“Back” to school?

Both of my kids have gone back to school now. I say “gone back” because that’s the figure of speech we always use to describe returning to the educational environment and not because they’ve actually, well, gone, anywhere. They, along with my husband and I, have embarked on an online school odyssey of online platforms, zoom meetings, free-range physical education classes, and emails from teachers.

Lots of emails from teachers.

Every club or private activity has gone back to full practices and games, it seems, but schools are not ready for in person learning. This makes some sense as school is a much longer, much more compact setting than a soccer field or a dance studio for a couple hours where everyone has their own box of space and wears a mask.

So we spent the weekend wearing a mask in the 100 degree heat, watching our youngest compete in a soccer tournament.

And reading emails from administrators about how to access the various online portals they’ll be learning through this fall.

We’re so lucky the girls are old enough to largely monitor themselves and their own learning. We’ve settled for spot checks and surprise drop ins of their room to make sure they’re actually signed on to zoom at their regularly scheduled times.

I saw crumbs on the table when I went down to refresh my coffee in between client sessions, so I assume one of them fed themselves lunch of some sort.

This is going to be a seriously open-handed sort of fall. Open hands are how I teach clients to engage with reality acceptance. There are two real ways to approach circumstances that feel overwhelming or big – with an attempt to control the situation, a tight grip on the circumstances and ourselves, or with an open hand, ready to accept what comes and cope with it.

The closed, controlling fist, tries to modify and subdue the environment. To make it fit expectations or pre-conceived ideas about what it “should” be or how we wish it to be. The open hand isn’t steering so much as taking on.

We’re taking on this school year and feel like we’ll cope with problems as they arise. The idea that we can anticipate or plan for the problems that may or may not arise is mind-boggling. We have no way of knowing where this will go off the rails (I’m sure that it will in some way), but we have to assume that we CAN cope with what comes and that we WILL be alright after. Even if we don’t particularly want to cope with the eventual disasters and roadblocks of the unanticipated.

Can is very different from want. But can is what matters when it comes to coping. Because it is the thing that reduces fear of the unknown and allows for a reduction in anxiety. If you believe that you CAN cope with what comes, you don’t need to worry so much about what it might be that will eventually come.

This is a lesson parents learn with increasing urgency as our kids age. We don’t know what they will be or how they will grow, but we know that we can cope with what they become. We will have to accept it and, again as they age, learn that we don’t always get to control what that might be or how they will get there. Kids are their own people and as they become older and wiser and more familiar with themselves, they need us less to reflect and direct them to who they are than they do to accept and support them in being who they are.

I’ll never forget when my oldest was in pre-school. She was quiet and didn’t seem to request or want a large number of playdates. She had a few close friends that she asked to play with regularly, but she didn’t ask for a wide-variety of people and when I would pick her up she would often be playing by herself or with one or two other kids.

I worried.

“She doesn’t have friends,” I would say to my husband. “She’s not happy.”

Despite there being no evidence that she was actually unhappy. She didn’t cry or resist going to school. She never reported any discontent with the friends she played with and talked about them often enough at home. She learned and she engaged.

But I was convinced. She was unhappy. So I did what most-overly involved parents might do. I arranged multiple play dates with other kids in the class. Kids she hadn’t really mentioned or played with from what I’d seen.

She went. She was fine with it, but she wasn’t particularly interested.

Then one day it just hit me. Her happy didn’t look like my happy. I like a large group. I like a wide range of friends and acquaintances. I want to be popular with my peers.

She does not.

She was happy with a few close friends.

I was so busy imposing my version of happy on her that I missed for awhile that she already was. In my quest to make her happy, I was actually causing some unhappiness because she wasn’t really into playing with some of the kids I invited over.

They didn’t have similar styles or interests.

Since then I’ve really worked to see from her perspective. From the perspective of both of my kids. To ask what their happy looks like and to take them at their word. It won’t look like mine because they are not me. But I can cope with almost any kind of happy they like so long as they’re actually HAPPY.

Today, they were pretty happy with school. It doesn’t look like I thought it would and it’s not taking the shape that I would have wished, but so far they’re happy and that’s just going to have to be enough.

If only they’d stop with the emails.

Shame and grace

Shame and grace. These are the two things on my mind today. As a mom with anxiety, I can spiral quickly when I make mistakes. Last night I made a doozy. It’s hard to even call it a mistake – yelling at my husband about something that barely matters in front of my oldest daughter, getting so upset that I broke a plate (accidentally) when I slammed my fork down on the table.

That sent me on a spiral of thinking about what a bad mother and wife I am. How my family would be better of without me. I couldn’t sleep. There were tears and self pity. There were a lot of thoughts and concerns about whether I’m too bad, too out of control.


That’s the problem with shame and embarrassment. They don’t offer any grace. Any hope of doing better next time. Any way to change. If you are a bad mother and wife, what’s the point in trying to be better – you ARE bad. No one can offer forgiveness and support and help you to figure out a way to do better next time.

Grace and forgiveness. Pointless without an understanding that I can do better.

My husband and daughter offered both immediately after I apologized last night. They offered them again when I apologized again this morning. It’s hardest for me to offer them to myself.

That’s the hardest thing.

I still struggle with it.

My relationship with my mother was never the smoothest or the easiest. She was unable to regulate her emotions. She was unable to see a future for me that wasn’t the one she imagined and her anxiety forced her into a critical tone when she really wanted to protect me from the things she believed might cause me a problem (her anxiety told her that boys wouldn’t like me if I wasn’t a size 2 and she didn’t want me to go date-less in high school, so the obvious solution was to force a healthy teenage girl on restrictive and punitive diet plans that she also subjected herself to). These were acts of love. I know this. But it didn’t feel like love. She would get overwhelmed and angry when worried about how things would affect me. Leading to yelling and judgmental language.

At the time it felt that I wasn’t good enough, that she didn’t love me. At times I worried that she was a crazy person. Irrational and unfair. It made our relationship rocky and now, every time I act emotional I worry that I’m just the same.

That my relationship with my own daughters will be similarly problematic.

So I get worried when I overreact or get emotionally dysregulated (to use my therapist terminology to make the language less, well, emotional in here). It’s hard to forgive myself and to offer myself the grace that my kids seem to give so freely.

I try to remind myself that part of the reason they can give it so freely is because it hasn’t been required of them very often. That I’m doing the best that I can. But it’s so hard with the shame dragon riding my back.

This is why I work so hard to move from shame to guilt. As Brené Brown says, shame is “I am bad” while guilt is “I did bad.” Did I act in a way unbecoming and ineffective at establishing happiness in my relationships with my husband and children? No. I did bad. I didn’t do well at expressing my emotions and I conflated multiple situations that were completely unrelated. I did a bad thing. I didn’t model good behavior.

But, and this is a big but, I did model effective apologizing and vulnerability and guilt instead of a shame response.

I want to do better, I don’t want our relationships to be strained. I want to be a mother they can rely on and who they believe they can trust and know thinks they’re amazing at all times. But that relationship isn’t a one time thing. It’s not a one time mistake away from ruined forever. Relationships are built on vulnerability and part of vulnerability is owning up to mistakes. To offering apologies when wrong.

So I’m working on getting to guilt so I don’t have to worry that I’m a terrible mother because in these times of pandemic trauma and political pain at every turn, I need to take my grace where I can offer it.

Urge to escape

Here is a thing that I’ve learned about my mother – she periodically feels the need to escape and to start over. The belief in the clean slate is strong in her. She will find herself withdrawing from everyone she knows and from organizations that were once important to her and then she will start to advocate with increasing urgency for a move. To a different part of town, to a new neighborhood, to a closer in suburb.

I have inherited this behavior pattern from her. It’s not as extreme and I don’t tend to withdraw in the same way before moving, but I have never felt attached to a home in the way that I would never want to leave it. Not since I was a child and my parents moved us from my literal childhood home to a new city when I was entering 10th grade.

Eleven years in one house. That was the longest I’ve lived anywhere before or after that time.

When we lived in London, we rented. We moved four times in seven years. We started in a one bedroom and needed two when we got pregnant with our first child. (Upon arrival home from the hospital, first night in their own room. I have never been the kind of nurturing mother who wanted or allowed her child to sleep in her room – neither of my kids has slept a day in our bedroom. There are pluses and minuses to this strict regime. Neither child has ever asked to sleep in our room, plus. Middle of the night waking and feeding require stumbling blindly down the hall after waking from a deep sleep, minus.) Then we needed less terrifying stairs as our first born started walking – they were an open sided spiral staircase with large gaps between the treads. They were a deathtrap and rattled when we went up and down them. Our third home was perfect for us, but the downstairs neighbor felt that our stroller should not be parked in the corner behind the stairs because she did not like how it looked – despite having permission from the landlord for it to be there – and made our lives miserable. The fourth was fine, but small and by that time we knew we were on our way home to the United States as soon as we could get here.

Once we moved to Texas we moved multiple times again (this time really only twice, with a brief stop in a rental house for a half year while we sold and bought).

The urge to try something new will be upon me. The need for a clean slate decoratively and lifestyle will start to consume my thoughts. The ease of real-estalking with all the property search websites and apps doesn’t help this problem. Neither does the stir craziness of COVID.

I hang on to things, but a move helps me to let go of them. Boxes of memorabilia that I would cling to while staying put in a house I can easily say goodbye to en route to a new home.

This is a constant tension in our marriage because I married the ultimate homebody. He’s happy as can be and still looks back fondly on our first and second apartments in London where he would probably still be living happily if circumstances hadn’t forced him out. It’s funny how people can surprise you. I assumed since he had already accepted a job in London when we started dating that he had a wanderlust similar to mine.

I was wrong.

Don’t fear, this isn’t a cry that there are problems in our marriage because of it. Marriage is a compromise and we’ve managed to compromise and compliment each other’s urges toward roots and wings. There’s negotiation and discussion, but it’s helped me to stay rooted more and to realize that I can cope with whatever is urging me to flee and start over. It’s helped him, I think, to realize that a new start doesn’t have to be calamitous and terrifying. We’ve managed to balance out and to learn new coping skills and behaviors that let us work pretty well together.

But yet, the itch will strike and I have to remember to slow myself down and stay present in my current existence. It helps that school supplies pick up for one child and the first day of school for the other happened today. While those don’t look like they have in the past, they’ve reminded me that even if we stay in the same house and place the year and the events that will occur will be ever changing and renewed.

And perhaps I’ll need to delete one or two of the property search apps for a bit, just to stop the habit of checking out new neighborhoods and cities constantly. Sometimes a little virtual wander can be a relief and a distraction from monotony and frustration, but (as I tell my clients all the time) we can’t live in distraction. Deleting the apps for a while helps me to stay present in the moment of my daily life. To live fully here and now. To cope with what may or may not be bothering me in my daily life here in our current home.

Mastering a new kind of back-to-school…

My youngest had several zoom orientation sessions for her school year, which starts tomorrow. She’s entering sixth grade, which in Texas in middle school, and is at a new school. Learning to manage a new school, trying to meet other kids at a new school, and trying to understand the expectations and processes of virtual schooling has made sixth grade a pretty daunting new task.

We’re very lucky to be able to offer her an education that, by all appearances, will be engaging and offer her the chance to do substantive work – even if it is remotely. She also appears to have the technology expectations well in hand, her public school appears to have done a marvelous job of preparing her – she, well, zoomed through the online training with zero problems or hiccups.

So, while this isn’t the ideal situation and it’s certainly not what I would have chosen for her start to middle school, it seems to me that the kids in our house will be alright. My husband and I, on the other hand, seem to be entering into a period of fatigue and malaise at the start of our sixth month at home. I think it’s the inability to plan for the future that’s really stressful. We don’t know when this end or when we will start to recognize our daily routine. We don’t know when we’ll be confronted with either new things or familiar routines.

Watching my daughter master new processes with ease reminded me of a thing that’s been missing in my own routine lately. Learning new things. When I teach a DBT skills class, we spend a significant amount of time on emotional regulation techniques. These are the items of self care and life construction that allow us to feel generally good so as to not be SO upset about the daily slings and arrows of life. If I feel generally cared for and satisfied, I’m less likely to be upset if another driver cuts me off on my commute home than if I’ve had a stressful day and am feeling resentful and tired from the demands on my time and lack of self care.

I think this is one of the ways that travel is such an extraordinary way to practice and learn self care routines. Being among a new culture requires multiple acts of learned mastery in a single day. I remember the first time I successfully navigated the Parisian subway on my own and without reference to a guidebook for specific route instructions. Or the first time I managed to order off a menu in Spain without reference to the English language version. Being amongst a new culture is a fantastic way to witness new ways of doing the things that you do every day at home and to have to engage your mind to learn how to incorporate those ways into your behaviors.

At the beginning of this whole pandemic nightmare, I think people were energized by adapting to their new normal. Even if that new normal wasn’t what we would want it to be, it was new. We were engaged in understanding our changed culture and practices. There was also a burst of distraction energy – we worked to try new things so as to keep entertained and because it felt like a chance to do those new things that wouldn’t last forever. Now the monotony of this and realizing it might very well last a long time have set in and we feel too tired to try new things.

I would argue, though, that this is exactly when we need that bread-baking, house painting, new thing kind of energy. We need to build opportunities to master new skills into our routines, even as we feel so fatigued and run down. Counter-intuitively, the more we do that and the more we’re able to break up the time and give our brains new challenges, the better we’ll feel.

We can’t travel, which would be a great way to introduce something new, but I’ve been watching some Rick Steves (the PBS travel show host, he’s always been a not-so-secret favorite of mine from my first trip to Europe on which his book, Europe Through the Back Door was a guide and founding text) on a regular basis because it gives me a vicarious thrill of the new. It inspires me to dream, a thing that seems to have been run out of me by the constant drum beat of staying home and staying safe (which are so important). I’ve been trying to find episodes I haven’t seen about places that I haven’t been to. Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown is also good for this vicarious travel.

Learning new skills – photo editing, painting, puzzles, new games, have also helped a little with the general feeling of sadness permeating another school year starting at home.

Watching my daughter I was struck by how resilient and resourceful she is. How she’s adapting and moving forward. I’m finding it harder to let go of my ideas about how it should be and how I wish it was. Normally I love the start of the school year. The thrill of new discovery and new routine. The joy of rejoining friends after a summer away. I think part of my sadness is grief as well as monotony. This doesn’t feel how I always expect the start of a school year to feel.

Additionally, I’m grieving not just the school year we didn’t get, but the loss of some of my belief that America will always pull together and solve any crisis it is confronted with. I haven’t felt that positivity lately and it’s hard to process that loss without the counterbalance of the optimism of the opportunity the new school year shows me each year that America can bring.

So I guess the point of all of the above is that we have to just take the next step forward, even if its sad and not the step we wish we were taking. Try to add some new to our routines wherever we can find it and just carry on.

Learning to say “No.”

No is a complete sentence.

Jane Fonda, Harvard Business Review

I chose the cover image because it looks like I’m telling Mary Poppins off. I’m definitely not. But if you can say “No” to Mary Poppins at Disney World, you can probably say it to anyone.

I’ve been working on saying “no” lately. It’s really hard for me to say it and to leave it at that. I always want to leave wiggle room, or soften it with an explanation. I feel guilty saying no, it feels like letting someone down and the pleaser in me really struggles with the idea of that.

Here’s a thing that I’ve realized that makes it easier to just say “no” and not feel the need to explain. Explanations are often what makes a no painful or harder to take. In fact, explanations often trigger people to feel offended. It’s like we’re waving our arms around and asking them to notice that we’ve said no to something and that they should want to know why.

Why should everyone get to know why I make every decision? Why do I feel that I owe the world an explanation or a justification for the things that I decide?

I don’t.

I often find that clients struggle with guilt and shame in situations where they’ve been criticized or made mistakes. They feel scared about how others will see them going forward and worried that whoever offered them the commentary will never think well of them again. Even worse, they often worry that the person was right.

Why do we give others that power?

It takes session after session for them to start to believe that they’re doing the best that they can and that, if they’ve made a mistake, it certainly wasn’t because they’re evil or wishing harm to the party affected by that mistake. I try to get them to see that the person pointing out the mistake might have motives that are not clear to them – they might be seeking an advantage in a negotiation or, most likely, they’re just giving the person a chance to correct whatever they’ve done or not done.

But why do we feel the need to apologize for doing what we do? Why do we feel the need to explain that we weren’t trying to hurt someone or that we had good reason for our actions or beliefs or wants?

I think it comes back to a driving need for people to like us. To feel we are a part of the herd and that we won’t be rejected or ostracized. Humans are pack creatures by nature. From an evolutionary perspective we needed to form packs to survive and we still rely on a larger societal pack to function.

We desperately fear that if we exercise agency and that agency doesn’t comport with the decisions of the herd that we’ll be left out and alone. Which feels dangerous (and was dangerous from an evolutionary perspective).

But we’re not in danger just because we’re left out of a herd (not that I believe that taking agency will actually result in being ostracized, the herd also respects leadership and relationships are built on vulnerability and openness – on being who you are). There are more herds available. We might not enjoy looking for one, but if the herd that we’re currently a part of cannot accept or celebrate our agency, then its better for us to find one that can.

All the above aside, the real selling point for saying “no” and having it be enough? No is a way to preserve relationships. It’s the only way. When I focus on pleasing others and going along and getting along, I start to feel (over time) resentment and frustration. Why do I never get to do what I want? Why is it always their way? are questions that run through my mind. Those resentments don’t go away if you ignore them. Like Pandora’s Box, they just get stored up waiting for the lid to get blown open and to explode all over the other person.

If we never say no. If we never act with agency and on our own behalf. Eventually we feel that the relationship is not one that takes our needs into account. Nevermind that we’ve never voiced them or given the other person a chance. We end it. Or we have a huge fight.

No. A complete sentence and a relationship saver.

The Next Right Thing

I like to listen to podcasts while I run. I started this when I started running because listening to a podcast about Disney World helped me to feel motivated to continue running because it reminded me of my, then, imminent trip to the Disney for a runDisney event. In fact, the podcast that I listened to first was about running AT Walt Disney World. It was a surprise to discover that there are multiple podcasts devoted to running at Disney World. Not running in general, but running at the happiest place on earth.

I gave them all a try.

I found a couple I liked but they, probably not too surprisingly, ran out of steam eventually (more likely ran out of material as there’s only so much you can say about the races 6-10 races offered each year at Disney World). I didn’t really mind repetition of material or subjects, I just liked the focus on my goal that listening to people talk about running at Disney while training specifically so that I could go to Disney World.

Since then, I’ve broadened my podcast listening. There’s something soothing about a voice for radio talking about subjects of interest to me. Usually there are two to three hosts and they often have a rapport and a way of talking to each other and establishing inside jokes and language that includes the listener and lends a feeling that you’re a part of the conversation. It’s low-stakes social engagement.

It’s soothing to feel like you’ve engaged with other people without having to actually engage with other people. It’s also a brief window into the outside world in the moment when we’re all feeling cut off from the outside world, trapped in a much more insular existence than we’re used to.

This isn’t a real connection, it certainly doesn’t ask anything of me or require any vulnerability from me and it doesn’t provide me with any support other than distraction. Which is DEFINITELY worth something these days.

So it was as I was listening to one of these podcasts that I came across a discussion from Malcolm Gladwell, who’s Revisionist History podcast is wonderful and kind of different from the podcasts I was talking about above. Mr. Gladwell definitely has a wonderful, soothing radio voice, but instead of being drawn into a conversation and vicariously participating in the relationship between the co-hosts, I find that it makes me think about how the topics discussed apply to my own areas of interest.

In one of the episodes of the recent season, called “Hamlet Was Wrong”, Gladwell talks about nihilism and Hamlet. In Hamlet, the main character is paralyzed by his inability to determine the best course of action. Because he does not know what is the right way to act in the circumstances in which he finds himself, he doesn’t act at all. Gladwell argues that a nihilist’s approach would be to argue that the outcome is out of his control and therefore he should just choose an action and go forward because there’s no way to predict what will happen.

Basically Gladwell is arguing for the willing approach to life. He’s arguing that because we can’t know what’s coming, all we can do is make the best decision we can based on the information that is available to us at the moment and then cope with the results of that decision.

This flips my understanding of nihilism on its head. To me, nihilism has always been a hopeless and dark philosophy – nothing matters, there is no point. But to hear Gladwell’s conception is to hear hopefulness – lack of control is the point and therefore the decisions made are less important than the belief in self and the ability to cope. But this is where my clients often get stuck.

They believe that they cannot cope with what happens. I think that’s the thing that Gladwell misses. He has an inherent belief in his ability to cope with what comes that allows him to take the risk of waiting to see what it is that is coming. People who have anxiety don’t have that belief and therefore staying frozen is preferable to stepping one way or the other because at least frozen is a known commodity – a step in either direction involves unknowns and it is the very quality of unknown that is terrifying and problematic.

So how to inspire this belief in the ability to cope in my clients? How to give them some of that Gladwellian optimism about themselves?

This is where we talk about incremental change. Incremental change is the idea that by getting clients to make small changes to their daily lives, we can build a record of successful changes and produce some belief in the client’s ability to cope based on that record of coping with small changes.

I talk to myself and these clients about the Next Right Thing a lot. The idea of the next right thing is credited to John Passaro, an author who writes about moving forward after tragedy and building a life worth living despite adversity. Many of you parents will probably also recognize it from the movie Frozen 2. There’s a song called The Next Right Thing in the movie, sung by Anna, played by Kristen Bell, with a chorus that reads:

Just do the next right thing

Take a step, step again

It is all that I can to do the next right thing.

I won’t look too far ahead

It’s too much for me to take

But break it down to this next breath

This next step is one that I can make.

Kristen Anderson-Lopez, Robert Lopez. Frozen II:

The authors of the song drew inspiration from two of the crew members working on the movie who had experienced tragedy and loss during the time before the movie was made and their need to keep moving forward when moving forward is unimaginable. Even when you can’t envision a future its important to take small steps forward.

This is particularly true when dealing with clients experiencing depressive symptoms because they often feel so sad and overwhelmed that they truly cannot imagine a time when they will feel happy again. When their symptoms will be alleviated. This is what can destroy the motivation and energy needed to do the things that will make one feel better during a depressive energy – the disbelief that it can ever get better. For these clients, it’s often empowering to take as given that they won’t want to do the things they know intellectually they need to do. They won’t believe that it will work. Their brain will tell them they can’t or they shouldn’t. But taking small steps anyway is the entire point.

So the nihilism that Gladwell talked about is actually helpful in these cases. It helps clients when I tell them that I believe that they doubt it will make a difference. I know that they don’t want to. I accept that they’re only doing it at the moment because of the accountability they get from coming to therapy.

That’s ok. That’s enough.

Over time, through small steps you can run a marathon (or a half marathon in my case). Often looking too far ahead is paralyzing, much like it was for Hamlet worrying about the fate of his Kingdom and family. If I set out to run a marathon on the first day that I put on my sneakers, I wouldn’t have been able to finish. I would have been demoralized and seen evidence of the impossibility of my task. If I take as given that running a marathon (half) is an impossibly hard thing, but just run around the block anyway, eventually I’ll just run around the block enough to believe I can run a mile and then after running enough miles I’ll believe that I can run two, et cetera.

SO maybe Gladwell is right that we don’t need to believe that we can cope with the far off situation when we set out, we just need to believe that we can cope with the situation a foot in front of us.

A smart girl’s lament

Trigger warning: some discussion of sexual assault and details of rape.

I have a smart girl’s belief in my own abilities coupled with a smart girl’s deep and abiding sense that I am not good enough. I have always thought that I could become good at anything if I were to give it my whole attention and effort. But I rarely do that. I don’t want to fail. I don’t want to undermine that abiding belief in my ability to do anything because it gives me hope.

Hope and anxiety.

The smart girl’s lament.

I hear it often from clients that they are scared to try something new. Scared to step into the unknown and take a chance because what if it doesn’t work out.

The cognitive dissonance of believing you could, but doubting that you should, can be hard to manage and paralyzing even in the face of deep seated goals and desires. It appears confident while being deeply insecure.

I question my worth all the time.

My parents were convinced that I could do anything and should do great things. The Spiderman creed was instilled in me – from those with great abilities, great things are expected. I know that I was given a number of intellectual abilities and that I SHOULD do something with them. So anything that I do feels like not enough.

In school those great things were easy to find – excel in classes, study hard and learn well. Outside, it’s harder. When you worry that you’re not enough for others in relationships you become desperate to please and willing to accept far less than you’re worth. I know what I want from friends and loved ones, but who am I to ask people to meet my needs. To have expectations of others. Won’t that make me a burden?

If I rock the boat, will it be too much and will this person I like no longer like me? How do you set boundaries or say no when you’re convinced that having expectations or needs of others makes you a burden?

I met someone one night in Washington, DC. A man whose name I remember to this day but don’t say. At the time I lived with a roommate in a two bedroom basement apartment, rented to us by a (we didn’t know this at the time) man on the sex offender registry who lived in the house upstairs. The apartment was cute and comfortable, but decidedly non-smoking. My roommate and I smoked occasionally. SO, we would go down the street and around the corner – as we clearly agreed on the rental application that we didn’t smoke and we didn’t….IN the apartment. One Friday night, we were down the street having a cigarette when we met a group of three men leaving a house party farther up the block.

We started talking. They came in for a drink and we ended up going out with them. One of them, who was about my age, was clearly interested in me and we ended up making out later that night. We didn’t take off any clothing – mostly just kissed at a bar. On the whole, it was a pretty chaste first meeting.

I liked him. I found him smart and interesting and interested in his job.

We agreed to go out again and exchanged numbers. I was leaving in a week for a job in Paris for the summer, so we knew that any future dates would have to be brief and then broken up by a 3 month break. But I liked him.

He called three days later and I was excited to see his number, even though it was 10PM on Monday night. He said he had been at a concert and wanted to stop in and see me, maybe watch a movie.

I knew what that meant, I knew about booty calls, the pre-Netflix version of Netflix and chill. But I also believed that he wanted to see me – that it was a date.

When he arrived, I thought he seemed sweaty and not himself (as far as I knew from our ONE meeting). I realized after later when looking back that he was probably on something from the concert. My roommate and I had a male friend from college staying at our apartment for the week, he was going to be sleeping on an inflatable mattress in the living room, so I introduced them and we hung out for a few minutes before heading back into my bedroom to watch a movie.

I thought.

I know I was clear that I did not want to have sex. I did want to kiss and hook up. But I know I said clearly that we weren’t having sex.

We had sex. I know I said during that I didn’t want to.

But we had sex. I didn’t scream. I didn’t fight. I remember lying there and feeling numb. I do remember asking him during what he was doing. I don’t remember an answer.

We had sex.

After, he got out of bed. He looked at me and said, “you liked it” and then got dressed and left. I never heard from him again.

I asked myself, did I like it?

I struggled for the next two days with the idea that he told me a liked it. Did I? I din’t think that I did. I didn’t feel good about it. I didn’t think about it as a rape, but I did engage in some pretty harsh self-judgment about letting him in. I was pretty mean about “what did you think would happen?” kind of thoughts.

I did see a doctor for an emergency HIV test before I left for Paris that week and then again when I took another one six months later. He didn’t use a condom and I didn’t know him. Not really. As a result, the recommended protocol at the time was one HIV test followed by another six months later. Luckily, both were negative.

I didn’t talk to my roommate or any of our friends about what happened. I think I told them that I just didn’t know what the point of seeing him again was when I was leaving. Never mind that he didn’t call me anyway.

I kept asking, “did I like it?”

I went to Paris and hid for two months. Baggy clothing, dinners in my apartment. I watched French reality television and tried to remember how to feel comfortable and confident meeting people.

Now, on top of my smart girl anxiety, I also worried that I was too naive and uninformed to know what to expect of people I would meet. So, I didn’t meet anyone apart from people at work. I ate lunch alone in a park, reading a book and wearing headphones to discourage approach. I worked in the basement instead of the communal intern office as often as possible.

I didn’t believe anymore that I was so smart. I had lost the magical belief that I could handle anything. I didn’t believe anymore that I was extraordinary. This thing that happens to so many happened to me. I was ordinary and powerless against it.

And I walked.

I walked to work every day. I walked home from work every day. Almost an hour each way. I watched the repeated dramas that occur in French neighborhoods – the old men who met every evening in a park I passed to play pétanque (a form of French lawn bowling), the baker and the butcher with shops next door to each other who shared an afternoon glass of tea in front of their stores around the same time as I was walking home.

I took a break from my own life and watched other people’s lives, both in my physical reality and those on television. It took me out of my head and distracted me from my self-judgement.

I realized that I didn’t like it. Even more, I realized that liking it wasn’t the point when I said no, clearly and distinctly before and during.

When I came home from Paris, I was able to tell my roommate about what happened. To say the words, “he raped me.” And to feel they were true and that it wasn’t my fault. It took months, but it wasn’t my fault. I said no. I was clear. It wasn’t my fault.

Sex is complicated and messy even when we’re clear. To realize that it’s often not clear. To believe that I was violated is to accept that I’m not magically able to manage and control everything. Control is a false magic. It isn’t real. I did the best that I could, given the emotional and self esteem resources available to me at that time, to assert my needs under the specific circumstances of that night. Doing the best I could doesn’t mean doing the objectively best that anyone could given infinite time to think and react. Given infinite time, self esteem, confidence, power there are a number of things I could have done, but I didn’t do them. Because it happened fast, because I couldn’t think, because I was still worried about being too much, because, because, because.

I spent about a month reliving what happened and thinking of things I could have done to change the outcome. There are so many. So many I would do today if I had it to do over again because today I’ve already thought of them. Today I have better self esteem and boundaries. Today I’ve learned how to assert myself.

Rape shouldn’t be the price of learning those lessons. It doesn’t make me dumb that I didn’t know how to react at the time and it doesn’t make me any less smart that I failed at keeping myself safe from what did happen. Because we can’t keep ourselves safe from everything.

We can’t control everything.

Even magic can be defeated.

But the beauty of life is that we do get to try again. We have to cope with our failures – which is a thing I learned from this whole story. Failure is part of life. There are no clear standards of success and no clear benchmarks for doing well. We can only do the best that we can under the circumstances that we find ourselves in. Ordinary is beautiful and soothing and healing. Extraordinary isn’t a requirement.

Doing our best is.

The smart girl in me still mostly believes that. Sometimes she gets anxious that she’s not enough. When she gets loudest, I try something new to keep her feeling like she’s still pushing.

But mostly being happy is magic. Being enough is magic.

Screaming for billable hours

Law firms are not institutions inclined toward change or designed to change rapidly.  Most are partnerships and in order to be a partner, legally, one must be a lawyer.  Non-lawyers cannot ascend to the partnership.

This means that the leadership of these law firms (or, actually, businesses) is made up entirely of people who are not trained to run businesses, who did not set out to run a business, and who (in large part) have never considered managing other people to be a skill they needed to acquire.

When I became a senior associate, I attended a one day training session at my firm where, at most, an hour was spent on how to manage junior associates working on my transactions.  I remember feeling somewhat bewildered about what percentage of my work should be devoted to teaching a junior associate and what percentage should be devoted to just getting the assignment done.

Most senior associates err on the side of just getting it done.

This means that junior associates are often left to do the most meaningless tasks on a transaction and almost never get any feedback about attempts at more complicated issues or work.

Law firms, still (though this is changing somewhat) live and die by the billable hour. Associates and partners are expected to keep track of their time down to the tenth of an hour (every six minutes) and are meant to attribute every single second possible to a client matter number. Compensation and advancement are linked almost inescapably to the amount of hours (as a strictly numerical matter) are billable to a client.

Different levels of attorney have a different billable rate.  Often the overall ratio of partner hours to senior associate hours to junior associate hours are agreed in advance with clients of the firm.  Additionally, clients are often unwilling to pay for many hours of junior associate time simply because they feel, kind of rightly, that junior associates take longer to do work that is less important to them.

In practice, this means that partners often have to write off (or not charge the client for) junior associate billable time. It also means that time spent dealing with junior associate work product is worth less to the firm than it would be for the senior associate just to do all of the work to begin with.

In my counseling work it has become clear to me that humans are deeply influenced by feedback received. We do what works and repeat until it no longer works consistently enough that it is worth the extra effort to find a new way. An example I often give my clients is: if I want my husband to do the dishes, one way to get him to do the dishes is to scream at him. Long term it’s not effective if my goal is to have a happy marriage, but short term it’s certainly effective at getting the dishes done. The more times it gets the dishes done, the more it seems logical in my brain screaming = dishes done. Therefore, I’m more likely to scream earlier and with less provocation about getting the dishes done because they become linked in my mind. Over time, it can come to feel like the ONLY way to get the dishes done is to scream.

But then my marriage would be in trouble because I’m screaming all the time, my husband feels aggrieved and hurt and, apart from having sparkling clean dishes, no one is happy or connected.

The billable hour is the equivalent of the scream to get the dishes done. That, coupled with the fact that most of the lawyers running law firms are not MBAs who think about management practices and techniques as a driving force of their lives, leads to some pretty inefficient and unfortunate responses to that scream. Sure, the dishes are sparkling and partners and associates are well-compensated for their long hours of labor, but a lot of people end up feeling aggrieved, hurt, and definitely unappreciated.

Law firm partners end up in charge of a huge enterprise after years of being focused on a niche area of the law.  No one in charge of a firm has ever been incentivized to manage their juniors – it wasn’t worth it because their hours needed to be written off anyway.   Human management factors, as well, are often overlooked by partners who have built careers on practical, end-focused advice.  When managing a transaction, lawyers are not concerned with the effects of different management choices on the employees of the companies involved – their job is to advise the company about what is legally allowed based on the statues or regulations or to draft a clause that reflects what is agreed.  This attitude often carries over into managing a firm – the partner in charge will focus on the rules and reputation of the firm and the bottom line.

This is not meant to depict parters as heartless or uncaring. They aren’t. I’ve worked for partners who were dedicated and caring towards their associates, who gave them time to learn and to try new things. Who wanted to teach and to develop the talents of junior associates.

The other factor to consider is that most partners at most firms are paid ONLY a share of profits.  If the firm does not turn a profit (meaning after associates are paid, rent is paid, staff is paid, all expenses are paid), then partners earn nothing.  Happiness of associates, in a short term sense, because it adds to costs doesn’t necessarily result in a partner taking home any money for the year.  This is different from a large corporation where a CEO, while possibly grossly overpaid in comparison to the workers, receives an agreed salary even if the company earns less which allows them to consider things like satisfaction and retention of employees when budgeting and considering expenses.  While long term, firms would be wise to consider themselves as ongoing enterprises and places of work, sometimes the partners in charge just need to keep the revenue up and expenses down in order for partners to take home any pay at the end of the year.

This is all a very long-winded explanation for why firms are hard to change.  Why they can seem short sighted and conservative.  It’s understandable, if not objectively from an outside view, the best way.  Historically, law firms were ways to pool together independent practitioners and share the costs of some communal services needed to manage their practices.  

I believe members of law firms, though, think quite a lot about how firms can operate differently in the future. How to make them more resemble companies and less collections of independent practitioners they were initially created to be. They are multi-national businesses and need to be run as ongoing enterprises with long term plans, employee retention, training, and satisfaction as key. The way to this outcome, likely, is the loss of the billable hour. Already clients are demanding a change in many places – flat fees are becoming more common. A flat fee, absent billable hours, might encourage many many more hours of junior associate labor and training time. If usage rates and other internal firm metrics evaluating individual matter profitability weren’t influenced by just letting junior associates work on things for as long as it took, partners and senior associates might be more willing to sacrifice efficiency for knowledge building and employee growth and development. Under a flat fee, a senior associate could spend 2 hours revising and offering feedback to a junior associate who spent 8 hours trying the assignment and have it be no different to the client than if the senior associate just spent 4 hours doing the work while the junior did nothing. However, this would require firms to look at this junior work as overhead rather than work for that specific client.

As a business not wedded to the billable hour, firms could focus on things like mindfulness of employee health and seeking to encourage innovation and avoid burn out.

The other component, most likely, is a change in partner compensation.  Which might not be possible under the traditional legal partnership model.  Innovation and thought about structure is important because the very structure of the law firm, as it exists today, is impractical for these considerations.  I’m not arguing that partners should earn less or that they’re not deserving of their compensation.  But the incentives as they currently exist are not always in line with the goals of the individual partners.  I think individual partners want to train their junior associates.  I think individual partners want to think about satisfaction and well-being and retention.  I think individual partners want to allocate work in ways that allows growth and allows foreseeability of work flow and ensures even allocation and distribution of responsibilities.

I just think they’re too busy, under the current structure, trying to get the dishes done to focus on the long term effect on the marriage of firm and associate.

I’m catastophizing

Those are some powerful words that I work to teach many of my clients. They’re powerful because they can take you out of the spin of anxiety and depression and help you to step back and see how the worst thoughts you have are not necessarily the only or most likely thoughts to be true about a given situation.

Say them out loud when you start worrying. See how it feels in your body. Does your chest loosen? Does your heart beat slow? It can seem magical how saying two words OUT LOUD can change your perspective and emotional response so dramatically.

Not everyone catastrophizes all the time. Some people are more prone than others. In cognitive behavioral therapy it is a form of distorted thinking that therapists work to highlight for their clients and encourage clients to become more mindful of when they are doing it.

The human brain wants things to make sense. It wants facts to fit a narrative. These narratives, over time, become like grooves on a record – the needle sinks deeper into them and sometimes even becomes stuck and cannot move on to other verses of the song. AND, when bumped, the needle jumps back into that familiar deep rut. For some people, the assumption of the worst set of facts, or that a situation will have the worst possible outcome – a catastrophe, is that groove. This groove is formed and exacerbated over time and based on experiences – so it’s not completely irrational that it exists. But the existence of the groove does NOT confirm that all situations are going to necessarily end up fitting in with that narrative.

Sometimes, the narrative is so strong, we act in ways to make it true. A self fulfilling prophecy is one that we make true on the basis of simply knowing about it. Confirmation bias, by the same token, is the tendency of researchers to view facts in ways that confirm their theories and to discard facts that would not fit with their hypothesis. People do this all the time – discard facts that might make them feel better or that might make the catastrophe seem less likely. Or act in ways that make the catastrophe more likely than if they hadn’t done anything at all.

Everyone has had the friend (or been the friend) who ended a relationship because they felt that the other person was going to break up with them. In their mind, the catastrophe was ending the relationship so….they end the relationship.

Disney fandom seems to provide so many opportunities to witness catastrophizing. When Disney announces they are changing a ride, the immediate outcry is that the park will never be the same, the ride will never be good again, it is a tragedy. But is it? I’ve written before about why I don’t think it is (see: How I learned to stop worrying and love Tiana’s Splash Mountain). People assume the worst because at least the worst is known. It’s much easier for people to come up with the scenario that scares them the most than it is to come up with what would satisfy them or make them happy.

Another example, my worries about my kids and homeschooling. I think we all tend to assume it’s going to be terrible (and I’m not looking forward to it or getting into the implications for opening schools) and difficult and so bad. But here’s a thing I noticed when we stayed home in the spring – my daughter (who is in Middle School, talk about a catastrophe) was in a better mood when she didn’t have the ups and downs of of middle school drama in her face every day. This was an unexpected benefit to the shut down. She didn’t have seventh grade friend drama to distract from actually doing her school work. Now, I know that seventh grade friend drama is an important way of learning how to cope with the herd and how to interact with peers and how to manage relationships so I’m glad that she had most of the school year to engage in it. BUT, I also wasn’t horribly disappointed for her to have a break from it.

SO, just try saying “I’m catastrophizing” out loud the next time you feel yourself getting anxious and worked up about something. See if it helps.

Frustration and tolerance

I wanted to shift things around on my homepage today and found myself lost in a morass of competing prompts and confusing directions. It’s still not how I want it to look.

Do you ever find yourself setting out to do “one quick thing” before settling in to do what you actually wanted to accomplish for the day and then getting lost down a rabbit hole of confusion and frustration, only to find that hours have passed and you haven’t accomplished the very thing you set out originally to do?

I have a persistent and enduring stubbornness and a classic perfectionists inability to walk away when something doesn’t look how I want it to look. My anxious perfectionism wars with my satisfaction with efficiency. I love checking tasks off my list, but my anxious self often prevents me from doing so because I worry that they haven’t been done well enough or in the way that I would want them to be done.

In other words, it’s sometimes hard to open my fist and let things be what they will be. I want to control the outcome and how they are perceived and I worry that if they do not look how I think they should that others will judge me or think less of what I have to say.

So here I sit, wanting to think about anxiety and perfectionism and unable to get the possible ways that I might actually fix the heading on the homepage out of my mind.

When I was an associate in a law firm I had this problem with things that I would write. Occasionally, a simple email to a client could take hours to send because I would want to be absolutely certain that I had drafted it perfectly so as not to be misconstrued. I wouldn’t want to accidentally say something that I couldn’t in a million years mean to say and I would agonize over whether what I had communicated actually communicated what I meant it to communicate.

I’m tired just writing that sentence. Did it communicate what I wanted it to?

Who knows.

Part of a pursuit of willfulness is a surrender to the notion that I will be anxious from time to time. Moreover, that anxiety is normal and tolerable. It’s uncomfortable to wonder how I will be perceived or received, but it is a discomfort that I can tolerate. I can tolerate it by using a number of techniques:

  • Controlled Breathing: breathing in normally through the nose and out through pursed lips. The goal is to lengthen the breath out to almost double the time of the breath in. Breathing out being a somatic nervous system “off switch” that encourages the release of rest and relax hormones.
  • Distraction: I can return to binge watching Friends with my daughter, I hear the laugh track and know that I will soon be absorbed in the program and not worried about what the homepage will look like when next I log on.
  • Exercise: strenuous exercise is the most effective, but even a walk around the block can be soothing.
  • Meditation: I posted on my instagram yesterday about the seaside meditation that I often use to relax my mind and take a mental vacation from the stresses of daily reality.
  • Ask for soothing: I can express my feelings of frustration and anxiety to my husband and ask for a hug.

All of the above are distress tolerance skills taught in Dialectic Behavior Therapy and, while they weren’t what I set out to write about today, they are so incredibly useful in our daily lives (in my present DAY life). So often clients come to therapy seeking to eliminate unhappiness and discomfort from their lives. They feel confident that if the therapist can just find the right tool or words, they will no longer feel unhappy or frustrated.

It’s hard to disabuse them of this notion.

The reality is that we all will always feel these emotions. They’re normal and healthy and useful. My anxiety made me a great lawyer and a careful writer. It helped me to succeed in school and work. Sure, it’s painful to worry about what people think and I need to challenge some of the “stinkin’ thinkin'” that leads me to worry so much that people will judge me. But my anxiety has been a tool that has helped as much as it has hurt me. I wouldn’t want to eliminate all worry from my life – it’s important to care what others think and to want to succeed and do a good job.

So instead of eliminating these painful emotions, we need to cope with them better. That’s where the distress tolerance comes in. I need to take my own advice and go for a walk. The homepage will be there tomorrow (broken links and all) and can be fixed then.