How to harden the fuck up already
March 17, 2008 9:45 PM   Subscribe

I feel too much. Help me stop.

Background: I’m middle-aged, healthy with no hormonal imbalances and non-theist. I have reasonable self-esteem. I’m not depressed (have been before, so I know the difference.) I find my overwhelming emotions make my life unpleasant. This is not new. It’s always been this way. I’ve done cognitive behaviour therapy , successfully I believe. I understand about automatic negative self talk etc. Yes, I’ve been to psychologists – they seem to think I’m fine.

Most of the time, my rational side which is saying, “okay, you’re upset about this, but it’s no big deal” can’t win over my emotional side which is saying “oh god, it hurts, make it stop.” I find myself unable to focus on my tasks, even if I’m successful in not thinking about the event that precipitated these feelings. Sometimes, I feel so bad, I want to be sick. Even after I’ve resolved the issue successfully, I have this ball of anxiety in my stomach.

For the most part, this battle remains internal. Colleagues and family usually have no idea that I’m devastated. But it affects my life in that I don’t really want to involve myself in activities that involve other people because of the risk I (my feelings) will be hurt. I also avoid (necessary) conflict and when I do engage, my internal reaction is often disproportionate to the matter.

Some things that upset me include a mildly negative review of my work, being misunderstood in a conversation, the potentiality for making someone else upset, people on askme calling me unkind things. I know it’s ridiculous. I know I’m acting like a special little snowflake. I know everybody deals with disappointment and disapproval on a daily basis without freaking out. I don’t want to be like this. I want to be able to shrug off these things, like you do. I don’t want to care. I’d rather not use drugs, if there’s any alternative.

Help me stop feeling so much. If I can’t stop it, how can I make it less intrusive?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (21 answers total) 42 users marked this as a favorite
 
I know it’s ridiculous. I know I’m acting like a special little snowflake. I know everybody deals with disappointment and disapproval on a daily basis without freaking out.

There's a lot to talk about here, and I trust others will be in soon with good general advice.

I'd just like to point out that if you keep kicking yourself for feeling bad, it's going to keep making you feel worse. Annoying as it sounds, the first step out of this mess might involve learning to accept that you're in it.
posted by nebulawindphone at 9:50 PM on March 17, 2008


I know it’s ridiculous. I know I’m acting like a special little snowflake. I know everybody deals with disappointment and disapproval on a daily basis without freaking out.

Well, being self aware is a good step toward addressing the issue. A few thoughts:

When you find yourself falling into this cycle of thinking try and change your immediate environment. Go for a walk, step out for some fresh air, get away from your desk, or computer screen, or office for a few minutes. Go for a drive. I think you may find that as you change your surroundings your feelings will change too. Suddenly whatever it was that you were fretting about doesn't seem like such a big deal when you're able to stroll through a park, or whatever.

Also, continue to pursue professional help. It sounds like you've been doing that for a while. If this really is as big of a deal as you make it out to be I would be very up front with my therapist about it. Walk in and say, "Look, I know we've been talking about this and that, but *this* is the big deal that is cripling my life right this moment..." Make it clear that this is a real problem and they will work with you to address it.

Sorry I can't offer my specific advice. Good luck!
posted by wfrgms at 10:02 PM on March 17, 2008 [2 favorites]


I definitely feel the same way sometimes. My theory is that it stems from growing up in a family where I was actively discouraged from expressing any negative feelings - the old "stop crying or I'll give you something to cry about!" school of child-rearing. Part of me still feels like negative feelings are inherently dangerous and will hurt me somehow. I also didn't learn a whole lot of self-calming techniques.

I'm trying hard to learn that having negative feelings isn't me being bad - everyone gets grumpy or irritated or sad. Instead of freaking out and trying to deny them, or feeling like being sad is going to make me die, I'm focusing on how to go along with them and release them. Releasing them is different than bottling them up and hoping they'll go away. CBT is great for preventing instances of irrational anger or anxiety, but if your therapists haven't been helping you learn how to work through bad feelings (rather than preventing them in the first place,) it's time to find someone who can.

Deep breathing, meditation, and vigorous aerobic exercise help. Writing them down does *not* help me; I'm a brooder, and writing just makes me brood more. Exploring programs for people who have anger management problems or panic attacks has been helpful.
posted by freshwater_pr0n at 10:07 PM on March 17, 2008 [6 favorites]


you describe your battle as internal. I believe this is a mistake. The feelings you don't let out don't Get out, or get out via some nasty physiological problem. It sounds to me like you're dealing with a build up of small annoyances and disappointments over time which you never let out, so now events you don't intellectually consider too major are throwing your mind for a loop because of the weight it's already carrying.

When something bugs you tell your friends and family. You may fear boring or annoying them and that's commendable of you, but just a comment to let them know what you're feeling will probably help a great deal. EVen though there may be nothing they can do, I believe the act of expressing your problems to them will relieve a great burden.
posted by oblio_one at 10:16 PM on March 17, 2008


I think you might want to look into the concept of being a so-called "highly sensitive person". Perhaps once you learn more about that concept you will view your situation as something other than a problem.
posted by fuse theorem at 10:23 PM on March 17, 2008


Your description of yourself sounds familiar to me. I used to feel what I described as "sensory overload" in terms of emotions. Anti-anxiety medication helps me immensely. I just started it 3 months ago, and I can't believe the difference. It doesn't stop me from feeling, it just stops the runaway "Oh gawd, I can't handle this" crap, and it lets me focus and gain perspective.
posted by amyms at 10:53 PM on March 17, 2008 [1 favorite]


Regular vigorous exercise often helps tremendously in managing stress and strong emotions.

I know that you're really reluctant to take medication but if you've been working on this your whole life and talk therapy isn't helping, then you might just be one of those people that needs medication to balance out their brain chemistry. Since a common complaint of people on anti-depressants, anti-anxiety meds, etc. is that they can't feel emotions anymore, that might be just what you're looking for.
posted by Jacqueline at 11:24 PM on March 17, 2008


You are the story you tell yourself. Start telling yourself a different story.
There are a few exercises you might try to get a handle on this. Have you heard of the emotional ABC's? It could help you in this situation. It's described in these two books:
The Client's Guide to Cognitive-behavioral Therapy
and a little more basically in :
Mind Performance Hacks
it's build on Ellis' design.
but you are probably familiar with that if you have used CBT successfully in past.
If you are looking to modify your behavior in another manner, you might try a behaviourist approach.

But sometimes, you can't beat these things on your own and that's OK. You mention that you haven't talked about these feelings with those that care about you, and I wonder why you haven't explored these issues with them. If you don't feel comfortable talking about your anxieties with them, it might be time to start looking for a therapist. It's not big here in the states, but I think you would benefit from someone who practiced a "client centered" approach to therapy.
posted by bigmusic at 11:54 PM on March 17, 2008 [1 favorite]


Yes, I’ve been to psychologists – they seem to think I’m fine.
The anxiety you describe and the avoidant behavior are in interferring with your life. Anxiety and avoidant behavior are normal, but when they affect your life in the way you lay out -- it's not.
posted by bigmusic at 11:59 PM on March 17, 2008


Most of the time, my rational side which is saying, “okay, you’re upset about this, but it’s no big deal” can’t win over my emotional side which is saying “oh god, it hurts, make it stop.”

Trying to fight it just gives it more energy. It's better to cultivate a practice of acknowledging your feelings in a dispassionate way. In other words, just describe to yourself as accurately as you can what's going on without making any judgement. This is basically the same way that you would handle thoughts that arise during meditation.

When you can say to yourself in a neutral internal tone "I'm feeling upset about X", your brain will add a silent, subconscious "and that's OK" to the end of the sentence. Now you're a step closer to getting yourself back together.

In other words, work on accepting your emotions, and they will have less power over you. It's just like trying to resolve a disagreement with another person, you need to start from a point of view where you both accept each others right to feel how you feel before you can make any progress.
posted by tomcooke at 2:50 AM on March 18, 2008 [5 favorites]


seconding amyms- I'd been taking zoloft for something else, but I found that one of its best benefits was it helped give me the ability to not be afraid of my emotions. It allowed me to feel what I was feeling, but to not get bent out of shape about it.

Talk to a psychiatrist, and mention exactly how this is affecting your life. (Psychologists are great, but they have a limited tool set to work with.)
posted by gjc at 4:16 AM on March 18, 2008


i have found great success with an antianxiety medication as well. i know my issues are biological in origin, however, but you might want to speak with a psychiatrist about combining medication and therapy.

sometimes it's just a matter of breaking the habits of thought and/or changing your reactions to the emotions. medication can help you until you get the hang of the new techniques, like training wheels on a bicycle or a splint on a sprained ankle. it puts the fires out so you can manage the rest of the damage.

good luck.
posted by thinkingwoman at 4:34 AM on March 18, 2008


Some MeFites don't like the concept of 12 step programs, but Emotions Anonymous is helpful to those who can work within the 12 step format.
posted by Xurando at 4:46 AM on March 18, 2008


It sounds like you're badly in need of some perspective -- so many people have problems far worse than yours. How about volunteering somewhere (e.g. a shelter, a soup kitchen)? It might help you realize how relatively easy your life is, and you would be doing some good at the same time.

Also ditto the suggestions of regular exercise.
posted by boomchicka at 6:12 AM on March 18, 2008


You and I should start a knitting circle.

Anyway, you might try a little coping trick that helps me - whenever you feel anxious, say it out loud to yourself. Just say, "I'm really anxious." Then, figure out what's making you anxious. If it's because you're going to a picnic, say, and you feel like you're on display in group settings, say it out loud. "I feel anxious because I'm going to this picnic and I feel like I'm on display in group settings." Then, say exactly what you fear is going to happen, but say it as if it is actually going to happen, not that you feel that it will, and take it to the absolute nth degree of awful. For example, "I'm going to trip on a root and fall face forward into the potato salad and then I'm going to spill my bloody mary on Pam's white cashmere sweater. Then, I'm going to say something really idiotic and conversation will grind to a halt because everyone will be thinking, "Wow. What an idiot." And then I'm going to embarrass myself by crying when I lose the touch football game because I completely suck at sports and everybody is going to point and laugh at me just like those scenes in movies where people point and laugh at the asshole and everybody will shun me and I will die alone in a puddle of my own filth." Try it right now, in fact. "Everybody on askMe is pointing and laughing at their computer screens right now because I am the most fucked up person that ever asked an askMe on askMe. I'm worse than the people who ask if it's weird to fantasize about having sex with patio furniture or the others who ask what pliers work best for declawing a roommate's elderly cat. I fail askMe."

Put simply, don't try not to beat yourself up over something - really beat yourself up over it. Now, this sounds awful. But your fears may also sound ridiculous to your own ears. You may even find yourself laughing at the level of your own ridiculousness. But you may also feel better that you've given voice to your worst fears about a certain situation and you will have also set the bar for whatever interaction you're nervous about really low. That way, whatever does happen, it will almost always be better than your imagined alternative.

I don't know if it's the same for you, but I've also found that sometimes the anxiety I feel over actually being anxious is worse than what's making me anxious. I know enough now after years of therapy to know that my fears make me anxious, and I get anxious when I start to fall into this pattern - really frustrating, because I know better. But I also know that trying to stave off my anxiety or deny it only makes the problem worse. So, I just kick myself around beforehand and listen to myself imagining these ridiculous, awful things that never come to pass. And afterward, I can pat myself on the back for not tucking my skirt into my pantyhose and walking around my friend's wedding with my arse hanging out, like I imagined I surely would because I am such a loser and everybody's knows it.

Lastly, a different kind of therapy may help you understand why you feel how you feel and accept yourself warts and all. Best of luck.
posted by TryTheTilapia at 6:29 AM on March 18, 2008 [3 favorites]


This might sound wacky, but sometimes engaging in very logical activities can quiet the mind--ie logic puzzles, chess, something where you really have to focus in order to achieve anything.
posted by sweetkid at 6:37 AM on March 18, 2008


You're getting a big blast of adrenalin in certain situations. It's a physical thing that's real, happening in your body. Several people in my family experience a similar thing -- one feels a lot of anger, one worries constantly about things that are very unlikely to happen, another is very anxious about interacting with other people (in the way you describe yourself). To me it seems like they/we all have the same basic condition, showing itself in different ways. Some little thing causes a big overreaction; it feels terrible when it's happening, and the aftermath is different but just as bad.

Cognitive therapy has a lot of value, but it can help only so much. It can even hinder you, if it makes you believe you should be able to handle emotions that really are too much. To me, it sounds like you're saying, "I shouldn't have this problem, I should be able to control my emotions, or not react the way I do." Well, sometimes, you just can't do all that inside your head.

Meditation and excercise can help, especially because they cause physical changes that help calm you. You're already doing the right cognitive things; give your body a chance to do its part. And medications can help a great deal. Are you opposed to trying an ssri? They're not just for depression -- the're a huge help with anxiety as well. They moderate that exaggerated fight-or-flight response.

I really wish you well. I know how hard it is.
posted by wryly at 8:07 AM on March 18, 2008 [2 favorites]


From what I understand, this type of extreme anxiety is due to the outcome of similar situations that occured in the past (having not learned a healthy coping mechanism for such types of events), along with the false idea that if you had done something differently, then the [anxiety producing event or idea/mistake/other persons reaction] could have been avoided.

The thing to realize is that how other people respond to you is not something that you have control over. The way people react in whatever situation is a direct result of their insecurities and coping style; just as the way you react in a situation is with anxiety over how it could have been avoided.

You may find the book Self-Coaching by Joseph Luciano helpful (I highly recommend it).
posted by zippity at 8:46 AM on March 18, 2008 [3 favorites]


Your desire to be hardened may be a reaction of anger to those things that hurt you. The characters in our mythologies who are classic examples of the "hardened" people are generally portrayed as very capable of dealing out hurt and who display very little emotion. However, those characters are also portrayed as very joyless, the flip side of their hardening. (Probably one of the more commonly known examples would be Batman.)

As for inducing calm, try using the body's connection to emotion, as opposed to the mind's. Purposefully slow and deep breathing, for example, is something that in most people is biologically hardwired to induce a state of calm. You could also consider environmental mechanisms: white noise, running water, etc.

I think that there are most likely events or emotions from your past that are powering these reactions, making them more hurtful for you than they are for most people. Once the hidden causes of these reactions are found and brought into your conscious mind, your conscious mind can then start working on them. While they're still buried inside, you can address the emotional symptoms, but you aren't addressing the root causes. I think the reactions you share with us indicate that the root causes haven't been discovered yet, and I think you need a therapist who's willing to spend time helping you discover them; if therapists you have seen feel your therapy is done, then I think you need to seek other therapists, because I don't think you are done.
posted by WCityMike at 8:58 AM on March 18, 2008 [1 favorite]


Sitting meditation. At least twice a day, for at least ten minutes at a time, but with more as needed. Ideally, time spent in meditation gives you a space where you're able to let the tangle of emotions work themselves out on a semi-conscious level. Over time, you should find that that emotional processing becomes quicker and more automatic in your conscious life.

I find myself unable to focus on my tasks, even if I’m successful in not thinking about the event that precipitated these feelings. Sometimes, I feel so bad, I want to be sick. Even after I’ve resolved the issue successfully, I have this ball of anxiety in my stomach.

I think the issue here is that you're using logic to deal with the workings of your mind and soul, which are often deeply illogical things. That's not to say that rational, logical responses have no place in "talking oneself down" from that anxiety (certainly they do!), but I've found that for my own mind, logic can only take me so far. When I'm seized by that anxiety-ball feeling you're speaking of, it's more like dealing with an angry dog; you can't explain to the dog that it needs to calm down, but you can soothe it.

So here's the gist of the meditation I've done, pretty much since I've been twelve or so:

Sit, cross-legged and back relatively straight, in a comfortable position. With a pillow beneath you, if the floor is too uncomfortable. You should be somewhere solitary, where you won't be disturbed or self-conscious. Close your eyes, and envision a point of light somewhere in front of you. Focus on that. Breathe in for four counts, "1, 2, 3, 4". Hold for two counts. Breathe out for four counts. Repeat, again and again, focusing on the light, trying to avoid thinking in words or pictures. You don't have a goal or endpoint; you're simply becoming more still, more calm, your mind is spreading out beyond the scope of your brain's normal activity, your sense of self is becoming less acute, the rest of existence is seeping in and permeating your own personality.

On a practical level, what's worked for me:
1) Doing this in a non-human area. The woods, or a field, or somewhere where I don't have to deal with people. I've found this was best in light of the fact that almost everything I would worry about could ultimately be traced back to other humans.
2) Using a particular sensory stimulus as a signal that this time is different from the rest of your waking hours. Some folk I know would use one of those bell chimes when beginning this; I always found the smell of smoke calming, so I would burn a cone of cedar incense.
3) Focusing on the area of the "third eye" and envisioning a connection, a sort of light-bridge, between the third eye and the point of light in front of you.

When I started doing this as a youth, it would help calm me and re-center me (which was something of a revelation, as I've always been anxious as all hell). Over years and with regular practice, I had to do this less and less, because I found I could access this kind of mindfulness more easily in the middle of conversations and such.

You mention wanting to be able to shrug things off, and to not care about things so much -- to "harden the fuck up already". If that's really what you want, my answer is probably useless and should be deleted, but I don't know of any way to make oneself more callous without also losing empathy, wonder, and a sense of consequentiality. The meditation route is an alternative to "hardening up," allowing for more control without losing what I see as some of the better aspects of humanity. To use a metaphor: If your emotions are a torrent of water, I'd characterize "hardening up" as the construction of a dam; meditation's restful alertness is more like building a sailboat. It might feel a bit less secure, but you can't go anywhere with a dam around you.

Anyway, I don't know from Buddhism or Transcendental Meditation cults or anything, I was just raised as a Unitarian Universalist (in b4 dirty hippie). If you're interested in a meditation-based approach to working with your emotions, you might try to get in touch with a UU church in your area (it seems like the more New-Agey, non-Christ-centered ones tend to be better for this, but YUUMV). I'll bet you could find groups within or known by your local UU community that are focused on meditation practices (a quick Google for "uu church meditation", for example, led me to the website for a Lexington, MA church with a meditation group that meets twice a month). And as a non-theist, don't let the word "church" freak you out; UU is a religion like Switzerland is an international political influence.
posted by Greg Nog at 12:11 PM on March 18, 2008 [15 favorites]


Anonymous, your post has been in the back of my mind, and something occurred to me as I was walking: you're never as emotionally hard as you want to be. I've certainly desired what you express here, and it occurred to me: in many ways, I am hardened.

But it's entirely relative, and it's like adulthood -- the transition usually doesn't register in your head. It's not like all of a sudden, ka-BAM, I am now the goddamn Batman. There will always be things that hurt you unless you become so hardened as to be clinically sociopathic. And every time that you are hurt, you're going to wish that you could be hardened, because what you're really saying is, "I don't want anyone in the world to have the ability to inflict this particular hurt on me." But since you can't prevent every hurt, you can't fully harden up.
posted by WCityMike at 1:18 PM on March 25, 2008 [1 favorite]


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