On Google yesterday I typed in the phrase “Why am I so…” and waited to see what suggestions autocomplete would offer to finish the phrase (yes I was procrastinating, I admit it). Here are the top 10:
Why am I so…
I did this little exercise out of curiosity about the kinds of questions we commonly ask of ourselves (at least on Google); from what I’ve read about the autocomplete algorithm, it draws on the search activities of the millions and millions of people using Google, along with phrases and keywords in Google-indexed web pages. (It could have drawn on my personal search history as well, but as I was logged out of Google and had disabled Web History a while ago, I’m not sure my own Googling affected the outcome much.)
Regardless, there are many, many webpages out there directly addressing these queries. So, what do we find on the internet in answer to them? Some good advice, some terrible advice, some people commiserating, others jeering. And there’s anguish. Lots of anguish. Our problems can consume our mental energy, and possibly our lives.
A few of the search terms are more blatantly medical than others (bloated, itchy, gassy) and more superficial; we want to find out why we have these symptoms and whether we should be alarmed, and how we can put an end to the unpleasantness and get some relief – but being gassy is rarely taken as a sign that we’re fundamentally defective. Others could definitely be medical and a result of certain lifestyle choices (tired, fat, etc.) but there are also deeper issues at work there; the possible answers are more complex and get at who we are (or who we think we are) as people.
Not that we’re always looking for answers. We want to work on ourselves, but sometimes we aren’t ready yet to make the effort. What we might hope to find – in addition to, or as a substitute for, any concrete suggestions for improvement – are opportunities to:
1) Confirm that we’re not alone. So many forums exist out there for people with depression for instance, who understand one another and maybe feel less alone as a result.
2) Absorb some sympathy. I don’t just mean in a “poor me” dramatically self-pitying “nobody has it this bad” sort of way (though depending on the individual there might be some of that) but just genuine warmth and support. Maybe we lack that from people in our lives.
3) Get encouragement. Doing anything about laziness or tiredness or other problems can be daunting. What we need are inspiring stories and kind words. This might give us a boost now or give us hope for the future, even if we feel as if we can’t manage the effort at the present time.
4) Satisfy our curiosity. We want to see what life is like for other people. That might include a comparison between us and them (e.g. they have it so much easier than I do… they might have succeeded in overcoming their problems, but I know for sure that I won’t).
5) Have our own suspicions or perceptions, however pessimistic, confirmed. There’s a kind of grim satisfaction we get from hearing that what we’ve thought all along is true: we’re screwed – by genetics, by poor choices, by any number of factors – and it will be terribly difficult to get well and turn our lives around. So there. If we can confirm that we’re hopeless, it means we don’t have to do anything, because nothing we’ll do matters. At least, this is what we tell ourselves.
6) Stall. We’ll find nothing that we don’t already know. We’ve done this web search before, multiple times, combed through dozens of sites. We’re searching again (and again) to no real purpose. Googling our problems gives us the illusion of doing something meaningful to improve our lives, when it’s really time for us to start acting on what we know. Are we delaying any changes we need to make because we’re afraid we’ll fail? Because the effort is too great? Are we using these self-help searches to sabotage ourselves? Maybe.
People are more than capable of using an opportunity to get better as a way to prevent themselves from getting better. We’re masters at both irony and self-sabotage.
You know which one broke my heart most? ‘Ugly’ (“why am I so ugly?”). Looking through some of the search results you see people who’ve already made up their mind that yes, they’re ugly. It’s an incontrovertible truth to them. Most have been repeatedly told they’re ugly, in subtle and not-remotely-subtle ways, and they live in anguish. Offline they may try to mask that anguish and carry on as usual, but it eats away at them.
It gives you tremendous pain to look at yourself and see ugliness. To feel it as others stare at you. To be convinced that you’ll be spurned and alone for the rest of your life. Unless you do something… but what? If you get plastic surgery, will you love yourself? What about new clothes? Will you be loved then? The self-perception of ‘ugliness’ is never only about your pronounced nose, your belly fat, your varicose veins, your acne, your asymmetrical face, or a combination of all of those… it’s a deep feeling of wrongness crawling through you.
The feeling is so deep and pervasive, so very much a part of how we define ourselves, that we think it can’t be anything but true. It comes to dominate everything.
“Why am I so ugly” echoes in some of the others (‘fat,’ ‘lazy,’ ‘depressed,’ ‘tired.’) Looking at ourselves and seeing a lump. A nothing. No beauty, no spirit, just a blob of inertia and pain. Other people can hurt us and do their best to grind us down. But when they’re not around, we take over and keep at it. We’re deeply convinced that there’s no other life for us, no real and lasting alternatives to the state we’re stuck in. We might want to change, and sometimes are overcome with a desire to make the effort, but it gives way to a belief that we’ll never be able to do it. Even if we think we can, we’ll likely fail, and any failure will prove once and for all that we really are stuck. (Failure proves no such thing, but it’s a convincing lie that we often buy into). In any case the concept of who we are is fixed in our mind and it colors everything in our life.
The things we miss out on when our minds are overrun with these thoughts. There’s so much to think about, to enjoy, to wonder about, to love in this world, to fight for, to care about, to learn and explore and live for. It’s a tragedy when our self-perceptions prevent us from seeing this goodness, this vast potential, and keep us from believing that we can ever be a part of it.
Much of our mental energy is consumed by our problems. Sometimes the solutions are relatively straightforward, if it’s a solution we’re really after (Gassy? Don’t eat certain kinds of food. Itchy? Here, try this cream.) Other times the problem is more complex. And our attempts at solving it can set us back further. Instead of working on our ambitions and projects, enjoying our hobbies, nurturing our relationships, cultivating our minds – in short, doing all the things that could give us a richer life and help us ease our pain – we tear ourselves apart in the process of trying to make ourselves better.
It can be useful to find a name for a particular problem. For instance, if we figure out that our tiredness, emptiness, and lack of pleasure might be depression, then calling it ‘depression’ – knowing it for what it is – can be the first step towards managing it so that we can restore ourselves to a healthier life. But when our negative labels feel permanent and all-encompassing (Fat? I’m nothing but fat. Lazy? Yep, can’t do a thing. Ugly? Everyone thinks so, and that’s all they see when they look at me) then it becomes much more difficult to believe that we could ever see ourselves differently – that we could ever be different, happier, more contented, and lead a rich, varied, meaningful life, where we aren’t weighed down so strongly by one particular definition of ourselves.
Understanding and addressing our perceptions of ourselves, particularly when they’re so cruelly negative, is necessary for good mental and physical health, and for a strong life well-lived; our thoughts are fundamental to the kind of life we’ll experience. Wrestling with self-defeating perceptions can be a lifelong struggle, but hopefully one that won’t end in resigned defeat, grim confirmation that we were “right about ourselves” all along.
On that note, here’s a related post I found today: 7 Common Habits of Unhappy People.