How Should Your Life Be?
Do you have an internal picture of how your life ‘should’ be?
Do you ever find yourself judging your experience as ‘not right’ and comparing it to how you feel you ‘should’ be feeling or what ‘should’ be happening?
- “I shouldn’t be feeling this way”
- “I’m on holiday, I should be happy”
- “Everyone else is out enjoying themselves and I’m not. What’s wrong with me?”
You’ll usually find them in the flow of automatic thoughts that run like a tape through your mind when you’re not really paying attention.
Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy calls this part of our mind ‘the discrepancy monitor’.
The Discrepancy Monitor
When we’re trying to get practical things done the discrepancy monitor can be helpful. We look at what the situation is now (the kitchen is a mess) and how we’d like the situation to be (I’d like a tidy kitchen) and then we decide what should be done to get to the preferred outcome (tidy up).
The problem starts when the discrepancy monitor kicks in inappropriately and tries to solve the ‘problem’ of our feelings and moods. Trying to ‘solve’ emotions intellectually doesn’t usually work.
Making comparisons between how we feel and how we’d think we ‘should’ feel is an unpleasant experience. It is made worse by the fact that these thoughts can (often without us really noticing) lead to further negative, judgemental thoughts about yourself, the world and the future.
This leads to a downwards spiral. And because the discrepancy monitor is working overtime monitoring the situation, it brings your attention to the ever-widening gap between how you feel and how you think you ‘should’ feel. You end up feeling terrible and you’re not even sure why.
- “I feel tired this morning”
- “This is a really rubbish thing to be feeling”
- “I shouldn’t be feeling low, everyone else is happy”
- “What’s wrong with me that makes me feel this way?”
- “Why can’t I ever just be happy?”
- “Nothing is ever going to change”
Social Media – Fuel for Comparisons
There’s more fuel for making comparisons these days than ever. Now we have the projected experience of others to contend with. Social media gives people an opportunity to project outwards the version of their life that most closely fits their ‘ideal’.
As well as having an internal image of how our lives ‘should’ be that we constantly and automatically compare to our actual experiences, we’ve got an external (although probably equally unrealistic) image of how everyone else’s lives are. From this point, the negative spiral of judgement to internal recrimination to anger, frustration and misery can be the same.
Using Social Media Mindfully
What if you were able to catch yourself and stop making those initial comparisons? Instead of this downwards spiral making your negative mood more deeply entrenched, what if you could be more accepting?
The first step is recognising when you make these automatic comparisons. Writing them down as they come up can help you to view them as intrusive thoughts rather than reality.
If you find yourself scanning Facebook or Instagram and feeling jealous or inadequate, then you’re making comparisons and are at risk of that negative spiral. Remember that those people are representing their lives. They too might be feeling the pressure. We don’t know what is behind the pictures.
Create yourself a mantra – “I’m not going to let myself get sucked into this comparison game again, I’m comparing my experience to something that doesn’t exist”. Instead, be gentle with yourself. Distracting your mind can prevent it from spiralling down.
Mindfulness tells us to take a ‘breathing space‘ to stop that damaging thinking and refocus your awareness on the here and now. Make yourself a list of things that give you pleasure, however small, and do one of those if you find yourself feeling low – or just wait for the experience to pass. Segal, Williams and Teasdale call this ‘changing mental gear’ into a ‘being’ rather than ‘doing’ mode.
Let Thoughts Pass
Enjoy any good moments and when you find things difficult, move away from making comparisons and be gentle with yourself. Try not to make it worse by letting yourself get sucked into comparing your experience with a fantasy.
But don’t be too hard on yourself if sometimes you can’t help it. Comparisons are just thoughts too. They’ll pass out of your brain like storm clouds from a sky if you don’t focus too hard on them.