In Times Like These #15 3-29-2020
The post-it stacks in my top drawer are lonely. And the pads of paper I have with the heading, “TO DO LIST” feel neglected and left out. A recent attempt at generating such a list included, ‘Wash hair and go onto YouTube to learn how to blow it dry.’ I have more free time right now than, possibly, ever in my life. Which is not to say that I do not have responsibilities – patients to help, reports to write, evaluations to conduct, Instagram and Facebook streaming live concerts to follow. I do note, however, that in these times, my sense of time is slowly slowing down. I am overly privileged in this new world, with no children or grandchildren living in my house and only myself, husband and ecstatic dog sharing space. So I can count not only steps, but also heart beats.
I was visiting with my 90-year old mentor recently (YES, by phone.) He is a wise man and an incredibly well-respected clinical psychologist. I asked him if he thinks perhaps, I have Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD.) I said I have this sense that I should be doing things and producing things and making things all the time. He said that is called my ‘drive’ and not my diagnosis. He said he’d write me a note to remind me – no ADHD, just a personality that likes to keep busy. Sometimes I’d like to swap that temperament with a friend who mentioned that she is so comfortable ‘doing nothing’ she’s sure to need to purchase a new couch, as she is creating a permanent dent in hers. I am aspiring to get to that point too. (And, by the way, West Wing has seven seasons on Netflix and I’m only on season three, so, this goal is getting closer to reality for me nightly.)
Anyway, this all got me thinking – with less structure and more ‘time’ many of us are busy diagnosing ourselves. We are diagnosing our family members with whom we are cocooned, and our pets as well. This pastime can be dangerous, so let’s be ware.
Feeling sad does not mean you have a depressive disorder. Children who are whiny at the day’s end do not have anger management problems. Spouses who are cleaning every surface with Clorox wipes do not have obsessive compulsive disorder (ocd.) Having margaritas on weeknights does not mean you have a substance abuse disorder. Eating extra chocolate chip cookies is not bulimia. Being happy and sad in the same day does not mean you have a bipolar disorder.
We throw around diagnoses freely. The terms are part of our daily vernacular. It would do us well to remember that googling symptoms, medical OR psychological, never ends well. Even if you’re on ‘pub med’ or ‘web md’, you need a licensed professional to let you know if you meet criteria (signs, symptoms, frequency, severity AND level of impairment as to how your life is disrupted) for a disorder. And, please note, if you or your family members are genuinely concerned about your mental health, there are many resources available. In fact, counseling and psychotherapy lend themselves to telehealth care more readily than say, podiatry or pedicures. Lots of support and coping skills can be gained through phone or computer conversations so if needed, please reach out. You know what great role modeling for our children can include? Showing them when and how to ask for help.
It seems to me that part of our current instinct to label ourselves with psychopathology stems from too much time looking in the mirror – and by mirror, I mean the little photo/video of yourself you see when you do all this virtual work – when you’re doing school on zoom or conference videoing on V-See or facetiming with your kids who live across the country or visiting on WhatsApp with relatives across the globe – up pops a very distracting (and often highly unattractive) visual of you, staring back at you. It’s like HD tv. We see every self-perceived flaw – every wrinkle or zit, every errant eyebrow hair or nose hair or ear hair, all of your pores (who knew we had so many?), every forehead square inch that once had hair, every natural color root poking through years of work by our hair colorists, all our extra chins – we see an image of us, and infer that it IS us. That our full sense of self can be boiled down into how we look.
This, by the way, is impacting people from middle schoolers to aging seniors. Our littler kids seem oblivious, which is a relief. Self-consciousness has not come to them yet and they are not typically focusing on their looks. But our young almost-teens and adolescents are struggling. They are used to images of ‘perfect people’ including themselves. They are adept at using their own social media skills to photo shop and edit and promote (and product place) their best external selves. They delete unflattering photos and know which is their ‘best side’ when posting. However, in the world of live virtual conversation, they see, up close, the unfiltered version of themselves. So, while you may think they are learning and mastering biology with their teachers on zoom, it’s likely instead they are counting the pimples on their nose bridge and then ‘feeling gross’ about how they look. Which, by the way, is not all that different from adults who are working from home and wondering ‘how young is too young to start Botox and is that considered an essential or non-essential activity’ in these times? On the one hand, our obsession with how we look serves as a distraction from our worry about the “Brave New World” in which we live. On the other hand, it really does not get us anywhere.
Normally I’d say, ‘unplug’ and quit staring at yourself all day. However, that’s currently not an option. So instead, let’s maybe try to embrace our physical imperfections and model that behavior. A little humor can work. Some funny apps that plop on virtual bunny ears or turn you into a young Elvis are helpful too. And also, a serious conversation or two on the topic of the insignificance of whether or not one finger is ‘too long and everyone is staring at it.’ Note – no lecturing your kids on this topic – if you’re talking longer than a segment of Sesame Street, you are talking too long and are annoying. (Second note – if they roll your eyes take that as a win – it means they heard you.) National Geography has a great Instagram feed that includes photos, up close, of people around the globe, highlighting life affirming aspects of humans. Maybe get a new screen saver or change up all the screen savers daily with a different theme – and highlight our strengths as a people versus how we look as a people.
It will be hard to convince Los Angelenos that it’s okay to not be camera ready. But it’s worth investing the time. We cannot physically embrace one another these days, so instead, let’s work on embracing ourselves. Feeling all the feelings, as my daughter the clinical psychologist says, is important and we need to leave lots of room and safe space. And also, we can demonstrate positive body image and lightness of spirit, even if our five o’clock mustache shadow is appearing as early as 11am.
According to the National Science Foundation, an average person has about 12,000 to 60,000 thoughts per day and 95% are repetitive. (In other words, we do not have time to think about our thoughts, they just recur, over and over again. Thoughts like, “I have to get out of bed now.” “It’s time to have a cup of coffee.” These are part of our routine and not novel thoughts and are neither positive nor negative.
However, what happens for us all is that we also develop thoughts that are irrational – fiction versus fact. Cognitive behaviorists have identified and named these kinds of thoughts, and I will give you an idea of a few:
Black and white thinking. Seeing everything as one way or another, without any in between.
Personalizing. Assuming you are to blame for anything that goes wrong, like thinking someone did not smile at you because you did something to upset her. (It's more likely that person is having a hard day and her mood had nothing to do with you.)
Filter thinking. Choosing to see only the negative side of a situation.
Catastrophizing. Assuming the worst possible outcome is going to happen.
In these times, when we are bombarded with alerts and news around the clock, it is almost impossible to not catastrophize. Almost, but not entirely. Unfortunately for every negative thought we have, we need to work hard to counter them with for balance. It permeates our thoughts, which then impact our feelings, which then tend to dictate our behaviors. The more our behaviors reflect the negative thoughts and the scary feelings, the more likely we are to experience additional bad thoughts and the more we move the cycle along. It’s a Circle Game, but not the one depicted by Joni Mitchell.
Our intrusive thoughts are important – they serve as warnings – ‘You are not in control – you have no power here.’ Luckily, however, thoughts can also be tweaked: ‘You are not in control, and actually, there are many things in life over which you’ve never had nor ever will have control – you do not have absolute power, but there are areas in your life over which you do have power.’ Switching our thoughts around does not take away anxiety, as we are legitimately entitled to be nervous. However, changing around thoughts can decrease some of the authority of the anxiety….’Anxiety, you are not the boss of me. Feel free to be with me, but do not think for a second you ARE me. I AM ME.’