Category: Privilege Syndrome

Yes, you can be “successful” and feel like shit

Yes, you can be “successful” and feel like shit

Restauranteur Chef David Chang has it all. At least on the surface. He’s the founder of a gazillion restaurants, is star of the TV show Ugly Delicious, and has won too many awards to count (really). He. Has. It. Made.

Except he doesn’t. In recent interviews publicizing his new memoir, he’s naming what’s been beneath the surface even as he’s been accumulating accolades: depression and bipolar disorder. I was really moved to hear this interview with him, and in particular his naming that professional success is not a protective factor when it comes to mental health. In other words – it’s great if you’re rolling in money, and have an awesome job, and people adore you. But checking off those boxes and looking good on paper, on the surface, doesn’t guarantee ANYTHING about your mental health.

I’m so glad David Chang is speaking up. So many of my clients believe they “shouldn’t” be feeling like shit because their life looks good on paper. (And there are some specific barriers that get in the way of Asian Americans speaking up about mental health challenges.)

I’m grateful for all those famous folks like David Chang who are speaking up about their experiences with depression (including Trevor Noah, Michelle Obama and Lady Gaga, to name a few). Each person who speaks up helps reduce the stigma of mental health challenges. And when we reduce stigma, we bring light to darkness – and it’s THEN that we can get and receive help.

David Chang at one of his massively successful restaurants.

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.

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.