9 Ways Comparison Steals Your Joy (And How to Take It Back)

We all do it.

We see our friends’ vacation pictures on Facebook and suddenly feel worse about our own travels. Instead of celebrating our promotion, we focus on how we still don’t make as much as the guy down the street. We enjoy our home renovation until we enter a more upscale home, at which point we become aware of all the areas where ours is lacking. We find confidence in our new athletic achievement until we happen to catch a glimpse of someone in the mirror who just happens to be a little stronger, a little leaner, a little younger.

Why is it that comparison has such a propensity for bringing us down?

1 – Comparison Takes You Out of the Moment

Somebody walks up to you and unexpectedly hands you a check for $1,000. After a few moments of confusion and disbelief, the excitement sets in and you begin daydreaming about how you might spend your windfall. And then you notice that the stranger next to you also received a surprise check. For $5,000.

Instantly, you’re pulled from your fantasies. Your pleasant daydreams are replaced with irritation at receiving the lesser amount. Instead of thinking about your gains, you’re focusing on your (entirely imaginary) “loss” of $4,000.

2 – Comparison Can Lead to Demotivation

You vow to get in shape this year. You start by creating a Pinterest “motivational” fitness boards that universally feature people in the top 1% of physiques. You intend for it to inspire you to diet just a little more and to run just a little further.

Instead, the effect is the opposite. When, after months of dedicated diet and exercise, you feel defeated when the reflection in the mirror is still light years away from that of the fitness model. Believing you’ll never get there, you give up.

3 – Comparison Compares Internal to External

You’re alone on a Friday evening. Even though the thought of dining alone in public horrifies you, you summon the nerve to go out because you’re craving your favorite dish at the restaurant down the street. While eating your dinner, you spot another solo diner. Only this one appears confident and at ease with being alone.

“Why can’t I be confident by myself like that person?” you ask yourself, feeling even more awkward than before. Meanwhile, the solo diner has spotted you and is simultaneously envying your outward poise in dining alone.

 

4 – Comparison Leads to False Beliefs Based on Incomplete Information

Your friends seem to lead the perfect lives. According to the pictures they share on social media, their homes are always organized, their kids are always smiling, the vacations are epic and the marriages are perfect.

Behind the scenes, there’s a different story. The camera only comes out when the house is clean and the angles of the shots are carefully selected. For every one picture of smiling kids, ten more – with frowns, screams and frustrated expressions – have been deleted. The vacations had their idyllic moments and those are the ones selected to share. And the marriage, like all marriages, has its good moments and its hard ones.

5 – Comparison Prompts Cross Examination of Decisions

When it came to selecting a career, you left no stone unturned. You carefully inventoried your skills and interests. You calculated the income you needed to support the lifestyle you wanted and analyzed the demands of the job compared to the role you wanted it to play in your life.

And by all accounts, you made a good decision. You’re successful, you’re happy and you’re able to afford the life you want. And then you make a new friend who works in an entirely different – and to you, exotic, field. And you start to wonder if you made the right choice all those years ago.

6 – Comparison Lowers Satisfaction

You’ve been studying really hard the entire semester. When you see the “A” printed on the top of your test, you think, “Finally, all that hard work has paid off.” You’re feeling good about your effort, your progress and your standing in the class.

And then you happen to see the “A+” on the paper handed back to the person next to you. “I’m so stupid,” you think. “I shouldn’t even be in this program.”

7 – Comparison Contributes to F.O.M.O. (Fear of Missing Out)

It’s finally happening. You’ve scrimped and saved for two years to afford this trip to Hawaii and you’re on your way. Once you settle in to your hotel, you fire up the Wi Fi and see that your friends are having brunch together.

Suddenly, you question your decision. Hawaii is great, but what might you be missing back home. For the next week, you find that thoughts of what you may be missing out on keep intruding on your vacation.

8 – Comparison Contributes to Anxiety

Your partner got a new coworker recently. An opposite sex coworker. At first, you didn’t think much of it. And then you happened to see a picture. And then you heard about some of the new hire’s accomplishments.

And now you’re worried as you line your traits up against theirs and you find yourself lacking. You begin to question what your partner sees in you and you begin to question their interactions with their workmate.

9 – Comparison Increases Loneliness

You’re having a good day and decide to continue it by treating yourself to a rare pricey latte. While waiting for your drink, you engage in a little harmless people watching.

Only it turns out to not be so harmless. As your eye roves the patrons, you subconsciously compare something that you’re insecure about (your hair, your weight, your wardrobe) to that of another person. And as you tabulate these juxtapositions, you begin to feel as though you no longer belong.

If comparison makes us feel worse, why do we do it?

I tease my students about not being the “slowest zebra” to encourage them to stay focused on their work. And it’s effective. They don’t want to be the outlier, the one left behind and in danger of being eaten by the watchful lion.

We have evolved to constantly question and gauge our status. We want and even need to know where we fit within the group.

When humans lived in smaller social groups, this comparison was relatively harmless. Maybe you’re the worst in the village at collecting water but you can feel confident in being the best hunter.

Yet in the modern world, there is no limit to the number of people we can compare ourselves to. And not just in an abstract, yeah I know Billy makes more money than me way, but in an in-your-face with never-ending pictures and video way on our devices.

And here’s where biology has become cruel. We are rewarded with a little squirt of dopamine for each image we view or each status we read. Even though we feel worse after our social media survey.

We are literally rewarded for doing something that makes us feel worse.

Is comparison ever advantageous?

I teach accelerated math. As in the smart kids that are working a couple grade levels ahead of the average student. Throughout the year, they are only able to compare themselves to other students in their class. And so they can easily become down on themselves when they struggle on an Algebra II assignment. In 7th grade.

In preparation for the state tests, I lowered the rigor and brought in on-level materials. I loved seeing my “struggling” students light up when they realized how easy the grade level math was. By comparing themselves to the larger group, they realized where they really stand.

The opposite can also hold true. When you’re the big fish in a small pond, it’s easy to feel over-confident. And once you’re introduced to larger waters, the shock can be overwhelming. In my mind, this is one of the (few) benefits of large-scale standardized testing – you get an idea of where you (or your children) stand.

Comparison can also serve to highlight gaps or areas of need in your own life. I often pay attention to when feelings of envy rear their ugly head. Then I dig into the underlying reasons. And then I do something about it.

For example, I realized that I was having major jealousy when I saw or read about vacation trips. And once I made the down payment for my fall trip to Costa Rica, the need to compare and the bitter feelings around it disappeared.

Comparison, when approached carefully and mindfully, can also lead to motivation. Rather than seeking out those who are so far from you as to be in another category altogether, look for mentors that are a few steps ahead.

How can I keep comparison from stealing my joy?

Think of comparison like desert, not like the vegetables. It’s best to indulge only occasionally and consciously.

When comparing yourself to others, ensure that you’re only comparing your external to their external. When we compare our internal dialogue to what we can see in someone else, we are using a false metric.

Rather than look to those who are at the pinnacle of where you want to be, look for those whose story you can identify with. It’s a more realistic comparison and one that can give you useful information.

Remember that when the pool is large enough, there will always be those who are better than you in some way. When you’re feel despondent about your rank on one characteristic, make the effort to note an area where you excel.

And finally, be wary of the comparison rabbit-hole of social media. Pay attention to your mood before and after time spent online. If you’re feeling worse, comparison (even if it’s done subconsicously) may be the root cause.

Take a breather. Take a step back.

Remember that others don’t change who you are.

And take back your joy.

 

 

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Let Go (But Never Give Up!)

Life is a balance of effort and ease. Of fighting and surrender. We’re told to “never give up” and also guided to “let go.”

So which is it?

Should we dig in our heels, strengthen our resolve and keep working at it? Increasing the pressure in an effort to move the pistons.

Or, should we instead take a lesson from water and allow gravity to move us while depositing any burdens that are too great to carry? Finding acceptance in what is in a desire to move our mindset.

Trick question.

The answer is both.

 

Let Go Of…

Expectations

When I booked the cabin for our annual Thanksgiving trip last summer, I selected a location that offered easy access to tons of prime hiking trails, our holiday tradition. Over the next few months, I gathered information about the hikes and created a list of trails, organized by difficulty and distance.

And then reality rudely collided with my dreams.

Not the weather this time, but an injury that my husband sustained in October that prevented him from doing much hiking.

Vacation blown.

Or so I thought, until I was able to release the trip I thought we would have and instead accept the trip we had.

Expectations happen when we create a narrative where life is fair and effort always pays off as we intend.

When we lead with expectations, we miss the life we have because we’re so busy looking for the life we think we should have.

Perfection

I had to face this one the other day when my new (and hard-won) car sustained its first injury. The touch-up paint is sitting out waiting for a warm day and I’m actually looking at the wound with a smile now. Accepting that my car is no longer prefect relieves a lot of the pressure of taking it out of the safety of the garage each day.

An expectation of perfection happens when we believe that only the flawless deserve to be loved.

When we lead with an expectation of perfection, we fail to see the beauty in the things we easily classified as flaws.

Maybe I should repair my car with gold paint:)
Maybe I should repair my car with gold paint:)

Judgement

I’ve realized something about myself recently – I find it easier to approach strangers with non-judgment than people I know well. With strangers, I have no knowledge and I give the benefit of the doubt. With people I know, I have just enough information to be dangerous; it’s easy to assume the worst by assembling what I know. And I know myself the best and judge myself the hardest.

Ugh.

Yes, I’m still learning🙂

Judgement happens when how things are doesn’t jive with how we want things to be. It is a twin attack of should and shame.

When we judge others, we are superimposing our beliefs on them. We rob them of an opportunity to be understood and we rob ourselves of an opportunity to learn.

When we judge ourselves, we focus on our perceived shortcomings rather than our gifts. We rob ourselves of an opportunity to accept and love ourselves and we rob others of an opportunity to see our brilliance.

Comfort Zones

I’ve noticed a disturbing trend in 8th graders over the last several years. When I first started teaching, those young teenagers could not wait to get their driver’s licenses. They yearned for the freedom and escape of being able to get out on their own. Now? They no longer seem to have a drive to drive. They’re content to stay where they are.

Because they’re too comfortable.

Comfort zones happen because we dislike being vulnerable and we seek to avoid the risk of failure. We fear the unknown more than we want to change.

When we stay within our comfort zones, we are living in a pot too small to allow growth, stunting ourselves through self-imposed limitations.

 The Danger of Holding On

And Never Give Up On…

Yourself

My biggest fears were always losing my husband and losing my financial security.And I lost them both (along with so much more) in one text almost 7 years ago.

I collapsed. I cried. I couldn’t imagine ever being okay again.

But I was determined to try.

And now, I’m not only okay, I’m happier than I ever was.

Never write yourself off.

You are stronger and more resilient than you’ve ever imagined.

Possibilities

My dad moved across the country when I was 11, and our relationship grew distant as well. And then, to my surprise (and probably his as well), he ended up being my first responder when my tsunami hit. We’re closer today than perhaps we’ve ever been. And if either of us had given up on that possibility, we wouldn’t be here today.

There are no crystal balls. You never know what is in store.

Just maybe, the best is yet to come.

Dreams

I dreamed of being an architect. And then I wasn’t accepted into the program. I then dreamed of being a physical therapist. And then I lost all my credits when I moved across the country.

I never dreamed of being a teacher. But then I realized that it fulfills my dreams of being able to problem-solve creative ways of helping people.

You will probably never become a pro football player, the president of the U.S. or the PowerBall winner.

And that’s okay.

Instead, look to the core of your dreams. The seed that is comprised of your values and your beliefs. That’s the dream to hold on to.

Dream it. Then do it.

Hope

Hope that everything is going to be okay.

And make your hope an active verb!

Goodbye Perfect

My new car has its first battle wound. A 4-inch scrape on the rear quarter panel that I spotted after work on Thursday.

My first response was disbelief, how could this laceration be there? Yet its reality was confirmed when it failed to rub off with an improvised buff from the corner of my jacket.

I then became angry. How dare someone assault my car in the parking lot and fail to leave a note? I entertained the idea of driving back to the gym where I had just returned from to look each car in the eye, scanning for guilt.

And then we noticed there were no signs of foreign paint on the car’s body. No lipstick on its collar. So maybe the injury occurred under my watch, even though no reverberations were ever felt nor screeches heard.

I became frustrated with myself.

“Stupid. Stupid. Stupid.”

As I surveyed my car, all I could see was the bare metal taunting me through the alien-green skin.

I became overwhelmed as Brock talked body shops and estimates, trying to figure out when I would have time to make a call or take it in. Phone in hand, pulling up the calendar to locate the next school break.

“Take my car tomorrow and I’ll take it in to get an estimate.”

I argued. Dismissed. Both then and through dinner. Not wanting to impose and, even more, not wanting to pay. The release of funds still linked to a release of anxiety.

Stupid. Stupid. Stupid.

The estimate arrived via PDF the following afternoon.

$500

Ouch. That hurt almost as much as the wound.

“Don’t worry about it,” I emailed Brock. “I don’t want to pay that much.”

I thought about securing a vinyl tattoo for my car to embrace its scar.

Once I arrived home, Brock walked me through the proposed procedure. On a whim, he continued talking and listening while he located a can of spray polish and vigorously scrubbed the injured area.

And simply by removing the minor associated scuffs, the task at hand seemed doable.

“How about I just order some touch-up paint and we do this ourselves?” I questioned, noting the lack of any deformation in the curve of the body.

“I think that’s a great idea.”

I relaxed.

I realized that I was pushing back against the professional repair for more than just the cost.

The body shop would have restored my car to perfect.

And with perfect comes the pressure to maintain perfection.

Goodbye perfect.

I no longer listen to your siren song.

 

The Perils of Magical Thinking

My mom recently attended a conference on emotional manipulators that addressed how to recognize them and how to help their victims recover. Knowing that the topic hit close to home for me, she shared some of the conference literature. As with everything I read about pathological characteristics, some of the points fit my ex like a glove whereas other descriptions fit him as well as two-year-old’s shoe.

But there was one section in particular that resonated, igniting understanding in the dark recesses of my mind – the role of magical thinking in emotional manipulators and in their partners.

I immediately identified several shamanistic thoughts that we both possessed in the latter years of the marriage. I only learned of his magical thoughts in the texts and email he exchanged with my mother after he left. I only became aware of my own thoughts after I obtained some distance and perspective from the end of the marriage.

Because that’s the thing about magical thinking – you don’t realize it’s an illusion until you’ve left the theater.

His Magical Thinking

I’ll Pay It Off

Although he never shed light on what caused the financial problems, he did reveal what his thoughts were about it over the years. Even as the debts continued to grow, he remained convinced that a bonus or a raise or some other financial windfall was just around the corner. And that if he only waited patiently enough, he would be able to pay it all off without my ever learning of the debt. Perhaps this was a rational thought in the beginning. But by the end? It would have required a winning lottery ticket.

This Is the Last Time

Accompanying the thought that a single check would put us back in the black was his belief that he had control of his behavior and that each time would be the last. He only admitted to this thought in regards to spending, but I would wager that it extended to his drinking, his affairs and possibly even the numerous lies and deceptions. This conviction that he could stop at any time (along with the evidence to the contrary) put him on a runaway train towards self-destruction.

The Impact Is Limited

His magical thoughts completely insulated him from the impact of his actions. He typed that I would “bounce back” in the letter he used to exit stage left. He announced in an email to my mom that he hoped she could meet his new wife and that she would just love his new bride. He seemed unaware of the fact that leaving me with no funds left me with no ability to care for our dogs. In his thoughts, he was throwing feathers rather than stones, leaving no ripples.

 

My Magical Thinking

I Can’t Live Without Him

He came into my life at a time when I felt alone. My relationship with my father, who lived across the country, was strained. I had lost a few friends to death and others to teenage transitions. He stepped in and propped me up in those moments when I wasn’t able to do it alone. At least I thought I couldn’t do it alone. And as the years went by and our connection grew, I could not imagine life without him.

There Is Safety in Years

I believed that because I knew his high school friends, stood by as he put on his last few inches of height and layered pounds on his scrawny boy-body and explored his childhood mementos with his mother, that I knew him. That there was no part of his personality or character that I was unaware of. I saw the years as a type of insurance. As though years in the past guaranteed years in the future.

If I Give Everything, I Will Not Be Left

This is another one anchored in childhood. I developed a fear of abandonment and somehow nurtured the thinking that if I gave everything, was the “perfect” wife, that I was safe from being discarded. As a result, I avoided conflict and refrained from pushing too hard or questioning too much. I gave, often not out of love, but out of fear. And martyrdom isn’t good for anybody involved.

Magical thinking is a form of self deception, stories we tell ourselves to avoid truths we would rather avoid and to create a sense of control in a life rife with insecurity. And once you understand that it is illusion, you can start see the mirrors unclouded by the smoke.

How to Remove a Mindworm

Much like earworms are snippets of a song that refuses to vacate your auditory processing center, mindworms are remnants of thoughts that stubbornly replay through your brain. It’s not only annoying; it’s maladaptive. The stuttering brain becomes stuck on a particular thought and is unable to move on to the next or be receptive to new ideas.

Mindworms are tenacious little buggers. They like to hide when you focus on them too intently only to start their slithering once you allow yourself to relax. They may go quiet for hours or even days at a time, prompting a false sense of security, before making themselves heard once again.

Although not fatal, mindworms are parasites that remove some of our lifeforce. If allowed to wander for too long, they hold their host back from optimal health and wellness.

There are no quick fixes for the removal of mindworms. The development of a vaccine has stalled and post-infection medications often come with pretty severe side-effects. If you find yourself the unwitting host to a mindworm that has overstayed its welcome, try the following:

Exercise: Mindworms feed on cortisol, so anything you do to lower the amount of stress hormone coursing through your body will make the environment less pleasing to them. This isn’t the time for a lackadaisical workout, either. Lift heavy, run fast or take a class that pushes you. After the session, you should feel drained and your mind should feel blessedly empty.

Art: Sometimes mindworms stay around because they have something they want to say. Now, unfortunately, they’re not very direct when it comes to expressing their needs. The best way to listen to a mindworm is to act as a medium, allowing yourself to channel the mindworm’s ideas into a creative application. Once the pastel or brush is in your hand, sit back and let the mindworm go.

Music: Although genetically related, earworms and mindworms do not make happy bedfellows (perhaps because they both demand to be the center of attention). So invite an earworm in. It’s best if you surround yourself with the music of your choosing. Car stereos on the highway seem to be particularly effective, especially if you sing along.

Gum: No, really. Perhaps it’s the rhythmic movement of the jaw or the addition of another foreign object in the head, but gum seems to act as a mindworm deterrent. This is a great strategy to use when you’re busy. After all, you can’t exactly start bench-pressing the conference table in a meeting or blast Metallica at your child’s soccer game, but you can slip in a piece of gum.

Write: Mindworms are a bit narcissistic. They think their message is the most important thing ever. So indulge them. Publish their words in your journal. And then put your own spin on it. You see, mindworms are good at starting a story, but they’re famous for leaving off the conclusion, which makes their tales endlessly cycle. So create your own ending when you write.

Mindfulness Walk: Mindworms are resistant to traditional meditation techniques. In fact, they can easily turn your om moment into a wrestling match. It works better to sneak up on them with your mindfulness. Thus the walk. A mindfulness walk starts with an intention. For example, you can decide to focus on all of the doors in the neighborhood, or on everything that is the color red or on all of the sounds. Then, one foot in front of the other while gently refocusing the mind on the intended target.

These techniques are not only effective for removing a mindworm infestation, they also seem to have a preventative effect. So, make sure to visit them often in order to keep your mind free of these pesky parasites.

Three Lies We All Tell Ourselves

“I Would Never Do That”

“If you were in a survival situation, you would not only eat meat, you would crave it,” declared my husband in a conversation about choices made in life-or-death circumstances.

Intellectually, I knew he was right. The body’s drive for survival easily overrides any normal aversion I have towards animal flesh. Yet even though I know my instincts would temper my usual loathing for meat, I still struggle with the idea of willingly eating something that I view with disgust. But of course, I’m trying to imagine survival when both my stomach and pantry are full.

Just because we have trouble imagining something, does not mean that it cannot happen.

From a safe distance, it’s easy to judge. To think in terms of absolutes, always and nevers. It’s easier to declare something is impossible than to take the uncomfortable mental road of contemplating precursors that may lead to you doing the seemingly impossible.

So what’s the problem with these black-and-white declarations?

When we think in terms of absolutes, we both judge others and leave ourselves vulnerable to sliding into bad decisions.

Consider the common proclamation of, “I could never cheat on my spouse.” It’s an easy statement to make and an agreeable position to believe in.

Yet in taking that headstrong stance, you inevitably judge others that commit adultery. You view them as somehow weak or lacking in character. You take the moral high ground and shove them into a cesspool occupied by those who fail to live up to your standards. Instead of listening to and learning from the mistakes that led to their downfall, you judge their choices while insisting that you could not make the same miscalculations regardless of the circumstances.

I am by no means defending those who have chosen to be unfaithful. I find the behavior reprehensible and unbelievably damaging to everybody in its path. Yet I also see it as part of human fallibility. Not inevitable, but not entirely avoidable on a societal level.

But even though I can’t imagine ever committing adultery, I will not claim that I could never do it. From my current perspective, it is as unfathomable to me as choosing to eat meat. Yet, I cannot claim that a change in situation would not lead to a change in perspective.

If I believed that I could never stray, I would be more likely to slide into infidelity, unaware and unwilling to recognize warning signs and precursors.

So rather than say that, “I would never,” I find it more honest to say, “I never want to” and then make sure that my choices align with that intention.

“I Can’t Help the Way I Feel”

I shake my head every time I read about the every-increasing trigger warnings added to college syllabi and work presentations. On the one hand, I do think it is considerate to prepare somebody ahead of time for something that they may find difficult (I’m thinking of NPR’s habit of a brief warning for parents before broadcasting a story with language or content that may be inappropriate for children). On the other hand, the expectation of trigger warnings sends the message to the triggered that the responsibility for their well-being and mental comfort lies with others.

And that’s where I disagree.

We all have a right to our emotional reactions. We have a right to feel the way we feel and to respond to external stimulus as we choose. But we don’t have a right to demand that other people act in a certain way in order to regulate our emotions.

That’s an inside job.

If somebody does or says something that upsets you, you ultimately have two choices: learn to adjust your response or decide to avoid the person.

And that’s not easy.

It’s something I face on an ongoing basis with my fear of abandonment. There are so many innocuous things that my husband can do or say that can trigger this fear in me. My first instinct is always to shift that responsibility on him, to request that he refrain from the words or actions that make me respond in this way. I want to declare that my reactions are a direct response to his actions and that my fear is an inevitable response.

But that’s not true and that’s not fair.

Because I can help the way I feel.

Not easily and not all at once.

But the only way that I’ll learn to temper my fear of abandonment is by addressing it, not by asking others to protect me from it.

“I’m Right; You’re Wrong”

“Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” Stephen Covey

Most of us enter into discussions and encounters with the assumption that we are right and we require substantial evidence and persuasion in order to change our minds. We lead with the belief that our perspective is the correct one, our moral code is the superior one and our understanding is the penultimate one.

It’s a limiting view as confirmation bias simply feeds the perspective that we carry rather than challenging us to see something new.

When you enter a conversation with the conviction that you are right, your energy is expended on defending your position. Rather than listen, you grow defensive. Rather than question, you attack alternative viewpoints. Rather than engage in conversation, you end up participating in a debate, complete with scoring.

I know I have a tendency to feel threatened when my views are criticized. My inclination is to respond defensively, enumerating the reasons that my thoughts are right. I can easily interpret an attack on my beliefs as an attack on me.

And maybe you are right. But that doesn’t necessarily mean the other person is wrong. Perhaps they have a different perspective born of different experiences. Maybe they are just at a different point of understanding and they need more time to gain clarity.

And maybe you are wrong. And by allowing the acceptance of that, you can begin to see another perspective.

Because after all, we are all human. Imperfect and messy.

No matter what we tell ourselves.

Why I Refuse to Call My Ex Husband a Narcissist

If anyone has the right to call her ex a narcissist, it’s me. While on the surface, he was a giving and caring man everyone loved, the man behind the curtain was another story entirely. He crafted false financial documents and insurance forms to support his lies as he bled our accounts dry. He wooed women, eventually wedding one without attending to the detail of obtaining a divorce from me first. He neglected the requirements of the criminal court system, earning a felony warrant. Even the judge in the divorce case asked my ex’s attorney if his client was “psycho.”

And maybe he is. Not a psycho necessarily, but a narcissist.

But, despite all of the evidence, I intentionally choose to not label my ex as a narcissist.

It seems like “narcissist ex” is the gluten-free of the relationship world – all of a sudden, it’s everywhere. But is it really that pervasive or are we just using the label too recklessly?

Just over 6% of the population has Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) based upon the criteria set forth in the DSM-5: seeking approval from others, viewing oneself as exceptional, blaming setbacks on others, inability to identify with others’ needs and/or feelings and superficial relationships based upon manipulation.

Even though my former husband’s actions seem to check every box, I am bucking the “my ex is a narcissist” trend. Here’s why:

 

If He’s the “Attacker,” Then I’m the Victim

This was certainly my mindset early on – I viewed him as some Machiavellian perpetrator, deviously plotting ways to hurt me from his basement lair, cleverly disguised as an innocent office. In some ways, it was a comforting mindset as it pardoned me from any culpability. But it was also limiting.

Because if I was a victim, I was powerless.

In order to claim responsibility for my own well-being and create a sense of possibility for the future, I disarmed his memory. He’s no longer my attacker; he’s just the man I used to love who traveled down a dark path.

Preservation of Memory

By the time he sent the text that ended the marriage, my ex and I had spent sixteen years together. It was a lot to lose. If I accepted the proposal offered forth by many who dealt with him in the months to come that he was, in fact, a narcissist, it essentially would discount the thousands of positive memories I had of our time together.

From what I knew, we did have a good marriage with so many happy memories. I decided that those moments were real enough to me at the time and I chose to allow them to remain (as much as possible) unsullied by the idea that they were all orchestrated for some great plot.

It Ignores the Unknowns

 

Even the DSM-5 offers the disclaimer that a personality disorder cannot be diagnosed in the presence of addiction or physical illness, as both can mimic the mental condition. My ex admitted to a drinking problem after he left and he was suffering from some pretty substantial medical complaints for the last year or so of the marriage.

It is impossible for anyone, especially a layperson, to diagnose someone with a personality disorder without all of the information (much less the presence of the actual individual in question). Just because a person exhibits certain behaviors does mean that they automatically deserve a diagnosis.

We Are All More Than a Label

 

Calling someone a narcissist is reductionistic; it distills them down into a list of traits and ignores the complete person. Yes, my ex-husband lied, cheated and stole. But he also showed me (and others) great kindness and tenderness. He was the man that cried at our wedding and nursed our dogs back to health.

By not assigning him a label, I am able to remember the whole man – from loving husband to cruel persecutor and everything in between.

Peace is More Important Than a Reason

In the beginning, I struggled to understand why my husband acted that way and how he could be so cold and calculating. I assumed that once I had a reason, I would be able to move on. I tested out many possible labels (narcissist among them), but none managed to make the pain okay.

Finally, I decided to view him as lost. Hurting. Desperate and in pain. And with that shift, I found compassion, which led to being able to release the anger that held me back. So rather than see him as the evil antagonist in some twisted plot, I try to see him as human. Imperfect rather than malevolent. Not for his benefit, but for mine.

Labels, such as narcissist, have their place in public discourse. They help to provide a framework for understanding and a shared language to discuss important issues. It’s shorthand for a list of common experiences and emotions. I know when I read posts from people that use the term “narcissistic ex,” I will relate to stories of manipulation, gas lighting and projection. I can expect to see similarities between their stories and mine. In fact, I found books about narcissists and sociopaths helpful during the healing journey to provide information and perspective that helped me make sense of my own situation.

Labels are like Cliff Notes. We use them as shortcuts as we develop our own understanding or to help someone else develop theirs. Just like Cliff Notes, they are not the entire story, full of detail and nuance. If we stop at labels, we are limiting ourselves and others. We may be blinded by assumptions as we fill in the gaps in our knowledge automatically.

So your ex may be a narcissist, but that’s not the entire story. Don’t let the label limit you; it’s just the beginning.

Curiosity Cap

Do you ever approach a new situation with the assumption it is going to be terrible?

Perhaps it’s the biting cold of your first winter run. Or the inaugural road trip with a young child. Or a medical procedure that carries the expectation of pain.

The potential list is endless; we greet new experiences with a suitcase full of expectation expressed as worries or complaints.

About something we’ve never done.

We anticipate the discomfort. The annoyances. The pain.

And by doing so, we prime the pump for reality to bear out our assumptions.

Helping to ensure that the anticipated awfulness comes to be.

There is a different way.

Put down that suitcase of expectations and put on that cap of curiosity.

My curiosity cap. And a reminder not to take things too seriously.
My curiosity cap. And a reminder not to take things too seriously.

After all, this is something you haven’t experienced before, right? Or, even if you’ve done it prior, there are some variables that have been manipulated so that it is no longer the same event.

So rather than lead with a conclusion of full-on suckitude, approach with a sense of curiosity.

I wonder how the cold air is going to feel on my lungs.

It will be interesting to see how the baby responds to travel.

I’m intrigued to see what it feels like to have my body repaired.

And yes, you may find that it is terrible.

But you also leave the door open for the discovery that it’s not.

Growth Mindset in Marriage

“I can’t do math.”

These are often the first words out of my incoming students’ lips when I first meet them each August.

“Then I’m going to make it my personal goal for the year to show you that you can,” I always respond with an encouraging smile. Because before I can teach them math, I have to teach them that they can do math.

I first learned about fixed versus growth mindsets in my developmental psychology class in college. At its heart, it states that we fall into one of two camps when it comes to beliefs about self – one that asserts that we are born to be good at certain things and inadequate at others and one that maintains that we can always improve.

I was intrigued. Could we really change how people interact with the world and embrace challenge simply by praising their efforts as children rather than their innate gifts?

It seems so.

In fact, I would argue that it is one of the most important lessons, not only for our children, but ourselves.

Because if you believe your nature and abilities are fixed, you are imprisoned by your own beliefs. Whereas if you trust that you can learn from your experiences, obstacles make you stronger instead of holding you back.

A fixed mindset says, “I am my ability.” A growth mindset says, “I am my effort.”

A fixed mindset claims, “The product is all that matters.” A growth mindset responds, “I learn and grow through the process.”

A fixed mindset declares, “My weaknesses are part of who I am and should be hidden.” A growth mindset insists, “My weaknesses show me areas where I can improve.”

A fixed mindset believes in fate. A growth mindset takes responsibility.

A fixed mindset blames and deflects. A growth mindset listens and adapts.

A fixed mindset prefers to live inside a comfort zone. A growth mindset embraces the idea that growth occurs at the edge of panic and ease.

“Growth mindset” is now a buzzword in education as well as business, where companies seek out new hires that demonstrate this trait. Perhaps it’s time for it to become a buzzword in marriages as well.

A fixed mindset seeks a partner who worships and validates you. A growth mindset desires a partner who challenges and encourages you.

A fixed mindset sees a conflict in the marriage as a fatal flaw. A growth mindset recognizes conflict as opportunity.

A fixed mindset feels threatened by feedback and responds defensively. A growth mindset is grateful for the chance to improve.

A fixed mindset creates a marriage that is rigid. A growth mindset leads to a marriage that is flexible and adaptable.

A fixed mindset is driven by a need for approval. A growth mindset is motivated by a need to learn.

A fixed mindset seeks validation outside of yourself and it will never be enough. A growth mindset finds validation within yourself and it will always be enough.

With children, we teach them to have a growth mindset by praising their efforts, “You worked really hard on that project,” rather than their abilities, “You are so smart at reading.” As adults, it is more difficult to adjust our ingrained patterns. But it is not impossible.

Start by identifying one fixed belief you have about yourself (What do you say you “can’t” do?). And then work to change it.

Here’s how I applied that idea in my own life.

A growth mindset says you’re good. And you can be better.

Now go to it!

Lipstick On a Pig

It was just an ordinary day. But my reaction was anything but ordinary.

It started out innocently enough. My now-ex-husband and I were walking through the mall on a cold, rainy Saturday afternoon when he posed an innocuous question:

“How many stores here apart from department stores do you think sell lipstick?”

I pondered for a moment, mentally cataloging the Brookstone and Ambercrombies,  before responding, “I don’t think any more than three or four.”

“I disagree. I’ll bet there’s at least five.”

It became a challenge. What should have been a fun, mall version of Slugbug or logging truck tallying turned into an all-out war.

At least for me.

 

I started out confidently enough as we passed store after store that did not display any lipstick on its shelves.

But then my assurance was shaken when we found two stores in a row that promoted lip coloring products: Spencer’s Gifts had black lipstick for those that leaned towards Goth and a store that appeared to cater to strippers had a small lipstick display with the accessories.

We hadn’t even walked a full wing of the mall and the count was already almost halfway there.

He kept it light, teasing and joking and laughing.

I didn’t.

After a third store, a place that sold upscale handbags and scarves, proved to have lipstick, I grew obsessed.

 

For some reason, this became about more than lipstick to me.

It wasn’t even so much about needing to be right.

It was about wanting him to be wrong.

 

As I think back now on my first marriage, I realize that I had a tendency to point out his mistakes or misdirections.

Rather than simply turning off the oven, I felt the need to inform him that he left it on.

Instead of simply securing an unlocked door, I felt the need to point out that the door was left unbolted.

 

Now, I fully recognize that this was not an attractive trait I carried. I accept full weight of that fact. I fight sometimes with a need to be right, an insecurity found in wrong answers that was fortified with a drive for good grades in school.

But there’s more to the lipstick story than that.

 

Because I have never been that prone to point out mistakes with anyone else. In fact, I generally am more apt to avoid confrontation and do a behind-the-scenes cover-up than to announce someone’s mistake.

So why did I act that way with my ex?

 

I think it was because he never admitted his own wrongs.

He never copped to forgetting something.

He hated to reveal any weakness and would strive to cover it up.

He always seemed to know everything.

Be able to do everything.

And so I felt a need to prove him wrong.

To show that, like all of us, he had areas of strength and areas of deficiency.

To bring him down from a pedestal to a human level.

 

 

Interestingly enough, one of the traits that Brock possesses that attracted me was his ease with admitting fault.

Because in order to fix anything, we have to first accept our responsibility.

Otherwise, all we’re doing is putting lipstick on a pig.

 

 

Side note: I am fully aware that this inability to admit fault and the need to be perceived as all-knowing is a characteristic of narcissism. I refrain from labeling him. Here’s why.