Validate me, please!

IMAG0019

Photo by LBoatwright

Have you ever had your parking validated? Basically, in a place where you’d have to pay for parking – such as a shopping center – if you purchase a product or service therein, that store will sometimes offer to validate your parking. They stamp your parking ticket, and as you exit the garage, you no longer have to pay. In essence, you’re one of us now, so we share with you our benefit of free parking. Parking validation is a wonderful thing! On the flip side, losing your parking ticket or not having it validated can be stressful and costly.

It’s an amazingly accurate metaphor for real life. Personal validation is also a wonderful thing, the sense of belonging. It takes countless forms: people shake hands, or hold hands, hug, have meaningful conversations, get praise, get promotions – even something as seemingly insignificant as a quick “thank you” from a store clerk is a tiny affirmation: you belong.

When we are hurting, our emotional eyesight can easily become impaired. Rejection and failure are real, and they are survivable, but if our self-worth is already damaged, if we struggle with depression and negativity, setbacks such as these not only feel insurmountable – they can seem like an overwhelming condemnation of our entire person. We may be able to see the validation in the lives of others, but can no longer perceive it in our own. Losing our emotional parking ticket can leave us feeling as if we don’t even belong in our own lives. It’s a horrible place to be, and a difficult one to pull yourself out of, but it can be done.

Start by determining the source of most of your personal validation. For some, it comes from within – from their faith in a Higher Power, or from a positive self-image. For those with depressive disorders, validation is frequently sought from outside sources. We desperately want the people around us to say and do kind things which cancel out the critics in our life and in our brain.

The problem with the external approach is, although we may find somebody who validates us at first, at some point they will have a bad day or become critical. When we build our self-image on the opinions of others, that first unkind word – even if it was unintentional – can completely erase all of the previous positives in their entirety, leaving us desperate again to silence the inner critic. We begin to doubt the other person ever meant any of the nice things they said. If criticism is frequent — if a family member, friend, partner, or employer is constantly pointing out our flaws — over time we allow these to criticisms to become our truths.

Try to consider the opinions of others, whether good or bad, as “free parking” – a ticket which can be easily lost, but not a show-stopper. Remember, nobody has ever had to live in a parking garage because they lost their ticket. Likewise, you don’t have to remain lost in your own life because you’ve lost the validation of somebody else.

Spend time each day strengthening your internal validation. I mean, really give it a workout! Begin making a list of accomplishments and go back as far as you can remember. Any “A” on a school assignment, any raises or promotions, even any “thank you’s” – nothing is too small. You may be tempted to self-edit by sorting your accomplishments into buckets of “that didn’t really matter” or “it’s stupid to consider that an accomplishment.” DON’T! If you find yourself editing, recognize your brain has become wired to filter out the positives. Remind yourself the only way to fix your filter is to count every positive, no matter how small it may seem.

You can heal your brain, and you can learn to filter out unwarranted criticisms. You can get to a place in your life where, when somebody says something hurtful, you can recognize it as just a thing which was said and not a guilty verdict about who you are. It takes a lot of practice, and for many it will mean making conscious decisions throughout the day to filter out messaging which tears you down.

For every criticism you hear – whether internally or externally – remind yourself of three of your accomplishments or positive characteristics. Over time, this positive three-point counter-punch will become a habit. Your new way of thinking will allow you to be content within yourself, and to never again lose your sense of belonging.

 

 

 

Forgiveness vs. Second Chances

zach-reiner-631842-unsplash

Photo by Zach Reiner on Unsplash

Have you ever known somebody who said something like, “If you really forgive me, you’ll give me another chance”?  It’s such a powerful challenge. It simultaneously manipulates us while evoking guilt and self-doubt. For nearly my entire life, I was led to believe forgiveness meant giving second chances – and third, fourth, then infinite chances. I believed if I wrote somebody out of my life or burned bridges, it wasn’t because the other person was toxic, but because I was faulty.  Have you ever felt like you were a bad person simply because you wanted to protect your self-worth from a bad relationship?

Lately, I’ve come to understand the difference between forgiveness and second chances.  I’ve also learned failing to understand the difference often leads us to make decisions which not only have a lifelong impact, but can worsen or even cause chronic depression and anxiety.  In short, the difference is this:

Forgiveness is about us.  Second chances are about the other person.

Time may heal all wounds, but forgiveness keeps them from festering.  Have you ever heard the saying depression is anger turned inwardWe forgive others and ourselves because it frees US.  It allows us to remember whatever took place as an event and not a reflection of ourselves.  In other words, we don’t have to allow a mistake or another person’s behavior to define who we are.  Instead, we can learn from it, and even appreciate it as a valuable life lesson, then move on.

The movie Diary of a Mad Black Woman teaches some powerful lessons about forgiveness, but I especially loved this idea (paraphrased):  You know you’ve forgiven somebody when the opportunity to hurt them in some way becomes available … but you don’t take it.  Be careful here.  If you are experiencing depression and anxiety because somebody else is continuing with a behavior which you have told them is hurtful to you, you may not actually be forgiving them, but rather feeling guilt about your anger towards them.  We can unwittingly end up in a cycle of you said you were sorry, I said I forgive you, then you went and did the same thing again, unsure of how to get off the roller-coaster.

In reality, allowing somebody to hurt us again and again, whether it is a partner who cheats on us, or a boss who constantly belittles us, is not forgiveness and it’s not second chances — it is low self-worth.  When we don’t learn to love and respect ourselves, we frequently find ourselves in relationships with others who also do not love or respect us.  Some people just have a knack for tapping into our already-damaged self-image, and our brain’s filter translates the message for us:

This person said horrible things to me, so I must be a horrible person, which means I deserve for people to say horrible things to me.

Somehow our brain manages to completely disregard the fact the other person has lied to us, or humiliated us, or made us feel “less than”.  Because of faulty filtering, we stay in relationships with people who berate or bully us.  We stay in jobs with bosses who make us feel worthless.  The danger is not only in believing how others make us feel about ourselves is true, but in believing we have to let it continue because we have mistaken forgiveness for second chances.

Forgiving somebody doesn’t mean you have to allow them to keep hurting you, and only you can decide when “enough is enough”.  When you do reach that point, try not to allow yourself to be guilt-tripped into basically rewarding bad behavior.  I know … It is never as easy as just walking away.  We may be in a committed relationship, unable to change jobs, or have especially difficult parents.  In these types of situations, we have to accept we cannot change other people, but we CAN strengthen the part of our brain which absorbs those negative thoughts and feelings, and teach it to filter those messages out as garbage.  This takes time and practice, but IT CAN BE DONE!

Give this a try next time somebody hurts you. Get your notebook or journal and make two columns.  In one column, list the negative thoughts and feelings you are having about yourself.  In the second column, challenge each of these thoughts.  When our anxiety or depression is bad, it can be very difficult to find something good to say about ourselves, but keep trying.  Your challenging statements don’t have to be anything grand.  They can be as simple as, “I’m not stupid. I might have made a mistake when typing up that report, but now I know what to look for next time.”  Over time, your self-worth will strengthen to a point where those incoming hurtful messages can be processed realistically, allowing you to make changes where necessary, but also allowing you to avoid owning those faulty accusations.

Fog in Your Throat?

rory-bjorkman-17135

Photo by Rory Björkman on Unsplash

There are many behavioral symptoms of depression such as isolating, neglecting one’s personal hygiene, undereating or overeating, and more.  These symptoms are fairly easy to conceal and frequently go unnoticed by others.  One of the noticeable symptoms (and a costly one) is negative speech.  Our depressive behaviors can become habits if we aren’t careful.

Negative speech can set off a cycle of rejection and isolation.  Friends or family members may try to coax us out of our depression by pressing us to talk about our feelings, but are completely unprepared for our response.  These snap out of it people are usually well-meaning, but have no idea of the depths to which depression takes our thinking or how difficult the climb back up can be.  They simply don’t get it, and we then end up on the receiving end of comments like, “Don’t be such a downer” or “I can’t be around you when you are like this” or “Why don’t you just stop feeling sorry for yourself?”

They make it sound so simple — why don’t we stop?  As painful as these remarks may seem at the time, there is actually a clue to escaping negativity in them.  At the root of our negative speech problem is depression hovering around us like a fog, clouding both our anticipation of the future and our interpretation of the past.  People who love us say, “Count your blessings.  Look at what you’ve accomplished!”  The brain fog lies to us and whispers, “You’ve never accomplished anything and never will.”  And we believe it.

When we believe the lie, our ability to expect good things diminishes.  The happy times of our past are distorted as we inventory each and every little flaw throughout our life’s history.  The fog filters our thoughts, and the words we say reflect our foggy brain filter.  The people who care about us don’t understand our responses, and leave us to ourselves until we are “better.”  We end up feeling isolated when we desperately need connection.

Battling depression requires energy at a time when we have none.  This is why it is important to prepare for the next valley when you are on the current hilltop.  In other words, when you are feeling good, channel that momentum to push you through the next rough patch.  Begin by acknowledging your accomplishments – no matter how insignificant.

Dr. Seuss said, “A person’s a person, no matter how small.”  The same can be said for accomplishments.  If you’ve been in a fog for a long time, admitting you actually DO have some accomplishments may feel a little weird, but do it anyway.  Write down everything, from “I got out of bed this morning” to “I got that promotion.”  If you find you are censoring yourself or are in a valley right now, ask for help from somebody who knows you.  BUT – and this is important: Don’t censor THEM, either.  Just write everything down in a journal or notebook and keep it handy.  Two things will happen if you do.

First, simply writing down three accomplishments each day will lift the fog.  Our thoughts generate chemical reactions in our brain, and these reactions generate physical sensations.  Some of us have brains with low activity in the positive-feeling areas, and high activity in the negative-feeling areas.  Writing down three accomplishments each day forces positive chemical reactions.  In other words, you are exercising the positive-feeling area of the brain, making it stronger and more active.

Second, if you encounter another bout of depression, you can refer back to your list of accomplishments.  It’s a reminder of what you CAN DO and have done – PROOF that you are capable of doing things, even when your brain is shrouded in fog.  You are also setting off those little positive chemical reactions in the brain every time you read your list.  Update it daily.  FILL A NOTEBOOK with accomplishments, big and small.  Use it to chase away the fog so you can see your life and yourself in a positive light.

 

Failure? You May Be Mistaken

000AABB

Do you call yourself a failure when you make a mistakeMistakes are typically made because of an error in judgment, or because we lack certain information or a particular skill.  These are valuable life lessons, bringing to light areas in our lives where we need to educate ourselves or make little self-improvements.  Unfortunately, many of us develop a habit of interpreting mistakes as something much worse — an indicator there is something wrong with us.

For people with depression or anxiety, this misinterpretation comes easily.  The depressive brain channels practically every event through a filter of negativity, painting our lives in a humdrum hue.  Mistakes seem catastrophic, and the towel is quickly thrown in.  There are some key differences between mistakes and failures, and learning to recognize them can help you reclaim lost self-esteem and avoid worsening symptoms of depression and anxiety.

Door Opened, Door Closed

Imagine your mistakes as open doors – opportunities to learn.  For instance, when we take up a new hobby or start a new job, we are likely to screw something up at least once.  This is commonly known as the learning curve, but it becomes a show-stopper for many of us.  Our brain processes the screw-up through its negativity filter and we receive an “I’m just not cut out for this” message.  In most cases, the error is nothing more than a lack of information or practice.  As we persist — we improve — and eventually those early mistakes become part of the distant past.

Now, there ARE times where we really are NOT cut out for something.  If American Idol has taught us anything, it’s that not everyone is cut out to be a rock star.  That’s not to say we shouldn’t try new things or pursue a dream, but rather, in chasing our dreams we must also be willing to see and accept reality.  Not doing so can lead to despair.  Failures – like mistakes – are also a learning tool.  Failure is a closed door – an ending to our journey down a wrong path.  Although painful, failure sometimes protects us from our own self-destructive ways by telling us, “Don’t do that again.”

This don’t do it again message is why it is so important to separate our mistakes – which are many – from true failures, which are actually quite rare.  The band Genesis did a song called “Misunderstanding” which helps to illustrate the difference.  It’s basically the story of a man who misreads the signals of a woman he is romantically interested in.  This is the mistake part.  The opportunity here (or open door) is for him to become more self-aware and communicative to ensure he is receiving other’s messages clearly and not projecting his own feelings onto them.  When he realizes she is already in a relationship, this is a door closed – a signal to move on.  In other words, he can learn from the mistake and try again — this time as a better communicator — but in another relationship.

Sometimes, as in “Misunderstanding”, our mistakes DO lead to failure.  However, the mistakes we learn from are the ones which lead to great successes.  We are going to make mistakes throughout our lifetime – lots of them.  It is in overcoming the “I’m a failure” mindset and learning to live with and learn from our mistakes that we can restore peace of mind and experience new and wonderful things.

 

A Potential Problem

5

Photo by L Boatwright

“James” is a Billy Joel song from the 70s.  It’s the story of childhood friends, one who fulfilled his own dreams and another who tried fulfilling everyone else’s.  Has anybody ever told you that you weren’t living up to your potential?  (Don’t you just hate that?) There are always areas in our life where we could stand a little improvement, but there is a difference between self-improvement and living up to potential.

Self-improvement is self-driven – we identify an area of improvement within ourselves and set about changing our thoughts and behaviors in order to improve in that area.  Our potential is rarely up to us, but rather is told to us by other people.  In other words, we are expected to meet somebody else’s expectations.

Very often, there is a mixed message here – one which fuels frustration and depression for many.  It starts in childhood, sometimes with comparisons such as why can’t you get good grades like your brother or you should try to be sweet like your sister.  The comparisons continue into adolescence and adulthood.  So-and-so’s kid is going to school to be a doctor — when are you going to do something with your life? or When I was your age I was already married – when are you going to settle down?  Regardless of the comparison, the implication is we are not good enough because we aren’t…well…somebody else.  The comparisons frequently come with a confusing and contradictory I love you the way you are…now please change the way you are type of message.

We learn early on to compare ourselves to others and in doing so frequently find we are falling short.  We begin to feel less than and dissatisfied, constantly pressuring ourselves to keep doing until we are good enough, then never believing we are good enough.  How then can we avoid the trap of perpetual potential?  Start by examining motives – yours and those of the people you feel are pressuring you.

You can determine your own motives by asking if the expectation you have put on yourself is truly self-driven and self-realized, or if you are simply trying to please somebody else.  If the purpose is rooted in ‘self’, then ask yourself is this something I actually wish for myself, or is it based on my own comparison of myself to somebody else?  Keep in mind, it is one thing to respect a particular quality in another person and seek to build that quality within ourselves.  However, doing so can become unhealthy when we lose sight of the area of improvement and instead begin a fruitless cycle of attempting to be more like somebody else.

Examining another person’s motives can be tricky, partially because they may not even be aware of them, or may be unwilling to admit their reasons for them.  One question worth answering is: is this something they wanted to achieve themselves?  People will often project their own unrealized hopes and dreams onto those around them in an effort to vicariously enjoy the experience they themselves missed out on.  Also, ask yourself if the other person’s expectation matches your own self-improvement goal.

Sometimes it won’t.  When that happens, you may try explaining why that particular goal doesn’t fit into your current plans.  But, let’s face it, some people cannot take “no” for an answer, especially if they think they are “helping you” into being a better whatever.  In those cases — particularly where the person keeps pressuring and pressing those depression and low self-worth buttons in your brain – you may want to consider ending the relationship.  In cases where you are stuck with the person, you might do your best to avoid the subject or quickly change it should they bring the topic up.

The bottom line is, when we try to live up to someone else’s idea of our potential, we will most likely find ourselves feeling inadequate and unfulfilled.  Identify your own idea of potential, set your own goals, and then go for them.  If somebody else’s expectations match yours, hooray!  When they don’t align, try not to sacrifice your own peace of mind by worrying about whether or not you will ever fulfill – in the words of Billy Joel – “…someone else’s dream of who you are.”