A new year (and decade) is upon us, but a concerning statement is making the rounds on social media feeds.
“New Year, same me.”
Let’s sit with that for a minute.
This statement gave me pause because of the way it could impact a person’s motivation to change. The mental conflict that occurs as a result of beliefs being contradicted by “new” information is a concept known as cognitive dissonance. People deal with that conflict in a number of ways, most of which are defensive. The first part of the “New Year, same me”statement speaks to change – it’s a new year and newness in of itself is a changed state. The second part of this statement could be read as a defensive response to change.
Here’s the breakdown.
They say hindsight is 2020. Looking back on the experiences of 2019, what would you like to carry over into this new year? What are the qualities, relationships, and situations that you feel will continue to serve you? Those are the things that should comprise your “same me” list. The descriptions underlying the “same me” posts that I read were self-depreciating, and not in that self aware kind of way that precedes a New Year’s resolution (disclaimer – I am not a fan of resolutions – see my 2019 post on Intention Setting.)
The writers of these posts listed the “bad” choices they made during 2019 with the disclaimer “this is how I am.” Their followers responded with “likes” and comments that ranged from supportive to enabling. Here’s where it gets heavy and ties back to cognitive dissonance. That disclaimer is a powerful communication meant to rationalize the writers’ need to maintain their sameness. This is a mental state that feels safer and less threatening than change. Their “bad” choices become their identity. They are unmotivated to change “how” they are and seek validation to maintain their internal status quo through the likes and responses they get. Anything that challenges that state of sameness is met with a drama tsunami of comments from both the poster and a number of their followers. It made me wonder what would happen if no one validated their defense. How would they respond if no one liked or commented on their post? What would all that silence cause them to feel or think about themselves, the world, and their future?
During some of the last sessions of the year with my therapy clients, we reflected on the highlights and low-lights of 2019. Breaking patterns of behavior and thinking that do not serve growth and well-being takes time; however, the little nuggets of insight and small changes we highlighted were proof enough that my clients weren’t entering 2020 the same way they entered 2019. Essentially they were not “the same me.”
My hope for all the “New Year, same me” people is that they don’t let that statement become a self-fulfilling prophecy. All of us are capable of change, both for better and for worse. Making the decision to start therapy and the process of change happens only when you feel ready and motivated to invest the time. Let your foresight also be 2020.
What began as an MTV reality show documenting the use of fake online profiles to hook people into romantic relationships has become a widely accepted term for a clinically relevant phenomenon. It wasn’t until the second season of its airing that mental health awareness PSA’s started appearing in some of the episodes. Many of the “catfish” and their victims suffered from mental health issues, which made them vulnerable to engaging in the behavior as well as falling prey to it. The emotional impact of revealing the deception also had an adverse effect on mental health. This only served to intensify the drama and pain being witnessed and made it almost irresponsible for the network and viewers to ignore for the sake of entertainment.
Want to know what kinds of mental health issues breed a catfish? Keep reading.
After watching all seven seasons of the show and using criteria from The Diagnostic & Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition (DSM-5) it became clear that a handful of conditions perpetuate and maintain catfish behavior and falling prey to it.
Anxiety is a mental health condition that’s easy to empathize with because fear can be such an overwhelming emotion. It has the ability to paralyze people from interacting with each other in order to avoid the rejection or ridicule they fear will happen if they do. This was the case for the catfish who reported creating fake online personas to have anxiety free social contact. Diagnoses like Social Anxiety and Panic Disorder can close people off from the outside world. Creating a profile where they don’t have to be themselves is a relational strategy to create “safe” connections with people. Unfortunately, this safety behavior can still have negative consequences even if the person’s deception isn’t revealed. The avoidance of authentic connection to manage anxious distress keeps a person trapped in their negative and fear based thought spirals. And when a meaningful love connection occurs through deception, self-esteem takes a hard blow because the person hasn’t really fallen in love with the real YOU. This painful truth reinforces core beliefs of being unlovable and the fear that if people knew the real you they would run the other way. Imagine how that fear is confirmed when the catfish is confronted and “rejected” by their online romantic partner. When you behave in a way that elicits the negative thing you believe in or fear the most it is known as a self fulfilling prophecy. The only way to prevent that from happening is to challenge or reality test the fearful beliefs and change the behaviors that supports them. It’s hard to do that when trapped behind a screen.
Anxiety and depression go hand in hand. Some symptoms of depression that underlie catfishing are low self-esteem, social isolation, worthlessness, and persistent negative and distorted thinking about self and others. One of the catfish in Season 1 had used his online connection of ten years to a girl he never met as a means of coping with depression and suicidal thoughts. He felt self-conscious and suffered from low self-esteem due to his weight. He assumed what the girl would probably think and feel about him if she saw what he really looked liked. This is a type of cognitive distortion known as mind reading. Finally meeting her in life challenged a lot of the beliefs that were keeping him from video chatting and meeting up with her. Another catfish had adopted an identity that she felt represented all the things she wished she was and got to live that imaginal “perfect” life through the profile to escape her depressive reality. On the flip side, some of those hooked by catfish also suffered from low self-esteem and depressive thinking. When an awesome, exciting, and beautiful person started complimenting them, they wanted to believe it was the real thing. Their mood and self worth became dependent on the external validation provided by the catfish. Revealing the deception triggered a downward spiral of hopelessness, worthlessness, and despair for some of the victims. Sadly, they are likely to fall prey again if they don’t learn how to cultivate validation from within. Sorry, Nev and Max, but those two month follow up video chats where everyone reports how great they’re doing – probably not that accurate.
Some of the most dramatic episodes involved people who catfish for revenge, to get a boost of attention, or to manipulate the victim into providing them monetary support. These catfish are in line with the cluster of personality disorders characterized by their “erratic and dramatic” behavior. Now for the disclaimer– in order to properly assess and diagnose someone with a personality disorder a mental health clinician has to take into account a lot of information including developmental history, family dynamics, trauma exposure, and a host of “rule outs” of other disorders that better explain the problem behavior(s). Moving on…
The three most commonly known disorders in this cluster are Borderline, Anti-Social, and Narcissistic Personality Disorder(s). Catfishing as an act of vengeance for being “wronged”(e.g. one catfish created a fake profile for the purposes of emotionally and financially destroying an ex who had cheated) or to test the limits of one’s love without regarding how that will impact the other person could be interpreted as “borderline” behavior. That shift from love to hate and back again speaks to that erratic emotional state experienced by someone with the disorder in response to perceived abandonment or rejection. The resulting behavior could include threatening to commit suicide or self-harm to keep the other person concerned about them, creating an illness or injury (i.e. what Max referred to as the two C’s – cancer or a car crash) as an excuse that will prevent the person from rejecting or abandoning them, or giving ultimatums such as demanding that the person move, travel large distances to meet them, or make grand gestures to show that their love is “real” only to have the catfish stand them up or disappear for a time. This kind of emotional roller-coaster and instability is a disaster for both the catfish and the people they hook. They aren’t capable of stopping cold turkey without truly wanting to get off the roller-coaster. They will also need some intense therapeutic support to learn to manage their emotions and change their behavior.
And now for the scariest of catfish…
Both Anti-Social and Narcissistic Personality disorders have some level of what is known as schadenfreudeor deriving pleasure from someone else’s misfortune. Criminal behaviors like assuming someone’s identity to commit fraud (e.g. one catfish manipulated multiple victims to pay her bills and buy the things she wanted, then glibly blamed them for falling for it) or to slander a person’s reputation for “fun” (e.g. one catfish was arrested when she orchestrated a sexual encounter between a well-known athlete and a woman she didn’t know was a minor resulting in him being labeled a pedophile and almost destroying his career) display a lack of empathy and manipulation of people’s emotions to inflate a fragile sense of self. In one of the episodes, a victim whose identity was being used by a number of catfish expressed how a stranger grabbed her on the street and demanded to know why she had stopped talking to him. The woman became so guarded that she barely socialized or went out alone. While one of her catfish was confronted and the fake profile dismantled within a few days, this woman’s hypervigilance and the blow to her sense of identity will probably take a much longer time to undo.
The Catfish relationship take away…
The show identifies a number of “red flags” (see above) to look for when talking to someone online, whether you’re interested in dating or friendship. It also provides a few helpful investigative strategies to use if you suspect that the person might be a catfish. That being said, I think it’s important to also set what I call safe expectations before trying to date anyone on an online platform or app.
Your safe expectations should keep in mind the following three statements:
If it’s too much and too soon, it’s misattuned!
Don’t question your judgment with this. It takes time to get to know someone and that offer of all your hopes and dreams in a “perfect” package right from the beginning is just not realistic. If it’s the real deal, this person will not become upset if you slow the pace down. They will also not react with anger or ghost you when you set a limit. Using the phrase, “I’m really enjoying the process of getting to know you” followed by the limit you want to set shows a healthy boundary and sets the pace by which you want to open yourself up to this person. Don’t fall prey to statements that push back at that limit with “loving” manipulation such as “but you’re the perfect woman and everything I’ve been looking for…why are we waiting?” or “we’re adults and don’t have to play games.” Some version of these two repeat themselves in a variety of online dating courtships. If they get mad or ghost you, ’twas your gain in the end.
Your time is precious and your own to give.
This is the opposite of “too much, too soon.” If you find that you’re spending a lot of time trying to make something as basic as a phone call happen, you need to take back your most precious commodity. It’s wasteful and emotionally exhausting. Use that time to engage in self-care and to meet someone who’s more present and available…and real.
If it doesn’t feel good in your mind and body, it isn’t.
Powerful is the mind and body (gut) connection. Our bodies sometime react before our minds have a chance to process the “warning.” If you find that you’re experiencing some kind of somatic reaction when interacting with someone, check in with yourself. I’ll share my own experience with this one.
A few years ago, I had been talking to someone for about a month and feeling what I thought was a deep connection starting to develop between us. As we were trying to lock down a date to meet up with much excitement coming from both ends of the phone, I ignored some clear physical reactions that only made sense after this person did the slow fade to ghosting. Mixed with his compliments and flirts were little passive aggressive statements. I wasn’t picking up on them consciously, but my body was reacting to them with what looked like a rash on my chest and neck. This rash had occurred in the past in response to a loved one splitting on me (i.e. shifting from loving to rejecting without understanding what I had done.) My body knew this person was going to split before my brain processed the evidence for it.
Trust in the wisdom of your gut – it’s primal and straightforward unlike the stories we weave and tell ourselves to rationalize or deny shit experiences. Leave the stories and the drama for reality tv.
Additional sources of information on the mental health issues discussed in this post:
The Oxford English dictionary defines emotional intelligence (EQ) as “the capacity to be aware of, control, and express one’s emotions, and to handle interpersonal relationships judiciously and empathetically.”
The above also sounds a lot like a goal of therapy – being able to put our feelings into words and communicate them to people in our lives in a direct, fair, and caring way, so that we can feel better about ourselves and our relationships. EQ treatment plans for everyone!
Inc.com’s Justin Bariso published an article in 2018 describing what qualities make up emotional intelligence based on research for his book, “EQ Applied.” Unlike our IQ, emotional intelligence is not fixed or stable throughout our lives. We all have the ability to raise our EQ through cultivating the qualities Bariso describes in his article. What I found interesting after reading his list was that even the most self-aware of us do not have all 13 qualities in spades. In fact, if all we had were the first three we would still be pretty decent humans.
These first three qualities of emotional intelligence from Bariso’s list are the following:
You think about feelings
You strive to control your thoughts
All three are also objectives of Cognitive Restructuring, a cognitive behavioral skill that helps us manage our emotions by monitoring the automatic thoughts that come into our minds in a given situation or context where they are triggered. The “pause” aspect would be where the therapeutic work takes place. You take the time to examine the thoughts that come up and their associated emotions in order to understand the where, what, how, and why. They are the building blocks of self-awareness. And now for the breakdown.
Where did these thoughts and messages originally come from? I call automatic thoughts “the tape recorder” because oftentimes these thoughts are messages we recorded about ourselves in childhood based on our parents’ and/or important people’s feedback. These messages were shaped in the context of early experiences and saved in our emotional archives. The “play” button goes off when present day experiences trigger those long recorded messages.
What are these thoughts saying about yourself and others? What are the emotions attached to these messages? Identifying the core beliefs underlying the thoughts and the emotions that come up pave the way for understanding how they developed and why they were useful in a particular time in your life. The belief that you’re only valuable if you take care of others may have been a way for a child to survive a neglectful upbringing, but in adulthood, that belief with all its associated thoughts and emotions could lead to codependent relationships, depression, and low self-esteem. One of the hardest aspects of cognitive restructuring is challenging these thoughts and messages. The fact that we call them “automatic” thoughts says it all – they are deeply rooted and habitual patterns of thinking that, like any habit, need time and work to break. The amazing thing is that our brains are capable of doing this with enough repetition and practice.
With a good base of self-awareness, we can learn how to communicate both positive and negative feelings in a healthy and constructive way to other people. This skill also takes time and work to develop because much like our automatic thoughts and emotional triggers, our patterns of relating to others are also habitual. It’s on a whole other level when the people we are relating to remind us of our parents in some way. For this reason, these patterns are sometimes referred to as “repetitions” because they repeat dysfunctional communications formed in early life with our caregivers. A good portion of Bariso’s list (numbers 4-9 are listed below) encompass the above, but with some clarifications:
You benefit from criticism – Bariso refers to this as taking in the negative feedback and asking yourself how you can improve, but I feel there is a difference between constructive criticism and straight up criticism. When it’s the former, taking it in for the purpose of improving yourself makes sense. However, when it’s the latter, I think it’s more about what you can learn from the experience about yourself and the other person giving that feedback. I worked with a client whose character was very warm, generous, and considerate. When her sister in law flipped out on her for not attending her baby shower (the client had a work obligation that was mandatory) she began to call herself inconsiderate. We took the time to examine the “evidence” for her sister-in-law’s criticism and came to realize that we needed to work on her ability to maintain healthy boundaries when dealing with her super enmeshed family; not to make her more considerate.
You show authenticity – what Bariso noted as “say what you mean, mean what you say.” Stand by your values.
You demonstrate empathy
You praise others
You give helpful feedback – the feedback that you give to other people to help them be their “best” self. The ability to give and receive criticism has its opposite – the ability to give and receive praise. For many of us, it is hard to accept praise and/or complimentary statements. That’s also something worth unpacking in therapy because it feeds into our self-esteem and self-concept.
You apologize – Bariso notes that apologizing doesn’t always mean you’re wrong. When you KNOW this, you can tackle conflict resolution like an EQ-ed boss. It’s a tough one to master and one that I struggle with at times depending on the conflict and the person involved. It requires overriding your ego and considering someone else’s feelings in addition to your own. The more emotionally invested I am, the harder it is to form the words of the apology without sounding defensive or blaming. One of the best forms of apology in situations where you may be in the right is saying, “I am sorry if what I said/did made you feel…” followed up with reflecting whatever it is they respond with such as, “you felt like I rejected you” or “you felt that it was fucked up.” As the situation de-escalates (although sometimes it may not, which makes the apology and resolution process super challenging), you can introduce resolution in a collaborative way such as “how can we prevent this from happening again,” “what can we do to work through this,” or “how can I help us overcome this.”
Being able to apologize is tied to the ability to forgive and move on (#10 on Bariso’s list noted as “forgive and forget”) which is another difficult thing to master. This is part of the therapeutic process of rupture and repair. The rupture is in the conflict – actions and/or words that caused pain and a rift between two people. The repair is in how you resolve and move on from what happened. An important thing to ask yourself in this process is what holding on to all that emotion is actually doing for you. What is useful about not forgiving or not forgetting? What’s holding you back from moving on?
Bariso’s 11th and 12th examples are also humanistic core values – honoring your commitments to self and other (i.e. keeping your word) and helping other people. His 13th trait is the ability to protect yourself from“emotional sabotage” which he expands upon in another article. Essentially this last trait is made possible by cultivating all the other ones on the list. The higher your emotional intelligence, the less likely others will be able to derail you even if they are master manipulators. Raising your EQ not only benefits your sense of self and your relationships, but also can have a ripple effect on the environment around you. Imagine if everyone was working to raise their EQ on a daily basis. Imagine if we evaluated EQ as an important, even non-negotiable characteristic for potential partnerships and friendships. Imagine what a whole bunch of self-aware people could accomplish if they all came together.
Sit with that and let your mind be blown a little too.
YES and NO are two very powerful words. They are the gatekeepers that maintain the boundary of self and other. We need boundaries to protect ourselves from things that don’t serve our well-being; however, they also need to be flexible enough to filter in the good stuff like life experiences and connections. Many of us have great difficulty building and maintaining healthy boundaries especially in situations and with people we are emotionally invested in. This is because our emotions sometimes mess with the circuitry of our rational higher brain when they interface with each other in our decision making. Finding that middle ground between masochism (YES-ing to death) and isolation (building a wall of NO) is possible, but it takes practice. I’ve created this crib sheet to help guide the process and deal with some of the challenges that come up along the way.
(1) EMOTIONAL ASSESSMENT
It’s important to really examine the emotions that come up for us when setting limits and boundaries. I often ask clients (and myself) to reflect on how they feel when they say either YES or NO. After getting a general sense of what that brings up for them emotionally, we start to examine the feelings triggered in different situations and settings where YES and NO have been exercised. This self-reflection is key in helping us to understand and eventually reframe the responses of others.
Perhaps your friend’s inability to handle your NO is about their own fear of rejection, but their passive aggressive response to you may trigger a stream of intrusive negative thinking that has you fearing you will lose this relationship if you don’t say YES. This cycle only maintains and perpetuates some pretty shitty self-esteem and relationship dynamics.
(2) IMAGINING THE OPPOSITE
What would life be like if you didn’t always say YES? How would it feel if you could just say NO without an explanation? What would change for you? These are just some of the prompts to get you thinking about the real costs and benefits of boundary building. Imagining the opposite is kind of mind blowing. One of my clients sat with the word that came up for her (i.e. freedom) when imagining what life would be like is she didn’t say YES all the time. That imagined life prioritized her own needs and took the burdens of others off her chest. It sparked a series of small changes in behavior that prepared her to let go of a very toxic relationship.
(3) COMMUNICATING OUR BOUNDARIES
This should not be confused with explaining our boundaries. People respond best to open and direct communication that is compassionate. Congruent communication is a skill that helps people in relationships understand and express each other’s needs without defensiveness. Adapting this style of communication to express our need for boundaries will help reduce the blow-back from people in our lives not used to us having them.
Some great examples are the following:
“I know I haven’t always been good at letting you know how I feel and as awesome as you are, I know you’re not psychic. This is why I want to talk to you about a few things.”
“You are very important to me and it means a lot that I can be this honest with you about my needs.”
My personal favorite and one that I find is absolutely necessary when you work in a care-taking and/or helping profession is the following:
“I want to be there for you, but there are times when I am too overwhelmed with my own stuff and life. The only way I can be present for the people I care about is if I am taking care of myself first. This is when I have to say no to certain things.”
(Insert the flock of doves emanating from the heavens)
People may still react to your compassionate dialogue; however, rest assured that their reaction tells you more about whether they are meant to remain in your life or not. A healthy relationship is one that is reciprocal and interdependent. If they truly care about you, they will support your needs even if it takes them a little time to process and understand them. For those that don’t get it, keep reading to (5) TAKE A TIME OUT FROM THE TOXIC.
(4) A ‘NO EXPLANATIONS’ APPROACH
You don’t have to justify your boundaries further than the compassionate communication outlined above. Explanations are often about anticipating and/or managing other people’s emotions. If you find yourself worrying that you might disappoint an important figure in your life by saying NO, you may needlessly over explain your boundary. You may feel the need to exaggerate your explanations to the point of lying to avoid being interrogated about your boundary. Fighting this urge is hard work and success varies depending on the situation and/or relationship.
In the spirit of full disclosure, I only recently got good at the ‘no explanations’ approach. Below is one of my success scenarios.
My then boyfriend asked me to come hang out with his friends while they watched the UFC fights on PPV. There were a number of reasons why I didn’t feel like going, but rather than list them all, I chose to say, “No babe. I’m good. You have fun with the boys.” He immediately asked me what I was going to do on a Saturday night alone. His assumption that I couldn’t possibly have any other plans or things to do was enough to trigger some irritation, but I managed not to react. I smiled and told him, “I’ll be fine. You enjoy the fights.” My lack of explanation started to trigger some mind reading from his end. “You probably want to go out to some club, don’t you? Yeah, I know what you girls do. That’s cool. You go let some bro feel up on you instead of hanging out with your man.” At this point, I wanted to punch him in the face and/or leave the room, but I maintained my calm and restated my original response with a little “sass” to reframe his mind-reading. “I’m going to miss you too baby. You have fun tonight.” I rubbed up on him like an exaggerated club dancer to drive home how ridiculous he was being. He laughed. I laughed. All was good and no more questions were asked.
If only they all worked out this way. What I will say about all the not so successful attempts is that they highlighted my triggers and vulnerabilities. Understanding where and why I got derailed helped me to revise my approach in order to react differently next time. I have several ‘no explanation’ tactics at the ready for interactions with my parents because I know from many a trial and error how my frustration and anger gets the best of me. The worst part of those exchanges was knowing I had gone off the rails, but not being able to bring myself back. When I would hear “relax, it was just a question” I knew I had failed. Prepare your ‘no explanation’ strategies before challenging situations to increase your success and reduce distress (rhyming intentional).
(5) TAKE A TIME OUT FROM THE TOXIC
If you find that your boundaries are being tested over and over again with certain individuals despite all your congruent compassionate communication and ‘no explanations’ attempts, give yourself permission to take distance. If you can’t do that for yourself, then I give you permission to take distance. You don’t have to respond to their texts, DM’s, or any attempts at contact immediately or at all. You can choose the terms by which you will engage with them and interact accordingly. They will almost definitely feel a certain kind of way about your distance, but don’t let their reactions make you feel that you’re “ghosting” them. If your relationship is one-sided and co-dependent, it is not healthy. Your silence is self-care. And speaking of self-care…
(6) REWARD YOUR BOUNDARIES
Setting boundaries that put your needs first is an act of self-love. For those of us who have trouble saying NO to others, work with the YES and recognize that boundaries can be an act of saying YES to yourself. For people with rigid boundaries, look at the ability to say YES as being in control of the gate between yourself and others. You get to choose what and who you let it. Say YES only to what feels good to your being; nothing else gets through the gate.
As you build healthy boundaries, people who do not serve you will start to exit your life. Those exits may be dramatic and may hurt for a period of time; however, you will start to be surrounded by people who not only support your boundaries, but will also have boundaries of their own. You will get to experience what it feels like for someone to communicate a boundary with you, and learn to appreciate their openness and honesty. If we all communicated our needs directly and with compassion to each other, we probably wouldn’t even need to call boundaries boundaries. They would become more like lines of contact connecting individuals to each other in a sort of collective relationship tapestry. We aren’t there yet, but it’s worth imagining.
It has always been difficult for me to reconcile how people with flawed characters can effectively do “God’s” work. Energy work from the shadows seems counter intuitive and a bit disarming to me.
I’ve done a lot of internal work in the past year to let go of my idealism when it comes to people’s intentions. My intuition has always hinted that something might be off, but I convince myself that all people who do energy work are truly “good,” come from God, and are of their word. This is where the “free will” aspect described in so many religious texts comes into play. We may be endowed with special gifts that can heal others; however, what we do with ourselves and those gifts is completely governed by our own free will. There’s a huge part of me that wants some kind of divine intervention to “out” all of this behavior to protect myself and others, but that doesn’t happen. As we become a little wiser about the intent behind the behavior or separate the mean girl/guy/person from the healer, we can understand that our humanity is a dichotomy. We all have a shadow side to balance the light. One may work with the light, but live their life within that shadow. One may use the light for both the greater good and the shadow side’s desire for ego feeding – fame, notoriety or control over a market or population. To understand human nature allows for the reconciliation of this dichotomy in the healing and energetic professions. These aren’t deities on earth.These arehuman beings, with all kinds of contradictory aspects to their character. If you can appreciate the work and arrest it from the flawed human, it will be received better in your being. We are all a piece of the collective energy that some call God, the universe, or the vortex. That’s what we can work with. Let the shadow stuff stay in the shadows.
And now for my soap box moment…
There is a hypocrisy in the judgment laden messages from some energy workers to anyone that doesn’t echo their Kool-Aid. If they aren’t being agreed with or validated, they will engage in what amounts to social bullying – publicly blocking, unfollowing, and promoting the shaming of their targets. One particularly disturbing form of shame is to assert that the target is aligning with toxic masculinity/patriarchy. It is a term that is loosely thrown around these days, but I am not sure if the implications of such an accusation are completely understood. It fills me with a foreboding sense of loss because it often happens between women. Women, especially healers, have been the targets of hate and abuse throughout history at the hands of religious leaders, governing bodies, and the patriarchy. It’s hard to reconcile how those who stand for female empowerment and rage against this history, also engage in it in a purposeful manner toward other women on these social platforms. I think everyone could benefit from a little psychoeducation, and a course in social and cultural competency to better understand how their shadowy behavior impacts the collective consciousness of our society. Until then, I’ll keep my head turned toward the light.
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?
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 asThe 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.
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.)
“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.
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.”
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.
“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.”
I started setting my intentions for 2018 last weekend. Today’s blizzard and frigid conditions have made it possible to do a whole lot of reflecting on the events of years past, my growth from them and what obstacles still exist. I discovered something very interesting. The major shifts of my life have come in ten year bundles buffered by life altering events on either end. Rather than posting a year in review, I’m choosing to do more of a life in review starting with the significant event that set in motion all the things that have led me to where I am today.
The trauma decade (11-21 yrs)
At age eleven I had a serious car accident. My injuries confined me to a wheelchair and then required over a year of intense and painful PT to get me back on my feet, literally. All the activities that I engaged in prior to this accident which made me feel good within my body were now a source of intense fear and anxiety. I had serious psychological injuries that were never addressed. My self concept and my sense of independence were deeply affected by this accident. Complicating matters worse was a strict, authoritarian upbringing where verbal and corporal punishment were the status quo for relating to children and the wonderful world of puberty, where changes occurred outside of my control. I was a wounded child in a woman’s body with a mountain of responsibility and guilt placed on me for pretty much everything that was going wrong. The depression, post traumatic stress, anxiety and negative self concept all set the stage for my budding eating disorder, which manifested into full blown Anorexia at age 21.
The transformation decade (21-31 yrs)
Anorexia wreaked havoc on my body and mind in the first part of this decade, but my inner resilience helped me to pursue my childhood dream of singing and performing. Yes, I definitely had a very warped end goal when it came to music making. I needed heaps of external validation to feel “okay” with myself, so any drunk heckling from an audience member would upset me to the point where I couldn’t finish a song. I also modeled because I needed that attention to reassure myself that I was desirable and lovable. Of course, those two things do not go hand in hand. When I sought treatment, the onion began to unfold. I was forced to face a lot of vulnerability and insecurity. It was terrifying. I didn’t have any coping skills. My eating disorder and all this hyper-focus on my appearance and sexuality were the ways I dealt or didn’t with my issues. I turned the dial way down on all of that. I started to examine the reasons behind a lot of the things I was doing. I wasn’t ready to quit it all cold turkey, but a transformation was occurring. During this time, I entered into a serious six year relationship with a man whose personality pushed buttons of change for me. Coinciding with this was my Saturn Return. Even if you’re not a believer of astrology, many of us undergo a major reevaluation of priorities and cognitive growth between the ages of 28-31. This is proven by behavioral neuroscience. At age 31, I was successfully in remission from Anorexia and newly licensed in my chosen profession of massage therapy. I felt optimistic, but I had only cracked the surface. The floodgates were about to spew.
The healing decade (31 yrs and counting)
When a train is approaching a station you feel it initially as a tiny flutter of air that gets progressively stronger until it practically knocks you over when the thing emerges from the tunnel. That’s exactly how this decade has been thus far. At age 31, something shifted for me – the flutter of air. My sister gave birth to her first child and holding him triggered a desire for family that overwhelmed me. Everything that I felt comfortable and complacent with needed to go and believe me, it WENT. The great purge gained momentum as the years progressed. This last year and a half, I experienced a mass exit of relationships that no longer served me and the pulling out of the many energetic hooks placed into me by the people I had chosen to give my time and my heart to. Despite all the loss and the ache I feel in many parts of my being, I have never felt lighter and more myself. It’s amazing how clear your intuition and wisdom become when you aren’t burdened by other people’s stuff. My graduate program has given me a lot of perspective on how I perpetuated and maintained some of the situations that plagued me in the first half of this decade. My inner circle consists of some really incredible, intelligent and supportive people who are doing the work on their end and who I admire greatly. The best advice I got this year came from an article a “soul” friend shared with me about reclaiming my power. I get to control who gets access to me. I can and will heal through all this loss and painful adjustment because I have reclaimed that energy for myself. I am surrounded by the best cheerleaders. These people show up. They reciprocate. They care. One of my intentions for this year is to continue to allow them to take care of me, even when I don’t always know how to ask. This vulnerability is a strength that will set the stage for the type of partnership I want for life; the pivotal event I know is coming.
In the meantime, I will keep my gaze on “the bandaged place” as the Sufi poet Rumi so eloquently put it because through that wounded place “the light” will enter me. Amen.
When did “I’m good at Math.” turn into “I’m a genius. You’re stupid.”
When did “I think he likes me!” turn into “I’m hot. Everybody wants me.“
When did “Oh, my butt looks so cute in these pants.” turn into “You wish you had my body, bitch.“
Society has done an amazing job of conditioning us to hear confidence as cockiness. Positive “I” statements as narcissistic. It’s frightful that a healthy self concept can be skewed so negatively. But it happens and the lower the self esteem of the other person, the worse it is.
In the behavioral neuroscience courses I’ve taken, many of us struggled with understanding sensation vs. perception. The take away from all those lectures was that perception isn’t necessarily reality. It may not have anything to do with what actually happened. The example in class was of an experiment where people listened to a piece of classical music and then reported their mood afterward. Same stimulus, but many different perceptions. People reacted to the same piece of music differently – some fell asleep, some were crying tears of joy, some became angry, others sad and so on.
Much like the classical music, the positive “I” statement also goes through that auditory pathway into the sections of our higher brain that gives the statement meaning. The meaning comes from our own experiences and core beliefs. How we perceive the words may have nothing to do with the words themselves or the person they came out of.
There’s a Greek expression my father used to say – He whohas fleas feels itchy. Essentially, if someone has something in their mind (fleas), their reaction is going to reflect that (itchy). Itchy is their state of being. So, if you make a statement of self esteem and the person you say it to has a low self concept or suffers from cognitive distortions, their filter is going to assign a negative meaning to it. It will become evidence that they aren’t good enough. They will mind read you and assume you think you’re superior to them. They might even call you names and tell you they want nothing to do with you. Being around you doesn’t make them feel good because they don’t like the mirror you have become for them. Nothing you do or say is going to change that. In the end, they need to take a hard look at their own reflection instead of flipping it back onto you.
You are absolutely allowed to acknowledge your accomplishments and take pride in your traits. We are all little works in progress. The more support we give each other, the more likely it will inspire growth and self love. I look to people who make positive “I” statements and feel inspired. In my head I hear “I should try that” or “Oh, that makes me want to write again” or “I wonder how I would look with that hair cut.” But I wasn’t always like that…
Between the ages of 19 and 22, I suffered from dysthymiaor what is now called Persistent Depressive Disorder. It’s a chronic low grade depression that casts what feels like a shadow over every area in your life. My self esteem was almost non-existent and my thoughts were extremely negative. I walked around with a pervasive sense of hopelessness. I definitely perceived everything and everyone through that filter. I had a close friend who was gorgeous. She had body confidence for days, could talk to just about anyone and got the attention of boys/men wherever we went. Being in her company made me acutely aware of all the things I felt I wasn’t. I would get upset or border on crying many times we would go out. I would tell her things like, “You just want everyone. Let me have someone too.” She would look shocked, tell me I was also beautiful and could have whomever I wanted, but I felt like she was just telling me these things out of pity. I perceived the tone of her voice as patronizing. I would ask her why she was talking to me like I was some kind of loser. She would give me this look of confusion mixed with annoyance, which made me scared she would stop being my friend. I would apologize profusely and then compliment her repeatedly. I perceived her as being annoyed with me all the time. It got to the point that I felt so self-conscious being around her that I decided to stop talking to her. I didn’t return her calls. I didn’t make any effort to reach out to her. I needed to relieve myself from the anxiety and lowness I felt when I was around her. None of this was her fault. She did nothing but be herself; a self that I couldn’t be. My depression and distorted negative thoughts convinced me I had no business being around her. In one of the last voicemails she left me, she was semi crying and asking what happened; how it hurt her to not know what she did to make me disappear. It’s really sad and messed up. As I look back on that period in my life, it makes me see recent experiences with former friends in a different light. It’s easier to forgive when you’ve been in their place. It’s easier to have compassion when you know what level of lowness their words and actions toward you came from.
These experiences helped me see how far I have come from that dark time in my life and taught me to be more compassionate for that suffering when I see it and experience it in others. If I could say anything to that friend now it would be, I’m sorry. I had a lot of issues and you were a good friend to me despite it all. You didn’t deserve to be treated like that. I hope you can forgive me.
And to those former friends who treated me in kind, I forgive you too.
Redefining my relationship with food was one of the hardest challenges I overcame in my recovery from Anorexia. It’s been a decade plus journey with plenty of weak moments and falling off of the wagon. In an effort to hold myself accountable and practice what I preach, to both my clients and loved ones, I’d like to tell you a bit about the role nutrition played in getting me to where I am today.
The Miseducation of Julia Fragias…
The body is a wonderfully efficient machine.
Starve and abuse it, but in a continuous loop of feedback mechanisms, the brain catches wind of what you’re doing and tweaks every cell in the body to maintain your existence. When I started to eat again, my brain clearly didn’t trust me. It adjusted my metabolism to a lower rate in order to make sure the calories I put into my body wouldn’t disappear.
It took a while to earn that trust back.
The image you see above from 2007 is a softer, fuller girl almost 2 years into recovery from Anorexia. I didn’t know how to exercise properly. I didn’t know how to likefood, much less understand now-common concepts like macronutrients. I was instructed by my then counselor not to restrict food and was assured my metabolism would normalize. Eventually.
But, of course, I was still afraid to eat.
I categorized foods into “safe” and “off limits.” How did I decide what made them safe? They were low in fat or fat free. Vegetables or fruit were safe, as long as they didn’t bloat me. Liquids were safer than solids. It also helped if they were low in calories per serving. I ate my “safe foods” repetitively and copiously.
My criteria for safe were so far off the mark that they actually contributed to my rapid weight gain. As my body continued to expand, I had to fight the urge to restrict my eating. I wanted someone to give me a magic menu or list of foods that I could eat without anxiety.
I wanted safety, but I needed education.
Through therapy, I was getting served a whole lot of how to eat through mindfulness, which was helpful – chew your food well, eat slowly, savor the flavors, be grateful for the nourishment – but nobody was telling me what to eat.
How could I begin to structure balanced meals that would fuel my body efficiently?
Count your macros…
My self education was to obsessively watch fitness channels on Youtube. This was when I first came across the term macronutrient. The body builders and fitness professionals I was taking notes from all shared the same advice – count your macros. It’s a catchy word, especially when repeated like a mantra, but what exactly are they?
Carbohydrates, Proteins and Fats: compounds we derive the most energy from and that make up the bulk of our diets as humans. Our cells need these nutrients to grow and develop properly.
Finally, I had something specific to focus on. I concentrated on the ratios of these compounds that the fitness community recommended were optimal for fitness and good health. I constructed a daily diet that consisted of ready made and home made protein powder based shakes, protein bars, bags of nuts, bananas for my pre-workout, and cans of water packed tuna for dinner.
Finally, I had a new “safe” list!
Problem was, it was even more restricted than my previous one.
My workouts were cardio endurance based only and lasted between 60 and 90 minutes to the point of utter exhaustion. There are a number of reasons why this is not the fitness route you want to go down, but I will get into that in my next post. I dropped about ten pounds, but I was constipated, had started to develop eczema patches all over my body and odd outbreaks of hives, had terrible insomnia and brain fog. As if that weren’t all bad enough, I put on virtually no muscle tone.
At the end of 2007, my annual blood test indicated I was deficient in many vitamins and borderline anemic. Essentially, I was malnourished. My doctor didn’t help matters either by telling me I needed to lose a few pounds. He came to this conclusion based on a chart of height and weight ranges of which I was at the high end of normal. FYI – this chart also said I was a normal weight when I had full blown anorexia. Scary, truly.
I left the doctor’s office terrified.
I abandoned my diet and let my body’s cravings guide my food choices. This was recommended by a therapist who believed the body intuitively knows what it needs. She was also trying to prevent my patterns of restriction and categorizing food. I remember meeting up with an old friend, who had struggled with childhood obesity and was now super fit. I asked him how he learned to eat properly. He laughed at me and said, “Julia. NO ONE eats properly. It’s how you exercise that counts.”
Working with a trainer, he put on lean muscle that raised his metabolism and allowed his body to burn off more calories at rest.
And he noticed something interesting.
The fitter he became, the less he craved the fried pork chops, plantain chips and soda of his youth. Remember what I said about the wonderful efficiency of the body? As his body grew healthier and stronger, so did his food choices.
He strongly urged me to contact his trainer. After I got over myself (my bad experience with personal trainers was documented in my post A Body Is A Terrible Thing To Waste) I set up my first session in August of 2008.
I started on the strength-training program the trainer designed for me. It was around the 6 week mark that I started to feel something I never expected to feel again. Hunger.
I was hungry all the time.
To actually feel my stomach rumbling and experience the weakness of NOT attending to that hunger was frightening to me, but also a huge step forward. Hunger was a sensation I had psychologically dulled for years with my disordered eating habits. So, for the first time since my recovery began, I ate when I was actually hungry.
This. Was. A. Game changer.
I was most ravenous within an hour of my workouts. I found myself craving meat, which was shocking because I had been a vegetarian for 7 years and the thought of animal protein in my mouth used to nauseate me. This hunger and these new cravings were my body’s call to action.