Category: comparison

Are the holidays tough? If so, you’re not the only one.

There’s no way around it: the season of Thanksgiving and the holidays that follow suck for so many of us. As I’ve written here before, grief can be extra lonely and difficult when everyone around you is wishing you a merry Christmas or Happy Hanukah or meaningful Kwanzaa. All of us with complicated families struggle as we perhaps spend more time with family members than usual – or notice their conspicuous absences. Sure, spontaneous gratitude and good cheer may arise. But also there’s the potential for surges of sadness, sorrow, disappointment, anxiety, and pain.

Here’s what I want you to know:

The cultural myth that you “should” be happy at this time of year is not based in reality. If difficult things are happening or have happened to you, especially in November or December, it would be weird if you were suddenly all cheery. Same too if you have seasonal depression. Your low mood likely makes sense given the situation. And, when you beat yourself up for feeling bad instead of good, you’re adding to your pain.

Also, I want you to know that you are not the only one struggling right now. I have the privilege of sitting with lovely, kind, intelligent people every day who are grappling with how to navigate the holiday season without feeling crazy or eating all the cookies you didn’t actually like in the first place. I wish there was a secret handshake or cool badge people could wear to say you’re part of the club of people who’d rather just skip to January, so you could all know and enjoy each other, but alas… I don’t know of anything like that yet.

So, take good care. I MEAN IT. The only way to get to January is to get through November and December. And as stupid as it sounds, drink water! Sleep regular-ish hours! Take walks! Pet animals! And know you’re not alone. Really.

If I got a dollar every time…

Say I got a dollar every time I heard the following words:

  • “But other people have it worse.”
  • “Yeah I’m depressed and anxious, but I have privilege so I shouldn’t feel this way.”
  • “I’m not sure I deserve to be in counseling.”
  • “I’m worried I’m taking your time away from people who need help more than me.”

How much $$$ would I have at the end of a year if I faithfully put a dollar in a jar each time I heard a variation of these words?

Enough to go out to a great dinner. A really great dinner.

We often wish we could decrease stress and depression and anxiety by reminding ourselves of the hard stuff that other people face. But that’s not how it works.

I’ve written on this blog before about what I call “privilege syndrome” — the belief that if we have privilege in some way, it can be easy to feel guilty or judgmental about the ways in which we struggle. And this is common.

I wish that privilege could buffer us from anxiety. I wish that knowing about climate change or homelessness would mean that people with secure housing and middle class incomes could be immune or invisible from stress or depression or trauma.

But the brain and body don’t work like that. While those of us with stable housing or relationships may be less likely to experience trauma or stress, our nervous systems aren’t designed to tease out nuances of privilege. The body just experiences a flood of stress hormones like cortisol or adrenaline. The body just knows we’re depressed or anxious. The body knows we don’t feel okay, even if we try to use our intellect to convince ourselves we should feel differently.

And the research shows that judging ourselves for our responses and reactions don’t actually do much help.

Instead, I try to help clients cultivate neutrality or even self-compassion for our experience. It’s only by accepting what’s here – the pain, the suffering, the fear, the sadness – that we can begin to move through these difficult feelings. It’s only by acknowledging what’s true for us – whether we like the truth or not – that we can begin to move forward.

I see you, perfectionists.

Perfectionists, I have a heart for you. I get it. You don’t think of yourself as a perfectionist, you just think I don’t like to make mistakes. You know intellectually that your spouse/friend/employer would probably not dump you if you made a mistake… but why risk it? After all, making a mistake feels beyond terrible to perfectionists, like our lives and relationships and careers are on the line and the whole world could implode or explode at any moment.

So no wonder you live with a constant tension, a constant pressure, a constant anxiety, checking and double-checking to make sure nobody can find fault with you (except for you of course). And then of course if you’re critical of yourself—if you let Self Doubt or The Inner Critic be in charge—then maybe it won’t hurt as much if someone finds a flaw in you.

It’s not easy to live as a perfectionist. You might look like you have everything together on the outside—you might be organized, you might show up everywhere on time, your clothes are rarely wrinkled—but the inner reality can be so, so different and so, so difficult. It’s hard to live in fear of mistakes, to believe that mistakes will define us and make us less lovable (if lovable at all). It’s hard living with the belief that we’re one mistake away from unworthiness or that our worth in general stems from our ability to be flawless rather than our humanness. It’s hard to constantly compare ourselves to a version of ourselves we can’t live up to. And of course it’s hard as a perfectionist to open up to others, to admit what’s true: life is hard. Things aren’t easy. (Blog post continues after photo.)

Perfection isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

Usually when perfectionists come to counseling, they’re coming to therapy for issues that they see as distinctly separate from perfectionism. But feeling out of control, experiencing anxiety about personal and the political, and feeling alienated and isolated, can all link back to difficulty allowing ourselves to be human and make mistakes.

There’s sometimes a mistaken belief that perfectionists have that anxiety and perfectionism is helpful, that without that pressure and tension and Inner Critic they may not be as effective. If I don’t beat myself up, how will I do my best?

But research shows that we learn and perform much better when we’re open and curious and allow our humanness to shine (including the messy parts). Shame and self-judgment, it turns out, bite us in the ass more than we think. It is possible to create a different relationship with ourselves, the Inner Critic, Self Doubt, and our lives.

Here’s a perfectionism test if you’re curious to learn more… and you’re always welcome to talk through concerns in our Kirkwood therapy office.

Taming and Treating “Privilege Syndrome”

 

At some point, with many clients, comes an earnest variant of the same question: Who am I to have pain – or see a therapist – given that so many other people suffer in visible, heartbreaking ways?

I call this the Privilege Syndrome. The reasoning usually sounds like this:

• If I don’t live in a less-developed country where I only have access to one meal of day, I should be happy. (But I’m not.)
• If I have money, I shouldn’t feel depressed. (But I am.)
• If I have a job, I shouldn’t be annoyed with my work. (But I am.)
• If I don’t have to represent my race on a daily basis, or live in fear of violence, then I shouldn’t complain about the challenges I do have. (But I do.)
• If I have a loving family, I shouldn’t be lonely. (But I am.)
• If others respect me, I shouldn’t live in fear of rejection. (But I do.)
• If I haven’t survived one or more traumas, I shouldn’t be suffering. (But I am.)
• If my life looks good on paper, I should be happy. (But I’m not).

How lovely that so many of us know that other people also struggle! How terrible that we deem ourselves not worthy of struggling and suffering because of our privileges!

From a mindfulness perspective, Privilege Syndrome is all about getting caught in a mindstate of comparison, or what I and many other mindfulness practitioners call Comparison Mind. The good news about Comparison Mind is sometimes it makes us feel superior to others! But the bad news… well, you know all about the bad news of comparison. We end up feeling inferior and unworthy – and then judge ourselves for feeling so bad.

The truth is that we increase our suffering when we can’t acknowledge and accept our own pain and heartache. When we dismiss or minimize our own pain because So-and-So has it worse, we are acting from a faulty belief that suffering is reserved only for others.

The only “cure” for Privilege Syndrome is to learn to accept and honor our own suffering – no matter our privilege – while also acknowledging the suffering of others. When we can work toward the end of our suffering and the suffering of others, we stop comparing ourselves. Instead of landing in Comparison Mind, we access compassion. Instead of being better than or worse than others, we’re simply with ourselves and with others. That is connection. That is healing.

 

A Quick Note on Birthdays

happy-birthday-to-me-memeMy birthday has come and gone once again, and unlike my daughter – who would like to have her birthday happen every day – I’m a little relieved it’s over. As a kid, birthdays are hopefully magical. Presents! The world centering on you!

But as an adult, birthdays can so often be bittersweet or downright disappointing. We may note who has or has not called. We find ourselves in comparison mode with other people based on our age. We may find ourselves comparing aspects of our lives — relationship, work, home, interests — with where we’d hoped we would be. (To state the obvious: These are not usually comparisons that make us feel better about ourselves.) Perhaps we touch into our mortality in a way that’s uncomfortable. Perhaps we are all too aware of who is no longer alive or in our life to celebrate us. Sometimes things get better with age … but sometimes we end up feeling jaded and confused about our own meaning and purpose.

As a mindfulness-informed therapist, here is the long-winded question I have at moments like this: How can we turn toward the difficult feelings that events like birthdays conjure up, getting curious about our experience so that we can find clarity and create intentions and actions that enable change? 

I offer this question to you in hopes that it will be useful.

All my best,
Dana

 

The Science of Social Media and FOMO

The Science of Social Media and FOMO

Next time you want to go on social media, do a simple experiment. Check in with yourself beforehand for a second. How do you feel about your life, your relationships, your job, your home? After hanging out on social media for a bit, check in with yourself again. Do you feel better or worse?

The science implies you’ll likely feel a bit worse. Some colleagues put me onto this episode of the podcast The Hidden Brain. It’s all about social media, FOMO (fear of missing out), and comparison. Listen here:

http://www.stitcher.com/podcast/national-public-radio/hidden-brain/e/ep-68-schadenfacebook-49872935

We all know our social media versions of ourselves leave out lots of aspects our reality (usually the ugly, the messy, the complicated). The science shows there are consequences to this, and to the comparison that inevitably happens when we spend a chunk of time on social media. It may be that I should be asking all my therapy clients about how time they spend on social media. Counseling helps alleviate depression and anxiety, and it may be that one simple step we can all take is to monitor how much time we spend online – and what we notice as a result.

Don’t Believe Facebook! Comparison, Judgment and What’s Not to Like

Facebook contributes to comparisonY’all, it’s time to talk about Facebook, that addictive, terrible-wonderful black-hole of photos and words from friends and “friends” that makes about 90% of us feel like our lives are crap, at least occasionally. How do I know this? I was on Facebook for ten minutes up until about 10 seconds ago, and in that time I came to believe that all of my friends and “friends” are all unambivalently happy about everything in their own lives — kids and jobs and partners and the like — and all having a terrific ball in their abundant free time. Just like all of our lives really are, right?

Facebook comes up in my counseling office fairly regularly, since in addition to connecting friends and “friends” it also provides constant opportunities for us to compare ourselves and our lives to all the people we know. Since Facebook has us comparing our own inner experiences with curated external experiences, we’re usually doomed to feel bad. There is research to back this up.

Here is what I want to tell friends and clients: What people post on Facebook does not reflect the entirety of their inner and outer experiences. Since people rarely post, “Oh, hey, I feel really depressed today” it can be easy to think that nobody else ever feels depressed. Since people rarely post, “Oh, hey, I spent Friday night alone eating marshmallows and binge-watching American Ninja Warrior” it can be easy to think that everyone except you is always out having ridiculous amounts of fun with their amazing, hilarious friends.

But it’s important to remember that people only post on Facebook what they want you to know about their lives. And it’s the rare person who wants all our friends and “friends” to know about our deep sorrows, big regrets, chronic worries, or loneliness. But that doesn’t mean that we don’t all have deep sorrows, big regrets, chronic worries, or occasional loneliness. We are all human; we all feel all the human emotions, even the difficult ones. We just don’t always share them with others.

Most of my clients do have Facebook accounts. And if you met most of them, you would never think that they struggle in the way that almost all of us do at some point in our lives. My clients are good at putting on happy faces, just like most of the rest of us, and my guess is that they only post positive things on Facebook.  And until the Facebook Revolution or Be Honest On Facebook Day, it’s up to us to remember that what’s visible on the surface is rarely the full truth of what exists deeper down.