Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Right Brain/Left Brain The Flip Side of The Same Coin

Right Brain/Left Brain and The Flip Side of the Same Coin 
Amy Grabowski, MA, LCPC

"Discover the person you were meant to be". You may have seen this tagline on our stationary or newsletters. In the last newsletter I ended my article by saying "In order to recover our "selves", we need to reclaim our right to be who we were meant to be." What do I mean "meant to be"?

Many of my clients, if not all, come to me saying they don't like who they are. They don't believe themselves to be likeable and have spent many years trying to be someone else; trying to not be themselves. Bonnie* remembers being told by her mother, "Why can't you be more like your sister, Bev? She's so quiet, (smart, good, neat, fill in the blank)." Bonnie on the other hand was physically active, talkative, funny and outspoken. As a child she started to believe that being active, talkative, funny and (especially) outspoken were "bad" and that there was something wrong with her. As she describes it she felt, "defective, not good enough". In order to get her mother's approval she had to stop being herself. She had to quiet the voice of her "Self" inside her. She did this by starving herself, by starving her "Self".

I want to tell you about two books I have read. This may seem like I am going off on one of my tangents, but I promise that it is relevant and I will come back to Bonnie's story later. My two children have Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD). They can both be very distractible, inattentive and in their own worlds. Helping them finish their homework can be excruciatingly difficult. Sometimes I would feel like I was going to lose my mind! Then I read Right-Brained Children in a Left-Brained World. As I read this book, I not only recognized my children, but myself and most of my clients as well.

You see, according to the author, the world is mostly left-brained: logical, analytical, orderly, sequential. Left-brained individuals "like making and following rules. They have a greater tendency to accept and appreciate what they hear and read rather than questioning and thinking independently. They like the familiar and the predictable; they often feel uncomfortable with new ideas, challenges, and surprises. They shine in jobs that involve a lot of routine and are at their worst when a crisis erupts that calls for creative problem solving." (Interpret that as: black and white thinking patterns, difficulty with transitions and change, rigidity: always solve problems in same way, never try anything different. These are hallmark characteristics of families of people with eating disorders!)
Right-brained individuals on the other hand are visual, holistic, whole-to-part learners; they excel at multi-tasking. They are intuitive, empathic and sensitive, both physically and emotionally. "They see a minimal need for rules, are impulsive, question authority, and embrace new challenges and ideas. They are highly competitive and perfectionistic."1 (Does that sound like Bonnie? Does that sound like you?)

As I said earlier, this describes most of my clients. Because they are intuitive, empathic and sensitive to other's feelings and moods, as children they learned how to "read" other people. But because they were children, they were not able to distinguish an opinion from a fact. Many of them came from left-brained families who did not like things or people that were "different". Define different? To a left-brained individual, different is anything that is unfamiliar or qualities that they cannot personally understand. Remember, left-brained individuals are uncomfortable with new ideas and challenges. Intuition, sensitivity, impulsivity, etc. are qualities that were often devalued, overtly or covertly. "Don't be so sensitive!" Does that sound familiar? After hearing these things over and over, many of these negative opinions are internalized into a definition of who they "think they should be".
(Because empathy and sensitivity are right brain qualities, left-brainers are unable to be sensitive to the impact of their words on the right-brainer. The frustration is that there is no appropriate "come back" to a left-brainer. "You're too insensitive" doesn't have the same "sting" to it. It is in my own humble "right-brained" opinion that the world needs more sensitive people. It would be hard to start a war if you were sensitive to the fact that each soldier has a family who loves him/her. It would be hard to hate another person if you could empathize with them. So when someone says to me, "You're too sensitive." I say, "Thank you.")

Now I don't mean I want you to blame your parents for your problems. This isn't about blame, this is about accepting responsibility for what is yours, and letting go of what is not. Not all parents are insensitive to their children, or deliberately put them down. Over the years I really have come to believe that most of my client's come from homes where their parents are doing the best they can. As my own mother said "Babies don't come with instruction manuals." But, there is quite a range of what constitutes "the best" these parents are capable of: from truly loving and well meaning, to inwardly empty and hurting, to intentionally sick and sadistic. As one client once aptly put it, "If they ain't got it, they can't give it." But I think it's helpful to realize where some of this devaluing came from even if the source didn't mean to make you feel devalued. If we can understand it, sometimes it's easier to change something.

So now that you are thinking, "Oh, I'm right-brained that's why I felt different", I'll tell you about another book that was very helpful, Teenagers With ADD, a Parent's Guide. Authors Jeffrey Freed and Laurie Parsons help parents of ADD children to see attributes of ADD in a positive light. For example, my children are highly distractible. Our family joke is that they can be distracted by air! If I view distractibility as negative, I might yell at them and make them feel bad about themselves. But if I look at it as a sign of their immense curiosity about how things work and the relationship of things in the world around them, I treat it positive. When they are distracted I remind them of their curious natures and help them to keep their curiosity in check until it is more appropriate to do so. They actually come away from this feeling better about themselves ("I'm curious!") but also in their ability to turn on and off certain behaviors ("I can focus now and not lose my momentum."). 

There is a flip side to every coin. Every quality or characteristic you have, even ones that others in your family didn't like, even one's that you don't like, can be seen as positive. Let's look at Bonnie again. It was easy for her to view being active as a good thing: being athletic is already a plus in our society. She started viewing her sense of humor as an advantage. The ability to put others at ease, to break through tension by saying something funny can be a real asset. Humor is also a way to view life less seriously.

Bonnie had trouble finding anything positive in being outspoken. (It is often the outspoken member of the family that clashes the most with the critical parent, because she may speak about those things that the family ignores, hoping it will go away. "Don't rock the boat!" is a common family motto.) When we started to discuss people throughout history who were outspoken, for example Rosa Parks, she began to see that outspoken people have a strong sense of justice and can make changes in the world by saying "I don't like this. I think this is wrong." I asked her to think of what would happen if there were no outspoken people in the world. When she could link her outspoken nature with her power to make changes then she could appreciate this quality too.
Getting back to what I said in the beginning of this article, the person you were meant to be was born whole, lovable and likeable, perfect just as she was. When we can shed others' opinions about these qualities, then we can decide for ourselves that we are "good enough".

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Feeling Like a "Disappointment"

Feeling Like a "Disappointment" 

Amy Grabowski, MA, LCPC

("Bonnie" is a composite of many of my clients who have had similar experiences with similar reactions.)

"Bonnie" came to my office feeling depressed. Over the weekend, she had attended a wedding (or a baby shower, or an engagement party) of a close friend. Even though she had a good time, she noticed a nagging doubt come over her. She started thinking, "I'll never get what my friend has." As the evening wore on she felt more and more alone.

As we explored these feelings I wondered aloud what her friend had that she wanted. "I'll never be loved like she is," came the reply. I could have pointed out the distorted thinking patterns or her inability to predict the future, but instead I asked why she thought so. "I'm not lovable. There's something wrong with me."

At that moment I knew what she was feeling because back in my own eating disordered days I too felt the same way. And even though I knew the answer I asked the next question anyway, "When was the first time you felt this way?"

"I've felt it all my life."

"As a child, what did you feel?"

"Like I was a big disappointment to my parents."

Many clients use words very similar to these. The events that trigger these feelings may be different, but the feelings almost always boil down to the same thing: "I'm a big disappointment to my parents. I'm not who they wanted as a child. There must be something wrong with me."

I have to preface the next part by stating that I firmly believe that all children are born perfect and whole, likable and lovable, just as they are! And if nurtured in an accepting and validating environment, they would be "perfect" just being themselves. (Being a parent myself, I know that there are NO perfect parents, NO perfect environments. Even the most empathic, nurturing parent sometimes has bad days or says hurtful things now and then. And the messages I am talking about in this article are not the result of the few times that a parent rolls their eyes and sighs with exasperation, but rather the accumulated effect of repeated occurrences of negative responses to the child.)

As I mentioned in the last newsletter many people with eating disorders got overt/or covert messages that said, "In order to be lovable, you should be different, you shouldn't be you." Now in the 14 years that I have been working with people with eating disorders I have consistently found them to be wonderful, likable, talented, incredible people, just as they are! So how did they develop the feeling that deep down inside they are "a disappointment"? I'd like to give an example from my own family.

I have a son and a daughter who I love very much, but more importantly I really like them. I think they are both great kids and I enjoy being with them very much. My daughter, Alison and I are very much alike in both appearance and temperament. So while raising her, I often have been in situations where it feels like I am watching old movies of my own childhood. When Alison was only 6 years old, she and her cousin James were hiking around in the woods by my parents house. I was relaxing and talking to the rest of the family, when all of a sudden we heard both kids screaming! They had disturbed a bees nest and Alison was stung repeatedly on her back. (If you've ever been stung by a bee you know how painful and frightening that can be! Now imagine that you are only 6.....) I ran as fast as I could, scooped her up in my arms and carried her, up the hill, to my parents house. She continued to scream and cry as we inspected the stings. My father volunteered to drive into town to buy some children's Tylenol and Benedryl for her. Sitting in a rocking chair together, I rocked her for a long time, applying ice to her back, while she continued to cry. I kept telling her, "It's going to be OK. Mommy's here." Eventually, my father arrived and we gave her the medicines and she was able to fall asleep.

Why am I telling you this story? It's because of my mother's reaction to the event. After we left she told my sister, "Alison always makes such a big deal about everything. She's such a drama queen." My first reaction was anger. "How dare she criticize my daughter! She's just a little girl!" I wanted to say I didn't care if my mother liked my daughter or not, that I liked her and thought she was a very likable little girl. But it really bothered me that my mother often didn't like my daughter. She's too "flamboyant", too outspoken for my mother, who prefers children who play quietly in the corner, who are "no bother". Then an incredible sense of sadness came over me. I started remembering all the times when I was a little girl and also was told in overt and covert ways that I was "too much", or "too over-the-top". I didn't feel liked or likable. I felt like a disappointment, like there was something wrong with me. And each time this happened I would try to not be me and a little bit more of my "self" was sacrificed.

I included this example to show that the problem doesn't lie in the personality of the child. But rather in the needs, preferences, or expectations of the parent. Maybe the "disappoint-ments" from your past are less tangible. If your parents wanted you to be an "easy child" then every time you were "fussy" you would feel their disappointment. If you were supposed to be a perfect showcase child, then every time you were messy or made a mistake (when you were "human"), they would be disappointed. If your body was supposed to be skinnier than it was genetically meant to be, they would be disappointed. If you were supposed to make mommy "happy",... yep, you guessed it, disappointment. And each time you may have vowed to be a different person, to not be your "self".

One of the developmental tasks a young child is supposed to learn is that love is constant. I believe that love should be like the oxygen in the room. Its just there, you don't have to think about it. But many people with eating disorders came from homes where love was turned on and off like a light switch: If you displease me, I'll love you less. If you make me angry, I won't love you. (Imagine if parents turned off the oxygen when they were displeased! We would report them for child abuse!)

Part of recovery is reclaiming our "lovability"! We were lovable even when we were "fussy". We were lovable even when we would rather run around the back yard than sit and look pretty. We were lovable even when mommy was unhappy - (that's a whole article unto itself!!!)

In order to recover our "selves", we need to reclaim our right to be who we were meant to be. We have to reclaim our inherent talents and personalities and see them as being "good enough" just as they are! In the next issue I will talk more about this in my article: "Right Brain/Left Brain and the Flip Side of the Same Coin".

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Get Out Of Your Head!!!

Get Out Of Your Head!!!

Amy Grabowski, MA, LCPC

"I have read every book there is on eating disorders. I could recite everything there is about eating disorders. I don’t understand why I can’t get it through my head and just eat normally. I don’t know what’s wrong with me."
When I hear this from clients or from members of the ANAD support group, I tell them, "Recovery isn’t through the head, we can’t think our way to recovery, you have to recover through your body." My response is usually met with quizzical looks. Most women with eating disorders live their lives in their heads, almost as if they have vacated their bodies. They are adept at thinking their way out of anything, out of their emotions, even their body sensations for hunger, fullness, fatigue and thirst. In order to recover, they need to get out of their heads and back into their bodies.

"What do you mean get out of my head?" Well first I must reiterate that eating disorders are not about food, eating or weight, but rather a lack of a sense of "self" - kind of like going downhill, on a winding mountain road, at night, in a horrendous thunderstorm, on a bus, WITHOUT A DRIVER!! It is very scary, like life is spinning out of control around you and there’s nothing you can do about it!

The "missing self" is often experienced as an inner emptiness, dark and frightening - and because the person knows something is missing but doesn’t know what - often this emptiness is judged as "I’m wrong, bad or defective. "

But you were not born this way, I guarantee it!

When you were born you were whole and perfect in everyway!! Around the age of 2 you formed a sense of self. Children of this age are very physical and express their likes & dislikes mainly through their bodies and voices. Picture yourself at 2 and maybe you’ll see a child running through a backyard sprinkler, laughing aloud. You felt good about your "self" and about your body.

This is also when you discovered a very powerful word: "NO!" (Kind of like "I disagree, therefore I am!") Each time a child says "No, I don’t like that" she is actually affirming her sense of self. And if you were raised in the "Mr. Rogers" style of parenting you would be told, "You are perfect just being you", "People can like you just the way you are". This also affirms your sense of self.

But most women who have eating disorders were not raised in this manner. They learned early on "In order to be loved by you , I have to give up pieces of being me." (Of course being born a female in a male-dominated society that says "Women should not express anger, be loud, speak their minds, be too physically active, have an appetite for food or sex" just sets the stage for these kinds of messages.)

Think back and remember what you were taught early on about being your "self". Were you called a crybaby, or told you were too sensitive? Then you had to sacrifice your emotions in order to please someone else. And since you couldn’t, you replaced being comfortable with your emotions with shame
"What’s wrong with me that I have these feelings?"

Maybe you were placed in the role of being your mother’s mother. You had to sacrifice your need for nurturance in order to take care of her. Again, when you couldn’t, you thought "I’m too needy." Every time your feelings were invalidated: ("I’m sad." "No, you’re not. You have nothing to be sad about"), you stopped trusting your feelings and self-doubt grew. If you lived in an abusive environment where you were told that you were worthless, unlovable, or unwanted, you stopped feeling good and believed these messages instead.

So, scattered in your past are pieces of your "self", and where your "self" should have been you began to feel a "hole". If you have no sense of self, the body becomes simply an empty container, a thing. And of course how that thing, that container looks becomes very important. "I have to look good in order to be worthy." "I don’t know who I am, so I have to act how others want me to be."

What happens then is that rather than trust our "self" which speaks to us through our body (our gut wisdom), we start to live in our head. We think about everything. And we get very good at talking ourselves out of anything. Rather than trust our emotions, we say things like "He didn’t really mean to hurt my feelings, he’s just tired." Or "I shouldn’t be angry, I must have done something to deserve this." "I can’t speak up, no one will ever like or love me if I complain." And because we don’t trust our bodies either, especially with our emphasis on "looking good" in a society that says you have to be "pin thin" in order to be beautiful, we can talk ourselves out of listening to our body cues too. "I can’t really be hungry, I just ate an apple three hours ago." "No one else is eating, so I shouldn’t need to eat yet either." "I’m not really tired today, I’m just a lazy slug."

"So what can be done about this?" The goal is to turn off the head long enough to listen to that very quiet voice inside that "knows". I’m not talking about a thinking kind of knowing, but a deep "gut instinct" kind of knowing. This is the voice of the "self", what I often refer to as "Wisdom". It is often difficult for clients to listen to wisdom because the voices of their other parts are usually so much louder and more urgent. These voices are also more familiar because you’ve been listening to them so much longer. In order to get to "wisdom", you may need to imagine wading through a crowd of people who all want to get your attention, telling each one, "I’ll be with you in a moment" or "I’ll be right back". Sometimes I’ll suggest that a client visualize turning off switches that control speakers, so that the voices are quiet enough to hear "wisdom".

"So what? Why would I want to listen to wisdom?" When you are in wisdom, in your "self", you feel centered and calm. A quiet peacefulness comes over you. You feel more assured, more confident in your ability to handle whatever comes your way. When you find your "self" its like getting into the drivers seat of that bus. Most people say the first thing they would do is put their foot on the brake and slow down. By steering the bus themselves you take control of your life, its not so scary and out of control.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Rubber Bands and Tuning Forks

Rubber Bands and Tuning Forks

Amy Grabowski, MA, LCPC

“No one can make you feel inferior without your permission ” Eleanor Roosevelt

“It happens all the time. My boss will criticize one little part of a report and suddenly I feel like I’m just not good enough. I spend the rest of the day seeing all the ways I just don’t measure up. By the time I make it home at night I feel totally worthless.”

What makes you feel inferior? You might say your boss, your mother, your husband/partner, your friends. It may even be people you don’t even know. According to a recent University of Toronto study, women who read magazines full of ads featuring skinny female models, suffer more from low self-esteem than those who don’t. A source of constant frustration and helplessness, we are surrounded by images of women who are “perfect” in every way.

We realize that we can’t control others from making negative remarks or from having negative opinions. We can’t stop the advertising industry from using “perfect” skinny female models. We can’t change the way TV or movies glorify the woman who can do it all perfectly. But we can stop giving them permission to make us feel inferior. How? Get rid of the rubber band thoughts and change the tuning fork in your head. Huh???

A rubber band thought is when we take a casual comment or event and twist it and stretch it until it means something totally different from the original comment or event. Someone doesn’t return a phone call, and you say, “If they really cared about me they would have called today. They must not really like me. Who am I kidding? No one really likes me anyway.”

These rubber band thoughts are based on distorted thinking patterns. If we could get rid of the distortions, then our thoughts would be based on facts and realities rather than “rubber bands”. I will often ask clients, “Would those thoughts hold up in a court of law? What are the facts?” The fact is that there are hundreds of reasons why someone wouldn’t return a phone call: working late, got sick, car troubles, felt overwhelmed. And the fact is that 99.99% of these reasons have NOTHING TO DO WITH YOU, or your worth as a human being! The client’s comeback is often, “But I feel....” (In court you’d hear, “Objection!”) Negative feelings about our-selves are often based on more rubber band thoughts, distortions.

Changing how we feel about ourselves means listening to what we tell ourselves so that we can then OWN OUR OWN THOUGHTS. When Cindy Crawford appears in a magazine, she is not thinking a thing about you, your body or your worth as a human being. You are! You are the one who is saying, “Her body looks so great, I’m a worthless lump!” Did you recognize the rubber band in that thought? Great! I knew you’d catch on.

But what about when someone does criticize us. That’s the tuning fork. Did you know that if you had two tuning forks that were the same key and you struck one, the second one would start resonating? If they were different, the second one would remain silent. To illustrate this, imagine that someone told you to shave half of your head, paint an American Flag on your face and wear a pink striped square-dance dress to work tomorrow. Most of us would find that nothing happens, there is no resonance. Why? Because you don’t have a tuning fork in your head agreeing with the comment. Now imagine someone saying, “I liked your hair before you cut it.” Wow! Did you feel your tuning fork resonate?

What that means is that when someone criticizes us we also hear an echo of the same criticism in our heads that was already there. Unconsciously we are agreeing with them. But often a tuning fork will turn into a rubber band. For example, your boss loves the report you did but wants you to change the wording to make it more “user friendly”. First the tuning fork, “I should have re-read the section to hear it out loud.” Then the rubber bands, “I never take enough time with my reports. What’s wrong with me. I’ll never get any where with this firm. They must all think I am just a bimbo.”

In this example, the tuning fork was actually helpful. If we had just stopped with the tuning fork we would have learned something valuable that would have made us “Learn and Grow”. But the rubber band thoughts prevent us from making small steps of growth because we twist it into a matter of personal worth.

But what about when the tuning fork isn’t helpful? If, for example, your mother is a very critical person, whenever you see her she starts criticizing your hair, your job, your partner, your vacation plans, etc, etc, etc. It would be so easy to slip into the same pattern of resonance with her and walk away feeling hopeless and worthless. Instead, we need to realize that her negativity is her issue, not ours. We can then remind ourselves that we are working on more important issues in our recovery program. We can reflect upon our many baby steps of progress.

How do we stop our tuning fork? First we need to become aware of what we are telling ourselves. Many women in our society have tuning forks that unconsciously agree that “tall, thin women are superior to short or large women”. If we look at all our thoughts consciously, we find we really don’t agree with them. We can substitute rational factual thoughts that help us achieve what is really important in our lives.

The book, Feeling Good by David Burns, is very helpful in learning how to challenge negative distorted thoughts and substituting rational facts in their place. He advocates writing down your thoughts, but if writing turns you off saying them out loud or making an appointment with yourself to think about it can also work.

I often suggest that you imagine that a friend is with you all day. When you are having rubber band thoughts, ask yourself, “Would I say this to my friend? Would I call my friend a worthless lump?” No? What would you say? You’d tell her that not everyone is genetically designed to look like Cindy Crawford and that she has many attractive qualities of her own. You’d tell her that just because her boss told her to change the wording that she still is a likable and competent person. You’d tell her that just because she can’t please her mother doesn’t mean she is worthless and hopeless. You’d tell her that you like her just the way she is.

Eventually you will be able to tell yourself these things too.