I have been a professional observer of human behavior for more years than I care to admit. In my experience, and I am by no means the first to say this, people are much touchier these days—quicker to take offense, react angrily to seemingly minor provocations, and denigrate others for expressing different opinions.
Leaving the obvious arenas of politics and world affairs aside, I see frequent evidence of these hair-trigger responses when I read social media posts in the groups I follow. Just recently, for instance, there was a heated discussion about an answer in the New York Times Connections game, which I have been playing daily. My approach is pretty laissez-faire: I try to do the best I can, competing with myself to beat previous scores, but I will use Google when necessary and concede defeat if I bomb out. I find it relaxing and fun and don’t care much about my performance.
But others, apparently, take it much more seriously. The Connections game has sixteen words that fit into four categories of four words each. It can be tricky because some of the words can work in more than one category. In a recent game that caused a furor among players, one category contained words that are countries when “land” is added to them: Fin, Ice, Ire, Nether. But as many incensed gamers noted, Netherland is not a country. They complained, they worked themselves up into a frenzy over the editing error, and they even attacked each other over either being too pedantic or not caring enough about grammatical correctness.
The Times apparently took the criticism to heart because when I looked at the game later that day to refresh my memory for this post, the word Nether was gone and was replaced by Green. Which should have made some of the haters happy but, predictably, only led to more dissent in the group.
All very trivial, to be sure. But it reflects a broader concern: the fear of doing or saying something wrong and being publicly skewered for it. I see this worry coming up much more frequently these days in the people seeking treatment with me for OCD. Most of the calls I get lately are not from compulsive hand-washers or stove-checkers but from individuals with obsessional worries about having committed an offensive or immoral act. And because OCD thrives on ambiguity, these imagined transgressions are not obvious or clear-cut, such as inappropriately touching someone or cheating on your income taxes, but fall into the realm of “what if I accidentally did this terrible thing I may not even know I did?”
As with any OCD worry, the solution is not to review the past to determine what really happened (because memory is unreliable and will never yield the desired certainty) or to seek reassurance from others. It is to give yourself grace. Acknowledge your mistake, if you actually made one, accept your imperfections, learn from the experience, and move on.
Self-compassion and kindness towards others are two qualities in short supply these days. Let’s work on cultivating them.
I’ve been meditating daily for over three years, half of that time with the popular app, Headspace. But recently,thrown off by jet lag following a trip to the West Coast, I unaccountably forgot to meditate one day and broke my streak.
I was upset by my lapse and tried, as any good CBT practitioner would, to challenge my all-or-nothing thinking. One day out of over a thousand is no big deal. Less than a drop in the bucket. It didn’t negate my progress.
But Headspace didn’t see it that way. It reset my stats back to Day 1. Even more aggravating, it started sending me motivational messages like: “A 3-day run streak is a great start to your practice! Next stop 5!” And, after 5 days: “Nice job. This is precisely how you build a solid meditation practice. Think you can make it 10?” At 10 days, they told me: “Your consistency is outstanding. You’re starting to build a lasting, healthy habit.” And today, 15 days into my new streak, I got: “Great work. Maybe everything changes except your commitment to meditation.”
I decided I needed to say something. Here’s an excerpt from the email I wrote to Headspace:
I had over 450 consecutive days of Headspace under my belt until a few weeks ago, when travel to the West Coast threw me off schedule and I somehow forgot to meditate one day. I was upset to have broken my “streak,” but I tried to practice what I preach to the many perfectionists I work with by forgiving myself for the brief, and ultimately insignificant, lapse.
But Headspace is making it harder for me to let go of my mistake! It reset my progress back to zero and is giving me motivational messages after three, five, ten, fifteen days of consecutive practice to tell me I’m on my way to a solid practice and a commitment to meditation. I suppose I could use those statements as a mindfulness exercise, treating them as if they were just random thoughts of my own creation, but coming from the “experts,” they are not at all helpful.
I have continued to use the app but now am having second thoughts. I’m not sure whether such a quantitative, competitive (albeit only with myself) approach is really how I want to frame my meditation practice. And I certainly will be less enthusiastic in recommending it to my perfectionistic patients.
You might want to pass this feedback onto your software engineers to see if there could be a way turning off the streak function, or sending out messages of self-compassion to those who’ve accrued a lot of hours but miss a day here and there.
I’ll let you know what they say.
You can’t walk past the magazines in the supermarket, go out to dinner with friends or check your Instagram feed or Facebook these days without being bombarded by diets aimed to cure whatever ails you. All these plans—whether they’re gluten-free, Paleo, organic, vegetarian, or vegan—involve eliminating foods purported to cause a host of health problems.
One such popular program goes so far as to promise it will “change your life in 30 days,” offering testimonials (which, I might point out, do not count as scientific evidence) from participants who claim it has cured them of a long list of so-called “lifestyle-related diseases.” These include but are not limited to: high blood pressure and high cholesterol, diabetes (both Type 1 and Type 2), asthma, allergies, infertility, depression, bipolar disorder, arthritis, ADHD, and inflammatory bowel disease. The psychiatric literature, last I heard, doesn’t consider depression, bipolar disorder, or ADHD lifestyle-related diseases. That’s a topic for another post. But for now, I’ll get back to the subject at hand.
Even the widespread trend towards “clean eating”—whose proponents like to think of it not as a diet, but as a lifestyle choice or even a movement—comes with rules. Eat lots of fruits and vegetables. Eat only “whole” meats, preferably organic, whose sources you know. Eat only whole grains. Avoid all processed and refined foods (e.g., sugar, baked goods, white flour, white rice, empty-caloric junk foods). Avoid saturated and trans-fats. Drink at least 8 cups of water a day.
“What’s wrong with trying to follow a healthy eating plan?” you might ask. And my answer would be, “Nothing. Usually.”
But if you tend to become fixated on avoiding specific foods because you’re excessively concerned about controlling your weight or think they might cause cancer or other diseases, be careful. Even a so-called “non-diet” like the clean-eating approach can lead to emotional struggles for perfectionistic people prone to eating disorders or health anxiety.
Any time perfectionists impose all-or-nothing restrictions on themselves, they run the risk of getting upset and ditching the diet altogether if they think they’ve broken the rules. It doesn’t even have to constitute a major transgression, such as picking up a Big Mac, fries, and large Coke from the MacDonald’s drive-through on the way home from work. If you’re evaluating your food choices from the perspective of a black-and-white mentality (and comparing them with the colorful Instagram images of the kale smoothies, grain bowls, and lush farmers market produce others appear to be eating), you could easily beat yourself up for popping a handful of M&Ms at the movies or having white rice with your homemade, clean Pad Thai. Then you might decide you’ve blown it for the day (or week), and let loose with a full-blown binge. You’ll feel guilty, vow to atone and never stray again, and set yourself up for the next self-punishing cycle of deprivation and excess.
Let me make my position clear before the critics jump on me for questioning sound nutritional practices. I’m not suggesting you go overboard with the junk food and the trans-fats. I’m not urging you to forego whole grains in favor of Wonder Bread. I’m not recommending you trade your bottled water for a Big Gulp. I’m not even telling you the clean-eating lifestyle is bad. (Though I might be telling you not to drink the diet Kool-Aid du jour without seriously evaluating its claims from an evidence-based perspective).
But when food—no matter how nutritionally pure, unadulterated, and good for your body it may be—becomes a source of internal conflict, guilt and anxiety, you might want to think about what it’s doing to your mind.
As with most things in life, moderation and flexibility are the keys to emotional wellbeing. Your mindset about eating is just as important for your health as the foods you eat. Sadly, Instagram can’t capture that.
This blog is intended solely for the purpose of entertainment and education. All remarks are meant as general information and should not be taken as personal diagnostic or therapeutic advice. If you choose to comment on a post, please do not include any information that could identify you as a patient or potential patient. Also, please refrain from making any testimonials about me or my practice, as my professional code of ethics does not permit me to publish such statements. Comments that I deem inappropriate for this forum will not be published.