What I Learned From Therapy

by Alexandra Carmichael

Four months ago, I walked in to the Stanford Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences Building. I was terrified. I’m not crazy, I thought to myself, am I? Only crazy people need psychiatrists, right?

But walking into that building and meeting my doc has been an unbelievable gift. Through many tears, we have talked through tics, body image, social anxiety, open relationships, childhood trauma, eating disorders, parenting struggles, and life purpose. My doc has listened, suggested, validated, and encouraged.

Together we are coming up with a framework that recognizes who I am, how I am and what I value, and gives me the tools to live more smoothly in the world.

I’ve broken down this framework into 5 lessons, or principles, and here they are – just pointers and things to remember for now, but hopefully still helpful:


1. A Meditative Baseline

This is the foundation – daily meditation and a mindful approach to everyday life.

The work of Pema Chodron in general, and tonglen meditation practice in particular, are helpful. I learned that distress is ok. I can just sit with the pain and the craving, and see it as an opportunity for increased openness and awareness. Go inside and ask “what’s so bad about this right now?” and listen to come up with a word that best describes what I’m feeling – this is the very useful technique called Focusing.

Whatever I’m feeling at the moment, other people feel this too – I’m not alone. If I’m feeling drained, allow the stillness around all the thinking in my head to refill me.

Let situations be as they are without adding layers of emotion on top of them. Open the cage and let the restless cow in my mind run around, just watch the thoughts and give them space and let them go.

Be gentle and soft, with myself and in the world. Focus on wanting less and making my own rules. Practice imperfection and acceptance, compassion and laughing, self-care and dates. Use the consistency effect to help me: I’ve accepted the 80/20 principle in most things, so why not for my body and life too?

Set intentions but not goals, let go of outcomes, and have a less strict discipline. Everything is ok, and I don’t have to try so hard all the time. What happens when i’m not trying anything? I’m doing well if I’m working towards awareness regardless of outcome – whether I take wise action or practice acceptance, the outcome doesn’t matter, just the awareness.


2. Comfort in Structure

The next layer on top of the meditative foundation is creating structures in my life that reflect my values so I can relax.

If I’m anxious about a particular meeting or event, ask how much time I’ll need to adequately prepare for it, and schedule this preparation time into my calendar, so I know I’ll be ready.

Make a list of comforting things. Mine includes:

– go for a walk outside
–  meditate
– write poetry
– paint or draw something
– wear soft, colorful clothes
– wash my face
– make some tea
– smell a candle
– do a quiet set of tai chi
– have a warm soak
– organize my environment
– lie down and slow down
– snuggle
– dance

Design my overall external lifestyle to accommodate my needs, and also create open internal states so I can be flexible day-to-day when things don’t go right – in my environment, social interactions, food, and activities.

This is who I am, this is what life is like for me, ordinary things can wreak havoc on me, so I need to set up structures that help me live and function smoothly.


3. Loving Myself Again

Stepping up another level, now it’s time to deal with the self-hatred and body image issues and learn to love myself, like I loved myself when I was a kid.

My daughters taught me that someone else being beautiful doesn’t mean I’m not. My friends taught me that meeting my own needs is ok.

Work on rebuilding my relationships with myself and my life partner – take simple steps, have no expectations, let go of fear and guilt, be open to how things unfold, be fearless and flexible. There’s no emergency or crisis or rush.

Have the intention of trading immediate gratification for long-term happiness.

Body image is independent of body shape, and by analogy feeling trapped vs. feeling free or held is independent of the situation – it’s all in my thoughts.


4. Building My Own Model

Moving higher, now I can start building a model of my mind.

Uncover my thoughts, and with each thought, ask two questions – is it true? is it useful?

Excavate and find all these thought puzzle pieces, and build a flexible model with the most compassion and balance and the least avoidance – use focusing (emotional) and analytics (rational) to build the model.

Let the voices in my head be loud, don’t fight them and don’t act on them, channel them into writing and connecting and catalyzing. Maybe they will always be there – accommodate them, watch and be curious, then put my attention somewhere else.

Figure out how to be paid and valued for our ideas while maintaining our lifestyle, and how to help others be valued for their ideas. Network into brilliant circles. Write about the frustration of brilliant people not being heard, the feeling of mental prostitution in playing the world’s game. Be pioneers, find the gold and bring it to light.


5. Living With Intention

This is the final level, where I get to live according to my values and practices.

Here are my intentions:

– living a healthy life
– being a kind and honest friend
– being a wonderful parent
I’m ok as I am (practice acceptance and compassion)
– it’s ok to be happy (practice happiness and rewards)
– practice imperfection and wanting less/simplicity
– there’s no such thing as a fat/fun/touch/fitness/relationship emergency
– practice being present
– be soft (in the quiet, gentle, comfortable, open, perceiving, cozy, fearless sense of the word, not weak, afraid, guarded or hard)
– make my own rules
– minimize meetings/do less
– it’s ok to say no
– it’s ok to say yes
– be aware, let go of the outcome
– move from moon to star, generating my own light, not depending on orbiting other planets or stars. Be fine on my own and in the company of others, instead of always having to serve them and then needing others to fill me up.

These are my insights for now, thanks for reading. Stay tuned for more as I wander on my path. 🙂