Some Thoughts About Feeling Superfluous

One of the things people fear most is being “unneeded” or “useless.” When people feel like they’re superfluous, and that no one really needs them around, they tend to wonder about two things:

  1. “How will I get by?”
  2. “What am I even living for?”

The question of “How will I get by?” comes from a basic survival fear. If someone is made redundant at their job, and no one else is interested in hiring them, how will they keep a roof over their head and afford food, clothes, and health care? If their family doesn’t seem to need or want them, where will they go? When you’re on the fringes of the pack or out in the cold, it’s much harder to get by.

The question of “What am I even living for?” comes from a loss of purpose. When people feel superfluous, they wonder what it is they’re meant to do. People generally fare better when they’re needed for something or doing something meaningful – when they can create or build things, provide care, render assistance, inspire or teach others, give themselves and others opportunities to grow, explore something interesting, and give love to others in tangible ways.

Why Do Many People Feel Superfluous Nowadays?

The pandemic has exacerbated certain tendencies and accelerated trends that have already been provoking a sense of superfluousness in people, namely:

  • Job loss or job insecurity
  • Isolation
  • A feeling of helplessness

Numerous small businesses have been wrecked this past year, but even before that many were contending with steep competition from internet commerce, along with struggling to pay rising taxes and rent in many places.

Many jobs continue to be in danger from automation, where technology (automated computer processes, AI) performs the necessary tasks and makes human involvement largely obsolete. The pandemic has brought on another wave of automation. For some, job retraining and new placements will be possible. However, there are various barriers to retraining and starting fresh, including the fact that individuals aren’t infinitely adaptable or transplantable. Retraining programs often fall short in various ways as well.

As for isolation, this is more than just being on your own now and then. It’s being cut off from others – family, friends, romantic partners, colleagues, community. The sense of being cut off can stem from literal physical isolation. (For most people, simulations of togetherness via Zoom and other online platforms don’t come close to replacing time spent together in-person.) Isolation may also stem from a feeling of profound loneliness even when you’re among other people. In either case, there’s some lack of mutual connectedness.

Another aspect of isolation is the belief that no one really cares about you. You experience callousness, empty promises, and an abdication of responsibility. This is crushing.

What about helplessness? Sometimes, people have a tendency to overestimate how helpless they are in various situations and miss out on ways to change their lives. But there’s no denying that helplessness goes beyond self-imposed mental limits. People may realize that they have much less influence over their surroundings than they thought. For instance, that their government on multiple levels isn’t responsive to them. One of the issues harshly brought to light by the pandemic is the disconnect between the governing elite and the people they govern, as seen with the insensible policies and the remarkable indifference to serious concerns.

Continue reading “Some Thoughts About Feeling Superfluous”

Four Ways Toxic Relationships Mess Up Your Perception of Kindness

Whether it involves family, romance, or friendship, a relationship with toxic patterns of behavior can change how you perceive yourself and other people. And particularly when it’s abusive, it can mess with your perceptions of kindness. I’ll give you a few examples:

Kindness Becomes Unreliable and Short-Lived

Often, there are moments of kindness even in an unhealthy relationship, or periods of time when kindness and consideration are on the ascendant. You may feel, if not happiness, then relief during those periods. Sometimes, you allow yourself to hope that things will get better in the long-run.

When those hopes are dashed often enough, you perceive kindness as something that isn’t a consistent part of relationships. You see it instead as fleeting and provisional. Even if you walk on eggshells in an attempt to maintain peace and avoid any outburst or explosive conflict, it won’t last.

The idea of being in a relationship of mutual consistent kindness may come to seem unrealistic. And when you experience kindness from others, you have a difficult time trusting its longevity.

Kindness Serves As a Get-Out-of-Jail Free Card

In a toxic relationship, acts of kindness may become an effective way of giving cruelty a pass. If you complain about mistreatment, you’re reminded about the times (or time) that the other person was kind to you, did things for you. How can you be so ungrateful? How dare you complain about anything?

Kindness can also be a way of smoothing over a nasty fight or an incident of abuse without having to deal with any of the underlying issues. Instead of a meaningful change for the better, what you get is a gift and some good behavior, at least for a short while. Until the next explosion.

In these situations, kindness comes across as superficial. Like papering over a wall where mold is spreading or the wood is rotting.

Kindness Communicates an Insult

Kindness no longer seems very kind when you realize that someone is helping you just because they’ve characterized you as incompetent. They’re telling you, without necessarily saying the words, that you’re incapable of doing all kinds of things. This sort of “kindness” becomes a way of diminishing your abilities or keeping you from developing.

Kindness Performed for You Isn’t About You

You may come to realize that acts of kindness are more like acts of self-aggrandizement or a performance put on for others. Kindness may be limited to occasions when there’s a third party, an audience for the selflessness.

The kindness may also only occur when the other person wants something from you. Otherwise, you may as well not exist.

How Can You rethink Your Perceptions of Kindness?

A toxic relationship may make you more wary about other people’s motives, and this cautiousness has its benefits for sure. The problem is when you can’t detect or trust kindness when it’s sincere.

What are some of the things you can do to reconsider your perceptions of kindness and open yourself to sincerely kind behavior? Although the following suggestions are broad, and aren’t 100% effective in all situations, they’re at least a starting point:

  • Look at acts of kindness in a wider context, not in isolation. (Pay attention to how someone interacts with you as a whole – and see if the kindness is embedded in patterns of behavior that are damaging or abusive.)
  • Allow yourself time to get to know people better. (For instance, if someone you have just met keeps pressuring you for intimacy, closeness, moving in together immediately, etc. you can definitely take a step back and regard them with caution.)
  • Figure out the things you want from relationships in your life – what mutual giving, trust, and love look like to you. What do you consider unacceptable treatment (to receive or inflict on others)?
  • Distinguish between kindness expressed in concrete actions or speech, vs. a fuzzier “kindly feeling.” There are people who claim to be kind, but their kindness doesn’t seem to manifest in consistent thoughtful behavior. It seems like they’re paying lip service to the idea of kindness.
  • Work on improving how you communicate, both as a speaker and as a listener. This includes strengthening your ability to stand up for yourself and explain your thoughts.
  • Also, work on communicating well with yourself. For example, how do you talk to yourself when you’re struggling? Do you speak to yourself reasonably, or do you tear into yourself and chronically put yourself down? Even if there are various aspects of your life that you’d like to change – and even if you’re full of regret or disappointment about how things are going – there’s no need to be horrible to yourself or to ignore anything that’s good or that has good potential. Treating yourself horribly may “feel normal” by this point, but it doesn’t have to be your normal. With practice, you can start replacing horrible put-downs with more measured and nuanced speech (avoiding extremes of negativity without going into extremes of unrealistic positivity).

An Example of “Good Enough” Parenting

I was doing some research for a client when I came across this article about being a “good enough” parent, with insights from moms who have kids with Down Syndrome.

“The Mediocre Mom’s Guide to Raising a Child with Down Syndrome (or Any Kid for That Matter)” has some good examples of how you can be a decent parent without being a superhero who gets everything right all the time.

Catastrophizing as a Form of Self-Protection?

Considering the health-related and economic effects of the pandemic, and the fact that we’re in the final weeks leading up to the U.S. presidential election, it isn’t surprising to come across doom-and-gloom pronouncements virtually everywhere.

If you have a tendency to catastrophize – to dwell on the worst possible outcomes for every scenario – the constant state of red alert may be strengthening your tendency to brood over all the terrible things that could happen, whether tomorrow or next year.

Generally, catastrophizing isn’t helpful. It’s one thing to make plans and provisions, as best you can, for when something may go wrong. It’s quite another thing to get swept away in darker and darker thoughts about the future, and to obsessively visualize the most terrible things happening. Your mind is in turmoil over things that may never happen.

In a strange way, catastrophizing can make you feel powerful and helpless at the same time. Powerful, because you feel as if you know the future, every detail of it. About 7 minutes and 20 seconds into the video I’ve shared at the top of the post, there’s a part I want to highlight: the idea that catastrophizing may serve a protective function, because you feel as if you’re using it to fight against uncertainty and save yourself from future disappointment.

Basically, you feel like nothing bad can shock or overwhelm you because you already expect it. But how much power does brooding over catastrophes actually give you?

Catastrophizing may protect you from taking all kinds of risks. However, some of these risks may be worth taking, such as learning a new skill, or approaching someone to ask them out on a date or hopefully become their friend. Thanks to catastrophizing, you imagine nightmare outcomes even for situations that are mildly or moderately risky. Maybe you fear rejection, for instance, so you imagine harsh and humiliating outcomes to keep yourself from approaching someone and potentially exposing yourself to their indifference or dislike.

What if something terrible does happen? Even if you’re overestimating the possibility of horrific outcomes, there’s still a chance of catastrophe. What then?

For one thing, you can’t know exactly how everything will play out. Even if you imagine a horrible scenario, it won’t unfold exactly the same way in real life. There are factors you aren’t thinking about and twists and turns you can’t anticipate.

And I don’t mean that in a bad way. For example, you may be underestimating your capacity to deal with a terrible situation. Maybe you’ll be able to act in ways you can’t currently imagine or haven’t even considered. Maybe there are avenues of help you don’t know about, other people who will assist you or resources that will become available to you. Even if what you fear is a recurrence of something, maybe this time around you’ll have a greater capacity to deal with it, in part because of the knowledge and wisdom you’ve gained.

When you’re catastrophizing, you may confuse the intensity of your thoughts with the certainty of your knowledge. Turmoil doesn’t mean truth. For better and worse, you can’t predict everything. But it’s easy to overestimate the likelihood of the worst thing happening and underestimate our own ability to respond to it better than we can imagine.

I wrote this post in part as a reminder to myself, and also because it may be helpful to other people in this crazy year and beyond. One of my friends told me that in the midst of catastrophizing she tries to at least get something out of it – like thinking of a solution to a future problem or thinking of something she can change in her life now. The challenge is to not let the thoughts become obsessive and paralyzing.

Dangerously Pretending That You’re Separate From Your Body

Maybe at some point I’ll write a longer post about this. For now, I just want to point out strong tendencies I’m seeing on multiple fronts – in commentary on sexuality, pregnancy, dieting, surgery, and other topics – where the body gets treated as something separate from you as a person.

The tendency to think of the body as an inert meat sack. Or as a mere machine. Or simply as a glove you’re wearing, nothing more. That the “real you” isn’t connected to your body.

That you can have all kinds of things done to your body or do all kinds of things to your body – physical harm, modifications, deprivations of different kinds, sexual acts you’re gritting your teeth to endure, the commodification of organs or the body as a whole – and that somehow this will leave your mental well-being untouched. (Or at least, you can move on quickly if you just don’t think about it too much.)

Ignoring the body is easier than ever with all the distractions around you. Is your body persistently sending you signals that you’re always ignoring? Even if you think your body is “misfiring” in some way – for instance, warning you of a danger that you don’t think exists – it’s still important to make note of how your body communicates with you. Maybe the danger is legitimate. Or maybe you’re experiencing an anxiety that you need to learn how to understand and soothe. Regardless, it’s important to engage with yourself. Ignoring your body isn’t a long-term solution. Any underlying problems don’t go away.

Talking about the body sometimes gets you accused of “reducing people to body parts,” but this usually isn’t the case. The body is made up of complex, interconnected systems, which of course include the brain. People’s experiences of worthiness (vs. degradation) and well-being are deeply connected to their bodies. Mistreatment, whether from others or perpetuated by the self, undermines the self.

Excessive Tribalism Enables Abuse

Whenever a new report emerges about an abuse scandal in some community or organization, a common reaction is a tribalistic “us vs. them.” For instance:

“How horrible! That sort of thing would never happen in my community.”

or

“That’s terrible. But of course it’s going to happen among [people of a certain religion, political leaning, race, sexuality, ethnic group, nationality, or profession].”

A distancing mechanism comes into play. People acknowledge that sexual abuse or other kinds of abuse have occurred. But the main reason they’re fine with talking about it is because the problem lies with some other group, or perhaps with an individual they never really liked.

What happens when it occurs among people they feel an affinity for? (Such as congregants or leaders at their religious institution, popular athletes they admire at their school or in major league sports, politicians or celebrities they love, a long-standing volunteer at a respected charity, a political activist who rails against injustice, or a local business leader who’s an upstanding citizen in their small town.) What happens when the abuse emerges close to home?

In that scenario, the reactions are much more likely to involve:

  • Looking the other way or actively covering up the abuse, including blocking or derailing an investigation into it.
  • Calling abuse something other than abuse, to make it seem weaker or more sanitized. Sometimes saying things like, “Nobody’s perfect, ok?”
  • Dismissing, vilifying, misrepresenting, harassing, and/or threatening victims. Coming up with justifications for why the victims “deserved it” in some way. Doesn’t really matter how much strong, compelling evidence emerges to support the victims’ claims.
  • Making excuses for perpetrators (“so-and-so was under a lot of stress or struggling with some psychological issue, and they’ve done a lot of good, so maybe this one thing isn’t such a big deal…”). Generally showing much more mercy for the perpetrators than the victims.
  • A refusal to see any patterns of institutional coverup or abuse-enabling norms by claiming that the perpetrator is just “one bad apple.” And if more perpetrators crop up, they’re just more bad apples. Apparently these bad apples exist in a vacuum.

Virtually no community is free of abuse or the potential for it. It doesn’t matter how virtuous, just, kind, or moral you think your group is. What allows for abuse to go unchecked?

  • When you have power differentials and a lack of accountability and scrutiny.
  • When there are certain groups or individuals deemed above reproach, untouchable in some way (they can “do no wrong,” they should not be questioned, their behavior can be downplayed or excused entirely).
  • When the reputation of the group/community/organization and everything they stand for is deemed much more important than the trauma and profound betrayal of victims.
  • When people have invested so much of their identity in someone or something that they don’t allow themselves to confront the possibility of abuse. It would damage the affiliations they use to help define themselves.
  • When people are afraid to speak out in favor of an investigation or in defense of the victims because they’ll be socially ostracized, financially damaged, or threatened with violence by other members of the group.

Excessive loyalty to a group makes life much easier for perpetrators of abuse. They know which roles or positions will deflect scrutiny or vest them with authority and a sufficient degree of power. They can determine when people are likely to look away and deny what’s happening. They know what language to use (such as religious pieties or political jargon) to downplay the abuse or wave it away with a superficial resolution (such as a weak apology or call for immediate reconciliation) that silences the victims.

And if abuse is something that can only happen somewhere else, perpetrated by people who aren’t like you in some key way, it continues unchecked. Outsiders can help uncover the abuse, but an investigation becomes much harder without the cooperation of a group or organization.

It’s possible to feel loyal to a group while remaining aware of the following:
– The potential for abuse exists in pretty much any community or institution.
– Perpetrators of abuse often don’t appear to be outwardly monstrous, but may in fact be individuals who are largely admired, respected, or well-liked.
– The extent to which you like someone often has little to do with whether or not they’re capable of abuse. (Perpetrators of abuse may be quite nice to people generally – though obviously not to their victims.)
– It can hurt badly or be painfully disillusioning to face evidence of abuse. However, looking away from it or actively quashing an investigation into it is extremely harmful. In many cases, it’s possible to preserve a group while instituting better safeguarding measures. An abuse scandal can be an opportunity for meaningful reforms in policies and practices. Victims don’t need to be sacrificed for the sake of keeping certain people free of accountability or maintaining the illusion that everything is just fine as it is.

Does Hitting Something Else Stop You From Hitting Yourself?

Self-harm can take on many forms. Among them are self-inflicted slaps and punches.

Even with the pain, bruises, and possibility of internal injuries or permanent damage, stopping this behavior can be difficult:

  • The self-inflicted hitting may have already become habitual or compulsive.
  • The behavior has been serving as a reliable (though damaging) way of coping with overwhelming emotions, such as intense fear, anger, and self-loathing.
  • The idea of seeking help often fills people with shame or embarrassment.

One way to resist and weaken the impulse to self-harm is to come up with other techniques that replace the self-harm behavior (e.g. squeezing a stress ball, doing jumping jacks, taking deep breaths and counting them, repeating a mantra or talking to yourself until the urge to harm yourself fades). Sometimes, the suggestions include hitting something else – some soft object – to avoid hurting yourself.

Does Hitting Something Else Work?

Some people try to avoid hitting themselves by hitting a pillow, couch cushion, or mattress. This seems like a good idea, and of course it’s better to hit the cushion instead of your own leg, arm, or head. But reacting to intense emotions by hitting things, even objects, doesn’t necessarily help in the long run.

The underlying association between ‘overwhelming emotion’ and ‘hit something’ may become reinforced and strengthened, and you could wind up turning it on yourself again. In the absence of a soft object, you might punch a wall and injure yourself.

Also, people often assume that hitting objects will calm them, when instead it may inflame their underlying emotions even more, making them angrier or more upset. So be careful about using this as a long-term strategy – especially as a solo strategy, and especially if you don’t want to rely on any sort of hitting as a coping technique.

This advice isn’t absolute. For example, you may find that a workout with a punching bag helps you a lot. However, there’s a difference between 1) incorporating an exercise routine into your life that you commit to even in moments when you aren’t overwhelmed by emotions and 2) heavily relying on hitting during the intense, overwhelming, and painful moments that prompt self-harm behaviors (and you’re not always going to have a punching bag nearby, though maybe a bit of shadow boxing is one alternative in that scenario).

Another point to consider is whether the hitting is part of something constructive. For example, some people cope by making something out of clay. The sensations of punching, kneading, and squeezing clay gives them some relief. Maybe this is better than hitting a pillow, because you’re creating something with the clay. The hitting is part of a productive, creative act.

In any case, here are some additional points to think about:

– Be aware of the possibility that punching other things may have drawbacks (though again, it’s better to lay into a pillow than your own body).
– Try to stay attuned to what you’re feeling when you rely on the strategy of punching or hitting something else. It may be helpful to some degree, particularly as a form of immediate release. But maybe you don’t feel much calmer or in control for long, if at all, because there’s still a difference between reacting to emotions in a less controlled way vs. responding to them with more control. And the underlying problems remain.
– Develop additional strategies for managing self-harm behaviors. Confront the issues underlying your self-harm and how you understand and respond to emotions. Speaking to a reputable, compassionate therapist or counselor can definitely help, or you can start by texting a helpline or calling one (this is something that can be done fairly quickly, even in the middle of intense emotions).

When You Tell Yourself “I Shouldn’t Be Feeling This Way”

“I shouldn’t be feeling this way” is a common thought. The question is what to do with it.

Whether or not you “should” be feeling a certain way is less important than what you’re going to do with the feeling. You recognize that you’re feeling angry or sad or envious or gleefully vindictive. Or maybe you’re not feeling anything at all in a situation that seems to call for strong emotion. What follows?

If you start to dwell too much on whether you should or shouldn’t be experiencing a certain emotion, a few things usually happen:

  • Your stress levels go up more. An additional layer of stress settles over a stressful situation.
  • You feel guilty, inadequate, unworthy, or strange.
  • You get distracted from thinking of ways to best respond to your emotion and to the situation you’re in.

It doesn’t help that sometimes other people tell you what you should be feeling. Depending on what the situation is, they may want you to feel love or happiness or grief, and when you don’t meet their expectations, they don’t react well.

Focusing too much on the “shoulds” isn’t helpful. You feel a certain way. Rather than beat yourself up over the feeling itself, think about what you can do with it.

Maybe what you need is to just keep going about your daily routine. Other times, you may need to talk to someone you trust, and sometimes you may need to reach out for urgent help. In many cases, what helps is to write, draw, go for a walk, listen to music, garden, read, knit, hug someone who will welcome your hug, work on a project, or sign up to volunteer in your community. You may need to develop habits of thinking and behavior that help you with overwhelming emotions. (For example, some people find that unplugging from social media for a while helps them become more calm and level-headed when confronting various problems in their lives.)

Brooding on “should,” however, doesn’t help you change anything. Standards of “should” may be arbitrary or based on ideas you don’t have to subscribe to. An unusual reaction to something isn’t necessarily a sign of a mental health issue (and if it is, beating yourself up over it won’t help). Experiencing emotions that are ungenerous or crude doesn’t mean that you’re compelled to act on such feelings or that your feelings will never change. Also, you don’t have to feel a certain way simply because of your sex, race, or other demographic characteristics. Even if the people around you all express the same kinds of emotions or sentiments, the reality is messier. They aren’t all feeling the same way, definitely not all the time.

“But I shouldn’t feel this way…” Whether you “should” or “shouldn’t,” the fact is, you do. So what do you do next?

Progress Washed Away During Lockdown

Along with the threat of the disease itself, one of the great challenges of the COVID-19 crisis is how it has washed away people’s progress in different areas.

– Savings eroded or gone.
– Businesses run to the ground.
– Carefully planned projects that need to be abandoned, maybe never to be picked up again.
– People who have just started to become healthier in some way, physically or mentally, only to find themselves slipping (or crashing).

One person I know who has social anxiety made some efforts in recent months to get out of the house more. She started attending meetings of some local groups that share her hobbies. Since the lockdown, she has been struggling in isolation, and the gains she made regarding her anxiety feel largely illusory, as if they happened to someone else.

(Although there are video tools for connecting with people, and these tools may be better than nothing, they aren’t a substitute for in-person interaction. I’ve found this to be the case myself. Also, video calls can be mentally draining – the Harvard Business Review offers some advice on how to deal with “Zoom fatigue.”)

To the heartbreak, frustration, or despair that may result from the COVID-19 crisis – including its social and financial effects – there are obviously no simple answers. It can be stressful enough if your daily schedule has changed or you had to cancel certain plans. But I’m thinking right now about people whose hold on the world may be made more fragile because of the crisis. People cut adrift, with relationships severed, major opportunities lost, and progress seemingly reversed.

One thing that may help (at least a little) is to provide yourself with written reminders – in a journal, for example – about who you are, what you have done, what you hope for, and how you promise to give yourself time to get through this day by day. When there’s a massive amount of stress in your life, it’s easy to lose sight of many things, to disregard yourself, and to forget your capabilities and potential. Your current emotions may be so terrible and overwhelming that you can’t think of how they’ll ever end, even though they won’t last forever. You may not be able to see how your current situation could ever improve, but you don’t have all the answers (even though discouragement or despair may offer you answers that seem definitive).

Reminding yourself of who you are can also help you remember the ways in which you’ve been healing and the ways you have met particular goals in the past. Even if you’re feeling lost now, you aren’t starting from absolutely nothing. You may be struggling with the types of problems that have dragged you down before, but you bring with you more wisdom from your previous experiences and some evidence of how things can improve – if not immediately, then one day. You’ve managed to do it before. Will it be harder the second (or third) time around? What will restarting look like? Are you trapped? Write down your thoughts, and keep your thoughts flexible. The answers may change over time. You don’t know for sure.

If you’re keeping a journal, and you don’t think you can write anything about yourself at the moment, then maybe just write today’s date. Then tomorrow’s date. Maybe a short line with each entry. I’ve done that on days when I didn’t think I could write more, and sometimes that’s how you mark the day and step forward into the next one.

Keeping a journal doesn’t put food on the table. It doesn’t magically restore a lost job or shattered career. But if it helps in any way – helps you fight off bouts of despair or cope with the feeling that your life is horribly unreal – it could be worth a try. In ways you aren’t able to picture clearly or even conceive of at the moment, you may be able to regain at least some of what you’ve lost or discover or create something new.

(It’s also worth mentioning that you can rant on paper if you need to. Some people sit for 10-15 minutes and write down their anxieties, their rage, their grief, and then tear the paper up into tiny bits and throw it away. This exercise could become an outlet for releasing some of what’s in you, removing and destroying it so it possibly has less of a hold on your mind.)

Coping With a Pandemic When You (Think You) Have No One

The COVID-19 crisis is marked by turmoil, grief, and anxiety for many people. Having others to rely on during this time can mean a world of difference in how you’re coping. But what if you’re alone? (Or truly feel yourself to be alone?)

There’s no one-size-fits-all advice for dealing with social isolation and related problems. Your age, health, job, and living arrangement are among the factors affecting what will work for you and what won’t. But I’m going to offer some potentially useful links here. If you have some suggestions of your own, please share.

The following links apply to people in the U.S., where I live. If you’re outside of the U.S., you can use these for ideas when looking for analogous services in your country.