Getting off the Too Much/Too Little Teeter Totter

 Top PTSD Blog

by Tanya Ruckstuhl-Valenti LICSW, MSW


I’ve just gotten into something that hasn’t interested me since Aaron Sorkin stopped writing The West Wing w-a-a-a-y back in 2003: a television show.   I mostly consider television a waste of time.  I don’t mind a bit of mindless escapism once in a while, but television shows are fatally flawed by two separate problems:  predictability and repetition.  Every show seems to follow this recipe:  take two beautiful people attracted to each other but unable to culminate a relationship due to their ego/insecurity/foibles/external circumstances.   Add one abrasive-seeming character actor with a heart of gold and another who appears sweet at first but is a self-serving jackal in disguise.  Add a dash of public safety issues and viola!  Prime-time-drama.  Again, and again, and again. 

And this new one, the one I’m about to wax poetic about?  Same thing:  Scrubs.  Oh.  My.  Gosh.  I forgot how captivating great television could be!  The witty dialogue!  The unfolding of character!  The false feeling I get while watching, of visiting a new, interesting friend.   

The fact that it completely conforms to my expectations of beauty-based casting, repetitive central theme and a support cast of crunchy-exterior (Dr. Cox) and suave exterior (the evil hospital admin. guy) matters not a whit to me because the show is so darn fun. 

 Back when Sorkin was writing the West Wing, my television life was limited by the structure of the show.   It ran for one hour once a week.  There was no risk of watching too much.   I didn’t have cable and wasn’t interested in reruns. 

That has all changed.  With Netflix in the modern modem age of streaming video, we can now watch shows which have nine years of back episodes singing the siren song of sleep deprivation to us at any time, day or night. 

I limit my coffee intake to two cups (okay mugs) a day, but found myself tanking up another one this afternoon to make up for two late Scrubs-watching nights in a row. 

Clearly it is time to SET BOUNDARIES with me.  We Americans think and talk a lot about setting boundaries in our relationships, with our parents, with our kids, with our employers, but we often miss the opportunity and the benefit of calmly and firmly setting boundaries with ourselves.

Trauma survivors in particular have a relationship with boundaries which are often fraught with the too-much/not enough teeter totter.  As in too much self indulgence and not enough structure; or too much perfectionism and not enough creative play; or too much people pleasing and not enough self care. 

Boundaries are needed when we are craving something in amounts or frequencies which interfere with having a rich, full and varied life.  Boundaries are needed when we become passive recipients of entertainment rather than active co-creators.  Boundaries are needed when we repeatedly avoid doing something important by doing something easy. 

This is all primary-prevention phase stuff we are talking about here.  You can always hold out and wait for tertiary prevention (fancy-pants professional speak for “too late Bubba”) if you don’t want the inconvenience of setting a boundary (to be read in a droll, ironic tone). 

I highly (highly, HIGHLY) recommend the following course correction long before you reach the “addiction” phase in which you are damaging your relationship, job, or health with compulsive behavior: 

If you feel you may be developing a habit that needs boundaries, but you are not sure, try this experiment: 

1. Practice your indulgence, and then

2.  Abruptly stop.  

3. Don’t go back to it for thirty days.  

If you can do this without wanting to renegotiate your month long hiatus, than you have nothing to worry about. 

The purpose of this exercise is awareness.  Notice the cravings and the rationalization that your mind will manufacture:  “Oh it’s just a harmless bit of fun” and “Other people do it way more than I do.” 

Don’t buy into the PR campaign of your urges.   If you already know you are under the spell of a boundary-breaking habit you don’t need to try this experiment, you just need to set a boundary and stick to it. 

For myself, for my sanity, I am returning to my previous boundary of media-based entertainment only on weekend evenings.  Zach’s just gonna have to wait.

Escaping Our Emotional Black Holes

How much is enough? 

I was eating my favorite cereal this morning and it was so delicious, the best tasting thing in the whole wide world. 
A little voice inside me said,

                “I want another bowl after this one.”  I paused, noticed how quickly I had been shoveling cereal into my mouth, and asked that little inner voice,

                “If I eat more slowly, and enjoy it more, can this bowl be enough?”

It was enough.  But without that pause I surely would have gone back, poured another bowl of Oatmeal Squares and gobbled it up, launching my day with overeating and guilt. 

That inner voice, which often pipes up when I am eating yummy foods, is my E.B.H., or Emotional Black Hole, or the insatiable part of me which confuses the pleasure of the moment with a volume knob which can be turned up by higher by having more

We all have our Emotional Black Holes.  For some people it’s working, or viewing porn, or drinking coffee, or smoking cigarettes, or drinking alcohol, or going shopping, or using drugs or having sex.  (Hopefully not all of these at once or else they are REALLY in for it).  For some people its surfing the internet or checking email or even working out at the gym.    

Of course there is nothing inherently wrong with enjoying chocolate chip cookies or buying a new pair of shoes.  In balance, the pursuit of pleasure allows us to fully inhabit the experience of being alivePleasure provides enjoyment, variety, beauty, spontaneity, escape and wonder. 

The problem is when we become compulsive, trying squeeze more out of a pleasant experience by repeating it more often than is good for us.

I’ve noticed that a faulty sense of satiety usually comes from childhood.   Parents or caretakers may have withheld affection or may have been consumed by their own depression, addiction or poverty that they failed to ensure the child received pleasures that were safe and developmentally appropriate. 

For example, many years ago I worked with a kindergartner who was falling asleep in school.  I discovered that he was watching horror movies with his father.  He was then too afraid to sleep.  The father, who was homeless as well as alcoholic, lived with his own mother and shared a bedroom with his young son.   So whatever the father watched in his bedroom at night, the son also watched.  When I suggested that horror movies were too frightening for a young child to watch, the father insisted, “But he likes watching them!”  

Another parent I worked with gave soda pop to her toddler son in a bottle because he liked it and would cry if he didn’t get it.  Her son had rotting teeth and had to undergo painful dental work as a result.  

A child’s preference is not a reliable indicator of a developmentally appropriate activity.  We have a hot tub at home and the whole family enjoys going for dips.  My kids would stay in there forever so it’s my job to keep track of the time and shepherd them out, against their will and in the midst of their hearty complaints and whining, before they get dehydrated.  By keeping track of time in order to protect their physical safety I relieve them of the danger of getting too much of a good thing. 

Hopefully they will eventually develop an internal sense of pleasure with boundaries and this awareness will help them to negotiate life’s many opportunities for danger as well as delight. 

If you, like so many of us did not come from a childhood where our parents saw to our pleasure as well as our protection it is hard to know how much is enough

Asking this question:  For me, right now, how much is enough?–with genuine curiosity rather than self-criticism–can be an important first step to escaping the Emotional Black Hole. 

Delusion: the Cornerstone of Addiction

I have a small problem.  An unusual habit.  Okay, it’s an addiction.  But I could quit at any time.  And besides, I blame my children.

It all started getting out of control several years back.  One day I was tired and weary from initiating “I spy” games to keep my boys from fighting in the car.  In a flash on inspiration I thought: Art time!   Clipboards and crayons would provide each of them hours of peaceful car fun. 

I got them each their own clipboards and presented them with a flourish.  My enthusiasm was like a challenge to them:  “How boring can you find this?”   They promptly dumped out and melted crayons into the upholstery and discovered that clipboards gave them even greater reach to hit, poke, and harass one another.  I repossessed the clipboards, scraped out a rainbow of hardened wax, and returned to saying things like, “We don’t hit!  We talk!”  And “Who can tell me how to spell “stop”?” 

At this point we had a posse of clipboards.  It happened so fast I didn’t even realize I had a problem.   I had a few clipboards for work, for myself as well as clients who wanted to take notes and forgot to bring in their own paper.  I had a clipboard in the kitchen, another for the car, two for the boys, one in my home office to track to-do lists, and on my bedside for those late-night “Oh No!  I forgot to…” that occur between eleven pm and two am.  

At least clipboards are more convenient and portable than my former personal organization obsession, Write and Wipe boards.  Prior to that it was lidded plastic boxes.  Before that, erasable labels and Sharpie pens. 

I seem to suffer from the delusion that with the right organizational tools, I will magically transform into an organized person.  I know I’m not alone here.  This fantasy plays out in many people’s lives.  I know a certain husband who buys tools from Home Depot as if possession of table saw, compounding miter saw, saws-all and skill saw, equaled completion of long-planned remodel.  At this point I’m thinking we can do our remodel using clipboards.  I just need a few more…