Saturday, May 24, 2014

Mindful Self-Compassion

"One of the anomalies of wounded human nature is that we do not accept the very answer we seek when it is given because we have become so accustomed to pain and confusion" [i]

In the midst of self-loathing, doubt, and frustration over the many "whys" in life, I was sent pages of a book that contained the quote above. For a moment my world stopped and I was quiet because someone, somewhere had felt the same way I did and took the time to acknowledge this feeling of comfortable discomfort. Tears filled my eyes as I realized that all the frustration I was experiencing was human and normal.

Lately I have found myself repeatedly thinking about the role self compassion and forgiveness plays in basic living. Time and again I find others talking about how important both compassion and forgiveness are, but as parts of specific circumstances and not an everyday practice. Post car crash I've spent a lot of time arguing with myself over whether I should be allowed to ask for help with my anxiety/emotional response. On one hand, I've had anxiety all my life and the accident was my fault. On the other hand, it was a traumatic event and were it anyone else I would tell them that it's natural to be anxious and to need support. Suddenly I find myself once again arguing over whether it's "okay" to be self-compassionate.

Unfortunately, blaming myself and ignoring the emotional need for healing comes easily to me. I can remind myself that it was an accident, that these things happen, and that it is okay to go on living, showing myself compassion for the lost car, missed work days, and the physical healing I have to do. When it comes to the emotional side, I forget all about self-care and accept anxiety and fear as natural consequences that I deserve. I use the excuse of "deserving" to feel horrible as a way to stay stuck in the pain and suffering that I have grown accustomed to.

For the first day back at work, I accepted the panicked feelings and chest pain as "necessary" and "normal." I'm told, however, that coming into work and feeling as if I'm having a heart attack is not a normal thing. I pushed through, never even acknowledging that it was hard for me. By day two I was becoming weary of the constant state of anxiety. I knew I couldn't go on like that, but I still couldn't fathom asking for help. Today will be day three back at work and I'm not sure what to expect, but since I haven't yet changed my approach, I don't think much of my reaction will change.

I know I will feel  like the world is ending for those few seconds I pass the turn off to the road I crashed on. I can't imagine actually turning down that road and driving past that red light. Driving into work I will probably freak at the slightest hint of a possible collision, as I have been doing for days. I may get teary-eyed at the most random times and find myself unable to handle the stress of managing five teenage girls at the same time. I will manage to come in, act "as if," run the shift without incident and then go home. On the way home I will probably make up for not eating most of the day by stopping for fast food- something that up until last weekend I had managed to stay away from in order to live a healthier life.  All of this is unable to change until I decide to change it.

I know the answer I seek is trusting in my support network and healing rituals. I know I'm capable of the prayer, conversation, and allowance to feel that is necessary to start healing. I even know that I can trust in that network because lately I've been attempting to use it. It's embarrassing to admit, but the truth is that up until recently I didn't really have one. I had a therapist, wife, and family that I could sometimes go to. I had a friend here and there, but I didn't really trust in the fact that they would accept me in times of need. Now I have friends, co-workers, and professionals I can trust to guide, help, accept, and witness my time of need. Accepting this as an answer means accepting that maybe I don't  have to suffer in order to live.

As someone who has gone through developmental and complex trauma, living a life without suffering is inconceivable. As a mental health worker who fully believes in the potential of all people to live life to their fullest potential, continuing to live with suffering is inconceivable. It is the profound conundrum that is my life. One thing I know for sure is that I have the power to change my suffering into splendor.

In order to start on that path to change I have to find the compassion within me to let go and move on from the things I "should have" done. I will start by attempting to be kind to myself and acknowledge that right now some things are hard for me and that's OK. Just saying the phrase "this is hard" and breathing in and out is a positive change. I will attempt to take it one moment at a time and recommit to self-care and compassion anytime I notice myself judging or criticizing.

While this may sound simple to some, it really isn't. Acknowledging my flaws and being mindful of them is something that is extremely hard to do. Being mindful in quiet meditation is hard enough, but living mindfulness is even more challenging. Distractions will come and that will be okay because the point of mindfulness is to bring yourself back to the moment. And if the moment isn't suffering that's STILL mindfulness. It's not about being mindful of just your suffering and what you want to change, but being mindful of your whole being. I will set the intention to be compassionate towards myself today and I will make an effort to stay mindful of how I treat myself throughout the day.

Healing isn't about major breakthroughs and accomplishments, it's about living each day a little better than the last.

[i] Groeschel, B. J. (1984). Spiritual passages: the psychology of spiritual development "for those who seek". New York: Crossroad.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Creating The Woman I Want To Be

Tonight I had a long conversation with a friend whom I don't get to talk to on the phone nearly often enough. She was pondering the dynamics of relationships on several levels and it lead me to realize the amount of neglect people tend to have for their relationships with themselves. We spend hours pondering the "whys" and "hows" of our interactions with others, but how many times do we really do the same with ourselves? For many of us, the answer is "never" or "not often." Several times throughout the conversation the topic of self-compassion and care came up and though we joked about how self care doesn't come easy to us, the sad truth is it doesn't come easy to many.
After this eye-opening phone conversation, I took a few moments to really reflect on what we had talked about. I came to the disheartening conclusion that even having compassion towards myself for being such a mean inner critic is hard. I beat myself up and then beat myself up for beating myself up. It's an endless circle of self-violence that is truly pointless. The hard truth of the matter is that my lack of self compassion is holding me back from becoming the woman I want to be.
A great example of this would be the events that happened after totaling my car on Sunday. I was heading out on my break to do a couple of errands and suddenly I find myself at an intersection with two other damaged vehicles, police, and EMS personnel. After making the frantic call to my job to let them know what happened, I found myself instantly in the throes of despair. "How could this happen? Why do I always end up ruining my life? I'm going to lose my job, I can't afford another car, I am worthless."  All this, and more, sounded through my head as I surveyed the scene. I went through the motions of giving my statement and information, calling family to get a ride home, getting my car towed, and taking care of my physical health. Not once did the thought "wow, this is really hard for me" cross my mind.
I actually struggled when others were trying to be kind. I tried to refuse the water and tissues offered me, I argued with those saying "it's okay, accidents happen," and I spent a lot of energy putting myself down and pointing out how horrible I am. There were moments when I realized that my efforts were not exactly effective; I knew I was standing at the crossroads of "old Holly" and "new Holly." Perhaps it's more like "miserable Holly" and "happy Holly." After the first two hours of trying to stay miserable it became clear that staying miserable was a decision that would lead me to self-destruction.
Staying miserable has been a forte of mine. I know how to let myself fall down that hole and get stuck for too long. Depression and darkness are comfortable when they're all you've known. I know that once I choose to be miserable I can take it to the extreme: self-injury, hospitalization and/or suicide attempt. However, I also know that I have a great life: a job I love, a wife I adore, friends I love and admire, and a budding business that is bound for great things.  I would give that all up if I  chose to stay unhappy.  In order to continue in the direction I want, I couldn't make the decision to stay miserable, I had to take control and choose to handle the problems I had incurred.  
Once you start to see the light, it starts to become harder to go back to those dark places. I'm at the point where I have known darkness longer than I have known light, so my comfort zone still lies with misery. However, I have found that remembering why I wanted to leave the darkness helps me to keep choosing the light. I did, eventually, gave up my "I ruin everything" outlook and started to piece together what I needed to do in order to make it through this event. Twenty-four hours later I'm not going to lie and say that the accident was "amazing" or "great," (I haven't completely lost my mind) but I do see that everything happens for a reason. I'm not quite sure what the reason is in this case, but keeping my faith in a higher purpose is what helps me to stay present and handle the situation.  This is just another opportunity to stay mindful in the face of adversity. It is also an opportunity to truly practice what I preach and show myself some compassion.

I sincerely hope that no one else has to go through such drastic measures to understand why self compassion is important. Even when things seem dismal, there is always the option to try a better outlook. It isn't going to change your life all once, but maybe choosing to see another point of view will help open up a world of small opportunities to choose a positive outlook. And maybe those small opportunities will lead to bigger and better outlooks in the future. It takes years to build a life of comfortable misery, but it only takes one moment of hope to help start bringing in the light.  

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Learning to Create My Own Place of Belonging

Twenty two years ago the most significant thing in my life happened: I joined a dance school. A friend's mother was a dance teacher and she noticed how desperate I was to join a dance class and so she offered to transport me back and forth every week. She thought she was just reaching out to help a friend, since my mother didn't have the ability to get me to class every week. What she really did was help me to find the means of expression that would one day save my life. I am forever grateful to Jerry for taking me in as a dance daughter and helping me to become the dance-obsessed woman I am.

I was fortunate enough to go to a dance school based on love instead of greed. I was given all the right tools: technique, encouragement, and no judgement of size, shape, or ability. Dance came naturally to me and my dance teachers encouraged me to always try new things. It wasn't long before I was choreographing dances with my friend, Nicole, and helping during the recital weekends. I truly loved dance. 

Unfortunately, by age 16 I also truly loved the idea of committing suicide. I was depressed, self injuring, dealing with body issues, and stuck in a mental health system that preferred labels to actual help. The only thing that kept me going was dance. My goal every time I was inpatient was to get out so I could return to dance class. It was the only place I felt okay enough to want to live, even if only for that hour or so. 

I don't know how aware my dance teachers at the time, Jen and Susan, were of my depression, but I do know they made me feel as if depression wasn't the only part of me. No one pointed out my long sleeves when it was hot, nor did they ask me "how are you" every five minutes. Instead, I was commended on remembering dance steps every week. I was encouraged to try the harder version of the choreography and I was invited to help out the studio with different events. I felt like I belonged.

This feeling of belonging was lost after graduating high school and moving away. All the studios I tried weren't the home-based love-for-dance studio I had known. My larger size and boldness were not met with the kindness and acceptance I once knew and this made me feel wrong. Suddenly, I felt as if my love for dance wasn't enough to keep me dancing. I was frustrated, knowing in my heart that my dance practice was wonderful and that dancing for fun was perfectly okay, but being told by others that the only type of dance practice is a professional one. My practice fell by the wayside and my life lost some of it's spark.

A year ago I found myself saved again by dance. I made friends with a woman who decided to flip off the "professional" studios and made dance her journey. Jamie introduced me to Dancing Mindfulness and re-introduced me to myself. After finding the Dancing Mindfulness practice I felt I had come home again. Here was a type of dance that WANTED people like me! My size, shape, experience didn't matter. The only thing I needed was my love for dance and my need to tell my story.  

For the first time ever I did not give up when I found out there were no classes in my area. Instead I'm taking this into my own hands and bringing Dancing Mindfulness to NJ and sharing it with people like me who just need a space to feel they belong. My friend Lexie, along with Jamie, encouraged me take the facilitator training in February and now I am blessed to have a Yoga and Wellness studio that hosts Dancing Mindfulness about once a week.  My business is just starting and my classes have been only about 1-2 people thus far, but I am doing what I love and loving what I do. My life has purpose!

It isn't about being perfect for the practice, it's about making the practice perfect for you. I encourage all those out there saying "I'd do (insert favorite activity here) if only I had more time, less stress, a better teacher..." to go out there and JUST DO IT! Determine to make it what you want and you will get exactly what you need!

Want to learn about my amazing friend Jamie? You can find Dr. Jamie Marich's home here: Mindful Ohio
Want to hear more about the practice? Visit the site here: Dancing Mindfulness
In the NY/NJ area and want to try it out? You can find Dancing Mindfulness NJ's home here: Dancing Mindfulness NJ