When I brought my newborn baby son home from the hospital we had a broken TV; it took at least 30 minutes to warm up. I was sleeping out on the futon in the living room of our tiny one bedroom apartment and I was leaving the television on all night, muted, so that when the baby woke to be fed I could sit up to nurse him. I needed something to keep me awake because I was so afraid of falling asleep and dropping him.
There were two news stories that played over and over again all night on the one channel (no cable) that stayed on the air twenty-four hours. They were horrific and they had video attached. For several nights I’d wake up to these images, nurse to them, tuck my baby back to sleep.
I can still see those videos, they color my memories of my son’s first week of life. They were dreaded companions to me learning to be a mother, shaping my anxieties in particular ways.
There is bad news today. There is often bad news but some days it’s more present than others. If your Facebook feed looks like mine, there is a lot of anguish mixed in with the day-to-day updates. There’s a lot of well founded outrage and calls to action.
I am thinking of the parents today, who have had enough of bad news.
I’m thinking of the parents whose hearts are still brand new, who haven’t learned how to filter all the terrible things that are in the world (the special brand of denial that’s necessary to the day-to-day work of being a parent).
I’m thinking of the parents who have lost sons and daughters and who can’t stand to read about anyone forced to join their tribe.
I’m thinking of the parents whose hurts are echoed in the hurts they read about and see. The ones who live those hurts daily and who need space to heal from them.
There are times when we have the strength to march in unity and there are times when we need to step away and care for ourselves and our loved ones. Sometimes the news, it’s just too close to home. We cannot separate ourselves (or our children) from it. We need space to gather our resources, to breathe, to make a decision about how we will act.
It’s OK to turn off the news, to turn off Facebook.
Taking a break is not the same thing as running away.
Knowing your limits is not selfish.
My thoughts are with those of you who are hurting today.
The other day I talked to Harriet Brown, author of Brave Girl Eating and Body of Truth. She’s working on another book project about estrangement and reconciliation. Here was her call for participation on Facebook:
For my next book, I’m looking to talk with people who have been estranged from family members or are currently estranged. The book is about family estrangements and reconciliations. Please pass the word! Message me for more info.
(If you would like to be interviewed by her, you can contact her via her website.) It was timely for me because I’d been thinking about my last blog post in the context of support clients in setting compassionate boundaries with family, which is oh so much harder than setting them with friends.
We tend to give our family a lot more leeway because, well, because they’re family and we privilege those ties above all others. We have a lot of cultural stories about the importance of family: Family is where you’re supposed to find unconditional love and acceptance. Family is where you’re supposed to find people who know you best and love you anyway. Family is meant to be the people who are always rooting for you.
That’s the ideal but most of us have to make compromises in our expectations.
All of us need to grow up and step away from our families in practical ways (by moving out) and in emotional ways (by choosing our own values and goals). In healthy families this may be painful but it’s supported. Healthy families want you to be your best self — even when it doesn’t jive with their own idea of best self-ness. Healthy families may grumble about the things you do differently (“But we always have turkey on Thanksgiving!”) but will accept your choice anyway (“Oh well, pass the tofurkey. I’m game to try it!”).
In unhealthy families the adult child’s growth and move away from their family of origin is seen as threatening. If the adult child is serving toforkey, the threatened parent might project a whole lot of critical meaning on it. “Are you saying I’m an unhealthy cook?” “Are you saying you’re too good for your grandmother’s roast turkey recipe?” And because it’s family, it’s somehow OK to say that out loud. A parent who would never complain at a friend’s Thanksgiving dinner table might think nothing of criticizing their adult child.
The adult child, who might have few issues with setting boundaries with such a rude friend, is stuck wondering what to do. They might start an argument. They might internalize the criticism and feel bad about themselves (“Maybe I am a big snob, maybe I am unreasonable, maybe my values are dumb”). They might avoid the discussion and be resigned to having a lousy Thanksgiving every year.
Many adult children twist themselves into knots to try to accommodate the dysfunctional parents’ demands and struggle with anxiety and depression as a result. It’s hard to love yourself when the person who’s supposed to love you best is so critical (or cruel).
When clients come to my office with dilemmas like this and ask me what to do, I say, “What do you want to do?” Because we can’t control how our family reacts to our decisions but we can control our decisions. The long hard work of healing from harsh parents starts with figuring out what we want separate from our unrealistic expectations. We can bring our best selves to our decision-making and then we can let go of the outcome.
Letting go of the outcome starts with confronting and grieving the ideal we’ve been hoping for. In the video below (go ahead and scroll down to watch if you have 15ish minutes), brother Phil has a wonderful, full and accomplished life away from his family. He’s an award-winning journalist with best-selling books and big deal magazine covers but his family has nothing but criticism because his accomplishments separate him from them. Instead of celebrating with him they ignore him, tell him he doesn’t look good, and advise him to consider a career change. If Phil has been holding on to hope that winning the Nobel prize is finally going to get him the love and acceptance he craves, he’s going to leave the house feeling pretty low. But if he’s worked to recognize family patterns and realized that his family’s reaction is theirs, he may still grieve that his family is not supportive but he won’t internalize their negativity towards his accomplishments.
Instead of thinking to himself, “What’s wrong with me that my mom doesn’t love me like I want her to?” He can think, “My mom is incapable of loving me the way I want her to, this is not my fault and I get to choose how much time I spend with her.”
Sometimes in our work together, when we start talking about families of origin like this, clients will feel like they’re betraying their parents or siblings by being critical so please understand that this is not about bad mouthing our relatives. I believe both that most of us are doing the absolutely best we can (compassion) and that good intentions don’t negate toxicity.
Our families may love us the only way they know how, but that doesn’t mean that we are required to ignore the hurt they cause us.
For some people setting boundaries means estrangement. It means visiting less or not visiting at all. It means Thanksgiving at the vegetarian co-op instead of with our family. It means making decisions designed to support your own needs instead of trying to do things to make other people happy.
Today I drove my daughter to one of her summer camps and we were talking about friendships both general and specific and it got me thinking about having the same conversation with other middle school aged kids, which got me thinking about remarkably similar conversations I’m having with adults, too.
We encourage children to have boundless compassion for other people and in theory that’s a wonderful thing but in real life we’d be better served if we were raised to have bounded compassion, which is compassion with clear boundaries.
In our efforts to build empathy and understanding we may unintentionally teach kids to put aside their own needs even though empathy and understanding grow best when we are able to protect ourselves. After all, what’s compassion for others if we can’t hold it for ourselves?
My daughter had a picture book that she loved when she was little. (She took the dust cover off and taped it to her door when she was five.) It’s called Best Best Friends. It’s about two little girls at daycare who are (you guessed it) best best friends. Then one day Mary is having a birthday and she gets a crown and she gets some preschool privileges and Claire is jealous. In her jealousy, Claire snaps at Mary and insults her (she tells her she doesn’t like pink, which is Mary’s favorite color). The two girls decide they are NOT friends and go play with other people.
Then after a restorative nap, Claire comes and apologizes and Mary shares her birthday spoils.
Mary appears to be a compassionate person but she’s no door mat. Claire crosses a line but when she’s able to make amends Mary is able to welcome her back. (If you scroll down, I’m including a video of someone reading the book.)
Mary doesn’t go away from Claire to teach her a lesson. She doesn’t put aside her own birthday happiness to attend to her friend’s jealousy. She moves on, she plays. She has a happy birthday anyway. She didn’t share before she was ready because she wasn’t ready. She’s a little kid, and already she’s mastered the ability to say, “I like you but I don’t like this so I’m setting my boundary.”
If we don’t get it in preschool (and let’s face it, even if we do get it in the rarefied protective air of an excellent early childhood environment, it takes repeated practice) we will need to learn that understanding someone doesn’t mean we have to excuse them. Because boundaries are not about the other person; they’re about the person setting them. In other words, boundaries are not about teaching someone a lesson or a passive aggressive way to communicate. Boundaries are about having compassion for our selves and tending to our own needs.
It’s understandable that a friend might act poorly because she’s jealous (or tired or having a hard time) and we can look at that friend with compassion and understanding but it doesn’t mean we have to share our birthday crown before we’re ready.
“But wait,” you say. “What if I’m just being a jerk? I mean, it’s a crown. What’s the big deal?”
That’s where it gets tricky, right? Because sometimes we are being jerks. Sometimes we aren’t sharing when we probably should. And that’s where we have to accept that the dance of friendship is a step forward and a step back, it’s a relationship we create with that other person.
And this is something else about this book. The girls go and play with other kids. Mary plays with Caitlin and Claire plays with Ben. Let’s say that the next day Caitlin wants to play with Mary again and Mary shuts her down because she’s got her best best friend back and she doesn’t need Caitlin anymore. Mary gets to do that and Caitlin gets to decide whether or not this is OK with her. She can condemn this behavior (fair weather friendships) and decide whether or not she wants to say yes the next time Mary and Claire have a fight and Mary wants to play again. Caitlin gets to decide how she feels about that behavior and how she wants to engage (or not) with it. Caitlin can understand why Mary only wants to play with her sometimes but she’s still the one who can choose whether or not that’s the kind of friendship she wants to have.
This is where we need help processing, trying to figure out in the murky friendships where we find ourselves having to stretch or contort to maintain the relationship. Is this really what we want? Is the trade-off worth it? It’s one thing to stretch a bit but it’s another thing to twist ourselves into knots of compassion.
We don’t really get to decide how other people behave or even how they treat us. We do get to decide how we feel about it and whether or not we’ll participate. We can absolutely hold someone in empathy and understanding and still maintain our boundaries. That’s bounded compassion — loving but firm, limitless in theory but limited in practice.
Intrusive thoughts are the unwelcome, uninvited ugly thoughts that skitter through our heads now and then. Everyone has them. Think about a time when you stood on a balcony and thought, “What if I jump?” That’s an intrusive thought. (Note: Other than this example I won’t be listing other intrusive thoughts because folks who are sensitive may be triggered by them so I’m going to stick with the balcony throughout.)
These thoughts get problematic when they don’t skitter through. Instead of a passing thought, “What if I jump?” the intrusive thought keeps the thinker frozen on the balcony replaying the possibility over and over. People struggling with intrusive thoughts become afraid that they want to jump or that they will jump or that they’re meant to jump. Is the thought telling a truth they don’t want to confront? They wonder if they’re going crazy.
Intrusive thoughts are common in new moms, particularly those dealing with postpartum depression and anxiety. Again, it becomes problematic when those thoughts get stuck and we feel unable to function.
Sometimes in postpartum the intrusive thoughts are ones of us doing harm to our children and this can be terrifying. I haven’t met a new parent yet who hasn’t thought, “Let’s hit rewind. Let’s not do this. Let me get more sleep first. I’m not ready.” But when we couple those super normal feelings along with intrusive thoughts, it’s terrifying. Visions of news stories rocket through her head — what about those moms who did hurt their children? — and it’s no wonder that her anxiety spirals even further out of control.
Children have intrusive thoughts, too, and because kids tend to be very black and white in their thinking, they may think that bad thoughts mean that they are bad people. Many of our intrusive thoughts are embarrassing or shameful, many of them are about hurting ourselves or others or may be sexual in nature. Kids who are trying to figure all of this out — bad feelings, angry feelings, sexual curiosity — may be too ashamed or scared to tell parents.
Intrusive thoughts can be part of a Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). The thoughts are the obsession and the compulsion is whatever the child or adult needs to do to make the thought stop.
How do you know if you or someone you love is having intrusive thoughts?
- The thoughts come out of nowhere. You’re unpacking at the hotel, in a good mood because your vacation’s started, and suddenly you’re thinking about jumping off the balcony. The thought is disconnected from your mood and your actions, it may be triggered by a passing piece of the landscape or when someone walks into the room.
- The thoughts are upsetting to the thinker. The thinker does not want these thoughts and starts to avoid triggers (won’t go near the balcony, for example).
- There is ritual tied to the thoughts. The thinker has to do something to get the thought out of their head — sing a song, wash their hands, tense their jaw three times. A child continually comes to their parent for reassurance (a sign that their compulsion includes action on the parent’s part to help them turn the thoughts off).
So what can you do?
- First of all, know that intrusive thoughts are treatable. Anxiety is treatable. We do not have to be imprisoned by bad or scary thoughts.
- Do not try to stop the thoughts because, ironically, that’s what makes them stick around. (It’s that old, “Don’t think of an elephant” joke. Say that to someone and they won’t be able to NOT think of an elephant.) Remember that we all have intrusive thoughts but as long as they come and go quickly, they’re not an issue.
- Recognize the anxiety that comes up when the thoughts come up. Practice relaxation techniques — deep breathing, gentle movement, visualizing the thought washing in on an ocean wave and receding with the wave. Help your body relax so that your mind will be able to release the thought.
- Remember what I said about not stopping the thoughts? Not stopping them, letting them come and go will help us get used to having them, which will reduce our anxiety about them. When they show up we can learn to say, “Oh look it’s you! That unwelcome, uninvited thought!” Getting used to them will reduce our sensitivity to them.
- Another way to reduce our sensitivity is to tell someone about them. This is where a counselor can come in handy because counselors are bound by confidentiality, which means you can trust that they will never ever ever tell anyone what you say in the office. Note: Some people are afraid to tell a counselor because they know that we are also bound by ethics that say we have to alert authorities if someone is going to hurt someone. But we are also trained to recognize intrusive thoughts. (This concern can be especially present for new moms who may also have intrusive thoughts about someone taking their baby from them.) If you’re unsure, ask them. Say, “I think I’m having intrusive thoughts but I’m afraid to tell you about them.” That’s OK; learning to manage anxiety is a process.
It’s easy to get stuck in intrusive thought traps — thinking that there is meaning behind them (there isn’t! They’re just brain blips!), thinking that you have to make sense of them (you can’t! because they don’t make sense!). It does not mean we want to hurt ourselves or someone else. It does not mean we want to perform that sexual act that showed up unbidden. It does not mean that we want to do that embarrassing thing that just occurred to us. Our brains are capable of putting together some weird ideas but having a thought is in no way shape or form the same as acting on it.
Dealing with intrusive thoughts isn’t easy and it’s definitely a place where I think counseling can make a huge difference. A neutral person to hear your thoughts, to help you learn to manage your anxiety around them, to support you and to believe in your ability to heal is a big, big deal.
Anxiety loves to tell lies. Anxiety likes to stand behind you and reinterpret the world in a negative way. Someone tells you that they like your shirt? Anxiety whispers in your ear, “They just feel bad for you leaving the house looking like that.”
Anxiety blows it all up and makes everything worse. Anxiety is a dirty rotten liar.
But the biggest lie anxiety tells you is that it’s telling you all of these dirty, rotten lies for your own good; anxiety lies by telling you that it’s just trying to keep you safe.
“I just don’t want you to get hurt again!” Anxiety says. “I just don’t want you to get in a wreck so I make you too nervous to drive! I just don’t want you to lose your job so I need you to check that submitted file for the umpteenth time for typos instead of getting some sleep!”
What we need to do is the same thing we’d do with anyone we thought was lying to us — we need to confront them about their lying.
The first thing to do is to get good at spotting it when anxiety is doing the talking. This sounds easy but when we get anxious we don’t always know that it’s anxiety; we think it’s real. We think, “Oh lord, am I nervous” or “Oh gosh, am I scared” or “Oh man, I’m overwhelmed” and we run with it. When we acknowledge that anxiety is this voice living alongside us, we can say, “Oh lord, am I nervous but I think that’s my anxiety talking.” That alerts us to look for the lies.
We are having an experience — eating an ice cream cone, seeing a dog run across the field next to the park where we’re pushing our kid on a swing, ironing our clothes for work tomorrow — and then anxiety comes in and colors what’s happening. Suddenly that ice cream is a stand in for every body image issue we’ve ever had. Suddenly that dog is Cujo waiting to spring. Suddenly work is a pit of despair and fear. But when we see that anxiety is the overlay, we can go back and say, “Before I go there, down the anxiety path, I can stop and recognize that I’m just having this very specific moment right now.”
That’s the first step.
Speaking Truth to Anxiety
The next step is recognizing that anxiety is not the expert on the situation. Remember, anxiety is a liar and wants you to see things through it’s lying lens. Anxiety will turn an ice cream cone into a major moral dilemma. What we have to do is talk back to it, speak truth to it. We do this by recognizing the way that anxiety distorts our thinking; these are called cognitive distortions or thinking errors.
Here’s the hand out that I use the most in my office: Unhelpful Thinking Styles You can download it and put it on your ‘fridge or the mirror in your bathroom or just keep the PDF handy on your computer.
This is how it works. You need to call and order a pizza only you don’t like to talk on the phone. Talking on the phone makes you nervous. Your hands start to sweat and your throat starts to close up. You start worrying about making that call. What if they don’t understand you? What if you forget how to order a pizza? What if there are all of these choices and you freeze and can’t remember and the person taking your order thinks you’re stupid?
The first thing you do is take a deep breath (because you have to calm your body down to get to that thinking part of your brain instead of the scared REACT part of your brain). Then you speak truth to those lies.
This is you, blowing anxiety’s mind
You look at your handy hand-out posted on the ‘fridge and you say to yourself, “I’m really jumping to conclusions. Why would the order guy think I’m stupid if I get confused by the crust choices? People find those dumb crust choices confusing all of the time. Boy howdy am I practicing some emotional reasoning. Just because I feel scared to order a pizza doesn’t mean it’s actually a dangerous thing to do. It’s not like ordering a pizza on the phone is putting me at any kind of actual risk. And oh my gosh, am I doing some catastrophizing or what? It’s just a pizza order for crying out loud!”
You may still feel the way you feel but this is the first step to dismantling the elaborate false front that anxiety is building around you. You can talk yourself down from this. You can remember that anxiety is a dirty rotten liar but you know the truth or at least you know how to get there.
People who mock fat people are terrified of losing control of their temporarily acceptable lives. They fear dependency and loss of control, of being an object of pity instead of envy. To these human barracuda, being fat is the most visible symbol that you have “failed” at something — health, femininity, upward mobility. And they attack.