Some people look at others and assume all kinds of things about their lives. We assume people have better relationships than we do, easier times, less struggles. It is an incredible phenomenon how most people around us look as if they are more confident than we are. I wonder if it is more accurate to say that people look more confident than they are, because they are usually doing the same thing in their heads. Even I am not immune to comparing and judging myself to be ‘less than’. Most of us are constantly comparing ourselves to others and quite often assume we are on the short end of the stick. Once people come to this conclusion about themselves, that inner voice says, “Something is wrong with you that you are not like anyone else.” This may not be regularly shared with people around you, but in therapeutic conversations, I ask questions to bring out these inner voices.
What we uncover in these conversations is that people have self judgments about self judgments. They come on top of each other, pile high against the voices of confidence and self worth. I illustrate this on purpose to make it visible to them in the beginning efforts to undermine the power of the judgments themselves.
For example, someone feels a bit sad, which is associated to a recent event when they have had a loss or a disappointment. (Now, there is no way to judge the appropriateness or normalcy of a response by any person to any event. The limitlessness of possible responses is unimaginable. However, in order to contain this example, let’s say that from a big picture objective view; this sadness is understandable by all standards in view of the event. ) The self critic may start by saying something like, “You are sadder than you should be.” Then, “There must be something wrong with you!” Then, it says, “You are weak.” Then, “You can’t get over it; other people can get over it faster.” Then, it says, “Why do I keep thinking about how I can’t get over it.” (Is this a voice of reason or further judgment? Yes, self judgment can contradict itself. This is one of its tactics to throw people off the scent!) Then, “Why do I have to feel this way?” Then, “Why can’t I handle this, everyone else can handle it.” They pile higher and higher.
Do you hear the standards in these judgments? They are: ‘this’ is how sad you should be. You have to do this right. There is a right way to be upset. You only have ‘this’ amount of time to be upset. You can only get ‘this’ upset. You should feel ‘this’ way. You should be able to handle it.
Let’s say distress has units, Michael White used to call them ‘units of experience’. The original sadness had so many units represented by the small blue circle (see illustration), which is small by comparison to the units of distress this pile of judgments have. The units are multiplied exponentially. The picture above is an example of how someone might draw for me the unit of distress each judgment has represented by the size of the circle. The original sadness is just a small dot compared to the room full of distress Self Judgment causes. What if we allowed ourselves to be the ‘original sad’ without judging? I ask people, which is more distressful the original sadness or the pile on. Would you be surprised to hear that the judgment by far is named more of the problem?
In my conversations with people, I am also interested in deconstructing the idea that others are as confident as they look. Because this tends to separates us from others. The message is: “They wouldn’t understand.” “They can do it. I just can’t do it!” “It is easier for them.” It increases the feelings of isolation to feel not understood. This also increases our units of distress. I take people through a series of questions that invite them to see how they look to others. At the end of this, I ask, “Is it possible that you look confident to them, too? Is it possible that others may be struggling just as bad as you and you wouldn’t know it?” The answer is invariably, “Yes”.
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