November 11, 2011

Inside Out

You know how you sometimes look at other people and feel like they are smarter than you are, more together or more successful than you are, and have a more fulfilling life than you do? How it sometimes seems like you're always stressed or depressed or panicked or angry, whereas others are well-adjusted and high-functioning?

News from the front line: Other people look at you and think the same thing. 

Yesterday I attended a workshop on mindfulness in psychotherapy. During one exercise, we were invited to get in touch with the thing that we like the least about ourselves, the thing that makes us different from and inferior to everyone else. As we wrote down our shameful secrets, people sniffled, people wiped away tears, but not one person raised their hand to say "There's nothing wrong with me. I'm just as good as everyone else." Later, the workshop leader showed us images of cue cards on which former workshop participants had described their inferiority: I'm too selfish; I'm defective; I don't fit in anywhere; I'm not as smart as others; and I don't measure up.  

Wait--what? How can everyone be different and inferior? Why does everyone think they don't fit it and don't measure up? What makes us think that we are the only one who doesn't have it all under control?

I think I know the answer: It's the phenomemon of comparing your insides to other people's outsides. Consider that painful emotions and judgmental thoughts are invisible; so is the sinking belly feeling and the tight chest feeling. So while we're extremely aware when these processes occur in our own body and mind, we don't see or feel them happen in other people. All we see are their sleek exteriors, and when we compare them to our own rumpled interior, of course we come up short!

What the workshop exercise made clear is that everyone's interior is rumpled and everyone is comparing their insides to others' outsides. It's not a fair comparison, and it's one that's practically guaranteed to make you feel bad. It might help to remember this next time you're feeling inferior.

NB: Facebook is a great example of this phenomenon, which explains why reading your news feed can leave you feeling like everyone is more fulfilled/having more fun than you are. No one posts statuses like "I'm so jealous of my friend's new baby I can barely breathe," "Wracked with guilt for not calling my sick grandmother again today," and "I feel like an imposter in my new job" (rumpled interior). Rather, we post about our our triathlon success, our adorable new nephew, and what a great time we had in Costa Rica (sleek exterior).


  1. This makes me think of George Orwell's claim that "at 50 every man has the face that he deserves."


  2. Ignoring Jesse's discussion point and skipping to the Nota Bene. While not earth shattering in its results, CBC was discussing a recent study looked to precisely the effect you mentioned.

    “They Are Happier and Having Better Lives than I Am”: The Impact of Using Facebook on Perceptions of Others' Lives (pay site)

    Facebook, as one of the most popular social networking sites among college students, provides a platform for people to manage others' impressions of them. People tend to present themselves in a favorable way on their Facebook profile. This research examines the impact of using Facebook on people's perceptions of others' lives. It is argued that those with deeper involvement with Facebook will have different perceptions of others than those less involved due to two reasons. First, Facebook users tend to base judgment on examples easily recalled (the availability heuristic). Second, Facebook users tend to attribute the positive content presented on Facebook to others' personality, rather than situational factors (correspondence bias), especially for those they do not know personally. Questionnaires, including items measuring years of using Facebook, time spent on Facebook each week, number of people listed as their Facebook “friends,” and perceptions about others' lives, were completed by 425 undergraduate students taking classes across various academic disciplines at a state university in Utah. Surveys were collected during regular class period, except for two online classes where surveys were submitted online. The multivariate analysis indicated that those who have used Facebook longer agreed more that others were happier, and agreed less that life is fair, and those spending more time on Facebook each week agreed more that others were happier and had better lives. Furthermore, those that included more people whom they did not personally know as their Facebook “friends” agreed more that others had better lives.