It's not out there

Jenny loved fashion and designer clothes, and she spent a lot of money keeping up with the latest trends and impressing people with her fashion forward choices. Whenever she was feeling depressed, retail therapy was what made her feel better, and she had a closet full of clothes and shoes, to show for it. Some clothes still had the tags on them.

Rather than looking through her own clothes and finding something she hadn't yet worn, she preferred to go to the mall to search for that special something that would give her that validation. Jenny not only had a lot of clothes, she also had a lot of credit card bills. She wasn't quite sure how much she owed because she was constantly transferring balances or opening new store cards to get the "discounts". The money she owed was a constant source of stress because it was a secret. Her husband was aware of her shopping but not exactly how much she spent. When he tried to find out, Jenny would talk about how much she "saved" and redirect the conversation.

Part of Jenny's rationale for spending on clothes was her constant changing weight. She was either on a strict diet which resulted in rapid weight loss or binging due to excess stress. She also vacillated between feeling better than other people or feeling very down on herself, depending on her weight and her outfit that day.

The situation came to a head when she had to work late and her husband was the first one home to get the mail. It just happened to be on the day when her credit card bills arrived. She had an uneasy feeling when she pulled up in the driveway and her intuition was confirmed when he confronted her as she walked in the door, which led to a difficult evening to say the least. For the first time in their marriage, Jenny was afraid her husband was going to divorce her. She had no excuse for the financial bind she had put them both in. There was nothing left to do but to apologize and promise to do better. Her promise fell on deaf ears because her husband no longer trusted her. She had repeatedly lied and deceived him. Desperate for a way to resolve the situation, she called her insurance company and got some referrals for therapy.

The first session was with both Jenny and her husband. After the initial session, it was decided that Jenny would pursue therapy individually for a while before bringing the husband into the sessions. From the therapist's point of view, Jenny was looking for something that she lacked inside. She talked about clothes as if they possessed characteristics she wished she had. She had "power" suits, "sexy" stockings, and pencil “thin" skirts. It was as if wearing those items bestowed her with those traits. She was looking to buy what she had not earned. Therapy involved Jenny taking a good look at herself, stripped of all material possessions. Who was she without her stuff? Who did she want to be?

Initially, Jenny struggled with her identity. She had never really defined who she wanted to be. She had always looked at herself through the eyes of other people. What will they think of me? She cared more what other people thought than what she thought of herself. Her first assignment was to come back to the next session with the names of 3 people she admired and why she admired them. They had to be people she knew personally. This kept her from picking people who were iconic and known only for their accomplishments. Her therapist wanted her to pick people she knew because when you know someone you see all sides of them, good and bad. The assignment was about finding the qualities she wanted to cultivate in herself rather than striving for some unrealistic or unachievable goal.

When Jenny returned to therapy, she seemed to have shifted from her previous stance. She came to a very important realization. When she noticed people's character instead of their stuff, she stopped feeling envious and inadequate and started appreciating people. Some of the people she thought she liked were very superficial and unkind. It had Jenny reflect, was she that superficial? Was she unkind?

Jenny realized that the three people she admired the most were: her next door neighbor; the woman in accounting; and the maintenance man of the office building. She admired her next door neighbor because she was present and thoughtful. She always brought her trash cans in when she was out of town. In their brief conversations, she was really interested in what she said and remembered the details of their conversations. She knew that her father was struggling with his health and always asked about him. Jenny was embarrassed to admit, she knew almost nothing about her neighbor because she had never taken the time to ask. Their conversations were always very one sided and the neighbor never seemed to mind. She wanted to be thoughtful and attentive to others like her neighbor was.

Jenny admired the woman in accounting because she was always calm and patient. When payroll was due, it was obviously a hectic time but she never pushed people away or lost her cool. Jenny had hectic times in her department and she realized that everyone knew it. She often complained and sighed loudly. Her coworkers often apologized just for asking a brief question. Jenny decided she didn't want to be the hot head in the office.

Jenny admired the maintenance man because he acknowledged everyone. He always said good morning and had something cheerful to say to everyone. He had nothing in common with the people who worked in the building but somehow he found common ground. He knew her name but she couldn't remember his.

Jenny realized that feeling better about herself had to be earned by developing her character. She wanted to be present, patient, and cool under pressure. She shopped to calm herself down but what she really needed to do was calm herself down! Being calm wasn't something she could buy, it was something she had to practice.

Once Jenny decided what she wanted her character to be, it was all a matter of practice. Practice isn't about being perfect, it's about getting better every day one moment at a time.

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