Sunday, February 21, 2016

The Beautiful People

It seems to me that one way of approaching individuality is to want to stand out from the crowd and be recognized for one's uniqueness.  I definitely felt that way as a child; I yearned to be "the best" at something--anything, really--and craved the specialness and celebration that would come along with that (it never happened).  But as an adult, I seem to have taken the opposite approach:  my wish is to blend in and be, for lack of a better expression, "just like everyone else."

I'm not even entirely sure what that means.

Well actually, I do know what it means, kind of.  It means I want to be like the Beautiful People.  Who are they?  They are the women I work with and the young adults who go to my shul.  The Beautiful People are socially confident, partnered, and fashionable...and best of all, they belong.  They are never the ones standing around awkwardly at kiddush; they never appear uncomfortable; they somehow instinctively know which necklace or scarf will pair well with which outfit.  The Beautiful People follow the typical trajectory of adult development:  degree, job, partnership, kids--all before age 40.  Whatever is the secret to normalcy, they all seem to know it.

And I?  I can stand in one spot for 20 minutes watching birds, but after 5 minutes of small talk I'm bored out of my mind (either move on to what matters, or let's call it a day).  I am often the one standing around awkwardly at kiddush. I literally have to give myself a pep talk before going to social events. Makeup rarely occurs to me.  And, unlike pretty much everyone I know in my age bracket, I'm single and do not have children on the horizon.  

What's interesting is, taken by themselves, none of those traits bothers me much.  I've been to a lot of therapy and I like who I am, more or less.  But there's no question in my mind that I would have an easier time belonging if I was a different sort of person--a Beautiful Person.

Now, thanks to all that therapy, I'm fully aware that I'm engaging in at least four cognitive distortions (perhaps more!) when I get into this line of reasoning.  The truth is, I know that the "Beautiful People" whose easy lives I envy actually have problems of their own. I also recognize that I don't know them well at all, and it's entirely possible that they feel much more insecure than they appear.  But all of that rational thought pales in comparison to the envy and awe that I feel as I watch them move in their social circles, stylish, coupled, and at ease.

Lately I have been thinking a lot about what it means to move through life on a different path and at a different pace than most of one's peer group. I reached out to several of my Recovery Mentors, all of whom are strong, authentic women who have, in one way or another, gone about life in a "less traditional" way.  I asked them two main questions:

1) How do you go about feeling confident in a life that brings you joy if you are not in sync with your peers?

2) How do you counter the inner voice that pesters, "What's wrong with me, that I'm not like everyone else?!"

My mentors responded with wisdom, vulnerability, and empathy. They let me in on their own journeys and how they found confidence and self-acceptance without needing to conform in all ways. Best of all, they showed me that although I often feel like the "only one" who has these challenges, I am most definitely not alone in the struggle to live authentically.  And in response to my second, "What's wrong with me?" question, one of my mentors had this to say: 

"Absolutely NOTHING. There is something so very right and very you that you are not like everyone else."

It was exactly what I needed to hear, and it made me think of the Jewish belief that we are all created b'tzelem Elohim, in G-d's image.  In Chapter 3 of Pirkei Avot, Rabbi Akiva says: "Beloved is man, for he was created in the image [of G-d]; it is a sign of even greater love that it has been made known to him that he was created in the image, as it says, 'For in the image of G-d, He made man.' (Bereishit 9:6)"  Not only are we each created in G-d's image, but G-d has taken the extra step of letting us know this about ourselves, so we can feel at ease with who we are and what path we are on.

When I stop comparing myself and my life with the fictitiously perfect lives of other people, I can recognize that there is a lot that is "so very right" about who I am.  I appreciate my ability to be patient and quiet and notice what is around me. I value my introversion and introspectiveness, but I know that I can connect deeply with other people.  I'm thankful that my mother taught me that a woman can, in fact, leave the house without makeup on.  And, I'm profoundly grateful for the qualities I have that will hopefully help me become a great foster or adoptive parent one day--whether I'm partnered or not.

G-d, in His infinite wisdom, made us each with the precise qualities that we need to have to fill our place in the world--and He has made sure we know that He loves us as we are.  But sometimes we will forget, and in those times, we all need people in our lives who will answer our cries of, "What's wrong with me?!" by saying, "Sister, listen: you are exactly who you are supposed to be."  I wish for us all that we have wise friends and loved ones who can guide us toward self-acceptance in those times when we need reminding of just how "right" we are.      

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Depression--it's the Pits

You know it's going to be a bad day when one of your first thoughts upon waking is, "I hate this."  Never mind that you might not even be sure what "this" is--you're in a Mood, and the Color of the Day is grey.

Maybe you manage to get yourself to work or school where task-driven adrenaline propels you along as the ever-competent person you are, but behind the smiles and efficiency is the thought, "I will not make it through this day." But, of course, you do, because what is the alternative, really?  The more you get done, the more overwhelmed you become by all that there is yet to do, even once you finally get home ("Wait...I have to SHOWER?!")  The very IDEA of simply standing under the water is enough to make you curl into the fetal position on the couch and stay there for a good long while.

You probably can't help but notice that everyone else in your life seems happy and well-adjusted (even if you know they really aren't, you still allow yourself to think that they are). And instead of rubbing off on you, everyone else's happiness only makes you feel more alone, more sad, and more discouraged at the state of your own life.

After feeling like this for several days, or weeks, you start to worry that you will be like this forever.  You don't actually want to be dead, but you also don't want to continue on the path that you're on, and change just does not seem in the cards.

That's depression, friends.  I've been there.  And it is the worst.

Even though I spend less time in that state of mind now than I did in the past, I still revisit it every now and then, and even though I know it is time-limited and I know it's just me being out-of-sync biochemically, it is still real and painful--and incredibly isolating.  I thought about that recently while I was in one of these Moods, and I noticed that during the entire two weeks that the depression lasted, I did not ask any of my friends for help in the moments when I needed it.  That led me to wonder, Why is it so hard to ask for what we need?

Personally, I can think of several answers.  To start, depression is too hard to explain. What can you really say to convey to someone how awful you feel despite the fact that your life is objectively not so bad?  And then, there's the issue of how your "neediness" will be received. Sure, there is the potential for empathy, but there is also the risk of being told some version of, "You're too much for me"...and if you're anything like me, that does not always seem like a risk worth taking.

Last week, as I struggled with the question of, "to tell, or not to tell," I came across a bit of wisdom by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, in his book, A Code of Jewish Ethics, Vol. 2.  He cites a story of some peasants who were drinking in a tavern, and one peasant asked another, "Tell me, do you love me or don't you love me?" The other peasant said that he did love the first peasant, to which the first peasant replied, "You say that you love me, but you do not know what I need.  If you really loved me, you would know."  The lesson?  That loving another person means knowing his or her needs and offering help without being asked.  In response to this story, Rabbi Telushkin says the following:

"One day, though, it occurred to me that the second peasant might truly have loved his friend, but just didn't know what was bothering him or precisely what he needed.  Indeed, how many people who know you--and who may well love you--might not be aware of all the things that cause you to be upset or sad?...perhaps the first peasant should have told his friend what he needed or what was troubling him and thereby offered him the chance to be helpful and empathetic."

I can see the wisdom in this...after all, when my friends come to me with their sadness or troubles, it feels very satisfying and rewarding to be able to offer them comfort. In fact, those moments bring us closer together. So why am I denying my friends the same opportunity?

Sometimes, when I'm in the middle of depression, it seems like the best thing to do is to just grit my teeth and push through--because that's what a "strong" person would do.  But Rabbi Telushkin offers another perspective on that misconception, as well, through a short story:

"A little boy was struggling to lift a heavy stone but could not budge it.  The boy's father, who happened to be watching, said to his son, 'Are you using all your strength?'  

'Yes, I am,' the boy said with irritation.

'No, you're not,' the father answered. 'You have not asked me to help you.'"

It's hard to remember, in the moment, that asking for help is a sign of strength--in fact, it's foolish to think we can go it alone.  Maybe that means asking a friend, or a family member, or a therapist...or G-d.  I'll admit that I did not do a good job of this during my most recent foray into depression, but next time (because there will be a next time!) I am going to make it a goal to reach out to at least one friend and try to let her in on how I'm feeling.  I encourage you to do the same...because a little companionship can make anything, even depression, a lot more bearable.

For more on asking for help and responding with empathy, watch this short gem narrated by Dr. Brené Brown. Pretty much nails it.