A new year (and decade) is upon us, but a concerning statement is making the rounds on social media feeds.
“New Year, same me.”
Let’s sit with that for a minute.
This statement gave me pause because of the way it could impact a person’s motivation to change. The mental conflict that occurs as a result of beliefs being contradicted by “new” information is a concept known as cognitive dissonance. People deal with that conflict in a number of ways, most of which are defensive. The first part of the “New Year, same me”statement speaks to change – it’s a new year and newness in of itself is a changed state. The second part of this statement could be read as a defensive response to change.
Here’s the breakdown.
They say hindsight is 2020. Looking back on the experiences of 2019, what would you like to carry over into this new year? What are the qualities, relationships, and situations that you feel will continue to serve you? Those are the things that should comprise your “same me” list. The descriptions underlying the “same me” posts that I read were self-depreciating, and not in that self aware kind of way that precedes a New Year’s resolution (disclaimer – I am not a fan of resolutions – see my 2019 post on Intention Setting.)
The writers of these posts listed the “bad” choices they made during 2019 with the disclaimer “this is how I am.” Their followers responded with “likes” and comments that ranged from supportive to enabling. Here’s where it gets heavy and ties back to cognitive dissonance. That disclaimer is a powerful communication meant to rationalize the writers’ need to maintain their sameness. This is a mental state that feels safer and less threatening than change. Their “bad” choices become their identity. They are unmotivated to change “how” they are and seek validation to maintain their internal status quo through the likes and responses they get. Anything that challenges that state of sameness is met with a drama tsunami of comments from both the poster and a number of their followers. It made me wonder what would happen if no one validated their defense. How would they respond if no one liked or commented on their post? What would all that silence cause them to feel or think about themselves, the world, and their future?
During some of the last sessions of the year with my therapy clients, we reflected on the highlights and low-lights of 2019. Breaking patterns of behavior and thinking that do not serve growth and well-being takes time; however, the little nuggets of insight and small changes we highlighted were proof enough that my clients weren’t entering 2020 the same way they entered 2019. Essentially they were not “the same me.”
My hope for all the “New Year, same me” people is that they don’t let that statement become a self-fulfilling prophecy. All of us are capable of change, both for better and for worse. Making the decision to start therapy and the process of change happens only when you feel ready and motivated to invest the time. Let your foresight also be 2020.
What began as an MTV reality show documenting the use of fake online profiles to hook people into romantic relationships has become a widely accepted term for a clinically relevant phenomenon. It wasn’t until the second season of its airing that mental health awareness PSA’s started appearing in some of the episodes. Many of the “catfish” and their victims suffered from mental health issues, which made them vulnerable to engaging in the behavior as well as falling prey to it. The emotional impact of revealing the deception also had an adverse effect on mental health. This only served to intensify the drama and pain being witnessed and made it almost irresponsible for the network and viewers to ignore for the sake of entertainment.
Want to know what kinds of mental health issues breed a catfish? Keep reading.
After watching all seven seasons of the show and using criteria from The Diagnostic & Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition (DSM-5) it became clear that a handful of conditions perpetuate and maintain catfish behavior and falling prey to it.
Anxiety is a mental health condition that’s easy to empathize with because fear can be such an overwhelming emotion. It has the ability to paralyze people from interacting with each other in order to avoid the rejection or ridicule they fear will happen if they do. This was the case for the catfish who reported creating fake online personas to have anxiety free social contact. Diagnoses like Social Anxiety and Panic Disorder can close people off from the outside world. Creating a profile where they don’t have to be themselves is a relational strategy to create “safe” connections with people. Unfortunately, this safety behavior can still have negative consequences even if the person’s deception isn’t revealed. The avoidance of authentic connection to manage anxious distress keeps a person trapped in their negative and fear based thought spirals. And when a meaningful love connection occurs through deception, self-esteem takes a hard blow because the person hasn’t really fallen in love with the real YOU. This painful truth reinforces core beliefs of being unlovable and the fear that if people knew the real you they would run the other way. Imagine how that fear is confirmed when the catfish is confronted and “rejected” by their online romantic partner. When you behave in a way that elicits the negative thing you believe in or fear the most it is known as a self fulfilling prophecy. The only way to prevent that from happening is to challenge or reality test the fearful beliefs and change the behaviors that supports them. It’s hard to do that when trapped behind a screen.
Anxiety and depression go hand in hand. Some symptoms of depression that underlie catfishing are low self-esteem, social isolation, worthlessness, and persistent negative and distorted thinking about self and others. One of the catfish in Season 1 had used his online connection of ten years to a girl he never met as a means of coping with depression and suicidal thoughts. He felt self-conscious and suffered from low self-esteem due to his weight. He assumed what the girl would probably think and feel about him if she saw what he really looked liked. This is a type of cognitive distortion known as mind reading. Finally meeting her in life challenged a lot of the beliefs that were keeping him from video chatting and meeting up with her. Another catfish had adopted an identity that she felt represented all the things she wished she was and got to live that imaginal “perfect” life through the profile to escape her depressive reality. On the flip side, some of those hooked by catfish also suffered from low self-esteem and depressive thinking. When an awesome, exciting, and beautiful person started complimenting them, they wanted to believe it was the real thing. Their mood and self worth became dependent on the external validation provided by the catfish. Revealing the deception triggered a downward spiral of hopelessness, worthlessness, and despair for some of the victims. Sadly, they are likely to fall prey again if they don’t learn how to cultivate validation from within. Sorry, Nev and Max, but those two month follow up video chats where everyone reports how great they’re doing – probably not that accurate.
Some of the most dramatic episodes involved people who catfish for revenge, to get a boost of attention, or to manipulate the victim into providing them monetary support. These catfish are in line with the cluster of personality disorders characterized by their “erratic and dramatic” behavior. Now for the disclaimer– in order to properly assess and diagnose someone with a personality disorder a mental health clinician has to take into account a lot of information including developmental history, family dynamics, trauma exposure, and a host of “rule outs” of other disorders that better explain the problem behavior(s). Moving on…
The three most commonly known disorders in this cluster are Borderline, Anti-Social, and Narcissistic Personality Disorder(s). Catfishing as an act of vengeance for being “wronged”(e.g. one catfish created a fake profile for the purposes of emotionally and financially destroying an ex who had cheated) or to test the limits of one’s love without regarding how that will impact the other person could be interpreted as “borderline” behavior. That shift from love to hate and back again speaks to that erratic emotional state experienced by someone with the disorder in response to perceived abandonment or rejection. The resulting behavior could include threatening to commit suicide or self-harm to keep the other person concerned about them, creating an illness or injury (i.e. what Max referred to as the two C’s – cancer or a car crash) as an excuse that will prevent the person from rejecting or abandoning them, or giving ultimatums such as demanding that the person move, travel large distances to meet them, or make grand gestures to show that their love is “real” only to have the catfish stand them up or disappear for a time. This kind of emotional roller-coaster and instability is a disaster for both the catfish and the people they hook. They aren’t capable of stopping cold turkey without truly wanting to get off the roller-coaster. They will also need some intense therapeutic support to learn to manage their emotions and change their behavior.
And now for the scariest of catfish…
Both Anti-Social and Narcissistic Personality disorders have some level of what is known as schadenfreudeor deriving pleasure from someone else’s misfortune. Criminal behaviors like assuming someone’s identity to commit fraud (e.g. one catfish manipulated multiple victims to pay her bills and buy the things she wanted, then glibly blamed them for falling for it) or to slander a person’s reputation for “fun” (e.g. one catfish was arrested when she orchestrated a sexual encounter between a well-known athlete and a woman she didn’t know was a minor resulting in him being labeled a pedophile and almost destroying his career) display a lack of empathy and manipulation of people’s emotions to inflate a fragile sense of self. In one of the episodes, a victim whose identity was being used by a number of catfish expressed how a stranger grabbed her on the street and demanded to know why she had stopped talking to him. The woman became so guarded that she barely socialized or went out alone. While one of her catfish was confronted and the fake profile dismantled within a few days, this woman’s hypervigilance and the blow to her sense of identity will probably take a much longer time to undo.
The Catfish relationship take away…
The show identifies a number of “red flags” (see above) to look for when talking to someone online, whether you’re interested in dating or friendship. It also provides a few helpful investigative strategies to use if you suspect that the person might be a catfish. That being said, I think it’s important to also set what I call safe expectations before trying to date anyone on an online platform or app.
Your safe expectations should keep in mind the following three statements:
If it’s too much and too soon, it’s misattuned!
Don’t question your judgment with this. It takes time to get to know someone and that offer of all your hopes and dreams in a “perfect” package right from the beginning is just not realistic. If it’s the real deal, this person will not become upset if you slow the pace down. They will also not react with anger or ghost you when you set a limit. Using the phrase, “I’m really enjoying the process of getting to know you” followed by the limit you want to set shows a healthy boundary and sets the pace by which you want to open yourself up to this person. Don’t fall prey to statements that push back at that limit with “loving” manipulation such as “but you’re the perfect woman and everything I’ve been looking for…why are we waiting?” or “we’re adults and don’t have to play games.” Some version of these two repeat themselves in a variety of online dating courtships. If they get mad or ghost you, ’twas your gain in the end.
Your time is precious and your own to give.
This is the opposite of “too much, too soon.” If you find that you’re spending a lot of time trying to make something as basic as a phone call happen, you need to take back your most precious commodity. It’s wasteful and emotionally exhausting. Use that time to engage in self-care and to meet someone who’s more present and available…and real.
If it doesn’t feel good in your mind and body, it isn’t.
Powerful is the mind and body (gut) connection. Our bodies sometime react before our minds have a chance to process the “warning.” If you find that you’re experiencing some kind of somatic reaction when interacting with someone, check in with yourself. I’ll share my own experience with this one.
A few years ago, I had been talking to someone for about a month and feeling what I thought was a deep connection starting to develop between us. As we were trying to lock down a date to meet up with much excitement coming from both ends of the phone, I ignored some clear physical reactions that only made sense after this person did the slow fade to ghosting. Mixed with his compliments and flirts were little passive aggressive statements. I wasn’t picking up on them consciously, but my body was reacting to them with what looked like a rash on my chest and neck. This rash had occurred in the past in response to a loved one splitting on me (i.e. shifting from loving to rejecting without understanding what I had done.) My body knew this person was going to split before my brain processed the evidence for it.
Trust in the wisdom of your gut – it’s primal and straightforward unlike the stories we weave and tell ourselves to rationalize or deny shit experiences. Leave the stories and the drama for reality tv.
Additional sources of information on the mental health issues discussed in this post:
The term “self-care” has been getting a bad rap ever since it became a buzz word. It has gotten to the point where saying that you’re taking a “mental health day” or “technology fast” is met with ironic glares and eye rolls. Can we stop the shade for a moment and think about how language is the key factor here? What does self care mean to you? Get to the heart of the need and call it by its name. For me, self-care is a reset. This resonated with a number of people in my personal and professional life.
We all need a reset.
The world needs a collective reset.
But I digress…
I took my reset in the form of a month away in the land of my ancestors. The Mediterranean sun, salt, and siestas reset my overwrought nervous system within two weeks of being there. The home cooked cuisine consisting of sun ripened vegetables and fruits, dark breads, soft aged cheeses, and freshly caught seafood reset my overactive gut; the place where stress tends to set up shop in my body. I returned to the city three days ago, but not to the grind. I find myself being fiercely protective of my healing energy and I will tell you why.
Like many New Yorkers, I am a hustler running to get as much done in a day to keep my head above the water line and my eye on the prize. This isn’t necessarily earning me any merit badges. This last year was especially challenging given that between my work, full time graduate study, and clinical internship I left myself only one day in a week to take care of ME. Just ONE day. No wonder my guts were contorting inside of me along with my mood. A good friend and fellow therapist gifted me a deck of daily “self care” cards. Everyday I would shuffle and pull a card out. Some days I was a BOSS about doing what the card instructed. Other days, I would look at the card and think impossible. I am lucky that my one month sabbatical actually was as curative as it ended up being. On the flight back home, I thought about how I was going to maintain this reset in an environment full of triggers. Here’s the list I came up with, which I am sharing with you all. I may not be able to control the environment around me, but I can control the one inside of myself.
(1) Go be in nature – walk along the boardwalk and inhale the sea air, walk barefoot on the sand or grass covered earth to literally ground my energy, lean my body against the trunk of a large tree and release the day into its embrace, or take a long walk across uneven terrain and appreciate how my body moves to keep me balanced.
(2) Cook the foods of my ancestry – recreate the meals that healed my gut and renewed my spirit. Channel giagia’s culinary muse and cook for myself like she would have done for us kids.
(3) Speak my language – hearing and speaking Greek activates different parts of my brain and psyche. My mother tongue is sometimes more effective at expressing intense thoughts and feelings. Allow myself to talk shit if that’s what comes up…nothing is as satisfying as cursing something or someone out in Greek. Greek curses are EPIC and I always laugh afterwards when I think about the direct English translation.
(4) Disconnect – unplugging from other people’s life dramas both in vivo and tech is VITAL. I had limited access to a stable wifi signal while I was away, so I couldn’t really peruse anyone’s content or engage with them for an extended period of time. This was AMAZING. I used the precious little time to interact with only select people and using minimal communication, which is a sharp contrast to the long responses I normally give. I want to continue this. Less is so much more and my contact boundary must shift to reflect that. Embrace the real life company of loved ones and those who reciprocate energy ONLY. Ondos! (Greek for “indeed.”)
It has always been difficult for me to reconcile how people with flawed characters can effectively do “God’s” work. Energy work from the shadows seems counter intuitive and a bit disarming to me.
I’ve done a lot of internal work in the past year to let go of my idealism when it comes to people’s intentions. My intuition has always hinted that something might be off, but I convince myself that all people who do energy work are truly “good,” come from God, and are of their word. This is where the “free will” aspect described in so many religious texts comes into play. We may be endowed with special gifts that can heal others; however, what we do with ourselves and those gifts is completely governed by our own free will. There’s a huge part of me that wants some kind of divine intervention to “out” all of this behavior to protect myself and others, but that doesn’t happen. As we become a little wiser about the intent behind the behavior or separate the mean girl/guy/person from the healer, we can understand that our humanity is a dichotomy. We all have a shadow side to balance the light. One may work with the light, but live their life within that shadow. One may use the light for both the greater good and the shadow side’s desire for ego feeding – fame, notoriety or control over a market or population. To understand human nature allows for the reconciliation of this dichotomy in the healing and energetic professions. These aren’t deities on earth.These arehuman beings, with all kinds of contradictory aspects to their character. If you can appreciate the work and arrest it from the flawed human, it will be received better in your being. We are all a piece of the collective energy that some call God, the universe, or the vortex. That’s what we can work with. Let the shadow stuff stay in the shadows.
And now for my soap box moment…
There is a hypocrisy in the judgment laden messages from some energy workers to anyone that doesn’t echo their Kool-Aid. If they aren’t being agreed with or validated, they will engage in what amounts to social bullying – publicly blocking, unfollowing, and promoting the shaming of their targets. One particularly disturbing form of shame is to assert that the target is aligning with toxic masculinity/patriarchy. It is a term that is loosely thrown around these days, but I am not sure if the implications of such an accusation are completely understood. It fills me with a foreboding sense of loss because it often happens between women. Women, especially healers, have been the targets of hate and abuse throughout history at the hands of religious leaders, governing bodies, and the patriarchy. It’s hard to reconcile how those who stand for female empowerment and rage against this history, also engage in it in a purposeful manner toward other women on these social platforms. I think everyone could benefit from a little psychoeducation, and a course in social and cultural competency to better understand how their shadowy behavior impacts the collective consciousness of our society. Until then, I’ll keep my head turned toward the light.
For the past few days preceding the new year 2019, many people were blowing up their social media profiles with collages of a year in review. Actually, let me correct that and say MOST people. This was especially the case on Instagram, although Facebook and Snapchat were no slouches. Let’s not also forget the iPhone’s penchant for sending unsolicited “Moments” to many users as the year wound down to its close. Some of those moments weren’t very “smart” while others were too much so. What people tend to forget is that all of these images and snapshots of life only represent a fraction of a life being lived. All these carefully curated lives are flooding our ability to reality test as we scroll, check, and comment. They have the power to trigger a range of negative emotions and automatic thinking of oneself that I would compare to self-torture. How do we override this or do we even want to?
One of the major complaints a client shared with me was how accomplishments cannot be faked. When this client sees posts of college graduations, new homes, or weddings the negative self-appraisal switch gets activated. It’s easier for her to dismiss the filtered faces and Photo-shopped bodies because they are “obvious” in their fakery. Here begins the exploration of what is meaningful about these accomplishments using a form of reality testing known asThe Socratic Method. For this client, graduation meant attaining higher education that will get someone a better salary and financial stability. This belief has three parts to it, one of which is TRUE. Graduating college is attaining a higher education in the form of whatever degree is earned – TRUTH; however the type of degree earned can reality test the other two parts. The person she saw in the graduation photo may have earned a degree in History with a minor in Art. Does that automatically set them up for a particular job? Will that job have a salary that is “better” than hers? Will that person have financial stability as a result of the job and salary that their degree garnered them? The belief obviously falls apart. The one part that is true is parsed from the distorted beliefs attached to it. This helped get my client thinking about her tendency to make assumptions and self-torture based on what she saw on social media.
Another client’s depression was triggered when his iPhone sent him a selection of images titled “Holiday Moments.” The images reminded him of the awful break up he experienced the previous Thanksgiving, and how his family had picked apart his life over the recent Christmas break. What he expressed about the images gave the impression that they were painful to look at, so much so that they caused him to have a depressive episode. Reflecting these feelings back to him padded the landing for the following challenge – if these photos are so painful, why would you want to keep them in your phone? This led to an exploration of what it would feel like to delete the photos and how he was holding himself back from dating due to self-blame for his relationship ending. He decided he wasn’t ready to delete the photos, but it got him thinking about his own self-torture i.e. using images to justify the “story” he tells himself that perpetuates and maintains his depression.
I looked at the collages of various friends and acquaintances throughout the Holidays, some of which I knew had a particularly challenging year. I found myself becoming annoyed and even angry at the discrepancies between their curated lives and the ones they were living in real time. Part of my reaction was rooted in the many hours I gave audience to their hurt feelings, struggles, and inability to take action to change their negative circumstances. I knew the truth and it angered me that they couldn’t own it. That being said, I also know how incredibly difficult it is to acknowledge the above and resist the urge to get a self-esteem boost outside of the situations that are bringing you down by “false advertising.” We have ALL been there and our brain chemistry facilitates this behavior. There is a region of the brain that floods with dopamine every time we experience something novel or receive a reward. It gets activated when we receive positive reinforcement for the images and moments of our lives we share on social media. It can quickly escalate from an occasional mood fixer to an almost addictive need to post and check for likes and complimentary comments. These behaviors don’t give us the same reward of feel good chemicals. If anything, they give us less unless we escalate our activities.
The reality in the unreality of social media is that we humans are social creatures. We make meaning of our existence in relationship to others. Our self-judgment is part of the driving force behind curating our lives for the eyes of others. What happens when the careful selections don’t get us many likes or comments or worse, when they become the target of trolls and bullies? We become trapped in a negative feedback loop that maintains the dysfunctional cycle of seeking gratification for a life not lived as we would like it, but as we want others to perceive it. Before you post, think about the expectations you have of sharing the content. Whatever these are, they can serve as your personal barometer to test whether or not you’ve fallen prey to this cycle. A little less self-torture in 2019 is a great intention to set and more importantly, to SHARE.
Some recommended reading:
The New York Times: This Is Your Brain Off Facebook (article pub. 2/01/2019)
Planning on quitting the social platform? A major new study offers a glimpse of what unplugging might do for your life. (Spoiler: It’s not so bad.)