One night a few weeks ago, I didn’t click through enough of the buttons on my insulin pump, and, unbeknownst to me for several hours, I had not gotten my dinnertime insulin. By the time I realized this at 11:00 p.m. my blood glucose was 339. Now, 80 is normal, and 100 is what I shoot for, but I was still a long way from diabetic ketoacidosis, coma, and death. Since I have all the tools at my fingertips and could zap myself with insulin right away, there was no immediate danger, just an emotional reaction.
I’ve had Type 1 diabetes for going on 40 years. Over the past couple of years, my blood glucose levels haven’t been all that great. I’ve been working very hard the past months to keep them stable–testing a lot, eating lower glycemic index foods, exercising, avoiding the more avoidable stresses of my workplace, and using my pump’s “bolus wizard.” This last is a term I despise–why not call it your Bolus Fairy Godmother? Or your Bolus Knight in Shining Armor? I hate the infantilizing of my condition with terms like that.
Anyway, name aside, it’s a handy little tool that calculates for you how much insulin you need for any given meal, and it records both doses and blood sugars so the doctor wants me to use it to help him monitor my highs and lows. The trouble is that you have to punch the buttons a million times to get through all the screens. Sometimes I think that, even as math impaired as I am, doing my own numbers in my head is less trouble.
So, looking at that 339 and realizing what had happened, I felt a surge of anger–at myself for screwing up, at the fact that I probably wouldn’t feel well enough in the morning for my spin class, at the stupid design of the stupid pump (which, of course, I generally appreciate and wouldn’t want to live without), at my husband for talking to me during dinner and distracting me from the buttons (which conversation, of course, I’d been looking forward to all afternoon), at the universe that saddled me with this disease.
When I got to the latter, I was flooded with tears of frustration and self-pity. My husband put his arm around me and said, “It doesn’t ruin everything. It’ll be back to normal by tomorrow.”
“I know,” I said, “but I’d just like one f*ing day off.” We acknowledged as how that’s not going to happen, no matter how much I hope for it. There is no one with a magic wand anywhere in sight, not even the Bolus Wizard.
These were embarrassing, selfish little tears, and I regretted them as soon as they had passed. But still, I want to say that it’s probably okay to cry for yourself a little every now and then. Especially if it helps you let go of the anger and blame.
In fact, one recent concept to emerge out of positive psychology that might actually be useful and helpful is that of “self-compassion,” the practice of accepting and examining negative feelings (such as failure, inadequacy, and other kinds of suffering) rather than denying or disapproving of them. Even Martin Seligman has questioned the emphasis on self-esteem in raising children, noting that it tends to make them unrealistic and narcissistic. In more recent years, researchers such as University of Texas professor Kristin Neff and Harvard professor Christopher K. Germer, have focused instead on self-compassion.
There are a couple of aspects of this approach that are important: one is that self-compassion also involves an awareness of others—you’re encouraged to understand that failure is a normal part of the human condition and that others feel afraid or inadequate too. Another important difference from much of the run of positive psychology is a lack of denial of negative aspects of life. New studies are showing that it may alleviate depression more to review negative events at the end of each day instead of trying to think positive thoughts, as long as one takes a forgiving attitude toward oneself in doing so.
Many of those researching self-compassion, including Germer and Neff, are influenced by Buddhism. Buddhism perhaps shares with positive psychology a belief that one’s surroundings are not the key to happiness, but what it seems to bring to the positive psychology endeavor that’s different is a focus on compassion rather than achievement and an understanding that some superficial pursuits of happiness may have negative consequences, that one’s relationship with the world really does matter for long-term happiness.
Self-compassion, of course, also helps one be more compassionate toward others, something I find missing in most positive psychology, and in much (though of course not all) of today’s prosperity-oriented Christianity. I know that for me, blame certainly snowballs. As soon as I was able to forgive myself for messing up my insulin dosage, my anger at Bruce and the insulin pump designers dissipated as well. Diabetes is one part of the normal imperfect human condition. I keep trying to let go of the usual blame.