Category: socioeconomic status

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.

 

Testing, Testing – Tips for Parents

These last few weeks, I’ve seen kid and teen clients’ stress skyrocket as a result of mandatory statewide testing. It reminds me of my own days as a student in DeKalb County schools taking the Iowa Test of Basic Skills way back in the 1980s. You may have a similar memory of using #2 pencils to bubble in answer sheets or long hours of boredom ctesting, testingoupled with the pressure to do well. As far as I can tell, none of that has changed.

It’s easy to be sympathetic to these clients and their anxiety. Tests can be confusing, and often don’t reflect what my clients have learned throughout the school year. Multiple studies over decades have shown that race and socio-economic class can impact scores, raising significant doubts about validity.  

And yet, even when these smart, savvy kids have this information, they still feel tremendous pressure to do well on these tests. For some, these test results make up a significant portion of their final grades in school. For some, their performance impacts eligibility for talented-and-gifted programs. For many, it’s easy to tie self-worth to scores — which means even more pressure to perform.

In my years counseling teens and kids, many parents have come to me saying, “my kid seems more irritable around testing time.” This is not a surprise. When we’re anxious and don’t feel a lot of control, that can come out as irritability or efforts to control other parts of our lives in constructive or not-so-constructive ways. 

So here’s what I tell parents:

1. Recognize that your child is likely feeling anxiety and pressure. They may not tell you that they’re anxious, but you may be able to tell if your child is acting out more than usual. Any perceived pressure from you may feel like “too much” to them, since they’re already worried and negatively anticipating the test.

2.  Help them prepare in practical ways (getting a good night sleep and eating a good breakfast beforehand). If their school allows books or other materials for in-between testing times, help them select something that will reduce boredom.

3. Reassure your child that you love them and that testing is much less important than other things (their character, perhaps, or their overall effort during the school year).

4. Make plans with your child to do something fun after testing is over. 

And, thankfully, testing will be done soon!

“Not Rich, Not White, and Seeking Therapy”

“Not Rich, Not White, and Seeking Therapy”

I was concerned but not incredibly surprised to read the findings of the article “Not Rich, Not White, and Seeking Therapy” in The Atlantic. It’s a quick read, but gets into how hard it can be to access counseling if you don’t sound rich and white when you call therapists to make an appointment. In other words, it shows how much the odds are stacked against people of color and people who sound working class — even with therapy. Here’s a quick quote:

“If [the researcher’s] experiment were to play out in the real world, an identifiably black, working-class man would have to call 80 therapists before he was offered a weekday evening appointment. A middle-class white woman would only have to call five.”

As a white woman who’s anti-racist, I’m appalled. The field of therapy has to do better. We have to do better. Everyone deserves access to high-quality healthcare for physical and emotional concerns.