How do I stop expecting instability?
September 10, 2010 8:37 AM   Subscribe

How can I learn to let myself settle down instead of expecting disaster at every turn? I am having issues with trusting anything to remain stable--finances, relationships, living situations, health, etc. It doesn't cause me constant anxiety or panic attacks, but it means I have trouble "settling" into situations or allowing myself to truly relax when a good thing comes along.

When I move to a new place, I don't decorate it or settle in. I'll be moving at any moment and decorations are a waste of time, money, and another thing I have to move. When I enter a new friendship or relationship, I don't fully trust people as at any moment they may dump me or pull away (especially the case with romantic partners). Buying anything is a extremely stressful process, I am reluctant to buy anything new or replace anything and I would say 75% of the time I buy something non-consumable I end up returning it within a day or two. I'm afraid it's going to break down or my financial situation will suddenly take a turn for the worse and I'll need the money later. I've tried budgeting, to give myself money that I know I can spend on clothing or things like that, but even spending that is a struggle.

I've got kind of a positive pessimism about my sense of impending doom; things are going to go to shit at any moment but I'll get through it somehow. Life is pretty great despite the fact that everything will inevitably crumble and die exactly when you don't want it to (exaggerating a bit there, you get the idea). It would be nice to not have the sense of impending doom in the first place. I'd like to be able to decorate my bedroom without thinking of what a pain it will be to take everything down when I move, and I'd like to be able to buy a pair of shoes I can afford and I need without staring guiltily at them for hours before finally returning them.

I've tried CBT on my own for this kind of thing, but I'm not even sure how to form the phrasing much less apply it properly in these situations.
posted by schroedinger to Health & Fitness (12 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
schroedinger: I'd like to be able to buy a pair of shoes I can afford and I need without staring guiltily at them for hours before finally returning them.

In the boldest possible terms, just so you have a yardstick to look at this with and understand, that is not normal. Food, clothing and shelter are basic human needs; when you are able to meet them but depriving yourself of something you actually require, there's a psychological issue there.

My inclination is to advise you to take this seriously enough that you forget self-led CBT and consult a qualified therapist. My fear is that the expenditure required for that, which is not inconsequential, will be a roadblock. Would you be able to do that?
posted by DarlingBri at 8:49 AM on September 10, 2010

It would be useful if you could determine why you are having so many changes of address in the first place, and what you could do to find an address where you could remain for the long term, and where it would be safe to acquire things without having to worry about how much trouble it would be to move them. Also bear in mind that even if you do someday wind up having to move a lot of stuff, that is not an impossible problem either. People can be hired to help you move.

You should bear in mind that although it is a good idea to manange your money carefully so that you don't run out of it when you need it most, it is also true that if you are so parsimonious that you wind up never spending your money, then you will never get any use out of it (although you may have heirs who will be happy to inherit it). I don't think that it is as useful to die rich as it is to enjoy a good standard of living while you are alive. Of course, the planning is tricky because we don't know exactly how long we will live, nor do we know what our future income or expenses will be, although we often can make reasonable guesses about all of these things. We just have to do our best to figure these things out.

You can also have reservations about how reliable someone will prove to be in the long term, and still have a rewarding relationship with that person. Just don't lend them money.
posted by grizzled at 8:49 AM on September 10, 2010

When I have moments like these I try to zoom outward and look at the big picture. Honestly, let's face it -- life is impossible. It's not our fault we have absorbed certain expectations based on what we were exposed to during formative years, but it's important to consider our own lives within the broader context of history, or even the present tense. This will go a long way toward making you feel a little less picked on and reminding you that literally no one has it easy, even the most fortunate among us faces these fears and could have it all knocked out from under them at any moment.

I think the only two activities that are truly sane and always appropriate are:

1) Celebrating (Need an excuse? Start contemplating the successes, love, pleasure, and awareness that you are lucky enough to have known).

2) Easing others' suffering.

Both of these activities can be performed in a whole spectrum of ways, ranging from very simple to very ambitious. Either way, they make it much harder to concentrate on your troubles.
posted by hermitosis at 8:55 AM on September 10, 2010

You are living in the future. No, seriously. All of these thoughts are based in some later time frame...what could happen, what might happen, what will happen. Start by recognizing every instance of this. Then start shutting it down. Literally tell yourself to focus on what's in your hands, heart and head RIGHT NOW. You'll find that, at first, it's too intense. Like staring at the sun. Your mind will bounce all around it. With practice, the wobbles will go away and you'll settle on those things right before you, with ease. Good luck.
posted by iamkimiam at 9:08 AM on September 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

You only have so much life, and although it might seem a lot now, it goes by very quickly. You don't have time to live fearfully! Spending money is nothing compared to spending life. I think you need to learn some balance. You don't have to decorate by painting, carefully arranging things, buying new stuff and stressing about it - you can put up a picture or two, some of those odd sculptures your aunt sends you on a shelf, stick some of those $5 for a lot glow-in-the-dark stars on the walls above your bed, and get a plant or a cat, but probably not both. People don't usually go all out until they have their own home, and often not even then. You don't have to pick between perfect and nothing - it's a flawed world, but we all make the best of things. We're all doomed and going to die, probably of something boring like a heart attack, so you should enjoy the time you have. You sound sensible about money - you could start setting aside an amount for things like cool shoes so you don't feel like you're dipping into your savings. For relationships there is no point in holding back once you think the person is wonderful - holding back is less fun and if they are going to cheat on you or break your heart then it will happen anyway. Good luck and I hope you learn to relax more and enjoy yourself.
posted by meepmeow at 9:11 AM on September 10, 2010

It's not surprising that you anticipate that things will change and end -- change is the only constant in life, and everything ends eventually. Even if things work out well with a romance, the person could die unexpectedly. In fact, one day you will die yourself.

I prefer to take the approach that I'll enjoy things as much as possible while they are around. One thing that I've found helpful in this regard is gardening -- it very much reinforces that there are seasons for things, and it's helped me to think of other things in life as having "seasons" also.

Try being more aware of the cycles of life around you. Notice the seasons, notice the daily cycles of things. Sunsets, changing angles of the light through the year. Do things that you enjoy even if they are temporary -- building sandcastles comes to mind.

Also, make sure you are putting some of your budget into savings. If you are not financially literate as far as knowing how to save and invest, learn that.

Look at your feelings of guilt around things -- where do they come from? Is there something else you wish you would have bought instead of shoes? Do you "need" the shoes to do something in your life you would rather not be doing? Also, what are your feelings when buying things -- if you bought the shoes on impulse, telling yourself that you need them for work when you have many shoes, returning them is a good choice (and you don't have to feel guilty for hours about it). On the other hand, if you need something like steel toed workboots and your last pair has worn out -- feeling guilty about buying essential work supplies is impacting your livelihood and safety, and you might want to get some help for that.
posted by yohko at 9:16 AM on September 10, 2010

In my experience, CBT interventions can be very helpful for this kind of thing, but they are really hard to self-design, because doing so places demands on precisely the rational, objective mental faculties that are currently not working right. If at all possible, I think it would be well worth the time/energy/$ to find someone who's skilled and experienced in this area, who could take the lead on designing approaches specifically tailored to your situation, so you can reserve your energy for carrying out the interventions.
posted by Kat Allison at 9:29 AM on September 10, 2010

I'd like to be able to buy a pair of shoes I can afford and I need without staring guiltily at them for hours before finally returning them.

Perhaps you're feeling, Yes, I need them, and I can AFFORD them, but I'm sure I could have found a cheaper pair somewhere.

You can always find something cheaper/better somewhere, but you can't be looking forever.

Keep in mind that usually, the more things cost, the longer they last, so you might be doing the right thing financially with the shoes after all, if you expect to eventually get a lot of use out of them.

However, if you don't frequent thrift stores, it's a good idea to start.

This sounds like indecisiveness too. Buy something, then DON'T think about it when you get home. Go out and have fun. Or get things done. In 2 or 3 days, if you still think you should take it back, then take it back.
posted by serena15221 at 9:53 AM on September 10, 2010

Response by poster: I am actually seeing a therapist/psychiatrist for depression, this is something I can bring up.

The development of this is not unfounded, I grew up with a pretty unstable childhood in all senses of the word. There was emotional instability in the household, we moved a lot (6 times before I was 18), what few friends I had were always changing as a result of the moving and normal middle-school bullshit, and while my family had a decidedly upper-middle-class income my mom was extremely, extremely reluctant to purchase clothing and items like that for me and my siblings. Post-moving out, there was the poverty and frequent moving that's normal for the college years as well as a few major health issues that cropped up. For various reasons I've had to move five times in the past year, and that hasn't helped things either.
posted by schroedinger at 10:05 AM on September 10, 2010

It sounds like a dumb cliche, but it's the truth:

Take a deep breath. Let it out. Then take another one. Do that a few times, as often as you can remember.

You're worried so much about something that may or may not happen in the future, that you've completely paralyzed yourself in the present.

Things may go badly. So what? A new purchase might turn out to suck. So what? You'll move again. So what?

I heard a quote somewhere that I think applies: "Worry is like a rocking chair. It feels like you're moving, but never gets you anywhere."

To settle your anxiety about the future, the very best thing you can do is focus your attention on the present.

How do you do that? One breath at a time. Pay attention. Choose a small boring task, like washing the dishes or taking a shower or doing laundry. And put every bit of your attention into that task. Don't daydream, don't think about what you have to do tomorrow or what you might have to return or what might be going on with the earth's climate. Just focus on the moment at hand, the sensations of whatever you're doing. So if it's dishes, think about the heat of the water, the fluffiness of the soap bubbles, the swirl of the sponge on a plate. Just really be present and those anxieties will fade.

It's hard and sometimes you can only get a moment of focus -- but that moment makes all the difference.

This is something you can do immediately, on your own and continue you to do whenever you feel anxious.

But -- because you clearly feel like it's impacting your life in a way that's overwhelming -- I don't think seeing a therapist would hurt either. Heck, it gives you something to spend money on that you can't return!

Good luck.
posted by missjenny at 10:11 AM on September 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

It's great that you're seeing a therapist, that's really important. Sorry I didn't see your comment before I hit "post."

My childhood was similarly unstable and I think a big part of the worrying is a control thing -- "as long as I'm worrying about stuff and preparing myself for the absolutely worst, nothing is going to catch me off guard." A big part of growing up is realizing that, as an adult, you don't need many of the coping mechanisms that worked for you as a kid. And what used to be something that helped becomes something that gets in your way.

Be kind to yourself. Be patient. Take a deep breath and go from there.
posted by missjenny at 10:14 AM on September 10, 2010 [2 favorites]

It sounds like you truly don't believe you deserve anything - not a friendship, not even a nice pair of shoes. Therefore, the universe is going to take things away from you. People will leave you, you'll lose your income... am I ringing any bells here? Can you think of any reasons why you don't think you deserve the good things in life? Is it just learned behavior from your past, or could it be a bit of a self-esteem issue? Have you watched friends lose good things and thought, "if it can happen to them, it can certainly happen to me."

I struggle with this, and I have to always remind myself that, while people do sometimes lose good things, the universe is not out to judge what I deserve or take things from me as punishment. I only realized I felt this way when I was watching some silly pop-psych thing on TV and they profiled a woman who was sure her young child was going to die (he was not ill). She came to understand that she loved the child so much but also she was sure she didn't deserve him, and therefore he would be taken away. This might sound overly simplistic, but it hit me like a brick.

Good luck to you.
posted by Knowyournuts at 10:16 AM on September 10, 2010

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