Category Archives: Anxiety and Depression

B Is for Balance

By Andrea Wachter, LMFT

We live in such a fast-paced culture with such high expectations that it’s no wonder so many people are struggling to find balance. I often ask clients in my psychotherapy practice to take a realistic look at their schedules and see what can be deleted, shortened, or shifted, and we laugh at the irony of them having to find the time to even look! It’s an art, this “finding balance” thing… Not too busy, not too idle. Not too full, not too empty. The good news is: We don’t have to do it perfectly, and a little change can make a big difference.

I find myself more and more frequently working with people who are overworked, overstressed, overly unhappy, and overly medicated. When I dive into the reality of their day-to-day schedules and expectations, their distress makes perfect sense. Students who are overburdened by demanding class schedules, homework assignments, and after school commitments are very often struggling with substance abuse, chronic depression, and anxiety. And many of the adults I treat are overworked, overstressed, and overmedicated as well.

I have many young clients who are straight-A students, but who live such a stressed existence that their lives and bodies are out of balance. I have no problem with striving for As on a report card, but when did a B become unacceptable? And if achieving straight As is causing someone to pay the price of poor health and a lack of wellbeing, it might be worth a look.

On the other end of the spectrum are the clients I see who are chronically depressed and can’t seem to get motivated or passionate about anything. Often, this is a result of so much pressure and so much hopelessness about ever catching up or keeping up, it seems easier to not even try. Surrounded by screens to zone out on, it’s easier and way more seductive to spend their days with a remote control or a keyboard in hand than to face the pressures that kids (and adults) are faced with today.

We have been set up in our culture to race each other to the end. At the head of the line are those who are thin, young, attractive, educated, rich, and coupled. Most people are either striving to keep up or giving up. The key to good health is to step out of the race altogether and find a place of balance: some doing, some being. Some structure, some free time. Some accomplishing, some relaxing. Some indoor time, some outdoor time. Some work, some play. Some alone time, some connecting.

Take a good look at your schedule (if you have time!). How much down time do you have? Do you feel guilty for relaxing? Do your kids? Is it all about work, chores, errands, doing, trying, after-school commitments, homework, and prepping for the next day? Do you and your kids have time to relax? Is there time for sit-down dinners and relaxed conversations that have nothing to do with school or achievements? Do you ever play a game with your kids or your friends, or take a walk or a bike ride and just be present and pleasant with no talk about heavy topics? Do your kids have time to simply hang out? If your kids are addicted and depressed, do you focus more on the pain they are in underneath it all, rather than the symptoms they are showing you on the outside?

If overdoing and constant achieving are on one end of the spectrum and underdoing, escaping, and procrastination are on the other end, balance is that healthy range in the middle. When we achieve a balance on the outside with our schedules, we can make time and room to strive for an internal balance with kind self-talk and learning how to be more relaxed, accepting, content, and present.

Achieving balance is much like driving a car. If you veer a bit to the right, you simply self-correct to the left. You don’t have to roll the car over. For some people, a push to do one small thing is all they need to take a step toward balance. For someone else, their step might be to not do something. (For some people, doing nothing is doing something!)

So try starting out with a small, manageable change that will help bring you or your child into balance. The next time your depressed kid says he (or she) doesn’t want to do something (or anything), try asking him what is one thing that would help him feel loved and supported? Encourage him to guess or make something up if he says, “I don’t know.”

The next time your high-achieving, perfectionistic kid brings home a B, try celebrating it, and talk about what might be valuable about her experience in that particular class. Reframe for her that a B can also mean balance, not bad!

Try asking yourself:

  • “Am I a human doing or a human being?” Would you say you are more often doing things and accomplishing things than simply being? Do you think that being yourself is valuable enough or do you tell yourself you have to earn the right to be valuable?
  • “Is my life more full of ‘should’s than wants?” Are your days filled with “should”s, chores, and expectations, or do you often ask yourself what you want to do? Do you give yourself down time and relaxation time without guilt or self-harmful behaviors?
  • “Am I treating myself and my body with respect and kindness?” What is your relationship with food, drugs, alcohol, screen surfing, sleep and exercise? Is it moderate and loving? Is it overdoing or underdoing? Are you checking out or checking in with yourself and your body’s needs? Are you speaking to yourself kindly?
  • “Am I treating my kids with respect and kindness?” It’s hard to treat others with kindness and respect if we are out of balance and overly stressed or depressed ourselves. Are you speaking to and treating your kids the way you wish you had been treated and spoken to as a child?
  • “What is one thing I can do to move in the direction of balance?” It does not have to be a huge change. Starting with one manageable change in the direction of health and balance is a great place to begin. Then try being proud of yourself for that rather than beating yourself up for not doing more. Self-criticism probably got you into this overdoing or underdoing imbalance in the first place — and it won’t be what gets you out. Consistent small steps in a healthy direction will!

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Which Wolf Are You Feeding?

By Andrea Wachter, LMFT

Chronic dissatisfaction is an epidemic in our outer-focused culture. We live in a world of “never enough.” Never rich enough, thin enough, attractive enough, youthful enough, happy enough, accomplished enough or good enough. But how can we ever experience contentment if we are never satisfied with what we currently have and who we currently are? If the goal of getting more is so that we can conceivably be happier, doesn’t a constant feeling of “never enough” prevent us from ever feeling happy?

There are some Eastern and tribal cultures that do not experience the dissatisfaction, depression and addiction that we suffer from here. These cultures teach their children to focus on wanting what they already have instead of getting more of what they want. They teach children that they are inherently worthy instead of having to earn their worth by being smart, attractive, thin, rich, coupled, etc. Such Eastern and tribal cultures tend to focus more on who people are as opposed to who they aren’t. The focus tends to be more on what is than what if. These inner-focused attitudes cultivate peace rather than the anxiety, stress, depression and addiction that plague our outer-focused nation.

We all have areas that we may want (or need) to grow in or improve upon. But we have choices about how we attempt to motivate ourselves. Simply put, we can do it harshly or kindly. Many people use an internal whip of criticism that usually only serves to keep them stuck in a place of “never enough.” But another option is putting down the whip and picking up a light feather. When we treat ourselves with gentle compassion and kind encouragement, we are much more likely to make the changes we desire — and, if we are kinder and gentler with ourselves, then even if we don’t change, we still end up feeling better! Conversely, when we beat ourselves up in an attempt to motivate ourselves, we are not only less likely to change but our internal critic continues to harangue us even if we do change, so we still end up dissatisfied!

Human beings are hardwired to notice what’s missing. Rumor has it this wiring was intentionally designed to keep us on the lookout for unsafe threats. But what if we are already safe in reality and our biggest threat is our brain telling us we are not okay and we will only be okay if… or when…?

Author Dennis Prager gives a great example to illustrate how human beings are susceptible to chronic dissatisfaction. He asks his readers to create an image of a beautifully tiled shower… with one single tile missing. He suggests that most people will focus on the one missing tile as opposed to the many lovely mosaic tiles they are surrounded by. Sound familiar? It is so easy to focus on what we don’t have and what we think we aren’t rather than all that we do have and all that we already are.

If what they say about The Law of Attraction is true (whoever “they” are!) and we really do attract what we hold in our minds, then it seems like a good idea to focus more on gratitude for what we have rather than the dissatisfaction of what we think is missing. And even if we spend more time in gratitude and we don’t happen to attract more positive things and experiences, we are still living in a more positive state, which sounds pretty good to me!

I remember many years ago reading about the notion of fostering an “Attitude of Gratitude.” I think it was Oprah who suggested writing down five things you are grateful for every day. I started the ritual that day and I haven’t stopped since. First thing in the morning, I wake up and write down five things I’m grateful for (sometimes many more, sometimes just the five). And, interestingly enough, since that time, I have been a much more content person.

So, given that our brains are wired for negativity and that we are surrounded by a goal-oriented, never enough culture, it can take a real effort to turn our attitudes around. But it is well worth the work. We actually have the control (to a large degree) to determine how positive or negative we feel, regardless of the circumstances of our lives. The exception to this is that we are not destined to be happy or content all the time. There are moments, days and time periods where sadness, anger or fear are the appropriate and healthy reactions to things that are happening to us or around us.

Contrary to popular belief, our feelings do not always have to be dependent on our outer circumstances. I am guessing you know people who seem to “have it all” and yet they are still dissatisfied. Or perhaps you have observed someone getting something they dreamed of and finding they are still not happy. It’s an attitude adjustment to decide we are going to focus on what we have rather than what we think is missing.

There is an old Cherokee legend about a grandfather teaching his grandson an important life lesson. The grandfather explains to the young boy that we all have a battle going on inside of us. He said, “My son, the battle is between two ‘wolves’ that live inside us all. One is evil. It is anger, envy, jealousy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority and ego. The other is good. It is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion and faith.”

The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather: ‘Which wolf wins?’

The old Cherokee replied simply, “The one you feed.”

We don’t get to choose what “wolf” our parents fed inside themselves or which one they used to parent us but we can choose which one we feed everyday. We can let our dissatisfied minds lead us around or we can take charge and shift our focus to what we do have, how we are enough, and what we are grateful for.

Maybe you can give it a try. Spend some time each day practicing an attitude of gratitude. Become aware of when you are lashing yourself with a “not good enough” whip and turn it around by thinking of the things you are grateful for. Try asking yourself, several times a day: “Which wolf am I feeding?”

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Upgrading Your Internal Soundtrack

By Andrea Wachter, LMFT

We all talk to ourselves all day long. Our minds are basically like recorders that play back everything that’s been downloaded into them. The quality of our lives is drastically affected by our internal dialogue. Even more than our life situations, it’s our self-talk that can make or break our day.

Our minds are naturally active. That’s their job. And we need them to help us tend to many things in our lives. But sometimes our minds seem to be working overtime! Ideally, we all have some moments when our minds are quiet and we are simply present. But when our minds are active, we have various other internal soundtrack options.

The first is neutral. A neutral internal dialogue might be deciding whether to go to the store on the way to work or on the way home. Perhaps part of you wants to stop and part of you wants to head straight home. There are no strong feelings and no moral dilemmas. You can think through the pros and cons and make your decision. Nobody gets hurt!

Another internal soundtrack is positive. An example of this is when you feel good about something you did or said and you internally praise yourself. Now, that is something we do not need to change. If you do experience positive self-talk, I say keep it up. I know many of us were raised with messages about getting a “big head” or conceited but I am not talking about being arrogant here. I am simply talking about being kind to yourself and praising yourself regularly. Positive self-talk is about knowing that you are a good person, and that you deserve praise sometimes, even though you are imperfect like everyone else.

Next on the soundtrack possibilities is negative self-talk. We all have an inner dialogue that arises from all the negative and painful things we have ever heard and experienced. It’s like a program in your computer. The more painful experiences you have had and/or the more sensitive you are, the louder and stronger your internal negative soundtrack is likely to be.

In large part, we all learned to speak to ourselves from the way our parents or caregivers spoke to us. As we get older, this style turns into what I call our inner “Mom-a-logue” or “Dad-a-logue.” If our parents were critical or negative, it’s not that they were horrible people; they were likely just speaking to us the way they were spoken to or the way that they were left feeling from the way they were spoken to. So the negative self-talk baton gets passed down from generation to generation. Consequently, some people have very loud, critical Mom-and-Dad-a-logues and this can cause an array of problems.

Since most of us tend to think or speak to ourselves the way we were spoken to as children or the way we felt as children, I think it’s fair to say that most of us have been doing it a long time. So it is likely a habit that will take desire, awareness and practice to change. The good news is that it is possible to retrain your brain, erase negative self-talk tracks and upload new ones.

So, if negative self-talk is on one end of a spectrum and conceited narcissism is on the other, a healthy internal soundtrack is the range in the middle. This range is where you have positive regard for yourself. You know you don’t have to be perfect. You know you are a good person and that you are no better or worse than anyone else.

As a family counselor, I work with people who are struggling with a variety of issues, everything from addictions and depression to anxiety and grief. What I notice is that while the symptoms may differ, most of the people I see have a hard time being kind to themselves. I often find myself asking why.

Most everyone had some positive experiences as children. Even people from the most negative of childhoods can usually come up with a few positive memories. Why don’t we focus more on those? Unfortunately, negative memories and experiences seem to stick more than the positive ones. It’s just the way we are wired.

Imagine if someone massaged your back for an hour and punched you really hard for one second. It would likely be the one-second punch you would remember as opposed to the hour of comforting massage. Or say you spent a few hours with a friend and it was really pleasant and then they said one sentence that was really hurtful. You would most likely remember and be the most impacted from that one sentence as opposed to the hundreds of other sentences that were spoken in the time you were together.

As children, we did not have logical minds that knew the difference between feeling bad and being bad. When difficult things happened many of us decided we were bad, and this contributed to our internal program of self-talk. Painful events happened to all of us, in our families and in our lives, and most of us didn’t know how to distinguish between feeling bad and thinking we must be bad. So we ended up with a feeling of shame that for many turned into a deep, core belief. But shame comes from the mistaken thought or judgment, “I am bad.” And there is a big difference between something feeling bad and the thought that you are a bad person.

Many people have a core sense of shame and inadequacy and think that if they could just get the relationship they want or the body they like or the job they dream of, etc. they will then be deemed worthy and valuable. But it doesn’t work that way. If their deepest belief about themselves is that they are unworthy, ugly, stupid, fat, etc., nothing external will fix that. These thoughts will need an internal upgrade.

It might seem like bad news that our thoughts are constant and that they have so much power they can actually make us feel horrible. But the good news is that if we can make ourselves feel badly with our thoughts, then we can also learn to delete and replace them, which will then change the way we speak to ourselves, treat ourselves and feel about ourselves.

Steps For Upgrading Your Self-Talk

1. Desire: The first step in making a change is having the desire. Once you have the desire to improve your self-talk, you have begun to get ready for an internal upgrade!

2. Awareness: When we have a negative inner recording that has been playing for years, it becomes a habit. Oftentimes we kick into it without even noticing. So as soon as you become aware that a negative recording is playing, you have broken the unconscious trance and are halfway there.

3. Compassion: This process is about unlearning a very ingrained habit and we are not going to do it perfectly or immediately. Being kind and compassionate is the way to progress way more than beating yourself up. Self-hate got you here, it is not going to get you out!

4. Creative Comebacks: This is where you replace and/or respond to your negative thoughts. Try responding to a negative thought the way you might respond to a friend or a young child who was saying the same mean things about themselves.

Here are a few examples of creative ways to respond to your self-criticism:

  • “Oh you again?”
  • “Says who?”
  • “And your point is?”
  • “It’s not true and you’re not helping.”
  • “I’m not that bad, give me a break.”
  • “You might be trying to help by whipping me into shape but if you were going to be helpful, I think you would have helped by now.”
  • “You’re just an old recording and I’m deleting you now.”

Even if you don’t fully believe it, keep practicing. You were not born with internal negative statements about yourself, you learned, practiced and perfected them and you can do the same with creative comebacks.

To replace the negative with something positive try some of these, or make up your own:

  • “I’m a good person even when I make a mistake.”
  • “I don’t have to be perfect to be loveable.”
  • “I have many successes, I am not a failure.”

Try picturing your thoughts as pop-up windows on a computer and imagine closing them. Pretend your thoughts are on the television or radio and imagine turning them off. It helps some people to imagine they are letting smoke out of a chimney as they let their negative thoughts go. Others find it helpful to talk back to their internal negative statements by either disagreeing in a strong way or reacting in a compassionate, softer way. For many, it helps to consciously bring themselves back to the present moment and remember that their thoughts aren’t facts, they are like movies playing in our minds.

Whether you are visual, auditory or more in your feelings, you can get creative and find ways that work for you to change, stop or replace your habitual recordings.

Your negative soundtracks have likely been playing for many years. It doesn’t help that we are surrounded by a culture that supports negative self-talk so this will be an ongoing practice. The way we talk to ourselves is a habit that can be changed with awareness and willingness. With practice and patience it can become natural to speak to yourself with kindness and upgrade your internal soundtrack for good!

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Confessions of a Recovering Perfectionist

By Andrea Wachter, LMFT

I used to be a perfectionist. Actually, it would be more accurate to say I was a black-belt perfectionist! Not that I ever came close to being perfect, but I had an internal program that told me I should be. My quest for perfection didn’t make me perfect, but it did bring me a whole lot of misery. Every time I did or said something that I thought I shouldn’t have, I beat myself up: I can’t believe I said that! How can I ever let this go? What will they think of me now? I think I really blew it this time!

I realize now that I was not alone. Perfectionism is rampant in our image-obsessed, achievement-driven culture. Those of us who buy into the notion that we should constantly be doing more and achieving more believe we have failed when our efforts are anything less than exemplary. I have nothing against self-improvement, but when we don’t deprogram ourselves from perfectionism, it doesn’t matter how many improvements we make. It will never be enough. Because perfect is not only impossible, it’s un-human.

A lot of people I see in my practice as a psychotherapist tell me, “I’m not a perfectionist! I am far from perfect.” To me, the definition of a perfectionist is not someone who does everything perfectly. (If that were the case it would rule out, umm… everyone!) I define a perfectionist as someone who thinks they should be doing everything perfectly.

Now that I am on the other side of perfectionism (many years and tears later), I can’t exactly say I’m thrilled when I make a mistake, but I no longer expect myself not to. These days, I refer to myself as a recovering perfectionist and I have the honor of helping my clients put down their own internal whips and embrace the notion of being perfectly imperfect.

Not only does perfectionism make us miserable on the inside, it also it makes it hard to live life on the outside. How satisfying is it to be a student when nothing less than an A is acceptable? How hard is it to enjoy a sport or a hobby when nothing less than a perfect score or outcome will do? And how hard is it to be in relationships when we are unable to receive feedback without crumbling or getting defensive?

When we’re in perfectionist mode, it certainly does not make our relationships perfect. In fact, it makes them very difficult since our standards are so unrealistic. But when we allow ourselves to be imperfect, others can speak their truth without worrying that we will be crushed or retaliate. When someone tells us that something we did was hurtful or hard for them, we can hear it, take it in, and either apologize or discuss it without thinking we (or they) are unacceptable. And when we let go of perfection in ourselves and we don’t expect or demand it in others, it makes life a whole lot sweeter for everyone!

I remember the first time I realized I was no longer a perfectionist. I was spending the day with a friend who told me that something I said had hurt her feelings. My immediate thought was not the usual, “Uh, oh! I’ve ruined the friendship!” And I didn’t experience the usual pit in my stomach caused by my feelings of inadequacy and anxiety. Instead, I thought, “It’s okay. I don’t have to be perfect.” I calmly told my friend, “I am so sorry I hurt your feelings. Thank you for telling me.” Whew! What a relief. Life is so much easier without having to strive for unattainable goals.

For you Eagles fans out there, you might remember their classic song, “Already Gone.” One line from the song has stuck with me for decades because it highlights a truth that is so… dare I say, perfect in its wisdom. Even if you have never heard the song, the line is still profound (cue electric guitar here): “So often times it happens that we live our lives in chains, and we never even know we have the key.”

One key to feeling free is to break loose from the chains of perfectionism. While our culture, families, teachers, or coaches might instill in us the need to be perfect, it is within our power to let go of that need. We hold the key.

So here are some tested guidelines from a recovering perfectionist:

• Let go of the notion that you need to be perfect and instead strive for making peace with imperfection.
• Acknowledge that letting go of perfection does not mean you’re a slacker. Realize that you can motivate yourself with kindness, joy, passion, creativity, responsibility, and devotion — rather than a self-defeating obsession with being perfect.
• Learn to see yourself as having innate value as a person, regardless of what you accomplish.
• Notice how you can love others, even though they are imperfect, and see if you can begin to do the same for yourself.
• Try this exercise:

First, notice how it feels to tell yourself over and over, “I need to be perfect.” What thoughts or feelings come up? How does it feel in your body to repeat that sentence?

Now, try telling yourself, “I don’t have to be perfect.” How do you feel when you say that?

When we walk around all day telling ourselves we blew it or are not good enough or that we should be perfect, we are reciting what I call nah-firmations! (the unhealthy alternative to affirmations). It’s like trying to grow a plant by feeding it poison. How about feeding yourself some human “Miracle-Gro” and uploading a new message that will truly set you free. As the Eagles sang so beautifully, we have the key!

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Stop ‘Shoulding’ On Yourself

By Andrea Wachter, LMFT

“I shouldn’t have said that.” “I shouldn’t have done that.” “I shouldn’t have eaten that.” These are common phrases I hear from clients in my counseling practice. So many people are so hard on themselves so much of the time, believing that self-criticism will help them attain their goals. After all, many of us have all been raised with a “no pain, no gain” attitude. Our culture expects so much of us and requires us to live at such an unnaturally fast pace that it has caused an epidemic of perfectionistic, stressed out, medicated people. Who could possibly keep up with the unrealistic expectations of our culture without having it take a toll on our mental or physical health?

Many of my clients think that their self-berating will get them in line or keep them in line. I often ask (rhetorically of course) how that is working out for them, knowing full well that if it was working, they would probably not be sitting in my office! Many people fear that if they stopped beating themselves up or being really hard on themselves that they would never get anything done. Is self-hate really an effective motivator? Can’t we motivate ourselves with kindness, passion or encouragement?

I work with people in all walks of life — nurses, doctors, personal trainers, teachers, etc. — and I often ask them if they speak to their patients, clients or students the way they speak to themselves. They wouldn’t dare. They would likely be fired if they did, not to mention that they often view others with such different standards and with so much more compassion than they do themselves. Why do so many of us feel compassion and kindness toward others but then turn inward with a whip of self-criticism and perfectionism?

Many of us were raised with the belief that if we were kind to ourselves and liked or even loved ourselves, we would be conceited. But is that true? Can we upgrade the program on that one and all agree that self-care and kindness is not necessarily self-grandiosity and entitlement?

When someone lives with the internal program of “shoulding” or self-criticism and perfectionism, what usually ends up happening is that they are either very anxious about getting things done and getting them done perfectly (a thankless, never-ending job since none of us is perfect!) or they end up burning out or rebelling and are unable to get things done at all. This often leads to feeling depressed because they can’t keep up with their self-imposed rules, regulations and expectations.

So where does all this “shoulding” leave us? For many the answer is depressed and anxious. For millions it leads to taking meds to control their anxiety instead of changing the thinking patterns that cause the anxiety in the first place. So many people “should” on themselves regularly with high, unrealistic expectations. They are very driven, perfectionistic, achievement-oriented and outer goal-focused. I call this being a human doing rather than a human being.

Others fall into the opposite extreme of the spectrum and find it hard to get much of anything done. They struggle with procrastination and then beat themselves up about it. They struggle with depression and feel badly because they can’t get themselves to do what they set out to do.

Then there are those who bounce back and forth between shoulding and rebelling (anxiety and depression). They may also “should” on themselves but then rebel and can’t seem to get themselves motivated. I used to be a “bouncer.” I was either gung ho on some new diet or completely blowing it off and bingeing. I was either totally into some new Jane Fonda workout or I couldn’t get myself off the couch. I was swearing off alcohol or all-out partying. (Not a big fan of moderation, you might say!)

So, if listening to your harsh mind messages is one choice and rebelling and feeling badly about yourself is the other, you may not realize there is a door number three. Door number three is following your heart. It’s making your choices out of love and kindness and what feels the most right to you, rather than making your choices because of a self-imposed whip or rebelling from the beating and going on strike.

I have heard it said that the longest 12 inches is from the head to the heart. The heart is a loving voice. It’s our intuition, the part of us that is compassionate and kind. But it’s hard to hear that voice when it is being drowned out by the megaphone of the mind. A kind voice is in there though — we all have it.

We were not born shoulding on ourselves. We learned every internal rule we have. And fortunately, we can unlearn them. We can learn to delete the harsh messages in our mind in the same way we can delete a virus from our computer. And we can upload new, kinder messages. We can get things done from a place of moderation and sanity. We can rest in a place of peace, relaxation and self-worth. So see if you can take a few moments now and then and ask your heart rather than your head: What feels right for you? I promise you will still get things done. It just won’t be from an anxious place of trying to prove you are worthy or a depressed place of thinking you aren’t.

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Story-Busting

By Andrea Wachter, LMFT

We live in such a competitive culture that many of us are still trying to keep up with the Joneses. But do we ever ask ourselves: Who are these idealized Joneses and do they really have such peaceful and balanced lives? Do they suffer from chronic anxiety and stress? Are they taking antidepressants just to try and keep up? Are their kids abusing drugs, alcohol or food, or taking antidepressants themselves?

In my work as a psychotherapist, I consistently hear people tell me how much happier they think someone else is because of their relationship, their looks, their finances, etc., when in reality, we really have no idea how happy someone else is unless we truly know them. And if we truly knew them, we would know that they have issues and struggles just like everyone else!

When we are comparing ourselves to someone else, we are comparing our made-up story about them to our made-up story about ourselves. And in our version, we usually come up short. The truth is, we are all the same on some level. We all experience loss. We all want love. We are all scared of some things. We all want peace of mind.

When clients tell me they want to be “happy” and that other people look so happy, I ask them how often they think a “happy” person is actually happy? I remind them that nobody on the planet is happy all the time (and if they tell you otherwise, I would suspect they are either dishonest, highly medicated, or a rare enlightened being!). The best we can hope for is healthy. Healthy people are happy some of the time, and at other times feel the range of emotions that all human beings experience: happy, scared, angry and sad, including the variations within each of those.

When we are healthy, balanced, and unaltered by substances, we go about our day and feel mostly present and peaceful. Then things happen to trigger an emotion, and if we express it in a healthy way or tolerate it without stuffing it down, blasting it out or hurting ourselves in any way, these natural emotions move through us and we return to peace and presence. But in our culture, which is addicted to happiness and generally shuns the less pleasant of human emotions, we often end up beating ourselves up, stuffing down our feelings, or using something to avoid them — thus increasing the pain.

When we acknowledge that everyone experiences pain, that every person struggles with difficult issues, and that most everyone is making up stories too, we can let go of comparing and contrasting and simply see us as all in this together.

I often tell a story of some neighbors that I used to live across the street from. From the vantage point of my kitchen window, they seemed to have a perfect life. (“Seemed” being the operative word here!) I compared myself to them constantly. The wife was thin and I was not. The wife seemed so happy all the time and I was not. The couple seemed so happily married and I was not. The family did all kinds of fun activities all the time and I did not. You see where this is going. I obsessed about this happy, all-American family a lot over my stint in this particular neighborhood. And somehow I always came up short and they always came out looking like a Mountain Dew commercial!

Then I began learning about “story-busting.” I was in the early years of training to become a therapist, and I was embarking on my own journey of health — physical, emotional, spiritual and, in this case, mental. I began learning about thoughts, and how all thoughts are not real, and how to challenge rather than believe every thought my mind conjured up. Needless to say, it was life-changing. The years passed, and my thinking got healthier. I tried to keep my own storytelling to a minimum and focus literally and figuratively on my own side of the street.

Alas, there came the day that one of my ideal (in my mind only!) neighbors came to my front door. It was the husband of the previously presumed-to-be-perfect couple. He explained that he knew I was studying to become a counselor and that he really needed my help. He went on to tell me about the addictions that he and his wife had been struggling with, the adultery that had been part of their lives for the last year or so, the many ways that their kids were acting out as a result, and the desperate need they had for referrals and recommendations for help. Talk about story-busting. Sheesh! Those scenarios certainly had not been part of my special story time. I read once that the seven most damaging words on the planet are, “And they all lived happily ever after…”

We all struggle. We all have some sweet moments. (Some more than others, and if I ever get a chance to speak to the distributor, I will check this mystery out and get back to you.) But for now, see if you can begin catching yourself the next time you make up a story about someone else and compare it to the story you have made up about yourself. See if you can tell yourself that you really have no idea how that person truly is on the inside, what they have gone through or what they will go through. And if you do happen to truly know them, then you know they have pain and problems like the rest of us!

So the next time you make up a fantasy about someone else and compare it to a nightmare about you, consider telling yourself this: “That’s my story and I am not sticking to it!”

And we all live healthily ever after…

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Beware: To Compare May Lead to Despair

By Andrea Wachter, LMFT

In my psychotherapy practice, I commonly hear clients comparing themselves to others and usually not coming out too favorably. I often hear statements like,

“I saw pictures of my old high school friend on Facebook and their life seems to have turned out so much better than mine!”

“My colleague seems to have such a charmed life and it makes me feel like such a loser.”

“She has the perfect job, the perfect husband, even the perfect body — she just seems to have it all.”

In such comparisons, seems is the operative word. But a person’s real life is rarely what it seems to be to the outside world — or to their Facebook friends!

There is nothing new about comparing yourself to friends, relatives, or colleagues. What is relatively new is the barrage of images and posts we can use as ammo against ourselves in the comparing and despairing game. And very often, we tend to compare ourselves to someone we think has it all, causing us to zero in on the things that we think are missing in our own lives. The problem is that comparing in this way factors in only a fraction of a much larger picture. Rarely do people post pictures of themselves on Facebook when they have horrible indigestion or a raging headache. Rarely do people write on their timelines that they are filled with anxiety over a recent fight they had with a loved one, or that they are in the midst of intense grief or loneliness. We tend to put on a happy face, post happy pics, and tweet about happy times. And then others compare themselves to our fleeting moments and brief sentences, thinking they represent the full story — which, of course, is never the case.

Too often we compare the complexity of our own life to the superficial “snapshots” of another person’s. This can lead to some very unhappy introspection if we are not careful. When we unfavorably compare ourselves to our image of someone else, we often imagine that they have the qualities we think we are missing. So rather than develop and nurture those qualities within ourselves, we may divert our attention outward and beat ourselves up for not being as successful, happy, disciplined, creative, or fulfilled as someone else. Oftentimes, the person we’re comparing ourselves to is someone we don’t even know very well. If we did, we would understand that they more than likely have a myriad of their own issues, struggles, and insecurities.

The truth is that if someone constantly tells you that everything is always great, I would suspect that they are either lying, in denial, highly medicated, or a very rare enlightened being! Granted, there are people with really positive attitudes and people who seem to have an easier time of it than others; but we are all human, and we all experience pain, loss, and a variety of emotions.

Focusing on someone else and resenting what they have that we think we don’t is what we therapists call projection. If you can catch yourself in the act of projection, you can really learn and grow from it. You can remind yourself that, “Hey, I need to nurture that quality in myself — rather than beat myself up because she (or he) has it going on and I don’t!”

Here is a recent example of projection: A client of mine who tends to feel bad about herself and her life had been continually comparing herself to her friends on Facebook. She would see their happy images and compare them to her unhappiest times and let’s just say she was not “liking” her internal posts! So, we began to talk about the concept of projection. I asked her to write a list of all the qualities she was envious of when she looked at her friends’ pictures and posts. The main ones were that they seemed so free and happy. They all seemed so confident while she felt so insecure. I asked her to pinpoint the times when she feels the most free and confident and then work on pumping up her sense of value. Then, whenever she looked at friends’ pictures on her timeline and got triggered, she could use it as a signal that she needed to speak to herself more kindly and respectfully, rather than focusing on other people. My client came to understand that her projection of what she believed her friends had that she didn’t could become a signal to work on what she wanted to develop in herself. Once she began to feel better about herself and her own life, she no longer got hooked into the compare-and-despair game.

I spent years lost in the ‘despairing of comparing.’ I was in some pretty low places at the time, and I chose to compare myself to people who weren’t. I never bothered to look around and see that everyone, at one time or another, is battling something. We simply take turns. And when it is our turn to experience the challenging chapters of life, what we need most is to reach out for support and reach inward for compassion and kindness toward ourselves. We need to remind ourselves that the pain will pass and that there have been and will be moments of sweetness. What we don’t need is to compare ourselves to someone whose life looks “perfect” and add fuel to the fire of our pain.

Decades ago, I had the profound experience of being in the role of the comparee, to coin a term. I was battling some pretty serious depression along with several addictions, one of them being bulimia. I had recently joined an eating disorders support group and was on my way into a meeting when I ran into another woman in my group. She had only met me a few times, and I later realized that she had made many assumptions about me, one of which was that my life was charmed. She stopped me in the parking lot and asked if she could get something off her chest. Her “something” turned out to be somewhat of a confession, which the group had encouraged us to do in order to stay current in our relationships and hopefully have less to binge over. I cannot recall her exact words, but they were something along the lines of, “I just want to say that I find myself comparing myself to you in group and I feel so bad about myself when I do. You seem to have it all. You’re attractive, you have a nice car, you seem so bubbly, and you just seem to have it all together.” I told her, “Honey, I just made myself throw up in the bathroom at a public gas station, you have got to be kidding me.”

That experience did not save me from years of comparing myself to others and always coming up short, but it did have an impact. It left me with the knowledge that we really have no idea what someone else is going through — no matter how they appear on the outside. It would be years before I learned to compare myself to myself instead of to others. And even more years before I would immerse myself in daily gratitude for what I have instead of comparing what I had to what I thought others had. It would be years before I learned the lesson that we all suffer and that I do not need to feel badly for my joy if someone else is in pain or badly for my pain if someone else is experiencing joy. We all just take turns, and the order in which we have these experiences is out of our control.

So, the next time you find yourself caught in the web of compare and despair, here are some tips for you to try:

• When you find yourself comparing yourself to someone else, remind yourself that they have already had, may currently have, and definitely will have many struggles in this life.

• Make a list of all the positive qualities you think the object of your comparisons has, and then begin to find those same qualities within yourself.

• The next time you see a perfect looking picture of someone on your Facebook page, remind yourself that it represents one single image in a lifetime of experiences, some of which are joyful, some of which are painful.

• Look around you and realize that everyone is the same on some level. See if you can wish everyone well, knowing that we are all doing the best we can with the tools we have been given. See if you can be compassionate toward someone in pain and happy for someone in joy, and then see if you can do that for yourself!

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Mind Movies

By Andrea Wachter, LMFT

Most people walk around lost in thought. It can be very enticing to spend the majority of our time thinking about the past or the future and as a result miss out on the present moment (otherwise known as reality!). Many years ago when I began to read books on the topic of mindfulness, it was like someone took a bag off my head. I hadn’t realized how much time I lost to being lost in thought. I have authors like Eckhart Tolle and Leonard Jacobson to thank for the “bag lifting,” and I now spend a good deal of my life living in the present. I also have the honor of teaching my clients the simple tools that I have been taught.

Walking around lost in our minds is like mistaking a movie for reality. And whether our “mind movie” is an exciting fantasy or a dreaded horror story, it is not actually real. When you are actually watching a movie in the theatre, it’s pretty safe to say that you know the movie you are watching is not real and that the chair you are sitting on, the sticky floor beneath your feet and the tub of popcorn on your lap arereal. Unfortunately, when it comes to our mind movies (aka our thoughts), we tend to lose our logic and truly believe that our imagination and our perceptions are real.

Upon learning this, many of my clients tell me that they enjoy their fantasies, that fantasizing gives them hope. And that’s fine, but I think it’s important to know that most fantasies are laced with pain due to the fact that reality sets in. And in reality everything is temporary and has its ups and downs. Fantasies lead us to think that reality is not enough. And even if a fantasy does come true for a time, it will never go the way the mind movie promises or end the way the Hollywood movie ends.

Take romantic relationships, for example. One of the bestselling movie topics of the mind. Someone might fantasize about a new relationship and think they will be so happy when they get one. They may spend much of their time feeling dissatisfied with their life as a single person. Then, when they finally do get into a relationship, they do not generally say, “Ahhhhhhh this is it. This is what I always dreamed of.” (At least not for very long!) This is because reality sets in and there are challenges in the relationship or the relationship ends. However, if one is able to remember that their mind movies or expectations were just fantasies and ideas, they are in a better position to work with reality and make it as healthy as it can possibly be.

Or say someone dreams about getting a new home and spends enormous amounts of time thinking about it and believing how perfect life will be when its finally theirs. Then they get the house of their dreams and while they might love it, they still have to deal with all the challenges of taking care of a home.

All this is not to say that there is anything wrong with having a goal or obtaining new things, new relationships and new experiences. This is to say that when we spend vast amounts of time fantasizing about some future person or event making us happy, we usually do not end up staying happy for very long. Mind movies prevent us from living in the present moment and set us up for constant disappointment. This is because no one is happy all the time and everything has its ups and downs and everything by nature is temporary.

The good news is that if we can live more in the present, enjoying the sweet moments and enduring the challenging ones, we can learn to live our lives in reality rather than being lost in the fantasy on the screen. More good news is that once we really know and remember that everything is temporary and has pros and cons, we can get that there is no where to get and we can learn to simply be which makes life a lot calmer, easier and more peaceful. Sounds simple enough, right? But those movies of the mind can be habitual, enticing and even addictive.

In order to live more in reality, we need to keep our eyes open for the movies that are playing in the theatre of our minds.

There are basically four “movies” our busy little minds tend to play (and replay). Some people hang out mostly in one or two; some bounce around all four. Here are the marquees of the mind:

Showing in theatre #1 we have, “Future Happiness.” This movie theme sounds like: “I will be so happy when…” “It will be so great if…” or “I hope… happens.”

Then playing on screen #2 is, “Future Fear.” This script is more like: “I hope … doesn’t happen,” “What if… happens?” or “It will be so horrible if…”

Moving back to the past, we have on screen #3, “Past Longings.” Included soundtracks are: “It was so great when…” “I wish I could go back to….” or “I was so happy when…”

And finally, playing in theatre #4 is, “Past Regrets.” Here, the common tracks are: “I can’t believe I…” “If only I had done…” “I wish I had… instead.”

While there is nothing wrong with enjoying a fond memory or looking forward to a future event, when we spend our time primarily lost in these movies of our mind, we live in pain or anxiety and we miss out on our actual lives. Sometimes we even make important life decisions based on these fantastical mind movies.

And just like the weather, actual reality is an ever-changing variety of experiences. Reality can be wonderful, but it can also be painful and sometimes just plain ordinary. But it is reality. And, once we truly know this, we get to choose if we are going to live in an unreal movie with its false promises and horrifying predictions or if we are going to live in actual, factual reality. We get to decide if we are going to enjoy a spring day when it’s lovely outside or dread the winter days ahead. We get to decide if we are going to curse the current storms or accept them, knowing that hating the weather will not change it, it will only change our levels of acceptance and peace.

So see if you can begin to catch yourself when you realize you are lost in a mind movie. Praise yourself for being aware enough to catch it and then bring yourself back to something that is actually, factually here and now. It might be as ordinary as the chair you are sitting in. It might be as lovely as the sun setting in front of you. It might be experiencing a painful emotion about something that just happened.

Remember that all feelings and experiences will pass, both the sweet and the sour. But mind movies are set for continuous re-runs. So ask yourself from time to time: “Am I in a made-up mind movie right now or living life as it actually is?”

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