Category Archives: Thoughts & Opinions

Swedish Chef Therapy

 

This is my second in what will surely be a useful series of fictional-character-based self-help exercises. I’ve already told you how Spock can help you with some aspects of depression and anxiety by calling out your irrational side. Today we’re going to look at anger, and how to deal with it simply and effectively using what I like to call Swedish Chef Therapy, or MBAST: Muppet-Based Anger-Suppression Technique.

swedish chef

Credit: Connor Luddy via Flickr CC by 2.0

You’re angry. Frustrated. Irrational. Maybe your undies are too tight, you skipped breakfast, and have to sit beside Loudy McShoutington and his political opinions in the lunch room. Whatever the reasons, you’re successfully coasting through a tough day with gritted teeth and positive self-talk until you open your lunch and realize the sandwich artist put the wrong dressing on your sub.

We need to defuse this bomb before you give Mr. McShoutington the gift of a sandwich hat and you find yourself escorted out of the building.

1. Find two things you can hold in your hands. No weapons! Small everyday objects that you have nearby. A stapler and a water bottle are good options if you’re in the office. Just look around and get creative. They need to be big and heavy enough to really feel them in your hands – a pen is too small.

2. Get in front of a mirror. Alone. Lock yourself in the bathroom. If you’re at work, check for feet under the stalls. You’re about to get very, very silly, and you may not want witnesses.

3. Look mirror-you in the eyes. This part is important.

4. Hop up and down, flail your objects around like your arms are jelly, and sing as loud as you’re comfortable with:

Yorn deshorn, der burr beedish-kadoo
Yee bursh dee hurnder, de boor

BORK BORK BORK

If you’re not laugh-crying at yourself at this point, you need to go watch an hour-long playlist of Swedish Chef videos as a part of your training. If you’re prone to angry outbursts on a regular basis, you may need to start with advanced Swedish Chef Therapy right away and keep one of these chef’s hats in your desk drawer for emergencies.

swedish chef

Credit: Brian M, via Flickr CC by 2.0




Spock Therapy

Vulcan Lane Sign

Image credit: Wonderferret via Flickr, CC by 2.0

I’ve fought hard against depression and anxiety for decades. I’ve read so many self-help books and tried all the positive thinking in the world. I’ve yanked on my bootstraps and I’ve Stuart Smalley’d myself in the mirror. I’ve written about my depression. I’ve given therapists my life story and they’ve tried to dig into my subconscious to pinpoint what emotional upheavals in my childhood might have turned me into a nervous caffeinated Eeyore. It wasn’t until I stumbled onto cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) that my life finally started to change.

Cognitive therapy is hard work. Such hard work, in fact, that I wasn’t ready to take it on until I finally found a medication that lifted my depression just enough for me to dedicate my resources to anything other than basic needs. Even then, I was reluctant to take on the challenge. CBT is a long-term commitment. It’s not just dumping a week’s worth of troubles onto a therapist’s couch and walking away with a new bounce in your step. It’s constant repetitive work, like redirecting a fork-wielding toddler away from the power outlets, over and over and over.

Any Google search on CBT will quickly get you to a long list of “cognitive distortions” that get in the way of healthy thinking. It’s worth buying a copy of David Burns’ Feeling Good – The New Mood Therapy and reading through it yourself to really understand the research behind the therapy techniques. Essentially, you train yourself to recognize and label distorted thoughts as they come by, and then use appropriate techniques to challenge or “talk back” to them. Every time you check in and find your brain veering off course, you need to stop, focus, and correct it.

It can be intimidating to a beginner. I’ve recommended the book to friends who start out very enthusiastic and then abandon it after a chapter or two because it’s difficult or confusing. And it is difficult. Especially if the only therapy you’ve ever had (if any) is the introspective, cry-on-a-couch, relive-your-childhood-until-we-get-to-the-bottom-of-things therapy.

So I’ve found an easier way to approach it. If you want to start telling your irrational thoughts what’s what, but the books seem like gibberish to you, start simply. Don’t jump all the way in and splash around. Start logically. Your exhausted, anxious, depressed brain needs a first officer who can help you keep your shit together even when you’re falling apart. Your brain needs Spock.

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Let me explain.

The beauty of CBT, and the reason it connected so well with me, is that none of it is magic. No fake-it-till-you-make it, think positive, rainbows and unicorns pop-sci bullshit. It’s just logic. Pure, simple, and real. Logic. It’s Spock therapy.

At its core, CBT is simple: it’s about recognizing cognitive distortions. It’s about noticing when your thoughts need to be relieved of command. The purpose isn’t to change how you feel, at least not directly. It’s about recognizing that the thoughts you think contribute to which way your mood is likely to swing, and learning to control them instead of letting them control you. Everyone has irrational thoughts from time to time; the difference is that folks suffering from depression or anxiety have them more often, and believe them more often, and get trapped in a feedback loop of irrational thoughts causing very real feelings.

Now, CBT isn’t about never being sad: things suck sometimes and everyone deserves a good cry when it gets to be too much. And it’s not about never being angry: a kicked puppy is right to bite back. You’re allowed to have feelings! You’re human, after all. What the therapy does – what the hard work you put into the exercises does – is help you to assess whether the thoughts you are thinking make any sense, in context.

And who’s the best out there at telling an impulsive and irrational captain that he’s being ridiculous?

Kirk and Spock argue

Image credit: JD Hancock via Flickr, CC by 2.0

You know the logical answer.

Just imagine Spock (Tuvok will do, I’m not here to judge you on your Vulcan choice) on your shoulder, listening in on your thoughts. When your brain pulls out an irrational cognitive distortion, Spock is there to question you and make you reconsider. That’s his job as first officer. Don’t worry, you’re still the captain: sometimes, you’re going to decide that Spock is wrong and you’re going to accept your thoughts and feel your feelings. But before you dismiss your first officer, give him a chance to challenge you. When you start making statements about yourself or the situation you’re in, hand them off to Spock before you give them any weight. Think to yourself: What would Spock say?

Let’s take one of the most common kinds of distortions: “all-or-nothing thinking,” or applying a mental filter that accentuates the negative and discounts the positive.

“Dammit, I forgot my wallet at home again. I can’t do anything right.”

“Captain, that statement is illogical. You have, in fact, done several things right even in the past hour. You are wearing correctly-buttoned pants, and you drove yourself to this Trader Joe’s without breaking any traffic laws.”

How about “fortune-telling,” where you jump to conclusions (usually the worst ones) without any evidence. What would Spock say?

“He didn’t call back. I must have said something to offend him.”

Captain, telepathy is not a common human trait. Absent any evidence that he is in fact offended, you are basing your belief on conjecture. There are many explanations for a delayed response on his part, and your hypothesis does not carry more statistical weight than the others.

Irrational thoughts are sneaky. They can be really convincing, especially if they’ve been with you for decades or more. Talking back to them takes dedication and a lot of practice, and I honestly believe that the Feeling Good book is the best tool you can have in your pocket. Get the handbook, too, and really take the time to learn how your brain distorts things. Nobody else can do the work for you, and you can’t improve without effort. But that doesn’t mean that you have to make that effort alone.

Some people wear religious symbols – crosses, stars – or get meaningful images tattooed on their bodies to remind them they’re not alone in their journey. In my case my symbol is a reminder that I don’t always know best, because my thinking can list towards the irrational without my conscious mind realizing just how far off course we’ve gotten. If I’m not careful, I find myself fighting like mad just to stay in place as my depression and anxious thoughts pull at my mind like a tractor beam.

That’s why I depend on my first officer to help me make the right decisions about when to pay attention to what my brain is saying.

Spock and Kirk

Image credit: Sonny Abesamis via Flickr, CC by 2.0

Keep Spock with you. Let him help you.

He has been, and always shall be, your friend.

 




 

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Maybe I Use Too Many Monkeys

Monkeys. Too many monkeys. My brain is full of them. My cognitive control center is run by a monkey crew, none of whom work particularly well together or enjoy each other’s company. It’s never quiet up there. One of them is always worried about something, and they trip over each other to inform me about the VERY IMPORTANT THINGS that they think I need to deal with RIGHT NOW. They’re jerks. I really wish they’d shut up, because they’re causing some pretty serious anxiety these days and that’s a lot to deal with.

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Many people who seem to have their act together (including my trusted therapist) have suggested I try meditation as a strategy to deal with my anxiety. But I just don’t see how it’s going to work. There are too many monkeys. I know the point of meditation exercises are to quiet your mind, and to just let intrusive thoughts float through and be on their way, but I have too many thoughts. Too many monkeys reminding me about all the things I have to do. Not to mention the 24-hour round-the-clock repeating video of all the things I’ve ever done wrong.

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I envy people who can answer the question “what are you thinking about” with a simple, honest, “nothing.” If I’m asked the same question, the answer takes long enough that the listener should probably take notes to follow along:

This beer is good but I probably didn’t need the calories. But that caramel egg put me over a reasonable count for the day anyway. I should stop if I want to fit in any pants by next month. I need new jeans. When can I go shopping? Oh, clothes, wait. There are clothes in the washing machine, better get that in the dryer before bed. Liam needs socks tomorrow, he wore the last clean pair today. Oh, crap. Liam. I didn’t make Liam’s lunch for tomorrow, I should do that. Nuggets? He had those yesterday, I should probably change it up for him. But he won’t eat much else, this food thing is getting complicated. Maybe it’s time for the meal plan? But that’s expensive, what’s $15 a week come to, $3 a day? That’s a lot. Nuggets are cheap, fuck it. Oh, wait, I almost forgot the laundry!

**Note to my readers: I DID forget the stupid laundry after all.

Even if I could manage to succeed at meditation, I don’t understand how it can possibly fix an overactive mind. I guess it gives you a few minutes of calm, with a reduced heart rate and blood pressure and all that good stuff, but once you snap your fingers and pop back into reality, all those problems you were worried about are still there. And you’re now 30 minutes closer to death without having dealt with them. Even considering meditation makes me more anxious because it feels like a wasteful use of the precious little time I have to get shit done. I get angry just thinking about it. Seriously – just writing these sentences out and thinking about possibly trying to meditate has triggered an anger response in me.

To be honest, I can’t even say that I hate my monkeys. They’re so familiar to me now, and my brain would seem so quiet without them. I just wish I could train them to prioritize better.

Friends who meditate: how? How do you make it work? Have you evicted the monkeys? Or are yours just better-trained? What’s the point of the half hour of quiet, if it just means you’ve got to catch up with the world again afterwards? How can I approach meditation with something other than frustrated rage?




Don’t listen to idiots.

There’s a very important bit of information that you need to remember when the little voice inside of your head tells you that you suck, and nobody wants to hear what you have to say, and that you’ll never amount to anything.

That voice is YOU.

Think about what that means for a second.

The voice in your head says you’re an idiot.

But the voice is you.

The voice is most likely wrong in the first place. Chances are pretty good that you’re actually a lovely person worthy of love and hugs and wonderful things. But you quietly think to yourself that maybe it might be right, which is why you’re here reading this in the first place.

But that voice is you.

And that means if that voice is correct, and you’re indeed an idiot, then that voice must also be an idiot.

Don’t listen to idiots.

Shut up, voice.

 




Not a real green dress, that’s cruel

Losing lottery ticket

Image credit: Mark Turnauckas via Flickr under CC by 2.0

I did not win the huge Powerball jackpot.

That’s probably because I didn’t buy a ticket. It’s not that I don’t approve of lotteries or gambling; I’ve rubbed the edge of many a penny over a scratch-off ticket, across the table from my Grandmaman, and I’ve carefully picked out special numbers for the Quebec 6/49. I like the fun of dreaming, and holding a little slip of maybe in my hand. Before the numbers are picked I’m not a winner or a loser, and possibilities are endless.

But some possibilities are more possible than others. Statistics are mean. They’re even meaner when everybody in the country is buying a dozen tickets each for a 1-billion-dollar jackpot. So, since the chances of me winning were almost the same whether I played or not, I saved myself a few bucks and dreamed about the jackpot anyway.

If I had a billion dollars (if I had a billion dollars)…

I’d buy me an exotic pet. But not like a llama or an emu. Just another cat. Or two. And I’d build an extension on the back of the house so they could have their own room full of sun and windowsills and great views of bird feeders. I would also buy bird feeders. The kind that defend the seeds by spinning squirrels off into space. The cats and I would all enjoy that quite a bit, I think.

I’d have a bunch more kids, probably, because I could hire a Fraulein Maria to come and governess them and teach them music and make them clothes from the drapes. And I’d buy super nice drapes for their clothes. Good thread count.

I’d go back to school and learn a bunch of things that I want to learn, and pay absolutely no mind to whether or not the courses would be applicable to real life and a good job. I want to learn more medicine and history of science, and literature. And maybe learn German. German is cool. I’ll need a big study to do all this learning in, of course, so I’ll add one of those to the house (over the new cat playroom). One wall would be all windows, and the other three would be floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, with those sweet rolling ladders so I can get to the top shelves. And a comfy chair, and a big imposing desk, and a giant globe and a telescope and microscope and maybe a full-size Dalek just for kicks.

I’d drink better coffee. I know, I know, life’s too short to drink lousy coffee, but the nice stuff is like 50c a bean, so I’m keeping the family budget in check by drinking Kirkland’s Columbian in bulk. So if I had that billion dollars, I’d definitely drink the really expensive coffees via a state-of-the-art espresso machine (Maria would also know how to work an espresso machine and draw narwhals in the perfect foam on my cappuccinos).

Image credit: Marc Smith via Flickr, CC by 2.0

Not many foam narwhals in the image banks, folks. Image credit: Marc Smith via Flickr, CC by 2.0

And yeah, I’d travel and fix up my house and make sure my family was all set for their futures, but that stuff isn’t nearly as much fun.

You’d rather hear about how I’d sign up for a while bunch of thing-of-the-month clubs so I’ll get new wines and bacons and cheeses and pies sent to my door regularly. Because I totally would. And Maria would bring me a slice of my April pie and my narwhal cappuccino and take the children out to the park in their drapes, and I’d spin my globe, poke my finger down to stop it, and see where we should visit next.

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Why I’m Not Paris

paris

Image credit: PugGirl via Flickr under CC 2.0

If you know me on Facebook, you’ll know that my profile picture is currently a smiling photo of myself with my son peeking out over my shoulder from a baby carrier. Meanwhile, many of my friends’ smiling Facebook faces are overlaid with the translucent blue, white, and red stripes of the French flag: a gesture of solidarity with the people of Paris, who have endured great tragedy this week. I’m not alone in keeping my photo in its original state, but as I scroll through my feed, my face definitely stands out for its lack of color.

Why haven’t I changed it? Facebook makes it easy – there’s a little button I can click and it’ll give me a new “temporary profile photo” so I can join everyone in expressing sympathy. But I’m not going to do it. It’s not that I’m not upset by the horror that unfolded in Paris this week. I’m stunned and hurt. So many lives ended so senselessly. So brutally. If it can happen in Paris, it could happen anywhere. It could happen here. It could be me.

But it does happen anywhere. Everywhere. Every day. There are places in this world where death tolls like that are a weekly occurrence, and most of us don’t ever hear of it. Or if we do, we dismiss it because that’s just how it is over there, in those places we’ve never seen. They’re not cities, they’re “war zones” and “rebel strongholds.” How else to explain the lack of Facebook sympathy and outrage from my peers over suicide bombings in Beirut, the day before the Paris attacks? Or the millions fleeing unceasing horrors in their home countries, only to find closed borders? Or the systemic racism facing minorities here in America?

It’s overwhelming, and I can see the need to block out what you can, so you aren’t permanently paralyzed by your emotions. What cuts through are the tragedies that make you think “that could have been me.” Or a loved one. It’s human nature, I guess, to feel more deeply about an event when you can identify with the people involved. I know it’s true for me, but that truth makes me uncomfortable. It’s absolutely not right that it takes the deaths of people who look like me, in a place I’d feel at home, to stir my sympathy and support. It bothers me that the tragedies that break my heart the most always fit the same pattern. It bothers me a lot. I need to do better.

I don’t like the Jen who reacts to tragedy in a selective and privileged way. I don’t like that I’m more emotional about things that happen in Europe than in Syria. I don’t like that it’s easier for me to see myself in someone’s shoes when those shoes are on white feet.

Every single person killed in every single bombing or shooting or conflict was once a “me.” Every one. They matter. They count. They have to. Someone is mourning them. Someone’s life is torn in half by the loss of a son or a wife or a friend. They all deserve to be acknowledged.

No flag photo can say all of that. So I’m saying it here instead.

Reading List

I’m making a deliberate effort to read more, and I think it’s helping to rewire my brain in a way that will make it more productive. Good input leads to good output – eventually. My free time isn’t set up to allow for much book-reading right now, but I’m absorbing some great blogs in the spaces between my responsibilities. Here are a few of my current favorite sources of online input for you to explore, if you’re considering adding to your own reading list. Full disclosure: I know these people, at least in the Twitter sense of “knowing,” but I wouldn’t stand behind their work if I didn’t think they deserved it. I enjoy these things, so I am sharing these things with you. That’s how the world goes ’round.

Getting Ready to Go is a fun little blog about transitions and preparation and how to get from A to B in ways that make sense. Tasha writes most of the posts herself, but often invites guest posters (myself among them, yay!) to talk about their own experiences. Maybe you’re getting ready to go to a friend’s wedding, or getting ready for a wine and cheese date you’ve just been invited to with only 15 minutes’ warning. Maybe you’ve got a guest post you could share with her, too – think about it!

Nicole Dieker is writing a wonderful novel that’s coming out bit by bit as a tumblr serial and it’s really just the best thing. It’s called The Biographies of Ordinary People, and it’s exactly what it sounds like: a series of stories about people who are made so real on the page that you feel like you know them well enough to invite them to dinner. You can support Nicole’s talent over at Patreon if you’re so inclined. And you should probably incline yourself that way, because her work is pretty great.

I absolutely love reading Ken-inatractor, because he’s hilarious. He’s a Canadian farmer who’s experimenting with stretchy jeans in his middle age.  I was delighted to see a new post from him last week, because he’s been quiet for a while and I think the world needs more of him. I’m not sure if he’s going to be updating the blog regularly, but his archived posts are absolutely worth looking through if you want to binge-read.

What about you? What are you reading (or writing!) that I should add to my list? Funny, sad, educational, it doesn’t matter. I need to consume more good work, so I can improve my own.

It’s a Pooh Thing, You Wouldn’t Understand

I took a few hours out of my day to be with Liam for the Halloween parade at daycare today. I arrived early, half an hour before the big event, so I sat with him and the other kids in his class while the teachers caught them one by one to put their costumes on. The kids are all between one and two years old, so there was a lot of chasing and giggling and crying.

The first little boy to be dressed found himself stuffed into a Tigger costume that he wanted absolutely no part of, and he sat in the middle of the floor wailing and tugging at the scratchy orange velour. Of particular offense was the giant fluffy Tigger head that completely covered his own little head and was attached with a snap he couldn’t undo. As he continued to cry and strangle himself trying to behead his costume, I scooched a little closer to him, with Liam in my lap, and asked “Do you know what’s so wonderful about Tiggers?” He stopped crying and stared at me.

“It’s that Tiggers? They’re wonderful things.”

Blink. Tug.

“Their tops,” I poked his belly, “are made out of rubber!”

He stared at his belly.

“Their bottoms?” I wiggled his foot. “They’re made out of springs!”

He wiggled his feet.

“They’re trouncy pouncy flouncy bouncy,” I bounced.

“Fun fun fun fun fun!”

“The wonderful wonderful thing about Tiggers is you’re the only one! Yoooooooooou’re the only one!”

He applauded my effort and crawled off with Tigger’s head dangling around his neck.