Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Capturing Recovery Moments

Capturing Recovery Moments
Amy Grabowski, MA, LCPC

This is the time of the year when most clients reflect upon the past year and make plans for where they want to be in the coming year.  Unfortunately, most clients find themselves feeling discouraged because they aren’t where they think they “should” be in their recovery.  Their critical ‘Part’ tells them they aren’t far enough along or that their progress is too slow.  The Critic, stuck in its all-or-nothing thinking, often sets them up for failure by demanding huge “Momma may I Giant Leaps” of progress: “Starting today we will never make any mistakes and always say the right thing.”  “We will never overeat and will always stick to our diet.”  “We will never leave the house unless we are impeccably groomed and dressed.”  

Clients then complain in therapy, “I don’t think this is working.  I’ve been coming here for two months and I’m still overeating.  In fact talking about all the other stuff seems to be making the eating worse.”  Their Critic says “If you are not completely binge and purge free without effort then you are not recovering.”  The Critic discounts all the small steps of progress towards recovery. 

I encourage my clients at this time to “Capture Recovery Moments” every day.  Greeted with a quizzical look, I explain that every day we are given opportunities to learn about ourselves and about our body and to make small changes that add up to steps of recovery progress.  If we look for and capture these moments our recovery moves forward at a faster pace.  But at the same time I remind my clients, “You can only go as fast as your slowest Part.  Your recovery will take as long as it needs to take.”

I also have to remind them that there are two halves of recovery – the food/eating/ weight half and the thoughts/feelings/moods half.  Both of these halves are important and you cannot make progress in only one without making progress in the other.  This would be like walking using only one foot – you don’t get very far unless the other foot takes steps too.  (Editors note: See Article: “Both Halves of Recovery” from Vol 8 #3, September-December 2002 on our website: 
Capturing recovery moments can be as structured or unstructured as you want it to be.  You can set aside specific time, say an hour before bedtime, to writing in a journal as you reflect upon your day.  Or you could use little “snatches” of time already in your schedule, for example simply practicing relaxation and deep breathing while riding the bus.

One of the goals of capturing recovery moments is to become more mindful and to increase awareness of your body sensations, thoughts and emotions – something I like to call “Noticing the Noticing.”  A simple example: While riding the L home from work, Ellen noticed her shoulders were tense.  While she was noticing her tense shoulders she then noticed that a critical voice yelled at her, “What do you have to be tense about?!  Don’t be such a wimp!”  Usually she would begin to feel worthless at this point but instead she felt surprised at how quickly the yelling began, “I never noticed before that I yell at myself for such inconsequential incidents.”  She wrote this down in her calendar as a reminder to discuss this in her next therapy session.  Even though on the surface it did not appear to be a “Giant Leap” she somehow knew this was a major “A-ha!” moment in her recovery. 

Another goal of capturing recovery moments is to use every difficult situation and every “slip” as an opportunity to learn.  If something happens and you just yell at yourself, learning becomes blocked.  If you can suspend all judgments and criticisms, and allow yourself to step back from the situation or slip, and observe yourself objectively you can learn vast amounts about your Self, body, emotions and relationships.  Once you step back you can ponder, “What was I feeling or thinking before the slip up?  What was I looking for in the moment?  What could I have done differently?  What suggestions would I give to a friend from the ANAD support group?”  You can then apply that learning to the next time a similar situation arises.  If you have trouble or slip up, you simply step back and observe and learn once again. 

Ellen often became anxious in the grocery store and impulsively bought extra food that she didn’t need.  Usually she would get very stern with herself, “You are NOT going to buy any sweets or junk food!  What is wrong with you?!”  Rather than curbing the overbuying, she then bought even more.  

I encouraged Ellen to learn from this difficult situation and look at it not as a failure, but rather an opportunity to learn about herself and grow.  Imagining herself in the grocery store, she described the point at which she noticed the anxiety start.  We were able to connect the anxiety to a young Part of herself who was afraid she was not going to be fed.  This reminded Ellen of times in her childhood when her parents left the children home alone to fend for themselves.  Ellen resorted to eating raw foods because she was too young to cook.  When Ellen yelled at herself for buying sweets, her young Part panicked even more, fearing that her foods were going to be taken from her thus causing the overbuying. 

By looking at the situation without judgment or criticism, Ellen gained compassion for the young Part of herself.  She realized she needed to remind herself that she was no longer a child dependent upon others who were not there for her.  She promised the young Part there would be food for her to eat and she did not need to overbuy.  If in the future she slipped by yelling and overbuying, she knew it to be a reminder to take time before shopping to reassure the young Part again. 

Thursday, February 6, 2014

You're Too Sensitive

You’re Too Sensitive!
Amy Grabowski, MA, LCPC

Since empathy and sensitivity are both right brain qualities, when left-brainers don’t feel things physically or emotionally they don’t believe that you do.  “I’m not scared so you shouldn’t be either.  You’re just too sensitive.”  Left-brainers are also 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 their pain.  So now when someone says to me, “You’re too sensitive.”  I say, “Thank you.”)

Most of the time even reading or hearing the word ‘sensitive’, can feel like a kick in the gut.  It carries such judgment and negative connotations; it feels like a very negative trait to have, as if our reactions are inaccurate.  Like Taylor said, “Mom’s screaming didn’t seem to bother anyone else, like getting used to living next to a noisy airport.  I always wondered, why I couldn’t.  What’s wrong with me?” 

Sensitivity is not a negative trait.  Sensitive people are more empathic, the natural talent to know what other people are feeling, and the ability to walk in that person’s shoes.  We have tact when dealing with others and treat others with genuine warmth and caring; we would make great ambassadors, diplomats, ministers, and other professions that require these skills.  It is what makes me a natural for my career choice as a psychotherapist.  Combined with our creative visual nature, many of my clients are artists, musicians, actors, and writers.  In earlier times or in primitive societies a creative person with sensitive intuitive radar may have been a respected shaman or venerated as a sage. 

According to Elaine N. Aron in her book The Highly Sensitive Person, roughly thirty percent of any population (flamingos, squirrels, zebras, humans) is more sensitive than the rest.  Imagine a herd of zebras grazing in a field.  The sensitive zebras will detect subtle signs of movement off in the distance and will alert the rest of the herd to run away from danger.  Think about what would happen if 100% of the herd was sensitive?  The movement of one zebra lifting its head would alert all the zebras and start a stampede!  Conversely, if none of the zebras were sensitive, a lion would be able to walk right up to the herd and attack them without anyone noticing. 

Sensitive people are special that we have the ability to protect the “herd”.  Unlike zebras, which always want danger pointed out, humans often want to ignore danger.  Family systems can be set up around denying problems – remember what I said before about “Don’t rock the boat!”  It’s not just the sensitivity that causes the problem.  It’s the combination of sensitivity and the invalidating environment that causes a conflict inside.  If you are sensitive and the environment is validating, there is no conflict.  Let’s imagine being brought up by Mr. Rogers – you know the kid’s show on PBS.  When something upset you, he would respond in that wonderfully calming voice, “People can like you just the way you are.  Bad things sometimes happen to good people…” 

Conversely if you were insensitive to an invalidating environment you may not have noticed it, or if you did you would be able to let it roll off your back.  Your siblings may not have “felt” the problems in your environment as sensitively as you did.  (Although don’t assume they didn’t.  Many of my clients have siblings who are deeply troubled, but did not turn to an eating disorder for help.  Even the sisters or brothers who seem to have their act together can be hurting inside too.) 

In addition to being sensitive, people with eating disorders often are outspoken.  Maybe because of our sensitivity we notice more that is going on, more attuned to the environment, see the subtle nuances of others behavior and mood.  Because we are also acutely attuned to our own internal sensations and feelings, often to cope with these feelings we need to say something, which is not always met with positive results. (Although some were able to notice but not say it aloud.) 

I often will read the old story The Emperor’s New Clothes to my clients.  You remember the story:  The Emperor and all his subjects are tricked into pretending that he is wearing “clothing so fine that only a fool could not see them”.  It took the wisdom of a child, an outspoken perceptive child, to speak out, “The Emperor has no clothes” for the sham to come tumbling down!  I ask my clients to imagine the Emperor’s reaction to the child’s remark.  Do you think he said, “Thank you my child for exposing the sham”?  I highly doubt it!  I’m sure that he would have rather the child kept her mouth shut to save him the public humiliation. 

If a family doesn’t want to acknowledge that ‘the Emperor is naked’, the child’s perception and outspoken-ness causes conflicts with the family patterns of denial, “Don’t rock the boat!  We don’t talk about certain things.”  If a child is sensitive to the environment and notices that when Daddy comes home late he’s drunk and mean, she may get put down for this.  She may be asking questions that the family would prefer not to be asked.  And when she gets upset because of a problem in the family that others are trying to deny, she hears, “Don’t be so sensitive.”

We’ve been brought up to be good little girls (and boys); good little children never speak up, never get angry, are pretty and cute.  Good little children are always nice and do what others want.  Good little children never say, “No, I don’t want to kiss Aunt Maybelle, she’s an old crab!”  Oh no!  If we speak up, others won’t like it; we might make others mad and then they won’t like us.  We had to silence our voice and sacrifice our Self for others.  And if we don’t have the choice to say “No” then we never learned the skills, resources and tools necessary to negotiate what life dishes out.  Like the passengers on that runaway bus from chapter 1, we are at the mercy of the whims of our family!  Life feels like a very dangerous and out of control place.

By sacrificing our Selves, by silencing our voice, we took away our power.  Power is having a voice and a choice!  Many times our voice was silenced because we were not encouraged to use it.  In many homes, we didn’t have a choice – it was not safe to say “No.”  In other homes, the choice was made for us; we didn’t have control over our own lives.  Without a voice and a choice, we were powerless – you swallow your voice, you sacrifice your Self and you give Aunt Maybelle a kiss because that’s what good little children do….