The Compassionate Witness and other musings

Observing and Witnessing Myself

Remember that “Depression not being the same as feeling your feelings” thing? Well, I talked with my therapist a bit more about it as I was still confused about the whole thing. She explained a bit more about how when one is in a depressive state, you are only given a very narrow range of feelings (sad, hopeless, despair, etc.). Whatever other feelings you may have (in my case, anger) gets numbed out. She continued to explain to me that I could practice becoming an observer to myself, a sort of witness.

We had talked about this several times before, and interestingly enough, my life coach also recommends the same thing. Witnessing/Observing myself is to catch myself in moments of feeling depressed, anxious, etc curiously step back a bit and simply notice (without judgment) what is going on. Sort of a “Hmmm, that’s interesting” sort of thing as if I am watching someone else. They both tell me it’s a skill that needs to be exercised like a muscle and that the purpose of doing this is so that I don’t drown in my moments of despair. The more I practice, the easier it is to do. I’ve only done so a few times, and it does help, but once I’m drowning, it’s too difficult to become an observer. In those cases I have to remember to be very compassionate with myself and try to see that those negative thoughts are ghosts of my family history (dynamics) and not me (and definitely not true, even though they feel so much like the truth). I’ll have to ask her in my next session, what else I can do in those moments.

Fear

I had a light-bulb moment in our last session too. She was talking to me about how in my moments of fear, I can be compassionate to myself by not pushing myself so hard or judging myself so harshly. She gave me the example of a parent talking to a child who is afraid. You take the child by the hand and say “I’m here with you, we’ll go through this together. Let’s start off  small and slow and if or when it’s too much we can stop.” I immediately began to cry.

I told her that I had a flashback of me being four at my sister’s wedding. I was a flower girl and when it was my turn to step out, I became frozen with fear. I remembered seeing all those people and being so afraid of what they were going to think of me. I resisted going and out of frustration, my mom pulled me back and gave me a few spankings. I remembered trying to hold back my tears as I walked down the aisle. Then a flood of other memories came of times when I was afraid and I was punished for it. I remembered times when my fear was induced by my sisters and brothers. I remembered the one teacher who did console me when I was afraid to jump off the diving board in 4th grade, and the friend who told me I was stupid for being afraid. Holy shit, no wonder I get so paralyzed when I am afraid! As a grown woman, every time I feel fear (Do I go back to work? Do I change careers? Can I afford to pay my bills? Will I always have this struggle? Will I end up alone?) I punish myself! “What the hell is wrong with you? You should know better! That’s what you went to school for? You are so ungrateful! Damn you are so stupid, you’ll never get it!” and so on and so on. I cried because I never had that parent or parent figure tell me, when I was afraid, that “everything will be okay. You’re not alone. I’m right here with you.” Shit I don’t even know if anyone asked out of compassion why I was even scared! No wonder I can’t do it for myself!

Anger

About anger, I am realizing for the first time just how much my family’s anger shaped the way I treat myself. My house had a lot of yelling, criticism, and judgments in it, and I was well aware of how this affected my self-esteem, but I hadn’t really explored how deeply ingrained it was in me to the point where I am always speaking from that place, as if it were my own. I hadn’t realized that what I had always thought was my voice, was in fact their voice. What I thought was my truth was, in fact, their wounded voices. This goes beyond a low self-esteem and deep into my issues of feeling like I have no voice and feeling invisible.

My therapist explained to me that when adults yell or show other forms of anger, a child then feels angry and scared, but also feels non-existent, as if they have no right to be present, or as she puts it “a child X’s themselves out”. The original anger turns to depression, addiction, or other unhealthy coping mechanisms if the anger is not (allowed to be) felt in a healthy manner. As women, we are taught to NOT be angry (lest we be a bitch) and we turn it against ourselves, which can manifest in depression. Remember, depression is anger turned inward.

Basically what I believe I am beginning to understand is that I need to notice (observe) those moments when I’m angry and allow myself to be angry. If I’m depressed, then there is some underlying anger there that I’m not letting myself be aware of and it needs to be explored. After all, anger is a normal human emotion, but we tend to tuck that one away or make excuses for it.

So I busted out the journal and wrote down everything I was angry at. Family, friends, boyfriends, choices, bosses, everything I could remember. Then I decided to do some Capacchione workbook stuff and wouldn’t you know it, the chapter that was next was on “Accepting Your Angry Child”. The work was good and not as emotionally demanding as the last two chapters.  In this chapter I was able to let my anger out and explore what makes me angry and find ways of allowing myself to feel anger.

Competition

In my session with my life coach we explored my feelings of hating competition. Why do I duck out the back door every time I start to compare myself to other people. I look at people who are doing what I want to be doing and instead of drawing inspiration, I don’t even sign up for the event. “They’re so personable. They’re so pretty. They have a partner for support.” I make a good list of reasons why they succeed and I won’t. Side note here, if it’s something that I just outright have a passion for and I’m in a healthy state of mind, then I have no problem going for it. But when depressed, like now, it becomes more like the way I explained above.

So we did a visualization exercise. FYI, I think visualization is soooo weird, but I am putting some faith here as I’ve been doing it my negative pessimistic way and it hasn’t done much for me, so I figure “what could it hurt? At worst, I waste some time.”

In this exercise I focused on my earliest memory of feeling like I was competing. I remembered being in 1st grade and looking at the math packet chart. Everyone had so many starts for completing their math packets, and I had about 3 stars. I felt so stupid and like I was never going to catch up. I also remembered that when you finished a pack you could pick a book to keep. I had my eye on a book really bad, but because I was so slow (and Liz was a bitch), I never got it and Liz did. She was a smarty pants and knew I wanted that book.

So I then visualized standing next to this 1st grade me and letting her know that she wasn’t stupid, that she can learn the material and that it wasn’t being taught to her the right way. I also gave her a box of stars so she could put them by her name on the chart for all the other things she was good at. I told her she would complete the packets easily if she was patient with herself and went at her own pace. I then left her with the book she wanted and then told her that I would always be there for her when she needed me. I was basically being that compassionate parent to myself who told her “I’m right here with you, we’ll do this together” and walked with her through her fear.

It was a first step for me in addressing my fear of failure and competition. It was a first step for me in adopting a “me too” way of thinking. Or as RuPaul puts it “There’s enough pie for everyone”. It was a first step in me starting o feel comfortable with asking for help without feeling like people were going to think I was stupid.

“Compassionate Witness, Compassionate Witness, Compassionate Witness”. This has to be my new mantra for a while.

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1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Melissa
    Aug 05, 2010 @ 00:05:04

    Amazing work here. I recently discovered that when I criticize myself, they are usually the voices of my parents and society. So deep is my programming sometimes. I love that you are trying different things, like the visualizations. You are doing great, and anger is totally ok. My daily mantra is…”I give myself permission to just be”.
    I love you!

    Reply

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