A Curated Life – Reality Testing Social Media

For the past few days preceding the new year 2019, many people were blowing up their social media profiles with collages of a year in review. Actually, let me correct that and say MOST people. This was especially the case on Instagram, although Facebook and Snapchat were no slouches. Let’s not also forget the iPhone’s penchant for sending unsolicited “Moments” to many users as the year wound down to its close. Some of those moments weren’t very “smart” while others were too much so. What people tend to forget is that all of these images and snapshots of life only represent a fraction of a life being lived. All these carefully curated lives are flooding our ability to reality test as we scroll, check, and comment. They have the power to trigger a range of negative emotions and automatic thinking of oneself that I would compare to self-torture. How do we override this or do we even want to?

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One of the major complaints a client shared with me was how accomplishments cannot be faked. When this client sees posts of college graduations, new homes, or weddings the negative self-appraisal switch gets activated. It’s easier for her to dismiss the filtered faces and Photo-shopped bodies because they are “obvious” in their fakery. Here begins the exploration of what is meaningful about these accomplishments using a form of reality testing known as The Socratic Method. For this client, graduation meant attaining higher education that will get someone a better salary and financial stability. This belief has three parts to it, one of which is TRUE. Graduating college is attaining a higher education in the form of whatever degree is earned – TRUTH; however the type of degree earned can reality test the other two parts. The person she saw in the graduation photo may have earned a degree in History with a minor in Art. Does that automatically set them up for a particular job? Will that job have a salary that is “better” than hers? Will that person have financial stability as a result of the job and salary that their degree garnered them? The belief obviously falls apart. The one part that is true is parsed from the distorted beliefs attached to it. This helped get my client thinking about her tendency to make assumptions and self-torture based on what she saw on social media.

Another client’s depression was triggered when his iPhone sent him a selection of images titled “Holiday Moments.” The images reminded him of the awful break up he experienced the previous Thanksgiving, and how his family had picked apart his life over the recent Christmas break. What he expressed about the images gave the impression that they were painful to look at, so much so that they caused him to have a depressive episode. Reflecting these feelings back to him padded the landing for the following challenge – if these photos are so painful, why would you want to keep them in your phone? This led to an exploration of what it would feel like to delete the photos and how he was holding himself back from dating due to self-blame for his relationship ending. He decided he wasn’t ready to delete the photos, but it got him thinking about his own self-torture i.e. using images to justify the “story” he tells himself that perpetuates and maintains his depression.

I looked at the collages of various friends and acquaintances throughout the Holidays, some of which I knew had a particularly challenging year. I found myself becoming annoyed and even angry at the discrepancies between their curated lives and the ones they were living in real time. Part of my reaction was rooted in the many hours I gave audience to their hurt feelings, struggles, and inability to take action to change their negative circumstances. I knew the truth and it angered me that they couldn’t own it. That being said, I also know how incredibly difficult it is to acknowledge the above and resist the urge to get a self-esteem boost outside of the situations that are bringing you down by “false advertising.” We have ALL been there and our brain chemistry facilitates this behavior. There is a region of the brain that floods with dopamine every time we experience something novel or receive a reward. It gets activated when we receive positive reinforcement for the images and moments of our lives we share on social media. It can quickly escalate from an occasional mood fixer to an almost addictive need to post and check for likes and complimentary comments. These behaviors don’t give us the same reward of feel good chemicals. If anything, they give us less unless we escalate our activities.

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The reality in the unreality of social media is that we humans are social creatures. We make meaning of our existence in relationship to others. Our self-judgment is part of the driving force behind curating our lives for the eyes of others. What happens when the careful selections don’t get us many likes or comments or worse, when they become the target of trolls and bullies? We become trapped in a negative feedback loop that maintains the dysfunctional cycle of seeking gratification for a life not lived as we would like it, but as we want others to perceive it. Before you post, think about the expectations you have of sharing the content. Whatever these are, they can serve as your personal barometer to test whether or not you’ve fallen prey to this cycle. A little less self-torture in 2019 is a great intention to set and more importantly, to SHARE.

Some recommended reading:

The New York Times: This Is Your Brain Off Facebook (article pub. 2/01/2019)

Planning on quitting the social platform? A major new study offers a glimpse of what unplugging might do for your life. (Spoiler: It’s not so bad.)

https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/30/health/facebook-psychology-health.html

 

 

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The Hooks

“Today, I will be aware of the hooks that snag me into the care-taking acts that leave me feeling victimized. I will ignore the hints, looks, and words that hook me, and wait for the directness and honesty that, I, and others, deserve.

–Melody Beattie (The Language of Letting Go, 1990)

 

Many empathetic people are drawn to the healing professions because of our natural tendency to care for others. We spend our days holding space for their well being and laying hands on their aches and pains. Our minds tune in to their emotional states and for many, the release of negative emotions accompanies the physical work we are engaged in with them. At the end of the day, we are covered in an energetic film of their stuff. Long ago in the early days of my program, an instructor told us of the importance of creating an energetic boundary between ourselves and our patients or clients. He called it a cloud – nothing could penetrate it, so whatever came off of them during a session would stay locked in the cloud. He was honest in saying this would be easier said than done. Even today, at almost 8 years into my massage therapy practice, I still have moments where I’m not sure if what I’m feeling belongs to me or to the clients I saw that day.  Guess my cloud isn’t always on point.

What muddies the energetic waters even more is the expectation in our personal lives to be the bearers of the emotional burdens of others. How much space can you hold when you’re already at a deficit? When do you get to hold it for yourself? If you find that you’re sacrificing your own well-being for the sake of “showing up” for the people in your life, you have to do a serious self-inventory. There’s no faster way to burnout than being hooked from every angle. Many of these people are family, lovers, close friends and even colleagues. Some hook consciously and deliberately; others aren’t even aware of this automatic need to reach out to you to shoulder their load. Either way, when the hooks are cast, we always seem to bite.

                          A hook???? Of course, I’ll bite!                                     

Hooks come in many forms. They can be, as Beattie described, a look, a sigh, a word or an action that triggers us to feel responsible for helping them. With that responsibility comes the behavior that isn’t in our best interest. Beattie refers to it as codependency. Another way to think about it is when you care more about their issues than they do and do the work for them, no one wins. They “depend” on you, but offer nothing in return. In their minds eye, you are the one that will predictably show up and take on their troubles, so they won’t have to. Since when did you become  emotional waste management?

The best way to avoid getting hooked is to demand, as the quote states, honest and direct communication of one’s wants and needs. If you’re too tired to listen, say that you’re too tired to listen. Say exactly what you feel. If a loved one walks into a room, sighs deeply, then slumps into a chair, acknowledge it with your eyes, but not with words. They want you to ask them what is wrong. They want you to offer help. Let them ask for it directly. Then, you can check in with yourself and empathically decide whether you can do it or not.

Saying no with love is better than saying yes with guilt.

The passive aggressive hook is one of the worst guilt provoking mechanisms out there. It also has the power to conjure up feelings of anger, helplessness, shame, and inadequacy to name a few. It’s hard not to bite on it, but it can be done. Let’s say that loved one, after slumping into their chair, turns to you and says, “You know, I had a really bad day today, but you probably don’t care. (pause) Nevermind.”

Your response?

“Ok.”

To an empath, this may feel so counter intuitive, because we do care. We care A LOT. However, trust that this simple answer is preventing you from participating in a guessing game that will inevitably lead to the tidal wave of feelings described above. They may continue to bait you, especially if they cannot tell you directly what is wrong with them. Their attempts might end up conjuring up those feelings of guilt, shame, etc. for you anyway. Trust that they know you care, which is why they are doing this manipulative hooking.

Your response?

“Tell me what’s wrong.”

Do not ask, but calmly command them to tell you. They may not answer you, but the boundary has been drawn. If they want access to your care, they will have to be clear about what is going on with them and what they need from you. This involves some level of pause and mental regroup. For the ones who do it unconsciously, it sort of turns off the autopilot and gives them a chance to think about why they are baiting you. If the issue is small or comes from a place of uncertainty rather than a true need for help, it will give them the space to reflect and the opportunity to do their own waste management. For the ones that do it deliberately, it provides a clear boundary – this hooking will not work anymore.

I don’t think I will ever be able to step out of the care taking role, nor do I want to, but my personal and professional lives could benefit from a little boundary building. Just last night, I was tested with a massive bait from a former patient. My body reacted with all the feelings of a nervous system peaked for attack with appropriate text responses at the ready. I did not use them. I chose not to respond. It was extremely hard to do that, but I was able to lay down that boundary even if the aftermath cost me some sleep.

My care for you is not limitless. It is not at the expense of my own well-being. Just as you demand I hold space for your troubles, I must make the same demand of myself. And in the totem pole of priorities, I am always at the top. I will win out every time. It’s the only way I will be of any good to myself and others.”

–me (2018)

 

In-sight

It’s amazing what you notice when you literally can’t see…

A few weeks ago, I went in to my optometrist’s office to have my eyes checked. I needed an updated prescription in order to get new contacts. What I learned was that my vision had been grossly overpowered for pretty much my entire young adult life (Math: Aged 15 through 38 makes for 23 years of wearing contact lenses, kids)

I left his office wearing a prescription I think I may have had when I was 10. All of Park Slope looked slightly out of focus with a diffused fuzz surrounding lights and street signs. He told me my brain needed time to get used to this downgrade. My eyes had been conditioned to over focus. This got me thinking about my painful at times issue of noticing the little things that others miss. Conversations I can’t seem to filter my attention away from, scenes that play out in the far corners of train cars when people are staring deeply into their smart devices and smells that no one else seems to pick up on, but send my olfactory bulbs into overdrive. This is the story of my life. I fantasize about what it must be like for the people who do not notice; who aren’t capable or do not care to notice. I envy their ability to walk through life oblivious to all that detail.

I still couldn’t see shit hours later. How long was it going to take my brain to acclimate?

I woke up the following morning and popped the tester contacts back in. When I got to the city, I realized I could not discern clear facial features of anyone more than ten feet away from me. This walk down one of the longest city blocks to get to my work is like an American Ninja Warrior gauntlet. I’m in a constant battle for space, bobbing and weaving through people staring up or down but never straight on, exaggerated arm swings with lit cigarettes that narrowly miss burning a whole into my side and those people who literally just STOP without warning (yes, there is such a thing as rear ending a pedestrian). Since I couldn’t anticipate people’s movements, I had to just go with the flow. I got knocked into by a guy carrying a humongous Starbucks disaster drink. Ask me what he looked like? I have no freakin’ clue. It’s easier to let moments like that go when you don’t have the afterimage of his face stamped in your memory.

I rushed down the subway stairs and made my train just as it was pulling into the station. The bright orange circle was the letter B to my downgraded eyes. It was, in fact, a D. Getting off a few stops later, I waited until the next train fully pulled in and squinted to see the letter clearly. I almost doubted myself. I almost asked the teenager sitting next to me what the letter was. I didn’t. I gazed at our reflections in the darkened window facing us. We looked the same age. My eyes had now become a Photoshop filter. I smiled not really caring what part of Brooklyn I might end up in if my vision had tricked me.

After a week of this, I started to feel like those people I envied. I realized just how much mental real estate I give over to details that honestly take the joy out of my life at times. There is an expression “the devil is in the details” and it rang true for me. Learning to pay attention to what matters most instead of getting lost or despondent over every micro element of what I’m seeing, hearing or inhaling is my take away from this experience. My eyes may have found their focus now, but I feel like I inadvertently got a dose of exposure therapy in the process. And I’m not mad about it at all.

 

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Going Up to Bring You Down: Body Shaming in a NYC elevator

On one of the last truly hot and humid days in NYC, I decided to wear one of my favorite outfits – a black crepe halter dress with plunging neck and back lines. I love this dress not just for its fit, but also because it shows off the muscle tone of my upper back and chest. I feel strong, ethereal and sexy whenever I wear this dress. It’s one of those wardrobe staples every girl should possess. By the time I arrived at my destination, I was glazed in a dewy sweat sheen.

Going up to bring me down....body shaming in a NYC elevator.
Going up to bring ME down….body shaming in a NYC elevator.

I stepped into the elevator with a middle aged woman and three men, one of which held the door for me and offered to press my floor. I thanked him for his good manners. One by one, the men got off at their respective floors. When the elevator reached mine, it was just myself and the woman in the back. I noticed she had a cane and was leaning into the wall staring at the floors lighting up overhead. As the doors opened, I picked up the hem of my dress and started to step out. What I heard next shocked me. “Wear a bra!!” she angrily blurted out. It took me a second to process what she said. As I turned back around to confront this unprovoked insult, she pressed the button to close the elevator door in my face.

I was shaken and for the rest of my day, I tried to comprehend what had triggered this woman’s body shaming of a complete stranger.  The universe’s attempts to make good on the event by showering me with random compliments about the dress or my body did nothing to take the edge off her insult. Its sting stayed with me long into my commute home in the evening. I looked at the sea of faces sitting across from me and wondered were these people also thinking shameful things about myself or each other? What is it that provokes us to shame each other?

I have written about the topic of bullying before in previous posts. Females choose a more social form of aggression as their preferred method of taking others down a few notches. Body shaming falls under this method. This form of relational bullying is usually rooted in deep issues of self esteem. It is used to maintain status, weed out competition and provide a means of addressing fear and jealousy. Was this the reason for the middle aged woman’s verbal bomb? Targeting me because I presented a mirror to her of what she wasn’t and subsequently taking me down in order to alleviate her own insecurities? Then another thought hit me – if women like her are doing this to each other well into middle age, what hope do our little girls have of building a healthy self image and learning to be “girls’ girls”?

After a lot of thinking, I came to the conclusion that the best action I could take to counter the shame was to be that example. After all, I do consider myself a “girls’ girl”. I appreciate the beauty of other women and celebrate in their successes. I am able to be this way because I have worked through the self esteem issues of my youth and accept who I am at this time in my life. I complimented the dress of a woman standing next to me on the train, which made her smile for a good long minute after I told her. I held the elevator for another woman rushing to catch it, who breathlessly thanked me and then told me to have a wonderful day upon exiting. I helped a middle aged woman on the train remove a bracelet that was squeezing into her wrist and causing her major discomfort. She called me an angel and showered me with kisses and hugs. All these acts of random kindness left me feeling a more loving vibe that reverberated to those around me. Ironically, I saw the woman that had shamed me waiting for the elevators a couple of weeks later. I held the door for her as she entered. She said nothing to me. I couldn’t help but look at her, wondering if she recognized me. It was clear she didn’t. With her eyes fixated on the numbers lighting up above, I exited the elevator and this time, no comments followed me out.

Additional reading:

https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-long-reach-childhood/201109/bullying-in-the-female-world

https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/women-who-hurt/201109/relational-aggression-and-the-job

 

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Redefining unconditional love

When most of us think of unconditional love, we think of love without conditions or limitations (e.g. I love you, no matter what!!) Humanistic psychology adds to this definition by associating it with true altruism – an act of sacrifice, helping or sharing purely for the benefit of the other, not the self. The best example given of this kind of love is that which parents have for their children. Their love is consistent no matter what the child does or doesn’t do. They are willing to throw themselves head on into danger or plunge themselves into debt to protect and provide for their offspring. When it comes to our other relationships in life, this absolute definition is not so easy to apply. Certain situations and circumstances require us to make adjustments to the way we love and as a result, it may appear that our love is conditional. However, I would argue we are confusing consistent with conditional.

Our relationships help us to develop both psychologically and socially. Our interactions with friends, lovers, playmates, teachers, bosses and so on all play a part in allowing us to learn the lessons necessary to understand who we are. Part of our personal development involves understanding how to love those closest to us even when they do things that are hurtful or that we don’t agree with. For all the flack that judgement gets, sometimes we do have to call out the truth when it’s staring at our loved one in the face and they refuse to see it. We also have to do this with ourselves or be willing to hear it from others. Unconditional love is not about allowing your face to be clawed off, having your psyche attacked or attacking others and expecting them to “take it” or “get over it”. It’s about loving that person enough to tell them the truth and be able to walk away if their behavior or reaction is toxic.

There is no worse break up, in my opinion, then the fallout of a close friendship. Even when faced with a verbal attack or some other form of relational aggression, you can still love the person behind all the abuse, even when distancing yourself from the abuse itself. This is the misconception that most people have about unconditional love. They see the distance taken as an example of the conditional nature of your love; that you are abandoning, rejecting or (there’s that word again) judging the person. However, going back to the psychological definition, true unconditional love involves sacrifice and actions done for the benefit of another person, not yourself. Does it benefit that friend for you to accept their abuse? Does it benefit that friend to keep silent about how they are hurting themselves and others? Even worse, does it benefit that friend to allow their behavior to continue unchecked, so that it affects other areas of their life? No. I would argue that calling out the behavior, even if it means sacrificing the friendship, is the most unconditional act of love there is.

Love is a powerful motivator and mediator in life. Instead of love without conditions, I would redefine it as altruistic love without limitations. Things happen. Life happens. Sometimes the most solid person in our lives becomes the most unstable. Don’t limit your heart. Keep the love you have for them outside of the instability in there. It bridges the distance you’ve taken and it’s palpable…

Show them what you’re worth

A familiar image to New Yorkers – the fearless, hard working, mostly immigrant lot that helped build up the city skyline we are famous for…

 

In my family, your sense of worth comes from how hard you work. It doesn’t matter if there is little to no material pay off for this work. Your blood, sweat and tears are enough of a status symbol to make the neighbors unable to call you the worst of insults – useless! This work ethic has been passed down through four traceable generations. It’s very much alive in me and that air of purpose shows society that I’m grabbing life by its horns or its balls, depending on the situation. No family lore ever spoke of burnout, though.

I’ve mentioned this topic in another post “The Magic Number” where I discussed how too many massages with little self care leads to the need to set a professional limit in order to avoid burnout. Professional burnout is common in any career that involves caring for others. Our nurturing energy can literally be sucked dry if we don’t set up the proper boundaries and limits on “selflessness.” In extreme cases, injury and illness befall the individual who is worn thin. More common features of burnout are irritability, resentment toward those you are giving care to, impatience and clock watching. This last term is one the awful markers of burnout in massage. This is when a therapist counts down the minutes til the massage they are performing is over. I admit there have been a handful of massages where I dug deep in my psyche to get through it because every minute felt like an hour; however if I felt like that with every client and therapeutic situation, I would be in trouble.

The other evening, I chatted with two colleagues who have been licensed Massage Therapists now for almost a decade. We were discussing our “worth” within the corporate spa setting and one of them made a telling exclamation. Every three years, she is garnering new skills that she brings to the table outside of her hands on experience and spending hundreds if not thousands of dollars to acquire these skills and keep her license current. She lamented with an ironic laugh how she is getting better in every sense of the word, but has less to show for it each year. In fact, her commission rate straight out of school was 7% higher than it is currently at the ten year mark.

Her lament peaked my curiosity as to what salaries/commissions are like in other corporate owned spa settings. I wanted a comparison. Perhaps it was only this particular spa chain that so profoundly undercut its “talent.” What I learned was pretty disheartening. Granted, my research reflected the New York market; however, we have one of the most arduous and strictest licensing processes in all the country. If anyone deserves a proper salary for their training, it’s New York State licensed massage therapists. So, does the corporate spa setting undervalue therapists? YES!!!

The caregiver in need of care…

 

Before faces lengthen and spirits become disillusioned, it’s important to understand that there are many other options and specializations for a massage therapist. Your worth isn’t determined by one particular spa chain or corporate pay structure. In fact, you can set a rate per massage for your private practice that reflects the skills, continuing education and experience you have amassed. Also, many medical settings, like chiropractic, physical therapy and rehabilitation have a need for capable, experienced therapists to support their patients’ treatments. These places will pay sometimes fixed salaries and sometimes per documented massage hour regardless of how many patients you see in a day. The reality that newly minted and seasoned veteran massage therapist have to come to terms with is that you won’t be able to put all your eggs in one basket. Having two or three part time positions in addition to private clientele may be the only way to make a decent living and this reality could/can lead to burnout. Perhaps then this profession is something you can’t do for the long haul. This is what I have started to realize. This is why I made the decision to return to school and pursue a parallel, but different therapeutic career. Perhaps my colleague should do the same. Harkening back to my family’s legacy, I find that there isn’t any sense in showing the world how much of a hard worker I am when I may end up breaking both my back and my spirit in my effort. It’s time to rewrite the story and choose the gentler path for once; one that eventually will pay off and show the most important person of all, MYSELF, what I’m worth!

 

 

Loving those perfect imperfections

John Legend’s “All Of Me” is a melodious appraisal of all the reasons why he is so head over heels in love with his woman, including her “perfect imperfections”. It’s a beautiful line that has gotten me thinking about the parts of ourselves we fear being rejected over and the traits we see in others as unacceptable or non-negotiable. Let’s explore…

Last night I watched this documentary made by a man who was worried that his penis size would prevent him from finding a partner in life. After a very public humiliation, he set out on a journey that took him to several corners of the world in search of ways to augment his slightly lower than average penis. After trying some pretty shocking methods, he finally threw in the towel realizing that the issue was his own self esteem. The more he projected his inadequacy, the less likely someone would want to date him. So, at films end, he bravely asked a girl he had met during shooting out on a date and she bluntly told him, “There’s more to you than just THAT (i.e. his penis)…”

The man in question putting his “imperfection” out there for all to see!

Even the most secure individual probably has some physical or personality driven feature that could subject them to rejection. This follows what I mentioned earlier about non-negotiable traits. The filmmaker’s girlfriend turned down his proposal because she felt his penis size was a non-negotiable. I wonder how she would have felt if it was the other way around and someone told her the size of chest was the deal breaker. Each of us is entitled to have our mental check list for a partner, but sometimes those supposed imperfections can be perfect if we just embrace them full on.

There was a period in my recovery from an Anorexia where the man I was dating found it important to point out how much weight I was gaining and specifically, what parts of my body were now unattractive to him. Some of this he said to my face with a “you better do something about that or it’s a wrap.” Other commentary was saved for mutual friends and coworkers. When we broke up, he did something any woman would be mortified to learn. He publicly posted that I was a “fat bitch.” Shortly thereafter, another man became interested in me, but my brain was so wrapped up in being too big that I completely rejected him. It must have been exhausting to be around me at the time because the whole thing made me such an insecure pile of flesh. One of my closest male friends had once told me he broke it off with a wonderful, gorgeous girl because she was tremendously insecure about her body. Her constant need for affirmation just drained him. His next girlfriend was much plainer looking than the previous, but her confidence was infectious. He couldn’t get enough of her. (Note to selves, ladies!!!)

To paraphrase Dan Savage’s comments in the film, each one of us has to know what we bring to the table and work that to our advantage. However difficult you may find it, loving all of you first will allow someone else to love all of you right back. Thank you for putting it so well, Mr. Legend!