Friday, June 20, 2014

From Divine Being to Dear Friend

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a crush as " a strong feeling of romantic love for someone that is usually not expressed and does not last a long time." In my life I have had many text-book crushes, but as I get older I realize the word tends to encompass a feeling not always romantic in nature. For me, a "celebrity crush" is something that happens when the want to become emotionally closer to someone you view as a mentor is so great it begins to exhibit the same symptoms as a romantic crush. The person may be someone you actually know (teacher, therapist, etc) or someone you don't know personally but look up to (religious leader, public speaker, author, etc). While I don't yearn for romantic relationships outside of my marriage, the presence of crushes in my life is still abundant.

 The first non-romantic crush I had was on a high school teacher. After graduating she became both my mentor and friend and I was obsessed with her. I wanted to help her, take care of her, and be the main part of her life. There were no sexual feelings attached, I simply wanted to be a part of her world. Unfortunately this relationship ended abruptly and harshly after I attempted to find autonomy from our enmeshed lives. Looking back, it is no shock to me that my obsession with her began around the same time I began to take my mother off of the childhood pedestal I had kept her own for so many years.

 At the time, I was slowly piecing together that my mother was a human who was not perfect and had let me down. It was a process so upsetting that I even forcefully argued with my therapist over the impact my mother had had in my life. I insisted she hadn't let me down, upset me, or treated me unkindly, ever. As I began to realize that my childhood hadn't been perfect (whose has?!) I looked to find someone to replace my mother on the pedestal that I felt I needed in order to have someone to look up to. Like many before me, I was banking on the idea that whomever I looked up to had to be some sort of fairy-tale goddess, there to save me from myself.

As I watched yet another woman fall off of my pedestal, I struggled to be without a goddess to model myself after. Since then I have had a steady stream of pedestal goddesses and they have never actually saved me from myself. They have helped me to realize who I am and to strive to grow to my full potential, but none of them have been perfect or able to erase all my problems. I like to think I've matured in my taste for the women whom I develop celebrity crushes on, picking individuals who refuse to play into the role of divine being and insist on challenging my perspective on what a mentor is.

I, like many, went through the rite of therapeutic passage that is having a crush on your therapist. Like the obsession with my high school teacher, it was never sexual in nature, but purely a "please adopt me" situation. To clarify, this developed around the time I had ended my friendship with my former teacher and returned to my home state after living cross-country for a year. I was ripe for a new goddess to place on my pedestal and my therapist was the only source of encouragement I had at the time.

I was working on going back to college and my therapist was there, encouraging my change of degree (from English to Psychology) and my decision to pursue my dream of becoming a social worker. She was practically asking to be deified! I became obsessed, talking about my therapist all the time to friends and living therapy session to therapy session. I craved the attention, support, and commitment she gave me. Eventually I realized it for what it was: a deep desire to be included in her life because I didn't believe I could ever live my life in that manner. She was exactly what I wanted to be: a self-assured, independent, forward thinking, social worker living her life and teaching others to do the same. Eventually I was able to take a step back and appreciate the aspects of my therapist that I wanted to emulate. I still look up to her and strive to be able to live my life in such a fulfilling manner, but I've finally begun to see her as a human instead of some goddess whose word is law.

 My most recent crush was taken off of the pedestal when I realized I couldn't befriend her and idolize her at the same time. It started off a social media mutual stalking situation (I'm told the more publically accepted term is "networking") that gave way to me utilizing her services as a retreat leader. This then morphed into a very special friendship that simply had no room for pedestals. In being able to analyze my motives for seeking her out (her opinions on the mental health system, recovery, and life in general both complimented and challenged my own beliefs) I was able to realize I wasn't looking for a goddess anymore. I was looking for a friendship. A deep-seated relationship based on mutual admiration for each other's views and beliefs. And that is exactly what we have.

Do I still find myself emotionally drawn to her, and others, from time to time? Certainly. I think it's perfectly natural to yearn for growth and betterment. But am I still obsessed and crazed like I was with my high school teacher? Certainly not. Reality has kicked in and I know now that I cannot fill the hole that was created when my mother came off of her (imagined) pedestal. Disappointment, fear, and need naturally come out of the realization that our parents are not the perfect beings we once imagined. The pedestal also served a sadder purpose: to keep me believing that I would never be good enough to be accepted. By having someone who was "ideal" on a pedestal, I always had someone to compare myself to in order to see just how "bad" or far from ideal I was. This perpetuation of the core belief that I can never be enough has helped to keep me in a comfortable position: depression and despair. I know that this may not seem comfortable to most, but when you have lived a large percentage of your life in crisis and depression, it becomes the norm. The norm is horribly comfortable.

 Thankfully, I have finally started to overcome these beliefs and grow up emotionally. Growing up means realizing that this need for a goddess on a pedestal is not really a need, per se, it's really a want. I wanted someone to save me, to keep me safe, and to make my life easier. I wanted the safety and security of childhood. All of these wants are okay (and perfectly normal during the stages of emerging adulthood), but in order to continue moving forward with life it was necessary to accept that I cannot have everything I want. This is exactly why the dictionary states that crushes are often undisclosed and pass rather quickly; humans are resilient and able to overcome desire in order to focus on necessity.

 Crushes, no matter the form, teach us something deep about ourselves. They allow us to see what we want in our lives, what we desire from others, and what life can be if we follow our dreams. Acknowledging these "celebrity crushes" and using the information to move forward towards our potential is something that can help make our feelings seem a little less overwhelming. By being able to say "I love that person for who they are, I admire their attributes, and I want to bring those same attributes into my life" I have been able to overcome my need to deify those who I look up to. Instead of beating myself up for such "childish" behaviors, I try to commend myself for being able to recognize my obsession for what it truly is: just a crush.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Boundaries: Stop Guessing!

I care for my therapist. That's a hard sentence to type. I grew up with the belief in firm boundaries with providers. Therapists and doctors are meant to help with specific problems. As I grew up, I fell very hard into black and white thinking. Either you are in control or you are not. Either you are living or existing. Either you are professional or you are ineffective. School reinforced this- don't care for your teachers. Don't make friends with them. I tested this out and was able to find comfort in my "inappropriate" relationships with teachers, but there was always a time limit. Eventually, you move on, graduate, and make "real" friends.

The problem with my therapist is I'm not moving on anytime soon. I enjoy self exploration and don't foresee that stopping anytime soon. I'm embarrassed to admit this comforts me. I enjoy my relationship with my therapist and I feel that this is bad. I still can't quite figure out why, but every fiber in my being seizes up and wants to retract when I begin talking about my therapeutic relationship. The discrepancy between the "rules" and practical application of a therapeutic relationship has created a confusion that is very frustrating. It's even more vexing because I have been lead to believe that mentioning these boundaries is a taboo subject.

I started off with very simple boundaries for therapy: go, talk, leave it at the door. However, life's problems are not so accommodating. They refuse to just be left at a therapist's office. Everywhere I went, there they were! The first few therapists I had never made an attempt to extend their services beyond the therapy room. In fact, when I went inpatient they wouldn't attempt to allow for contact until whatever follow-up program I was sent to was completed. The lack of consistency lead to frustration when each therapy team member had different goals for my progress. Around my fifth hospitalization someone finally realized the inconsistency and insisted on me starting with a therapist willing to work with the team the college I was attending had set in place for me. I would have no clue what kind of life-altering event this was until years later.

This therapist, who is my current therapist, started changing my views on boundaries nearly immediately. The first text I ever received was sent to me at the beginning of 2004. It was one simple line, "we're meeting at 5 on Tuesday, right?" and it blew my mind. I replied, sending my very first text, with a simple answer of "yes." Suddenly I didn't know what to think. My therapist was using an alternative means of communication. This lead me to a very scary realization: my therapist is human!

She challenged me a few months later when I had had a late-night crisis. She asked why I didn't call and I couldn't form the words to say, "because I'm not supposed to." She recognized my discomfort with the subject, but continued to encourage me to attempt to call her when I needed to. Eventually, I called. I'm still not 100% comfortable calling her, but now it's a viable option. Calling gave way to emailing her when I moved cross-country. Not only did she reply, but she continued to counsel me while attempting to find a therapist, and then again when my therapist broke up with me while I was inpatient. She emailed/phone coached me until I was settled. When I returned to my home state, she was still there, willing to take me back on. Email became an option for non-emergent crisis and telling parts of my story I was too embarrassed to bring up during therapy. The lines kept blurring for me, as I felt these were positive interaction, but I was being taught by my degree program that these out of the office interactions lead to dreaded "dual relationships" with clients. I kept my mouth shut, silently trying to rectify this discourse within myself.

Eventually my social media found her social media, as I began to find my voice in the social media world as a psychology student and advocate. This lead to a quick discussion on the fact that it was "ok" for me to friend her professional twitter account. Even though my twitter account is also professional, I still haven't followed her for fear of crossing a line that, I'm pretty sure, is just in my head. I've pressed my own limits a few times: she and I exchanged gifts when I left for OR and she has given me CDs and books to help feed my ever-growing appetite for self help sundries. I've given her a book or two along the way as well. All of this has muddled the gray area for me and left me uneasy as to where the line is.

Last year I breached what I felt was a very firm barrier only to find my therapist sticking to her firm stance of non-judgment and unconditional care . I expected to be let go because of my actions, which included sending a very upsetting suicide note to her email, but instead I was given the opportunity to speaking freely about how I felt. I sincerely did not want to, afraid admitting to what I wrote would end up being held against me. Ironically, it wasn't the things I wrote about death, dying, and self hatred I was terrified to admit, but the tender sentiments I wrote to my therapist about her place in my life. Why can I say "I care for you" when I'm nearly dead, but can't admit to saying that when I'm in my right mind?

Recently this came up again and my therapist wasn't having the attempt to gloss it over. She confronted it head on, wanting to understand my embarrassment and other emotions that speaking about our relationship brought up. She actually said the words "I care for you" and I thought I was going to pass out. Not in a good, excited way, but more in a fully mortified and I-want-this-couch-to-eat-me-now sort of way. She's not supposed to say stuff like that! I'm not supposed to be cared for like that by her!

Up until now I've gone with the idea that I could be anyone and my therapist would do the same. In my head, I'm not special, she's just a special and caring person. But perhaps I am special. Maybe my care is very person-centered and the extra time in sessions when I needed it, and the out of office support, isn't just a generic service, but based on what my therapist can give and what I need. What then? Well then I have to admit that we do have a relationship, she does genuinely care for me, and I am worth spending time on. She believes in me. She's advocated, pushed for me, pushed me, and pushed herself (I'm guessing here, but it's pretty obvious that I have brought about some unique and trying circumstances) in order to not just meet my basic needs, but to help me on a much more complex, and humanistic, level.

That someone would think of me first and be so selfless baffles me. And yet, I do the same. I can't claim I have the same relationship with all of my residents or that I care for them each in the same way. I don't attempt to. Some residents I am close with, while some I will never develop a strong relationship with, but still care for them, just on a different level. And yet other residents I have developed a strong bond with and do some things, when appropriate, above and beyond, when I can, to help them. Some have even touched my heart in such a way that I am forever changed by our time spent together. It's just hard to translate the bond I have with a kid who needs my help to the bond my therapist has with me. This means I'm the person who needs, and deserves, help and support.

After ten years of avoiding boundary talks, I have learned something very important: Not only is it NOT a taboo subject, it's what you SHOULD be discussing with your therapist. This doesn't make it any easier for me to broach the subject, but this knowledge does give me the push I need to not run out of the room screaming. I'm still attempting to define where the line is. Maybe there never was a line. Perhaps boundaries are just about expressing what you need and want out of a relationship instead of making assumptions out of sweeping generalizations. Maybe it isn't about boundaries at all, but about human connections and relationships.

Regardless of my inability to accept caring graciously, I have learned that it's okay to discuss whatever I'm feeling with my therapist- that's what she's there for! Too many times have I gone without the care I need because I was too upset/embarrassed/afraid to approach a subject. I'm learning that it's okay to ask and it's okay if the other person, be it therapist, friend, or coworker, is taken aback by it. Part of learning to have meaningful interactions is learning that the reactions of others are not for us to determine or worry about. When the focus is communicating, instead of making everyone comfortable, better understanding can be reached for everyone involved.

Monday, June 9, 2014

My Shenpa is Showing

"Shenpa is the urge, the hook, that triggers our habitual tendency to close down." - Pema Chodron

The therapist who runs a support group I attend loves to remind us that when we immediately close down or react without being able to hear further explanation that our shenpas are "showing." Pema Chodron points out that shenpa is a Tibetan word that literally means "attachment." When we get stuck in feelings of despair, self-deprecation, anger, or fear this is shenpa. In the clinical world, I hear the term triggered used to describe the same thing; something has brought about a reaction and we become stuck in the feelings brought up. Shenpa is a word I have thought about, prayed on, meditated with, and discussed a lot recently.

In the past 72 hours I've had several interactions where my shenpa swooped in, took hold, and refused to let go. What should have been a simple interaction with co-workers turned into an hour discussion that was ineffective and frustration. We were all tired, frustrated, and reacting. Not one of us was really hearing what the others had to say because we just weren't in the right space. When I realized the futility of the situation I attempted to point out that perhaps the discussion should take place at a later time and date. I watched as defenses went up and one of my coworkers took this to mean he was not doing his job right. Suddenly I'm being told to stop making excuses and to just deal with the situation as it comes. He pointed out that I was "obviously" tired and letting my outside world effect my job, which he sees as breaking a cardinal rule.

In that moment my shenpa jumped up, threw its arms around me, and squeezed tight. I became defensive and upset, crying and frustrated, and even more ineffective than before. I was consumed with thoughts of being judged, blamed, and used as a "whipping boy." I stayed stuck in this reaction, allowing it to consume me, and it made the next hour pretty miserable. Finally, I stopped fighting it. I acknowledged my reaction, my fear, my sadness, my shenpa, and let it be for a moment. I sat with it and suddenly the claws that held me loosened. I went a step further and practiced a forgiveness meditation I recently learned and felt even better. I forgave myself and my coworker for being human and forgave myself for judging. For once I stopped fighting my emotions and let them be.

In the Rumi poem, "The Guesthouse," it is suggested that emotions are like visitors and that they should all be welcomed. The poem goes on to explain that even emotions that wipe us out may be doing so just to make room for new and better things. I first heard "The Guesthouse" at a retreat several months ago. This was the beginning of the next (my current) chapter of healing.  The poem stirred something deep inside me when I realized that I had been treating my emotions so harshly. I was attempting to turn away "bad" emotions and trying to force in "good" emotions. I knew then I had to start rethinking my approach to emotional healing and regulation.

Yesterday morning proved me human, once again. An interaction I had with an associate left me feeling unworthy, unheard, and full of despair. I took the words and tone personally, not thinking about the fact that she was dealing with her very own shenpa. Thankfully, I am surrounded by loving and caring friends and was able to reach out and get a reality check. I also took a minute to practice that forgiveness meditation once again. Forgiveness is not a onetime thing; every moment is a chance to forgive yourself (and others) again and again.

The interactions we have are so important in helping us reach our highest potential. Shenpa is NOT a bad word. It is just an insight into the nature that makes us human. Being aware doesn't mean filtering every reaction to be perfect; that's unrealistic. It just means we are able to better to acknowledge when we get emotionally stuck, which leads us to un-stick ourselves quicker.

Acknowledge you are human and forgive yourself. Allow your emotions to come and go without fighting or forcing. There is no need to beat yourself up for something you can't help. Every day, every experience, every moment is a learning moment. Allow yourself to learn and grow without judgment. 

I invite you to take a few minutes out of your day and try this self-forgiveness meditation by Tara Brach: Forgiveness