Ignore me

This is a DBT prompting event worksheet. It’s a way to process feelings, to make sense of what the feelings are saying, and to decide how to wisely respond to the feelings.

I am not in a crisis, not in an abyss, just processing some feelings about several people not answering my direct questions.

Prompting event for my emotion:

I offered (July 18) to play live music for the Twice is Nice Children’s Resale. They have a limited number of vendor booths for area businesses, as well as all the donated clothing and other children’s items. I offered to play without charge, suggested having my CDs available. On July 31, having received no answer, I asked if they had had a chance to consider my offer. I still have received no reply.

There are a number of other unrelated situations in which I’ve asked a direct question and gotten no answer.

Emotion names:

Furious
Insulted
Ashamed
Embarrassed

Interpretations (beliefs, assumptions):

Am I really that ridiculous or awkward? Is it really such a gaffe to think playing dulcimer might be something other people could appreciate? What about the various other things involved in my other questions? Am I supposed to feel embarrassed and ashamed, or is it okay to only feel angry and insulted?

Physical sensations:

Hot, restless

Body language:

Tense

Urges:

To stop talking to everyone, stop asking, offering, stop trying to communicate with people who so obviously can’t be bothered to communicate back.

Actions:

I wrote an email to the Twice is Nice coordinator explaining my disappointment and saying that it is unkind not to give an answer to a direct question. Even if the answer is “no thank you” or “we’ll get back to you on [date],” it’s much better to get an answer than silence.

I haven’t done anything about the other situations beyond asking again.

After effect:

I still feel angry and hurt.

Challenge to the interpretations:

Do I have current actual evidence that people think I’m ridiculous or awkward? It is interesting that that interpretation is the first and strongest one. I usually give the benefit of the doubt at first, figuring people are busy and who knows why they don’t answer, but when there’s a lot of not being answered, when the people involved are obviously doing plenty of other things with other people (just not with me), when waiting for the answer has gone on for a long time, then I start to feel like the people involved must look at me as a freak of some kind and that they wish I would just go away, and that asking again would be not getting their obvious and clear “go away” message, and that asking again would be awkward and embarrassing for them.

I have current evidence that my music is good and that there are some people in the world who really like it.

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Interdependent

I keep trying to write about dealing with other people’s feelings, and it gets pretty tangled pretty quickly!

Let’s see if I can give a nutshell version.

If someone is anxious (or depressed or angry or whatever) it’s not helpful to pour all your energy into stopping their anxiety. Exhorting them to snap out of it or grow up on the one hand, or bending over backwards (or hovering, or tiptoeing) to remove or fix their anxiety on the other hand. You’ll make them feel more freakish than they already do, and you’ll actually increase their anxiety. You might even make them feel responsible for solving your upset about their anxiety.

To whatever extent you can, stay calm and unperturbed, accepting the reality of their current feelings even if you don’t like it. Express compassion, acknowledge the feelings, without judging or demanding.

The tangles?

Well, the anxious (or depressed, angry, etc) person could be told to respond to the other person’s upset the same way.

You could say “But the anxiety makes it really difficult for them to do that.”

But we could also say that about the other person — their upset makes it really difficult to stay calm about the first person’s anxiety.

The truth is both that we are in fact affected by other people’s feelings, AND that we are not responsible for changing other people’s feelings.

Radical acceptance can fit at all the levels. The anxious person can work to accept their anxiety (and the other person’s upset) without judging it or demanding that it stop, and then their actions to help themselves will be more effective. The person upset about the other’s anxiety can work to accept both their own upset and the other’s anxiety, and then their efforts to help and to show compassion will be more effective. Everyone can work on communicating information, without judgment or demands — about their feelings, about their responses to each other’s feelings, about compassion, etc.

Let me reiterate two things: 1) Radical acceptance does not mean you have to like whatever’s going on — it just means you have to accept that it is in fact going on. And 2) This post is about feelings, not behavior. Feelings have no moral content — they’re not right or wrong.

Emotional health

This post is a semi-ordered spew that has been sparked partly by ongoing reading / discussion with another blogger, partly by ongoing parenting concerns, and partly by this article.

A. Emotions are without moral content, neither right, nor wrong. There is no “should” with feelings, there is only “is.”

Mindfulness, as I understand it, includes being willing and able to feel your feelings as they truly are. It’s not (negatively) interfering with the feelings by trying to push them away or rise above them or ignore them. It’s also not (positively) interfering with the feelings by stretching, twisting, or magnifying them.

The former seems to make more practical sense than the latter. I think I can usually tell when I am trying to push away, transcend, or ignore a feeling. It seems harder to tell the difference between fully entering the feeling and interfering with it.

That may be partly because there’s rarely a single pure emotion going on at any moment. There might be some initial feeling, but several thoughts and other feelings will enter in response.

It may also be because the will gets involved. Again, the will to avoid feelings seems fairly easy to identify, but the will to magnify / catastrophize / aggrandize / etc feelings seems somehow less identifiable. I think I’ve identified it most clearly in efforts to extend or recapture pleasurable feelings that have faded — and occasionally when my will wants to hold onto anger and is unwilling to let go a grudge.

B. There is etiquette and wisdom around the appropriate expression of emotion. It is not morally wrong to be angry, but it is morally wrong to express anger by killing people.

This bit seems to be at least partly culturally mediated. Some cultures really push keeping emotional expression rather reserved. Some not so much. Same with families and other groups.

I tend to think of appropriate emotional expression in terms of words. I suppose I’m really thinking about communication, not just expression, although those categories overlap. I mean, if I’m angry with someone, I generally think it is best to explain my anger and my reasons in a calm and respectful tone of voice. It seems okay to let positive feelings “show” more in tone of voice, volume, phrasing, and so on, but not so much with negative feelings. If I need to yell, hit things, throw things, and so on, it’s better to do so in private and be careful what objects I use. See — when I talk about appropriate expression, I don’t mean that there’s always only one appropriate expression for any given emotion, but that some expressions are appropriate in private, and others are appropriate around family or close friends, and others in public.

If it’s this sophisticated / subtle / complicated (hey, are sophisti-cated and compli-cated and dedi-cated and lo-cated related?) with adults, now consider how to teach a kid about appropriate expression of emotions. To what extent can a particular kid fully feel her feelings and choose an age-appropriate expression for them? Is any instruction at all about appropriate expression going to put hurdles in front of full feeling of feelings? But without any instruction, how will the kid learn about appropriate expression? And some instruction is needed just to protect everyone and everyone’s stuff. Then think about how different personalities work — one person’s hurdle might be another’s nothing at all and yet another’s devastation.

Amy quite clearly doesn’t understand the distinction between feelings and attitude. And who can blame her. But I still think it’s important to keep talking to her about it… to keep telling her that it’s okay to feel feelings, and that it’s important to learn how to express them appropriately.

C. To what extent is it morally right and / or personally desirable to influence feelings?

First of all, all kinds of things already influence our feelings. How we eat, how our health is, what the weather’s like, what happened five minutes ago, what happened fifteen years ago, what’s on schedule for tomorrow, who we’re with, what we just read or saw or heard, and on and on.

Some of these things we have some control over, like what we eat or read. Others not so much.

There are some tools for influencing / managing / regulating emotions. Some DBT tools include the half-smile and the prompting event worksheet.

The half-smile is a physiological thing. You already know that what your brain says, your body does. But what your body does, your brain notices, too. So if you can deliberately choose a half-smile (not a full grin that could speak fear or anger), or a less curled-up posture, or deliberately relax certain tensed muscles, you can reduce the power / intensity of the relevant emotion.

I think of this more as breaking a feedback loop, and less as trying to dictate or deny my feelings. Attitude matters so much — if I felt that any such method was about merely making me more palatable to other people, or about cutting off my voice and my truth, I wouldn’t be able to use the method. But if I can see the method as compassionate and respectful to my truest self, then by all means I’ll use it.

The prompting event worksheet I use the same way. It helps me slow down enough to see what my emotions are telling me, what old thought-patterns they’re automatically triggering, and consider how I might challenge whatever’s false or unhelpful in those old-thought patterns and learn from whatever’s true or helpful in what the emotion is trying to communicate.

It’s amazing how tricky it is to discern between covering, hiding, avoiding, pushing away, clinging to, exploring, noticing, challenging, reducing, and so on.

The point seems to be something like, “What do I feel? What are the possible roots of this feeling? What does this feeling make me want to do, think, or say? What’s true / false, helpful / unhelpful, good / bad in those urges? What possible roots can I change? Which can I accept (not necessarily condone)? Which do I need to work through more?”

D. What do we do when our feelings seem out of proportion or irrational?

I think we still need to feel them and accept them for what they are.

We can’t bring our emotions into (what we think is) proportion and rationality by will alone.

Emotions that seem out of line usually point to something other than what is currently going on. Following them there can lead to useful working through of whatever that something is, whether it’s the weather or the past.

Feelings have proportion and rationality all their own, if we are mindful enough to feel them fully and listen to what they have to say. I don’t think feelings are ever random or arbitrary or meaningless, even if they’re also not always profound or deep.

DBT and dissociation

I came across a blog post alleging that many survivors of childhood sexual abuse have been further traumatized by therapists applying DBT to them.

Basically, they are told to stuff their feelings related to the abuse, because it’s in the past. No connection allowed to that past self and his or her experiences, even though those experiences are hanging in limbo and can never be metabolized without revisiting them. It’s yet another authoritative voice saying “Shhh! Don’t tell, or you’ll get in trouble.”

Part of the trouble seems to be in the wrong application of the various skills, as if any of them were always universally applicable.

The skill of distraction is overapplied, as if it’s appropriate for all situations, and as if dissociation were not a danger. The skill of temporarily storing overwhelming emotions is likewise misapplied, as if the therapist were conveniently forgetting the “temporarily” part and the need to revisit those feelings at a more safe time and place. The skill of not catastrophising is applied as if there’s no such thing as a catastrophe, instead of only when the distress is NOT a catastrophe. The skill of acting opposite to feelings is misapplied, as if the idea is to hide one’s yucky self or deny one’s yucky feelings, instead of mere impulse control: being able to have one’s feelings, own them, but act according to wisdom instead of impulse. In fact, I remember DBT focusing on emotions being value-less — that even the so-called “negative” emotions are important and have something to say to us. They shouldn’t be pushed aside any more than they should be deliberately sought after.

Some of these skills seem to me clearly intended for distresses that are mild to moderate, not severe. They’re for distresses that recur after you’ve already dealt with the root issue — distresses that you KNOW are based on lies.

Take the half-smile, for example. Of course it’s ridiculous to think that simply smiling will solve all of your sadnesses. But I don’t think that’s the point of the skill. It’s just one small tool. For occasional no-good-reason blues, it’s a great physiological feedback tool. For deep sadnesses, it can be a very small comfort, again purely physiologically, not as if you’re pretending not to be sad. There’s no “should” or “must” about it, and it’s not about denial or stuffing.

Then there’s apparently an idea that using the skills is a matter of instant perfection, and not practice. The blogger writes about people being chewed out for mentioning their distress in group. Yikes! How can you learn distress tolerance if you can’t even mention distress? And again, distress tolerance isn’t the same thing as distress denial or not being bothered by distress at all. It’s about letting each distress be its own true self, neither making it more of a catastrophe than it is, nor minimizing it less than it is. It’s about trusting that the true self can survive, can get through, will not be destroyed by the distress.

It sounds to me like part of the issue is a matter of language and connotations. When a therapist says something like “acknowledge without attaching,” it might mean something very different to their client. Maybe the therapist means “Stay in the present, but allow yourself to feel the feelings that are coming.” Maybe the client hears “The person that experienced those feelings is not, and never was, you.”

Suppose you’re the client and you’re experiencing distress because of something from your past. I think there are at least three possible approaches.

1) You might get sucked into the past moment as if you’re time traveling, reliving it exactly as you did in the past. In this case, there’s no sense of the present moment at all. There’s not enough separation from the past moment to observe it, listen to it, evaluate it, and respond to it. There is only reliving and reacting. I don’t think this approach can solve anything, and it seems clear that it could cause problems in the present.

2) You might push away, deny, or ignore the past moment as if nothing from the past matters anymore. This approach is even less helpful, even though it might preserve a semblance of functioning in the present. The present self grew out of the past self, and so the past DOES matter. Past experiences — especially those that haven’t been fully metabolized — will continue to exert pressure on the present self, causing all sorts of present problems.

3) What seems to me the best approach, in line with how I understand DBT and what I learned in other therapy as well, is to be present while the past moment is speaking. Don’t time travel, and don’t shut your ears. Feel the feelings, experience the experience, mindfully, neither pushing away nor clinging. Listen with compassion. Listen with your present self’s wisdom. See what the past self is saying, what the past self needs from the present self. The only way to metabolize that past moment’s feelings is to feel them — in the present.

You can’t change what happened in the past, but that doesn’t mean it’s safe to ignore the past. Ignoring the past and time-traveling into it are both ways of fighting against reality. Mindfulness is NOT saying reality is wonderful and peachy-keen, but it is accepting that reality is what it is — including the realities that this is the present, and that the past really happened and really matters.

What does it have to say

As I was lying in bed ready for sleep to come, I was thinking about what I read and wrote about last night from The Book of Joe.

I was thinking about how a first impression might be to think that Joe wants people to arm their internal observer for eternal vigilance. To forever stand next to oneself, looking over one’s own shoulder, taking notes and asking questions.

I don’t think that’s what he’s getting at, at all.

I think that’s one side of two extremes, and he’s advocating a middle path.

Consider this vigilance as one extreme. This is where you find folks who, when the grocery store is out of their favorite cereal, spend serious time in prayer and reflection looking for the “Lesson” that God has for them in that experience. No matter what happens, they expend a ton of energy trying to devise a systematic and definitive Lesson for everything.

On the other extreme, which Joe addressed more specifically in his book, is closedness, unconsciousness, avoidance of facing the meaning of things. Things happen to these folks and they avoid feeling their feelings, thinking about the things that happen, or doing anything about it. Life tosses them about and they do their best to ignore it.

I think what Joe’s getting at is openness — not striving, ever-vigilant, quick to assign a particular Meaning to everything, and neither closed, numb, in denial, avoiding reality. Openness is like mindfulness in DBT — it’s letting life in, neither chasing it away nor grasping for it. It’s feeling the feelings, as they are. It’s listening and looking, confident of meaning without fighting for Meaning and without fighting for Nothing.

I think it’s saying, when there’s feelings or other signals to pay attention to, saying not “what do I do about it,” but “what does it have to say?” Taking action shouldn’t be impulsive, and it shouldn’t be a way of trying to chase feelings away, avoid truth, or grasp at things. Action should be a response, not merely a reaction.

An example. I often have increased anxiety or depression around bedtime. Sometimes, like last night, my first impulse is like this: “Oh, I’m anxious and sad again. What do I do to stop that or fix it?” That’s not really listening. It seems like an attempt to solve a problem, but it’s too quick — it’s jumping over the feelings, trying to get away from them. Instead, I could do something like this: “Oh, I’m anxious and sad again. Let me sit in the anxiety and the sadness for a while and let them be with me.” In that, I can also remind myself of something I’ve learned: this increase of negative feeling, for me, is linked to time of day and is largely physiological, and thus doesn’t require much soul-searching. I can also remind myself that I also have good reasons, strong and deep roots, for anxiety and depression, and that the only way around them is through them, and that it’s okay to feel them.

I don’t know if my example clarifies or confuses the point I’m trying to make, but I’d better quit now!

Spiritual oppression

On Saturday I took my friend out to lunch for her birthday. We spent a good bit of the hour drive in prayer — among other things she prayed against my chronically recurring sense of being overlooked, marginal, left out. She clearly considered it one of Satan’s favorite tricks for me.

Later, I insulted my friend.

I then spent the next two days loathing myself for the things I say, trying to accept the already offered forgiveness of my friend as well as that promised by God, but not really believing in either.

Sunday morning — I woke up from a dream about spiritual oppression. I don’t even remember what happened in the dream or where I was, but that phrase was stamped on the dream in bold letters.

That night, a phone call from my friend helped settle me somewhat in the security of her forgiveness.

Yesterday, at a different friend’s house for a playdate, along with yet another friend, my child spent most of the morning all by herself. The other two kids were inseparable, giggly and running around and even talking to each other. I’m pretty sure I even remember mine going into the room where they were, and they immediately left. Meanwhile, I sat listening as my two friends talked — they had a lot to talk about, and I didn’t have any two cents to add.

I left feeling vaguely but sharply heartbroken — my little girl already the outcast I’ve always been, the one who walks into a room and sends the others fleeing.

Last night I wrote this in my journal:

Either A) I’m fine and within the range of acceptability — there will be things people don’t like about me but they can still love me anyway, and in a real and true way, and, the corollary, it’s okay for me to act like I think I’m normal and acceptable and lovable, and expect to be loved and appreciated and welcome for the most part.

Or B) I really AM one of the Undesirables, and many people really don’t care for me although they can politely tolerate me and tell me all the right self-esteemy things even though we all know those things aren’t really applicable to the Undesirables, and, the corollary, I had better acknowledge my place with due shame and stay out of the important people’s way, and acting like a normal person will only strain the tolerance and politeness limits of others and make them scorn me more deeply. And asking for reassurance? Expressing my insecurity? Definite faux-pas — that’ll force them to be more polite than they want to be, make me even more a burden than I already am.

And do I actually have any incontrovertible evidence for either position? Not really — what evidence there is is subject to interpretation based on presuppositions.

I need, desperately right now, to have my presuppositions corrected. A sane corner voice tells me B) is a damned lie, and that when I categorize other people as Undesirables that is a projection of my own insecurity and not evidence that such a category really exists.

About evidence and presuppositions — to a normal, happily secure person, the playdate description would present no problems. So one kid is somewhat solitary and the others play together more often. So two mamas had a conversation and the third just didn’t have anything to add. But start with a presupposition that I am an Undesirable and my kid is therefore doomed to be one, too, and the picture looks sinister.

———

Anyway, most of the time I adopt the idea that I really am within the realm of normal acceptable humanity and that people might actually like me sometimes. Today, for example, I’ve mostly been feeling fine.

When this other idea revisits, though, it’s brutal! And it always comes back, sooner or later, and it is really hard to challenge the presuppositions, because they circularly make the evidence look awfully persuasive of the presuppositions’ truth. Arguing in the other direction just doesn’t seem anywhere nearly so likely. And there’s no evidence that can change presuppositions, anyway — that change has to come from somewhere, something, Someone else.

And the consequences of being wrong about A), of thinking A) when B) is really true, seem devastatingly vulnerable and shameful. One must NOT be mistaken in assuming the truth of A).

———

I used my DBT skills pretty well, I think. I observed and named my feelings. I explored my thoughts about them, and challenged them as well as I could. I reminded myself that hormonal changes make my social paranoia worse once or twice a month. I reminded myself that night time is when I am most vulnerable to negative thoughts. I reminded myself that even if the entire human race DOES hate me, God delights in me, and that really is more than enough. I allowed myself to cry, and didn’t get too alarmed by my crying and intensity of feeling — didn’t get sucked into the future catastrophizing of “This is only going to get worse, this is a ball rolling down a steep hill, here comes the pit, and if I tell anyone I’ll just ruin everything AGAIN” — I let myself cry and write and pray, and then I put myself to bed and rested. (After doing my entire BSF lesson for the week, in one sitting.)

———

This whole episode reminds me so much of “The Rules”:

In Operating Instructions, Anne Lamott tells about the “five rules of the world as arrived at by this Catholic priest named Tom Weston.”

* The first rule, he says, is that you must not have anything wrong with you or anything different.
* The second one is that if you do have something wrong with you, you must get over it as soon as possible.
* The third rule is that if you can’t get over it, you must pretend that you have.
* The fourth rule is that if you can’t even pretend that you have, you shouldn’t show up. You should stay home, because it’s hard for everyone else to have you around.
* And the fifth rule is that if you are going to insist on showing up, you should at least have the decency to feel ashamed.

Then she says that she and her therapist “decided that the most subversive, revolutionary thing I could do was to show up for my life and not be ashamed.”

Middle

How often we think in extremes, forgetting the middle, or overreaching it in our efforts to avoid one extreme or the other.

1) One friend wrote about whether she would always be waiting for someone to hurt her, or whether she could trust that she only has good people around her. I understand that — I have issues with trust, and with expecting hurt, and with interpreting everything as personally and negatively as possible, and being paranoid.

I thought, though, what about the middle? Remembering one of my favorite quotations, “To have no illusions, and yet to love,” from Howards End. Or Sara Groves’ song, “Even though your heart is raw, love is still a worthy cause.” I suspect it’s possible to know that everyone will hurt us, intentionally or otherwise, at least once, and that nevertheless it won’t necessarily destroy us, or destroy the relationship, and that pursuing real, intimate, trusting relationship can still be worthwhile.

One of her other commenters was even better — talked about how if we trust ourselves, our own strength, that we can survive and get through so many things, that can help us have better, more stable, more trusting relationships that can weather more storms.

2) In another recent conversation, some friends and I were discussing marriage (and other relationships) and issues of service, respect, giving, needs, communication, and so on.

Some folks emphasize the need to look at our own flaws and failings, to work on our own attitudes and behavior, to treat our spouse or friend as if they were consistently and completely wonderful and worthy.

I tend to emphasize the need to communicate — spouses and friends can’t read minds, and won’t know we feel hurt, or have unmet needs, or what our desires and complaints are, unless we tell them. It’s okay to feel hurt. It’s okay to say so. It’s okay to want something different, and ask for it.

I feel like I’m occupying a middle — I’m not advocating ignoring or denying the spouse’s or friend’s needs, desires, complaints, etc, or fighting for one’s own wants at any cost. I’m not advocating arrogance or demandingness or complete selfishness.

I just think sometimes the first emphasis can be unhealthy for those of us who are tempted to think we aren’t worth enough to express ourselves or act to pursue our own interests — that it’s wrong to even have our own desires, much less pursue them. That the only thing that’s proper in marriage is service. That anything wrong or unsatisfying or disappointing or hurtful is either our own fault or something we’re not allowed to think or talk about.

Yet I understand the emphasis, too — and the need for it. I know that it’s my own fear of the extreme that makes me wary of it. I need to remember that it’s possible to do that emphasis AND my emphasis. I suppose we tend to say and urge and emphasize what we most need to hear ourselves.

———

Both topics make me think about DBT’s interpersonal effectiveness module. Technical name, corny material, but there’s wisdom in it. How to balance self-respect, one’s own desires, and the maintenance of the relationship. How to communicate effectively. It’s realistic and practical, but without dismissing real feelings and desires and fears.

———

Interesting post about humility — especially from the perspective of us ex-doormats.