The Taming of Guilt

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I’m sitting here in the hospital surgical waiting area, and I thought, maybe today is the day I start writing in my blog again. I had taken over a year off. The last time I wrote, my mother was hospitalized with a grim prognosis and my father-in-law died unexpectedly four days later. For the next year and a half I turned deeply inward, not writing, not really getting on social media, not reaching out to friends. I began to feel as though I was losing my friends, and yet I didn’t know how to explain to others that I just didn’t have energy…no energy to clean the house in order to have people over, no energy to be a good conversationalist…no energy to be ‘normal.’

While it was a quiet year, it was also an intensely productive one: we changed schools for our son, moved to a new town, moved my mother (who’d since stabilized miraculously) in with us for at least part of the year. I also started acupuncture treatments, meditation, and exercise, and I no longer wake up in the mornings with my heart racing in fear of what may or may not come. I am present for Fred, I am remembering to be a thankful wife, I am making efforts to reach out to the amazing women in my life. I am, finally and slowly, learning to be compassionate toward myself.

I’m in the hospital right now because my mother’s in surgery – not a life threatening one, but a serious one in which the best outcome will still affect her quality of life. We experienced an unexpected turn yesterday and I had spent a good part of the day fighting a guilt so strong that I decided I couldn’t allow it to win.

I am realizing that the guilt of ‘what-if’ is inevitable when a loved one suffers a calamity. What if I had questioned the doctors earlier? What if I had been more aggressive about pushing her appointments up sooner? Maybe I could have prevented things from getting to this stage. I suppose that the guilt is especially strong because I’m a daughter, and because I’m the first born and the one who always took ownership of my immigrant parents’ issues. Somehow I believed that I had the power to change the course of things, and I had failed. Worst of all is the knowledge that I had not done everything in my power…if this had been my child, I would have fought harder.

The new compassion comes in my understanding that the guilt is pointless. I’m getting better at asking this: what value does this thought, does this word add? The guilt really adds nothing, except the satisfaction that I am punishing myself. This must come from childhood, from having been taught to feel shame for having done something bad or being something bad. “There, I have beaten myself up” – there is satisfaction in that, like a metaphorical spanking or self-imposed time-out or an actual beating. There is satisfaction, but there is no good in it.

And to be a functioning daughter, mother, and wife I need to preserve whatever good I feel about myself. I am realizing that.

I started having this imaginary conversation with myself yesterday, while thinking about my guilt. In this conversation, I am the one getting the operation, and my little Fred is the one feeling guilty, for not having done enough. This is how it goes:

Fred:   (Crying)

Me:     What’s wrong? Why are you crying?

Fred:   I should have done more. I should have tried to get your surgery moved up. Then it wouldn’t have gotten to this point.

Me:     But you did move up the appointment once, and the doctor is booked! People come from out of state to see her, everyone needs her, everyone has probably waited months for her.

Fred: I just feel that if I had done more this wouldn’t have happened. I feel like I am responsible.

Me:   Fred, the ONE thing I do NOT want you to feel, even for a second, is guilt! How can you be responsible for what happens to my body, for what happens to me? Do you know how full my heart is, knowing how much you HAVE done for me? Can I ask you to instead think about everything you have done for me, instead of all the things you were powerless to have made happen?

Something like that. And it is amazing how things turn around once you treat yourself the way you would treat your child. The love is instantly palpable, even when it is coming from yourself. And you start seeing yourself the way others might be seeing you, as the good and decent woman that you are. That I am.

 

Photo courtesy of http://www.viralnovelty.net

 

 

 

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Women’s Friendships, Women’s Voices, in The Story Hour

The Story Hour by Thrity Umrigar is about the friendship of two women from two different cultures, whose complicated personal histories and cultural values eventually lead to judgment and misunderstanding and threaten to end their relationship.

Lakshmi is a 30-something woman who immigrated to the US from India to join her Indian husband, a store and restaurant owner. As we are introduced to Lakshmi, we begin to understand how lonely she is in the US and in her marriage. She feels no love from her husband who treats her more like a possession than a partner and who has forbidden her from ever contacting her family again. Lakshmi tries to kill herself one night (this is written on the back cover), and while hospitalized is assigned to talk to Maggie, an African-American psychologist.

Lakshmi’s husband scoffs at the idea of therapy and tells Maggie they cannot afford it. At that point Maggie tells them that she will meet with Lakshmi in her home without charge.

With the therapy sessions Lakshmi gradually comes to develop a voice for the first time, encouraged to believe that her stories are worth telling. As she tells her stories and becomes braver in her trust in Maggie, she reveals more and more, and we learn that her marriage to her husband is not what it seems.

At the same time, and unbeknownst to Lakshmi, Maggie is dealing with her own issues in her marriage and questioning how much her abusive relationship with her father has impacted her and her relationships to this day.

Toward the latter half of the book, the issues of the two women clash and come to a head, and both are reeling in their judgment of one another. Both are not the people they had imagined the other to be.

I enjoyed this book quite a bit. To me it was women’s literature without being chick lit. There is the cultural piece, for those who want to read “diversely”; as an Asian-American who’s very familiar with how it feels to have one foot in one culture, I saw well the cultural differences that Lakshmi and Maggie were dealing with. Do you honor family or do you honor yourself? Is passion in marriage more important or duty? In very traditional Asian cultures, it is often hard to have both.

Mostly, I enjoyed the psychological complexity as I’m always drawn to stories of basically good human beings who are confronted with difficult life decisions and choices. I thought this was an intriguing study of two women with complicated histories that are made more complex by the cultures in which they grew up. It’s also an interesting story about women’s friendship and the expectations we have for our women friends. We can want and love so much and at the same time be very judgmental and unforgiving. In the case of Lakshmi and Maggie, I’ve wondered how much each was projecting on to the other, and did judging the other make it somehow easier to accept (or not think about) one’s own mistakes? This would be a fun book to read in a book club.

How to Love and Be Kind to Yourself

A major eye-opener for me over these last few weeks that I have been doing my “emotional work” is the fact that I don’t love myself enough. It’s an odd thing to say, when you think about it. I do think I love myself, or otherwise I wouldn’t be so scared of dying. But it’s true that I am not kind enough to myself. I am not kind to myself the way that I am kind to others.

This is more rough draft and homework than it is prescribed solutions, but here are some ways I’ve come up with to “love” myself more:

1. Find something good in the mirror.

Whenever I look in the mirror or at a picture of myself, the first place my eyes go to are the features I don’t like. There are parts of my face and body that I have not been satisfied with since the time I was 10. If they have been there since I was a child, then I guess they’re not going away without surgery. I haven’t really made peace with these parts and maybe I never will. But one thing I – and we – can do is at least balance that picture a little, so that in our minds we are not just a package of all that is wrong with the human form. Occasionally I’ll look in the mirror and actually like my eyes, or my cheekbones. I like how the muscle in my calves is getting more and more defined now that I’m running more. I need to look at my face and body with different eyes, and let go of the mental picture of the ideal woman that I have been holding myself up to (and falling short of) all these years.

2. Catch yourself doing good.

Positive behavior reinforcement is big at elementary schools now. Catch kids doing good as opposed to giving attention only when they’re “bad.” This could work wonders on me too. Instead of closing each night with guilt that I still haven’t gotten around to cleaning off my desk or that I had fed soda to my child once again, I could instead think about the things I did well, regardless of how simple they may seem. After all, if my family goes to bed well fed and peacefully, how badly could I have done?

3. Banish “I’m such a bad mom” or “bad” anything from your vocabulary.

It’s amazing how rampant “I’m such a bad mom” is. I can’t begin to count all the times that this self-condemnation has rolled off my tongue whenever I made a mistake, and I can instantly rattle off different examples of the ways my friends have used it. “My daughter has a cavity. I’m such a bad mom.” “My kids had to walk all the way home in the heat. I’m such a bad mom.” “I forgot to give my son cough syrup. I’m such a bad mom.” Or sometimes it goes before the confession: “I’m such a bad mom. I am so critical.” “I’m such a bad mom. I let him watch t.v. all afternoon.” And sometimes there’s no example. Sometimes I just say, “I’m such a bad mom,” period.

Maybe we say this so often that it’s lost its meaning, but can you imagine doing the opposite? What if we said, “I read Goodnight Moon 7 times without stopping. I’m such a good mom.” or “I stayed up with her when she woke up coughing. I’m such a good mom.” Alright, so it sounds almost silly as I type that, which goes to show just how foreign the concept of praising ourselves is.

4. Correct your mistakes.

I had to start doing this recently, to save myself from falling into an abyss of guilt and self-hatred.

I’m at the point in my life and parenting where my past issues are catching up with my son’s entry into tweenhood. It’s new territory for me and I’m sometimes employing familiar but unhealthy tools to relate to my child. More than once I had broken down into tears the instant he stormed out of the room in frustration. Yes, I had a reason to get angry, but as the adult it is my responsibility to react maturely. I could have handled things differently. And so during these times I sit in my room while he sits in his, blocked off from each other by our closed doors. This is usually when I do hate myself, when actual words of reprimand start going off in my head: I’m such a bad mom. I’m awful. I am screwing him up. I have one chance to be a mother and I am messing this up. I am awful. I am awful. I am awful. 

Everything feels so dire when I start thinking like this. And then I realized one day, I have a choice. I can’t take back what I said, but I can make things better, and save us both from sinking into what will one day be an ocean of hurt.

This happened last night. I said something that didn’t come out the way I had intended, but it doesn’t matter, because it had come out and it had hurt him. After I pulled myself together I walked into Fred’s room and told him in tears that I was sorry I had hurt him. I explained to him what I had meant, and that my anger and frustration had prevented me from reacting better and from choosing my words more carefully. He nodded at me slightly and went back to his crossword puzzle. Five minutes later, he came into my room to ask me for help with the puzzle. Twenty minutes later, his arms were wrapped around me as I sang him to sleep.

My point here is not that “I’m sorry” is enough, and that anything can be fixed with an apology. What I’m trying to say is that while I’m on the path of learning how to do better, I can expect to make mistakes, but I have the power to correct them as well.

5. Talk, connect, be vulnerable, ask for help.

You’ve all been so supportive as I swung back and forth on this over the last few weeks. Ultimately I do believe that we poison ourselves when we hesitate to share with others the parts of ourselves we don’t feel proud about. Keeping things secret implies shame. I have a stepson, and for years I kept this within our immediate family only. My mother made me swear to not tell anyone that Max has a child from a previous marriage. There is so much stigma around divorce in my culture, particularly from my parents’ generation. Then one day a friend told me she didn’t learn about her half-brother until she was 18. She said, “The fact that my parents kept everything so hush-hush made it seem like there was something so bad and so wrong about my brother, like it was shameful for him to exist.” Her words changed me. I couldn’t bear the thought of any child having to be made to feel that way, and ever since then I have been open about my stepson’s presence in our lives.

The same holds true of all those different parts within us. Mental illness. Suicide. Divorce. Abuse. Illness. Dysfunction. Failure. Mistakes. Struggle. Hardship. Plain old bad luck. When we cling to this and hold it inside we are equating it with shame which contributes to our self-loathing. But maybe by opening up – whether it’s on a blog or with one trusted friend – we can begin to redefine shame, and give it a new name: human.

Small Moments, Huge Joys

It seems that over the last year or two I’ve become more sensitive to stimuli around me. Or, maybe, I’m finally slowing down enough in life to take in the sights, sounds, smells and touches that I once barely noticed. And though life definitely feels slower than it did in the years I was building my career and taking care of a very young child, the stress and anxiety haven’t necessarily gone down proportionately. Raising a tween, I’m finding, is challenging me on new and more anxious levels. Our parents are getting older, and more frail. College and retirement are no longer so far that they’re out of sight. I’m being pushed into another life stage just when I was starting to get comfortable in my previous one.

I take the moments of tranquility whenever I can, and I’m grateful that I’m paying attention when they come to me. Sometimes I’ll seek these respites, like driving to a café or paying for a yoga class, but I love it when they come to me, out of the blue.

The following are some of the very ordinary sights and sounds in my days that lift me no matter how down I might feel:

1) The sound of our dishwasher

Hearing our dishwasher swish and shush is the first time in many years that I’ve noticed how comforted I can be by a sound. Since we don’t have a big family I do a lot of things by hand, from washing dishes to hanging laundry, but occasionally I’ll go all out and load the dishwasher. Pressing the “on” button is like hitting “launch” on my internal rocket to escape. Machine on, kitchen lights off, Cecilia out. The shooshing tells me that I’ve got the evening off.

2) The sound of Dr. Phil’s voice

I’ve recently begun hearing the muffled sounds of Dr. Phil’s voice from the television downstairs. As some of you know, Max and I own our own business and we work from home. I think to many friends we look like we’re never working, because we volunteer at Fred’s school or do Costco runs in the middle of the day. The truth is that the pressure of sustaining your own business is nerve-wracking, and while I will try to take one day off a week, Max is working whenever he can squeeze it in.

Even when he is watching Dr. Phil.

Max has only been in America for five years, and Dr. Phil is a fascinating piece of americana to him. I roll my eyes every time he tries to update me on the latest story of parent turning against child (or vice versa), but the truth is that I like it. The sound of Dr. Phil’s voice means that we’re in our off-season at work, Max is relaxed, and work is rolling along.

3) A memory of Fred being scolded 

Fred is part of his school’s taekwondo team, and he participates in a number of competitions and performances every year. Most recently he has been training intensively for the team’s second out-of-state competition. As a martial art, taekwondo is an exacting sport, and this is the one area in his life where he does not get a trophy just for showing up. During training his coach does not tolerate any goofing around or any slack in discipline.

Then one day, as all the members had to run to their respective positions, the coach bellowed, “FRED! WHAT IS THIS??!!” and proceeded to imitate Fred’s manner of “running,” a move that was more like a joyful hopping and skipping through a spring meadow. We all laughed in affection, because that’s pretty much Fred in a nutshell.

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Fred marching in a martial arts parade at age 7

After all, this is the same kid who earlier this week replaced his white board to-do list of homework and chores with this:

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How I birthed such a positive and happy child will remain a mystery for my lifetime. But anyway, he’s divided the white board into three sections, one for him, one for me, and one for Max. “Have you been epic today, Mommy? Did you feel epic?” He kneels before the 4 foot white board waiting for my answer. I hem and haw and “pretty good” is the best I can come up with. Epic, though, is now my goal. 😉

What ordinary moments make you feel extraordinary?

The Masks We Wear Over Depression and Anxiety

I am so grateful to all those who stopped by last week when I wrote about anxiety, and to those who commented with words of encouragement, told their own stories, and/or shared my post with others. The piece, to my surprise, was the most viewed post (in one day) that I have written on this blog.

Of course, me being me, I thought, Crap, I should have done a better job writing it. The topic is so vast, and my experience so entrenched, that I almost didn’t know where to start.

One thing that I have been wanting to write about – and I confirmed this after hearing the stories of friends and readers – is the mask that so many of us battling depression and anxiety feel compelled to wear. The outer us and the inside us. The visible versus the hidden.

Story after story shocked me, because never in a million years would I have guessed that these people struggled with something as debilitating as anxiety and/or depression: dedicated parents, a head of department, a published author, Ph.D. students, a passionate college instructor, a high-end New York designer, a top-ranking management consultant.

The irony is that others might say the same about me. I’ve got the elite names on my resumé to project a certain kind of image, and I’ve been described as “fierce” and as driven and confident. I’m both flattered and amused by the descriptions, unsure about their accuracy.

My self-image is distorted, of course, by my personal knowledge of my struggles. I admit to somewhat dismissing or at least downplaying my strengths and achievements because I experience, sometimes at a high level, the human emotions of insecurity and fear. Maybe we are shocked when we learn about “successful” people suffering because we believe achievement and anxiety (and depression) to be mutually exclusive, that somehow success cannot coexist with mental or emotional difficulty. We can be extremely anxious at the same time that (or perhaps because?) we are extremely competent, but in making public only the proud self we perpetuate the belief that anxiety does not exist in the happy, smart, and capable.

My friend, a teacher who once asked me to help with one of her music classes, had no idea how much internal debating I required before I could say yes. I had to look up the address of her class, enter it into Google driving directions, ascertain the 6-mile-long route to see if I could comfortably navigate it on my own, check with my husband’s schedule, debate whether it was worth pulling him from work to drive me, and check both our schedules to see if he could do a practice run with me if I decided to drive on my own. After stressing for days without getting back to my friend, I finally decided to tell her the truth and ask for a ride, even though I knew it meant adding another task to her already packed schedule.

“Sorry to be lame…”

“You’re not lame,” she told me. “I can get you.” 

In the same way, my on-line book club members have no idea how much stress I went through in the week leading up to our first on-line chat. Back and forth, back and forth I debated over whether I should cancel. I hated the way I looked on video. I worried about sounding dumb “in real life.” I did not feel like interacting live.

But I went through with it, because I knew I would feel worse about myself if I didn’t. And it turned out to be wonderful. When it was all over something in me lifted at the same time that something else – a shard of fear – fell away.

One of my readers wrote in her comment last week, ” . . . you have to remember that success is built in increments, and that by getting through daily tasks, you’re accumulating success all along even if you don’t realize it.” I think I’m old enough to be her mother, and there she was giving me something brilliant to take away. And I wouldn’t have benefited from those, and so many other warm words had I never dared take off the mask. The thing about opening up is that the fear of someone’s reaction is by far more frightening than the actual reaction. The real thing – when the other person is real (and you don’t need her if she’s not) – is unexpected, disarming, and heartening. Where you expect a ditch you’re given a bridge, and an outstretched hand that says either “I’m proud of you” or “Me too.” Either way, the hand beckons “Come here,” and the arms take hold and envelope you.

 

 

 

My Battles with Anxiety

I have to thank one of my readers/blogger friends for mentioning in a comment once that she suffers from anxiety. It was her honesty that emboldened me to acknowledge my own relationship with anxiety. Since then I’ve struggled whether to write about this personal issue but ultimately decided that if my words can bring comfort or validation to one more person – as this blogger friend did for me – then I am willing to do it.

I think that I’ve failed to acknowledge my anxiety until now because it has been a part of me for so long…so long, in fact, that it became my normal. As a child I suffered constantly from headaches and canker sores. I had trouble sleeping and eating, nearly falling off the growth charts, and I often dreaded school, gym class, doctors’ appointments, my father’s days off, swim lessons, the company of certain girlfriends, and the attention of boys.

Anxiety has evolved with me as I’ve gotten older, both increasing and decreasing in intensity and in ways that have baffled me. How did I once speak so comfortably before audiences of 200+ only to end up losing sleep over a dreaded Skype call with five people? Why was I once able to maneuver the maniacal streets of Boston but am now unwilling to drive further than five miles from my house in our small town? Equally perplexing, I was terrified of water my entire life and yet eagerly learned to swim just three years ago.

I was at my best during those first several years that I was bold enough to move to and live in Asia. From being the sole woman manager in a foreign company to entering a permanent relationship to having a child overseas, I was reveling in that wide space outside my comfort zone. And then one day, without my realizing why, my world began to contract. Once ordinary events and tasks became a strain for me: driving, being in groups, having a busy schedule. Since I work from home, I have a fair amount of control over my day-to-day. And I’ve been coping by managing my surroundings to meet my comfort level.

But like taking Tylenol to control your fever, you can’t really know how sick or well you are. By controlling my environment, I was comfortable, but also masking what needed to be healed.

I finally began looking for a therapist when I realized I was single-handedly downsizing my life. I love this quote by Anaïs Nin, which came to me two weeks ago as if from an angel: “Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage.” My therapist told me that the things we avoid eventually hold power over us.

I chuckled and cried when she complimented me for “functioning as well as [I am] – for having a job, for running a household.” What does that say, when you are praised just for living and surviving? But she was acknowledging the decades-old traumas that still have their grip on me. I cried for the majority of that session, in a catharsis that began to drain the stagnancy in my body. By the time I got home I felt a peace and lightness that was alien to me. I found myself breathing steadily and calmly, and looked forward to moving on with my day. Is this what normal people usually feel, I wondered. A few hours later Max and I went out for lunch and to run errands. We were on the freeway, with me in the passenger seat. I looked down the road that for once didn’t look so intimidating and said to him, “I would be able to drive today. If I can feel like this all the time, I can drive.”

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Personal Inventory on Patience, Sacrifice, Self Control, and Other Virtues

I often thought that if I took care of myself half as well as I took care of my child that I would be in pretty good shape. For example, I always make sure that he eats at least one serving of fruit for his morning snack at school and I work hard to get him into bed at a reasonable hour, even on weekends. I’m mindful of how much time he spends indoors versus outdoors and I remind him to balance his screen time with more creative activity. As for me, though, I hardly pay the same kind of attention to my own daily habits.

A few weeks ago, Fred officially began training for his black belt testing (in taekwondo). He was given a journal in which he is to track his daily and weekly activities such as running, doing push ups and sit ups, and practicing his forms and self defense techniques. In addition, he is to reflect weekly on how he has exhibited patience, sacrifice, self control, discipline, and punctuality.

While I definitely need to think about how much (or, more accurately, how little) exercise and fruit servings I am getting, this question on behavior piqued my interest. How often do I show those character traits or behaviors? I decided to try out the exercise for fun. This is my own reflection of the past week (√ marks what I did well and X shows otherwise):

Patience
 
√  With my clients…always
X  Showed exasperation when Fred started talking to me while I was working at my computer (repeated multiple times throughout the week).
X Showed exasperation when Fred didn’t move as quickly as I’d wanted him to (repeated multiple times).
 
Sacrifice
 
√  Took an afternoon off of work to make dinner and cake for Max’s birthday
√  Took a morning off of work to help a friend with her business
√  Sang Fred to sleep because he still wanted me to 
√  Stayed up late several nights to respond to last minute client needs
 
Self Control
 
X  Ate too much red meat
X  Ate too much carbs
X  Popped a sleep aid 3x this week (before trying other options, like meditation), a consequence of the fact that I —
X  Stayed up late too many nights on my computer and
X Kept going to sleep past midnight
 
Discipline
 
√  Got all my client work done during the week so I could take the weekend off
√  Went for a run (2x) with Fred and Max 
√  Made a schedule for my March reading and am keeping on track 
√  Cleaned our bathroom before it got gross
√  Returned/submitted all necessary forms, checks, emails, etc. for Fred’s school and activities
X  Fell behind in grocery shopping
 
Punctuality
 
√  Am up on time each morning to get Fred ready for school 
√  Was prompt responding to clients
X  Got meal on the table a little late on most of our taekwondo days, resulting in rushed eating and late arrival to class
X  Failed to respond to some emails from friends
 

I wrote out the “X”s not to be negative but as a way to see my patterns. Clearly I need to do a little better with the self control. It seems that the older I get, the more likely I am to want to please myself. While I am still a healthy eater overall, I’m less fanatical about it and I listen to my body more (I don’t know if that is good or bad). I keep to my 80/20 rule (80% healthy). This past week was a little off though, a sign of fatigue perhaps, or an unconscious attempt to reward myself for having worked hard for my clients.

And I need to work on patience, with my child. I always do a better job when I’ve had enough sleep. So it all goes back to self control.

What are your strong and weak points?

I wish that were my hand holding that fork. Image courtesy: http://www.fwallpapers.com