How do I prevent myself from taking things too seriously?
April 10, 2012 7:25 PM   Subscribe

How do I prevent myself from taking things too seriously?

I feel like I'm taking things too seriously.

If I make an event on Facebook and invited friends to it. I would check every few minutes to see if anyone responded, and I would get upset if someone declines it.

Or I'm always afraid of offending other people and try not to be too harsh in my language.

The first time I asked a girl to date after going to Prom with her, she rejected me, and I was upset for several months after that.

I feel like the upside to it is that I'm more sensitive/attentive than others of the same age. I have a laser beam concentration and can learn things easier than others, and I can remember details that others seem to have forgotten already. I am compassionate (e.g., today, I helped an old lady loading the things she bought from Walmart to her car without taking her tip). I'm also very passionate about my goals in life and would stop at nothing to reach them. I have a 4.0 average. I'm majoring in Chemistry, minoring in art, equally good in both subjects. Freshman by year, junior already by credits by the end of this semester, and I'm in Early Medical Acceptance program.

On the other hand, I can get easily upset and emotional. I can detect changes in emotions in other people easily and can be sometimes influenced by that. I get easily jealous. I'm an introvert and is usually quiet. I get stressed easily by small things such as not being able to find the product I need after looking in few local stores.

I think a shorter description of myself would be from Heart of Darkness, "like the autumn sky, overcast one moment and bright the next."

So my question is am I just different from everyone else? And how do I become more... "normal," or easy going?
posted by Thisispiggy to Human Relations (29 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
what you're describing is known as "your personality". it's not something you can really fiddle with, without unintended and unpleasant side-effects. just dig yourself the way you are.
posted by facetious at 7:32 PM on April 10, 2012 [5 favorites]

how do I become more... "normal," or easy going?

Keep in mind that a lot of those normal and easy going people are also assholes.

Learn to be more comfortable in your own skin - you can't make everyone happy and not everyone's going to like you. But the world needs more considerate and sensitive people, not less of them.
posted by mleigh at 7:35 PM on April 10, 2012 [2 favorites]

You're different from some of the people you know, who have their own problems. It sounds like you have a lot of mental energy that sometimes gets directed in a positive direction (school) and sometimes not (facebook). That's okay. You don't have to take "things in general" less seriously but maybe try taking yourself less seriously. Train yourself not to be anxious about your reactions to things. Flag it and move on. "Oh, look at me worrying about facebook again! Silly me. What's on tv?" I know it sounds flippant, but this is how I deal with a similar problem.
posted by bleep at 7:42 PM on April 10, 2012 [2 favorites]

It sounds like you suffer from a bit of anxiety, which is entirely normal. If it gets in the way of your daily life, you can seek professional help, or read up on it and figure out some techniques to help with it (deep breathing, visualization, self-talk, etc.), but don't think that this is abnormal at all.
posted by xingcat at 7:47 PM on April 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

I used to be like that, and for me it's a secondary characteristic of depression and anxiety. When everything in the world is all about you - generally for the worse - it's hard to let that stuff roll off. Someone not coming to your event, when they may very well have to work or have a previous obligation or just not personally be into that thing, isn't really about you.

Therapy, obviously, is a route you can take. Making sure your health is as solid as you can make it - including ruling out things like thyroid issues that can mimic/contribute to depression - is another thing you can do. Rehearsing situations like that in your head and considering new ways to process them is important. Thinking more about other people helps.
posted by Lyn Never at 7:47 PM on April 10, 2012 [4 favorites]

I agree with much of the above.

I think once you get to know and accept yourself this roller coaster action will lessen. It sounds like you might be a little insecure, prone to jealousy and anxious for people to accept your invitations.

Also, you are exceptionally intelligent and in many cases this is more than enough to make a person feel like an outsider.

And everyone has their own quirks and unique emotional reactions to things, don't beat yourself up because what you see on the outside of others doesn't match how you feel on the inside. Try to avoid comparing yourself to them.
posted by abirdinthehand at 7:52 PM on April 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'm a little hypersensitive myself. So sometimes I have to grit my teeth and say "Maybe Bob has other plans that night, it's a free country, Bob has a right to have other plans, he's not obligated to say yes to all my invites." This doesn't make me feel less upset, but it reminds me to keep my behavior in check and to at least act reasonable and gracious - even if I don't feel it. And then I take a few deep breaths and push it to the side of my mind and focus on something else, and usually when I remember it later the sting has faded.

Sometimes you can flip it around in your head. "I said no to Linda's party last month, but that doesn't mean I don't like Linda, I just had the stomach flu ... I wouldn't have wanted her to be upset about that so perhaps I don't need to be upset about this either."

It can help to remind yourself that a week or month from now you'll have forgotten about whatever is bugging you right now.

Something like being turned down for a date - well, let's just say if your reaction to that was so unusual dating would be a LOT easier because no one would be afraid of being rejected.
posted by bunderful at 7:54 PM on April 10, 2012

For me it helps to stay busy and social. I don't have the bandwidth to care as much. And if one person/plan/event falls through- well, I have lots of plans B to choose from!
posted by small_ruminant at 7:54 PM on April 10, 2012

Response by poster: Thanks everyone for your answers.

small_ruminant just said what I feel everyone else must be thinking, that I'm only one insignificant person in the group of friends they have, and that they have a lot more other friends to choose from. Therefore, I try harder to try to fit in with them and, sometimes, be a nicer person in general. But that doesn't really help.

I'm not usually invited to other people's events, and that contributes to some of my insecurities also, that I'm an outsider and an acquaintance.

I've been trying to cover up my intense inner thoughts with an outgoing outer personality. I pretend like I'm really laid back and don't care at all, even when it's really killing me on the inside.

I've thought about therapy, but I believe professional help really depends on trust between the doctor and the patient, and I'm not ready to put that much trust in another person yet, especially a stranger.
posted by Thisispiggy at 8:01 PM on April 10, 2012

Part of this is also getting more experience over time. Everything seems major and serious the first few times you go through it, but over time your sense of perspective will widen so that many of these bumps don't seem as important. I know that's basically the worst answer in the world to hear (it'll get better as you get older!), but I say it impress upon you that this is not your permanent state of being. It's not a for-forever pattern that you have to struggle heroically to change.

Are you a generally anxious person? When you say you'll stop at nothing to achieve your goals, is that because you're worried about what'll happen if you don't achieve them? Do you always have to have a plan? I ask because your worries sound a lot like mine when I was in college, and for me they stemmed largely from my anxiety. If so, that's something you need to be aware of as sometimes clouding your judgment. What helped me was learning to reframe the way I understand myself -- when my identity was built around being the person who always knows what to do, I was a nervous wreck because that's a completely impossible goal. Little situations (like not knowing where something is in the store! Argh, that kills me!) would be hugely anxious events because my brain thought that was something everyone knew naturally (they don't). The person who knows everything always has everything go according to plan, so when things didn't happen right it was hugely stressful.

You can't define yourself by your successes, because then inevitable failures become an indictment of who you are as a person. And that's just crazy-making. So try to find ways to build your identity in other ways -- you're not minoring in art because you're "good" at it, you're minoring in art because you enjoy it. You like learning about it, which means constantly admitting all the things you don't know about it so you can learn more. You don't throw a party so it can be the best party on earth and everyone says "how do you do it, Thisispiggy?", you do it because you care about your friends and want to spend time with them (which means if they can't attend you wish them well in whatever they have to do instead because you care!).
posted by lilac girl at 8:05 PM on April 10, 2012 [3 favorites]

FWIW, I was like you til I started going to Al-anon. A lot of it started out as "fake it til you make it" but now it's (mostly) actually true.

If you want some brain hacks towards this goal, you might try some al-anon meetings. YMMV. Take what you like, leave the rest, etc etc.
posted by small_ruminant at 8:24 PM on April 10, 2012

This list has some of the characteristics that Al-anon has helped me get a little distance from, not that I've ditched them entirely- not a chance! But at least they don't run my life like they did. It's an ACA (Adult Children of Alcoholics) list, but meetings for ACAs did nothing for me, and it seems to apply to a lot of folks without alcoholic parents, so don't hang your hat on that aspect.
posted by small_ruminant at 8:29 PM on April 10, 2012

From your description of yourself, you sound like a little bit of a whirling dervish. I think you should consider whether all your achievements and ambitions are simply the other side of the coin of wanting to be liked by your friends. This isn't to knock doing good things or having ambition. I'm only saying that you can be a good person, an accomplished person, and still not feel all that confident in your own skin. You can't catch happiness by chasing it: you have to chill and let it come to you, much like you would a squirrel. By all means, talk to a stranger about this. Believe it or not, it's much better to have no personal relationship with the person you burden with your mind goo.
posted by Gilbert at 8:43 PM on April 10, 2012

what you're describing is known as "your personality". it's not something you can really fiddle with, without unintended and unpleasant side-effects.

I disagree. You can train yourself to stop taking things so darn seriously all the time. It's called growing up and getting out of adolescence. Learning to control your emotions is part of the maturing process. I don't have a step by step answer about how to do this, but it is possible and natural.
posted by deanc at 9:16 PM on April 10, 2012 [2 favorites]

So my question is am I just different from everyone else?

No, you sound kind of like me. I'm fine with it.
posted by John Cohen at 10:29 PM on April 10, 2012

how do I become more... "normal," or easy going?

I'm reading Emotional Intelligence 2.0. One of the advertisied advantages of increasing EQ is learning to control our reactions to emotions. It's our reactions that effect ourselves and others rather than the moods and feelings themselves.

You are obviously smart and driven. I am sure you'd also like to be calm and in control of your words, thoughts and actions. If so, investigate improving your EQ.
posted by Kerasia at 11:38 PM on April 10, 2012

I used to also be very uptight and cared about most things so much that I was never at ease in public. Like lilac girl said, aging helps with mellowing out-- simply b/c each thing becomes a smaller portion of your life.

If it's your "personality," as it very much can be, don't be too hard on yourself for taking things too seriously-- sometimes, you need to. And with things that matter to you, it's hard to say to yourself "take it lightly" and believe it.

That said, what helped me loosen up was that one of the celebrities I really liked had an IDGAF, realistic, willing to be silly attitude in public. It definitely could be an act, but seeing someone I'd like to emulate being carefree made me want to be more free also. I started seeing acting like an old woman, laughing out loud and even being confrontational as things that are OKAY, even cool! Maybe this won't work for you, but it helped me grow into a more light-hearted person.

Rephrase-- we all have a light-hearted person inside of us, we just need to let him/her out more often :-)
posted by ichomp at 11:40 PM on April 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

Hi. I was much like you during my student years. What will help you, along with those assets you already have: There is no need to worry about things you don't control.

An engineer friend of mine has a mental three-box system: Box 1 is for things whose outcome depends on you; Box 2 is for things whose outcome you can influence; Box 3 is for things whose outcome is outside of your control. Once you mentally put a thing in Box 3, you are absolved of the need to worry over it. Box 3 is where application forms go once you've sent them off, where Facebook invitation lists go once you've made them, where the diagnosis the doctor is sending you after that test lives. So box 3 is to be monitored, but not worried over, so most of your energy can be reserved for Boxes 1 and 2.

Here is the second thing: Don't sweat the small stuff. Time generally teaches people this, but you can shortcut it by teaching it to yourself now. It's hard, because you're in school and everyone's telling you that the decisions you make now and the work you put in now will affect your entire future. To some extent this is true; but it's also true that a life is a long time, and there will be time and space to do pretty much everything you can think of and a good few things you never expected.

Learning how to interact with people, and mentally process the results of those interactions, is basically what school is for. It is a truly lousy place to do this, because one also has to manage familial relations AND academic requirements AND extracurriculars, and they can leave you without the time or energy reserves to think about things like "Why was I so upset when he/she said that thing to me? Why do I keep re-hearing those words when I'm trying to sleep or concentrate?" Oh, and you have to try to make sense of all this while in a constant state of sleep deprivation and stress. It truly sucks.

The only consolation is that everyone around you is pretty much in the same boat, a nucleus of their own whirling universe of misery. If you invite them out and they decline, it is much more likely to be due to their own personal stuff that they're dealing with, and less likely to be a reflection on you. You are not responsible for the reactions of others; all you can do is your best from where you are. Your efforts to be gentle, considerate and courteous with others make positive reactions from them more likely, but the ultimate outcome is up to them, passing from Box 2 to Box 3 in the blink of an eye.

So it's worth learning to let go of things. Ten thousand years from now, who'll know the difference? Things that impact you emotionally, like the girl declining to go on a date: give yourself time-- say, two weeks? to feel absolutely crap about it, and then let it go. Sure, it'll come back unbidden when you're tired or unhappy for other reasons, but it's history now, it's behind you, and the world is full of better things. And worse ones, like famine and earthquakes and war, to which romance troubles pale in comparison. Perspective is useful.

Anyway, what I was going to say about school as an arena for learning to deal with others in human fashion: there will be many interactions with many people every day. Some will work, some won't. That's the nature of the best, so don't feel so bad about the interactions that don't have a positive result-- they're inevitable, so shrug it off and move on. Even if you screw up, it's okay. Give yourself permission to make mistakes. What's important is what you learn from it all, and that is up to you.

It does get easier.
posted by Pallas Athena at 3:47 AM on April 11, 2012 [5 favorites]

I've thought about therapy, but I believe professional help really depends on trust between the doctor and the patient, and I'm not ready to put that much trust in another person yet, especially a stranger.

This is a reason FOR therapy, not against it. You needn't show up trusting a therapist in advance any more than you showed up to ask this question trusting AskMe in advance. Your lack of trust is just another aspect of the way you experience your relationships with others, which is what this question is really about. You live in a world that is conditionally accepting at best and often capriciously rejecting. Therapy can help with that, but don't trust me on this, give it a try.
posted by Obscure Reference at 6:00 AM on April 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

So my question is am I just different from everyone else?
No. And your question has been asked before - :)
posted by ruelle at 6:12 AM on April 11, 2012

I have a very wise friend who always reminds me when I'm getting anxious or myopic that the only thing we know for certain is that one day the sun will die and all record of humankind will be totally destroyed. All of the petty things we worry about will be completely wiped out. So don't bother worrying about them now, because they are inconsequential to the universe. May be a bit histrionic, but it does help me regain perspective.
posted by quiet coyote at 6:26 AM on April 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

I would get upset if someone declines it.

You get upset not because someone declined it, but because of the thoughts you have about why they declined it. Those thoughts are no doubt full of assumptions and other distortions. For example, if you knew they would be out of the country or even if they are just feeling lazy or don't like parties, you would not be upset, but if you assume that they declined because they hate your guts, you would be. (Even then, you wouldn't have to be -- it's possible to have some people hate your guts and still not be upset.)

You can learn to recognize those thoughts and convince yourself that they are not true. This book teaches you how to do it:Feeling Good
posted by callmejay at 6:50 AM on April 11, 2012 [3 favorites]

You sound like you might have social anxiety, as opposed to general anxiety. Google it and see what you think. Lots of lovely people have it, including me, and I have a pretty active social life (of course I am an extrovert).

Medication and therapy would probably help. You don't have to trust the therapist with everything all at once--you can just tell them a little, see how they respond, etc. It's good practice for trusting other people.

Good luck, it's tough to have a problem interacting with people when people are so often the only way you can get help for that problem! Talk about frustrating...
posted by the young rope-rider at 7:29 AM on April 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

I've thought about therapy, but I believe professional help really depends on trust between the doctor and the patient, and I'm not ready to put that much trust in another person yet, especially a stranger.

It's okay to not want to trust someone at the start of therapy - that's why good therapy takes a while to work. You show up, start kind of talking about surface things, and get to know your therapist and gradually build trust. It took me a couple months before I really trusted my therapist and opened up - that's completely normal.

I think therapy might help you out, and as a student you might have access to low-cost therapy. I think it's worth looking in to, because you sound introspective and thoughtful, and that type of person (like me) can benefit a lot from therapy.

If you don't like the first therapist you try after 1-3 weeks, try a different therapist. You don't need to trust your therapist right away, but you should like her or him right away and get a good feeling.
posted by insectosaurus at 7:36 AM on April 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

I try to reframe things with the most positive interpretation for the other person's intentions. I also think of times I haven't been perfect, and forgive myself and the other person. Finally, I acknowledge that everyone is the main character in their own story, not just supporting characters in mine.

Jerk cuts me off when driving? Maybe they were going to visit someone in the hospital. I've done that. I've also made mistakes, and said sorry in my car and felt like a jerk--so hey, maybe they're doing that too. Why should I feel bad about it?

Turned down my event, though I know they're free? There are times I can't muster up the energy to see friends, and I know they forgive me for it, so I won't take it personally. Or maybe there's a family thing. Maybe there's a major project they have to work on. Maybe they're a superhero and that's their allotted time to fight crime. I mean, I don't have comprehensive knowledge; it's totally possible.

Something similar works for bigger things. I mean, I do feel hurt and rejected when I'm turned down by someone I think is the bee's knees...but after a while of letting myself be sad, I focus on other things. I want a rejection, rather than feigned interest or an obligation date--going solo is better than going with someone who spends the whole time not wanting to be there with me. And I'm not owed a date...but the upside is, I don't owe anyone a date.

I sound like a Pollyanna, I know. But the thing is? I used to get upset about this stuff. I realized I hated feeling upset--the emotion was much more of a problem than the original offense. I didn't want to carry that anger or sadness around with me, taking up room in my brain and so much of my thinking time. This reframing is selfish, too: "assuming positive intent" helps me not spend so much mental time in a negative place. And a world is full of imperfect but well-intentioned people is so much nicer to live in than one full of jerks who keep doing crappy things to me.
posted by Fretful Porpentine at 7:36 AM on April 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

Buddhism, especially Zen, addresses anxiety and stress really directly. When you see there's nothing to worry about, you won't worry about it. My favorite introduction is The Three Pillars of Zen, but a lot of people like Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind. There's also Hardcore Zen, which is written by a young Western punk rock guy who makes monster movies, if that appeals to you at all.

There's no woo woo new agey stuff or worshipping anything in Zen, in case you're concerned about that. If you do run into any of that (there are different sects just like in Christianity), just ignore it if you're not into it. And if you are a theist, it's completely compatible with that, you don't need to drop any of your beliefs.

posted by desjardins at 8:15 AM on April 11, 2012

This is a bit of a tough love solution, but it worked amazingly for me (alongside other things, which are also very harsh and I'm not going to suggest to you because it would involve me making all kinds of assumptions about you).

When I was training to be a speech therapist, one of our tutors told us that if we're doing something with a patient for the first time and we're nervous or we mess up because we are underprepared then we are being selfish and unprofessional. Lots of my class were indignant about this because it's telling us off for being new, but the more I thought about it the more sense it made. Now I try to focus on the other person's feelings and what they need/want from me rather than how I feel about them or feel about what is going on between us. For example, when someone declines a party invite, it would be selfish and egotistical of me to assume it reflects on what they think about me, rather than whatever else is important in their world. Likewise, if I get criticism of my work (academic or clinical) then my response has to be 'thank you' because their motives are almost certainly good and it prevents me from thinking about getting defensive. Of course you can take this to extremes and that's not good either!

I wonder if some of this is about not liking to fail in any way. I taught at a very high-flying university in the UK for quite a few years and I saw a lot of students going off the rails because they had never learned to fail before and didn't have any coping mechanisms when they did. If so, a little practice as often as you can fit it in is extremely healthy. We all reach a point where things are no longer easy and the later that is, the more difficult it is to deal with it well. If you're going to be a doctor you don't want to have a meltdown the first time someone dies because of something that you could have spotted and possibly prevented.

Good luck!
posted by kadia_a at 10:07 AM on April 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Are you a generally anxious person? When you say you'll stop at nothing to achieve your goals, is that because you're worried about what'll happen if you don't achieve them?...You can't define yourself by your successes...

I think I'm getting something here now. I'm defining my happiness by the number of achievements I'm making and the number of goals I am achieving, which isn't a good thing. I have a vision of what I need to be happy (grades, career, dating a nice girl), and I try hard to make that vision come true. In the end, I'm finding myself not happy at all. For example, one of my vision of happiness is simple life. In my effort to achieve that simple life, I try really hard and find myself in a not very simple one.

A part of that simple life scheme is to date a really nice, cute girl who is smart but not "hot" like what everyone else is after. In my effort to do that, I planned to ask a high school friend to a date this summer (see my other question). However, I over thought the entire thing. Today, I just saw that she uploaded numerous pictures of her with another guy at various places. I think they are more than friends. So I've decided to stop and move on. In doing so, I felt very much relieved, which just says how much I have over analyzed the situation and complicated my "simple life" scheme.

And by that I mean that all the positive things you listed (sharp memory, compassion, etc) are not suddenly going to be diminished if you take steps to make sure that you don't freak out over facebook invites.

I agree with this. I think I'm afraid that if I change a little bit, I would lose part of my identity. I would be less "me" and be more of a clone.

You can learn to recognize those thoughts and convince yourself that they are not true. This book teaches you how to do it:Feeling Good

That looks like an awesome book. I think I will buy it once summer sets in. Then I shall be a different person the next time my friends see me, haha.
posted by Thisispiggy at 8:01 PM on April 11, 2012

I think I'm getting something here now. I'm defining my happiness by the number of achievements I'm making and the number of goals I am achieving, which isn't a good thing.

I disagree with that it's not a good thing, and it's a reason I tend to dissent from the "don't worry about yourself too much, be laid back," etc. sort of stuff you tend to find on MeFi. Being achievement-oriented is a perfectly valid personality type, and you will derive great satisfaction from your achievements and accomplishments.

You probably have all of these things down: Be ambitious. Set big goals. Work really, really hard-- harder than everyone else. Focus on your goal and go after it. If something doesn't work at first, try harder.

That's all great. It so totally does not apply to dealing with social and romantic relationships (it took me a while to figure this out). It's ok to be goal oriented in the general case, socially (eg, "I want to meet this sort of person", etc.). It is not ok to treat your social and romantic life as a goal like getting into your first choice college. Learn to make your social life less about achievements and more about placing yourself in situations and allowing them to unfold. Do not be invested on any specific outcome-- rather, the journey is the reward.
posted by deanc at 9:24 PM on April 11, 2012

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