Tuesday, June 17, 2008

The sum of my parts

(Sorry--I didn't proofread. I'm actually pretty depressed right now, so grammar and spelling are not tops on my list of priorities at the moment--only unraveling the traffic in my head is front and center today.)

Where do our insecurities come from and, why, in the face of intellectual reason, can't we just talk ourselves out of having them? If we could, millions of therapists around the world would have a greatly reduced client load, I assume. If we could set our minds at ease, would we just find something new to be unhappy about?

Sometimes I feel like I'm a fish swimming through an ocean of cultural messages I don't want to believe. I internalize those messages, though, because that which is true about me appears in such stark contrast to this sea of cultural expectation. It isn't possible that I am all right when everything about me is so divergent from those waves of images washing over me whenever I open my eyes. It is difficult for me to believe I am adequate in any way given the standards we are all expected to achieve or at least aspire to on a daily basis.
For a long time, I wanted to not care what anyone thought, I wanted to pretend it didn't matter, but I couldn't do it. My mind wouldn't let me be hoodwinked by wishes when concrete evidence was everywhere telling me that people do notice and they certainly make judgements based on appearance, behavior, and interests. And on accomplishment. And on physical ability. And on material wealth.

How we acquire our feelings of inadequacy is probably a complex process. I think about myself, and I know that I grew up in a family that placed a very high value on money, beauty, and athletic achievement. I always came up short. I am the third of four siblings, the second of two girls. Statistically speaking, we were interesting in that the birth order was girl-boy-girl boy. There is no true "middle child" in our family, but I would be the closest thing to it.

I am nothing like anyone in my family. I remember one summer when I was in college, Laurel came to visit. After one day, she said, "May, how in the world did you end up in this family?" It was a fair question given my status as the family oddball.

Lynn said that we are taught to hate ourselves. I suppose we could also be taught to love ourselves, but unlearning self-loathing seems almost impossible. I am 47 years old, and I'm pretty sure that at this point, those messages about my lack of worth are so ground into my psyche as to be hard wired. Can you rewire the brain? My psychiatrist says you can't, you can only try to fool it. It took years to chip away at any self-love I may have had as a child. Instead of living as an integrated mind/body individual, I see myself as a fractured collection of parts--personality, moods, unattractive person, shameful-ugly body, defectively wired brain--and those parts do not hang together as a whole very well.

At what point should we give up on trying to fix what we believe is wrong with ourselves? Is it even possible to put self-criticism to rest? I am so self-critical that even if I try to pepper myself with affirmations, they end up sounding like hollow, ridiculous platitudes.

My therapist, as I may have mentioned, asked me why I cling so tightly to my poor self-image and why I seem so unwilling to see myself another way. Here is what I said. "I can't see myself another way. I have mirrors. I read magazines--including the healthy, age-appropriate ones like More and O. I see what I see and what I don't see is anyone who is like me.

I think that's what I'm always hoping for--to find people who are more like me. Of course, having sworn of personal relationships, I would settle for finding people like me in magazines and in advertising and in movies.

Every once in awhile, I find a little spot of comfort, and it is in the least likely place I ever expected. It's on TV, on the Learning Channel: What Not to Wear. On the surface, Stacey and Clinton seem snarky and harshly critical, but if you stay with it, you'll find that their most compassionate moments are saved for the women who have the problem figures--and the larger issues of self-image, self-loathing, and dressing poorly to camouflage both. The women featured on the show (the overweight ones) usually reach a point where they avoid the real task at hand by buying shoes and accessories in excess (guilty). They try on clothes and eventually break down in tears in the dressing room. I have been there too many times to count, and when that train gets rolling, it pulls along all of the other baggage: I'm not good enough, this is all my fault, I don't try hard enough, If I were just a better/more diligent and focused person, I wouldn't be such a loser...and then it goes downhill from there.

I can't even explain how a diagnosis of bipolar disorder twisted an already complex web of possibly distorted thinking. I have tried for so long to be so careful and not make mistakes, not be too quirky as to be weird, not show my frequent bouts of stupidity...and then, BP. I walk on eggshells trying not to draw attention to myself anymore. I wanted to be noticed for so long, it's ironic that now I don't want anyone to notice too much.

Anyone with BP who feels like I do has a compounded level of internal stress that never goes away. It is this stress of self-monitoring, comparing, and holding one's breath waiting for the tell-tale behavior to reveal itself, or for a slip of the tongue that unmasks the truth about my illness. My therapist and doctor often marvel that I do not appear to be sick because I "present well."

I have been struggling to fit in and hide my deficiencies and abnormalities my entire life. Of course I present well. I'm just trying to meet the cultural standard of normality, and I've been trying desperately to do so for thirty-some years. Maybe this is my big achievement.

Give that woman an Academy Award.


Portia Micello said...

I have finally reached the conclusion that how I appear to others is not important. I believe it is possible to modify your behavior/beliefs. My therapist helped me greatly in gaining a positive self image and not worrying what others think. I feel your pain but believe there is hope.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps a complete and total brain rewire might not be possible, but most psychiatrists don't want people to know that ANY rewiring is possible. It would damage their business too badly. If I learned to love myself, and if that is a rewire, then I'm proof that it's possible. Don't get me wrong, I still have issues with that stuff. I don't like the idea of ever looking old, for instance. And remember the recent benign breast lump? I immediately became infuriated with my body and wanted a double mastectomy regardless of any test outcome. I shit you not. Then I even lost a little weight in an effort to make my breasts "go away and leave me alone". That said, I no longer think I am ugly or disgusting or that everything bad that happnes in my life is my fault or happened because I am somehow defective. I love me. I am starting to truly, truly heart me.



I heart me even though I am probably a little bit too thin and *still* have some cellulite on my ass. It's MY ass, therefor it is good. I heart me even though I wear a AA cup. Yup. I love my little breasts. And anyone who doesn't can kiss my dimpled ass. I heart me even though I wear size 10 shoes and have really thumpy and clumsy looking elbows. Again -- they're MY elbows, therefor they rock. My nose is shaped funny and my nostrils are too big. My smile looks a little crooked to me. I have a scar on my right shin bone. I have too much hair on my arms. That doesn't really look feminine, does it? I don't really care. I am 'imperfect' and yet -- I think I'm hot anyway.


Somethings CAN be rewired, but it doesn't happen in a moment of insight. It takes work and it takes time.

(p.s. Self-hatred is not really about loathing one's physical appearance. I know people are thoroughly convinced that it is, but it's not. That is simply one of its manifestations.)




Anonymous said...

You need to understand that being the odd man out in your family is a *good* thing -- same as Michael's, it's what I call the "Marilyn factor". You're Marilyn Munster, *you're* the normal one. Your sister is skinny, your brothers are athletic but would you want to be any one of them for one second? I wouldn't want you to be. If you were, I wouldn't have ever given you the time of day.
Some rewiring must be possible -- I'm not still sitting in Bill what's-his-name's chair because I'm so afraid I wake up choking at night.

Sophie in the Moonlight said...

I must disagree with your therapist. It is possible to re-route your brain. The easy way to explain it is that as your brain learns behaviors it creates a shortcut, it carves a neural pathway from "there's a pretty girl" to "I hate myself", because you have taught your brain that A has a direct correlation to B. I have suffered from the not enoughs for most of my life, and I really, truly understand the agony that little neural shortcut can cause.

I learned that by being painstakingly diligent to every single "Thought Monkey" (my name for those horrid, self-destructive thoughts that jump around screeching and demanding attention), and having a set argument to address the "monkey" , the same argument every time, that I could carve a new pathway, from A to C.

For example, I if I thought "I am not pretty enough; I cannot compete with these skinny girls and their low rise jeans, and tight tops", I would usually follow it with a suicidal thought, or just general utter self-loathing and self-contempt. After my diagnosis and the spectacular suicide attempt that directly preceded it, I set about resetting my mind. It took a little more than six months of constant vigilance. It was the single most exhausting effort I have ever undertaken, and the most empowering.

My new response (well, 5 yrs new) is composed of a couple of thoughts: "enough what? and, who personally set this standard? and, how has that person improved my life exactly? and, my son and my friends, and, yes, my husband think I am enough for them, and they are the people most important to me.

These responses are automatic for me now. Neural pathways rerouted. IT IS NOT A PERFECT PATHWAY. But, I have given myself the gift of doubt. I don't automatically accept the Thought Monkey as the absolute truth. I see it for what it is, a cognitive distortion, and I do my best to straighten it out. Sometimes if I am really depressed it takes a few tries, but I eventually succeed. So please don't accept the wiring of your brain as a fixed, unchangeable situation. Your mind is wonderfully malleable, and when you feel stronger I hope that you can heal your insecurities. I'm sending you TLC.