For the Love of All that is Good, Do Your Mental Health a Favor and JUST SAY NO.

DISCLAIMER: No, I’m not a representative of the once-implemented D.A.R.E. program. No, this post does not involve “saying no” to drugs of any kind. Although, I wouldn’t object to “saying no” to those as well.

To start, ALL PEOPLE PLEASERS PLEASE RAISE YOUR HAND. Y ’all can’t see behind the screen, but my hand is up; it’s up high. I was absolutely a “yes man.” I would immediately reply to a favor a friend would ask, any task that a coworker requested that I do, and anyone that needed to vent or talk with a “sure,” “yeah, no problem” or “mhm, I’ll make it work.” It was AUTOMATIC, no matter how much I already had on my plate.

I remember one night when I was in college, I had 2 tough exams the following morning (thank you very much, ochem and bio professors). In the afternoon, my lab supervisor randomly texted me to request that I stop into the lab for 2-3 hours. I guess someone had gotten sick and couldn’t help with the lab experiment that needed to happen that evening. Without thinking, “yep, sure” slipped out of my mouth, and I was suddenly changing directions from the library to lab. Finally, at about 8PM, I was on my way home to grab a bite to eat and head to the library. I received a phone call from a friend who was going through a breakup. “Do you have time to talk?” she asked. My reply? “Yep, I have a few minutes.” She bawled and bawled and bawled and finally two hours later I was off the phone. I wanted to be empathetic, an active listener and a good friend, but I couldn’t stop thinking about the exams I needed to study for. It was 11PM by the time I ate and got to the library. I finished my studying at about 4:30AM and was on my way home to get a few hours of sleep before my 8:50AM class. Feeling exhausted and drained was an understatement. I found myself in scenarios similar to these more often times than not.

The ONE FACE of a people pleaser. Photo extracted from Google Images. URL: https://2l90qdgid4-flywheel.netdna-ssl.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/08/faces1.jpg

To me, the word “no” was off limits. It was forbidden. To even think about saying it felt shameful. I would be dragging myself through the day on four hours of sleep, sacrificing my study time, time with family, time with friends, and my time to do things that I enjoy because I was afraid that refusing a request would make me a terrible friend, terrible lab member, terrible student, terrible coworker or terrible person.

THEN.

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IT happened.

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Dramatic enough yet? Too much? Oh well.

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Tuesday morning in my therapy session, I had an epiphany. I learned that my needs and wants are important too. What do we get if we give all of our time away? Correct!! Absolutely no time at all. It’s really that simple. No time to enjoy ourselves. No time to take care of ourselves. No time to discover or be ourselves. We don’t get time to grow in our 20s, explore new hobbies, or check off items on our YOLO bucket list. We may be multiple people’s best friend or the Employee of the Month, but what does that matter if we’re tired, drained, exhausted, and unrecognizable looking in our own damn mirror. My therapist surprised me with a statement. She said, “you aren’t going out of your way to do all of these things for others without a reward. Your “people-pleaser reward” is that you feel like a good person and worth something. It’s not a completely unselfish act, so why not be selfish at times by doing things that you actually enjoy doing. You can learn who you are and improve your self-confidence and self-worth in this way.” I love her. I love her. I love her, I love her, I love her. For me and my experiences, she was spot on.

Does this mean we should always say no and only care about ourselves? Most definitely not. No. Nonononono. It means we need to work on setting healthy limits with our coworkers, friends, family, etc. It means that we need to pause for a minute when someone asks us for something, rationally assess how much we can take on at that time (emphasis on RATIONALLY), and proceed with our best interest in mind.

This is truly a game-changer. I mean, really. I was terrified to take more time for myself at first, but I’ve found that I’ve had more energy, been happier, more efficient, brighter, and have better focus and connection when spending time with my friends, family and at work. Learning how to take time for ourselves takes practice, assertiveness, and confidence, but it is so worth it.

My goal for the week is to continue to set healthy limits with friends and at work. I strive to do things for myself such as workout, meal prep, blog, read, and avoid being that one-eyed-one-horned-flying-purple-people-pleaser. No, I did not write this blog just so I could say that. However, I was most definitely not going to leave it out once the seed was planted. Hell, I even am making time to check things off my bucket list (going SKYDIVING May 4th!! Whoop, whoop!). While I know that this may feel uncomfortable at first, I know that this will give me time to try things on my bucket list, time to relax, and allow me to provide better focus, energy, and empathy when I am helping others.

Have a wonderful week,

Jen

Cognitive Restructuring: Self-Esteem, Self-Compassion, and Self-Worth

I’ll be completely honest (and biased). Cognitive restructuring (CR) is one of my ABSOLUTE FAVORITE thought-adjusting techniques I’ve ever been taught. I now teach a CBT-informed (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) version of this to almost every teenage and tween patient struggling with depression and/or anxiety that I work with. Why? It’s so simple, so effective, and can be applied to literally any situation that life throws at us. It is a practice of being gentle to ourselves (aka self-compassion). Let’s face it. We are SO tough on ourselves as we strive to be the smartest, have the most friends, always do the right thing, have the most fun, be good enough for others, etc. … you name it. Let’s work on taking a break from this and allow us to be, well, human.

What about CR is helpful?

  1. It helps improve our awareness of shame triggers, negative self-talk, irrational, and depressive/anxious thoughts. Awareness is the first step toward improvement, and is arguably the most important part of this therapeutic practice.
  2. It teaches us how to gently stop our irrational/negative thoughts, so that we can switch to something more realistic. For the love of God please do not skip over this next sentence. This is NOT a harsh stop like a STOP sign that we didn’t see and have to slam on the breaks, skidding to avoid a ticket by the cop that is, of course, sitting right there. It’s more like a gentle tap on the back with the kind reminder of, “hey, go ahead and switch gears, my friend.”
  3. It allows us to practice self-compassion, realistic thinking, and non-judgmental observation … extra emphasis on the REALISTIC thinking.

I learned this method from my therapist about 6 months ago, and it sounds cheesy, but it literally changed my life. It changed the way I look at situations, the way I look at others, and the way I look at myself. It’s underrated.

I’ll be honest. I am incredibly skeptical when it comes to certain therapeutic methods. I research the hell out of them, and that’s how I decide whether I’m actually going to take the time to practice it. This one passed with flying colors. Like I said, I even started teaching it to a lot of kiddos on our unit, and I’ve gotten tons of positive feedback on it. One of the perfectionistic 16-year-old girls I was working with said, “Man. I wish people could learn this at birth. This would have been nice to know before middle school and high school.” Another, more challenging, young woman told me, “Ok, this actually doesn’t seem like it requires much energy. I’ll actually be motivated enough to use it.” Hey, whatever works! Last plug…  I was asked by the teens and some coworkers to create a program that I can lead at night that teaches this because they found it to be simple and effective. I’m all in and was excited to hear those responses.

Let’s get to the HOW TO. It’s only 3 steps, and I’ll give examples along the way.

1.Awareness

This is easier said and done. It’s actually the most challenging part of cognitive restructuring, because those of us with anxiety and depression are typically comfortable with and/or used to our negative, shameful, critical, depressive and anxious thoughts. It’s important to notice the situations and thoughts that come to mind.

  • Example A: Situation- I am in class and answer a question wrong. Thoughts- “Wow. I should have never raised my hand in the first place. This is so embarrassing. Everybody probably thinks I’m an idiot. I’m not doing that again.”
  • Example B: Situation- I see two people look at me and laugh. Thoughts- “I bet they’re saying something bad about me. I should _____ so that I’ll be better at ______.  I’m so embarrassed. They’re not going to like me now.”

Here are common thought distortions that may be beneficial for us to become aware of:

Picture obtained from Pinterest: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/27092035242704448/?autologin=true

2. After noticing the thought, switch gears.

Pro Tip #1: Think of a cute little puppy or kitten just gently nudging you toward the self-care path 😊. Gentle. Subtle. Healing.

3. Replace this thought with something more kind, non-judgmental, and/or realistic.

Example A: “Nobody answers questions right 100% of the time. It was courageous that I stepped out of my comfort zone and challenged myself. I am learning and doing the best I can. I give myself permission to fail sometimes, just like I give myself permission to do well.”

Example B: “I don’t actually know that I’m being talked about. I notice that I am feeling insecure. I am learning to accept myself, and this is a shame-trigger I am working through. I can stand things that I don’t like. I can only control my reaction. I do my best to be a good friend. I am loved.”

Pro Tip #2: Sometimes coming up with alternative, realistic, self-compassionate thoughts can be challenging. I’ve noticed that using phrases like, “I am learning _____,” “I am working on _____,” and “this is a normal human experience,” tend to be applicable to many self-doubting situations. A simple google of “positive affirmations for ___insert situation here_” will provide tons of examples that may be useful or help get the creative juices flowing to think of more! This can be especially valuable for those that are new to CR.

The Science Behind CR

Taking the info sesh one step further with NEUROBIOLOGY . Ugh!!! Seeing this word makes me geek TF (urban dictionary definition= the f&%^) out. Seriously, my voice gets high, my heart starts racing, and once I start talking, I can’t stop. Don’t be alarmed, I’ll try for the sake of this post.

Generally speaking, our brains are plastic, flexible, changeable. Typically, when we have anxiety or depression, our “irrational” thought pathways in our brain are incredibly strong. Our amygdala, associated with strong emotions, is usually overactive, and our prefrontal cortex (PFC), associated with planning, decision-making, and higher order thought function, is typically underactive. When we start CR, it is a conscious practice where we actively need to replace our thoughts. Over time, as our brain is “rewired” and stronger pathways to the PFC develop, this practice becomes subconscious… a habit! The “irrational thinking pattern” pathways are weakened. Kinda sweet, huh? It takes awhile for this process to take place, but in the long run it can help reduce anxiety and depression, and increase self-worth and self-compassion. By no means do I think CR is the best, never-fail, only-thing-you-need technique. It’s just another practice to add to our “self-care toolbox.” I highly recommend giving it a try 😊.

Photo extracted from Google Images: https://sharpbrains.com/blog/2014/11/24/update-should-cognitive-behavioural-therapy-not-antidepressant-drugs-be-the-first-line-treatment-for-depression/

*I will link the studies that support what I’ve mentioned when I get back to work. I am currently vacationing and don’t have access to the academic library!

My goal this week is to continue practicing self-compassion and replacing my shame-triggering and irrational thoughts with kind, realistic and gentle words. I know I won’t be perfect at it, and I know it will take time and practice. I give myself the permission to fail at times, but I know my small efforts will add up to make a big difference.

Have a wonderful week,

Jen

Focusing on Friendships: Superficial Connections to Fulfilling Relationships

Photo obtained via Google Images. URL: https://quotefancy.com/quote/928318/Virginia-Woolf-What-a-comfort-is-friendship-in-this-world

How the hell did we get to this topic? Quick background. I used to be a busy bee. In high school and in college, I absolutely loved being around people and always having something to do. Well, I THOUGHT I loved it. During this time, I was also incredibly stressed, overwhelmed, and believed there wasn’t time in the day to do everything I needed to do. Besides studying, one of my biggest time-consumers was keeping in touch with everyone. This could be by making plans to see each friend, sending texts to stay updated on their life, or talking on the phone/facetiming.

I thought it was great… well, I thought it looked great. The last thing I would want to be viewed as was a “loser” or “lame.” That was a huge motivation for me to attempt to be so many people’s friend. I strived to be looked up to, a role-model, and popular. To be honest, this view was driven by my own insecurities. Keeping up with so many people, for me, began to feel like a chore. It was stressful, exhausting, and weighing.

My therapist sat across from me as I attempted to justify why spreading myself thin across so many friends would be beneficial. Additionally, she asked me to describe how it could be self-destructive. As most could probably infer, I came to realization that there were far more cons than pros to this way of living.

Being everyone’s friend and go-to-gal would look great on the outside, but in the inside many of these friendships left me feeling depressed, stressed, and lonely. Weirdly enough, I came to realize that some unfulfilling friendships were a distraction from other unfulfilling friendships (That wording made sense, right?)  

How did I begin to differentiate fulfilling from unfulfilling friendships? I read a book on empathy, vulnerability, compassion, and connection (THANK YOU @BrenéBrown. YOU ARE TRULY MY IDOL).

*Side note: below are my own definitions based off my own circumstances, values, goals and life experiences. I truly believe that the definitions of fulfilment and unfulfillment differ person to person.

*Okay, back on track.

I started to notice an undeniable distinction between some of the people I would hang out with.

My definitions/realizations were as follows.

How I know, by my own actions, that a relationship is unfulfilling:

  1. Plans were made in advance, but when it came down to the wire, I didn’t want to go. It felt like something I “had to do” to keep up with someone, not something I necessarily wanted to do. I found myself being flaky.
  2. I was passive in those relationships because I didn’t want to risk someone getting angry. Instead of sticking up for myself I would hang out with a different group until the issue faded out. Total avoidance.
  3. I didn’t act like myself out of the fear that I wouldn’t fit in. I was terrified of being rejected by a group (one of my biggest shame-triggers… stay tuned… more to come on shame later)

How I know, by others’ actions, that a relationship was unfulfilling:

  1. I didn’t feel supported as I changed and grew as a person.
  2. Things that I was excited about or proud of would be put down or “swept under the rug” as unimportant.
  3. The silent treatment, outright rude comments (even as “jokes”), and “low-blows” that would involve things that I was embarrassed or felt shame about were present in those friendships.

How I know that a relationship is fulfilling:

My three best friends Haley, Hanna, and Grace were the ones that I felt I could never get enough of. The common denominator of all these friendships are ease and bliss. I don’t have to think about being judged, misheard, or a burden. We have mutual respect and support for one another which is, in my opinion, the most important part of any relationship. Haley is my personality twin that values self-love, is nonjudgmental, and has the most genuine and positive personality I’ve ever met. She brings warmth, coziness and comfort to my life. Grace and I are also personality twins. We enjoy the same guilty-pleasures, grew up with an identical lifestyle, and being in her presence feels like a second home. Hanna and I have quite different personalities (my favorite part). We keep each other grounded, balance each other out and offer new perspectives. I’m convinced it’s because of her that I have a 6-pack from laughing so hard.

I’ve learned after graduation that these are the friendships I crave.

I need the type of friends that are supportive of me as I change and grow, and I want to be there in the same way for them. I need friendships that value assertive communication, respect, and are free of judgement. I need the friendships where I feel immediate relief simply by being in their presence.

I feel that in the past I’ve put so much emphasis on trying to be liked by everyone, and in order to do that, I changed my personality when I hung out with different groups. It’s exhausting. It’s straining. It was putting a mask over who I was. I thought being able to get along with most everyone was one of my strengths as a person, but the more I reflect on the matter, the more I realize that being liked was a way for me to justify liking myself. Scary. That’s f$*^ing scary, but I’m learning.

Taking time to analyze friendships and relationships has been one of the most important things I’ve ever done. I’ve noticed the following benefits from this process so far:

  1. I have more time to connect with friends on a deeper level through active listening, compassion, vulnerability, and empathy
  2.  I have more time to try new things and do activities that make me happy
  3. I can fully be myself in more of my friendships
  4. I’ve noticed more self-confidence and improvement in my own self-worth
  5. Decreased stress, depression, and feelings of loneliness due to relationships
  6. Increased levels of ease and happiness

I believe that friendships change over time, and that’s okay. We change throughout our twenties as we try new things, form our own beliefs and values, and as we find our place in the world to be our best selves.

I’m not done or even close to being done working on my relationships. It’s a work in progress; I’m gettin’ through.

Have a wonderful week,

Jen

My Self-Care Epiphany on Emotions: Distraction Works… For Awhile

Yesterday I went to my weekly therapy appointment with a checklist, prepared for exactly what I wanted to discuss (I’m an overly-organized freak… she knows this). I was concerned that I had been feeling lonely, anxious and depressed a few days last week and wanted to know 1) what was causing this, and 2) how to get myself back to the “happy/optimistic zone” during these times. I told her that my mom and cousin came into town this last weekend, and I had so much fun with them. Could this have been a trigger? Was I feeling this way because they left? (Side note: My family lives in a suburb of the twin cities, and I currently live in the Madison area—I-94 is our best friend). Could it be because I was stressed at work? Damn, social media could have been another reason… I cancelled plans last Friday to read, watch a movie, have a glass of wine, and plan my workouts and meal prep for the next week as a self-care night. As soon as I started reading, I checked Snapchat and instantly had FOMO, like I should be doing something with friends. I didn’t want to feel like a loser. I couldn’t relax after that.

I sat in front of my therapist analyzing all that I could to understand why I was feeling this way, hoping she would pick my brain to find the root of the problem. I thought she would tell me how to cope, and I would do this and feel better.

She didn’t.

She started with, “You know, in college you didn’t give yourself much time to really feel many of your negative emotions.” This was 100%-my-therapist-reads-me-like-a-book true. In college I would run myself dead. I would go to class, work out, and study until I went to bed. On the weekends I would study during the day, hurry home to go out with friends, and repeat. The only way I knew to cope with negative emotions was distraction. Unfortunately, I was good at it. Studying was a constant option/excuse. I would avoid depression, loneliness, anxiety, anger, and fear like the plague. Half the time, I probably didn’t even know I was doing it. I imagine, when encountering these uncomfortable feelings, little people in my brain throwing up papers and running around in circles. Abort! Abort! Go study! Call your mom! Workout! Visit a friend! DO LITERALLY ANYTHING. Ugh.

My therapist asked me to name a time where I allowed myself to feel how I was feeling instead of trying to change, run from, or analyze it. My memory instantly went back to the cross-country season in high school. My coach would always say, “run how you feel.” On days where I felt good, I’d run faster. On days where I felt like crap, I’d take it easy. My therapist asked me why I didn’t analyze or try to find a reason why I didn’t run fast on days I didn’t feel great. It’s funny, never once did I think, I’m running slow because “I ate like shit,” or “I’m dehydrated,” or “I’m nonathletic.” Why? Honestly, I think I just knew that my body physically feels different on different days, and I work with what I have. “What if you tried to view emotions in this way? You don’t have the constant distraction in your life, and this means you may notice things about yourself that maybe you didn’t before.” For me, “these things” were emotions I subconsciously and consciously didn’t allow myself to feel. “Some days you’ll experience positive emotions, some days you’ll experience negative emotions. It’s a part of being human, and a consequence of having the ability to experience a spectrum of feelings. You work with what you feel each day.” BOOM. I realized I am so much gentler with my physical body than I am with my mind. When it comes to emotions, I push through, analyzing and actively trying to change how I feel. It doesn’t work.

Noticing my emotions and working with what I feel each day is my mental health goal for the next week. By no means do I think distraction is an “ineffective method” of coping, I just don’t think it should be the only method. Learning more ways to work with feelings of loneliness, depression, and anxiety could be useful.

My positive affirmation of the week is, “Experiencing negative emotions is part of being human, and these feelings will pass. I will feel happy again.”

Have a wonderful week,

Jen

Welcome To My 20-Something Life!

HELLO and WELCOME to my first blog post! My name is Jen, and I am a recent graduate of the University Wisconsin- Madison. I am working on trying new things (FINALLY, I have time to do something other than study!!). Blogging has always been at the top of my bucket list, but I’ve always thought, “what in the hell do I have to talk about?” Today, it came to me: the [horribly underrated] college to adult life transition. So far during this crazy change, I think I’ve experienced every emotion under the sun: from excitement, happiness, love, motivation, and gratitude all the way to loneliness, anger, depression, worry, and fear. My goal is for readers to think, at least once, “holy mother, I thought it was just me.” It’s not. You and I are not alone. We’re all in this together (yikes… sorry if that HSM song is now stuck in your head).

Follow me on my journey as I discuss my experiences of applying for jobs, starting my working career, searching out hobbies, making new friends, dating as a 20-something, and all the bumps and bruises along the way. Literal bumps and bruises… I’m as clumsy as they come. One of my biggest goals has been to find out who I am (yes, that what-does-that-even-mean phrase you always encounter in your classic “10 ways to survive a breakup” article). I also strive to be comfortable and confident being myself. By no means have I accomplished this goal; it’s a work in progress, but I’m happy to share how I’m gettin’ through.

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