An article exploring how the media forces us to make damaging comparisons in the festive season – and how we often magnify the effect with our own social media activity.
A friend and old colleague Holly was recently published in the Vagenda. Her article was a spectacularly cynical but very funny piece called ‘How to be a Woman from Halloween to January 2nd’. It felt like it was making, in some ways, a similar point to my Christmas and comparisons article of last year. She was kind enough to say it was inspired by it – although they are very different styles. We’re definitely on a similar page as I recently reworked my Christmas Comparisons article for ONE in FOUR to think about the whole of the wintery festive season we’re entering now. I also wanted to bring in the discrepancy monitor I recently explored in my social, media mindfulness and mental health piece. And here’s the new version;
Do you have an internal picture in your mind of how your life ‘should’ be?
When you are feeling low 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 mean thoughts like:
“Things should be different to this”
“I shouldn’t be feeling this way”
“I should be able to cope”
“I’m on holiday, I should be happy”
“Everyone else is out enjoying themselves and I’m not. What’s wrong with me?”
In managing my depression I often have to fight against my tendency to make judgements about how I feel my experience ‘should’ be. This doesn’t often happen consciously but takes place in the flow of automatic thoughts that run like a tape through my mind when I’m not really paying attention.
The discrepancy monitor
Segal, Williams and Teasdale (the creators of Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy) have a name for the part of our mind that makes comparisons like these. They call it 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 comes when the discrepancy monitor kicks in inappropriately and tries to get involved in solving the ‘problem’ of our feelings, moods and who we feel we are as a person. Trying to ‘solve’ emotions intellectually doesn’t often 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 into a low mood. 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 feel low about feeling tired”
“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”
What if you were able to catch yourself and stop yourself making those initial comparisons? Instead of this downwards spiral making your negative mood more deeply entrenched, what if you could be more accepting towards your initial tiredness or low mood? Instead you could try taking a different and positive action that you know you gain pleasure from – or just wait for the experience to pass. Segal, Williams and Teasdale call this changing mental gear into a ‘being’ rather than ‘doing’ mode. Continue reading