in comparison

So You Didn’t Hit a Milestone

Photo: Photographer: Jorg Greuel/Getty Images

If you’ve ever driven yourself nuts with sentences like “I should have done or achieved X, Y, or Z by now,” then you are in good company (hello), and there’s a recent Psychology Today post you might enjoy. It helped me, anyway, to better understand the pitfalls of this line of thinking.

The idea is that thoughts containing I should and by now lead mostly to feelings of “despair, self-loathing, shame, and helplessness,” as Sarah Epstein, a marriage and family therapist, writes, and that these feelings “carve themselves into neurological grooves.” Once a groove is carved, we think it more easily, without actually stopping to consider how true it still is, or what it really means in the first place. It becomes a shortcut, a default.

These grooves are often generated by comparing ourselves to friends, neighbors, or random people who have achieved whatever it is we think we want or need. In comparing ourselves to these people, Epstein writes, we bludgeon and berate ourselves. “We dwell in our own self-loathing as punishment for failing to meet our standards. That punishment, we’re sure, is deserved.”

The way out, she says, is to “carve new neural pathways” by basically deciding to think new thoughts and stop indulging old ones. Easier said than done, but I liked this way of thinking. There are no should’s, there are no by now’s. There is no ideal human timeline.

As for my own should have’s and by now’s, I envisioned little rivulets in a rock, etched by years of slow dripping. Picturing it this way, I could also imagine getting up, stretching my neck, and walking over to another rock.

So You Didn’t Hit a Milestone