Help with Being a Healthy and Honest Individual, after Trauma
April 19, 2012 6:06 PM   Subscribe

Having grown up in an abusive home where every move of mine was watched and controlled like a hawk, and I had to anticipate reactions in order to survive, I ended up molding many of my desires around those anticipated reactions. So now, as an adult of advancing age, how do I learn to know what I want, and act on those desires with honesty and integrity? What are some steps I can actually take? Books I can read? Simple thoughts to repeat to myself?

I feel much too old to be wrestling with these problems, but the truth is, I only relatively recently realized these were serious and possibly treatable problems (despite turning 40 any day now). This is a bit long, and I don't expect my entire life to be solved by the internet, but I'm adding details that seem relevant in case something clicks for someone and they can point me in a helpful direction, book-wise or idea-wise:

Right now, whenever I muster the strength to take a stand on what I 'think' I want, the mere act of feeling like someone has witnessed that stand makes me backtrack. Or if someone makes it clear that they notice a certain behavior or a change in feeling on my part, I immediately go on the defense and deny it, and go further to convince myself I never felt the way I seemed to initially. This means that I might feel a desperate desire to break up with someone, but as soon as they vocalize my obvious discomfort, I will spend (really) years trying to prove them wrong.

I feel like the answer to this is just to 'strengthen-up' and be an adult and stand up for what I want. But I honestly do not even know what I want, as my thoughts change constantly depending on who I speak to, what I feel that person needs from me, how much shame I feel about a subject, what seems to be being demanded of me, how many other people my decisions will effect, what I think the 'correct' or even 'healthy/well-adjusted' answer is, etc.

So it is not a simple matter of being strong enough to act on my desires. I have no idea what I want, especially in relationships, because the very act of being in a relationship brings all these seemingly inescapable problematic responses to the forefront, and I can't get out of this all-encompassing web of tangled thinking. I want to be honest, up-front, clear, and trustworthy, but I go into what feels like survival-lying-mode, or reaction-lying-mode. That is not who I want to be. I want to know what I want, what I think, and to act on it with straight-forward integrity-- not mortal fear that I am making a huge mistake by acting on a feeling that will change tomorrow, simply because my wiring is off and I always feel watched and pushed into desperate (illusory)corners, and am perpetually dooming my life as a result. Rinse, repeat. About practically any decision.

I am in perpetual agony over my indecisions, dragging others along with the agony, or isolating myself to save others from getting involved with my indecision and turmoil. I suspect this is part of the human condition, but this feels very extreme.

Unfortunately, therapy has been completely useless as childhood trauma seems to have rendered me unable to delve into anything without completely shutting down into full-on zombie mode, and sitting silently in an office, with therapist after therapist has not helped one iota. Neither has the week of zombie-mode following each attempt to talk about anything real. I have tried this for years, met with wildly different therapists with different approaches, but nothing could get beyond superficialities.

So, gentle folk of MeFi, what books should I read? What ideas might help me break through this cycle of trauma and indecision and spinelessness? I know I should be better than this, but I can't manage to be, and I am way too old to be this weak-willed and putting this much energy into anticipating which answers everyone else needs so strongly that I can never figure out what I actually think and want.

What solid things can I do or keep in mind to start making some progress before I turn FORTY in two weeks? I feel like something may make a dent, and I am willing to try almost anything. Thanks to anyone who read this, and thanks to anyone with an inkling of an idea.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (27 answers total) 55 users marked this as a favorite
 
Facing Codependence by Mellody, Miller, and Miller. (The workbook Breaking Free might also help.)

The Drama of the Gifted Child by Alice Miller (no relation to the above Millers).
posted by Sidhedevil at 6:10 PM on April 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


You might really like Legacy of the Heart: The Spiritual Advantages of a Painful Childhood (don't focus too much on the 'Spiritual' in the title). It is a very kind book. Also, Things Might Go Terribly, Horribly Wrong as a general anxiety resource. I found helpful things in both these books.
posted by griselda at 6:16 PM on April 19, 2012


I had a very traumatic childhood where I also spent a lot of time being terrified even of making mistakes (like being terrified of dropping the milk jug as I poured). What helped me (and I can't say if it would help you or not), is putting things in context of the entire world and its history. Will anyone know and be mad 100 years from now if I dropped the milk? Sounds so silly and illogical that I could get past it and move on. I also went out and did some crazy things (my motto for a while was to do whatever I feared most!) and once you do things like throw up in a bar and the world doesn't end and you see that nobody really cares and then its easier to tackle the everyday mundane worries.

After I had gathered some courage and settled down somewhat, it also took me a long time to figure out what I enjoyed and a lot of things turned out to be simple things I didn't really think much about like reading books and drinking coffee. I had to work harder to try new things and made myself try them at least twice before deciding (first times are too traumatic!) and eventually found some nice new hobbies and people to talk to. I didn't feel comfortable in relationships until I was comfortable with myself so married later in life than many people, also got it wrong the first time but I am very happy with my second husband now.
posted by meepmeow at 6:31 PM on April 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


I hope this doesn't freak you out but I wonder if a temporary script for an ssri antidepressant would enable you to make some progress in therapy...one thing these did for me a decade ago is to ratchet up my ability to cope and take the edge off raw emotions. I was raised in a home where I was also watched and micromanaged so I have an idea of what that does to your head.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 6:32 PM on April 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


You are singing my sound. Consider EMDR based therapy. That stuff sounds like 100% woo and I'm super anti-woo but it WORKED for me like you cannot believe. Worst you can lose is the cost of a couple of sessions. Check it out on the web then find someone in your area who does EMDR.

For me at least (and of course data is simply the plural of anecdote) it was life changing. Like I would not have the career, the super awesome life partner, etc if I hadn't done that and gotten through the stuff you describe.

Good luck.
posted by BrooksCooper at 7:13 PM on April 19, 2012 [3 favorites]


Are you able to write out your childhood traumas? Would journalling be possible? You could then bring your writings to a therapist to help get over that initial hurdle.

You could start by writing about it from a third person view, or putting someone else into similar situations. Sometimes that step back from it can help make it less overwhelming.
posted by Dynex at 7:14 PM on April 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


I, too, have been molded by circumstances most people would consider non-optimal, though my history is different from yours.

But in the end I'm not sure it matters what's molded us, or how we've wound up. We're all blocked, paralyzed, underdeveloped, ignorant, and stunted in a myriad of ways. And we all have our fortes - realms where our attention has brought us experience and skill. Some of those fortes are surely the result of the deprivation you've been through....so it's yielded treasure as well as scars!

You feel an impulse to fill in the gaps....to get back to being the person you'd have been if things had gone differently. Tha'ts normal. But fallacious. It's sufficient to proceed as you are - hopefully with a full heart and a spirit of kindness.

The same feeling of incompleteness is felt by everyone - people with mundane personal history as well as those with even more tumultuousness than you in their past. Even the most "normal" person with the most happy-seeming upbringing shares this same feeling of gap, of certain things haven be lost or underdeveloped. It's human nature. But while it's never too late for growth, that all can happen naturally. Just keep your eyes open and your spirit curious. But, meanwhile, know that while you may feel like a partial human, you're full in the hum of your spirit and in your ability to add your unique hue to this collaborative project of human life.

We're all partial. Yet, paradoxically, we're all full. Acknowledgement of that fullness doesn't come from weighing an inventory of personality traits. It comes from embracing the moment (and all that brought you to this moment) and owning it, perhaps even with gratitude (if that word isn't too corny to use in 21st century America).
posted by Quisp Lover at 7:25 PM on April 19, 2012 [15 favorites]


I wouldn't give up on therapy just yet, because it sounds like you could benefit from it. When you've talked to your therapists in the past, have you told them about your tendency to shut down? Maybe just telling them and putting it out there is the first step to take. Or could you write your feelings down and give the paper to your therapist to review and discuss?

If you're really not interested in trying therapy again, maybe it would help to adjust your expectations. Don't be so hard on yourself! We all (OK, most of us) are governed by the reactions and judgments of the people around us. If we didn't, human society would have no sense of justice or law or even table manners. So really, this isn't an absolute thing, but a continuum, and what you need to do is not STOP doing this, but learn how to do it LESS, so it doesn't interfere with your life as much.

Maybe if there's a way to break it down into smaller steps--say, pick a thing and work on it for a week or a month. When you feel OK with your progress, move on to something else. Maybe think about it like losing weight: You can't drop all 20 pounds at once.

Good luck.
posted by elizeh at 7:50 PM on April 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


Seconding the EMDR. You are telling my story. I would fall asleep in therapy if it was too painful and I tried all kinds over the years. Once I got over the Woo nis of it all, I found it really helped me cut through my deeply ingrained defense mechanisms, mainly sleeping or falling asleep. It gave me very concrete things to talk about. It was acutely painful but doable. I learned a lot and it is really the only type of therapy I would consider doing again.

As for things I say to myself. I stick with very short phrases that I combine with my breath. Mainly breathing out whatever thoughts or feelings that are a problem and breathing in, usually love, tenderness and peace. I especially like Pema Chodrun's LovingKindness CD.
posted by cairnoflore at 8:10 PM on April 19, 2012


Thirding EMDR. Like another poster, I'm also pretty anti-woowoo but a dead-serious regular therapist was basically like "Uh, I'm great at my job but you really, really need someone who focuses on trauma. Go see this EMDR therapist." I'm three months in with weekly sessions and it's hands down the most helpful therapy I've ever been in. Whenever I start shutting down, my therapist has all of these helpful ways to get me to articulate my emotions. Even how she's helped to start identifying what my body is feeling has been intensely helpful. The result is that I'm talking about -- and thinking about -- things I've never been able to face really before. I'd agree with the above poster who said it was painful -- it is in a way, but I'm also so fucking relieved to be able to finally start dealing with this stuff because I have been feeling hopeless for so long and EMDR gives me some hope. Oh, and yeah, I'm also an adult survivor of child abuse (late 20s) with some echoes of what you described.
posted by pinetree at 8:52 PM on April 19, 2012


*helped me to start identifying what my body is feeling
posted by pinetree at 8:53 PM on April 19, 2012


Here's one thing I know: there is no need to feel that you're too old for this, or that forty is too late. It's a damn sight better than eighty, for one thing. People have lived long, miserable lives that were stunted and boxed in by past abuse, and generally they go on to cause other people to do the same thing. You're doing exactly what you need to do.

Although I don't have the same traumatic issues that you appear to have, I did have some in my youth. What kept me miserable for years after my trauma was the fact that no one told me that what I was going through was wrong, and because I was a minor in a particular set of circumstances, I had no other way to know. That one missing piece of information was at the bottom of so many bad ideas that I had later. Now I know that it was not my fault, and what is nearly as important, that it was not my fault that I did not know better. Just digging that out of the foundation of my brain is making so much else easier for me.
posted by Countess Elena at 8:55 PM on April 19, 2012 [3 favorites]


I ordered one of the books I saw recommended here, called The Narcissistic Family, and it was the single most illuminating and helpful things with regard to issues which are at least in part similar to yours (also in terms of the back-story). The premise of the book is not, as the title might suggest, that one of your parents/caregivers was narcissistic, but rather that one or more of the caregiver/parenting unit's needs was regularly and consistently prioritized over the various needs of the child. As a result, children coming from narcissistic families more often than not don't have the opportunity to develop the kind of life skills which are so natural for someone growing up in a different environment that they are generally not even recognized as such (this is also the reason why I kind of disagree with Quisp Lover, even though I love what he/she says and think that it is definitely also a point of view to keep in mind).

Anyway, as an example, one of the basic life-skills which fails to be developed in many children coming from this kind of environment is the ability to recognize their own needs. Not even ACT upon their own needs - that comes much later in the process - simply to recognize them. ALso, to recognize their own feelings. To know when you are upset versus when you are sad versus when you are agitated versus when you are, actually, happy. Again, this is much more basic than validating your feelings, even though, that, too, is obviously a related challenge. Etc., there are several similar issues the book describes (mostly via case-studies, which is useful, cause it is much easier to recognize the diverse faces this and related problems can take when you see them in narrative form, at least for me). More importantly, it also proposes exercises you can do to actually do for yourself what your caregivers have failed to do at the right time. Basically, a good chunk of the book is a crash-course in developing those aspects which have remained stuck. Doing them, even just quickly and fairly superficially, as I read the book, I believe, has already been immensely helpful to me.

The book aslo contains, as far as I remember (I don't have it on me), addresses for therapist who work within this framework - they convincingly argue that it is important for your therapist to recognize the issues you are facing and to know how to work with them, and detail some of the ways in which other approaches might be actually counter-productive for cases like this.Again, by the sounds of it, it would help no end to work with a well-trained therapist (and well-trained means well-trained for precisely this issue). If I were in a place where such therapists exist, I'd go in a heartbeat, even though so far my experiences with therapist were laughably bad.

Good luck.
posted by miorita at 9:04 PM on April 19, 2012 [13 favorites]


miorita:

If I can disagree back, with similar kind cordiality.....I never met anyone who had all their basic life skills together. Not a single one (and I've known thousands of people from every walk of life). Though most of us are certain that most people do have these skills together. And most of us believe we can get ours together, too, with sufficient adjustment and a few good breaks.

It's a pipe dream. We're all disabled in numerous ways. No one's whole. The thing to do is to move forward, stop trying to get whole (but never stop growing). Embrace everything that brought you to this moment (which requires recognizing that who and what you are is valuable....which is true, so long as you look at what's there rather than what's lacking!).

Life's what happens while you're trying to get whole.
posted by Quisp Lover at 9:20 PM on April 19, 2012


I used to feel similarly. Becoming my own best friend helped a lot. I spent a lot of time alone, taking myself on dates with no one to impress or influence me. When I was by myself, it was much easier to tell whether I wanted chocolate or vanilla, and to give myself the room to honor that choice as valid.
posted by gentian at 9:48 PM on April 19, 2012 [3 favorites]


Quisp Lover

At the risk of this becoming too much of a dialogue between us (and if that is the case, please , mods, delete this):

It’s probably the way I expressed it above, so I ‘ll have another stab at it: I actually completely agree to a very large extent, and that would become full agreement if it were not for the specific circumstances the OP is describing (background, history as an adult, current mental state and desire to deal with the issue). Not only do I agree, but I know that recognizing the things you plead for so eloquently can bring about a lot of peace of mind and contentment. However, for me at least, (and, as I said, I feel my situation to be in great outline not dissimilar to the Op’s, hence my insistence on this), there was a small, but important remnant where this rang hollow at times, which leads to my very partial disagreement.

For me, this self-obstructive dysfunction (in a dramatic way, not just a “not as sorted as I would ideally have it, but what can you do, we’re all human” kind of way) manifests in intimate relationships. In all other areas, whatever failings I may have, or lack of necessary life-skills etc. – I am able to take in my stride, make the best of, live with, deal with whatever consequences etc. By no means am I am mess, and by no means do I consider myself inferior to anyone in self-esteem affecting ways.

However, as soon as I am truly bonded to someone (amorous relationships, close friends, family), I turn into someone quite different, and hugely less prepared to deal with certain situations than even myself as a non-lover, non-friend, non-sister/daughter etc. Outside of fairly specific situations, I am OK as a lover etc. (a weird thing to say, but there you go), but when they arise, I instantly get infantilized (via the collusion of situation and my own inabilities) with frequently absolutely dire consequences (they are avoided only if/when the other person is able to bring that much more maturity to the situation to compensate for my total dissolution as an adult). I believe that the book I mentioned above has helped me begin to overcome some of these issues, and I hope to continue to do so, because I do want to not regularly end up in disastrous relationships, keeping myself a prisoner of the misery they bring – and of which frequently I am the architect, or at least co-architect. Basically, I want the “normal life with regular up and downs, the usual pattern of occasional failings and occasional achievements etc.” in all parts of my life, rather than have one of them be an unmitigated series of disasters which sap at my will for life.

I feel that this might be true of the OP as well, with, maybe, a different distribution. I think it is important for the OP to have both approaches here, and to balance them – personally, I am sometimes torn between the “go with the flow and recognize my own unexceptionality in this regard” and alarm-bells/ need for intervention approach, but, as far as I am concerned, I think what works best is having them both go on. I don’t want to suddenly replace whatever issues I feel I have, as described above, with treating myself as though I am broken (however interestingly) and focus all my mental energy on ruminating. But I also want to bring about some changes, and be as pragmatic as possible about it.
posted by miorita at 10:05 PM on April 19, 2012 [7 favorites]


Another plug for EMDR here. And for me, Al-anon helped immensely, even though it doesn't sound like alcohol was the reason for the control freakiness, Al-anon is still full of brain-hacks to get over exactly these sorts of brain-molding experiences.
posted by small_ruminant at 10:12 PM on April 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


I used to not know what I wanted or felt. It IS very disorienting, and I can relate to wanting to keep others away from that confusion.

What helped me was being around people who had great boundaries and were non-judgmental to the core. Like you, I will mold myself to what I think people want. Being around someone who truly Did Not Care, or truly wanted me to get what I wanted, was a huge help. I know this is hard to find, but those people who are bewilderingly accepting, whom you just can't read, might make good friends. I also got a lot out of learning to stand up to even just one person.
posted by salvia at 10:46 PM on April 19, 2012 [2 favorites]


Your description of growing up under a microscope and becoming adept at conforming to expectations feels very familiar to me. As does not clicking with mainstream therapy (Seriously, I was an insomniac with dissociative panic attacks, and my therapist was a Jungian-oriented dream prober. Recipe for not-connecting.)

The things that ultimately helped me were taking 18 months off from romantic relationships and seeking opportunities where I could be social on my own terms: pottery classes, music festivals, yoga, shared housing with friends. Also, after many years of aversion due to a bad reaction to Prozac, I decided on the advice of my doctor to slooooowly try Zoloft and that helped me a bunch with the skill of approaching new situations.

But, your mileage will certainly vary: it feels random that the particular things that worked for me were the ones that worked for me. If you can find some space to try a bunch of different things for yourself, that is what will help you find your comfort in the long run.
posted by SakuraK at 1:25 AM on April 20, 2012


position: i can relate, and am talking to myself as much as you, now.

i like miorita's and quisp lover's contributions, among others. recognizing, feeling, and judging the worth of emotions as guides to action are hugely problematic for people who've been through trauma. hard to trust your instincts when they've steered you wrong in the past, particularly given what looks like a sharply analytic inclination.

and. i imagine it's hard to imagine an alternate future, given preoccupation with your current limbo.

my thoughts:

1) you need more & better mirrors. seconding a journal, for sure, to track your impulses and look for patterns. maybe record the bare facts of your days as well as feelings and thoughts. this simple metric, i've found, can yield unexpected insights. a good therapist. (i am so, so happy to have found one of these. my 8th, fwiw. they exist.) i think miorita's point re looking for someone experienced in emotional awareness and distress tolerance is important. i think DBT and other mindfulness based approaches are known for this.

2) while you may be generally indecisive, reactive & vigilant, and i've no doubt this affects your life in countless ways, you're talking here, really, about a particular dilemma.

mira kirshenbaum's 'too good to leave, too bad to stay' has been recommended here often. it strengthened my resolve around leaving my last relationship. (it sounds like you are not happy in yours, and maybe haven't been for a while. not for me to say.) anyway, i vouch for that book in thinking/feeling through the question.

3) most of the time, we have to act in the absence of perfect knowledge. we can only make our best guesses, see what happens, and do the same again, adapting with each outcome.
accepting ambiguity around big questions is difficult when time's pressing (and a birthday's looming). but there's nothing else to do. (other than spend more years in limbo.) it is less frightening when you trust yourself more, or have faith in a course of action, or can envision a different future.

4) how do you trust yourself more? i don't know. by doing it, i suppose. hoping others can help here. guess... agree again with miorita. it sounds like you need a lot of time, and space, to explore yourself. simple likes and dislikes. checking your responses against little trials of action.
julia cameron's classic 'artist's way' book can help here, if you can get past the 12-steppiness (which, if you can do it, is worthwhile). the recommended 'artists' dates' in particular emphasize exploration and mastery.

perhaps this will invite imagination around the future, too. (for this, viktor frankl's 'man's search for meaning'; martin seligman's stuff.)

maybe you could do with a little holiday from your relationship. a day, even a week, just for yourself, to use how you will.

5) decide which values you are willing to live by. i'm sure you already have answers, or the suggestions of answers.

*in my case, even micro-choices present problems. choosing a meal, for example. used to be: twenty minutes drinking in every word of a menu, persuaded anew by each item. now: i organize my choice around a protein. i visualize chicken, fish, or lamb, and ask my stomach what it wants. that's from 'finding your own north star', which i think's a bit corny overall. good takeaway though: when confused, listen, really listen to your body.

(i don't know how extensive indecision is in your daily life, but maybe it's an idea to rely on a certain amount of routine for some things, to reduce the number of choices you have to make, giving more headspace to things bigger than 'chicken or fish'. or establish a couple of algorithms for things like that.)
posted by nelljie at 2:05 AM on April 20, 2012 [3 favorites]


i've been pretty literal in my response, so apologies for that*.

i do want to add this question: is it possible that your indecision isn't necessarily about your trauma, but about the dynamic of your current relationship? maybe it isn't (just) about you.

*though. if, as was true for me in my last relationship, emotional abuse is part of the picture now, it is very possible to be so self-alienated as to be confounded by the chicken or fish question.
posted by nelljie at 2:15 AM on April 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


finally: in response to a kind-of-related question, someone here once suggested practising making opinions public, at least under a pseudonym. can't remember who said it, but i think it's an excellent idea.
posted by nelljie at 2:35 AM on April 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


I had a very traumatic childhood where I also spent a lot of time being terrified even of making mistakes (like being terrified of dropping the milk jug as I poured).

This is familiar to me - the way of living that's like walking on eggshells, because you remember what happened last time something was 'wrong'. I had a parent whose 'moods' dictated the behaviour of the rest of the family. What helped was first counselling that confirmed to me that yes, it wasn't normal, and it was OK to feel upset or bad about it. Secondly, being aware of it. It's good that you're questioning the possibility of getting back into the same situation as an adult, as we tend to cleave to the patterns which we feel we understand rather than those which are healthy (because we don't know what 'healthy' really means). I'd also recommend being honest to any friends/partners that you spend enough time around to feel close to.

I still struggle to make definite decisions, I lack confidence a lot of the time and I find conflict in relationships particularly difficult as I worry about falling into the same pattern and not be listented to, or conversely that that person will decide they don't like my side of things and walk away or 'punish' me somehow. Knowing this and being honest about it with people is much better than pretending you will react to things like everybody else.
posted by mippy at 7:12 AM on April 20, 2012 [3 favorites]


I grew up in a similar environment - my entire life was limited to doing only things that would not 'make Dad angry.' I grew up to be someone who was at first very awkward (because, like you, I had tried to predict others' reactions and mold myself to them), but then I transformed into someone constantly alone, irritable, and stand-offish (in the most asshole-ish way possible) - as a way to protect myself from anyone who might control me the way my father did.

It was only very recently that it occurred to me that, had I acted in this defensive, asshole-ish way when I was a child, it wouldn't have protected me from my father. He would have overrun my life no matter who I was or what I was like - as, indeed, that's the most harmful thing about abuse - the abuser doesn't really care about you, so long as you're not irritating him (and of course, the threshold for being irritated is always very low, but that's for a different post).

So, in a sense, conforming yourself to someone else's anticipated desires not only makes life in the real world harder, but also isn't a viable strategy even when you're actually in an abusive environment. Realizing this - that there was no environment where this way of living worked - was somewhat liberating, and gave me the impetus to break free from my shell, and live my own life.

So, try repeating that thought. Oh, and I did come to this realization by way of a book, though it was rather incidental, and I can't promise the book will have the same effect on you - it was Lundy Bancroft's Why Does He Do That?. It's a book aimed at explaining to wives the thought processes that drive abuse in their (presumably ex) husbands - it's extremely, extremely interesting, and even though I'm neither a woman nor a divorcee, I found it to be eye-opening.
posted by sidi hamet at 12:30 PM on April 20, 2012 [2 favorites]


Gonna start out with a commercial. It's from the '90s. It's related to your question, about change, and touches on motivation, too.

I've thought a lot about your post, and your questions.

Back in 2006, my friend encouraged me to take a yoga class. While taking that class, and since I often use a particular search engine for queries, I happened upon a Q&A with a yoga teacher named Kelly McGonigal. The website is now gone, but it's accessible by the Wayback Machine internet archive. It talked about what to do when difficult emotions arise during yoga, but it speaks more deeply, I think, to how to deal with any feelings that arise when we are in and aware of our bodies and feelings.

Find people and places where you can practice something like this, whatever it means for you.

Try thinking of change as learning a new language, or taking a science class, or learning history. New data takes time to seep in and fully integrate. Dr. McGonigal (I'm using her honorific) recently gave a talk at Google. I thought her name looked familiar, and connected her to the yoga class Q&A I'd read in 2006. Clicking through her current website, I found and listened to a podcast interview, where she talks about the neuroscience of change.

A portion of this excerpt made me giggle:
Well, if it's [the desire to change a habit full-stop, cold turkey is] not preceded with things like motivation and awareness, it usually doesn’t work, at least not in the long term. But, that’s the great thing about making behavioral changes is that you start with some of these mental practices and mindsets, and then you do have to commit to something. So I think that all of the strategies that ask you to make specific commitments are right on. And in fact there is a little bit of neuroscience supporting practices of setting behavioral commitments. So, if I want to improve my health it’s going to be easier for my brain to remember my motivation if I’ve also said something like, 'I vow to eat one vegetable at every meal,' or, 'I'm going to exercise for 10 minute in the morning before I take my shower.' And making those behavioral commitments helps us remember our motivation and eventually become a habit. So you need to do both, but I think when you focus only on the behavior first and you just try to control yourself like a joystick, I think people will run out of the energy to sustain that.
And how about inviting some compassion for yourself as you make these changes and live your life:
The practice that I love for cultivating self-compassion is actually to bring to mind all of the other people on the planet who are suffering from whatever it is that you’re dealing with now, whether it’s physical pain, or an addiction, or anxiety, or any challenge in your life, and to bring to mind all of those countless other people who know what it’s like to feel what you’re feeling, and who are feeling it right now along with you. And often when we do this, a kind of instinctive compassion wells up when we think about other people suffering in the way that we’re suffering, and we can use that compassion as the basis for feeling compassion or finding compassion for ourselves. And in that moment you can say something like, ‘May we all be free from this,’ or, ‘May my willingness to be with this [in] some way provide strength and freedom from suffering for all of the other countless people who are suffering in the same way right now.’ … It’s often easier to feel compassion for others than it is to feel compassion for ourselves, and we don’t actually need to separate the two. It’s often by remembering our common humanity with others, and the fact that our own challenges and suffering don’t isolate us from others, they actually connect us to others—that can be the way into finding compassion.
—K. McGonigal (from above linked podcast)
Here's one formula for change:
Self-awareness + Motivation + Action = recipe for how to make a change [Kelly McGonigal; 2012]

The Body Positive website also talks about the art of change. They reference the Transtheoretical Model of change, which moves in nonlinear fashion from Pre-contemplation to Contemplation to Decision, then Action to Relapse and Maintenance.

Here are some ideas, some places to start.
posted by simulacra at 4:09 PM on April 20, 2012 [10 favorites]


Miorita, agreed on every word. In fact, I share a similar issue. So long as you're advocating growth within an overarching acceptance that you're ok even as you are (and change may make you different, but not "better" in any absolute way).... i.e. that our respective suggestions can coexist....then I have no argument at all.

It would be going way too far to say that since you're fully ok as-is, problems oughtn't ever be solved! As I said, growth can happen. But if it can happen playfully, rather than with a desperate under-the-gun perspective that you won't be happy or fully human unless you undo what's done, that's optimal.

And above all, recognizing that we're all playing whack-a-mole with seemingly abhorrent and intolerable "issues". That's life! Ducks never stay rowed for long, if ever!
posted by Quisp Lover at 5:25 PM on April 22, 2012


I empathize with your plight though I think it'd be in your best interest to focus on improving yourself before you let things outside of your control bring you down. I also applaud your effort to improve yourself, however you should realize that some problems are chemical/mental/psychological instead of physical. In other words, you may require assistance in the form of an antidepressant or an anti-anxiety medication instead of simply CBT (talk therapy) that others seem to be suggesting here.

I speak from experience: though I'm only 20, I've struggled with serious, clinical depression since I was 10 and my Dad spent over $50K on my CBT talk therapy appointments with over 50+ of his bozo psychiatrist golf buddies over the years. For years, these psychiatrists told me that the problems I had were things that "could be fixed on my own," and that I was "bright enough to worry about more important things." Not too long ago, I had an existential crisis after my transfer application was rejected by my dream school, the grad student I fell in limerance with sabotaged my reputation, and one of my professors refused to grade a paper worth 35% of my grade. Needless to say, I ended up attempting suicide almost daily for another month until one night when I told my parents that I needed to get the f*** away from exams, college, that douchebag grad student, and Toronto. I promptly withdrew from all of my year-long courses and moved back into my parent's house; after a day or two, they found me psychiatrist who discovered that I did, in fact, have a disorder--serious, clinical depression--that had been undiagnosed for over a decade. He promptly prescribed me an antidepressant. Within two hours of taking my first dose, my feelings of insecurity, loss, suicide, and hopelessness disappeared instantly. Even better, I'm heading to a top-ranked Ivy in the fall! :D

You may find that finding a psychiatrist you really click with not only takes a lot of time in terms of the sheer number of imbeciles that somehow passed their Boards but also in terms of getting an actual appointment. If you're a non-doctor, expect to wait a solid 1-2 months before there's an opening. While you're waiting, I recommend you do the following:
1) Call the Suicide Prevention Hotline if you think you might harm yourself.
2) Read as many philosophy/TOK books that you can get your hands on. I recommend starting out with Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.
3) Spend a few days camped out in the children's section of your local, upscale bookstore. Start out by rereading anything and everything by Dr. Seuss and Mother Goose; it may seem foolish to read children's books at first but you'll immediately discover how refreshing it is to discover some of life's most important virtues after flipping through only 50 pages. My experience has shown that nothing cures a broken heart and a depressed mind faster than learning about all the places you'll go once you're out of the rut you're currently in!
4) Watch a lot of feel-good, children's movies in your pajamas while eating nothing but junk food for two days straight. You'll probably feel like a slob after a while, so promptly hit up the rest of this list...
5) Read the biographies of people who really inspire you and who are doing the kinds of things you want to do with your life when you grow up.
6) Also read stories about the people who didn't make it; those who had millions of great ideas but who lacked the motivation and circumstances to succeed. I find that The Iceman Cometh always inspires me to at least clean my room.
7) Take out a piece of paper and fold it in half. On the first side, make a list of the traits, mannerisms, and beliefs your dreampartner has; on the other, make a list of what your dreampartner would expect in his/her partner. Then, examine both lists and actively take the baby steps necessary to turn your life around for good.

Feel free to MeMail me if you need anything!
posted by lotusmish at 10:26 PM on April 26, 2012


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