I often hear clients talk about feeling disappointed or embarrassed by not being able to do something they were once able to do. For example, plane travel was once a breeze, but now you feel crippling anxiety when you board a flight and long trips are out of the question. Or maybe you used to be in shape, but now you struggle with body image or physical limitations. We have a tendency to reflect on the glory days or when things were “easier” and compare that with how things are in the present. When we compare our past selves to our present selves, it’s difficult to avoid feeling badly if the past represents a “better” version of us. How do we break this tendency? By focusing on the mirror and not the picture.
Let’s look at an example.
Jessica is in her 30s and has a full time job and 3 kids. She doesn’t have as much energy as she used to. She’s having some depressive thoughts and she’s gained some weight in the last few years. She has a picture of herself on her dresser from 5 years ago. When she looks at the picture, she sees youthful energy, self-confidence, and a happier person. When she walks away from that picture, she feels sadness because she doesn’t fit that description as much anymore. When Jessica makes efforts to “get back to who she used to be”, she finds herself discouraged that she’s not making as much progress as she hoped. She finds herself chasing something that may not be attainable or requires more hours in the day than Jessica has available.
Enter the mirror. When Jessica looks in the mirror, she sees a representation of her current abilities and circumstances. The person staring back is the most up to date version of herself. In comparison to the picture from 5 years ago, this updated version may feel obsolete or deficient. She can think of many things that she no longer is able to do and it brings on negative thoughts about herself.
Now, imagine that Jessica assesses her current abilities and sets a goal to walk a little further today than she did yesterday. This feels like an achievable goal. If she meets her goal of walking a little bit further, she’s made an improvement she can feel good about. Sure, she may not be close to running 3 miles like she did before; but when she uses her mirror image to set goals, she only considers her current circumstances.
Now, I’m not suggesting that everyone toss out old pictures of themselves. I am merely suggesting we remind ourselves that pictures from the past represent a completely different time and context. Work with what you have now, not with what you had a long time ago. When we update our files and redefine progress, we have an opportunity to give ourselves a break and reach goals informed by today’s standards. And maybe consider adding more updated pictures of your life that can affirm all that you have accomplished.