How to combat mental shutdown triggered by feelings of inadequacy.
April 16, 2014 2:20 PM   Subscribe

So this will usually be in a family setting. I live quite far away from most members of my family (brothers, cousins etc). I look forward to seeing them but when I do something happens. For the first few hours everything is great, I'm happy to see them. We're getting on great. Then slowly but surely I start to feel that my life is inadequate, and that I am inadequate. Witty responses become sarcastic putdowns and insults. I feel like I'm taking things the wrong way. My own capacity for conversation and fun becomes subdued and almost entirely non-existent. I overthink every word. I feel completely mentally drained. And I wish they would leave as soon as possible! I know I was happy before the visit or stay. I know I never felt inadequate with any of my friends or work colleagues. But I feel really bad that I feel this way and I feel even worse in the actual situation.

Sorry if this is making no sense. I'm trying to make sense of it myself.

It's definitely triggered by some kind of fear of inadequacy, especially in the face of family peers. I fear that others think I'm a doofus, and hey presto, I materialise as a doofus.

I'm looking for ways to break out of the self-defeating brain freeze. What can I do when i feel overwhelmed? What could ‘break state’?
I don’t blame others for feeling this way, even if some of the joking about can be pretty close to the bone, I blame ‘me’ and I’m happy with this judgement except I can’t seem to do anything about it. The brain fogginess and tiredness is overwhelming - I just want to shutdown.

I’ve got a big family gathering later this week to test out any ideas. I promise to report back!
posted by razzman to Human Relations (11 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Just taking a wild guess here, but if you're an introverted sort of person in general, family gatherings in particular can be *seriously* exhausting (particularly if you've also had to travel to visit). With family, moreso than with friends and/or colleagues, there can be this constant expectation of being "on" and able to respond quickly in meaningful ways to more social overtures in the space of a day than you might normally get in a week or so.

If that's the case, you may want to try and find ways to time your visits allowing for decompression time before and after an event. Also, if you normally stay with family, maybe try getting a hotel instead (presuming that's financially and geographically feasible, of course).

My hypothesis here is that you might be experiencing plain old *tiredness*/social overload and interpreting it as generalized feelings of inadequacy, because in that moment you're feeling inadequate to hold a conversation.

The best solution I've found for this sort of thing is to prepare for significant/large/family-oriented social events by mentally (or in written format) coming up with a list of stuff you've done recently, stuff you want to do, movies you've seen, etc. Give yourself "go-to" topics that aren't likely to lead down the road of discussing your perceived personal failings, or to invite comparisons with relatives you might see as "more successful" in some way.
posted by aecorwin at 2:32 PM on April 16, 2014 [1 favorite]

Take breaks. If you're finding hanging out with the crowd unpleasant, get away from the crowd. Go outside for a walk. Volunteer to run down to the store for more ice. You can even just leave the conversation (like, tidy up, or do something in the kitchen, or talk to one person who you find less difficult - maybe a child) if you don't feel like you can leave the space. Ideally, do this in the early stages of overwhelmedness rather than waiting until you're completely shut down.
posted by mskyle at 2:42 PM on April 16, 2014 [1 favorite]

Then slowly but surely I start to feel that my life is inadequate, and that I am inadequate. Witty responses become sarcastic putdowns and insults. I feel like I'm taking things the wrong way.

"Witty" conversation that consists mostly of people trashing each other in a humorous way is exhausting, especially if you're emotionally invested in the people doing the trashing. Do the friends and colleagues who you don't experience these feelings of inadequacy with have the same sarcastic communication style as your family?
posted by moonlight on vermont at 2:53 PM on April 16, 2014 [3 favorites]

This is just a guess, but could it be that you are falling back into patterns from the past? Maybe the feelings you are feeling are not based in the person you are, but the person you used to be.

I second the idea of taking a break when you see this coming, so you can calm down a bit and digest the dynamics of the conversation. Maybe you'll find some familiar patterns if you take some time off, and think about it.
With a bit of alone time, you may even be able to remind yourself that you are okay, and doing okay, and have nothing to feel inadequate about in the here-and-now.
posted by Too-Ticky at 2:54 PM on April 16, 2014 [1 favorite]

If you felt like this as a child, then of course you're going to feel like this now, because when you visit your family you get all the reminders of and triggers for old behaviors and feelings. Memories and nostalgia, except of the bad stuff that you couldn't quite parse because you were so young and you still struggle with those unexplored feelings.

Addressing it is really a two-step process: in the moment, remembering that these feelings are mostly memories from your childhood being dredged up, not a reflection of who you are now...and when you're not with your family, start digging into those feelings (on your own or with a therapist) to explore and understand them. This will help them have less power over you.
posted by davejay at 4:06 PM on April 16, 2014

I think almost everyone reverts to a different set of behaviors and feelings when they're around their families-of-origin than they have during their regular day-to-day life.

I know someone who got a prescription for Xanax to be taken "as needed" just so he could pop one before any family visit or get-together. He says the Xanax plus always deciding in advance a set amount of time that he will be there before he leaves (and never bending on this time limit) has made family encounters much more tolerable for him. I think the set time limit thing was a suggestion from his therapist -- no matter how uncomfortable or stressed or irritated he feels, he only has to tolerate X more minutes of it until it's over.

Me, I just drink, but I'm a happy drunk who loves the whole world and everyone in it after 4 beers -- YMMV.
posted by Jacqueline at 5:23 PM on April 16, 2014 [3 favorites]

Have you considered that your relatives may be doing subconscious things that cause you to feel this way?

I noticed that with certain acquaintances, I inevitably feel inadequate during the conversation, even though they are being encouraging. On the surface, they are praising me and telling me how much they respect me, but inside I always feel a crawling dread. Eventually I realized that they were phrasing things in an extremely subtle way to make me feel bad. For example:

Me: I got promoted at work last week!
Them: Oh REALLY. Well, that's amazing!

The intonation of the word "really" is enough to make me think "Why are they surprised? Did they not think I deserve it? Does anyone else think I don't deserve it?"

I thought that I was just insecure, but I noticed that it kept being the same people over and over. I would feel a sinking dread and insecurity around just those people, but not others.

Over years, as I got to know these people, I discovered that most of them (the ones I know well) have enormous insecurity problems themselves. So what I'm saying is that maybe it's not you, it's them.
posted by cheesecake at 7:51 PM on April 16, 2014 [6 favorites]

This is essentially rephrasing what several other people have pointed out already, but my guess is that you were (and are) the designated 'doofus' in your family despite not intrinsically being a doofus at all.

These family assigned negative identities can be very difficult to break out of, and the process usually involves very painful re-evaluations of relationships which had previously been defined as exclusively loving and supportive, can result in sharp conflict with family members whose self esteem depends in part on viewing you as inferior, and can in extreme cases destabilize a family.

But that doesn't mean you shouldn't do it. You have every right to.

Just be ready for a lot of resistance -- both from within yourself (as you are currently experiencing) and from the rest of your family.
posted by jamjam at 9:26 PM on April 16, 2014 [4 favorites]

I never used to, but with the recentish manifestation of other mental issues, I get similarly exhausted at social gatherings.

And, let's be real, family gatherings in particular are specifically exhausting.

I've found two solutions:

1) Alcohol, pot, or both. (Obviously this is maladaptive in the long term.)

2) Taking breaks. "Sorry guys, I need some fresh air." Go for a walk for 15-20 minutes. Let your head clear. Practice mindfulness as you go. That means being here and now and not catastrophizing about the future. There are other ways to take breaks: go wash the dishes (a meditative, contemplative, relaxing act). Go unpack your things (giving you a sense of continuity with home and safety). Cooking something for everyone (lets you do the faux-chef "Get out of my kitchen! I am CREATING!"). Even frequent trips to the bathroom can give you the five minutes needed to breathe, calm down, and come back to here and now.

I echo the above advice to make a list of your achievements, and refer to it frequently without judgement. If vacuuming your home weekly is an achievement for you, put it on the list!

Suggesting a couple movies or a TV show to watch (Netflix?) could also provide some quiet time to decompress.

Good luck. Feel free to contact me privately through my profile page if you want help with more coping mechanisms/fellow traveller to commiserate with.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 7:23 PM on April 17, 2014

I used to carry, until I met someone who needed it more, a nice rounded piece of pink quartz I used to ground myself. This isn't New Age woo; I kept it in my pocket and would rub it with my thumb in stressful situations. "I am calm. I am touching this stone. It is smooth and round. I am calm." (Now I use my baby whisk keychain.)

Maybe find yourself a similar object that has meaning to you, and carry it in the same way. Focus, even for just thirty seconds, on only thinking about those physical sensations.

It helps. So does therapy, if you can afford it.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 7:30 PM on April 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

Oh, and if therapy is an option, Ativan is pretty much tailor-made for these situations. It's a benzodiazepene meaning you want to be careful with usage (highly habit forming), but it provides a stress-relief effect within minutes.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 7:35 PM on April 17, 2014

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