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

 

 

 

What Matters Most in Life: We Are Not Ourselves, by Matthew Thomas

We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas is frequently touted as a novel about the American Dream but I’d like to think of it as a story about what it means to define meaning and happiness in one’s life, and that’s something that anyone – American or not, immigrant or not – can relate to.

Eileen Tumulty was born to poor and alcoholic Irish immigrants in Queens, New York. She was a hard worker and grew up with ambitious dreams. She wanted to make a life of which she’d be proud and in which she’d be happy and secure, and that included succeeding in her own career and marrying well, preferably to someone who wasn’t Irish. Well, things don’t work out exactly according to plan in terms of marriage, as she ends up falling in love with Ed Leary, another Irish-American. But he is kind and he is an academic – a promising scientist and professor – and so she optimistically begins her life with him. They eventually have a son, after years of battling fertility issues.

As Eileen rises in the ranks as a nurse, Ed receives but turns down opportunities to rise in the way that she wants him to. Instead of taking a position at a lucrative pharmaceuticals company (if I remember correctly), he decides to take a teaching position at a community college. Later, instead of seizing a chance to move to the prestigious NYU (New York University), he chooses to stay at the community college. His decisions exasperate Eileen to no end, who has visions of continuously climbing “up” in life. She is also secretly annoyed at the “browning” of her neighborhood and yearns to move into a more affluent and higher status part of town. Ed is adamant about staying where they are. Without his knowledge, Eileen begins visiting dream houses with a real estate agent.

Then one day they receive devastating news, and the rest of the book centers around this seismic shift in their family. It’s an event that causes Eileen to look back on her life and to question her long-held assumptions about what is important to her.

This is a lovely story about so many things, in particular the struggle to marry one’s dreams and definition of happiness with that of one’s partner. It is also about marriage and parenting and the sacrifices and endurance that both require. In my quick summary I don’t think I paint a very appealing portrait of Eileen, but she is a more complex and sympathetic character than what you see here. She’s got a lot of grit and she is tremendously devoted to her family. I find her quite realistic.

At over 600 pages long, the book is also a surprisingly easy and quick read for the most part. I will say that I started to lose steam at around page 400, so I guess I felt it was about 150 pages too long. The story moves along at the pace of life, and though it’s been described as an “epic,” it is a quiet story about an ordinary family. This is not one of those sprawling sagas spanning generations and filled with family secrets and twists and turns. The Learys’ story could be any family’s story.

So I was not the most enthusiastic reader during those last 200 pages, until I came upon this, something that Ed says to his son Connell:

Picture yourself in one of your cross-country races. It’s a hard pace this day. Everyone’s outrunning you. You’re tired, you didn’t sleep enough, you’re hungry, your head is down, you’re preparing for defeat. You want much from life, and life will give you much, but there are things it won’t give you, and victory today is one of them. This will be one defeat; more will follow. Victories will follow too. You are not in this life to count up victories and defeats. You are in it to love and be loved. You are loved with your head down. You will be loved whether you finish or not. (page 594)

In my opinion, this is as much a message to Eileen as it is to Connell. We have to accept that life will not give us everything we want.

You are in it to love and be loved. You are loved with your head down. You will be loved whether you finish or not.

And sometimes people, books, words, etc. have a way of finding you when you need them most. I was going through a soul searching struggle in my parenting, trying to break the cycle of severe self-criticism that extended to my parenting, and these lines almost brought me to tears.

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.

On Self-Consciousness, the Fear of Being Judged, and Struggling to Write

I’ve been having a hard time over the last couple of weeks mustering up the energy to write. The struggle is not new; I get hit by this every so often.

Emotional and physical fatigue is my biggest culprit. I experienced extreme highs and lows over the last couple of weeks that included a death in the family. I don’t sleep as much as I should on normal days, so the last couple of weeks have taken a bit out of me.

The other block is a renewed self-consciousness. I’ve received only support and encouragement ever since I posted about my experiences with anxiety, and friends are now even forwarding articles to me on being good to myself. But in the aftermath of those personal posts are the uncomfortable feelings of having said too much. Do my friends look at me differently now, even though my achievements have not changed? When I meet people, are they smiling at me out of pity or judgment? One friend confessed quietly that she had suffered from depression as well, but added, “But I’m not about to go around telling everyone about it.” Though she was speaking only of herself, I couldn’t help but wonder if she was also making a statement about my choice.

How do writers balance authenticity and vulnerability?

There are two sides in me, constantly, that either fuel or drain my motivations to write. There’s the side that expects the best in others – their open-mindedness, their compassion, their acceptance, their lack of judgment. And then there’s the side in me that fears the worst. My culture has instilled in me the importance of keeping secrets and keeping face; the reality of my life has shown me the toxicity of holding everything in. Since I started writing almost five years ago I’ve been gaining strength in my internal battle against the needless shame of being human. I had made the decision that having a voice outweighs the fear of being judged. It’s a seesaw I ride on every week that I write, and I hope that in time the nobler side wins.

Image courtesy http://www.ynaija.com

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

Love, loyalty, hurt and anger – the powerful world of mother-daughter relationships

I am so honored to be contributing to the wonderful writer D.A. Wolf’s series on mother-daughter relationships. This was by far the hardest piece of writing I have ever done, and more than once I asked myself why I had promised to contribute a piece. But I’m so glad for this experience writing and collaborating with D.A., which literally changed me.

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I’ve just spent my fourteenth holiday without my mother. In the years since I packed up two suitcases and moved from the States to Japan, a defining event in our relationship, we have been a long distance family, missing milestones and special occasions like birthdays, holidays, and the birth of her only grandchild.

There have always been reasons: the distance (even now that I’ve moved back to the States), her health, my work. I try to see her once a year and when I do I realize how much I miss her… how for so many years we knew the daily rhythms of each others’ lives and now that’s no longer the case.

For many years I had been the dutiful daughter. I acted as my immigrant parents’ interpreter from the age of seven when they moved from Peru to New England, and I helped them to navigate life in America. I attended college ten miles away from where they lived, and I moved back home after graduation. It was a shameful admission to my American friends that I was choosing to live with my parents, and a slap in my mother’s face that I was wishing I had chosen otherwise.

To continue reading this piece please click here to go to D.A. Wolf’s blog Daily Plate of Crazy.

Personal cleansing: identifying the stuff that gets you down

One of my very “with it” girlfriends recently told me that she thought I was “fierce,” and in a good way. Wow. I was shocked and flattered. As I’ve always thought of myself as fragile, I love it when I appear to be the exact opposite. I was one of those princess-loving girls who fantasized about being Wonder Woman.

Of course, when I look at the big picture, I think I’m pretty strong, given some of the things I’ve gone through. But at the micro level, on the day-to-day level, I’ve often thought of myself as fragile.

I’m sensitive – maybe too sensitive. By that I mean that I feel too much. Things don’t bounce off of me; they soak into me. Back-handed compliments, rude tones, dismissive attitudes…I give people too much power over how I feel about myself sometimes.

I’ve been kind of monitoring my moods of late, because I’m getting tired of the emotional see saw. I’m giving up on “Forget about it!” and “Don’t let it get to you!” because those instructions don’t come with instructions. Really, when someone does or says something that feels mean, how do I not let it get to me – me, who feels everything so keenly? Someone needs to tell me how.

Of course, I do make an effort to try and react from my head rather than my heart. It’s beyond difficult, since I am not wired this way, but I do make efforts. For example, if someone makes an off-handed remark that was meant to sting, I have to remember that it says more about the speaker than it does about me.

In the meantime, though, I do think that we need to arrange (or rearrange, if necessary) our lives in order to maximize healthy living and to minimize toxicity. I didn’t always do this, and out of either cluelessness or politeness chose to stick around situations that were not uplifting.

Years and years ago I was with a man who had no limit on how he could frustrate and torment me. At one particular party he’d spent half the time avoiding me (even though we were in a committed relationship) to talk to other women. I was crying and then trying to explain everything to a concerned girlfriend who turned around and said to me, “I don’t care what the reasons are. All I know is that you shouldn’t be crying.” That pretty much sums it all up. Now, of course, if you cry at everything, then that’s a problem. But assuming you are a normal, warm-blooded human being, you really do have to question situations and people that constantly leave you crying.

And the following are things that make me cry, or at least figuratively speaking (and the things I need to pare down on or do something about):

Facebook

So ridiculous, isn’t it, that something so trivial can actually dictate what mood underlies my days. My FB friends would never believe it given how active I was on it (I am using the past tense, effective 18 hours ago), but I actually don’t feel good on FB a lot of the times. And it’s not because of envy, the most commonly cited issue that people have with FB. Most of my friends (bless them) do not brag or flaunt, and I don’t take very seriously the two that do.

However, I do find it too easy to feel rejected on FB. It reflects my insecurities in general. If I were to psychoanalyze myself I can trace this flicker of fear back to the time I was 14 when my best girlfriend decided to suddenly leave me out of things she was doing with our mutual friends. It is easy to put something out there and feel ignored, whether the gesture is real or imagined, and to wonder if you have just made a fool of yourself or written something that offended someone or are being judged. FB is poison for those who crave interaction but who also think and worry and analyze too much.

People in Friend Disguises

Especially with the advent of Facebook we really need to find a new word for “friend.” I have whittled my real life pack of friends down to the people who really deserve the title. Sometimes it’s not easy, because there are people in friend disguises. They blow their cover when they make off-handed remarks about the fact that you have no children, or have only have one child, or that you work outside of the home, or that you stay at home, or that you formula feed. They tell you you can tell them anything and then freak out or avoid you when you actually do. Or they take up more and more of you and make you feel guilty for taking a step back.

Family

This is so hard, when the people who love you most are also the ones who make you cry. I love my mother and on many levels I am in awe of her, and I know I can never live up to many of the things she has accomplished as a mother and as a woman. But she can be hard on me, still, all these years since I’ve learned impeccable manners and brought home good report cards and earned my university degrees with honors. And as a parent my life is just rife with fodder for criticism right now.

But I can’t just avoid her or cut her out of my life. I do understand that there are daughters and sons out there who have no choice but to. So in my case I am fortunate, fortunate because it is not like that. I know there is more to us than these particular bad feelings, and I know that in a perverse way the criticisms stem from worry which stems from love that is too strong to be rational and objective. I can drift apart from people in friend disguises, but family doesn’t let me off the hook quite as easily. There is a lot at stake here, so I need to speak up.

Clutter

This sounds trite but it’s as big as the piles of books and papers that surround me. Serenity starts with order. I can clear out the toxic people from my life but still drown in my own clutter and disorganization. So 15 minutes a day, even 60 seconds. Today while waiting for my computer to boot up I tidied up a small pile of books on my desk and threw a few things into the waste basket.

Guilt and Self-Criticism

This is the Headquarters where all the toxicity originates. So many self-reprimands (often very quiet and very subtle) when I fail to do something, including accidentally getting on Facebook this morning. There’s no point in trying to rid yourself of mean or unhealthy people when you are your #1 toxic friend in disguise. Why is it so hard to be kind to ourselves? To talk to ourselves the way we would talk to others? Last month when I spoke to a therapist she told me it was my internal voice that was sinking me into that hole I couldn’t seem to get myself out of.

Part two of this de-cleansing would be to surround myself with all the good stuff, but for now this is my list of things to cut down on or moderate or do something about. What’s on your list? What eats into how you feel about yourself?

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