Recently, I got in a fight with my therapist about the concept of self-acceptance.
Being in therapy as a former therapist is challenging. I’ve never been quiet about my opinion that everyone should go to therapy at least once in their lives (or if “should” language bothers you, then my opinion that everyone can certainly benefit from going to therapy at least once in their lives), but having the educational background and training in psychology, psychotherapy, neuroscience, etc, at least for me, creates a significant intellectual wall that I constantly find myself struggling to climb over when I’m sitting in the client role. There’s a constant, mounting frustration; a simmering need to bite back the urge to throw up my hands and yell “I KNOW THIS ALREADY!” while my therapist discusses the ways in which negative thinking and negative emotions form feedback loops and spirals, the benefits of checking in with the ways emotions manifest in our bodies, the need to differentiate between lack of control and learned helplessness.
(Does it help that she and I have some fundamental disagreements about certain treatment approaches? Probably not. You’re never going to get me into mindfulness meditation, girl. I’m sorry, but I’ve been burned. BURNED.)
But the wall is there, and its bricks are primarily made of my beliefs that I should (eyyyyy) be able to apply the various pieces of knowledge I all that time scraping into a degree into actual practice. After all, once you know the theory behind CBT, DBT, etc, how hard should it be to just use those damn techniques on yourself and fix your brain, right?
(But Shelly, you say, that’s not how depression and anxiety work! Correct. But depression and anxiety are also not rational creatures, so here we are.)
And so we come to self-acceptance, which my therapist, bless her heart, probably thought she was approaching in a perfectly reasonable way, not knowing she was opening up a can of worms the size of a mediocre white man’s undeserved ego.
“You’re so quick to try and be compassionate to everyone else, but it’s like you’re incapable of putting that same compassion towards yourself,” she said. “And I think that’s because you’re not accepting yourself. And until you can do that, you’re not going to be able to show yourself the kindness and love you deserve.”
You could have heard a pin drop in that room before I responded, “I’m sorry,” I said. “What the actual hell am I supposed to do with that?”
And so began three straight weeks of absolute chaos.
Y’all, I am a fairly reasonable person when it comes to doing the work in therapy. I will whine and complain to my various groupchats before I go to a session about how I don’t want to go, but I like to think that once I’m there, I’m a pretty compliant client. I show up, I talk about my feelings, I answer the tough questions, I do my homework. Because at the end of the day, I know that as much as I bitch and moan about it, I really do need to be there. Even when I don’t want to be.
But oh, my god, I fought on this one. This was a battle. This was the intellectual wall turning into an intellectual Jaeger, full-on Pacific Rim-style.
After months of fairly good therapeutic rapport, it was like we absolutely stopped speaking the same language. My therapist gave example after example of what “self-acceptance” looked like to her, but every one of them seemed to be an instance of what one might do having reached a point of being “self-accepting” or “having accepted yourself the way you are.” No matter how many times I tried to put it into different words, I couldn’t seem to make her understand that that was not something that made sense to me from where I was sitting: firstly, because as someone treading water in a lake of depression and disappointment the idea of “accepting myself the way I am” felt like someone saying “well just stand up and you won’t have to tread water anymore” when MY FEET DIDN’T TOUCH THE BOTTOM OF THE LAKE, and secondly, because I could not get her to just define the concepts she was using in a way that let me even try to connect to them. Was self-acceptance an end point, where you would “know” when you’d reached it? Was it a constant practice? Was it a process?
Without at least some kind of guidance, I couldn’t begin to even figure out how to understand how the examples she talked about would become a reality, because for me, they were point Z, and I wasn’t even at point A, I was at point 1–not even on the same measurement scale. I had no framework for conceptualizing how she wanted me to get to the place of “self-acceptance” that she was talking about, and the fact that she didn’t seem to see that I couldn’t even conceive of what that “place” was (or even if it was a place) was frustrating enough to get me to tears multiple times.
We went in circles around self-acceptance for three weeks until we finally had a breakthrough, which came in the form of me finally saying something along the lines of “CAN YOU JUST TELL ME WHAT THE ACTUAL THERAPEUTIC TREATMENT PLAN TO GET TO THAT WOULD LOOK LIKE, BECAUSE I HAVE NO IDEA AND YOU ARE TALKING NONSENSE AND MAKING NO SENSE.” That finally, finally seemed to make something click, and we had a conversation about using homework practices like affirmations, positive practices, journaling, etc, all focused on retraining the brain to think more positively and more easily recognize positive thoughts, sensations, and emotions rather than automatically latching onto negative ones.
(And then we had a super validating talk about how next time she should just start from the neuropsychology framework, because that’ll go over way better than just about anything else because holy fucking lord.)
The most ironic part of all of this, though, is that those three weeks of fighting about self-acceptance actually brought up more feelings of disappointment, unhappiness, and anxiety about where I am and what I’m doing than I’ve let myself have in a long, long time.
2018 was a hard year. It had its significant high points–my sister moved home after being abroad for two years, I had some exciting romantic developments, my husband and I bought a house–but overall, it was a really, really hard year. My physical health issues escalated to the point where my quality of life was severely impacted, and disability became part of my identity in a way that it never had been before. My job search is coming up on almost a year, and I’m realizing that I’m caught between not knowing what I want to be doing and not knowing if I can do what I want to do because of my physical and mental health. I had to step back from working full-time in New York this year because I couldn’t manage a full-time commute, and realizing that so much of the work I would ideally want to be doing requires boots-on-the-ground time is just not feasible from me has been paralyzing at times.
Compounding all of that has been a low-key, constant buzzing in the back of my head of just…yearning. A yearning to be feeling challenged at work, to feel recognized and fairly compensated. A yearning to have the same passion and excitement for what I’m doing as some of my friends. A yearning to travel. A yearning for my body to function the way it used to. A yearning to flourish creatively. A yearning to be able to feel something other than like I’m simply going through the motions of a daily routine, and often times struggling to do just that.
I know that a lot of that is a trade-off. I got married young, and that meant signing on to factor another person (and now two dogs) into all my major decisions. Most of my friends who are following their passions to the highest extent are the ones who have the flexibility to take a job where they want, to live where they want, to travel where they want, to spend money how they want, etc. If they want to use their annual vacation to take a trip to Italy or Thailand, or take a job in a new city, or enroll in a PhD program, they can do that.
I wouldn’t trade my family for that, even on my most Where’d You Go, Bernadette? of days (don’t look at me like that, we all have them). But on those days, when my job is miserable and unfulfilling, and I feel miles away from achieving so many of the professional and creative goals I set for myself when I was younger and it felt like I had my whole life ahead of me, it’s a struggle not to scratch at the metaphorical walls of my life when they feel like they’re closing up around me.
(Hey, mom and mother-in-law, if you’re still reading this blog: chill! I’m not about to pull a Runaway Wife.
So. 2018: not great. Where does that leave us, going into 2019?
I don’t particularly hold with New Year’s resolutions – the last time I made them was back in 2016, and while they were all perfectly nice and reasonable goals, I didn’t keep most of them past March (those first two TED Talks I watched were fun, though!). Resolution-style thinking, I’ve learned, is just not how my brain works. At the same time, there’s a part of me that can’t quite grasp the idea of coming into a new year without some kind of feeling of newness, just like I can never get through the month of September without treating myself to a new notebook and some fancy pens.
One of my biggest struggles this year was with feelings of paralysis – feeling like because so much of the progress I wanted to make (with my job, my salary, my health) was beyond my control, I couldn’t move at all. And that’s a cognitive distortion at work, all-or-nothing thinking at its finest: the idea that if one thing can’t change, that nothing at all can’t change. Granted, the things I can’t change are major: I don’t have the ability to make someone give me a job, or to create more dollars in a nonprofit that doesn’t have the cash for raises, or cure chronic pain conditions.
And honestly, while I know the magical thinking/side-hustle economy is huge right now…I don’t have the energy–physical, emotional, mental, or spiritual–for that shit. I could spend two hours a day job-searching and another two on top of that trying to get a freelance writing gig off the ground and another one on top of that pushing myself to do whatever new “have you tried goat yoga” (which, dear god, fellow white people, please stop) trend is supposed to cure all my pain and mental health, but y’all, that is just not how I want to spend my life.
I’m not saying that those things don’t pay off, and honestly, I can hear my therapist’s voice in my head right now, telling me that if I really want to meet all my goals, I have to be willing to work for them – one might ask where all the talk of “accepting where you are” goes when things like this come up, but that would be petty af, so we keep those thoughts to ourselves – and I am. But I’m willing to let that work take its own form – not necessarily an organic form, because let’s be real, nothing will get done. But willing to let things happen slowly, at a pace I can manage without burning out. If that means one job application a week instead of six, fine. If that means pushing myself to write 2,500 words a week instead of killing myself over writing 10,000, great. It’s not nothing.
Part of what made 2018 so paralyzing was feeling directionless – it wasn’t just that I wasn’t moving, it was that I didn’t know where I wanted to go, or what I wanted to do, even if I could. And to be honest, I still don’t. Part of the reason I’m not applying to five or ten or fifteen jobs a week is because I can’t think of five jobs I can (or want) to do right now at my current ability level and experience and health. But there are some things I know I do want. I have a job I want to leave, and that means I have to keep looking. I have a book I want to finish, and that means I have to keep writing. I have a story that I feel is worth telling, and that means I need to keep communicating – through social media, through making connections, through networking.
And even though I sometimes want to crawl out the nearest window and start running for the nearest hills, I have people who love and care about me, so I need to keep working on acceptance – whatever that means. Not to necessarily get to an end point – because I don’t think there is one. But to be, this year, something other than stagnant. To have a direction.
To keep moving forward.