Updated: Jan 29, 2020
Today marks the annual “Bell Let’s Talk” day. The initiative, which started in 2010, aims to promote awareness about mental health issues and catalyze important actions related to reducing stigma, improving access to care, supporting world-class research, and leading by example in workplace mental health.
Previously, I’ve written about how to support loved ones with mental illness. Today, I wanted to take a different approach and discuss the experiences that I feel all of us can relate to on some level.
You see, I’ve noticed through being a therapist that regardless of someone’s age, race, socioeconomic status, and past experiences, there are things that almost every single person says in therapy—things they think are totally unique to them when, in reality, countless other people have uttered the same sentiments in my office. I don’t know about you, but to me, there’s something beautifully bonding and comforting about the idea that we might not be so different than we think we are.
So, here are situations and emotions I’ve heard almost every. single. person. describe to me, regardless of where they’ve come from*.
1. Thinking everyone else has life figured out.
Many of us judge our success through comparing ourselves to others. However, this typically involves comparing our inner experiences to other people’s outer experiences, which can lead to totally inaccurate assumptions and conclusions.
The truth is, all of us are trying to figure things out as we go. There have been moments where someone has told me, “You’re so put together!” and I think to myself, “…are you kidding!?!?!” They might say that because they see me at work—dressed professionally, focusing on a task, engaging in small talk—but they didn't see me the night before enveloped by self-doubt about if I’m “good enough” at my job. Every single person on this planet has moments like this, they just typically happen behind closed doors. So, next time you start telling yourself how “put together” someone is, remind yourself that this is an assumption and that you are only seeing one slice of reality.
Recent research shows that 1 in 5 Canadians feel lonely, which is thought to be due to a number of factors, including higher rates of divorce, stronger dependence on technology, sprawling urbanization, and living alone.
Know that even people with extensive support systems and active social lives feel lonely from time to time. This is partly because loneliness can be the result of what we tell ourselves rather than "evidence" that we aren't well-connected. Thoughts like, "No one understands me," "Why do I find it so hard to enjoy my own company?" and "What are others doing without me?" can stimulate feelings of loneliness even if you still have the same number of friends that you did yesterday.
Loneliness can also represent moments when we feel disconnected from ourselves, which is why I think it's often triggered during moments of boredom. So, we might want to ask ourselves, "What activity can I engage in right now that brings me joy?" Even if this doesn't involve another person, we can then feel connected to the parts of ourselves that we might forget about from time to time—our Creative Side, our Sporty Side, and more.
In moments of deep loneliness, it can also be helpful to remember the universality of this experience and show ourselves some compassion: This is a moment of suffering. At this very moment, thousands of other people are feeling this emotion, too. May I be kind to myself right now. This can remind us that even though we feel lonely, we are not truly alone in our experience. (To read more about how to handle loneliness, check out my other blog post).
Individualistic countries like Canada infuse a number of values into their citizens: uniqueness, autonomy, self-sufficiency, and independence. (Hell, it’s no wonder we feel lonely!) Many of us have also learned to motivate ourselves through “pulling ourselves up by the boot straps,” “sucking it up,” and “keep on keepin’ on.”
Practically every single person I meet in therapy admits that they’re extremely hard on themselves. It seems that we all have an Inner Critic who calls us names, judges us harshly, and thinks we aren’t good enough. It’s important to note that we have been taught this habit in our culture. This isn’t something unique to you, it’s a cultural phenomenon. The trick is to notice when your Inner Critic is showing up and diffuse it with compassion rather than criticism.
To learn more about how to diffuse negative self-talk, check out my online workbook, “The Mental Health Detox,” which is 50% off right now!
4. Feeling like you’re pretending.
Countless people have told me they feel like they’re “wearing a mask” and that people only see a version of them. Let me tell you from the bottom of my heart: every single person feels this way. And while this might be surprising to hear, I don’t think this is a bad thing.
Part of emotional intelligence is about adjusting yourself accordingly based on the social situation you're in. I certainly don’t talk to my patients in the same way I talk to my friends. That’s not because I’m “being fake” or “inauthentic,” it’s because my workplace requires a level of professionalism that my friendships do not.
There’s a powerful reframe that needs to happen here: rather than thinking, “I hate that I need to act differently in certain situations,” think to yourself, “The fact that I act differently in certain situations tells me I’m an emotionally intelligent person who keeps other’s needs into account.”
5. Feeling like your brain just doesn’t work like everyone else’s.
While it’s easy to feel like there’s “something wrong with you” when anxiety, depression, or insecurity strikes, know that what you're actually experiencing are symptoms that occur in basically everyone. For example, every person I know with anxiety struggles with non-stop "worry loops" and playing out dramatic “what if” situations. Every person I know with depression often wonders about what the meaning of life is and ruminates about the past.
All that aside, it's important to note that even people without official diagnoses experience symptoms of anxiety, depression, and more from time to time. For example, even people without OCD experience one of its hallmark symptom: random, deeply disturbing thoughts. In fact, a recent study showed that people without OCD have random intrusive thoughts like running their car off the road, insulting a family member out of the blue, jumping in front of a train, and more. Simply put, our brains are super weird. Period.
The Bottom Line
Being a human is hard. We’ve inherited “old brains” from our ancestors that are wired to detect threat and protect us from harm with the added capability of metacognition. As British psychologist Paul Gilbert once hilariously said, “Whoever invented the human brain needs to be shot.”
Take a minute to look at the person on your left. Now look at the person on your right. Know that they, too, have their struggles. They, too, have moments of not knowing what the hell they’re doing and trying to figure it out. They, too, open Instagram and sometimes feel like they aren’t measuring up. Rather than focusing on how they’re different from you, focus on what you have in common.
This messy thing called life? We’re all in it together.
If you or someone in your life needs some additional support, email firstname.lastname@example.org to inquire about psychotherapy in Markham and/or Vaughan.
* it is worth noting that these are the experiences I commonly see in my current context—as a Canadian working with other people living in Canada. Of course, if you were to reflect on this question as someone in another continent, this blog post would likely look very different!