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Healing Our Problematic Relationship to Anger Through Healthy Boundaries

Society’s relationship with anger is problematic as it’s an emotion that often gets confused with aggression. However, they’re not the same thing. Anger is an emotion that everyone experiences from time to time, and it’s perfectly healthy to do so. However, acting aggressively, while sometimes important for self protection, mostly causes unnecessary pain in the world.

When clients ask me to help them with anger problems, it’s frequently divided down gender lines. While there is some overlap between sexes, men tend to tell me that they lose their tempers too easily, yell, swear, frighten those around them, and sometimes hit–both objects and people. They ask me to help them to get a moment to pause and consider their behavior before they respond because their aggressive behaviors are damaging their relationships, or causing them legal problems.

Women, on the other hand, tend to tell me that they can’t access their anger. They say that people treat them terribly, but instead of becoming angry, they become sad or depressed. They blame themselves. These women feel immobilized by their own inability to get mad enough to set boundaries or create change in their lives and relationships.

I don’t believe that these gender differences in relationship to anger are actually biological. Instead, they are a product of society’s penchant for gendered child-rearing. Boys are taught that they are not allowed to cry; that tenderness, kindness and sadness are not masculine, and that the only acceptable emotions are happiness and anger. Girls are taught that they need to be nice and sweet and happy all of the time, and they tend to be punished more severely than boys are when they become angry or say no.

These gender stereotypes in relationship to emotions are extremely damaging. Boys that buy the message to “man up” (one of the most damaging phrases in the English language), end up unable to access hurt, sadness, kindness and compassion. Instead, they jump directly to anger when they feel any of the other emotions coming on. They believe that if they’re not happy, then anger is the only other acceptable thing to feel.

On the other hand, women who buy the “nice girl” message tend to have problems recognizing when their boundaries have been crossed. They tell me that they know that they should be angry, but they can’t access the feeling. Instead they blame themselves, thinking that they were somehow not good enough, and that if they could just be better, then people would treat them right. However, it doesn’t work that way, and they wear themselves to a nub trying to be “good enough,” (whatever that even means).

In therapy with the angry people, I work with them to pause when they feel the fire of anger rising within them and then feel into what lies underneath. Anger tends to be a secondary emotion that covers up an unconsciously rejected underlying feeling . For instance, instead of allowing feelings of hurt, a person may jump right over emotional pain and straight into anger. Other emotions people tend to bypass in favor of anger include: sad, vulnerable, rejected, and disrespected.

Once these angry people are able to tap into the underlying feeling, which can take a lot of work by the way, I encourage them to verbalize that feeling. Verbalizing it to the other person involved is best, if possible. However, if it’s not possible to tell the other person how you feel, saying to yourself, “Wow. I’m feeling really hurt right now, and it’s OK to feel that way,” is powerful. The more that these people do that, the more that they can override their childhood programming that anger and happiness are the only appropriate emotions.

On the other side of the coin, when I’m working in therapy with people who can’t access anger, I help them to give themselves permission to feel angry. What I’ve found is that these people often have anger and aggression confused. I explain to them that anger is healthy and normal, and that feeling the entire spectrum of human emotion, including anger, is a good thing. I help them to understand that being angry doesn’t have to mean that they behave aggressively. Sometimes, all it means is that they say, “Wow. That made me really mad!”

Then I work with them to understand the importance of boundaries in a relationship. Having bought into the idea that they have to be “good” and “nice” all of the time, they often fail to stand up for themselves when they need to, which is just as damaging to relationships as having angry tirades.

How is it so damaging, you ask? Well, here’s how it works. People that are trying to be nice all of the time tend to allow people to take advantage of them. If you’re thinking that other people shouldn’t try to take advantage, you’re right. They shouldn’t, but they do. Once these opportunists realize that the nice person won’t say no or get angry, they continue to take advantage, but also lose respect for them, leading to treating the nice person even more disrespectfully. If the nice person continues to try to curry favor with the disrespectful one, the relationship can become abusive. However, what often happens is that the nice person eventually builds up so much resentment that he/she lashes out uncharacteristically, or quietly leaves the relationship.

In the end the outcomes of both strategies are the same. The angry and aggressive person ends up alone because eventually people get tired of being bullied. The good/nice person ends up alone because he/she eventually becomes resentful enough about being taken advantage of to leave.

The solution to both of these problems is healthy boundaries. Here is an outline of the differences between healthy and unhealthy boundaries:

A. Collapsed Boundaries (The Good/Nice Person)

  • You can’t so no, because you are afraid of rejection or abandonment.
  • Your identity consists of what you think others want you to be. You are a chameleon.
  • You take on other’s problems as your own.
  • You share personal information too soon, before establishing mutual trust/sharing.
  • You feel responsible for other’s happiness and fulfillment and sometimes rely on your relationships to create that for you.
  • You compromise your values or beliefs to avoid conflict.
  • You tend to absorb the feelings of others.
  • You lose control of your emotions easily.
  • You have no balance of power in relationships. you tend to be either overly responsible and controlling or passive and dependent.

B. Rigid Boundaries (The Prickly Person)

  • You are likely to say no if the request involves close interaction.
  • You avoid intimacy (pick fights, stay too busy).
  • You fear abandonment OR engulfment, so you avoid closeness.
  • You rarely share personal information.
  • You have difficulty identifying wants, needs, or feelings.
  • You have few or no close relationships. If you have a partner, you have very separate lives and virtually no shared life.
  • You have difficulty asking for or receiving help from others.

C. Healthy Boundaries

  • You can so no or yes, and you are OK when others say no to you.
  • You have a strong sense of identity. You respect yourself.
  • You expect reciprocity in a relationship–you share responsibility and power.
  • You know when the problem is yours and when it belongs to someone else.
  • You share personal information gradually in a mutually sharing/trusting relationship.
  • You don’t tolerate abuse or disrespect.
  • You know your own wants, needs, and feelings. You can communicate them clearly in your relationships.
  • You are committed to, and responsible for, exploring and nurturing your full potential.
  • You are responsible for your own happiness and fulfillment. You allow others to be responsible for their own happiness and fulfillment.
  • You value your opinions and feelings as much as others.
  • You know your limits. You allow others to define their limits.
  • You are able to ask for help when you need it.
  • You don’t compromise your own values or integrity to avoid rejection.

If you recognized yourself in either the collapsed or the rigid categories, don’t be too hard on yourself. Knowing that boundaries are a problem for you is an important first step, and you can start today to work towards learning how to set healthy boundaries for yourself. My boundaries tend to be on the collapsed side, but they’re getting better all of the time, and I congratulate myself each time I say no to something that I don’t want to do, even though my impulse is to say yes, because this is what progress looks like.

You may also notice that your boundaries fall into different categories based on the relationship or the setting. For instance, you may have rigid boundaries at work and collapsed boundaries at home. Or, you may have collapsed boundaries in romantic relationships and healthy boundaries with friends. This is completely normal. As Louise Hay says, “the point of power is always now.” You can start today to change these behaviors and work towards happier and healthier relationships.

Be gentle with yourself as you start to make changes to your boundaries. This is a process. If you find yourself being unnecessarily harsh as you start learning to say no or ask for what you want in a healthy way, just acknowledge it and try again. This could look like, “Whew, that came out a little rough, let me try that again.” Usually people are extremely understanding when you explain that you’re working on a personal growth project.

As your boundaries get healthier, you’ll notice that your relationships with others become healthier, and that you attract healthier people and experiences into your life. It’s worth the work, and I encourage you to get started now.

Shame: How it Affects us, and How to Overcome it

Over the weekend I went out of town to attend my 2-year-old niece’s birthday party. She was adorable, and I enjoyed spending time with my family, but the drive through LA can be brutal. On my way home, a man on a motorcycle whizzed by me and then flipped me off. I have no idea what I could have done to make him angry. I had been driving in the same lane at the same speed for miles.

Despite the knowledge that I hadn’t done anything wrong, I felt hot shame flush through my body, and I recognized the sensation as one that I’ve experienced frequently lately. It seems like every time I turn around these days, someone is suggesting that there is something wrong with me.

Whenever I make a comment online, dozens of perfect strangers attempt to shame me by calling me stupid in myriad ways. Partly, I think that people shame others in order to dispel some of their own frustration, but I also think that they do it believing that the shame will teach the other person a lesson.

I’ve seen parents shame their children for the same reason. Children who get bad grades or fail to do their chores properly are often shamed by their parents, who believe that the shame will get their children to behave better in the future.

Unfortunately, these parents’ efforts are misguided. Shame can’t teach anyone anything. Scans of human brains show that the learning centers shut down on shame. No information is getting in until the shamed person’s brain calms down. If the goal is teaching, it is much better and more effective to speak kindly to people, and help them to understand and practice. A relaxed brain is a learning brain.

Brene Brown, the renowned shame and vulnerability researcher, defines shame as the “intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed, and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.” This sense of unworthiness is profoundly damaging to the human psyche. The more that people receive the message that they are unworthy of love, the more that they believe it. Much of my work as a therapist is helping people to undo the programming of shame.

While shame usually begins as damaging messages of unworthiness from the people around us, over time we tend to internalize the shame and begin shaming ourselves. We believe that we need the shame to motivate ourselves–to keep ourselves from becoming lazy couch potatoes.

However, the research shows that shame doesn’t actually motivate people. The more that we shame ourselves, the more depressed we become, which leads to lower levels of motivation, not higher. Giving ourselves kindness and compassion is a much better way to gain motivation.

If you’re thinking that you don’t have shame, think again. Shame is universal. The only people that don’t feel it are psychopaths. The more that we act like shame doesn’t exist, the more it grows. Speaking honestly with each other about the experience of shame is the only way to overcome it.

Brene Brown talks about shame being like a Gremlin. In the 1980s movie, Gremlins, the little green monsters that wreak havoc are only killed in the end by the sun. Shame is the same. It is only by exposing it to the light that it can be defeated.

I’m not suggesting that you start telling everyone you meet about your shame experiences. Doing that would likely just create more experiences to be ashamed of. Instead, share your shame with people who have earned the right to hear your stories, and have the emotional strength to bear the weight of your pain.

These are people who have stuck with you through good times and bad times, and have shown that they can be trusted with your secrets and your pain. If you can’t think of anyone like that in your life, I would suggest that you find a therapist who is trained to hear your shame stories and can help you shed necessary light on your pain.

There’s an important difference between shame and guilt that I’d like to discuss. While shame is the terrible feeling of being unworthy of love and belonging, which is harmful and leads to painful experiences of disconnection, guilt is the knowing that you have done something wrong that you need to make right somehow.

Shame is the sense of “I am bad,” and guilt is the sense of “I did something bad.” Unlike shame, guilt can help people to rebuild connections. When people realize that they have hurt others, they can apologize and seek forgiveness.

If you regularly speak to yourself in the language of shame, I would encourage you to begin practicing self-compassion. If you’re constantly shaming yourself, your nervous system is constantly in fight or flight mode, which is extremely damaging to your body and your nervous system. In this self-protective state, you will have difficulty learning new things, and your body will likely become depressed in order to deal with all of the stress.

Self-compassion is a wonderful way to begin the process of coming out of a self-shaming mind state. There are three components to self compassion: 1) mindfulness, 2) self-kindness, and 3) common humanity.

The mindfulness part is about paying attention to your experience and noticing your self-critical and shaming thoughts. The self-kindness part is really about telling yourself that both you and your feelings are OK. And the common humanity part is reminding yourself that the experience of pain and shame are what make us the same as others, not different.

A self-compassion statement might look something like this: “Wow, I’m feeling a lot of shame right now. It’s OK to feel that way. Many people would feel shame in this situation.” You can create a self-compassion statement that works for you as long as it has all three components. It doesn’t take a lot of time to use the statement, and it can dramatically shift the experience of shame, and reduce your stress.

Despite the messages that you may have received over the course of your lifetime, you are worthy of love and belonging. You don’t have to do anything to become worthy. You are already worthy simply because you are a human being. Babies know that they are worthy of love, and so do the people around them. It seems strange to me that people think that at some unknown point in human development this inherent worthiness goes away. It doesn’t. All people are worthy of love and belonging, including you.

For more information on shame, please look into the work of Brene Brown. She’s one of my sheroes, and I highly recommend her book Daring Greatly. She also has two great TED Talks: “The Power of Vulnerability,” and “Listening to Shame.”

For more information on self-compassion, I recommend the work of Kristin Neff, who has a wonderful TED Talk called “The Space Between Self-Esteem and Self-Compassion.”

Overcoming Tribalism and Moving Toward Understanding

In a year where I feel like I’m huddled in the quiet place at the center of a tornado, I’ve been spending a lot of time watching the swirling whirlwind around me and marveling at its cruelty. Whenever I venture a little out of my comfortable quarantine space, bad things seem to happen. A few days ago I commented on an article online, and every day since, I’ve been barraged by people accusing me of intellectual, educational and moral degeneracy. These people don’t know anything about me except for one line of text, and based on that they feel entitled, and even morally obligated, to treat me like an enemy.

What’s more, I understand the urge. Sometimes people express opinions that fill me with righteous anger, and I wonder how anyone could possibly think the way that person does. Unless I consciously push back against the hardwired workings of my brain, it will automatically put that person I disagree with into the category of “other,” a person who is not part of my tribe, and not to be trusted.

Our brains evolved to classify people in this manner in order to keep us safe. When confronted with someone new, our brains will almost instantaneously assess that person’s appearance, demeanor, and attitude, and decide if that person is “us” or “other.” This was a matter of life or death in antiquity. Someone from a neighboring tribe would quite likely be an unsafe rival who competed with us for food and other resources, and they could be dangerous to our physical safety.

Unfortunately, as the centuries progressed, this hardwiring to the ancient structures of our brains didn’t change, and people still unconsciously continue to assess those that are unlike them to be threats. We can easily see this behavior in teenagers who form cliques that are fiercely loyal to each other, and who roam school hallways together looking for “others” to crush.

While people gain identity, safety, and companionship from being part of the group, they may also be stifled by it. Those that don’t conform to the group norms can end up ousted from the group, and find themselves in the cold and frightening role of “other.” As a result, people stop being creative, stop growing and changing, and stop trying to understand those who are different from them in order to avoid losing their safe place as part of the tribe. Sometimes, people will even do things that go against their own moral codes in order to remain in good standing with the group.

While we may not form cliques as often as we get older, we still join and conform to tribes. It may be a political party, a career path, an ethnicity, a religion, or even a family group. Our identities become bound up in these groups and we’re hardwired to see people in other groups as “the other” and somehow threatening to us, even if they actually have no intention of harm.

As people become more and more identified with their tribes, they lose objectivity, and they can be easily manipulated into hating the other group. Unethical people who are looking for power will often use this all-too-human tendency to unite against an “other” to rally people behind them. This process is extremely dangerous. Throughout history we’ve seen what happens when groups of people are demonized, labeled and feared: genocides, civil wars, concentration camps, witch burnings . . . the very worst of human atrocities. They all happen because of this hardwired tribalism.

So what’s the fix? How can we intervene? Well, the first step is to start paying attention. First, pay attention to the messages within your particular groups. Who is it that is being placed in the role of “other,” and who is benefiting from placing people in that role?

Next, pay attention to the feelings in your own body. If you feel comfortable with the messages of one particular group, but the other group’s messages make you feel physically uncomfortable, that’s not a sign that the other group is bad. It’s a sign that you have become so aligned with the beliefs of your own group that the way people from other groups see the world feels alien to your nervous system. Instead of further rejecting the worldview of other people and seeing them as wrong, grow curious. Start investigating other ways of thinking and believing. The more that we understand other people, the more we can embrace their differences.

Read books about topics that you’re uncomfortable with, and by people who you don’t agree with. Talk to people from the other group with an open and compassionate heart and mind, and try to understand why they see the world the way that they do. Nobody arrives at their beliefs in a vacuum. They’ve had life experiences that led them to where they are now. Understanding and knowing those stories breeds compassion, and we are in desperate need of compassion right now.

In my work as a therapist I talk with people from every imaginable group, and I can tell you that suffering, and a need for understanding are universal. Showing understanding for someone in a group different from yours is healing for everyone involved.

So, next time you’re online and see someone posting an opinion that you don’t agree with, instead of pelting them with insults, I encourage you to ask them why they believe what they do, and ask it with a truly open mind. If they answer, it might not change your mind, but it might help you to have understanding and compassion for a different way of seeing the world. It might help you to bring that person out of the “other” category and into the “us” category.

The truth is that we are all human, and while seeking out the differences between us in order to categorize, label and oppress people might be part of our hardwired nature, I believe that we have the capacity to rise above our hardwiring and make choices. People do it every day. They choose not to punch that person that made them angry, or ram that car that cut them off. We have the capacity to choose our behavior because of our amazing frontal lobes, which give us reason and self-awareness. I encourage you to start viewing people as a tribe of humankind in all of its wondrous and beautiful variety. Maybe then we can start treating each other with true humanity.

The Real Reason that Abusers Abuse: It’s Not Why You Think

One of my therapeutic specialties is helping people to work through abuse trauma. I honed my skills working in a domestic violence shelter, and also with Child Welfare Services, but I find that wherever I go, abuse trauma patients follow.

While there is endless variety in the types of abuse traumas that people have experienced, as well as the severity and duration of their abuse experiences, there always seems to be one underlying theme: a sense of shame and personal responsibility.

No matter how often I hear it, I never cease to be shocked by victims of sexual abuse who tell me that they somehow are to blame for their assaults, or the survivors of domestic violence who tell me that if they could have just been better spouses, their relationships could have been saved. These people tell me that their abusers must have seen that they were inherently flawed or unworthy, and that’s why they were chosen to be victims.

At first I would gently tell these people that they were mistaken, and that there was nothing wrong with them, but I quickly learned that the message that they were somehow to blame for what had happened to them was so deeply ingrained that they couldn’t take in any message that contradicted this belief.

That was when I had an epiphany about abuse. It’s not an action. It’s a process. Abuse is a process where the victims are slowly groomed to believe that they are at fault for their mistreatment. It’s an insidious message that starts out small, and grows over time. Abusers slowly push out other supports from the lives of their victims until the only message that can be heard is “You deserve this mistreatment because you are inherently bad and unworthy. If only you could be better, it would stop.”

Having victims who believe this message serves abusers in three ways:

  1. The victim is constantly trying to please the abuser. As a result, the abuser gets catered and deferred to. Depending on the type of abuse, the victim may also be afraid to contradict or stand up to the abuser, giving him/her the benefits of complete power and control over what should be a mutually beneficial relationship.
  2. It takes the blame off of the abuser for the abuse and puts it on the victim, so that the abuser can feel blameless and entitled to continue the abuse.
  3. It keeps victims from leaving because they truly believe that they are unworthy of respectful love, that they deserve the mistreatment, and that they are lucky that the abuser stays with them.

When people tell me now about the deep sense of shame that they feel about the abuse that they’ve suffered, I say, “Yes. That’s the message of abuse. Abuse says that you are somehow to blame for what has happened to you, and that if you were somehow better the abuse would stop. However, think about all that you did to try to be better and how none of it made the abuse stop. The message that you’re to blame is a lie that abuse tells.”

Usually, they nod and say, “Yes. It was just like that.”

Once they understand the message of abuse, I explain how it benefits abusers to get their victims to believe that they are the cause of the abuse. That’s when the healing begins.

There many of myths out there about abuse, and I would like to address some of them here:

  1. Abuse doesn’t happen because the abuser lost control of his/her temper. Abuse is a process. It is pre-meditated and thought through. Abusers behave the way that they do in order to get the benefits of abuse.
  2. Abuse doesn’t happen because of alcohol/drug use. Often, both victims and abusers will minimize abuse saying, “Well, he/she was drunk. He/she wouldn’t do that when sober.” Often in these cases the victim pushes the abuser to get clean thinking that will stop the abuse. If the abuser does get clean, the victim is often shocked that the abuse doesn’t stop. What they had failed to understand was that the abuser wasn’t abusing because of the substance. He/she was using the substance as an excuse to abuse and reap the benefits of abuse listed above.
  3. Victims do not enjoy being abused. They don’t stay because they like it or get some kind of thrill out of it. They stay for any mixture of the following reasons: a) They truly believe that they are bad people and nobody else will want them; b) They have become so isolated by the behavior of the abuser that they believe they have nowhere else to go; c) The abuser has convinced them that they cannot survive on their own; d) They are completely financially dependent on the abuser and cannot see a way to support themselves on their own. e) The abuser has threatened to kill them, take their children, or deport them if they leave, and they are afraid that he/she will follow through on these threats.
  4. Abuse can happen to anyone, regardless of race, socio-economic status, gender, education level or sexual orientation. It’s something that happens to people just like you.

If you’ve recognized yourself here, know that there is help for you. Even if you don’t have any money or any family or friends that you can go live with, there are shelters that will take you. The wonderful thing about going to a shelter is that they can connect you to a transitional living program. These programs are specifically designed to provide shelter, food, funding, and education for survivors of abuse so that they can rebuild their lives, including finding a career and learning how to support themselves. Don’t continue to wait for things to get better. They won’t. Pack a bag, take your children, and go to a shelter. Your life will immediately improve and you will be able to take your power back.

Read the book, Why Does He Do That by Lundy Bancroft. This is the best book about abuse I’ve ever read. Lundy Bancroft was the director of an abuse perpetrator’s program, and he has first-hand knowledge about the way that abusers think. Any time that I’ve been working with an abuse survivor who has read this book, she/he has gathered the courage to leave, and set down at least a portion of the shame she/he had been carrying. Understanding that abusers abuse in order to get the benefits of abuse is an empowering piece of knowledge.

Call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-799-7233.

Call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800-656-4673.

Go to http://www.RAINN.org. RAINN is the nation’s largest anti-sexual violence organization, and they have resources for survivors.

Survivors of childhood abuse, I recommend getting involved in your local Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACA) organization. They don’t just help the children of alcoholics. They are a 12 step organization for overcoming the effects of all types of childhood abuse.

Know that you are not alone. There is help and support, and if you access it, things will get better.

It’s Not “Just” Depression

Something that I hear a lot, and often from people that should know better, is “well, it’s just depression.” I hear this in many different contexts, for example, a woman who has been having GI issues goes to see her doctor, who tells her that there really isn’t anything wrong with her digestive track, “it’s just depression.”

According to http://www.dictionary.com, the word “just” has several meanings, but in the above context it means, “only or merely.” That doctor could have easily substituted the word “merely” for “just,” as in “there isn’t anything wrong with your digestive track, it’s merely depression.” Then, said doctor refers the woman to see a therapist, and thinks that the problem is resolved.

Only, it’s probably not resolved. In these cases, people often continue to have health problems. If they do seek help from a therapist, they get suggestions about handling stressors, but therapists can’t treat physical symptoms directly. It’s possible that with time and work the symptoms will resolve, but it’s also quite likely that the patient will continue to struggle with health problems.

Unfortunately, after having their symptoms dismissed as “just” depression, people are unlikely to seek medical attention again because it’s too embarrassing to be dismissed like that. If they do seek medical treatment, they’ll likely see a different doctor, and the first one never learns that the referral to a therapist was unhelpful in resolving the symptoms.

It’s true that emotional symptoms can manifest as physical health symptoms, but the unfortunate fact is that doctors jump to this conclusion much too rapidly, without testing, and make a diagnosis based on opinion instead of on evidence.

If the physical symptoms are truly caused by mental health issues, there are often things that doctors can do to alleviate symptoms while the patient works on underlying mental health issues. However, due to their own inherent bias that it’s “just” mental health problems, they choose not to treat. In my own case, it truly was a physical problem, but since the doctors couldn’t easily fit my symptoms into a tidy box, they told me that the symptoms weren’t medical, and were “just” anxiety, and told me to see a therapist. It took me months and multiple doctor’s appointments with different doctors to get the anti-emetics that I needed so that I could keep food down. That’s months of illness that could have been avoided if doctors had simply taken me seriously enough to even treat my symptoms.

While all of this is bad enough, the medical system’s dismissal of mental health symptoms as not being worth treating bleeds out into the public attitude that mental health symptoms are made up and imaginary, leading to advice from well-meaning loved ones such as, “Well, you just need to get over it,” or “just focus on the positive more. You’ll be fine.”

That’s not how it works. People with mental health symptoms aren’t stupid. They’ve tried taking walks, thinking positive, remembering that the weather is nice, and all of the other too-easy fixes that people suggest to them.

Depression is complex. It takes work and time to overcome, and acting like it’s not serious or is easily conquered makes people with mental health problems feel even more alone than the depression tells them that they are already.

The truth is that depression is a serious disease with a death count. People die of depression in alarming numbers. According to the World Health Organization, more that 264 million people worldwide suffer from depression, and “close to 800,000 people die due to suicide every year. Suicide is the second leading cause of death in 15 to 29-year-olds.”

This idea that it’s “just depression” is a serious barrier to sick people getting the care that they need. An alarming number of patients with depression refuse medication saying that they “don’t want to be dependent on a drug to feel happy.” They wouldn’t refuse other life-saving medications for physical health problems, but they refuse medication for depression because of the idea that depression is something that they “should be able to overcome on their own,” and isn’t really serious.

It is extremely serious.

When people suicide, the big question that as themselves is, “but why would they do that?” People point to the fact that they had everything to live for, and seemed happy.

The answer to this question is that people suicide because they are depressed. It really is that simple. Depressed people can fake happiness quite well in order to get by in the world, but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t depressed.

Conventional wisdom says that depression means that the person is “just sad.” People think, “well, I’ve had the blues before too, and it went away.” Depression doesn’t work that way. Often people that are depressed don’t feel sad at all. Depression often presents with anxiety or irritability, but there is one underlying truth with depression–it tells you that you’re terrible and people don’t care about you. In severe cases, depression says that the people in your life would be better off without you, and might even be relieved that you’re gone.

It doesn’t matter how much external proof there is that these thoughts aren’t true. When someone is depressed, these thoughts feel like truth, and anything that contradicts them feels like lies. This is why people die of suicide. It’s not that they’re selfish or weak. It’s that they truly believe that the people in their lives will be better off when they’re gone because depression says they are terrible people, and it feels like truth.

Another ironic truth about depression is that one of the main symptoms is a lack of motivation. A person suffering from depression might not feel sad, but will likely have a difficult time getting motivated to do things. If they are able to accomplish things, depressed people get very little enjoyment out of what they do.

This makes treating depression complicated. It may be that the sick person has seen a therapist and gained knowledge of skills and behaviors that would help, but can’t seem to get enough motivation to perform those behaviors. They are not being lazy. Lack of motivation is one of the most common symptoms of depression.

When motivation is an issue, the best approach is often to start the patient taking antidepressants in order to get the small amount of motivation needed to start applying the skills they are learning in therapy. Antidepressants are important in the treatment of depression in order to increase motivation to do the work to get well, which is why it’s so important to remove the stigma associated with taking them. Antidepressants truly do save lives, and a combination of medication and therapy is often the most effective approach.

If there is a depressed person in your life, the best thing that you can do is reserve judgment and refrain from advice giving. Simply sit with the person if that is all that they are able to muster the motivation for. If the depressed person speaks, just listen. Don’t tell them that they aren’t thinking correctly, and please don’t tell them to get over it or just get outside or be more social. A little-known truth about depression is that hearing unhelpful advice makes the depressed person more depressed. It confirms their depressed thoughts that they are alone, nobody understands them, and people would be better off without them.

So what can you say? Express your willingness to be with them even thought they aren’t happy right now. Tell them that they are loved and important. Encourage them to seek professional help, but stop there with advice giving.

Here is a list of great things to say to depressed people:

  • What you’re going through right now is really hard.
  • I’m here for you.
  • I love you.
  • What can I do to help?
  • What do you need right now?

If they don’t know what they need, that’s OK. The fact that you asked is what’s important. It shows them that you care about them and that you’re willing to listen. Being present with a depressed person is probably the best help that you can give.

Remember, it’s impossible to talk someone out of being depressed, and trying to do so makes the depressed person feel alone and misunderstood, so don’t try.

If you are a depressed person, I urge you to seek professional help. I know that it feels like you shouldn’t have to, but that’s the depression speaking. When your therapist gives you skills to learn and homework to work on, give it your best shot. It may feel silly or like a lot of work, but there is a good reason for it. Your therapist is helping you to create new pathways in your brain that are healthy and move you away from the pathways of depression that are so well worn and easy to walk down. Remember that small movements forward are progress, and give yourself credit for every baby step.

If you are feeling suicidal, know that what depression is telling you about yourself and the people around you is a lie. The people in your life do love you and care about you and will be devastated if you are gone. You are worthy of love and belonging simply because you’re human. You don’t have to do anything to deserve it. Immediately take yourself to your nearest emergency room, or call a suicide helpline. If you can’t muster the motivation, call 911 and professionals will come to you.

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline phone number is 1-800-273-8255, and it is available 24 hours a day. Call.

Let’s all start treating depression as the serious and life-threatening illness that it is. It’s not “just” feeling sad. It’s not fake, selfish or weak, and changing the public attitude towards mental health problems will save lives.

Here are some resources for more information:

Doing Harm Website

Compassionomics TED Talk

TED Talks on Depression

World Health Organization’s Depression Page

Self-Compassion: The Antidote to Perfectionism and Self-Critical Thinking

Perfectionism is often worn like a badge of honor by the overachievers of the world. While people realize that perfectionism can keep them in a spiral of self-critical thinking, the thought process often goes, “but if I keep criticizing myself, I will improve. I will become the version of myself that I truly want to be, and what could be wrong with that?”

Unfortunately, there are several problems with it. First of all, perfection is an unattainable goal. Humans are innately imperfect. That is what it is to be human, so the search for perfection will never end. Even you did manage to perfect one part of your life, there is another part waiting and ready for you to start worrying about next.

The second problem with perfectionism is that it leads to all kinds of mental health problems. Constant self-criticism leads to eating disorders, anxiety, and depression, just to name a few. People often think that their perfectionism and self-criticism are helping them to be motivated, but it works in just the opposite manner. By punishing yourself into your own depression, you’re putting yourself into the least motivational mind state possible. People with depression often have difficulty even getting out of bed, let alone performing at impossible levels of perfectionism.

It may seem counter-intuitive, but self-compassion is a much more effective way to improve both performance and mental health.

So what does self compassion mean? Well, there are three components: Mindfulness, Self-Kindness, and Common Humanity.

Mindfulness means being in the present moment without judging that moment as either good or bad. In order to work on being kinder to yourself, it’s important to be able to be present with your own thoughts, and to catch yourself being self-critical. This can be a tall order for some. Many people spend most of their time trying to escape their own inner thoughts by being in a constant state of distraction.

Often the perfectionistic mindset makes being present with our own mistakes and self-criticism much too scary. If the goal is to be perfect, admitting that we’ve fallen short of our own ideals can lead to more self-critical thoughts. The problem with this is that it keeps people from growing. In order to learn and grow, we have to be able to admit that there are parts of ourselves that are in need of work, which leads to the second component of mindfulness.

Self-Kindness means giving to yourself the same kind of gentle concern that you might give to a beloved family member or close friend. If your loved one came to you saying that they’d made a big mistake and that they were mentally beating themselves up about it, the kind response would be to something like, “It’s Ok. We all make mistakes. I still love you.”

Self-compassion is about taking that same kindness and giving it to yourself. Many people balk at this idea and say, “But that’s just letting myself off the hook.” However, it doesn’t really work that way. By giving yourself kindness about your own mistakes, you give yourself permission to actually see the places in your life where you need to grow. Instead of beating yourself up internally over every minor flaw to the point that you don’t even want to look at them, self-kindness allows you to examine mistakes and realize that they are just opportunities for learning, and that you’re still a good person no matter how many times you mess up.

What an amazing way to give yourself permission to try something new, to take risks, to approach new people. If it doesn’t work out the way you’d hoped, it’s not a reflection on your own worth anymore. It’s just part of being human.

Which leads us to Common Humanity, the final component of self-compassion. Common Humanity means realizing that everyone on this beautiful Earth is just imperfect as you are. All of those mistakes and errors that you make, don’t make you different or wrong. All of those imperfections about your body or your character or your relationships actually make you the same as other people.

When we beat ourselves up about mistakes, it can lead to feeling outside of humanity. We can look around at other people and think things like, “Well, they have their lives together. What’s wrong with me?”

The answer is that there is nothing wrong with you at all, and those other people are making just as many mistakes as you are on a daily basis. Everyone is just doing the best that they can with the resources and knowledge that they have in the moment. Realizing this truth can feel like a great relief! You are not alone in your imperfection. Instead, your imperfection is what makes you just like everyone else.

A very simple way to start practicing self compassion in your own life is to make a self-compassion statement that incorporates all three components of self-compassion. Here’s an example:

Let’s say that you are in the middle of trying to learn something new, and in the process you do something that wasn’t as skillful as you would have liked. Perhaps your go to response to this situation would be to say something to yourself like, “Come on! You know better than that! Why can’t you get this right? You’re so stupid!”

Unfortunately, if you continue to speak to yourself this way, you will probably give up your new endeavor because continuing to try only to mess up makes you feel terrible about yourself.

This process of self-criticism keeps you from growing and expanding into new ways of being you. When you notice this happening using your mindfulness skills, don’t judge yourself for judging yourself and make things even worse. Instead, use your self compassion statement as follows.

“OK. I’m feeling stupid right now because I made a mistake, and I’m being hard on myself about it. However, making mistakes is OK. It’s actually what makes me human, just like everyone else.”

This self-compassion statement is brief. It only took a second or two to say, but it shifted the entire experience.

Let’s break this statement down into its three component parts.

  1. Mindfulness: Recognizing the emotion (feeling stupid) and the self-criticism that went along with it.
  2. Self-Kindness: Telling yourself that what happened is OK. There is absolutely nothing wrong with you because of what happened.
  3. Common Humanity: Reminding yourself that everyone goes through situations like these. These experiences are what make you the same as others, not what makes you different or unworthy.

Using these three components of self-compassion, you can formulate a self-compassion statement that works for you, in your own voice.

Sometimes, when people hear about self-compassion for the first time they think it’s selfish. They’ve been raised to believe that being kind to others is a good thing, but being kind to oneself is wrong, and perhaps even sinful. However, people that practice kindness to themselves are actually kinder to others. People that are mentally healthy are more able to care for others in the world. By being open-hearted to yourself, you will be more able to be open-hearted to others.

It will likely feel weird and uncomfortable at first. That’s OK. Everything new feels weird at first. Normal is simply what we’re used to.

That self-criticism pathway in your brain is likely so well-worn that it feels comfortable and easy to walk down it, even though it is harmful to you. Creating new pathways in the brain is difficult and takes a lot of work and practice, even when the new way of thinking is good for you and will make your life better in the long run. Don’t give up on being more self-compassionate just because it’s hard at first. Put in the work. It’s worth it. You’re worth it.

For more information on self compassion vs perfectionism, here are some links to check out:

Kristin Neff’s Self-Compassion Website

TED Talk on the Dangers of Perfectionism

Link to Brene Brown’s book, The Gifts of Imperfection

Link to Kristin Neff’s Ted Talk on Self-Compassion 

Link to Kristin Neff’s book “Self-Compassion”

Redefining Power

I began writing my book, I’m Sick, Not Crazy: How I Took Control of My Health When Western Medicine Told Me it Was All In My Head, as a way to take my power back after an incredibly disempowering experience.  It seemed to me that if I could understand the story of my own debilitating physical illness, then I could reclaim the control over my body and mind that the medical system had taken from me.  Even better, I could help others to reclaim power and control over their own bodies.

When I became ill, I did what most people do.  I went to my doctor and explained my symptoms, expecting to get a diagnosis and a treatment plan.  Instead, what I received was a long series of dismissals from medical professionals.  They minimized my symptoms, insinuated that I was exaggerating, and told me that I was “probably just anxious.”  

By the end of a year and a half of severe illness, my energy to ask Western Medicine for help was utterly depleted.  I realized that I was just one small person, and that the medical system was vast and powerful, and my voice was simply too tiny to be heard.

Instead of giving up, however, I gathered my energy back to myself and began to find other ways to heal.  By taking my power back and seeking my own wellness, my own way, I saved my own life.

Unfortunately, many people going through similar situations don’t realize that they even have the option of reclaiming their own power, which is what I want to talk about today.

For centuries, power has been defined as having power over others; the might makes right philosophy.  Kingdoms were created where one person had ultimate power over others.  People with physical strength, or with superior weaponry or technology have subdued others in order to take resources from them.

Hierarchy can be found today in all areas of life.  In the corporations that we work for, where labor is underpaid in order to concentrate wealth in the hands of a few, and in governments that take from the people they govern, and give little back.  And, of course, in the medical system, which over-charges for care that is questionably helpful, and often leaves people bankrupt.

These hierarchies don’t work.  They concentrate wealth, resources, and authority in the hands of the few.  They define power as having power over others.

Yet, I believe that power is something very different.  I believe that power is found in all of the ways that people take control of themselves and their own futures.  And I believe that power is found in communities of equals who work together towards a common goal that is helpful and enriching to everyone.

When I realized that asking Western Medicine to save me wasn’t working, I had to re-evaluate.  I had to practice radical acceptance of the fact that my body was likely never going to be the same, and that mainstream sources of medical assistance weren’t going to help me.  I had to start researching other ways to get what I needed in order to get well, and I had to trust my own intuitive knowing that there are many ways to heal–not just the one that capitalism says is right.  I had to take my power back to myself and take charge of my own life and health.

There could be many ways that you are giving your power away.  You could be staying in a relationship that doesn’t serve you and will never give you the future that you want.  Possibly you’re working in a job that makes you feel unimportant and pays you less than you’re worth.  Perhaps you’re relying on a person, or a bureaucracy, to take care of you, your health, or your safety, and you’re finding that it isn’t actually working out the way you’d hoped.

Consider, are there ways that I could take my power back?  Are there ways that I’ve been giving my power away that aren’t serving me?  Is it possible to move away from hierarchy and toward equality and community?

After asking myself these questions about my interactions with Western Medicine, I decided that there were ways that I could take control, take my power back, and make myself whole again.

The first thing that I did was join a yoga studio, and I will forever maintain that this move saved my life.  By joining a community of wellness seekers that accepted my body in all of its brokenness and make me feel acceptable, and then showed me how I could still move my body in ways that felt good, I began the process of taking my power back and moving toward healing.

As I slowly began to regain my physical strength, the strength of my mind and heart began to grow as well.  I became a seeker of wellness in my own right, and the doors slowly opened.  After yoga, massage became part of my healthcare routine, and the stuck and stagnant parts of my body began to move and soften.  Then acupuncture and craniosacral therapy became pieces of my healthcare puzzle.

I know that my body will never be like it was before my illness, and that I will always need to work to maintain my health.  However, I am thrilled to be able to tell you that by taking back my power over my own body and healing, I succeeded in creating a body that works.  

Not only am I well enough to function, but I thrive.  People laugh at how much energy I have to be productive, and they joke that I accomplish as much as two or three people usually do.  They’re right, and it’s because I embody my own power now.  I don’t wait for permission.  I decide what is right for me, and I go after it.  I trust myself.

If you’ve given away your power, taking it back is a process, but awareness is the first step.  Once you’re aware, you can start to make moves away from the old definition of power-over, and towards the new definition of power-within-yourself, and power-in-community.  

Rather than calling you out, I’m calling you in to a new way of being with yourself and those around you, and I support you in every step of the journey.

The Fourfold Path to Forgiveness: A Way to Release Hurt and Resentment

Growing up, I had this idea that forgiveness was something granted upon the repentant.  I thought that when people realized that they had wronged someone, they went to that person and said that they were sorry, and then they received an “I forgive you” as a reward.

As I grew older, I realized that things rarely work this way.  Often, when we have been wronged, the person who wronged us doesn’t realize or doesn’t care that we are hurt.  Sometimes, even when they do apologize, we don’t want to grant forgiveness.  It can feel like condoning their bad behavior.

However, the weight of the resentments that we carry can become a burden almost impossible to bear, and they can keep us in what Desmond Tutu and Mpho Tutu call “The Revenge Cycle” in The Book of Forgiving: The Fourfold Path for Healing Ourselves and Our World.  In The Revenge Cycle, a hurt leads to pain, which leads to choosing to harm another, which leads to rejecting shared humanity, which leads to revenge-retaliation-payback, and then to more violence cruelty and hurt.  And the cycle repeats and repeats.

We can see the Revenge Cycle play itself out in recurrent wars between countries, couples who constantly fight, and feuds between families or family members.  The resentment that they refuse to let go of keeps them from stepping out of the cycle and choosing to forgive in order to end the violence.  While it may feel like violence should be answered with violence, this does nothing to end the pain for everyone involved, and in fact tends to lead to more pain.  Choosing against revenge is truly the strong road, and the path toward healing.

Sometimes when I discuss with people that they need to work on forgiving their abusers, they tell me that they can’t because it would be letting that person off the hook.  They say that by continuing to hold the grudge, they are punishing that person for the hurt that they caused.  Unfortunately, this usually isn’t true.  Usually abusers don’t have any idea about the hurt and resentment that their victims are holding against them.  The result is that the only person that is punished is the one holding the pain.  Choosing to release it is a way for people who have been wronged to heal themselves.

Forgiving is for the victim, not the perpetrator.  In forgiving, victims release the hurt and the resentment that has been eating at their insides.  And in doing so, they regain power over their own lives.

Desmond Tutu was instrumental in South Africa in both ending apartheid, and in helping the country to heal from the violence caused by apartheid laws.  He founded The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which created the safe space necessary for victims of apartheid violence to talk with their abusers in order to create healing, and to release pain and resentment.

Tutu lays out four steps to forgiveness:

  1. Telling the story.  “Telling the story is how we get our dignity back after we have been harmed.  It is how we begin to take back what was taken from us, and how we begin to understand and make meaning out of our hurting” (Tutu, p. 71). Often, after abuse, people hide the stories of their hurt.  But silence and secrets are the breeding ground of shame, and by exposing the stories to the light, we can dispel the shame of the secrets.  It is important to choose carefully to whom we tell our stories.  If it is possible to tell the perpetrator of the hurt in a safe way, that might be preferable.  However, if the perpetrator is not available, or not open to the story, a therapist or a trusted friend/advisor might be a good choice.
  2. Naming the hurt.  “Giving the emotion a name is the way we come to understand how what happened affected us. . . We are each hurt in our own unique ways, and when we give voice to this pain, we begin to heal it” (Tutu, p. 95).  Sometimes the very act of naming the emotion can take some of the power out of it.  By saying, “Oh, I’m feeling hurt, or anxious, or sad,” we give our attention and caring to the emotion, which is the first step in allowing it to heal.  Emotions that we ignore tend to grow, and come out in ways that can be surprising.
  3. Granting forgiveness.  “We choose forgiveness because it is how we find freedom and keep from remaining trapped in an endless loop of telling our stories and naming our hurts.  It is how we move from victim to hero.  A victim is in a position of weakness and subject to the whims of others.  Heroes are people who determine their own fate and their own future” (Tutu, p. 121).  Whether or not the perpetrator of your hurt knows that you have forgiven is not important.  You know.  You know that you have set down the load of your anger, hurt and betrayal.  What a relief!  This can be a slow process.  Sometimes it takes several attempts over time to release  the fulness of the pain.  Be patient with yourself, and don’t expect the process to be completed overnight.
  4. Renewing or Releasing the Relationship.  “A preference is always toward renewal or reconciliation, except in cases where safety is an issue.  When we choose to release a relationship, that person walks off with a piece of our hearts and a piece of our history.  The choice is not one to be made lightly or in the heat of the moment”  (Tutu, p. 148).  Deciding whether or not to continue the relationship is difficult and personal.  If the relationship is one where the benefits outweigh the costs, then renewal can be a good plan as long as both parties agree.  However, if having a relationship with the person who hurt you is unsafe, too painful, or puts other people in your life in danger, it is likely that releasing the relationship is the best choice.  Take your time with this decision, and make sure that your heart feels comfortable with the choice that you make.

While this process may seem daunting in the face of overwhelming pain, it is truly the best path towards healing yourself of the pain and resentment you may be carrying due to the hurtful actions of others.  If it is possible for victims of apartheid violence and oppression to meet with their perpetrators, tell their stories, name their hurts, grant forgiveness, and make a choice about whether to renew or release the relationship, I believe that it is possible in almost any situation.

Unfortunately, what happens all too often is that people pretend these situations never happened.  They are never spoken about, and the feelings are suppressed.  In these situations, nobody grows.  The perpetrator never understands the depth of the hurts that they have caused, and the victims never release the pain and resentment or take their power back.  

If you choose to confront your abuser, be aware that he or she may reject your story.  If that occurs, that doesn’t mean that you have done anything wrong or that your story lacks merit.  Instead, I would suggest that the abuser was not ready to hear what you had to say and has a lot of work to do on him or herself.  With that knowledge, choose a different person to tell your story to, so that you can heal.  A therapist is always a good choice.

As you read this, there may be many situations that come up for you that you have been holding on to and would benefit from releasing.  If you would like more information about doing so, here are some resources for you:

The Book of Forgiving: The Fourfold Path for Healing Ourselves and Our World by Desmond Tutu and Mpho Tutu

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission

Psychology Today Article on Forgiveness

Mayo Clinic Article on Forgiveness

Labels, and How They’re Used to Justify Abuse

The first time someone called me a slut, I was 10 or 11 years old, and a virgin.  I had a school-girl crush on the boy who said it.  His friend, having noticed my affinity for Crush, was telling him that he should ask me to hang out, and I overheard the conversation.

“Nah,” said Crush. “She’s a slut.”

My face flushed hot with shame and disbelief.  What on earth would make him think I was a slut?  Crush destroyed!  After that, I went out of my way to avoid him.

That was just the beginning of a long string of misogynistic epithets and behavior that make my brain spin, which is why I related hard to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s (AOC’s) recent speech on the House Floor in response to Ted Yoho calling her “disgusting,” “out of [her] freaking mind,” and a “fucking bitch.”

For me, the most important part of the speech was when she “said it was important to point out that the issue wasn’t just about one lawmaker’s statements, but also a culture ‘of accepting violence and violent language against women.'” (Chris Walker in Truthout).

The culture of accepting violence and violent language against women is what I want to talk about today.

It bothers me that I feel I need to say this, but it’s probably important before I launch into  some of my own experiences with the type of everyday misogyny that AOC is talking about.  I’m an educated woman–a BA and two MAs.  I tend to be shy in company that I don’t know, I’m a complete failure at flirting, and I’m not a casual dater.  Personality-wise, I tend toward people pleasing, although I’m working on that, and I have depths of empathy and compassion that are yet untested.  I am not promiscuous, stupid, mean, or difficult in any way.

Here are some of the name-calling highlights that led me to the realization that women have not come as far as many people would like to think they have in gaining cultural equality:

  1. Calling women stupid.  Usually this happens when women fail to stroke a man’s ego, laugh at his horrible jokes, or agree with his questionable opinions.  Instead of asking the woman why she isn’t laughing, or requesting her opinion, he assumes that she just doesn’t understand.  A great example of this in my life was when I worked retail at Macy’s.  (FYI, people working retail take an insane amount of abuse.  Be kind to them).  I was minding my own business, ringing up an elderly man’s purchase, when he started telling me terrible, sexist jokes.  They were so insulting that I couldn’t even pretend to laugh at them, and did my best to just finish my task so he would go away.  When I failed to laugh at yet another horrible joke, he said to me, “You’re pretty dim, aren’t you?”  When I gasped, his wife stepped in to cover for him, “Oh, don’t take him seriously,” she said.  “That’s just how he is.”  I felt both sorry for her that she had to live with that man, and angry with her for minimizing his insulting, sexist behavior.
  2. Calling women sluts, whores and bitches.  It’s come to my attention that these insults about a woman’s sexuality have nothing to do with whether or not she’s sexual.  They’re more about cutting a woman down after she’s hurt a man’s ego in some way.  I’ve been called a bitch after telling a man I’m not interested in going out with him so many times that I’ve stopped saying no.  Usually I’ll just give him a wrong number and walk away.  Recently, I broke up with a man who thought that he could tell me what I could and couldn’t post on Facebook, and in response, he launched into a tirade of insults all variations on the theme of bitch.  Not a good look.
  3. Calling women Psycho or Crazy.  After I left an abusive ex-boyfriend who stalked me and broke into my apartment, I found out through the grapevine that he was calling me “Psycho-Bitch.”   I found this ironic given that he was the one who’d behaved like a maniac.

After being called a “psycho-bitch” by this stalker ex-boyfriend I had a revelation about labels, and it is this: Labeling a person is a way for the labeler to justify mistreating the one being labeled.

It’s true.  Stalking Jennifer, the person, and breaking into Jennifer’s house is so much more difficult to justify than stalking Psycho-Bitch.

It might be a “dick move” to ghost a woman after having sex with her, but if she’s a “slut” or a “whore,” well, then, it’s probably happened to her before.  She’ll get over it.

Slapping a woman might be unmanly.  However, slapping “That Bitch?”  Well, she deserved it, right?

As I became aware of this labeling phenomenon as a woman, I began to see all of the different ways that labels are used to dehumanize and enable barbaric behavior toward fellow humans.  Think about the labels that have been placed on people of different ethnicities.  Calling people of Native American descent savages has historically enabled brutalities like stealing Native children from their parents, cutting off their hair, sending them to boarding schools, and physically punishing them for speaking their native language, in order to “kill the Indian, but save the child.”

Think about the labels used against people from Mexico in order to justify stealing their children and putting them in cages, where they languish to this day.

Think about the labels used against Black people in order to justify killing Black teenagers for innocent things like walking down the street in a hoodie.

Bullies use labels like geek and nerd to enable them to feel Ok about their mistreatment of people that are kinder, smarter, or smaller.  I’ll never forget an incident on the school bus in middle school when a group of older boys cornered me, called me “school-girl” and pretended to spit on me.

In today’s news, I read an article about Federal troops occupying Portland and disappearing people from the streets in unmarked vans.  I was horrified that Americans could justify treating other Americans this way until I scanned down to the comments section (always a mistake) and saw what those troops must be thinking.  A man commented that the protesters were “animals” and “thugs” and that they deserved to be taken and detained indefinitely.  Animals.  Thugs.  By dehumanizing the protesters through these labels, the troops rid themselves of any guilt they might feel about what they are doing to the lives of the people that they are taking.  

Words matter.  Words are power.  If you don’t believe me, think about how authoritarian regimes invariably conduct book-burnings.  They fear the spread of ideas that might threaten their power.  The words that we use shape the way that we view reality.  When we label other humans in ways that steal their humanity from them, we are shaping the way that society treats them.  We need to respect this fact, and respect it when people express a preference about the words that we use to describe them.

If someone is labeling you in any way, remember that they’re doing it as a way to justify treating you as a non-human, and act accordingly.

I am now advocating for using these words more often: Human.  Person.  Humankind.  People.

I’ll leave you with this.  When I was a little girl, I used to sit next to my father while he played his guitar.  Sometimes I would put my hand on the instrument in order to feel the vibration of the music.  I loved these times, and I think my father did too.  One of the songs that he used to sing while I sat with him was Puff the Magic Dragon.  As he sang it, I would imagine myself as Jackie Paper playing with Puff, and sailing the seas while Puff intimidated mighty pirates with his roar.

One day it hit me that Jackie was a boy, and that I was a girl.  I immediately felt left out of the song and the adventure.  When I said so, my dad started singing “little boys and girls” so that I would feel included.  I had never heard of non-inclusive language.  I was 7 years old, and didn’t know about feminism, but I already felt excluded because of the preference for male pronouns.  Words matter.  Words have power.

As don Miguel Ruiz would say in his book The Four Agreements, let us be impeccable with our word.  If the urge to dehumanize someone with a label hits, please pause and question the urge.  Let us choose words that embrace the humanity of all people.  I know that it will make the world a kinder and more compassionate place for all of us.

 

Why Narcissists Are Attracted to Highly Sensitive People

Health has always been a struggle for me.  As a child, I have multiple memories of sleeping on the bathroom floor so that I could be near the toilet because I was too sick to be far away.  As a teen, I struggled with debilitating migraines.  Often, when I was at school, trying to study, I suddenly noticed a shimmering circle in my peripheral vision.  If I waited too long, the circle completely engulfed my sight and I was trapped at school in the throes of a migraine so severe that I couldn’t tolerate any light or sound.

As soon as I noticed the shimmering, known as an aura, I ran to the office and called my mother to pick me up so that she could pack me into bed, put a blanket over my bedroom window as make-shift blackout curtains, give me an ice pack for my pounding head, and shut the door so the room would be as quiet as possible, because any noise at all was like a nail being driven into my skull.

I had my last migraine at age 17, and thought that my struggles with my health might actually be over.  What I didn’t realize was that I was just at the beginning of struggling with the health of my romantic relationships.  I’ve discussed my early marriage in previous posts.  Suffice to say it was bad.  Since then there have been a string of bad relationships that looked great in the beginning.  The trauma of these events led me both into therapy, and to become a therapist in my own right.

However, I hadn’t realized what the true problem was until my current therapist, a wonderful woman who specializes in Highly Sensitive People, said, “You know.  I think every man you’ve ever dated was a narcissist.”  

Running through the criteria for narcissism in my head, I realized she was right.

As a Highly Sensitive Person, I possess a depth of empathy that is difficult to find.  When I meet new people who interest me, I invest in getting to know more about them, and I have an unfortunate tendency to notice the light in people and disregard their shadows.  For these reasons, I’m like catnip too narcissists.  They love being put on a pedestal.  They love a person wanting to know more about them and being interested in what they have to offer.

There is a lot of talk in the media about Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD), but most people don’t understand what it truly means.  It sounds like someone who has high self esteem and is generally impressed with themselves.  These qualities don’t sound so awful.  We tend to like people who like themselves.  However, the truth about NPD is so much more insidious.  Here are the Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) criteria for Narcissistic Personality Disorder:

A pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), need for admiration, and lack of empathy, beginning by early adulthood and present in a variety of contexts, as indicated by five (or more) of the following: 

(1) has a grandiose sense of self-importance (e.g., exaggerates achievements and talents, expects to be recognized as superior without commensurate achievements) 

(2) is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love 

(3) believes that he or she is “special” and unique and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people (or institutions) 

(4) requires excessive admiration 

(5) has a sense of entitlement, i.e., unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment or automatic compliance with his or her expectations 

(6) is interpersonally exploitative, i.e., takes advantage of others to achieve his or her own ends 

(7) lacks empathy: is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others 

(8) is often envious of others or believes that others are envious of him or her 

(9) shows arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes

**Author’s note: While there are women with NPD, 50 to 75% of people with NPD are men, so I’m going to use the pronoun he/him to refer to the NPD person.  Please know that I acknowledge that not all NPD people are male.  I am also going to refer to the person he is dating as her.  This works for my purposes, but know that I recognize that romantic relationships can be between people of the same sex, or people that identify as transgender or gender fluid.**

At first meeting, an NPD person will be excessively charming.  This isn’t to make the other person feel comfortable.  It’s a way to gain admiration.  Unfortunately, this charm takes people in, especially in dating situations. When the NPD person takes a date to a fancy restaurant, buys expensive gifts for her, and takes her on romantic vacations, it isn’t to show his date how much he loves and respects her.  It’s to make her believe he is as amazing as he believes he is.  The more that she believes he is wonderful, the better he feels about himself.

It’s a trap.

Once the NPD person has hooked his target into admiring, and possibly into loving him, things start to shift and the other criteria for NPD show up.

Here’s a real-life example that happened to me.  I had been dating Adam (not his real name) for about 3 years when he suddenly decided that we should move in together.  Instead of discussing this with me, he told all of his friends about his decision, and they brought it up in conversation with me, which is how I found out.  This should have been my first clue.  Then, without discussing it with me, he decided that I should move into his apartment building.  I told him that I would prefer that we look at other places, and choose a place that was new to both of us so that it would be our place instead of a place that belonged to him.

Instead of respecting this request, he informed me that he’d talked with the management of his complex and made an appointment for us to look at an available apartment (criteria 5 and 7).  When I said that I had no intention of looking at the apartment in his complex because I had already made my needs clear to him, he became very angry with me and chose to punish me by taking me on a hike that we had planned for the day and refusing to speak to me the whole time (criterion 9).  It was excruciating, and I eventually told him I wasn’t having a good time and was going back by myself.

Adam eventually caved and said that he would look at other places, but was still rigid about what he wanted in an apartment, and didn’t much care about what I wanted.  We ended up compromising on a place where we lived together for 2 years.  During that two years, we went on amazing trips, ate at fancy restaurants and he gave me beautiful and expensive gifts. He was a very fancy dresser and tended to talk too much about money and his expensive education (criteria 1, 2, 3 and 4).  However, living with him was excessively lonely.  He spent all of his time watching television that I hated, and I mostly hid in the bedroom with earphones in trying to get some peace (criterion 7).

When I finally realized that he was just keeping me around as a roommate and was never going to marry me (criterion 6), I moved out.  The day I left, he didn’t even say goodbye to me.  When I emailed him saying that it bothered me that he didn’t say goodbye, he told me that he had considered us broken up for the whole two years, so he didn’t feel he needed to say goodbye to me (criteria 6, 7 and 9).  I was devastated.  He had lied to me and wasted time that I could have spent trying to find someone who truly loved me and wasn’t an exploitative narcissist.

On their own, any one of these actions doesn’t look too terrible.  Perhaps he simply forgot to tell me that he thought we should move in together.  Maybe he really liked his building and wanted to stay.  Maybe he likes watching television a lot and is careless about making sure the other person enjoys the show that’s on.  However, taken together, they show a pattern of disregard for the rights and needs of others that is pervasive to his personality.  I should also say that Adam was probably the nicest of the narcissists I’ve dated and this is a fairly light example.

Many people wonder how kind and giving people end up with narcissists.  It seems to be a pattern.  When one person in the partnership is cruel and exploitative, the other person seems to be incredibly empathic and caring.  This is exactly because narcissists have an unending need to be loved, understood and cared for.  

In the article “Do Highly Sensitive People Attract Narcissists” Andre Solo writes, “[Narcissists] have very lofty dreams, nothing they do or achieve is ever good enough, so they’re frequently upset, disappointed, or even wildly angry. Isn’t there anyone who can treat them the way they deserve? Yes, unfortunately; and all too often it’s an HSP, the person who keenly feels the pain of others and takes a true sense of satisfaction from helping. HSPs are often the first to try to console and comfort someone in need, and that puts them at risk of getting pulled into a narcissist’s trap.”

What happens is that whenever the HSP gets exhausted by the NPD’s selfish and exploitative behavior, the narcissist reels the HSP back in by “love bombing.”  What is a love bomb?  It’s a super romantic date or trip, or an expensive gift out of nowhere.  The HSP thinks, “Oh.  I was overreacting.  He really does love me,” and then the narcissist goes right back to sucking the empathy and kindness out of the HSP.

If you’re recognizing yourself or your relationship here, please don’t blame yourself.  It’s not your fault.  It’s an insidious trap that unfolds over time and plays on your capacity for kindness and empathy.

However, I urge you to get out now.  It will not get better.  It will only get worse.  Leaving a narcissist can be incredibly painful.  He will blame you and make you question your decision.  He will punish you.  The intermittent reinforcement the narcissist gives, alternating between intense attention and then intense lack of attention is addictive, and leaving a narcissist can feel like detoxing from a drug.  

However, once you’re through the detox, it can feel like being freed from a long and arduous prison sentence.  The day I received my divorce paperwork after I left my NPD ex-husband, and I saw my name in print changed back to the one I’d been born with was one of the happiest days of my life.  I walked away from the courthouse holding my divorce papers with a smile on my face so radiant that several people stopped me as I walked back to my car and asked me why I was so happy.  All I could do was hold up the 1/4 inch-thick divorce decree and say, “I’m free!”