let them dictate my actions. What is helpful is recognizing that I need a few moments to assess a situation. Sometimes that’s even more helpful than having the first impulse to jump in, as I get a minute to figure out what’s going on and analyze things a bit before I start acting.

What I want to specify is that there’s nothing wrong with a lack of confidence when we’re talking about the emotional side. But there are behaviors that are separate from traits that we can notice and change. And each of us gets to decide for ourselves how far we’re willing to go in behaving in ways that don’t feel natural to us.

It might seem straightforward and obvious, but realizing that my emotions are separate from my actions is pretty exciting to me. I’m not required to continue acting within my comfort zone. Of course it takes more emotional energy, but if there’s something that’s frustrating to me about myself, I can do it differently.

Mindfulness has been incredibly helpful with this in letting me notice what’s going on around me so that I can be a little more intentional about what I do. Taking the time to notice what behaviors I find impressive or admirable in others is also helpful. Then I can start to notice the areas where I could do the same. I will never be confident as an internal trait. But I can make myself confident enough that I can do things I am afraid of. And my reflective nature was what helped me see that in the first place.

 

Into the Unknown

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In about two weeks, I’ll be starting a very new chapter in my life. I’m quitting my full time job and moving to a part time gig doing communications, supplemented with freelance writing. Unlike my usual 9-5 gigs, this is a slightly more adventurous and less stable venture.

I’m excited. I’m so incredibly excited that I’m finally going to be doing the thing I’ve known I wanted to do since I was 10, that I’ll have time to work on my book, that I will get the freedom to set my own schedule and work at my own pace. Not to brag or anything, but this is basically the dream set up for me, so that’s cool.

But of course, because my brain is my brain and it does what it does, I’m also completely terrified. Thanks brain! And I suppose that’s the point of today’s post: even good things require coping skills. It’s not rare for a good decision to be one that requires change and growth. Oftentimes the best things mean you have to leave behind a safety net, a comfort level, because if you were already in the good place, why leave?

The thing that scares me, that scares people like me, the perfectionists and rule followers and “good girls”, is free falling. An open field without a path. Of course open spaces are entirely necessary for growth, but that doesn’t make them any less scary. I know that I’m not the only one in the Millennial crowd who’s dealing with stuff like this. There are more freelancers than ever, the traditional college/career path is becoming more and more rare, full time well-paying jobs are harder to come by, and part time or retail or other work is getting more common. I know people who are perfectly happy working a low wage retail job for now because they like it and they can get by on it. I know people who are struggling to find contract work or temp or freelance, people who are mashing together a variety of part time jobs.

Work looks different for people my age than it has in the past. The good part of this? More people have gotten ok with choosing a different kind of life path than their parents or the received wisdom. People are more ok with looking at what works for them and building a life based on their priorities and goals. That’s awesome. The less awesome part is that it’s a generation of people trying to figure things out in a very different way from what they were prepared for. Until this year I had never even considered that I might work a job that wasn’t a 9-5 office gig. Many of my friends are living lives very different from what their parents and teachers told them they would.

There’s some bravery there. There’s at least a little bit more emotional awareness in a generation that’s starting to learn that there isn’t one way to be happy. And there’s also some rebellion. My generation was groomed to be really good at working. We were supposed to get good grades and volunteer and do a lot of extracurriculars and get into Harvard or something. There’s a lot of Rory Gilmores around. Except it turns out none of these Rorys actually want to get that dream job, they’d rather work on their own terms and live a little more simply.

I suspect this is a big part of the fear and whining that you hear a lot from the Millennials. It might be why our parents and older generations think we can’t get a job or don’t work hard enough. We work differently and have different priorities, but it’s scary to try out those new things. It’s scary to realize that going through a lot of stress in a change might mean feeling a lot better over the long term. I don’t know entirely what my point is, except that I feel a lot of people around me feel as if they’re standing on the edge of a precipice. Perhaps some of us would have taken the normal path if it were more available to us, but thanks to crap tons of therapy most of us have learned that it might be a lot easier and feel safer to do things the “normal” way, doesn’t mean it’s actually a good fit.

I don’t have to tolerate things that feel crappy over the long term. There’s no benefit to it. I get to do things that look stupid because they make me happier. I get to take the less stable job because it’s what I enjoy. Woohoo!

Also I might be a bit muddled with all the change, so apologies if this is even less clear than my normal posts.