Massachusetts Daily Collegian

When guilt-trips backfire

By Kate Leddy

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If you grew up in a developed country like the United States, chances are you’ve been told or at least heard of the classic phrase, “Finish your food. There are starving kids in Africa.”

It’s a line laced with guilt-trips that parents use to motivate their children to eat. Of course, eating the food is in no way going to help the starving children of Africa, but if the image of a distressed child longing for the meal on your plate shames you enough, then perhaps you will finish the food to show how grateful you are for what others don’t have.

And so from a young age, children are taught to compare their lives to others in order to justify or negate the validity of their own problems. Many will grow up with the mindset that putting themselves first will always make them selfish, armed with “things could be much worse” to fight their own emotions.

This method of shaming oneself into a better person is often extremely counterproductive. It prevents people from allowing themselves to be honest, to take care of their health and to grant themselves the time to directly face their personal problems and therefore solve them sooner than if they just attempted to downplay and ignore them because somebody else has it worse.

In America, we live in a culture where hard work is praised to an extent that health is often sacrificed to stay on top in the “dog-eat-dog” world. You could be battling a nasty cold, but if Joe came down with the flu last week and was able to muster up the strength to walk his contagious, exhausted, partially-delirious self into the office and put on a façade of normalcy, then you look like the weaker link if you give yourself a day off.

It is no wonder that stress and work pressures among Americans are leading to poorer health and higher mortality rates. We have stopped seeing self-care as a necessity and put it aside as a luxury that people are hesitant to cash in on at the risk of falling behind and being seen as a quitter or selfish because others are working harder.

“Competition makes self-esteem precarious and conditional,” said author and lecturer Alfie Kohn. “One’s value is contingent on how many people one has beaten. Moreover, the more we compete, the more we need to compete; it takes increasingly dramatic victories to reclaim the good feeling brought about by the first one – rather like developing a tolerance to a drug.”

It’s a highly toxic drug when it causes us to bash ourselves in order to push for these “victories.” This one-upping of our problems becomes even worse when mental health is challenged.

In my experiences with group therapy, I met a woman who had been hospitalized six times – four for complications related to her eating disorder and two for attempted suicide. She shook off my pained expression and solace with a shrug and said, “A lot of it was just precaution. Anyways, I knew a girl who had been in the hospital eleven times.”

The absurdity of her comparison likely had escalated from the dozens of small, insecurity-driven thoughts that went unspoken for years because she believed they “weren’t serious enough.” Just to reiterate that: A woman who was hospitalized six times believes her problem is not really serious.

There is nothing shameful about taking care of yourself. We are taught to believe that if we constantly keep our nose to the grindstone and push ourselves no matter the obstacles, we will succeed. Testing your limits is one thing, but this constant, intense drive is going to backfire if you forget that a person needs to be in good health in order to carry on.

You are more likely to be your best self and ultimately improve your life in the long-run if you allow yourself to get rest when you need it and recognize that while your personal problems may not be as severe as a starving child’s or a sick patient’s, they are still problems that need to be addressed in order to continue to be at your best. You cannot help take care of others if you cannot take care of yourself.

Although the method of getting this idea across is adverse, the principle of, “There are starving kids in Africa,” prompts us to show gratitude for what we have and this is something we should never forget. Instead of constantly using tough love and disallowing yourself to care about a personal problem, take a moment to remember what you have to be grateful for in life. Consider if this problem truly matters and needs to be addressed or if you can let it go. Appreciate what you have achieved and be proud of it regardless of what others have done.

When you need help, ask for it. If something in your life is dragging you back, it is a serious problem and listening to society’s cries of “get over it” or “people have it worse” is only going to hurt you until you can give yourself what you need to move forward again.

This world is not always kind. There are serious injustices, horrific wars and inhumane crimes. If we think we can motivate ourselves to be better people by channeling additional anger at ourselves on a daily basis, then it is past time that we reevaluate our methods.

Kate Leddy can be reached at [email protected]

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