Benevolent Denial

The other day, I had a great conversation with my sister, Chris.  We were talking about the journey we’ve both been on to create different futures for ourselves based on healthier approaches to food and exercise.  I commmented that the focused process of exploring my irrational beliefs and thought patterns resulted in painful memories, long buried, being brought to the surface.

Chris made an excellent point:  sometimes we can become too focused on the past; that the temptation to point to particular experiences or people from long ago, and place blame there, is attractive because it takes us off the hook for today’s choices.

There is another way to look at it, though.  I share almost no traits with Scarlett O’Hara, except for the “I’ll think about it tomorrow” thing.  I have taken it a step farther — on the morrow, I change my version of what happened so that it doesn’t feel so painful.  When I was a kid, I remember my mother saying about someone, “He’s told his made up version of events so often even he thinks its real!”  Nifty trick — one I think (hope) I mostly use inside my own head.   Another little trick is the one where, if someone’s behavior hurts me, I make up a reason for it — if their purpose wasn’t to hurt me, then I shouldn’t feel pain — any pain I’m feeling must, therefore, be my fault.

These are not that unusual as coping mechanisms go (at least they seem normal enough to me!).  I think of it as “benevolent denial”, well-intended mental tricks to make myself feel better in the immediate moment and to feel more secure in my relationships.  The problem is, I began to believe that what my heart felt couldn’t possibly be right — if I was hurt or in emotional pain I must have misunderstood something, gotten it wrong. When I stopped trusting my gut, it started getting bigger.

If I look honestly at the past, I may learn some useful things about standing in my own truth — to accept that tough things did happen, that people sometimes let me down, that I internalized messages that were incorrect or inappropriate.  I am not looking for someone else to blame. In fact, if I am having trouble forgiving anyone, it is me.  Its hard to forgive myself for not sticking up for me.

Chris is right, too, though.  I can’t live today as if my choices were all made for me years ago.    I read this line in a blog called The Holy Rover the other day:  “Forgiveness is about giving up all hope for a better past”.  I’m not going to get a better past or even a different one.  Looking back in order to make changes in the present can be healing in many ways — forginving myself is one of the most important!

Don’t rain on my parade

Don’t tell me not to fly, I’ve simply got to.
If someone takes a spill, it’s me and not you.
Don’t bring around a cloud to rain on my parade.

When I was in New Mexico for the holidays, my niece Atalie, who is quite the performer and a huge fan of Glee, gave a command performance of the song “Don’t Rain on My Parade”.  The song is a perfect one for Atalie.  She loves it, knows every tricky phrase, and she can belt it out like Babs herself.  I would gladly have listened to her sing it many more than the four times I heard it.

Atalie has a naturally sunny disposition, and like many 10 year olds, can really only conceive of feeling badly about herself if someone else makes her feel that way.  A Thanksgiving place mat art project from a couple of years back says it all:  Atalie was to fill in the blank on a sentence, and now has a keepsake which reads, “I am thankful for…myself!”

Sometime after 10 and before adulthood, things change for most of us.  Instead of primarily feeling arrows of criticism, dislike, negative assessment that are lobbed at us from external sources (peers, parents, siblings, strangers), we start internalizing the critique.  We become the voice that makes us feel bad about ourselves.  We are the menacing cloud that rains on our own parade.

Today, I have an opportunity to take a hard look at this cycle of negative self-talk.  The weigh-in this morning was a bummer.  For the first time in this challenge, my weight went up (albeit not a full pound) and the amount of our overall donation dropped.  I would like to say that I felt bad primarily because it means less overall money for hunger relief.  And that is definitely part of it.  Bigger, though, is the wave of nasty comments my brain wants to make to myself — embarassment (now everybody knows you failed this week), self-recrimination (why did you eat that breakfast burrito last Thursday?!), self-loathing (why can’t you do anything right).

As the day and week progress, I will have multiple opportunities to choose — rain all over myself, or keep shining.  The first chance came right after weigh-in — go back to bed or work out?  I made it through that first decision point, a little late but I clocked in at Sisters around 7:00 this morning. Changing negative thought patterns requires choosing, over and over, to recognize the old pattern, interrupt it, and create a new pattern.  My new pattern is to talk back to that mean voice in my head.  I’m going to ask it, “Who told you you’re allowed to rain on my parade?”


I promised earlier in the week that I would share a list of things I am for, to balance the recent list of things I am against.  There are many items that could make the list (the outpouring of generousity toward the people of Haiti, Anton Apollo Ohno, any/all of the organizations listed on the ballot to receive our donation).  However, the list below is more personal in nature in keeping with the general feel and purpose of this blog.  I received a number of interesting emails and comments on the “Against” list, so please feel free to share your thoughts on the following.

Things I am for (or can’t help loving):

  • Getting outside early in the morning.  Even though the ringing of the alarm is a deep annoyance, I love stepping out the door on my way to a morning workout.  Yesterday, the world was a silent, sparkling white from the frost that covered every branch, bush, tree, power line.  Then, in the silence, one beautiful lone bird song.
  • DiGiorno 200 Calorie Portions: individually wrapped, 200 calorie pizzas.  Its true – standing in the frozen food isle, I said a brief prayer of thanksgiving.
  • Mount Mercy students.  I have felt for years that our students are incredible, and they have filled my life with both challenges and joy.  Whenever I take the time to really be present with them, I am reminded why I do what I do for a living.
  • Exercise.  Let me say that again:  I am FOR exercise!  This is a discovery of almost miraculous proportion.  On Friday, I was doing my treadmill workout (getting ready for Run The Flood in June) and I thought, “Why am I pushing myself like this?”  Surprisingly, an answer came to me — “because I like pushing myself”.  It didn’t sound like me, so for a moment I wondered whose voice that was in my head.
  • The human body – specifically, my human body.  I might not feel that way looking in a mirror, but when I think that I have treated my body so badly over the years and it is repaying me with health and strength, I cannot be anything but grateful.
  • The Goodwill donation box.  I have a growing pile of gently used (and suddenly too large) clothing.  I’m glad the clothes will go to good homes.
  • Celebrating success. Friends (Ginger and Lori) gave me what was intended to be a calendar — two blocks with numbers on them.  When you change the numbers, it speaks in the voices of two little rabbity-looking cartoon characters.  Ginger and Lori’s idea, which I love, is to use the numbers to track my weight loss.  Now, when I change to new numbers, I get immediate positive reinforcement!

As I said above, there are many things I could add to this list. But I will end with just one more:

  • Valentine’s Day!  In the past, this day would definitely have made the list of things I am against.  I see it differently now.  The reason is simple:  I am for taking the opportunities that life presents to show or tell others you love them — offering them your support, your compassion, your strength as well.  So many of you have done that for me in these past months, how could I be anything but passionately FOR that?!

Catherine McAuley Center

This week’s organization is one which I know personally and have been involved with in the Cedar Rapids community.  The Catherine McAuley Center, affiliated with the Sisters of Mercy, serves two critical needs in this community — adult continuing education and transitional housing for women. I have seen first-hand the care and dedication of the staff and volunteers, and have witnessed their commitment to addressing the holistic needs of those who come to the Center for assistance.

The adult education program provides assistance in preparing for the GED test, citizenship preparation,  English as a Second Language (ESL) or improve basic math and language skills. Tutorials are also available in basic keyboarding and computer skills. The Center offers specialized banking and citizenship classes throughout the year. The Center’s immigrant/refugee coordinator provides ESL instruction and case management services to help New Iowans make a smooth transition into the community.

When women enter the transitional housing program, their need is for the basics:  food, clothing, safe shelter.  The center accepts both financial and in-kind donations (food, toiletries, staples).  The transitional housing program provides counseling services, educational assistance, and basic skills so that the women leave the program with new life skills.

You can check out the Catherine McAuley Center at


February, the shortest month of the year. Not that it always feels short – some years Valentine’s Day seems to last forever. One of my favorite books of poetry is Against Romance (by Michael Blumenthal).  There is a poem titled “For/Against”, in which he lists things he is for and those he is against.  In honor of the (short) month of love, I thought I would write a two-part blog entry inspired by Blumenthal: today is all about things I am against.  On Valentine’s Day, I’ll post an entry sharing some things I am for.  Sorry you have to wait for the up side, but life is like that sometimes! 

Things I am against (or just can’t love)…

  • My alarm going off before 6:00 a.m.  After 11 months of early morning workouts, it still feels unnatural to be among the conscious at that time of day.
  • My upper arms.  All the way back in high school Tom Pusateri told me they were, “Rather large.” There was a period of time, about six months right after I graduated from college, when I thought they weren’t too bad. That may be the last time I rocked something sleeveless.
  • “Celeb-reality”.  Enough said.
  • That healthy food tastes that way (and not like a hot, bubbling, cheesy, crusty pepperoni pizza).  No matter how much I like foods that are good for me.  No matter how much I am enjoying trying new foods, recipes, and lower calorie cooking methods. I will never ever confuse cannelini beans and chard with pizza.
  • Being lonely.  I am against it because it sucks.  Like other toxic secrets I’ve written about, I’ve had a difficult time  admitting my lonliness to anyone but myself.  I couldn’t stand the possibility that others would see me as “the pathetic fat lady” — and I expected they would because that is how I have often seen myself. 
  • My “P” face.  “P” for pretend. Recently, I was bowling with friends and I got a strike.  My friend Tricia commented that when I turned back to face the group, I had a look on my face like getting a strike was no big deal (if you’ve seen me bowl, you know a strike is a HUGE deal for me).  That’s the “P” face — pretend you’re not surprised, happy, proud, sad, hurt…whatever. Because it brings too much attention and vulnerability otherwise.  The “P” face is an extremely effective defense mechanism that keeps people at a very safe distance. I used to think it protected me. Now, I understand it has imprisoned me (ok, I know that’s dramatic but its also true!).

While there are certainly many things that could be added to this list (war, famine, H1N1 to name a few), I’ve tried to stick to personal items that have been on my mind lately and are in keeping with the nature of these blog reflections. I would like to add just one more:

  • I am against silence.  My silence, or anyone’s, when it is based in fear and shame.  It is more than time to choose personal transformation over false emotional security. I wish I could choose it for everyone, but my hands are full just choosing it for myself each morning when the alarm goes off.