Help breaking a cycle of destructive thinking and behavior?
February 8, 2013 10:59 AM   Subscribe

I have some very poor ingrained behaviors that center around low self-esteem. Has anyone been successful in interrupting the chain from emotional reaction->saying stupid things->causing upset and hurt? If so, how?

I'm a guy, late 20s, grad student + part time job. I have extremely low self-esteem, despite being a successful grad student, instructor, software developer, and a bunch of other things. I am currently in therapy, but due to financial pressures I won't be seeing my therapist for another week and a half, and I'd like to start thinking about this problem I'm realizing I have sooner than that.

One really obnoxious way this low self-esteem manifests itself is that I suspect everyone who asks me questions or expresses disagreement with me of being intentionally hurtful rather than just curious or communicative.

Example: I was expressing excitement about a new job opportunity I'm interested in to a the woman I'm dating at dinner earlier this week. This opportunity could be great for me in many ways. The downside is that it's at a large organization that's known to not encourage tons of creativity in problem-solving in this role. I expressed frustration about this by saying "yeah, it's great for [a pile of reasons, seriously -- I want this job], but I'm not sure how much I'm going to learn, and how creative I'm going to get to be." Her immediate response: "Oh, of course you'll learn things! You may not learn new software dev skills, but you'll learn how to work with other people in this organization and things like that." In hindsight, looking at this intellectually, I realize that she meant to be encouraging and have a discussion, not say "oh, you are stupid! I'm right, and you're wrong, and of course you will learn things, you ignorant, stupid person." My immediate emotional reaction was to the latter thing, not to what she actually said, which obviously made the rest of the evening pretty awkward and uncomfortable all around. I got defensive and snapped at her and rather than reasonably acknowledging she had a point, dug my heels in and dug myself a hole. I was able to apologize and smooth it over, but only quite a bit later in the evening.

I also have trouble responding positively when people ask me questions about completely trivial things, such as what I'm reading, for example -- "why would they ask me questions about this book unless they want to point out how awful and silly it is?" (I do read a lot of genre fiction, but also more contemporary literary stuff, and the reaction isn't just limited to genre fiction, or to people who I have an reasonable cause to think disapprove of genre fiction).

I obviously DON'T intellectually believe that my friends loathe my taste in books, or that the woman I'm dating is an evil person who hates me and is out to hurt me, or other such things, so why do I react like this? I know it's a behavior I in part learned from my mother, who treated my father like this, and that's a large part of why they're now divorced. Given that background, and that I can see this is really screwing up my life, I want to figure out how to interject some reflection into my responses before I say catastrophically stupid things. I think a significant part of it is the need to stop and think before speaking, but I notice that even if I DO stop and think, the things I'm thinking in the moment are the obviously inaccurate things I described above. It's only later (a few minutes or a couple of hours, usually) that I can say "wow, self, you were responding in a defensive, hurtful way for no good reason." I know about CBT and have been attempting to practice it, but it doesn't seem to be working for me in this case because the onset is rapid enough that I can't seem to think myself out of it.

If you've successfully broke this kind of cycle, what was effective for you? I've been talking with my therapist about the general issue of self-esteem, but this behavior recently highlighted itself to me and I haven't had an opportunity to discuss it yet.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (8 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
I think a significant part of it is the need to stop and think before speaking, but I notice that even if I DO stop and think, the things I'm thinking in the moment are the obviously inaccurate things I described above.

In relationship counseling, one of the most basic tools we learn is to repeat back what the other person has said. Example:

Girlfriend: "Oh, of course you'll learn things! You may not learn new software dev skills, but you'll learn how to work with other people in this organization and things like that."

You: "So you're saying I am stupid and need to learn to work with other people. Is that right?"

You can do this exercise with yourself, in your own head, and quickly realise that what you're hearing and the way you're responding is a) off the wall, and b) not what the other person said or indeed, meant.
posted by DarlingBri at 11:10 AM on February 8, 2013 [2 favorites]

Have you tried just saying nothing at all when you have these sort of feelings? I don't have your specific problems, but I definitely have issues with wanting to say things I know will cause problems (mainly related to wanting to boss other people around) and I have learned that it's okay to think I know what somebody else should do, but not okay to say it out loud. So you can give yourself permission to feel the feelings, even if you know they aren't rational, and just work on controlling the expression of them in that immediate moment. Even if that means you have to say something like, "Excuse me, I need to get a glass of water," or something similar to remove yourself from the situation for a couple minutes and get control of yourself.

I don't have any professional experience with this kind of thing and, as I said, don't struggle with your specific issues, but learning to keep my mouth shut when I know it won't be a productive thing that comes out of it has been very useful to me. I've found that shutting down the action of speaking the things out loud has started to change the way I feel internally, too.
posted by something something at 11:12 AM on February 8, 2013 [2 favorites]

Several years ago I had to confront a similar issue: my feelings would get tweaked by something my then-partner would say, and I'd respond immediately with a flash of emotion. I'd realize, after a short period of time, that my real thoughts/emotions about whatever were often exactly opposite or at least different from my immediate reaction. My then-therapist suggested I take 10 seconds to internally acknowledge the immediate reaction, breathe and settle, then respond. I was reluctant since I thought it would be clunky and weird and break the flow of conversation but she pointed out that angry responses and discord also impact conversational flow so what did I have to lose?

Ten years later I still believe that learning that one technique was worth all the money I spent on therapy - it changed my life.
posted by hapax_legomenon at 11:12 AM on February 8, 2013 [2 favorites]

I wrote a small list of things I like about myself, and referenced it when I felt like I was worthless.

Eventually I didn't need it, but having a few qualities to fall back on helped me build self worth.
posted by hellojed at 11:14 AM on February 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

Talking to a therapist in the long run will be helpful, but what you need is proof that these things aren't true. It sounds like you've had a lot of people in your life put you down or not be supportive of you (given the inner dialogue you have playing in your head), and you're projecting those thoughts onto the people in your life now.

Doing things that will boost your self esteem up, is essential to convince your brain that the things you've been told are not true (i.e I'm stupid, etc). Actually go out and learn new things, or do something you've always wanted to do but felt you were too "stupid", or it was too "silly" of an activity to do. Try volunteering to teach people something that you're really skilled at.

These are things that will build self worth, and help erase that tape in your head. It won't go away unless you believe it, and your brain needs proof. That's why it's not working in the moment to think differently for you, because your brain has been trained to go immediately to those thoughts. Until you start to consciously really change the pattern, it won't go away.

Keep writing down all the possible different outcomes that could be in a situation (even though it's after the fact), it will help you. Take note of all those positive outcomes and the ones that seem more rational, than the negative ones you thought of in the moment. Keep doing this, and practice it whenever you can. It really comes down to an issue of retraining your brain. This is not something that will be resolved overnight, as it didn't develop overnight. To become good at something (like anything) you must practice a lot to get better at it.

As far as in the moment, see what happens if you don't lash out and say those negative things you're thinking- keep them for yourself to write down later after you're out of the situation. The other person won't be any wiser (no one knows what you're really thinking about yourself anyway), and you can analyze what you really think, when you're in a better headspace.

Be patient with yourself, and keep working at it.
posted by readygo at 11:45 AM on February 8, 2013 [2 favorites]

I don't actually think this is a self-esteem issue, or rather, it may be, but you've described a very straightforward causation chain that is very amenable to interventions that have nothing to do with self-esteem. In cognitive-behavioral therapy this is called an A-B-C chain, for Activating Event-Belief-Consequence.

Does your therapist do CBT? I do not normally recommend one type of therapy over others, but I do believe that a patient's own understanding of the problem usually points to the best way forward in treating it. Your understanding is that this is a self-esteem issue, but your further exploration shows that you see it as behavioral (linked to your cognition.)

Were I you I would seek CBT to treat this, it is precisely the kind of thing CBT was designed for, and you have already done a huge part of the work in identifying your A-B-C's. It isn't that addressing your self-esteem globally won't have an effect on this, but that you may be able to find relief very quickly for these kinds of distressing behaviors by addressing them directly. Especially as these behaviors are discreet enough to be amenable to easy analysis and treatment planning. You may still want to work on your global self-esteem, but that would be like turning on your big furnace to heat your house, versus plunking yourself down in front of a space heater in your smallest room. The former will take longer to get you warm than the latter.
posted by OmieWise at 11:47 AM on February 8, 2013 [3 favorites]

I was able to apologize and smooth it over, but only quite a bit later in the evening.

It's a start. People are really forgiving if you genuinely apologize for stuff like that. If you can convince yourself to do it right then, people won't even remember that you did it at all. And even if it's not right then, you can walk up to someone, taking a deep breath, and saying, "I'm sorry I reacted like that. I know that you weren't attacking me, and I'm trying not to be all knee-jerky like that. I hope you can forgive me." And then leave it be. If they forgive you, great. If not, well, it's still not their fault that you reacted badly, so they're entitled to still be a little hurt.

The boldface there is a big part of the overall process. Do this a few times in your circle of friends, and everyone will realize, "Hey, OP is trying to be less of a knee-jerker. Let's be supportive." Most people wish they had the balls to apologize more. They'll probably think better of you than they did before you blew up at them.
posted by Etrigan at 12:17 PM on February 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

Maybe you are right that this stems from incidents in your previous life and low self-esteem, but I have noticed that some people seem to have a different world view than the one I usually have.

If someone asks me a question, I assume they have the best intentions and I try to respond in a pleasant and/or helpful manner. I always give people the benefit of the doubt unless it is REALLY obvious that they are being a dick on purpose.

I've noticed this in casual encounters on the street - when someone bumps into me on the sidewalk, I expect and exchange like "Oh, excuse me, so sorry" followed by "no problem" and a smile. But I've seen people whose first reaction is more like "WTF you clumsy *&^@# you can't just BUMP me and walk away like that" followed by a more aggressive "You don't OWN the sidewalk M-F-er" and it escalates from there.

I always wondered if I was just blissfully naive about how people interact in the world, but it really makes my life a lot more enjoyable to just assume the best from other people. Maybe that could become a mantra for you: think "ASSUME THE BEST" before you speak.
posted by CathyG at 12:50 PM on February 8, 2013 [3 favorites]

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