Assist Pin: Coping With Painful Emotions

 

I love the chin up/dip machine in the gym. It is one of the most efficient ways to work several major muscle groups at once. Given I detest weight lifting, but I know it builds strong and healthy bones, yada, yada, yada, I celebrate a machine that shortens my agony. I also love that it contains the “weight assist” stack. I simply determine the pounds I want to subtract from my actual weight and insert the lovely “assist” pin. On particularly challenging days, I place the pin near my exact weight and pull myself up with one hand! I feel like Demi Moore in GI Jane except I don’t have a shaved head or her ripped biceps. Gymgoers standing  at least 20 feet away might possibly mistake me for Svetlana Feofanova — a fellow famous red-haired athlete! I do try to challenge myself and move the pin up and pull up more and more of my weight. I recognize muscle building involves pain but some days I need a break from it.

When it comes to painful emotions, perfectionists find the assist pin particularly attractive. Perfectionist assist pins come in all shapes and sizes . . . working long hours, racking up achievements, filling every available moment with something productive, rigid exercise routines, and cleaning. Some assist pin activities can be helpful like distracting oneself from painful emotions by calling a friend, going for a run, or doing something kind for others. Others can prove particularly damaging like numbing out with alcohol, food or excessive sedentariness.

One should not use the aforementioned coping strategies to continuously to avoid painful emotions. Tal- Ben Shahar (2009) highlights that painful emotions need to move freely down the “emotional pipe line” in order to maintain good emotional-wellbeing. When we continuously suppress, ignore, and distract ourselves from painful emotions a clog builds and these emotions remain trapped inside contributing to depression, anxiety and low self-esteem. If we use the “assist pin” over and over again it will eventually wear down, break and send us crashing under our true weight. Hence, we need to challenge ourselves to pull it out and feel, ache, grieve and hurt and know we are human and splendidly, imperfectly built.

At times, we need to put the pin in. Shortly after I separated from my ex-husband the grief permeated my being to the depths that my heart physically ached. I had no idea that a human being could shed such colossal volumes of tears. I recognized that I could not grieve 24/7 and maintain some semblance of sanity. I needed breaks. I needed the assist pin. My “assist” pin included things like a living room early 90’s dance party with my sister, watching really horrible reality TV (so bad I cannot succumb to telling you even though I use a pen name), painting my toe nails radical colors, listening to Nine Inch Nails VERY, VERY loud in my car and yelling “Head like a hole, black’s got your soul, I’d rather die than give you control!,” hot baths, watching videos of cute baby animals on youtube and then . . . I. Pulled. The. Pin. Out. . . so I could work through the pain, build strength and prevent the pin from wearing out. It’s an imperfect process. Sometimes I leave the pin in too long. Other times, I suffer too long under the gravity of my own weight and could benefit from giving myself a break. My wish for all of us is that we can grow in our discernment of when to put the pin in and pull it out.

Imperfectly,

Amelia

My splendidly imperfect dog can be a sweet, furry, four-legged “assist pin.”

Imperfect Conscious Uncoupling

A huge source of support during my divorce.

A huge source of support during my divorce.

Many of you likely read about Gweneth Paltrow’s and Chris Martin’s conscious uncoupling on goop.com. Marriage and Family Therapist, Katherine Woodward Thomas, coined this phrase and defines it as, “a break up that is characterized by goodwill, by generosity, and by respect. It is a process that leaves both parties valued and appreciated for all that was shared. . .and it is where two people are really striving to minimize the damage they do to themselves . . . and then to each other. ” Family therapist Dr. Sonja Rhodes notes, “. . . couples confront their irreconcilable differences by looking into themselves instead of blaming their partners. Each partner takes a reflective, conscious stance toward what role he or she has played in the dissolution of the couple. This is actually a pretty radical point of view when you consider that when nearly all people talk about their divorces, there’s always some element of blaming their partner.” In the midst of feeling hurt, abandoned and rejected, it is all too tempting to cling to the ways in which our partners wronged us. The process of turning inward and acknowledging we made mistakes leaves us, particularly perfectionists, feeling terribly vulnerable. Kuddos to those who muster this type of courage.

Public comment disparaging Gweneth for not saying “divorce” angers and saddens me. The reality of divorce is excruciatingly painful even under the best of circumstances. I would have gladly welcomed a publicist to craft a meaningful, positively-framed statement (not to mention flattering photo) to distribute to my family and friends when my ex-husband and I decided to “consciously uncouple.” Given I was deep in the throes of perfectionism in my marriage, I worked hard to make it look “perfect.” We depicted a story-book picture on the outside despite a bed of molten lava bubbling up beneath the dreadfully shallow surface. My ex-husband and I loved each other, lived in an attractive home in a much desired area of town, had good jobs, belonged to an extravagant “sports resort”  where I could swim in a sparkling, heated pool alongside former Olympic athletes, and spent our weekends on the beach. By societal standards we had “arrived.” Honestly, we arrived to a place where neither of us were growing and the fear that if either of us stepped towards a more authentic life the surface would open and the lava would swallow us whole. Eventually, the lava came with an undeniable force and power that neither of us could reign in. We fought for each breath while trying to continue the tasks of daily life. Given we painted a false picture to ourselves, family and friends (hell, we had all the happy couple pictures on Facebook) the news of our divorce shocked all those we cared about. I felt like a failure on so many levels and knew confessing my imperfection was the only way to save myself. I called my sweet sister (SS):

SS: Hi Amelia. How are you?

Me: (Violently sobbing) Not good. . . something bad happened with [ex-husband] . . . my marriage is over. I need to be with you. Can I come visit?

SS: Come . . . just come.

I flew across country to my sister and told her the true story of my marriage and wept and wept. Though the pain of this loss permeated every ounce of my being, I felt a weight lift. Now someone knew my anguish and imperfections and loved me deeply anyway. My sister’s love and support gave the courage to commence the daunting task of telling family and close friends about the death of my marriage. I encountered, “I can’t believe this” followed by “I’m so sorry you have to go through this. I love you. What do you need?”  I feel incredibly blessed that those I so deeply cared about held my head above water, without judgment, when I feared I might drown.

At times, I still experience shame when I tell people I’m divorced. I try to practice self-compassion and remind myself that 50% of the population, including many people I love, trust and respect are also divorced. To be quite honest, the next person with whom I decide to “consciously couple” will gain a much better version of Amelia than the one my ex-husband knew. She is quicker to admit mistakes, laugh at them, and savor the present moment without worrying about when the sky will cave in. (She also has a splendidly imperfect blog!)

Imperfectly,

Amelia

Do Nothing Day . . .Fail . . .Sort Of

A week ago, a friend of mine mentioned that he and his wife had a “do nothing” day. He explained they took a nice walk, went out to lunch and watched a cheesy movie. I thought, “That sounds really nice,” followed by, “How can you spend an ENTIRE day doing nothing! No plans? No lists?” Recovering perfectionists struggle with “being” vs. “doing.” Marking items off our lists and setting goals instills confidence that we are dedicating every precious minute towards success. However, this approach comes with significant costs including burnout, stress, anxiety, guilt . . . and the list goes on. Honestly, our “in-box” items spontaneously multiply (I think the physics law which supports this assertion involves Avagadro’s Law and some quarks). We may have the cleanest bathroom in the great 50 states; however, the next “to do” task quickly eclipses the temporary moment of elation.

An abundance of research supports the benefits of mindfulness and meditation (i.e., being vs. doing). Jon Kabat-Zinn defines mindfulness, as “cultivating attention in a particular area.” Renowned psychologist Marsha Linehan asserts mindfulness enhances our ability to make intentional choices about thoughts and feelings versus acting out of habit or impulse. The first step involves gaining awareness of what your mind is doing and gently beckoning it back to the present moment when it wanders away. My mind often reminds me of my splendidly imperfect dog in a new park. He lopes about, sniffs and explores. When I call, he will gleefully romp back to me for a chin scratch and then dart away to the next distraction. My mind similarly skips and scampers about. Particularly while I lay in shavasana (dead body pose) in yoga. As you fittingly guessed, shavasana requires one to lie still and quiet one’s mind. Here’s how my shavasana typically goes . . .

Mind: You need to take the recycling out when you get home.

Me: Mind, get back here you’re supposed to be in yoga class! Breathe.

Mind: I noticed during hands-to-feet pose that you have a big bruise on your shin and you’re a couple days overdue for shaving your legs.

Me: Shut up! Breathe.

Mind: You need to pick up some more paper towels the next time you’re in the grocery store. You should also check your toilet paper supply.

Me: Mind get back here!

Mind: When is this shavastna going to be over? Oh, the teacher has a really cool ankle bracelet on. Hands-to-feet pose would totally be more fun if I had a pretty ankle bracelet on.

Me: You’re supposed to be breathing and doing nothing else!

Mind: I can’t wait until the yoga teacher announces the next pose. This is torture!

Obviously there is a reason they call it yoga “practice” and not yoga “perfect.” Mindfulness practice is similar to building bulging biceps. You start lifting in small increments and gradually build up weight and endurance. Goodness knows I need more practice stilling my mind, enjoying the present moment and refueling my emotional gas tank! Hence, I decided implement a “do nothing” night. Given I am a recovering perfectionist, I knew better than to set the unrealistic and high-pressured goal of an entire “do nothing” day. I looked forward to my evening of NOT doing laundry, paying bills, etc. I decided to do whatever moved me in the moment . . . UNTIL . . . I received an email from my accountant asking me to review my taxes and return my efile certificate ASAP!!! I quickly thought, “I already failed at do nothing night, and I have not even left work!” Then I thought, “wait, this is a FOG (i.e., f#$%*ing opportunity for growth moment)!” I looked at my taxes as soon as I got home and then did nothing! I left my laundry in the overflowing clothes basket. I ate cereal for dinner (with a banana to keep it healthy of course). I danced to early 80’s songs in my living room and indulged in a cheesy romantic comedy and hot bath. Yep, definitely a FOG moment transformed into SWAG (i.e., Super, Wonderful Awesome Good-enough) moment.

 

“You might be tempted to avoid the messiness of daily living for the tranquility of stillness and peacefulness. This of course would be an attachment to stillness, and like any strong attachment, it leads to delusion. It arrests development and short-circuits the cultivation of wisdom.”

― Jon Kabat-Zinn, Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life

 

Imperfectly,

Amelia

My splendidly imperfect dog has mastered the art of "do nothing" day.

My splendidly imperfect dog has mastered the art of “do nothing” day.