Building better judgment
March 1, 2014 8:45 AM   Subscribe

I lack good judgment, common sense, and impulse control. Is there a way to improve any of these things?

FWIW, I'm older (almost 40), and have plenty of life experience, so I don't think my deficiencies can be traced to a sheltered existence. I do have several complaints that seem to be somewhat tied in together--at least, they all add up to me feeling like a hopeless f***-up.

I miss obvious stuff about human interaction that other people seem to get, such as noticing the subtext of peoples' relationships with each other. It's not apparent at all to me when two people dislike each other, for example, but I later learn about it from someone else commenting on how obvious it is.

I seem to lack all ability to rein in my emotions when it would be appropriate. So, if I'm grumpy or depressed I will behave in a way that is totally out of line with my conscious values, and that later leaves me feeling totally embarrassed or even permanently messes up relationships. (My parents, FWIW, both have terrible tempers, which may be where I got it.) I also lack the ability to "mask" what I'm feeling. So for instance if someone is praising me, I can't control getting a little smile on my face, which makes me feel really smarmy. I chalk all of this up to lack of impulse control.

I am incapable of thinking on my feet. This has led to some embarrassing misunderstandings. For instance (warning: this is gross), I was on a road trip recently with a woman I didn't know well, but who I wanted to have a good opinion of me. We stopped at a restaurant to use the restroom, and when I went into my stall there was pee on the seat (I'm female). 9 times out of 10, I would just grit my teeth and wipe away the pee myself, then lay down more TP so I could sit on the seat. This time, I was already feeling carsick from the road and didn't feel like facing that, so just did the hover over the seat, then left the pee. I opened the stall door and was very surprised to see the other woman standing right there waiting to use my stall (there was another empty one in the restroom that must have been out of order). Instead of explaining to her that it was not my pee on the seat, I just hurried out of the stall, leaving her to think that I'd left my own pee on the seat for her to deal with! This is but one example of the many, many misunderstandings I frequently have that could be simply cleared up by me saying something, but instead being surprised causes my brain to temporarily short out(?) apparently.

Finally, I often feel like I am just sort of going along in a fog. I have actually wrecked my car due to being out of it mentally. I have a hard time thinking clearly sometimes. It means that I have poor judgment and common sense bc I am not paying attention to stuff that is right in front of me but am instead daydreaming or thinking about nothing, really. I often find myself wandering around my house looking for something but not remembering what it is or what I'm doing. I've found out that acquaintances have thought that I was "slow." (their word, not mine). I have tried all sorts of dietary regimens, caffeine and no caffeine, physical exercise, different medications, Ritalin and others. The only thing these seem to have an impact on is my anxiety level (which is high). They don't really seem to affect my feeling of being in a fog, mentally.

I've been to different therapists who have told me that I'm not that out of it, but that could be because I find that being in therapy and talking about myself is stimulating and more interesting than, say, housework or small talk or work stuff. Also, there are like a million little things that happen everyday that i don't really catalog or tell anyone, but which seem to add up to support my conclusions. I often wonder if therapists could see me in action in my daily life, if they would have a different opinion of this.

So, my questions is: is there anything I can do to improve these shortcomings, either individually or all together? I don't know why, but I do have the sense that they're interrelated. Does meditation help? Should i convert to Buddhism? It's hard to go through life with the certainty that just around the corner I'm going to do something to embarrass myself, alienate someone, or otherwise just hose things up. Then I'm left with the feelings of guilt and anger that I didn't notice or do something so obvious.

Thank you to anyone who managed to wade through this whole wall of text.
posted by silly me to Grab Bag (16 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
The way I've combated this is to try to think ahead, and to do the right thing in the moment, even when it requires a little more effort. These things require forming new habits.
posted by Wild_Eep at 9:31 AM on March 1, 2014 [2 favorites]

This question and your previous ones suggest that you feel a lot of anxiety and self-consciousness. This alone would eat up a lot of mental bandwidth, which could distract you enough to interfere with your ability to think on your feet.

If you use medication to deal with anxiety, you could still be in a fog as a side effect of the medication. You might consider meditation, which does not require conversion to Buddhism, or cognitive-behavioral therapy, or some other rational approach that lets you see anxious thoughts, recognize them as irrational and unhelpful, and not react to them.
posted by ceiba at 9:36 AM on March 1, 2014

One way that I deal with anxiety about my self-perceived shortcomings is to try to make positive improvements, which it sounds like you're attempting to do. I think you've got a a good start since you've broken out your trouble spots. When I get overwhelmed, I try to break them down even further.

I'd start with the human interaction piece, because I bet that affects a lot of the other areas. If I don't know how to do something, I study it. Emotional intelligence is a "soft" skill but it's so critical. I say treat it like you're trying to learn something new, like programming or knitting. Pick up some books and jump down some rabbit holes and see where they lead. Read articles about human interaction in fluffy publications like Psychology Today. Even if you cannot learn a soft skill like this, perhaps focusing on watching people and thinking about their motives and reactions may help you feel like you have more of a bead on situations and relationships.

I saw a post on microexpressions recently and I decided to take the test to see if I was decent at picking them up (alas, I am not a natural). I went on vacation after that and I spent some time on my trip staring at people to see if I could hone this skill, to tell what they were really thinking. Heh. Practice makes perfect, maybe.

As far as thinking on your feet, I would further what Wild_Eep said about "do the right thing in the moment." I am pretty decent at thinking on my feet and am good at improvising, but sometimes I freeze up, too. At those moments, I go with honesty and too much information. I also try to do the right thing in the first place so I don't have to "confess" anything. I'm sure not everyone would have, but I would have sighed and wiped up the pee so the next person did not have to deal with it. If it was enough of a disaster I would have come out with a warning (the too much information part). In this way I am announcing to people that I mean well, even if it comes off as awkward at times.

As I typed this I realized I used to feel like you're feeling when I was much younger (I am approaching 40 myself) but with time, life experience, and self-confidence, I usually don't find myself in those situations anymore, for which I feel fortunate. It was hard, and I sympathize. Good luck to you.
posted by Lardmitten at 10:59 AM on March 1, 2014 [5 favorites]

Everything you describe is consistent with a possible ADHD diagnosis. The "wrecked my car" part really clinched it for me.

Find yourself a psychiatrist - a *medical doctor* - who *specializes* in ADHD. You can most easily find one through a local ADHD support group. You mention that you've "tried Ritalin" before but you don't mention how it was prescribed, by whom, or even if it was prescribed.

I know that in North America, you don't have to be a specialist to treat ADHD, and I hear tales of people just having Ritalin thrown at them with no real understanding from the doctor.

Therefore, 1) you need a proper diagnosis from a specialist and 2) IFF you get a diagnosis, then you probably need to connect with those support groups a lot more, because they're full of people who are like you.
posted by tel3path at 11:24 AM on March 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

silly me, you sound pretty down on yourself for something that just MIGHT be a function of biological factors rather than a personal failing.

From childhood up through my early 20s, I felt like exactly that kind of failure. Blundering through life unable to focus or react appropriately, incapable of dispelling the soup of fog and anxiety in my brain. Impulsive and emotional and unable to not f--- up the simplest of tasks. Many hours were spent raging at my own incompetence, never to any effect.

Turns out my problems were rooted in a fun mix of poorly functioning brain chemistry and low blood sugar. After taking steps to alleviate the issue, the fog and the anxiety became rare. Mental clarity, emotional restraint, etc. just kind of blossomed of their own accord. The seemingly insurmountable 'failings of character' became explicable - and treatable.

The symptoms you describe can certainly be caused, and treated, by the things ceiba cites. Additionally, they be caused by thyroid, endocrine, brain chemistry or digestive problems. I don't know the state of your health, but it's another avenue to consider.

Wishing you all the best in your quest for answers. In the meantime, be kind to yourself.
posted by Lycaon_pictus at 11:24 AM on March 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

Please don't be so hard on yourself.

These are certainly all areas in which you could stand to improve. But instead of thinking of these elements of your personality as bugs or shortcomings, try to see them as features. We all have parts of our personality that aren't perfect or "normal." So, go easy on yourself!

That said, I think that solving the fourth problem you list - feeling like you're in a fog - would likely result in improvements in the other three areas. Have you asked a doctor about these symptoms? Have you tried mindfulness/meditation? I used to think those things were for unwashed hippies, but I recently tried them and have found myself feeling much more "centered" as a result.


So for instance if someone is praising me, I can't control getting a little smile on my face...

Is one supposed to maintain a neutral facial expression when receiving praise? Because I almost always grin when someone is telling me that I've done something well, and respond to them with a, "Thanks! It means a lot to hear that."

posted by schroedingersgirl at 11:30 AM on March 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

This sounds like some symptoms/markers for borderline personality disorder. Why do i know? i have it. you would benefit from dialectical behavior therapy.get your hands on anything written by Marsha Linehan. I belong to a dialectical behavior therapy skills group and have for a few years now. it has been very helpful.

It also sounds like a little bit like a lack of emotional intelligence. Im not saying you are dumb, I'm just saying you need to develop better interpersonal habits. This only comes with awareness.

you may want to get tested for autism/asperger's syndrome spectrum just to rule that out. I don't think this is what it is. but just getting the possible neurological tests and aspergers tests out of the way would be what they call in medicine a rule out...then you don't have to worry about it.

Thanks and good luck
posted by Jewel98 at 11:36 AM on March 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

2nding cognitive behavioral therapy, but I'd like to address your first issue: I miss obvious stuff about human interaction that other people seem to get

This really reminds me of me in the past. In fact I've been through the exact situation as your example. I got better at picking up on social cues by being more reflective. That is, reflecting on the situation. This was difficult to do at first because I whenever I missed some social cue, my initial reaction was to feel guilty and blame myself for being stupid.

But as I got older, I began to think about these situations differently. Instead of immediately feeling dumb and telling myself I was dumb, I would think about the situation and ask myself questions like "what exactly did I miss?" "what can I learn from this?" and "how will I be able to notice this in the future?" Of course this meant getting outside of my own head, which is what CBT is really good for.
posted by mcmile at 11:36 AM on March 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

I want to second tel3path's comment about ADHD. That was the first thing that jumped out at me when I read your description.

In the meantime, you might find it useful to cultivate some kind of mindfulness/meditation practice to build your awareness of both of yourself and your environment, as well as improve your ability to stay in the a moment. That should help you with the kind of mood-dependent behavior you describe in some of these examples.
posted by litera scripta manet at 11:37 AM on March 1, 2014

I just glanced through your question history, and it looks like you've already been diagnosed with ADHD, in which case, I really think you should focus on getting a psychiatrist and therapist who specialize in treating ADHD and work with them on finding some combo of med+effective behavioral strategies to deal with these issues.
posted by litera scripta manet at 11:50 AM on March 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

Oh hai there, alternate me! I could have written this word for word. I felt similarly for most of my adult life and just thought I was insufferably terrible at being "normal," and also spent a lot of time feeling foolish and daft socially. Hit 35, ran into some issues, and lo and behold, turns out I've got Aspergers! (Aarrgh!) Aspergers and ADHD are neurologically similar in many ways; when I was given an ADHD self-assessment by my therapist, I think I scored 44/45. :P (I've had, um, automotive issues, too.) Check out or and do a few of the self-assessment tests. If you ping high on a few of them, print them out and talk to your therapist about getting officially assessed.

I've found help in medication (Wellbutrin), DBT skills training to help with the mood & social stuff, and lastly, following up on the malingering health indicators. I've got hypoglycemia that I have to keep in check with diet, and although I've never been tested for food sensitivities, I feel way better when I eat a mostly-vegan diet and cut down on sugar, caffeine, and bread. (I give myself breaks now and then to avoid boredom/rebellion.) I have to stick to a good sleep schedule and practice good sleep hygeine, or I'm a mess. It's not exactly fun, but I'd rather feel better consistently, you know?

I've had the same exact feelings of foggy confusion and feeling "slow," and it's related to the Aspergers/ADHD parts of the brain. When I got my IQ results back, my processing speed and verbal IQ were actually respectably high to gifted, but my performance IQ is on the low side. I just don't process some kinds of information correctly. :/ It's embarrassing at times, and it sucks, but you can learn some coping skills to deal with it, and/or request accommodations at work. I felt a lot better about myself once I understood that there was a reason behind the way I think, and I'm not just a "stupid" person. I can explain to friends/family/coworkers why I do some of the things I do. I catch myself doing things like your bathroom example all the frickin' time, and the best advice I can give for stuff like that is...apologize/explain afterwards, if necessary. Try to "cope ahead" for situations like that, if you can. Otherwise, I've had to learn to just accept the occasional embarrassments and move on.

It sounds like your best bet is to find a more targeted therapist/clinic that specializes in ADHD treatment, first of all, and see if they can follow up with some neurodevelopmental assessments. That's really what will point out to you what your particular strengths and deficits are, and you can get targeted help through, say, an occupational therapist who deals with learning disorders. (I have no idea how this works for adults, but your people should be able to steer you in the right direction.)

I spent, like, weeks on end ranting to my therapist about my issues, and if I hadn't eventually gotten my IQ testing through Occupational & Vocational Rehab, my Aspergers would've likely gone undiagnosed for a lot longer. I'd started googling information about my various scores and everything kept popping up Aspergers/ADHD/Nonverbal Learning Disorder. Fun times.

So, I guess I want to say, a.) you're not alone, b.) keeping searching for answers, c.) get a good health workup to rule out stuff like being hypothyroid and whatnot, and d.) you are not defective, you're just different! :) Good luck and keep us updated, okay?
posted by cardinality at 12:38 PM on March 1, 2014 [4 favorites]

Seconding Jewel98. Many of the things you are talking about (impulsivity, poor judgement, etc) are hallmarks of BPD. I have it too, and a lot of what you are saying rings familiar over here.

Find a psychiatrist and see what they think. Not a therapist. An actual MD.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 1:58 PM on March 1, 2014

I have much the same problems with human interactions and thinking on my feet. I work on it the best I can, of course, and make progress, but it's never going to be a strong point. Ultimately, I find it really helps me to just remind myself that I'm kind of a dork. And I don't dislike or judge other people for being kind of dorky, so I'm not going to be too hard on myself about it, either.

On a larger scale, I make a real effort to be generous in my assumptions and not leap to hostile and uncharitable conclusions about people based on isolated events or social awkwardness. Unless there's some personal safety issue involved, I'll always try to give someone the benefit of the doubt that maybe they're just kind of a dork too. I've found that the more forgiving and generous I am with others, the easier it is to be forgiving and generous with myself.

I guess a little ironically, this has made me less tolerant of judgmental people. So if someone judges me or someone else based on some social misstep or possibly misinterpreted motivation or something, I don't hold their opinions in high enough esteem to really care long term. It can still be a gut punch when it happens, but it loses the power to stick with me and come back to haunt me in the middle of the night.

If you have or think you have some sort of diagnosable condition, of course, please see a doctor and get a professional opinion or two so you can start working on it from that angle.

But in the meantime, stop beating yourself up. Nobody should treat you like that, not even you.
posted by ernielundquist at 2:43 PM on March 1, 2014 [9 favorites]

Response by poster: Thank you for all of your thoughtful responses.
posted by silly me at 7:38 PM on March 1, 2014

Does meditation help?

Uh that would be a resounding, "oh hell yeah!" you can become less distracted which makes you less impulsive and less emotional. I always struggle to put some of this into words, sometimes I can be an uninvolved/unemotional third party to my own thoughts giving me room to think before acting. My memory is better. My emotional highs and lows aren't as high, or as low and when I do get low it doesn't stick around for as long as it used too ...

There is a body of research beginning to show meditation alters the brain in a bunch of good ways that counter stress, anxiety, depression and so much more.

And no you don't have to be a Buddhist, sit in lotus, or own bodhi beads to practice. A friend started me off with MSBR by Jon Kabat-Zinn and Mindfulness in Plain English by Henepola Gunaratana (the book is available for free online). I wish I had started a lot sooner I would have saved myself so much grief!
posted by redindiaink at 9:15 AM on March 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

Hello there, congrats on your epiphany--I always feel like realizing you have a problem (and writing it down) is half the battle.

If you're interested in trying a Buddhist philosophy, I've found my practice of Nichiren Buddhism and the Lotus Sutra (which entails chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo) helps bring out the best in me--wisdom, clarity, strength. Study of this sutra and meditation, or the repeated chanting of Nam-myoho-renge-kyo, gives me the opportunity to reflect on my life, bring out my best self, and make the best choices (read: sort my stuff out). It has also helped mitigate my own anxiety and depression--maybe it will help you, too. You can find more information here. There's also a lot of great literature: The Buddha in Your Mirror, by Hochswender, Martin and Morino, is a great starting point.

Just as a caveat, I'm not recommending this as an alternative to psychiatric attention or therapy, if necessary: Certainly counseling and any kind of recommended therapeutic course--not to mention talking with friends about it and living a full life--is going to have its own benefits, and these are not necessarily divergent from Buddhist practice. But Buddhist philosophy offers its own deep storage of wisdom, and I feel it's totally worth checking out.

Best of luck to you!
posted by shelle at 9:00 PM on March 31, 2014

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