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…