Please help me manage my obsessive thoughts
October 28, 2010 9:02 PM   Subscribe

Why do my obsessive thoughts focus so much on my relationship, and what can I do to manage them? After living through years of sexual abuse as a child and teen, followed by a severely unhealthy relationship with an older man soon there after, I've actually found someone with whom I have potential to build something that could be really great. The trouble is that my brain is trying incredibly hard to sabotage this relationship, despite my best efforts to control it.

Background: I'm a 22 year-old female and my boyfriend is 26. We've been together 2 months. I'm completing my penultimate quarter as an undergraduate. Despite the constant battle with low self-esteem and the painful, intrusive thoughts regarding my history of sexual abuse that I face on a daily basis, I've accrued various awards and honors, and through a lot of work have positioned myself to enter a competitive graduate program. My life, both in material terms and emotional ones, has improved significantly over the past year: the flashbacks that once dominated my thought process are rare now (I've had one incident in the past 12 months); I still tend to feel bad about myself but also feel like I am slowly improving this situation through treating myself better; and I am making choices to spend time with people that are better for my mental health.

Since meeting my boyfriend, I have already noticed very positive changes in myself that really surprised me. Without any conscious effort to make changes in my behavior, I'm suddenly acting more self-confident when dealing with other people, fearing their reactions much less (often not at all, in situations when before I would have), and focusing much less on what they may or may not be thinking about me. I'm also calmer over all, have started letting go of my long-time obsession with grades, and find myself thinking more about how I actually feel and what I want (two things I've tended to suppress for years).

The problem is that despite these welcome changes, I still have plenty of baggage that is presently being expressed through obsessive negative thoughts about the relationship. Part of the time I feel great about it, and part of the time I worry obsessively about small things that are generally pretty meaningless. Examples would include things like: I ruminate on a joking comment that was made about a pair of boots I own being ugly, and without meaning to slowly become convinced this really means my boyfriend is not attracted to me; or the fact that he doesn't listen intently to a story I want to tell becomes evidence that he really doesn't care, despite abundant evidence to the contrary.

Usually I can eventually see the insanity of these lines of reasoning, but not until after I have done something, usually starting an argument with my boyfriend about it, during which I will act hostile and even somewhat accusatory towards this person that I really like. The fact that he has recognized this behavior for what it is and is still here despite my intense defensiveness shows me how much he cares about this, but I don't want to keep subjecting him to this and I know he won't take it indefinitely.

I need advice on how to control these thoughts and this behavior. They threaten to destroy this relationship, as well as making it difficult for me to judge what's really going on when I blow everything way out of proportion. I've been trying to "just stop thinking like that", and its not getting me anywhere.

I have never had any kind of therapy and in fact have only ever admitted my history of abuse to my current boyfriend. I plan to get some, but I am still trying to figure out what kind of treatment I should look for. Any sort of advice would really be appreciated, be it on therapy or on any personal experiences other people have on dealing with this type of problem, even book recommendations are welcome. I really need help getting this under control.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (18 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Getting therapy to deal with the abuse is a great idea and it sounds like you have found a wonderful guy in that he makes you feel safe enough to talk about it and to do that. So yay for that, I hope it goes well.

As far as just plain old mood swings go: I find that these kinds of feelings can correspond to my hormonal cycle. There is about one week out of the month that my SO can do no wrong and I find everything about him adorable (it's not), one week that I swear I will leave him if he says anything judgmental about my choice in music ever again and two weeks that I am unbiased either way. From talking to girlfriends this kind of cyclical fluctuation in attraction/ tolerance / "love" isn't unusual and sometimes hormonal birth control can make it dramatically worse/ better. Did you start the pill with this relationship? Is it just him or everyone else too? Does it correlate with a certain time of the month? Just something to consider tracking before you go to a counselor so you can discuss it if it's an issue.

I asked my ob/gyn once and she said this is common and she had treated some patients with very low doses of antidepressants where it was a problem for their families and them. She said that worked, in fact she once or twice got a gift basket from a patients husband! I just stopped taking hormones and my bouts of darkly mulling over perceived slights went right back to a very minor manageable one day of PMS per month. Hormonal birth control takes my moods and magnifies them by a thousand burning suns though, so ymmv.
posted by fshgrl at 9:24 PM on October 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

Yes to therapy to start tackling the abuse side of the equation. If you're asking around, then it's time to start making the calls.
As for your boyfriend, he sounds like he's really given you some grounding and helped to get you in a better frame of mind. I would suggest that you at least tell him that you're prone to these dark negative feelings. With a little perspective on the situation, he might be able to anchor you just a little bit. For your part, you should try to allow yourself to be supported. Whether you want to tell him the whole story now or go to a therapist first is really up to you, but at least share your fears.
Therapy itself really isn't that bad. Done right, it's usually a relief.
posted by Gilbert at 9:42 PM on October 28, 2010

CBT has a solid and practical approach to dealing with intrusive thoughts, so that would probably be a good first direction to explore.
posted by flabdablet at 9:58 PM on October 28, 2010

First, give yourself a pat on the back. You've accomplished a lot. Believe me when I say, I know how tough it is. Therapy is a great idea. It took me many years to get to the point where I felt comfortable in my skin, though I'm not ready for a relationship. It might take you multiple tries to find a therapist you click with. CBT can be very helpful as flabdablet said. DBT is also helpful for some abuse survivors

I think telling your boyfriend and acknowledging your behaviors is a good starting point. With therapy, time and patience, I think you'll be able to move past this hurdle. Good luck. You can send me a message if you want to talk.
posted by kathrynm at 10:25 PM on October 28, 2010

Whatever else you do, remember: if you've acted badly, and you only realize later that you were at fault, it's never too late for an apology.
posted by davejay at 11:16 PM on October 28, 2010 [2 favorites]

The low-dose-of-antidepressants (specifically, fluoxetine aka Prozac) thing for PMS has research to back it up, too. It works because even low doses of fluoxetine - far lower than are needed for an antidepressant effect - increase production of the progesterone metabolite allopregnanolone, which is one of the body's own inbuilt anti-anxiety meds. ABC Radio National has covered this: here's a Health Report from 1998 and a Science Show from last month.
posted by flabdablet at 11:52 PM on October 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'm happy to hear that you're seeing improvement in a lot of ways. One thing that I think would help, that might not seem to be related directly, is telling at least one other person about the abuse--I know that can be really hard to do, and it's definitely something you want to take your time with and do when it feels right, with a person who feels safe and caring and trustworthy to you. The reason I think that might help is because if your boyfriend is the only person who knows and is therefore the only person you can talk with about it, that 1) puts a lot of pressure on that relationship and 2) makes it so that relationship is the sole container for those emotions, and might be creating a dynamic where you unconsciously are playing those emotions out with your boyfriend.

A book that I've found to be really helpful is The Courage to Heal by Ellen Bass and Laura Davis. It's about a lot of aspects of how abuse affects survivors and how survivors heal, including around relationships. It has personal stories of survivors woven throughout more self-helpy sections.

It's pretty common for survivors to get disproportionately mad about things, especially in the context of intimate relationships. It's really good that you recognize this pattern and are seeking to change it. One strategy might be to address the insecurities earlier. I mean, before you have the chance to obsess and get really upset about it, saying to your boyfriend, you know, this is probably me being obsessive but I keep thinking that when you joked about my boots being ugly it means you don't think I'm attractive. If you say that in a calmish, open way, it will probably be a lot less stressful and conflict-ridden then waiting until you explode and argue about it.

It sounds like you're scared of asking too much from your boyfriend, and I think it is often good to be aware of how much you're asking from people. But I wonder if part of that fear stems from deeper fears and beliefs that you have about yourself, like it's not okay to have needs or like you can't reveal your true self to people. You might be surprised at how much he is willing to give you in terms of support. That said, I don't think it's sustainable to get all of your emotional support from one person. I think, in the long term, you want to find more people to get support from and to learn how to give support to yourself. Partially, this is just logistical--there are going to be times when you're upset when your boyfriend is unavailable to support you.

One of the benefits in my experience of just being open about insecurities is that you can get a reality check from people. You can hear your boyfriend say, I do care about you, I just hate hearing about zoos (or whatever). And eventually you can get that from other people too--other people can say, you know, he does care about you a lot.

Really, I think the struggle that you're having boils down to trust. It's really hard for you to trust him (and to trust yourself). Which makes so much sense, because your trust was violated in one of the most intense ways possible. It's going to take time to heal that, but it sounds like you are on your way, like you have found someone who you can trust, who you can be honest with, who wants to be there for you.

One last thing--something I've found to be really effective when I'm upset with someone is to journal about it. Specifically to write them a letter (the kind you never send). Usually I get out a lot of the upset feelings and come to realize that it's not really fair to them or I'm actually upset about something else or just re-experiencing an old fear from a different time.

Gosh, this is a long response. I hope you find some part(s) of it useful.
posted by overglow at 12:12 AM on October 29, 2010 [1 favorite]

I just have two quick things to add.

It seemed like part of your question was wondering how you can stop sabotaging your relationship. It's important to come to full grips with why that is happening in the first place. You have made a connection with experience of abuse. I'm going to offer one more step in that direction and suggest you are operating under the premise that you don't deserve to be happy. A big part of you is used to having a pretty low opinion of yourself. That idea of low self worth isn't translating well into a happy intimate relationship. If that's the case, you're going to be trying to fit your great relationship inside a low self esteem mindset. It's kind of incongruent. Usually, the low self worth part has a longer history and is more comfortable to you and wins out. For many people, therapy will be a huge in moving you to a place where you believe you have the right/expectation to be happy.

The second part is about how you might change in therapy. Be prepared to do a lot of work. I don't mean the homework type but the kind of work that is mentally exhausting. This changes people. Those changes are likely to be noticed by people around you and they may like it or not. Some of them might be used to you acting in a certain way (perhaps you're always willing to help people) and they may struggle to cope with your new found cognitive beliefs (being more assertive about saying no). Although hard, this is a good thing.

It's great to hear you are at a place where you're going to take back control of your life and your relationships.
posted by WhiteWhale at 2:39 AM on October 29, 2010 [2 favorites]

Does your college's health services have therapists? If so, go see one of them. If not, contact your local family violence/ battered women center. They should be able to help you find a therapist. It does not matter to such programs that the sexual abuse you suffered is in the past.

Best of luck to you.
posted by mareli at 6:11 AM on October 29, 2010

Really, I think the struggle that you're having boils down to trust. -snip- to trust yourself). Which makes so much sense, because your trust was violated in one of the most intense ways possible.

I was thinking about this aspect today, oddly enough, and wondering if others had any tips on how to calm the doubts aspect which come crowding through despite evidence to the contrary. Like some kind of meditative exercise or way to keep the script from starting on the emotional plane even though the intellect is aware of why its happening and why its not necessarily evidence based so much as one of the left overs from previous history.
posted by The Lady is a designer at 6:23 AM on October 29, 2010

Cognative behavioral therapy (CBT). See if your library has a copy of The Feeling Good Handbook and check it out (or buy if you want to make the investment). It helped me tremendously when I was depressed (and was behaving very similarly to you) and before I managed to get myself to therapy. It's more than "don't think that," but rather, "this is what I'm thinking, and I can identify things in this thought that are distorted and counter them and find a productive outlet rather than obsessing and lashing out" Finding a therapist that does CBT will probably help a lot, more so if they are someone that has a background in sexual abuse survivors. You can get through this!
posted by radioaction at 6:37 AM on October 29, 2010

Wow, I am in a similar place right now. After spousal abuse, I finally found someone normal and my brain does the same horrible mind games with me. I know exactly what you're talking about there! I took a longer healing period, so I've been able to control it to the extent that I haven't actually picked a fight or anything, but I was surprised to notice the willpower it took to realize that the voice of doubt in my head had no merit at all.

How to stop that? I'm still figuring that out. But WhiteWhale already said something that I figured out- it isn't merely a matter of self-sabotague, it's a fear of being happy. And allowing yourself that. It really is. And it's not just being afraid that if I'm happy that means something is about to go wrong, it's being afraid to allow myself to be happy because it's something that feels strange and uncomfortable. The only thing I've found so far is just to force your brain to slow down. Instead of analyzing (for example) why the boot situation doesn't mean anything and that he really does like you- don't even analyze it that much. Just tell yourself to forget about it and not even think about what it means. Slow down and just take things one day at a time.
posted by Eicats at 7:16 AM on October 29, 2010 [1 favorite]

Does your college's health services have therapists?

I didn't know this until after I graduated, but at my college students could sign up for twelve free one-hour therapist sessions through the health center. It's an awesome program, but not well-publicized. It can't hurt to check if your university has anything similar.
posted by pluot at 7:42 AM on October 29, 2010

Whatever else you do, remember: if you've acted badly, and you only realize later that you were at fault, it's never too late for an apology.

Therapy is something you should definitely pursue, but this is the best advice for keeping your relationship going through the tough times.
posted by bessel functions seem unnecessarily complicated at 8:21 AM on October 29, 2010

I came here to echo what a few people have said, that your question is in the sweet spot for modern cognitive behavioral therapy. (Here's kind of a technical description of what I mean by modern, maybe not helpful.)

Anyway, here's why I say you're in the sweet spot. You wrote:

I need advice on how to control these thoughts and this behavior. They threaten to destroy this relationship, as well as making it difficult for me to judge what's really going on when I blow everything way out of proportion. I've been trying to "just stop thinking like that", and its not getting me anywhere.

So you're doing a bunch of things right! You're paying attention to how your mind is working. You're noticing a consistent pattern of thought and action you don't like. And you've tried the same strategy everyone tries first, of just trying not to think what you think. You've noticed what lots of people never notice, that it just doesn't work.

Here's what I mean by "it doesn't work." In America, at least, our dominant paradigm for living well and behaving well is something like this: deaden, control, or manipulate your thoughts and emotions so that you only have "good" ones; then you'll only behave in good ways. The trouble is that humans are incapable of controlling their thoughts and emotions that way, at least without screwing themselves up (think of booze, TV, shouting, sex, whatever people can misuse to suppress what's going on in their head). So they end up hurting themselves and then acting badly anyway and hurting people they care about. Emotions end up like angry toddlers being bought off with candy -- they're not getting what they need, and the problem just gets worse.

To treat your emotions well, what you need to do instead is honor them by feeling them, not controlling them, and then do what you think is right regardless of what your emotions want. This is equivalent to giving the toddler plenty of love, but sending her to bed on time anyway.

So it's a two step process. First, you get in the mental habit of watching your own thought patterns, fondly. "Welcome, anxiety. Welcome, paranoia. Welcome, anger. You are all my children and sometimes you need to cry and that's OK." Accept these parts of you and let them be. (Rumi has a poem about this.)

Second, you get in the mental habit of figuring out what actions serve your true values, and acting that way regardless of how you feel. Today, you're being visited by anxiety. Your anxiety is asking for an argument. That's OK, it's what anxiety does. At the same time, your longterm values and the things you care about are better served by, I don't know, going on a picnic with your boyfriend. You step in and say, "not today, anxiety. Today we're going on a picnic. You can come along if you want, but you can't interrupt."

Does that make sense? It's a complicated juggling act of honoring your emotions by letting them be felt, while deciding your actions based on what really matters to you, not what your emotions are demanding. Based on your question, you're already really good at this kind of self-awareness, but it's a skill that develops with practice. (In a twisted way, you're lucky that you have to figure it out now, because getting good at it will help you for the rest of your life.)

I'm writing all this with way too little understanding of what I'm talking about, based on conversations with much more knowledgable people. I may be screwing up the translation. If you want to learn more, this site will have technical background, and this is a book they've published for laypeople dealing with anxiety.
posted by jhc at 9:12 AM on October 29, 2010 [6 favorites]

On further reflection, I can imagine lots of hard line-drawing questions from the strategy I'm describing. Like, "what's the difference between not letting my emotions decide what I do, and suppressing or ignoring them?" Or, "what's the difference between feeling my emotions, and obsessing?" Or, "how do I know when my emotions are important and should be acted on?"

My answer to all these kind of questions would be, you have the power to answer them for yourself. This is all about developing the mental muscle to be aware of what's happening in your head -- how your emotions arise, how they benefit from being felt, how they try to influence your choices, how you decide what to do to serve your values. So your head is like a personal science lab -- you're watching things while they happen that maybe you used to only discover vaguely, after the fact, and learning how you work. If it doesn't work out and you realize later that you were yelling at your boyfriend without really knowing why, you add that to the list and learn more the next time around.

That same skill will guide you in figuring out what you're actually feeling, how much time you need to spend with your emotions, what's triggering them, when they're being triggered by real problems in your life, etc, etc. Those are hard questions because only you can answer them, and you answer them by developing a hard (but worthwhile) skill.
posted by jhc at 1:29 PM on October 29, 2010

jhc writes wisely. I would like to add some emphasis to one seemingly minor but in fact pivotal point: emotions and the thoughts they give rise to are not the same thing. So there is in fact no line to be drawn between feeling and honoring emotions on the one hand, and "doing what they tell you to" on the other.

Emotions don't tell you to do things. They just don't. Between emotion and action there is always some kind of thought, and between emotion and thought there is belief.

CBT will help you change what you believe to some extent, in ways that bring the thoughts you have in response to your emotions into better alignment with your own best interests. But it will also do something else, which is in my opinion at least as helpful: it will force you to recognize that we are not always rational because we do experience strong emotional states and that these do mess with our thinking, and that this is normal and fine and OK.

What is not fine and OK, but does unfortunately seem rather normal, is taking action on the basis of messed-up thinking. This is overwhelmingly likely to get in the way of our own best interests. So the trick is to learn to recogniz messed-up thinking and avoid doing the messed up things it recommends. And one of the best clues we have to the fact that our thinking might currently be messed-up is that we are currently in the grip of a strong and usually negative emotion.

In this model, feeling and honoring that emotion rather than denying it or trying to squash it down and pretend it doesn't matter is absolutely necessary. Because if we get in the habit of denying strong emotion or pretending it doesn't matter, then we will find it much harder to distinguish messed-up thinking from good thinking and we will be much more likely to do more messed-up things.

It's a hell of a lot easier to control actions than thoughts, and controlling actions is really all that's required to be able to live well.
posted by flabdablet at 6:19 PM on October 29, 2010 [2 favorites]

i am really liking the idea of telling your anxiety to take a hike while you go on a picnic with your boyfriend, instead of coddling it all the time.
posted by The Lady is a designer at 6:59 PM on October 29, 2010

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