You scroll social and see a bunch of smiles (and coordinating outfits). People celebrating summer and successfully working from home. People promoting their exciting projects. People standing in bright white, shiny kitchens with no clutter in sight. People eating their delicious, complicated creations from the super fresh ingredients taken from their super fresh backyard garden.
You, on the other hand, are feeling down.
You’re disappointed, frustrated, anxious, overwhelmed. Or numb. And you assume that you’re alone in your feelings, because everyone else seems so content.
In her classes at Stanford University, lecturer and health psychologist Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D, asks her students to write on a slip of paper a single line about something they continue to struggle with today, something that “no one would know just by looking at them.” She then puts these slips into a bag and mixes them up. As students stand in a circle, they each randomly pull out a slip from the bag and read it aloud.
I am in so much physical pain right now, it is hard for me to stay in this room.
My only daughter died ten years ago.
I worry that I don’t belong here, and if I speak up, everyone will realize that.
I am a recovering alcoholic, and I still want a drink every day.
McGonigal includes these examples in her excellent book The Upside of Stress: Why Stress Is Good for You and How to Get Good at It.
While the situations are individual, the pain is universal.
Behind the smiles, pretty outfits, tidy homes, outdoor adventures, and work-related wins, each of us struggles with something.
In her book, McGonigal notes that she uses this reminder whenever she believes she’s alone: “Just like me, this person knows what suffering feels like.”
She further writes:
It doesn’t matter who “this person” is. You could grab any person off the street, walk into any office or any home, and whoever you find, it would be true. Just like me, this person has had difficulties in his or her life. Just like me, this person has known pain. Just like me, this person wants to be of use in the world, but also knows what it is like to fail. You don’t need to ask them if you are right. If they are human, you are right. All we need to do is to choose to see it.
Renowned researcher Kristin Neff, Ph.D, includes this idea of common humanity as part of her definition of self-compassion. The other two parts are: mindfulness (being aware of your experience without judging yourself or pretending your pain doesn’t exist) and self-kindness (being patient, understanding, and gentle with yourself).
The next time you feel alone in your struggles, remember that others are struggling alongside you. Reread McGonigal’s words, or take a self-compassion break, created by Neff:
Say to yourself: I’m having a really hard time right now. Other people feel this way, too. Then put your hands over your heart (or try a different soothing gesture). And end with a kind phrase that you need to hear, such as: May I give myself the compassion that I need.
And after you remember that all human beings struggle, reach out. Reach out to a friend, support group, or therapist. Process your pain by sharing it (and journaling through it and moving your body) and giving yourself grace along the way.