Why do I freak out if I don't know why?
November 19, 2009 8:03 PM   Subscribe

I need help dealing with "unknown", especially in personal issues. I have an intense desire to know why something is happening, what someone's explanation is and I wind up a big ball of anxiety while overthinking it. I want to know how to be comfortable with just "not knowing", and how to be comfortable with the resulting feeling of not being able to control the situation.

This latest bout of stress is based on romantic relationship stuff, but I do this whole worrying/overthinking thing in other situations too. My marriage ended because my husband just didn't love me and didn't want to be married to me anymore. He couldn't tell me why, couldn't give me a reason (literally, he just said "I don't know")...he just didn't want me anymore. I asked him over and over again for any sort of explanation, but I never really got one. So I spent a lot of time trying to analyze and figure it out to no avail. I wanted to know what I did wrong so that I don't repeat the same mistakes again (I'm assuming I have control in this situation...even though I probably don't).

Currently, there's a guy I'm interested in and we've been talking for a while (we live 5 hours apart so don't physically see each other very often). He and I have a lot of history together and he has said he wants a relationship with me but he needs to deal with some issues first (which is true...he does need to get mentally pulled together). I thought things were going pretty well overall, but for the past 3 weeks I haven't heard a word from him. I've sent a couple of texts and left a couple of messages but never got a response. Tonight he did respond to a text saying that he lost his phone a "while back" and wasn't able to afford a replacement until yesterday. I texted back asking him to call me so we could catch up...and there's been no response.

So...I have no explanation for the silence over the past 3 weeks. I understand work gets in the way (he can't always have his phone with him) but I'm not sure I'm buying the whole lost phone explanation. Even though we don't have any official ties to each other, I'm getting closer and closer to just walking away from him, but it seems like I can't let myself go without knowing why. Once again, I keep telling myself that if I know what his explanation is, I would feel better about the whole thing. Maybe he's just not into me, but if I knew why he wasn't into me I could somehow do something to improve for the next time.

This has had me tied up in knots over the past week. Right now my entire life feels out of control, and I'm desperately searching for some way to have control over something meaningful. I don't know what's next for me, I'm still struggling with getting more comfortable with my new "singleness", although I thought things were getting better. I've just been utterly overwhelmed and paralyzed the past few days (again).

So, the question is: What can I do to be able to handle not knowing/the unknown, and what can I do to learn how to be OK with not feeling in control in these types of situations?

(I do have the next two days off with no commitments so I have time to do some intensive thinking/writing/exploring if you want to suggest something specific for me to focus on)
posted by MultiFaceted to Human Relations (20 answers total) 41 users marked this as a favorite
Would it help you to know that sometimes there really is no known answer? Also, you are assuming you did something wrong with your ex-husband that you can correct. Negative. You likely have nothing to correct. The current guy sounds like what you said, he needs to get his shit together mentally. He is depressed or something. Nothing you do will change that, but you can help him through it if he would just give you the chance. 5 hours away makes it hard to get the chance.

I do not know how to teach someone to just not worry about things you cannot control, but know that the world is broken down into two categories. Things you can affect and things you can accept. Worry and act on the former. The latter you just make the best of.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 8:35 PM on November 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I have an intense desire to know why something is happening, what someone's explanation is and I wind up a big ball of anxiety while overthinking it.

I'm going to guess that somebody close to you wasn't there for you as a kid. Maybe they left, maybe some one passed away, maybe they were physically there, but not there for you really. The problem with kids is they have this system to take cues from the parents and where there's something wrong with the relationship to the adults around them, it can leave a hypervigilant kid who takes the blame for no reason. So when that kid grows up and faces adversity, it reminds them of the thing they faced before and they try not to make any mistakes and take in all of the information they can possibly get to control the situation.

So what does that kid do now? Well, the first thing they do is get therapy. But they have to learn to untrust that gut feeling they've been following for the past whatever years. That means learning to recognize and feel the anxiety when it happens--usually by noticing behavior like obessing. You ask yourself what you're feeling right then and let yourself feel anxious and bad and whatever else. Don't try to answer your fears with logic or analyzing the situation--just feel afraid that this guy won't like you. Its ok to feel that way and it does hurt, but it lasts much shorter and is better for you in the end. Its that instinct to control and avoid that anxious feeling that makes you feel so bad. Just feel it and learn to be comfortable with the actually pretty short time you will feel it if you let it come.
posted by Ironmouth at 8:43 PM on November 19, 2009 [33 favorites]

From the PoV of a fellow traveller who suffers from the need to understand things before he can deal with them:
"I do not know how to teach someone to just not worry about things you cannot control, but know that the world is broken down into two categories. Things you can affect and things you can accept."
Well… I agree with the first part, but not the second. There's also the 3rd category of "things you can't affect or accept, but just have to deal with however you can".

Alas, I don't know exactly how you can train yourself to do that - in my case it was always there through my life (even as a little kid), was exacerbated by work, came to a head over a failed relationship (similar to your "I don't know", although mine was "sorry, I can't be bothered…"), and it took me a good 10 years or so of living broken to finally accept that the third category existed and I didn't have to care about it.

Actually, that was probably the key for me - learning that you don't have to care about things, particularly in cases where caring hurts you. YMMV.

As for
"I'm going to guess that somebody close to you wasn't there for you as a kid."
Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. Some of us are born that way, not traumatised into it.
posted by Pinback at 9:21 PM on November 19, 2009 [3 favorites]

I hate to be abrupt, but it sounds like he's [like your ex] too immature or whatever to give a reason, or can't think of/articulate a tangible reason for not being with you right now. And if he has some issues of his own, this new direction with you might feel overwhelming, enough for him to fumble and bow out ungracefully. Back off a bit and get on with whatever else takes your fancy for awhile.

And cos I've been there/felt it, it seem to me that when you've been abandoned by a such a significant person as a husband, the emotional stakes are very high when you get back out in relationship-land. Feeling 'abandoned' again is prompting your emotional 'why???'s and worries. Notice that these are feelings and try to remind yourself that you are not abandoned. It's just what might happen in the dating world - this might not be the best 'fit', get back out there and try another few. A friend read this book and it helped her during a time in her life that sounds very similar to yours.

And, again, not to be abrupt, it might be good to look outside of your circle of known others for a person to date. Just because you know him already, [and I know it feels a bit 'safer' than looking outside your acquaintance] doesn't mean it's a good thing to pursue. Five hours away, personal problems and already demonstrating distancing/isolating behaviours are not the greatest of recommendations to pursue this.
posted by honey-barbara at 10:25 PM on November 19, 2009 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I can relate to what you're feeling. I remember how all through my teens and 20s I used to ruminate and analyze everything. What I didn't realize then (but do now), is that I had a lot of unexpressed mental and emotional energy...and no outlet for it all. Much like a hyper kid who's locked indoors, what was going on in my head was a festering implosion of this mental state. Instead of being physically restless, I was mentally so, and stuck in a loop. It wasn't until I found a consistent place to put my thoughts that they became more manageable, and I didn't seek so much control of how others oriented to me, or how well I interpreted how others oriented to me. I found that outlet initially through blogging, where I could express my thoughts and find a voice (although, I don't recommend making those thoughts public at first, sheesh, what a trainwreck I was!) Later, my love of a particular subject (sociolinguistics) provided a direct way to 'ruminate', but with academic tools and a purpose for doing so. Nowadays I am able to even work on mental activities where the specific goal is to quiet the mind, stay in the moment, and let go (yoga, the tarot, daydreaming).

These things may not work for you. But I urge you to seek out mental activities that will. Maybe you like puzzles, or artistic expression, or mental/physical challenges. It may take you a while to find something that matches your headspace rhythms. All I know is that once you start mentally working on something specific, where you can become an expert in that domain (even if that domain is called 'daydreaming'), your control needs will wane and you'll care less about the unknowns. Right now it just sounds like misplaced energy. Embrace how thoughtful you are, and go find something self-involved and rewarding to do with all that richness of being.
posted by iamkimiam at 10:59 PM on November 19, 2009 [10 favorites]

If he wanted to be with you, he would be. He's not, so he's not.

Sometimes the reason is as simple as changing feelings. Like a stream, no person is the same at any two points in time. Maybe he knows the reason and he's not telling you to spare your feelings. Maybe he doesn't know the reason, but somehow things just feel wrong.

At any rate, it's wrong of him to string you along. If he wanted to break things off, he should have and not played this silly game of waiting.

People in 12 step programs say versions of the Serenity Prayer. I'm not religious, but I do like its sentiment and I think it applies here.

God grant me the serenity
To accept the things I cannot change;
Courage to change the things I can;
And wisdom to know the difference.

Good luck.
posted by inturnaround at 12:11 AM on November 20, 2009 [1 favorite]

Try finding ways to boost your confidence. A really confident person would no doubt be upset when dumped, but they wouldn't think

- oh no, what's wrong with ME that this happened
- maybe nobody will like me ever again
- I need to improve myself so that this doesn't happen next time
- I am such a failure

They would think

- Oh well, we weren't a good fit, maybe next time
- This guy is clearly a complete flake, I'm better off without him
- Actually I was pretty tired of that habit he had of picking his nose when he thought I wasn't looking
- hmm there is a cute guy in my evening class! maybe we could go out!

A confident person knows they have control over themselves and their actions, and that they will be fine in the long run, no matter the actions of others. They know that not everything everybody else does is about THEM, and that not everybody in the world has to love you for you to be a valuable person.

Perhaps you could find another area of life in which to boost your confidence. What are you really good at? Can you find a volunteering position in which you can make a difference with your skills? What do you enjoy doing? Maybe you could do more of it! Are there things you don't like about yourself? Make some positive steps towards changing those things. But do it for YOU, not for anybody else.
posted by emilyw at 12:35 AM on November 20, 2009 [3 favorites]

I think the answer to a lot of your unknowns is simply, "He's just not that into you." The self-help book by that title may help you come to understand that.

Stop wasting time on guys who aren't into you, so that you're free to meet and spend time with guys who are and who won't leave you wondering all the time about their intentions and emotions.
posted by Jacqueline at 12:39 AM on November 20, 2009

Multifaceted, I wish I had an answer for this other than what's been mentioned above but wanted to add that I'm like this, too. I do the same mental overthinking of "But, WHY?!!" For me, it boils down to a very unrealistic feeling that if I could logically understand a person's actions, those actions would sit easier with me.

And I still do it to some extent, but the truth is that after spinning myself into mental circles for years over other's actions, I never really have answers.

Can I truly ever explain why my ex is consistently hurtful to the kids? Why my mom likes to get in her digs? Why a colleague claimed my successful project as his own? No. I'll never know what's going on in someone's head.

The only thing that's ever worked for me is to name the feeling and try (this is the hard part) to get on with it. So, "I felt bad for my kids when my ex ignored them on Xmas," not "What is their dad thinking? Why would he do this to them? Why would he ignore his own kids? Doesn't his GF notice he's not spending Xmas with his children?", etc. makes it easier to get on with my life.

What helped me stop doing this was realizing not only how much power I was giving those who upset me every time I would start overthinking, but how spending all that time was taking me away from myself. If my mom was into insulting me, why was I reliving it over and over with the hope that somehow if I could "get" her actions, I'd feel better? I was letting her negative action take over my head, when there are birds, sunshine and other lovely things that can be there. She just keeps winning and further upsetting me when I torture myself with why. So that realization helped.

But back to your post, in my experience a 3-week silence in any relationship means someone isn't that interested.
posted by dzaz at 2:51 AM on November 20, 2009 [5 favorites]

Best answer: You say that some of your anxiety stems from not feeling in control of the situation. Perhaps it would help to rethink what it means to be "in control." To me, being in control means having the power to act in your own self-interest. Obviously, you need some information to determine which actions are in your own self-interest. But 9 times out of 10, this does not necessitate a crystal ball, an archeological dig into history, or Vulcan mind-meld into the mental processes of others. What is going on in the immediate present based on people's outward behaviors and statements can and should form the basis of your choices to act.

In the case of your present situation: it seems to me that you have plenty of information on which to base your actions already. He lives 5 hours away, he does not have his shit together currently, and he seems nonchalant about going incommunicado for 3 weeks. That is plenty of information on which to make a choice! You are absolutely in control, and can say "This is Not Good for Me."

In the case of your marriage: here your need to know is fueled by the desire to not repeat the same mistakes. Even if you did know every thing your ex-husband felt you did wrong, how can you trust his judgment? Those same things might be absolutely right for someone else, or things you can't/shouldn't change just to go pleasin' some guy.

If there is some area of concern that is likely to be a problem in most relationships, you don't need his word to figure it out. You can pick up any number of decent books on How Not to Relate in a Relationship, and if you find yourself reading along and going "uh huh, I did that," and "oops, that one too...", then again, you've got the info you need to act. Indeed, you're probably more likely to be able to actually hear and act positively on this sort of information coming from a neutral third party than from your ex.
posted by SomeTrickPony at 5:17 AM on November 20, 2009 [4 favorites]

Read Plato. Espically The Apology and Phaedo. I know this is kind of an abstract response to your question, but Socrates deals directly with the question of facing the unknown in these texts and I found it to be incredibly comforting.
posted by allymusiqua at 6:25 AM on November 20, 2009 [2 favorites]

Sometimes I notice myself obsessing over these kinds of details to avoid dealing with the feelings they cause. It's like if I keep my mind busy enough, my heart won't have to feel the hurt that the situation has created.

It's not true, and I found that just sitting with the feelings and meditating to slow my thoughts down worked wonders. When I felt the pain and the sadness and came to terms with it, it lessened somehow, and the need to obsess until I had An Answer went away.

I have also learned that sometimes there is no answer (or at least the other person won't give you an answer, which amounts to the same thing) or that sometimes, when you get the answer, you wish you hadn't. Better to work on acceptance and taking care of yourself than feeding that need.
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty at 6:25 AM on November 20, 2009 [5 favorites]

I agree with p_m. The world was a much better place for me when I realized that my obsession with knowing "why" was really just to avoid dealing with uncomfortable feelings. I guess I thought that maybe if I knew "why", then I could avoid it in those feelings in the future. However, that line of thought was a fool's errand. Every situation is unique and behaviors are often irrational. So to try and apply a rational approach to what is, by definition, irrational, is ... well ... irrational.
Of course I still analyze, but now, if I don't get why, I can assign it to its own category of something I'm just not able to understand right now. I file it away to come back to when I've gained more experience, but I've found that 99% of the time, there's no need to ever get back to it.
posted by forforf at 6:48 AM on November 20, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Hello, me! Seriously, I overanalyze freaking everything when it comes to relationships.

My marriage ended because my husband just didn't love me and didn't want to be married to me anymore. He couldn't tell me why, couldn't give me a reason (literally, he just said "I don't know")...he just didn't want me anymore. I asked him over and over again for any sort of explanation, but I never really got one.

This happened to me when a boyfriend left me for another woman. I wanted to know, why WHY WHY, and what made her better than me? He could have said "Well, you're a wonderful person but it just didn't work out," but I would have kept asking WELL WHY DIDN'T IT WORK OUT? This was ~10 years ago and his answer sticks with me to this day: "It's pointless for me to answer. There is nothing I can tell you that will erase what you already believe about yourself."

You think there's something wrong with you and that you are unlovable, and you really want to know what it is so that you can fix it. The thing is, there's nothing to fix, and no amount of fixing will really fix anything. There is no explanation.

What kind of ice cream do you like? Chocolate? Why? Why don't you like vanilla? What's wrong with vanilla? Why do you like the kind of music you like? What's wrong with other kinds of music? See? There really is no answer to something so subjective as taste.

I could probably write a book on this topic, but I don't have time, so I will highly recommend The Wisdom of Insecurity by Alan Watts, which deals directly with the whole fear of loss of control thing.

Feel free to memail me. Trust me, I know what you're going through. Oh, and start dating other people than the 3 week guy. If he gets his head on straight, great, but don't wait around for him. You don't have the tolerance for the lack of contact, and there is nothing wrong with that. Plus, he's full of shit - "I lost my phone" - srsly?
posted by desjardins at 7:17 AM on November 20, 2009 [10 favorites]

Best answer: Please read Surrendered Single. The book is not about being submissive to men or anything like that. It's all about letting go of the need to control relationships and control the actions/feelings/responses of men in relationships. You do what you need to do for yourself and allow men to do the same.

for the past 3 weeks I haven't heard a word from him. I've sent a couple of texts and left a couple of messages but never got a response.

After your first text message, he should have responded. He says he lost his phone; you don't believe it. Even if it were true, if he cared as much about you as you deserve to have someone care about you, he would have found another way to reach you (email? someone else's phone? a mutual friend?). So the next few texts and voicemails were attempts to make him respond, make him remember you. It's his choice to make whether he wants to contact you. You can't make him like/love you more. That is something you will never have control over in your entire lifetime. So either you trust him that he has stuff to work out/deal with and will contact you when he's ready, or you decide that you can't deal with this level of incommunication. In the first case, you leave him alone until he contacts you, and in the second, you leave him alone even when he finally does contact you.

Meanwhile, the fact that this one aspect of your life is throwing the rest of your life into a tailspin -- Right now my entire life feels out of control, and I'm desperately searching for some way to have control over something meaningful. -- tells me that you have nothing else going on in your life. Friends? Family? Activities? Clubs? Religious affiliations? And did you ever go to therapy after your divorce? I think it's normal to need some kind of explanation after years of marriage, but you are not entitled to that same level of explanation from guys you've been "dating" for a few months. I hope that with working through your feelings about the divorce and letting go of the need to "know why" from your ex-husband, you won't carry those feelings over to the rest of your relationships.

My advice right now is to absolutely 100000% stop contacting this long-distance guy. NO texts, NO calls, NO voicemails. Leave him alone. If and when he's ready to come back to you and be with you at a level that you're comfortable with (don't settle), then see where things go.
posted by thebazilist at 7:34 AM on November 20, 2009 [8 favorites]

And one more thing about knowing why -- let's say you knew the exact reason why this three-week guy is not calling you. Would it make a difference? The bottom line is that he isn't, and that's what should be dictating your behavior, feelings, and actions from this point forward. Maybe you think that if you knew his reason then you could "talk him out of it" or "convince" him to feel differently. You can't. Or maybe you're hoping it's the best case scenario -- he really did lose his phone. Well we know that even in that instance, he should still be finding a way to contact you if he knows/cares how upset you'll be not hearing from him for three weeks. Or maybe it was like, some huge misunderstanding and he's gonna tell you the reason and you'll be like "omigod, you thought that??? It's actually xyz" and you'll live happily ever after? No.

Ditto with the husband -- even if you knew the reason he didn't want to be with you anymore, it wouldn't change the fact that he didn't want to be with you anymore. You don't have the power to change his mind, or make him see things differently.

Maybe a good exercise would be to go through all the possible "whys" that you're obsessing over. Make a list and then look at each one and go "if this were true, how would that change things?" If the long-distance guy checked himself into a mental institution, then what? If he is lying comatose in a hospital, then what? If he met another woman and is too cowardly to tell me directly, then what? Then look at each one and think about how likely you want it to be, and how likely it really is. There will probably be a huge difference there. I hope that you'll realize that for each "why" the accompanying "then what" will be "I should go on with my life and find other things that make me happy -- learning Italian, dating other guys, moving to Indonesia."
posted by thebazilist at 7:46 AM on November 20, 2009 [4 favorites]

FYI, I have a diagnosed anxiety disorder, and medication has helped me curb these kinds of controlling behaviors. Just something to think about - I am not a doctor.
posted by desjardins at 11:33 AM on November 20, 2009

Response by poster: Ironmouth: You are on to something. I’ve been thinking a lot about my childhood. I was always the “smart one” in the family, which lead to me being the problem solver/fixer in the family. I distinctly remember being in elementary school and being the only one that could reset the VCR clock every time the electricity went off. (Seriously...it would just blink unless I fixed it...most of the time my parents asked me to fix it). I think that’s feeding into my need to know why and to control things.

Iamkimiam: You are on to something as well. I always want to have my mind occupied, which usually means that I’m multitasking or switching between projects/ideas constantly. I thought about what you said and I realized that lately the only thing I’ve been using to occupy my mind is work (which is stressing me out non stop) and the situation I outlined in my question. I need to find another outlet for that mental energy.

The rest of you are correct in saying that I need to take some space and let him (and me) get our heads straightened out. I’m trying really hard to just take deep breaths and believe that whatever is supposed to happen will happen! On one level, I know that I can’t control anyone’s feelings or behavior, but I can’t quite convince myself to let go of the “why” question. And then I know that I shouldn't be searching for why, and I get upset because I can't get out of that thinking loop. If I could only find that little switch in my brain to turn it off!
posted by MultiFaceted at 7:53 PM on November 20, 2009

Response by poster: I just had a thought. I feel "broken", and therefore I need to fix what's wrong with me. But I can't really pinpoint what's wrong, therefore I don't know what to do in order to fix it. That makes me feel helpless, and I cannot handle being helpless. So I continually search for something to focus on to avoid that helpless feeling, but since I don't actually fix anything the broken feeling doesn't go away. Rinse and repeat, rinse and repeat.

Bonus points to whomever can figure out how to stop that nasty little spin cycle.
posted by MultiFaceted at 10:38 PM on November 20, 2009

It sounds to me like fear of abandonment, which I struggle with myself. I can't tell you how to fix it, other than go to therapy.
posted by IndigoRain at 12:28 AM on November 21, 2009

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