What My Wedding Taught Me About Beauty Culture

I’m not shy about my anti-diet message.

I’m a strong advocate of body acceptance and encourage my clients to derive self-worth from inner values rather than outer appearance. It’s not always easy to practice what I preach, but I’m committed to trying my best.

Last month, I got married. It was an incredible milestone that I will remember with joy forever. However, in the months leading up to our big day, I found my inner Anti-Diet Warrior was challenged in some new ways. Today I want to share how my experience as a bride challenged my resolve and offer some guidance for those of you preparing for your wedding or any other big life event.

In our beauty-obsessed culture, the message (particularly for women) is that those who fit the standards of beauty (thin, tanned, clear complexioned, young, white, and confident but not too confident) are most worthy of love and admiration. Everywhere we turn, there are products and services geared towards “fixing” various aspects of our natural appearance to achieve this worthy ideal. Apparently, there is not just an ideal woman, there’s also an ideal bride: thin, tanned, clear complexioned, bright eyed, effortless. Basically, she’s just a lace-covered, amped up version of the same beauty standard that’s promoted in everyday life. But she is special because all eyes are on her.

Weddings are one-time events, so even if most of us can’t achieve the ideal in everyday life, we’re taught that we can still make ourselves the ideal bride, by temporarily pouring money, time, and energy into pre-wedding diet and beauty regimens and achieving perfection for that one magical day. In fact, it’s so common for brides to aggressively diet in advance of the wedding that there’s a term for the practice: Brideorexia.

I’m grateful I get to work with clients who bravely recover from eating disorders every day. My job protected me from Brideorexia and motivated me to stay balanced. I didn’t want to compromise my professional integrity, and I wanted to treat my body with compassion. So I made a pledge to myself when we got engaged. I swore that I would not alter my eating habits or physical activities in preparation for the wedding.

Turned out, keeping my promise was harder than I expected. A few months before the wedding, a back injury forced me to step back from my usual physical activities. I knew I had to respect my body’s need for rest, but my brain was suddenly telling me to compensate. The inner critic said I should probably “just diet a little” since the wedding was coming up. What the heck, brain?

Every day, I held tight to this mantra: My body is the least interesting thing about me.  When I saw anything that tried to convince me otherwise, I was quick to hit “unfollow” or change the channel. When my own thoughts tried to convince me otherwise, I sought support or did some journaling. When people wanted to discuss their diets, I would change the subject. When the girl doing my bridal alterations suggested that we wait to finish “in case I wanted to lose any weight,” I politely assured her that wasn’t in the plans.

It’s important to note that I have the privilege of living in a naturally smaller body. While this doesn’t make me immune from bad body image days (nobody is), it means I was not really hit with judgments or stigma from the outside world for choosing not to shrink my body before the wedding.

A sad truth in our weight-biased culture is that many brides (and non-brides) in larger bodies are subjected to more overt pressures and messaging to change themselves. My experience, while challenging thanks to my inner critic and a lifetime of absorbing social messages, was just a fraction of what many people face on a daily basis.

The paradigm overall needs to change.  We need to stop reinforcing women for their appearance and promoting an unrealistic “ideal” that hardly anybody fits into naturally. While this seems like a long journey (and it is!) it starts with each of us at the individual level. Read on for some tips to get you started.

Rejecting Unhelpful Ideals of Beauty

My advice to anyone struggling with appearance-based insecurities (pre-wedding or otherwise) is to consider the messages surrounding you.

  • Become a critical consumer of media. Are the TV shows, movies, commercials, podcasts, and blogs you frequent promoting things to alter your appearance? Are they insinuating you’ll be happier as a result of “fixing” something (body hair, acne, body fat, wrinkles, under-eye circles, or any of the millions of nuances of being a human)? Are they emphasizing what you look like as a reflection of how you’re doing in life?
  • Notice how social media makes you feel. When you’re consuming social media, how are you feeling? Do you feel negatively towards yourself? Do you compare yourself to the accounts you follow? If someone you loved saw this same account, how do you think it would make them feel about themselves? Also, remember that you cannot tell how healthy, successful, or satisfied a person is based on their appearance.
  • Messages also come from the people around us. Do your friends, family members, and coworkers make you feel insecure about how you look? Do they talk about themselves in negative or self-critical ways? Often, body shaming can feel like a bonding activity, especially among groups of women. Notice if you find yourself joining in just because it’s an easy way to connect.
  • Catch yourself judging others based on appearance, whether praise (I wish I had her thighs!) or criticism (that haircut is horrible on her). Ask yourself, what would I say if I didn’t comment on appearance right now? What else would I notice and appreciate? If you’ve been taught to value being beautiful and to take pride in your appearance, this exercise is tough. It’s eye-opening to learn how instinctively we comment on someone’s looks.

While we can’t completely avoid the pressure to “fix” the parts of ourselves that society has deemed to need fixing, we can be critical consumers. We can get angry when faced with this messaging, and speak up when people around us are spewing these messages (however well-intentioned they might be). None of us owes the world an altered version of ourselves.

In conclusion, this stuff is complicated.

 It would be a flat-out lie to say that I didn’t get pleasure out of having fancy hair and makeup, a gorgeous dress, and sparkly shoes at my wedding. It was really fun. In our human brains that love to categorize things as “right” or “wrong,” it’s tough to let there be a middle ground. In some ways, reveling in how pretty I looked made me feel like a hypocrite and a failure as an anti-diet clinician. My brain told me I’m supposed to give the middle finger to the mirror, but in my heart, I admitted I wanted to feel beautiful. I decided to give myself permission to participate in the beauty traditions, without judging myself either way.

Listening to what I felt I “should” do to reject beauty standards would have diminished my enjoyment of this once-in-a-lifetime experience. Each of us has to figure out what’s most authentic to ourselves.  If you derive pleasure from the primping, good for you! If you hate it, don’t do it! For me, the key was remembering that there’s no right or wrong. It’s okay to invest energy in how you look, and it’s also okay not to.

Remember that the wedding, beauty, and diet industries are each raking in billions of dollars every year by convincing you that you need to look a certain way. Think about whether buying a service or product will truly lead to a happier experience. If you want to amp up your workouts or whiten your teeth or get a spray tan, you do you, girl. Choosing to alter your appearance is not the problem; the problem is believing that youneed to alter your appearance to be worthy of validation.

When you stop acting like appearance is the most interesting thing about yourself or other people, you start to see more. You start to recognize the emotion on someone’s face, without giving attention to the wrinkles or spots. You start to appreciate the deeper, more meaningful things. And when you look at photos from one of the happiest days of your life, you’ll see the joy and love, regardless of how your face and body looked.

The researchers at Beauty Redefined said it best: your body is an instrument, not an ornament. If you need some help navigating this stuff, I’m here for you. You deserve freedom from looks-based judgments on your wedding day and every day.

Want to enjoy your life more? Think about death.

I recently saw an exhibit at the Field Museum called “Evolving Planet” that completely blew my mind. The display takes the visitor through four billion years of life on Earth, starting with single-celled organisms and moving all the way up through the evolution of every species till present-day humans. I knew from biology classes over the years that a ton of species have gone extinct over the course of Earth’s history, but it was still surreal to see it all laid out in a timeline (#nerdalert).

Every 50 meters or so, throughout the exhibit, a sign would indicate that at that point in the timeline, there was a “mass extinction,” where a bunch of species were killed off and only those most well-adapted survived to the next era. To refresh your memory if it’s been awhile since your last science class, that’s what happened when the dinosaurs were killed off—only the birds survived. Earth has had five mass extinctions in its history, and apparently we are on track for a sixth. (As a side note, did anyone else forget that birds were descendants of dinosaurs? Crazy, right? I definitely forgot that. Apologies to my fifth-grade teacher.)

Based on my rudimentary understanding of evolution, I realize that since humans have only been around since the most recent mass extinction, we aren’t destined for long-term greatness on this planet. It seems likely we will be killed off in the next mass extinction and/or we will evolve into some even more advanced species. So when you think about it, our lives are really not that big of a deal at all.

I walked out of that exhibit feeling surprisingly peaceful, thinking about how the years representing my birth till my death probably wouldn’t occupy more than a few millimeters of space on the timeline in that museum. As someone who is not naturally very “chill,” I was reminded that all of the time I’ve ever spent worrying, over-analyzing, and over-planning was a completely unnecessary use of energy, and I could let it go. My significant other walked out with the same awareness that his tiny human life is little more than a blip on the radar of this planet’s existence. But he didn’t share my sense of peace; in fact, he felt more anxious and a nagging sense of meaninglessness.

So why does the awareness of our inevitable mortality (which researchers call “mortality salience”) upset some of us, and relieve others? It depends on how you understand and define your life. It depends what you’ve been through, your spiritual beliefs, and perhaps where you see yourself on the timeline of your dreams, goals, and lifespan development. It also depends on how frequently you think about your mortality and how mindfully you live.

If you react like my partner, with panic, you’re in good company. After all, according to Terror Management Theory (developed in 1986 by Greenberg, Pyszczynski, & Solomon), all human behavior is motivated by the fear of our impending deaths. Often, human awareness of our unavoidable demise “generates a state of anxiety that triggers a defense mechanism for the control of thinking” (according to Gordillo & colleagues).

In several recent studies published in the European Journal of Psychology, researchers have explored whether people evaluated an individual’s personality differently or felt more positively or negatively about a person based on whether the person was dead or alive. It turns out that we think more highly of people when they’re dead. We are more positive in our appraisals of a person when they are dead, and rate our impressions of them more favorably even when we didn’t like them very much while they were alive.

This gets me thinking about how it’s socially taboo to “speak ill of the dead.” We can see from heartfelt eulogies that we often focus on a person’s positive qualities quite easily (and forgive their negative ones) once they’re dead. But wouldn’t it be nice if we could harness that same perspective while we (and the people around us) are still alive?

All of this comes right back to the freedom and peace I felt walking out of the Field Museum that day. While it may be a tough sell to some people, I believe it can be profoundly beneficial to think about death. It can take awhile to develop the willingness to sit with that fear and not let it drive the bus (and this is where mindfulness skills come in handy). Despite the discomfort that may arise, though, thinking of death can actually enhance your overall satisfaction with life and enrich your feelings towards loved ones, friends, enemies, and even strangers.

Personally, here’s how I’ve found it helpful:

~Remembering that I will die one day reminds me that there’s no need to strive for perfection. In the grand scheme of things, the way you look, your grades, your salary, and your accolades will literally mean nothing. Isn’t that great? There’s no pressure to do everything “right” all of the time! Given this information, the only reason to strive for an accomplishment or work hard to pursue a goal is out of genuine care for that thing. You don’t have to work hard for stuff that’s on someone else’s agenda (including any culturally-prescribed expectations that don’t resonate for you). This is why it helps to get clear about what matters to you in life, so that you can focus on those values and priorities.

~Remembering that everyone around us will also die one day reminds us that there’s no point in holding grudges or harboring resentment. After all, the person you’re pissed at has an expiration date, too. This applies to all living creatures. I feel boundless love and gratitude for my dog when I remember that one day, he will no longer be with me. I find it much easier to forgive him when he snaps food off my plate or destroys the sofa. I’ve heard from people who have young children that thinking about their limited time on this planet helps soften towards them for throwing a temper tantrum or breaking a mug. Mortality salience can also make it easier to get over the guy who cuts you off in traffic or the rude grocery store clerk.

~Similarly, recognizing loved ones’ mortality helps us to forgive them for honest mistakes, accept their flaws, and deepen our appreciation for our relationships. It makes confronting them when we are hurt a little less scary. It becomes more worthwhile to work through conflicts so that we can make the most of our time together and spend it loving and enjoying one another. It also makes it easier to let go of a relationship when it becomes clear that it isn’t serving you to keep investing, since as the cliché goes, “life is too short” to waste on that BS.

~Since the only thing that’s certain in this life is that we will die one day, we can accept that most of what happens in the universe is completely out of our control. This can be freeing. We are literally only responsible for our own individual actions, and therefore might as well invest what little time we have on this planet to making our actions meaningful and worthwhile.

Way back in the day, the Stoics believed that maintaining awareness of mortality was important and allowed them to experience more gratitude. Recent research has shown these positive effects in modern times, too. When people are reminded of mortality, either consciously (by being asked to think about death) or unconsciously (like walking past a cemetery), they behave more kindly and compassionately towards others and make positive changes in their lives. Their actions are more authentic and more in alignment with their personal values and priorities. When something is time-limited, it becomes more valuable. And when it’s more valuable, we appreciate it more and we focus more on making it worthwhile.

I’m not saying it’s always fun to be aware of your own or others’ expiration dates. Like anything, accepting our inevitable demise can involve a curly, non-linear grieving process. It can mean going through those classic “stages of grief,” sometimes living in a state of denial about it, and other times feeling angry, depressed, or trying to “bargain” away mortality (many wellness companies capitalize on our death anxiety by promising long lives if we use their product or take their supplement). And don’t even get me started on our cultural emphasis on “youth” and “anti-aging,” which could be an entirely separate blog post. Essentially, we find it tempting to ignore, dismiss, or fight against the fact that we all inevitably age and expire.

However, if we can resist the pull to drown in panic or anguish over our lack of importance, and resist going down the rabbit hole of “why even bother trying if none of it matters?” we can use this awareness to deepen our appreciation for life and shift our focus to the things that truly matter to each of us.

Do you agree, disagree, feel ambivalent, or feel totally indifferent? Does all of this “death talk” bring up fear, gratitude, mixed emotions? Whatever your reactions, I’d love to hear from you!

Book Review: “I’m Fine… and Other Lies” by Whitney Cummings

Reading tends to be very “all or nothing” for me—I’m either totally consumed, turning pages for hours on end and ignoring the world around me and internal cues for food or sleep until I’m done, or I’m noncommittal, absent-mindedly skimming paragraphs until I inevitably abandon it to collect dust on my nightstand with all of the other “I’ve been meaning to finish that!” novels. To me, the sign of a good book is not “I can’t put it down until I KNOW what happens!” and it’s not “I’ll finish it eventually, if I have the time.” It’s that healthy middle ground, much like romantic relationships. Neither codependence (“I can’t live without you!”) nor too much independence (“I’m not even interested in connecting with you”) is consistently satisfying.

Perhaps you’ll find it ironic that I was able to enjoy a book about codependency while (for once) maintaining my healthy dependence and independence needs. As a story, it contained just enough psych-y content to appeal to my inner nerd, and just enough comedy to appeal to my inner self-care coach. It was engaging, satisfying, but not so consuming that I lost all ability to stay connected to my own priorities and identity. As far as book-relationships go, “I’m Fine” quickly became a lasting, rewarding love. So I wanted to share the love, by writing my first-ever book review. Here goes!

In case you’re not familiar with her work, Whitney Cummings writes, produces, and does stand-up comedy.  I’ve been a big fan of hers for several years. What’s always endeared her to me is her tendency to “plug” therapy (thanks for the free marketing, girl!) and to use humor as a way of coping with the dysfunctions of the human condition.

A lot of memoir-type books I’ve read have bugged me (and ended up as ex-lovers in the dusty nightstand pile) because the author tries too hard to sound self-actualized, taking on an annoying “wannabe-wise” tone in an effort to artfully conclude the general storyline of “I used to be naïve in how I handled life, and then I overcame some challenges.” Whitney writes like she’s in her 30s, and she is in her 30s. She’s not pretending like she’s 80 years old and has it all figured out, nor is she dwelling in adolescent insecurities. She takes semi-frequent breaks from her “I used to be so clueless” shtick to actually give herself credit for the growth and insights she has worked to gain, but she doesn’t succumb to the urge to tie it up neatly with a happily-ever-after type ending.

Whitney (I can’t bring myself to get formal and call her Ms. Cummings, sorry) demonstrates what happens when someone moves from being a blind, passive recipient of life experiences to being a self-aware, active shaper of her own reality through intentional choices. As a psychologist, I am grateful for her honest account of her experiences with several types of therapies. She also admits several times that she often rejected an idea or treatment approach (especially in her adolescence and early 20’s) because she wasn’t yet ready to have her defenses challenged. THANK YOU FOR OWNING THIS! I get so irritated when people say, “I tried therapy, but it didn’t work for me.” People, it works if you work it! So if someone’s in denial, nothing’s gonna change. Psychologists aren’t psychics or magicians. Though Whitney has apparently tried her hand at consulting psychics and magicians, too, which made for some fascinating early chapters. Anyway, I digress.

I also enjoyed her evaluations of what worked and didn’t work for her in the process of healing from various hurts. After all, mental health treatment is not one-size-fits-all. There are so many theoretical models and approaches out there. Vera, the therapist with whom she ended up finally forming a meaningful therapeutic relationship, sounded like a total badass; she was clinically well-versed, and fluent in Whitney’s language, helping her recognize the “addictive” patterns of her codependency and eating disorders.

Self-acceptance is a major theme in “I’m Fine.” Whitney’s exploration of how she developed and then healed from an eating disorder will hopefully shed light on an often-misunderstood constellation of symptoms, and the unhelpful thinking and mixed messages that are so easily internalized. Her honesty about struggles with “ED” is beyond refreshing. The media masterfully perpetuates an absurd mixed message, glorifying the woman who acts so totally chill and just LOOOVES eating carbs, and yet is constantly pulling up the waistband of her roomy size zero jeans, equating slimness with chillness and worthiness. I have lots to say about this ridiculousness, but I will have to save my rant for another time to stay on topic.

My point is, Whitney doesn’t fall for the BS of mixed messages and she actually talks about the monster life-sucker that is the “quest for physical perfection.” She calls herself out for sometimes buying into a disempowering cultural norm, and gives us all a reality check in the process. Her overall message is that it’s not only allowed, but truly vital for us all to meet our own basic human needs for food, water, love, and self-respect.

Speaking of basic human needs, Whitney also gives a shout-out to “inner-child work,” which is an element of therapy that can be so powerful in developing self-esteem. Basically, the premise is that humans actually age like trees. Remember how they taught us in school about how to tell how old a tree is? When you cut the trunk horizontally, you can see all of the “rings” in its cross-section. Each ring grows around the one within it as the tree ages. We’re like trees; every age contains every previous age within it. If we go down really deep, we’re all housing an inner five-year-old. When there’s a control-type issue (addiction, eating, OCD, perfectionism), it can often be traced to unmet childhood needs, so the inner child is still scrambling to get “adult you’s” attention.

In Whitney’s case, she learned to deny her needs from a young age, so as an adult she only felt in control if she was denying her needs. She learned that this was the only way to be worthy of love and belonging. For example, food is a basic need. Believing it is “bad” or “wrong” to eat is not only self-destructive, it’s downright mean. When she learned to “re-parent” her inner five-year-old, she was able to live more wholly and let go of old insecurities. That’s why I love this framework: most people can get on board with the fact that it’s pretty atrocious to act like an asshole towards a five-year-old. When you start to see that’s what you’ve been doing by self-punishing (forcing yourself to exercise, cursing yourself for eating the extra slice of pizza, forcing yourself to stay at the office till 11pm instead of getting much-needed sleep) you’re more inclined to soften up. A five-year-old doesn’t care about her weight; she just wants to enjoy life. She doesn’t care about your promotion at work; she just wants you to come home and play with her. We can all benefit from the reminder that we’ve each got a little kid living inside of us, just looking for love and acceptance, so we don’t need to be so damn hard on ourselves or each other.

One area left me wanting more: I still have so many questions about the specifics of her childhood. If she had chosen to share more details about what went down in her early childhood, it could have given the reader a richer picture of how her core beliefs were shaped. However, at the end of the day, my insatiable curiosity about the human condition aside, she certainly exposed insecurities and fears that most of us lack the courage to reveal, so I can’t blame her for choosing to gloss over some details. She gave us enough info to connect the dots, and I respect her decision to not be a completely open book. Yeah, pun intended, I couldn’t resist 🙂

I often struggle as a relatively young psychologist with “imposter syndrome,” fantasizing about the day when I’ll feel like an “expert.” Stories like Whitney’s remind me that I actually hope the opposite is true. I hope I never wake up one day thinking I know exactly how to handle things. That would feel robotic. I’m human and therefore I’m a messy work in progress. I struggle to practice what I preach. I get whispers from the demons in my head. I get caught up thinking I need to be “fine,” and thinking it’s my job to make other people “fine” as well, which it’s obviously not. Insecurity and self-doubt are all just part of the deal, and that’s okay.

“I’m Fine” is a hilarious and raw reminder that life gets ten billion times more rewarding when you stop pretending to be fine. I hope this book will serve as an example of the awesomeness that can come from authenticity, owning your shit, and opening up about mental health struggles. If you read it and want to share your reactions, please feel free to do so in the comments below! Oh, and if this book made you realize you’re not “fine” or it inspired you to seek therapy, I’m here for that, too.

Am I “Normal?”

One of the most common questions I’m asked by therapy and testing clients is “Am I normal?” It’s a fair question, and it makes sense that some people view psychologists as the people trained to give a solid answer. After all, one of the core educational requirements of anyone seeking a graduate degree in psychology is a course in “Abnormal Psychology.” It can certainly be fascinating to learn about “outliers” in any human trait—intelligence, athleticism, narcissism, and so forth. Plus, in order to accurately assess and diagnose, we need a framework for organizing whatever it is we are assessing and diagnosing. As such, the foundation of our field for the last century has been rooted in “mental illness” being just that—a diagnosis or label, assigned to people whose presentations are “not normal.” So I get why this is the burning question.

“Normal” in 2017 is more elusive than ever. With technology at our fingertips, we ask Google, Wikipedia, and WebMD to weigh in. Social media has perhaps been most influential, taking the “am I normal?” question and providing “answers” by showing us what “everyone else” is doing with their lives. What does a “normal” body look like? A “normal” family? A “normal” person’s Saturday night? Consult social media, where you can decide if you measure up to the curated online images of people popping up in your newsfeed. For some people, it’s easy to feel lame and unsuccessful when it’s “normal” to censor ourselves and only show the public the highlights reel. For others, it’s a constant competition to set the new standard. I wonder what would change if everyone knew how much everyone else was asking whether “it’s normal to [fill in the blank]?” Maybe we’d have more tolerance for the full spectrum of our daily experiences if we could accept that “normal” doesn’t exist.

Perceptions, thoughts, feelings, sensations, and memories are subjective. They are often driven by context and filtered through the lenses we’ve developed through life experience. So what’s “normal” in one context may not be seen as normal in another. Walking down the sidewalk with one’s nose to the ground, sniffing for discarded food scraps = unusual for a human, “normal” for a dog. Sucking one’s thumb = unusual for a 45-year-old, “normal” for a 2-year-old. However, context isn’t always as clear as one’s species or age. Is it “cautious and smart” to lock and then double-check the locks on your doors and windows at night, or is it “paranoid and obsessive” to do so? It depends.

It’s “normal” (natural?) to be curious about whether our experiences and behaviors can be considered appropriate, acceptable, or healthy. But who is the authority on what is considered appropriate, acceptable, or healthy? Psychologists? We’re people too! I’m not the authority on “normal” just because I can tell you if you match up to an agreed-upon set of criteria published in a scientific manual. The reality is that you are the authority on yourself, so only you can answer whether your experience is adaptive or not.

For example, anxiety is “normal.” In fact, it’s a human necessity. It keeps us alert to danger and motivated to complete tasks. Without any anxiety, we have no urgency to get anything done. With too much anxiety, however, we become too overwhelmed to be productive. Finding that “sweet spot” of optimal anxiety for optimal performance on top of the inverted “U” illustrated by the Yerkes-Dodson Law  is the key to success. That sweet spot, however, is subjective to the individual experiencing it.

Current research shows that mental “illness” might be more of the “norm” than the outlier. The Dunedin Study in New Zealand has followed over 1,000 people from birth and over the course of their lives for the past 40 years, assessing them every few years to look at various health and mental health conditions. The most recent “check in” with study participants took place when they were 38-years-old. So far, only 17 percent of the sample has never met any criteria for a psychiatric disorder at any time in the study’s assessment points. This means that at some point in your life, it is likely that you meet criteria for a psychiatric diagnosis (most commonly something like depression, anxiety, an adjustment disorder, or substance abuse). While of course no single study can be generalized to reflect the whole world’s population, it gives us some pretty solid data.

Given these findings, we could argue that it’s “normal” to experience depression at some point in one’s life, just like it’s “normal” to get the flu or break a bone at some point in life. Whether your symptoms warrant treatment depends on how the symptoms are interfering with your life. Everything falls on a spectrum; just as there is a difference between bumping your head and bumping your head with such force that it’s deemed a concussion, there is a difference between feeling a flash of anxiety before a big presentation and feeling such debilitating anxiety that you cannot speak.

The newest version of the Diagnostic and Statistic Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM5), which mental health professionals use for making clinical diagnoses, has shifted towards a more dimensional approach that matches this concept of everything falling along a spectrum. Hopefully, in future editions, it will move even further away from categorizing people as “normal” vs. “abnormal” and help us remove the stigma from these diagnoses, especially since most diagnoses can be temporary. So is it “normal” to struggle at some point, and to have symptoms intense enough to meet criteria for a diagnosis? Absolutely. It’s part of being human.

Maybe we can let go of the need to know if we are “normal” and instead ask ourselves, “does this work for me?” or “is being this way helping me live a meaningful life?” When I first meet with someone seeking therapy, I ask them the “miracle question,” some variation of the following: “If I waved a magic wand and you walked out of here today completely cured of your [depression, anxiety, painful trauma memories, addiction, etc.], what would be different about your life? What would you be able to do?” Usually, the answer has something to do with more meaningful relationships with loved ones, a rewarding job, more energy, etc. Those answers become our treatment goals. If you’re able to move towards your values, the things that truly matter to you, then isn’t that more important than knowing if you’re “normal” by someone else’s standards?

The “Inner Detective” inside of each woman

The other morning, I decided to cut through a nearby park on my way home from a workout. As I was strolling along, a man approached, clearly staring me up and down. When we crossed paths, he said to me, “You’ve got the face of an angel!” I smiled politely and he continued on, “Do you know that you’ve been kissed by God?” I responded with another smile and kept walking. I felt myself exhale as I saw that he continued walking in the opposite direction. It wasn’t until the interaction ended that I even realized that my subconscious had been hard at work for the duration of the 15-second exchange, evaluating threats and calculating the most “appropriate” ways to react. I took in his appearance, body language, tone of voice, and physical size.  There was an automatic analysis of his likely intention (to hit on me? to be friendly? to give me his input on my identity as an angel?) and my wisest response (to laugh? to nod? to ignore him?) and never once did I consider what I felt like doing because the focus was on keeping him non-threatening and getting on with my day.

Someone recently shared with me a piece in the Huffington Post by Gretchen Kelly, titled “The Thing All Women Do That You Don’t Know About.” She points out the various ways that women de-escalate and shrink our everyday experiences to avoid confrontation. As soon as I read it, I felt validated and shared it with several of my female friends, colleagues, and clients. It resonated with each of them. I realize as I write this that I conveniently “didn’t think about” sending it to any men. Perhaps on some level, I assumed they wouldn’t be interested, or wouldn’t find it as powerful as I did (which would feel invalidating and make me question whether my reaction was “right”). As social creatures, we naturally look to others for external validation, and when we don’t get it, we naturally question whether our perceptions were accurate. That’s why groupthink is a thing. We like to “belong,” to feel like people agree with us and believe that what we bring to the table is important.  So I guess I played it safe by sharing the article with people I could count on for validation– fellow women.

I share Kelly’s worries when it comes to discussing women’s issues. I worry that I’ll be accused of exaggerating or overreacting, or being “sensitive.” In another part of my brain, though, there’s a voice that says “It doesn’t matter. I’m a person, and dammit, all human experience is valid!” It’s a newer voice, probably fueled by my training as a psychologist, but I sure am grateful it chimed in. The fact that this voice is not the most familiar message my brain gives me tells me that as human beings, we need to talk about what’s happening, so that we can stop invalidating each other and start connecting more authentically.

As a woman, I’ve been programmed to do the type of split-second assessment I did at the park the other morning everywhere. It’s something that happens as automatically as blinking. Nobody ever sat me down and taught me to dissect the environmental, social, physical, and emotional elements of my daily interactions with men, but I still learned how to do it. I learned the necessity of de-escalating, as Kelly calls it, to keep myself functioning in the world.

I know that regardless of gender, anyone can commit or become a victim of sexual assault and other forms of violating interpersonal behavior. I also know from experience that when we feel attacked or accused of something that feels “icky,” we become defensive. You could ask me about the race of the man who approached me in the park, and argue that had something to do with my fear. I can already feel my defenses gearing up to “prove” that my fear response was not based on the man’s race, because “Oh my gosh, what if I seem racist?” You could tell me I should have been flattered by his compliment, and I feel myself start to question down another self-doubting road, “Oh my gosh, what if I’m overreacting to something harmless and he was just being friendly?” Those reactions are there because there’s some truth underneath.

Here’s the thing, though. As I mentioned in my post last Thanksgiving, I know that I have biases. I make implicit associations based on race, gender, age, appearance. We all do.  We can’t possibly know about all of them, but when we discover them, we can try our best to acknowledge and own them instead of denying them. It’s an uncomfortable process that nobody is ever truly “done” figuring out. But here’s the other thing. I don’t think it helps anyone to pin this womanly “detective work” on racial or any other type of bias. I have had this feeling in response to looks, gestures, and comments from a diverse range of men. Maybe race plays a role, maybe age plays a role, maybe my mood that day plays a role in how I perceive someone… but these are not even close to being the only factors at play. I learned to assess and respond to men to keep myself safe, to prevent a scoff and a muttering of “bitch” under a stranger’s breath, to avoid angering or provoking.

I’ve worked with many clients who struggle to heal from trauma. What I find hardest about treating people who have been abused, assaulted, and raped is that there is this larger-scale minimizing that works against them. We can sit together and validate like there’s no tomorrow, but it often feels like just a drop in the bucket. We still live in a world where de-escalation is the norm. At the society level, we are denying, distorting, and invalidating people’s experiences. I get it; this type of stuff isn’t exactly fun to acknowledge. It’s much easier to say to someone (or to yourself) that “he was just joking around” than to say to someone (or to yourself) that what he just said was inappropriate. It’s much easier to blame the recipient of unwanted advancements (“if you don’t want to get hit on, don’t dress in a tight shirt”) than to turn inward and acknowledge that we said or did something that made someone uncomfortable. Plus, these exchanges often happen so automatically that it isn’t always possible to recognize them before they’re over.

Peel back one more layer of the onion and it’s clear that many of us choose not to bother speaking up, often until things “cross the line” and get dangerous. The shaming/ blaming/ dismissing responses that tend to come from calling out inappropriate and intrusive behavior makes it easier sometimes to just shame/ blame/ dismiss it within ourselves before even acknowledging that something bothered us. We’ve done it a billion times. It often ends up being seen as “overreacting” if we say that someone’s behavior felt scary, creepy, or hurtful. And who wants to be labeled as “dramatic” or “blowing things out of proportion” or “playing the victim?”

Here’s my challenge to all of us: speak up, let yourself speak up, and let others speak up without dismissing.  If you’re a woman, admit that something didn’t feel okay to you and let yourself get pissed off. Teach your children that their experiences are always valid, and that if something feels threatening, they aren’t overreacting. If you’re a man, let yourself consider that what I’m saying might be accurate. Notice if you become defensive and think, “it’s not fair to blame us for your reactions,” or, “I’m a nice guy/ social worker/ philanthropist/ feminist/ mensch, don’t try to make me feel guilty about this stuff,” or “men can be victimized, too.” Then, see if you can get to something else, below your automatic reaction. I’m not saying men can’t be victimized, and I’m not saying all men have done this type of thing. I’m just asking for everyone to listen and take it seriously.

I’m not pointing fingers at anyone; this isn’t about casting certain people as villains based on their gender or any other demographics. It’s about getting one another to start listening openly and without defenses. Asking yourself if you’ve invalidated someone is not an easy thing to do. I hate having to admit when I have minimized someone else’s experience, because I feel guilty and ashamed, but I also know it’s the only way to change things. And I know from the number of people I see, day in and day out, who bravely share the pain of their experiences, that we need to make this change.

Why is language so trippy?

Have you ever done that thing where you start saying a word over and over and over again until it sounds sort of singsongy and you forget what it even means? When I was little, I used to do this a lot  with random “simple” words, like “awhile” and “because.” Yes, I was apparently born a word nerd. I don’t recommend doing it in public unless you really want to annoy everyone around you, but try it out and you’ll see just how nonsensical and strange words become when you repeat them. Language is trippy, and the unconscious process we have for interpreting language can be fucking weird. Think about how right now, your eyes are automatically scanning the shapes on this screen and making sense of the shapes based on how they are structured and combined with one another. Really, stop reading and think about that…

It’s kind of mind-blowing, right? We have these intricate webs of connections between words and what they represent, and our minds are constantly on autopilot interpreting those connections. It’s the process that lets us communicate with each other, and the reason we can remember something that happened years ago. We do this without being guided to do it. Okay actually, we are guided early on, but it quickly becomes second nature.   While we aren’t born with the ability to read written language, we are born with innate “reading” abilities that then get shaped and developed as ways for us to survive in a language-based world.

Unless you’re a word nerd like me who grew up thinking words and letters were just as fun to play with as Legos and dolls, you probably don’t notice language doing its thing on a regular basis. If you start to think about it and notice yourself thinking in words, and notice the associations you make with whatever the words bring up for you mentally, you get sucked into kind of this “meta” space.

The Lemon Exercise is a great way to illustrate the power of verbal associations and sensory experiences. Close your eyes and picture a lemon.  The bright yellow color of it, the bumpy, textured peel, the round, footballish shape… imagine slicing into it and noticing the way it looks, the pinwheel design with seeds in the middle, picture the juice dripping onto your fingers as you hold a slice, inhaling the fresh, citrusy lemon scent… now imagine yourself putting the slice in your mouth, feeling your mouth salivate as the sweet, tangy tartness of the lemon hits your tongue…

Without the presence of a physical lemon, you can conjure up a “lemon reaction” in your brain and body just by visualizing its properties. If you had never heard the word lemon or seen a lemon, let alone tasted a lemon, it would literally just be a sound to you when you heard the word, and this exercise wouldn’t be possible. That’s why foreign languages sound so, well, foreign (duh); we don’t have any context for interpreting the sounds we’re hearing until we attach a meaning to those sounds. Collectively, we give words meanings, and then based on our life experiences, those meanings become implicitly fine-tuned to the degree that they can even evoke strong reactions inside of us without us realizing it.

What does this have to do with mindfulness? EVERYTHING. I like to use my little repeating game with clients who have a hard time recognizing that thoughts are just words in the brain. Usually, the culprit is a thought along the lines of “I’m worthless/ not good enough/ not smart enough/ can’t do it/ never going to get what I want.” Most of the time, we don’t notice our thoughts because they act like a continuous inner dialogue, our brain’s voice sort of narrating things as we live life. We don’t usually stop to reflect on this narration– we just take it at face value, as a fact of life, and keep going on with our days. This isn’t always a big deal, but it can get messy when our brain’s little narrator voice is saying stuff that’s bullying, judgmental, or not serving us in some other critical way.

When we have a particularly troubling or unpleasant thought, we sometimes get “hooked” on it.  For many of us, it’s usually fears, worries, areas of insecurity, or that growing to-do list. When thoughts of this flavor come up and start to bug us, that’s where the mindful pause is helpful. If you can slow down and go to that trippy “meta” place where you notice yourself interpreting the words your brain is saying to you, you can step away from all of those subconscious associations between words and their meanings and instead see them as just words.

This is an example of what happens when a thought is mindless: the brain-voice says “You look stupid today,” and you instantly, automatically react, sometimes in the form of a flurry of additional thoughts (“ugh, I always look like such a mess,” and “I hope I don’t run into anyone I know”), feelings (self-conscious, embarrassed), and/or memories (of a time when you felt more confident in your appearance, for example).  Here is what happens when a thought is mindful: the brain voice says “You look stupid today,” and we start to react but then notice what we’re doing and SLOW DOWN for a second. Maybe you say back, “that’s an interesting thing to say, brain, what’s up with that?” or maybe “that’s one thought, what’s another one? What else do you have for me?” And see if the brain gives you anything else. If the brain voice doesn’t come up with any new material, we can start to more intentionally repeat it over and over until it loses meaning. If you say “I look stupid” enough times, you realize you’re just saying words, and okay, so what does it really mean then, if the words are true? How can you be SURE? Why do you care? What do you want to DO about it?

As a side note, mindlessness (and mindFULness) applies similarly to how we experience emotions and behaviors, but I will save that little ramble-fest for another time.

Given all of this, that old playground chant of “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me” seems incomplete. Of course words can be hurtful, who are we kidding here? But only in certain contexts.  Stupid is just a word. And words are just sounds that we put together to mean something. But when we slow down, we don’t have to mindlessly go with those meanings. Perhaps we should be teaching kids that sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me because I choose how much I buy into their intended meaning.  Less catchy, but more accurate! What does your brain-voice say about that?

 

New Year, Same Fear (Part 1)

It’s 2016! When did this even happen? Time seems to pass at weird rates.

How often have you asked someone about their day at work, and they replied, “Ugh, it was so LONG” or have you been asked about a trip and you responded, “it went by so FAST”?   The passing of time can feel excruciatingly slow or dizzyingly fast, depending on a million other internal and external factors.

Not to go all Literal Lucy here, but time actually moves at the same rate, no matter what. A minute is always sixty seconds. The reality is that this is 100% our perception and experience of time.

If we can recognize that the passing of time is only quickened or slowed down by our perceptions of it, we become better equipped for living fully in each moment. Time doesn’t have to be this slippery, elusive element that never seems to do what we want it to; time simply passes, and we can watch it, ignore it, lament what could have been, anticipate what is to come, or, trickiest of all, simply live in it.

What makes us wish time slowed down (or stopped) during the joyful moments is the same thing that makes us wish it sped up when our day feels sucky. It’s the phenomenon referred to in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) as experiential avoidance or control, which is the attempt to control or alter the form, frequency, or situational sensitivity of internal experiences, such as thoughts, feelings, sensations, or memories, even when doing so causes us behavioral harm (Hayes, Wilson, Gifford, Follette, & Strosahl, 1996).

Okay, I’ll chill on the psych jargon and give it to you straight. Basically, we use all kinds of conscious and unconscious strategies to try to avoid, suppress, or ignore the things that we don’t enjoy (the long line at the supermarket, the obnoxious sound your partner makes when he chews his cereal, the throbbing pain of a sinus headache, the painful memories of a traumatic experience, the feeling of grief when we lose a loved one, the feeling of rejection when we get dumped). When we perceive something as crappy, we want to make it STOP or GO AWAY. On the other hand, we do the opposite and try to cling to, prolong, or drag out the things that give us pleasure (vacations, eating cake, having an orgasm, getting a good night’s sleep, feeling important or special when we get a promotion at work, feeling loved when our children climb into our laps with a book).

For example, try to recall a time you have felt a positive feeling (such as pleasure or delight) and an experience that went along with it. For me, an easy example is when I’m eating a delicious ice cream sundae on a hot summer afternoon. With my first decadent bite, I can count on a slew of enjoyable feelings and internal experiences to pop up. I’ll think the thought, “this is delicious!” accompanied by my mouth watering when I taste the refreshing sensation of cold, creamy sweetness. Then… the moment I have these enjoyable experiences, my body and brain automatically go into experiential control efforts. No more than a few bites in, I may start to think, “I wish this bowl was bigger.” I start trying to eat very slowly and make it last longer, or I think about what else I can get to satisfy my insatiable sweet tooth after I finish. Sometimes I feel guilty over my indulgence, or I feel annoyed that it’s melting faster than I want to eat it. All at once, my experience of pleasure becomes tainted by my own reactions, my “control agenda” and the effort to hold onto ice-cream-induced pleasure forever and ever.

The same goes for avoidance efforts. Addiction often develops because of experiential avoidance. For example, a 35-year-old man feels self-conscious when socializing in groups, but he works in an office culture where the expectation is to attend work-related social functions. He finds that after a few drinks, his nerves are calmed and his anxiety is dulled. He starts to rely on this strategy more and more, to take the edge off. Over time, this behavior gets reinforced. He learns that when he drinks, the unpleasant feelings go away. His body builds tolerance to alcohol, and he must drink more and more to get the same effects. When he sobers up, he feels guilty and ashamed, on top of the anxiety he already was feeling. He starts drinking before work in the mornings, trying to prevent the unpleasant feelings before they overwhelm him. It’s easy to see how the man’s efforts to control his feelings lead to his feelings controlling him, as his daily life becomes focused on “not feeling anxious.”

As Brene Brown mentions in her popular Ted Talk, The Power of Vulnerability, we cannot selectively numb. We can’t choose to not feel anxiety ever, because anxiety is part of life. On a related note, we cannot selectively cling. We can’t choose to only feel joy all the time. Knowing this, it’s futile to tell someone (or to tell yourself) to “just stop thinking about it” or “perk up!” If you’ve ever been on the receiving end of these well-intentioned pieces of advice, you know how unhelpful they can feel. We don’t get to choose WHAT our thoughts, feelings, and internal experiences are. What we can choose is HOW WE RELATE to those experiences. We have a choice in how much attention we give to the thoughts, emotions, memories, and sensations that we experience, and how much we allow them to dictate our behaviors and control our daily lives.

Next time you feel like time is slipping through your fingers, or find yourself impatiently watching the clock, see if you can turn inward and tune into what else you’re feeling, not just what’s driving a sense of urgency.  And then, see if you can let go of the urgency and connect to the experience itself.  If you’re not sure how to do this, you’re not alone. It’s much easier said than done.

Stay tuned for a sequel to this post in the next few days, and as always, feel free to contact me for help or support.

 

Wishing everyone a warm and healthy new year!