The Healing Power of Yoga

It is my fervent belief that yoga saved me from a life of chronic illness, but when my neurologist at the time, Dr. Purcell, suggested it, I didn’t have any idea of the healing powers that yoga offered.  I was just so desperate to be well that I would have done anything that might actually help.  It was only later that I came to understand why yoga healed me the way that it did.  

It shocked me at the time that my nausea went away almost instantly after starting yoga classes.  I couldn’t account for it, but I was grateful for it beyond words.  The constant year-long nausea and vomiting had been the worst part of my illness, by far.  After that, I quickly re-gained the strength, stamina and motivation that had abandoned me, and I began to live again.

It took years to obtain the diagnosis that eventually led to a coherent treatment plan.  It wasn’t until well after I recovered that the label “spasmodic torticollis” came into my life.  I had to google it to understand exactly what it described, having never heard of it before.  It’s such an unusual and odd sounding term that when people ask for my diagnosis and I give it to them, they usually give me a blank look and say, “What was that again?”

In his book, Healing Yoga: Proven Postures to Treat Twenty Common Ailments—from Backache to Bone Loss, Shoulder Pain to Bunions, and More, Loren Fishman, MD has a fortuitous little blurb about my condition.  He writes, “A third condition that occurs in the neck isn’t as common, but if you’ve had it or even if you’ve seen it on someone else, you won’t forget it.  It’s called spastic torticollis—literally spasmodic turning of the neck.  It happens when one group of muscles gets really tight and turns the neck.  Sometimes the head turns in jerking motions, and sometimes it turns and stays in an unnatural place.” (Fishman 122-123).  

For some time after recovering from the worst of my illness, I had the jerking motions Dr. Fishman describes above.  My head would involuntarily turn to the right over and over.  It was embarrassing.  During the day, when I was in public, I would fight the head turning with everything that I had, and completely exhaust myself.  At home, when I was alone, I would relax and let my head do what it would, leading to half watched TV shows and great difficulty in keeping my place when reading.  Fishman writes, “This is a condition so painful and so intransigent that you may need a yoga therapist or a doctor who can give an injection that will alleviate it at least temporarily” (Fishman 122-123).  

Dr. Fishman’s assertion that spasmodic torticollis is extremely painful is, I think, the reason that my diagnosis and treatment took so incredibly long to obtain.  I don’t have much pain at all.  I have the odd headache, and my neck and shoulders tend to be a little bit sore, but I really don’t have significant pain.  In the very beginning of my illness, my ears and my scalp on the left side of my head hurt, making it difficult to sleep or wear a headset, but that pain went away fairly quickly.  

Doctors kept asking me about pain, and when I said I didn’t have much, they immediately dismissed me as a “hysterical woman” trying to get attention for something that wasn’t really very bad.  I would like to point out that pain is not the only thing that makes an illness terrible.  In fact, I probably would have preferred pain to the ongoing nausea and vomiting that I endured for a year and a half.  At least people that are in pain can eat, and they don’t starve to death.  

However, Dr. Fishman is right about the injections.  Every three months I go in to see my current neurologist, Dr. Matich, who is wonderful and warm and helpful, and she uses a machine to measure my involuntary muscle contractions.  She does this by inserting a probe into each affected muscle and listening to the sounds they create through a special machine.  Sometimes my muscles whoosh and growl like storms.  Dr. Matich then injects botox into the extra loud muscles to help them relax, and I can hear the muscle-storms grow calm.  Over time, this has been a helpful addition to my care, but I honestly don’t think it’s nearly as helpful as yoga.

In Healing Yoga, Dr. Fishman describes how “Laboratory and clinical studies have confirmed that pain from upper cervical joints and muscles can be referred to the head” (Fishman, 121).  I think this was exactly the complicating factor in my own illness.  I believe that what happened to me goes something like this: the whiplash injury that I endured caused the upper cervical muscles in my neck to go into spasm, which irritated muscles and nerves in my head, leading to migraine symptoms, but no pain.  I had the visual disturbance, nausea, vomiting and cognition problems that go with severe migraine, but the pain never showed up, which confused everyone—including me.

If he had known about me and my illness, I believe that Dr. Fishman would have backed up my neurologist’s suggestion that I treat my symptoms with yoga.  Dr. Fishman writes, “Appropriate yoga is good for almost anything that ails the neck and for pain referred from the neck to the head. . .  It improves suppleness of the neck muscles and increases the versatility of the joints so they can move more easily in many different ways.  It refines the coordination of the various muscle groups, so muscles aren’t pulling against each other with such ferocity” (Fishman, 123).  I believe that these benefits are part of the reason that I began to feel much better quickly after beginning my yoga practice.  With my neck muscles in spasm, I needed something to interrupt the process of pulling muscles irritating the tissues in my head, and yoga miraculously did that for me.

However, I think there was another contributing factor.  I think that the muscles, nerves, and other tissues in my neck and my head were terribly inflamed by the whiplash injury, at least partially causing the migraine symptoms.  Multiple studies have shown that inflammation is a leading factor in many of the chronic illnesses that people suffer from, such as fibromyalgia and chronic back pain.  Treatments for pain often focus on decreasing inflammation using NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatories), such as over the counter ibuprofen, or stronger prescription versions, like Naprosyn.  Many people, including myself, take a daily turmeric pill, which is a spice used in some forms of cooking, because it’s been shown to have anti-inflammatory qualities. 

I didn’t know it at the time that I started my yoga practice, but yoga decreases inflammation too.  Dr. Fishman writes, “We physicians can’t do much apart from medication for swelling of joints; your body can do more by itself, using a molecule called PGC-1alpha. This is a potent endogenous anti-inflammatory that reduces swelling anywhere it occurs in the human body.  Gentle activities such as yoga and tai chi, and especially yoga done for long periods of time, encourage the body to release this miraculous substance from your muscles” (Fishman, 122).  The joints in my neck were certainly inflamed after the traumatic whiplash injury that I suffered, and I believe that getting involved in yoga significantly helped to reduce that swelling through the release of PGC-1alpha.  How miraculous!  

Because of its anti-inflammatory effect, I believe that yoga should be a frontline treatment for any physical ailment that is caused by inflammation.  Can you imagine the wellness that would result if doctors would prescribe yoga for arthritis, fibromyalgia, back pain, and any of the other ailments that they usually prescribe pain medication for?  I truly believe that the world would be a much healthier and happier place.

Speaking of happiness, I’d like to say a little about how chronic illness affects mood.  Dr. Fishman writes, “. . .chronic pain does more than cause people to lose days of work.  It’s depressing.  It produces anxiety.  It makes life so hard that sometimes it doesn’t feel worth living.  I think it’s extremely important to address pain that could be or is becoming chronic and end it as soon as possible” (Fishman, 86).  While Dr. Fishman talks about chronic pain being depressing, I would like to add that chronic illness is depressing whether pain is involved or not.  Before my injury and subsequent illness in 2011, I was the happiest I’d ever been.  I had found a group of people where I seemed to fit in completely for the first time in my life.  I was active and social and enjoying every minute of it.  Then, the whiplash injury happened, and my happy life became very small and extremely unpleasant.  

As I sought help, doctors kept telling me that my symptoms were the result of anxiety, and they kept pointing out how anxious I was in the appointments, and how sad and alone I was.  I argued that I was anxious because I kept seeking help from professionals who dismissed my symptoms, and I was depressed because I was terribly ill and unable to do the things that made my previous life so wonderful.  But the doctors continued to insist that my symptoms were the result of anxiety and depression, not the other way around.  I found this incredibly frustrating and demeaning, and it’s refreshing to have Dr. Fishman acknowledge that chronic illness leads to a life that doesn’t feel worth living, because it absolutely does.

However, it appears that the psychological effects of chronic pain and illness are even worse than I previously thought.  Dr. Fishman writes, “. . . there is a less-recognized reason: chronic pain that lasts more than a year seems to have negative effects that last much longer.  A study done at Northwestern University shows that a year of chronic back pain actually shrinks the gray matter in the brain by as much as 11 percent, the equivalent of ten to twenty years of normal aging, and that loss is directly related to the duration of the pain” (Fishman, 86).  Ten to twenty years of normal aging caused by one year of chronic illness!  Honestly, that blows my mind, but I’ve seen it happen.  

In my own case, after my illness went into remission, and I got treatment that made sense, it took a couple more years for me to be able to focus on reading a book, or to be able to write the way that I had prior to getting sick.  I’m sure that recovering from brain atrophy was one of the reasons that it took me almost 10 years to get my book project together.

My grandmother became ill within the past few years.  Within a year of getting sick, she went from a vibrant older woman who managed a home of her own and loved to sew quilts, to a woman who needed 24-hour care and couldn’t recognize her own grandchildren.  Now she’s living in a nursing home that specializes in dementia care, and I’m certain that her illness was a major contributing factor to her mental decline.

Truly, we must take chronic illness and chronic pain seriously.  It not only decreases life satisfaction, causes anxiety and depression, it actually causes brain damage.  The good news is that in addition to other wonderful effects we’ve already discussed, yoga can help with the terrible mood and brain problems brought on by illness.  Fishman writes, “Clinical trials confirm that yoga helps reduce distress and depression and promotes a sense of calm well-being” (Fishman, 191).  He also explains that yoga is being used to treat PTSD. “The Naval Medical Center in San Diego and other military VA hospitals are offering yoga to help Marines, soldiers, sailors and others wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan who are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.  Preliminary military studies have found that the calming effect of yoga can assist PTSD patients in dealing with hypervigilance, flashbacks, depression and anxiety” (Fishman, 201).  Honestly, I think yoga is the cure-all that people are looking for, but it is under-prescribed and under-utilized.

Please spread the word about the healing effects of yoga.  Even though it’s more work than taking a pill, I think it’s more than worth the effort.  It saved my life.  It could save yours too.  Dr. Fishman lists multiple ailments that he has personally and effectively treated with yoga, including: back pain (both neurological and musculoskeletal), rotator cuff syndrome, headache, weight control, bone health (osteoporosis), insomnia, scoliosis, premenstrual syndrome, depression, restless leg syndrome, bunion, and plantar fasciitis.  While this is an extensive list, I’m willing to bet that there are many more conditions that would respond positively to treatment through yoga, and I encourage you to give it a try.

The Importance of Belonging Instead of Just Fitting In

Depressed people often tell me that they spend most of their time pretending to be happy. They feel that they must–that it’s expected of them. They say that they are exhausted by keeping up the pretense of cheerfulness, and that it feels like a mask that they wear to fool the people around them into thinking that they’re “normal.”

Every time someone tells me that they wear a mask of cheerful pretense, the Beatles song, Eleanor Rigby pops into my head:

“Eleanor Rigby
Picks up the rice in the church where a wedding has been
Lives in a dream
Waits at the window
Wearing the face that she keeps in a jar by the door
Who is it for?

All the lonely people
Where do they all come from?
All the lonely people
Where do they all belong?”

Clearly this sense of wearing a mask to fool the world is not new or isolated. In fact, I would bet that we all have done it from time to time. Some of us are better at it than others. Personally, I’m terrible at it. When I try to pretend, I come off as cold and stiff, and everyone knows that I’m not acting normally.

Susan David, in her TED Talk, “The Gift and Power of Emotional Courage,” says that “being positive has become a new form of moral correctness.” She calls this “a tyranny of positivity.” I agree with her. Somehow pretending to be happy is seen as better than living an authentically felt life, and people are shamed for being “negative,” or displaying emotions seen as “bad.” As a result, people walk around wearing happy faces, but feeling dead inside.

You may wonder, what’s bad about pretending to be happy? Isn’t that the point of “fake it ’till you make it?” The answer is that pretending to be happy cuts us off from authentically connecting with other people, and authentic connection is one of the greatest and most basic needs of human beings.

Below is a picture of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, which came up regularly in my college psychology courses. Starting from the bottom of the chart, you’ll see the most basic human needs for food, shelter, water, and clothing. Once those are satisfied, the next level is for safety. Directly after basic survival and safety comes love and belonging, including a sense of connection. Connection is not a luxury–something that might be nice to have one day. Connection is number 3 on the hierarchy of human needs. It’s that important.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, a scalable vector illustration on white background

However, there is a big difference between belonging and fitting in. Fitting in happens when people conform in order to be accepted into a group. Fitting in is that lonely feeling of wearing a face that you keep in a jar by the door. It’s the exhaustion that you feel after pretending to be happy all day when you want to cry on the inside. Fitting in does not fill that basic need for connection. Instead, it makes us feel even more lonely than being alone.

Belonging, on the other hand, is the feeling of ease that you have with a trusted friend. Belonging is the knowledge that it’s OK to show your authentic feelings, because the person that you’re with will understand and will continue to support and love you. It’s only in belonging that the basic need for a sense of connection is fulfilled.

In order to have true belonging, it’s necessary to be vulnerable, and while the idea of vulnerability may be so uncomfortable that it immediately makes you want to stop paying any attention to what I’m saying, please stay with me. This is important.

In her TED Talk, “The Power of Vulnerability,” Brene Brown explains that “in order for connection to happen, we have to allow ourselves to be seen. Really seen.” In order to feel that authentic connection that is one of our basic human needs, we have to be able to take off the mask, stop pretending to be happy when we aren’t, and show our true faces. The longer that you’ve been pretending, the more vulnerable this will make you feel.

When I work with clients on their need to belong, they often tell me that the idea of not pretending is preposterous, and that there is no way that they would allow themselves to be so vulnerable. I tell them that the fact that they had such a strong reaction tells me that vulnerability and the ability to be authentic is where the true work is for them. If you’ve had a strong reaction to the idea of being more authentically vulnerable with people, the same goes for you.

Now, I’m not suggesting that you go around telling your deepest darkest secrets to everyone you meet. Being vulnerable with people is a process. It doesn’t happen all at once. If there is someone that you think you might like to get closer with, reveal something small to them and see if they can handle it, and if they share something small with you in return. If so, try sharing something a little bit more personal, and so on. Creating true connection takes time, and you should only share your most personal stories with people who have earned the right, and have shown you that they are worthy. This is the way to build authentic connection with people who are safe.

Will there be times that you will pick the wrong person and get hurt? Of course there will be. However, building belonging in your life is worth the risk.

Belonging heals. In tribal cultures, when a member of the group is sick, the entire community takes part in the healing. The whole group comes out and dances around the fire, sings, or talks with the sick person. While these treatments aren’t necessarily scientific, people often do get well simply because the entire group showed up for them. Can you imagine how it would feel if your entire community showed up for you when you needed them?

Because so many people in Western culture confuse fitting in with belonging, and refuse to take the scary step towards vulnerability, the power of authentic belonging has eroded. When people are depressed or sick, they tend to end up more isolated than they were before their illnesses, and their isolation makes them sicker.

I would like to challenge you to examine your relationships. How many of them are based on fitting in and how many are based on true belonging and authentic connection? If you don’t have many authentic relationships, take the leap into vulnerability with the people that you feel have earned the right to it, and start building true belonging into your life. You’ll be glad that you did.

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.

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

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

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!”

 

 

Why Logic-ing All Over Your Feelings Doesn’t Work

I walk on fire.  It’s true.  I’ve done it on three different occasions.  The first time was at a spiritual retreat in Sedona, AZ, one of the most beautiful and mystical places in the United States.  I was in the middle of trying to free myself from a relationship that was going nowhere, and I was hoping that the retreat would help me to work up the courage to leave.  It had already been an incredible weekend, full of inspiration and revelation, when the leader of the retreat announced that there would be a fire walk that night.

Initially, my reaction was that fire walking was dangerous, and there was no way I’d be participating.  However, as the women of the retreat gathered in the auditorium, and the leader of the group, HeatherAsh Amara, of Warrior Goddess Training fame, began to speak about fire-walking, I questioned my initial negativity.

She explained that as we go through life we make “agreements” with ourselves and the world.  For instance, most of us agree that it isn’t OK to walk into other people’s houses without being invited, and it isn’t OK to take things that don’t belong to us.  These agreements shape how we interact with people in our lives, and also how we interact with ourselves.  One of the first agreements we make as humans, HeatherAsh explained, is that fire is hot–don’t touch.  By breaking that early agreement, it calls all later agreements into question–the agreements about who we are, about our relationships with others, and our relationships with ourselves.  

“Oh,” I thought.  “I need to do that.”

After signing a release form agreeing that I understood I was about to walk on fire, I followed the rest of the women out into the Sedona night, dancing, chanting and clapping along with the beat of a drum.  Eventually we arrived at the fire walk site, and a heap of glowing red coals–all that was left of a great bonfire that burned all that day.  The fire keepers raked the coals out into a pathway where they twinkled like little red stars.

Filled with a mixture of desire and trepidation, I watched as several other women went through the fire.  They seemed to come through unscathed, and several of the women were actually dancing through the coals!

If they could do it, I could too.  So, I screwed up my courage, approached the end of the glowing pathway, lifted my chin in defiance of my old agreement, and stepped out into the fire.  For a second it was OK, and then it hit me.  My feet were burning.  I couldn’t go back.  I had to go through.  So, I hopped and swore the rest of the way through the burning pathway and slunk back into the circle of women around the fire, feeling like a spiritual failure.

My feet stung, and so did my pride.  How were people going through the fire multiple times?  How did they look so happy?  Apparently I wouldn’t be able to break that first agreement that night, but I didn’t know why.

Several years later, I went to another of HeatherAsh’s Warrior Goddess retreats.  This time in Teotihuacan, Mexico.  It was an incredible week of ritual and fellowship, and I was about as happy as I get when HeatherAsh announced that there would be a fire walk that night.  My chest and stomach tightened around the memory of the blistered feet and the humiliation of the time before.  There was no way I was going through that again.

We all gathered in a circle to discuss fire walking.  As I listened to the veteran fire walkers discuss their experiences, I realized a commonality in their stories.  They all spoke about how they felt the moment that the fire invited them in.  Several of them said it was like a door opened for them.  One woman said it was like she got a green light from the fire, and she knew she could go.  I realized I had gone about it all wrong.  I had been approaching the fire with a logical mind instead of an open heart, and that was why I’d been burned.

Western society encourages this logic approach as the best one–the one that makes sense.  People that approach life with emotional openness and intuition are often laughed at for their “naivety.”  However, I believe this extreme preference for logic takes us out of balance with our own emotions and with all of the things that exist in the world that cannot be measured, but are still worth having, like love, kindness, compassion, respect, and connection.

In my work with patients, I often see them tortured by their need to logic all over their depression or their anxiety.  They search for the meaning behind their inability to get out of bed, or their fear of leaving their homes.  They tell me that they can out-think their sadness, simply by looking on the bright side of life, but then they despair that all of their efforts toward positive thinking feel false and make the depression worse.

The truth is that the parts of our brains that feel, and the parts of our brains that create logic are completely different.  When our brains create sadness, there is no logic to it because no logic exists in that part of the brain.  The sadness comes up of its own accord. The same goes for anxiety, gratitude, love, anger–the entire range of human emotion.

When my patients try to logic all over their feelings, I try to gently redirect them back to the feelings themselves.  The truth is that logically explaining the feelings doesn’t actually help very often.  Sometimes, the explanations only deepen the sadness or the fear or the anger.  Emotions are like little children that are asking for attention.  The more that we ignore them, or talk to them in ways that they don’t understand through logic, the more they clamor for our attention.  It is only by embracing them and telling them that it is going to be OK–that they are safe–that they are comforted and quiet down.

In the same way, rather than pushing feelings aside, I encourage you to sit down, acknowledge them by name and tell them that they are safe.  Saying, “Hello fear, I see you.  You’re safe and I’m going to be with you for as long as you need me,” is truly the only way to get emotions back on track.  Pushing feelings away or stuffing them down doesn’t make them leave, it only makes them find another way out into the open, often through physical illness or unjustified cruelty towards those we love.

That night in Teotihuacan, when I approached the twinkling pathway of fire, I opened my heart to it.  I said to the fire, “I’m here with you, and I’ll wait until you tell me you’re ready.”  Instead of going in because my logical mind told me that other people were doing it, so it must be safe, I waited to be invited.  Those of you still in logical mind are probably thinking that fire can’t invite, but you’re wrong.

My friend, Jamie, approached me as I stood beside the fire, waiting for my invitation, and asked me if I wanted her to go through with me.  I was just starting to feel the call of the fire, but it was faint and I still wasn’t sure, so I told her to wait a moment.  Then, maybe five minutes later, I felt it–an overwhelming need to go into the fire.  I ran over to Jamie and said, “Now!”  She didn’t even flinch.  She grabbed my hand and we walked into the fire together.  I screamed all the way across the coals, but instead of the blistering horror of the fire in Sedona, the fire in Teotihuacan felt cool and welcoming.  

It was incredible.  I was completely unscathed, and I was so elated that I went back through the fiery pathway five or six more times.  Afterward, my feet were dirty, but I didn’t have even one blister.

I encourage you to approach yourself as I did the fire–with openness and kindness.  Give your emotions the attention that they deserve and I promise you that they will invite you in, and you will walk through the fire unscathed.

 

 

Let Us Put Light Around it: A Way to Cope with Pain

It’s only dusk and I can already hear fireworks going off in the distance for Independence Day–the day in which citizens of the United States celebrate winning the war against England for the right to govern themselves.  It is seen by many as a day to celebrate the independent spirit, the rights of the individual, and freedom of religion and thought.  And yet, many do not have the freedom that the United States claims to value.

This lack shows up in many ways; some large and some small.  This past week I was reminded that I don’t have the freedom to make my own decisions about how I handle my work because I am an employee of a large corporation.  The reminder left me shaken,  and with an anxiety in my chest that took my breath away.  Whenever an emotion creates an overwhelming sensation in my body, I remember a line from a book in Margaret Atwood’s Madd Addam series.

If you’ve never heard of Margaret Atwood, you probably have heard of one of her most famous books, The Handmaid’s Tale, which has become a hit series on Hulu as well as a symbol of the importance of combating misogyny.  The Madd Addam series tackles a different social problem–the human destruction of the earth.  Some of the characters end up becoming members of a fictional group known as God’s Farmers, who form an earth friendly and sustainable commune.  Whenever things go wrong in the story, the leader of the God’s Farmers says “Let us put light around it.”

Let us put light around it.

Those words stuck with me long after reading Madd Addam, and I started using them in my own life.  As I struggled with anxious chest pains last week, I closed my eyes and imagined the pain surrounded by a healing, white light.  Slowly, the pain began to shrink, and eventually nothing was left of it except for a ball of white light in my chest.

While this technique is highly effective inside my own body, putting light around it doesn’t necessarily change things out in the world.  However, it does change how I feel about them.  So, I thought I might devote this blog post to putting light around the intensely difficult experience of the world in 2020, in the hopes that it might change how we all feel about it.

First, let us put light around a deadly global pandemic that has killed over 500,000 humans throughout the world.  Let us put light around those grieving for their dead family members and friends.  Let us put light around the sick.  Let us put light around health care providers who risk their lives every day to help those suffering from this deadly disease.  Let us also put light around the people who have lost their jobs due to the quarantine, and those who are afraid about how they are going to pay their rent or mortgage, and how they are going to feed their families.  Let us put light around the lonely people who haven’t had any true human contact for months.

As I write these words there are tears in my eyes for so much suffering, and yet imagining light around these problems does seem to ease the pain a little.

Let us also put light around a social system that doesn’t offer the same opportunities to everyone, and that often works to block people from succeeding based upon the color of their skin, their gender, or their sexual orientation.  Let us put light around George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Trayvon Martin, and so many others who were killed due to the racism inherent in the system.  Let us put light around the families and friends of those who have been murdered.  Let us put light around a police force that is having to face itself and ask hard questions about how to change.  Let us put light around the people who have risked their own safety to go out and protest the injustice in the system.  They have been heard, and we are grateful for their voices.

Let us put light around those who are dealing with sexual harassment, rape, domestic violence and sex trafficking.  Let us put light around a social system that is biased towards the abusers–a system where rape kits–representing the most horrible day in thousands of women’s lives go unprocessed.  Let us put light around a system where rape victims find it almost impossible to get justice–a system where, instead, these victims often find themselves accused of lying, or of trying to get attention.  Let us put light around a society where women who are beaten by their partners are asked what they did to deserve it, and told to stop provoking the beatings.  Let us put light around 16-year-old Chrystul Kizer, who killed the man who was sex trafficking her, and now faces life in prison.  Let us put light around the abusers, the misogynists, the traffickers, and the rapists in hopes that they can see the error of their ways.

Let us put light around a medical system that often seems to be more about profit than about treatment.  Let us put light around the patients seeking help who are turned away because their ailments aren’t easily diagnosed.  Let us put light around medical providers who lack compassion for the sick.  Let us put light around the people of color who are unable to ask for pain medications without being accused of drug seeking.  Let us put light around the women who are unable to ask for care without being accused of having mental health problems.  And let us put light around the medical providers who are doing their very best to help people in spite of being overworked and under-supplied.

Let us put light around a political system that divides a nation, divides families, and divides friends.  Let us put light around those who want to vote, but cannot.  Let us put light around the bullies that assume they know better.  Let us put light around those that hold their thoughts to themselves in order to keep the peace.

Let us put light around the LGBTQ+ community.  Let us put light around a society that condemns people for their sexual preference or gender identity.  Let us put light around the victims of hate crimes.  Let us put light around Matthew Shepard, who was brutally murdered because he was gay.  Let us put light around those who hate gay and transgender people, for surely they suffer too.

And finally, let us put light around ourselves.  Remember that you are always your first priority because you are a member of the human race and inherently deserving of your own love.  Embrace yourself, for your relationship with you is the most important relationship in your life.