[Two Pronged] Depression, comparison, and competition
Rappler's Life and Style section runs an advice column by couple Jeremy Baer and clinical psychologist Dr Margarita Holmes.
Jeremy has a master's degree in law from Oxford University. A banker of 37 years who worked in 3 continents, he has been training with Dr Holmes for the last 10 years as co-lecturer and, occasionally, as co-therapist, especially with clients whose financial concerns intrude into their daily lives.
Dear Dr Holmes and Mr Baer,
Ever since childhood, I had a competitive streak. I got results by topping my class; school became my life. Because school mattered so much, I had no social or even family life. I never rebelled, was student council president and won almost all the academic competitions, never allowing these achievements to get to my head. I had beautiful friends and was trusted by my teachers.
In the middle of high school, I suffered what I call 'invisible solitude.' Everything in my life was going right, but there was no passion. I wanted to feel that satisfaction after going through hardship. Even if I successfully overcame troubles, I wasn’t happy enough to be grateful. Nothing could move my heart. I never had romantic relationships; no one tried to court me.
I got attracted to other people, but I just thought love would come when it was time. Being too focused on goals, I felt some found it hard to approach me. I was always on my guard, keeping my focus on my studies. Strong and independent, yet trapped in my own walls without a path to escape.
I’m 18 now and have graduated from high school, passing with flying colors; again winning competitions.
But I still felt empty; then, insecure. A girl in my class (let’s call her Francis) is rich, pretty, and kind. She is the baby of the class. She loves to play and is a total kid at heart. Everyone adores her. When she delivers speeches, she touches people's hearts. She also falls in love easily. Francis does not take lessons as seriously as I do. She's satisfied being in the top section. She's so pure, the complete opposite of me. We get along well. We were friends.
There was one school event, where someone would be picked, with both beauty and brains. Everyone expected me to represent the class, each class could have only one representative. It was the only competition my mother wanted me to join. She said she wanted to see me dolled up like a girl for once. My two grandmothers were very happy to hear that I was joining.
I wanted to compete. My school friends supported me, but not my school adviser. He knew I was willing to join, but he never gave me the information I needed. Francis ended up representing my class, and then selected winner. Everyone was surprised, but the class loves her so things went smoothly. Everyone asked me why I wasn't in the auditions, or said how I could have won, but I was just there silently fretting. I was betrayed by both my teacher and my friend.
They both knew I wanted it, too. I would not feel this way if I just were able to submit and was rejected over her. But I didn't even know anything. I wanted to fight fairly. I would do my best to get chosen. And if after all that, I was rejected over justifiable reasons and they chose her, then I would have been sad, but still accepted the loss. But they betrayed me like that. It was awfully heartbreaking. My mom said it was okay, but it was clear she was affected by the unfair decision.
I went to my friends to cry over it. But since they adored that girl, too, they looked at me with confused and slightly cold eyes. They said I already have so much and I should not ask for more.
But all I wanted was for them to listen and be there for me. I just wanted them to embrace me. I felt bad about myself, like I shouldn’t have cried to them. I felt even worse that I was not satisfied. I felt so insecure and never trusted my friends like I did before. I felt completely and utterly alone. I cried every night.
It was not about my not being chosen for the competition, but how my teacher never actually believed in me after all, and how Francis, whom I considered a friend, and my other friends weren't there for me after all. All I wanted was for them to be just there, even without doing anything. I found out everyone's judgment of me. It was like a bomb suddenly exploded right in my face. I was shocked. I thought... Is this how we grow up? I was angry, sad, and was frustrated.
For a meager school competition, I was betrayed by my teacher and my friends. In exchange for attempting to get another certificate of achievement, I lost my trust in my educators and my companions. What a huge price to pay in exchange for a school achievement. I felt powerless, spending my vacation doing nothing.
I stayed at home, waiting for college to come. I became a totally different person after that. I became afraid to try, to meet new people, to join gatherings in my university. I found myself cutting classes, avoiding gatherings, being too conscious about people and wanting to sleep all the time, while Francis went on to national pageants, modeling, and television shows. I felt useless, watching her having the time of her life, while I rot away in a corner. I felt it was my fault because I was not a good person, and greedy, and self-imposing. I cut off connections with most people, not daring to try anything anymore.
Why have I had this feeling of powerlessness for so long now? Why do I still find myself in that girl's shadow, frozen and unable to do anything?
Please help me.
Thank you for your email.
Your account is I believe an excellent example of how easy it is for all of us to fall into a particular way of interpreting events which fits our own worldview yet can be wrong. It is like someone who starts off with 20/20 vision but whose eyesight imperceptibly yet inexorably deteriorates. They unconsciously adjust to the deterioration and believe that the increasingly blurred view they have is the way everybody sees things.
You initially paint a picture of yourself as a high achiever in school but almost a non-participant in any other area of life. You say you had no family or social life, no romantic attachments yet you claim you had 'beautiful friends' so it is perhaps here that perception and reality begin to part company.
Just how likely is it that someone who was as independent, competitive and hard to approach as you say you were would have such friends? Could it be that you consistently misinterpreted these schoolmates' feelings? Warmth, love, affection etc. are not after all the usual reactions to people who do not engage socially, but only academically, with their peers.
Now we come to the brains and beauty contest. I am probably not alone in wondering firstly what possessed you to act totally out of character and want to enter this event and secondly on what possible basis did you actually believe you had a chance to win? Having recounted that you had no social or family life, you might have been in line to win 'Miss Academic of the Year' but clearly never to win 'Miss Congeniality'.
It is understandable that your family members were supportive but your mother's very reason – "she wanted to see me dolled up like a girl for once" (my italics) – should have given you pause. As for your teacher, his lack of support should also have told you something.
Now, your reaction to the competition debacle merits analysis. You attribute your failure to Francis, your other friends, and your teacher and at no point do you personally take the slightest responsibility for the outcome. Your reaction to your failure to win – withdrawing from the world, in effect – is a tad extreme, to put it mildly, and very suggestive actually of an attack of severe depression.
You therefore seem to have two major issues: a worldview out of kilter with reality and depression. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) should help you adjust your interpretation of events and medication plus therapy will help you with your depression. Dr Holmes may elaborate on this.
All the best,
Thank you so, so much for your letter – a poignant, heart-wrenching account of how an accomplished, confident success like yourself can descend into a clinical depression within a span of two months.
It is searingly painful in its honesty and that is the reason I feel quite strongly – VERY strongly, in fact – that unnecessary brutality and almost gratuitously “cruelty” in Mr Baer’s response was totally unnecessary.
But this, perhaps, is the reason this column is called Two Pronged: a venue for two intelligent and caring human beings to share diametrically opposed views and styles of writing – his: in your face, mine: (ahem) thoughtful and sensitive – in one piece.
I jest, of course, about only my style being sensitive and thoughtful. The reason Mr Baer’s responses have been embraced by the reading public (ok, ok, not all the time and certainly not always by the letter writer her/himself as we have, as a matter of fact, gotten one or two complaints in the past and, I daresay, will get one or two more in the future) is because he speaks from the gut and believes in so-called tough love rather than sparing feelings. Perhaps when giving straightforward answers as a lender rather than a borrower, of money, tact is not a necessary virtue.
However, when you hope to help change a person’s self concept, tact is always called for. It is never fun – and thus, easy to disregard – hypotheses about the self one doesn’t agree with, so it needs to be tact which does not sacrifice honesty.
Mr. Baer is spot on when he suggested you explore both cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and depression to help you understand what is going on in your life right now.
We have written about CBT extensively in the past, since it can be a very useful tool for helping the different people who write to us in Two Pronged deal with the very different aspects of their lives. Here are a few of them:
- [Two Pronged] My wife was a mistress
- [Two Pronged] She wasn't a virgin, but I was
- [Bodymind] Why people who need people are the luckiest
We have written about clinical depression just as extensively, if not even more so. Please check out the following articles (and then some!) below so that, when I write my column Clinical Notes in deeper response to your letter above, you will already have a head start.
- [Two Pronged] Is my boyfriend depressed?
- [Two Pronged] Housewife feels depressed, lonely, empty
- [Two Pronged] He cheated, got me pregnant, and left me. Should I still fight for him?
- [Two Pronged] Dad and his mistress
All the best (and hang in there!!)!
Need advice from our Two Pronged duo? Email email@example.com with subject heading TWO PRONGED. Unfortunately the volume of correspondence precludes a personal response.