Clients often tell me they’re the only person on campus falling apart. “Everyone else can handle it but me!” they say. This is of course not so, as virtually every person (on campus or not) is suffering in some way. However, our society has become veeeeeeeeeeeery good at “putting on a happy face.” We are raised to “be strong,” to smile, to avoid crying in public, to “get over it.” We are taught that the powerful survive and the weak starve; that the emotional are unstable while the rational are leaders. And the result? We suffer in silence. I’ve had many clients who remove their “mask” the second they step in my room; the tears flow throughout our session, and then, like clockwork, they plaster on a smile at the 50-minute mark and continue about their day.
Now, I understand that our society would not be an overly productive one if we all answered “How are you?” with the truth (although it would make for some pretty awkwardly amusing run-ins in the grocery store), but the point I’m trying to make here is that reality is not as it seems (cue Twilight Zone theme song). Let me elaborate: The “I’M SOOOO HAPPY!!! I HAVE THE BEST LIFE EVER” statuses you see on Facebook are oftentimes covering up pain and misery; It’s about as possible to get with the H&M model you see on the bus stop as it is to get with the Little Mermaid, and the T.V. shows, books, and movies that form the scripts for how we believe we should live our lives (loan-free school, fulfilling career, happy marriage, mortgage-free house, healthy kids, long life, etc.) should all be considered what they are: Fantasy. In reality, it’s a gift to have one of those things, let alone all of them. But because of the expectations put on us by society, by our parents, by our peers, by ourselves, we plan a life of perfection and find ourselves feeling completely derailed when life doesn’t go accordingly.
Now, I’m not promoting a “jaded” outlook–that wouldn’t be helpful, either. But when we compare ourselves to all the “successful” people on Facebook, or decide that we’re “behind schedule” according to the arbitrary timeline we’ve set for ourselves (“…But I said I was going to have kids by 30!” Uhhh better find a donor…), we are engaging in what is called Upward Social Comparison. Upward Social Comparison is what occurs when we compare ourselves to someone we perceive to be “better off” than us. We all do it, and, when used appropriately, it can provide a certain level of motivation; however, when we compare aspects of our lives or appearance we feel powerless about changing, we end up feeling dejected, inadequate, discouraged, worthless, and ashamed. We’re focusing on what we don’t or can’t have, and blaming ourselves for it. An interesting study was released in January about “Facebook Depression, ” stating that Facebook actually contributes to low mood. I’d be willing to bet you’ve experienced this before. “Look how happy/thin/popular/well-travelled/rich/fun that person is. I wish I was them.” I often say to clients that Facebook is like a “resume” for life. Most people only put up the “highlights,” but that leads to the rest of us believing our lives are incredibly mundane in comparison.
Additionally, the in-your-face BE HAPPY message we get 24/7 ends up creating implicit anxiety around a need to always feel happy. We have pathologized sadness; we immediately think something is wrong with us if we’re feeling down. We feel guilty as a result, and we become self critical, making our suffering even more intense. We run to our doctors for antidepressants or beat ourselves up for being “weak.” Sometimes, we’re just sad because we’re sad. We’re human. We have emotions for a reason. We have hormones and neurotransmitters and nights without sleep. Sometimes it’s just about being kind to yourself and waiting for the rain to ease up, rather than trying to “snap out of it.”
So the next time you’re being hard on yourself because you haven’t accomplished as much as Jane McMoney, or you don’t look like Joe McMuscles, get off Facebook, remind yourself that society has done an excellent job of skewing our perceptions of what we should be, and send yourself some compassion. As Kristin Neff, a renowned researcher in the self-compassion field says, “Self-compassion entails seeing one’s own experience in light of the common human experience, acknowledging that suffering, failure, and inadequacies are part of the human condition, and that all people–oneself included–are worthy of compassion.”
We’re all in this together.