How do I stop taking others' decisions as an indictment of my own?
June 17, 2014 11:12 AM   Subscribe

I seem to have this problem where I will get worked up, disappointed, upset, and distressed--a combination of all four--whenever someone makes a decision that is wholly unrelated to me but is a different one than I would have made. It has moved beyond someone being wrong on the Internet over the past few years and is really starting to drive me bonkers. Do you, denizens of the green, have any advice for changing my behavior?

A lot of things have been bothering me more over the past few years, and this one is the one that I'm having the most difficulty dealing with. Worse, even if it's a choice that I didn't need to make or haven't ever made, I have the same reaction if their decision is different from what I would have chosen. It feels, to me, like I am so emotionally invested in any decision that I have made or might make that it prevents me from seeing that other people have their own lives and are separate from me. I have this urge to not only "correct" the other person but to also feel disappointed in myself that I did/thought the opposite/one of the alternates.. If it was just a political candidate or a cause or a sports team, I would be OK with it as one of the areas where I am simply passionate about something but this [whatever it is] comes out all of the time.

To avoid threadsitting, here's a recent example: I bought a small house in an urban area of a large city. I'm also a big fan of and recent convert to urban-style living and all that entails. A person commented on a blog that I read that he is buying a house in a neighboring suburb because, in his view, my city is too expensive, has poorer schools, and is too risky for a real estate purchase. This has been bothering me for the past several hours since the comment appeared, to the point that I've obsessively written and deleted several multi-paragraph rebuttals.

Any advice for an overthinking flame-broiled mollusk?
posted by fireoyster to Human Relations (12 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Sounds like a symptom of anxiety. Overthinking of all sorts falls into that black hole. Do you have other anxiety-driven issues?

I'd advise staying off the internet for awhile. You may have an addiction and it's manifesting as these little brain-kicks to get your adrenaline pumping. Everytime you get all worked up, you get a jolt and your brain gets happy. Just like a Drama-Llama loves conflict.

Another thought is to say to yourself. "I disagree, but it's not important, especially to someone I've never met."

But if it's raising your blood pressure, or causing you sleepless nights, or really is a concern, the old 'therapy' saw may be an answer too.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 11:18 AM on June 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

It feels, to me, like I am so emotionally invested in any decision that I have made or might make that it prevents me from seeing that other people have their own lives and are separate from me.

Sounds to me as if you've developed an unhelpful mental habit that it would help you to practise deliberate and conscious derailment of until you've replaced it with a better one.

Try sticking a rubber band around your wrist, and then every time you notice that you're having one of these internal Wrong On The Internet reactions, snap it to get your own attention and then actually speak the actual words "other people have their own lives and are separate from me, and that's as it should be."
posted by flabdablet at 11:21 AM on June 17, 2014 [4 favorites]

I've had these moments in my life. More than anything, they have been a reflection of my own mental state -- not that I necessarily realized that at the time -- and my level of comfort in my own life. Generalized anxiety is definitely a piece of it. If you have the ability to seek out some help in that regard, it can be a good first step.

The things I've had to remember include:
  • Be confident in your own decisions, but be open to change. You have made choices, but that doesn't mean they're necessarily better than other choices and it also doesn't preclude you from changing your mind in the future.
  • Many decisions are emotional and emotions are personal. There are objective reasons why some decisions are good, but some decisions just... are. It comes down to personal aesthetics and needs and history and you have to recognize that your experiences are no more or less valid than anyone else's.
  • Sometimes you never really believe in your own choices until they're tested. Learn to fail, figure out what failure looks like, and you'll recognize your successes more easily. I wish I'd figured this out when I was much younger -- I wasn't confident enough in my choices, and I wasn't sure when to be unconfident and change my mind.

posted by mikeh at 11:25 AM on June 17, 2014 [2 favorites]

It seems like you might be failing to take into account that others have different likes and dislikes and priorities than you do, and that their decisions are different from yours because of those fundamental things that make us individuals, not because they're righter or wronger than you are.

Akin to your example, my sister lives near my mother in a suburban mini-mansion neighborhood near where we grew up and all those things sound terrible to me - but my sister also has four kids, and with that in mind it makes sense to live in a big house in a safe area near family and excellent public schools. She's basing her life on different premises than I am. It wouldn't make sense for her to live in a townhouse that's walkable to the library and the greenway because those things aren't important to how her life is structured.

You might try breaking it down to a very basic level, like: my husband hates Brussels sprouts. We have actually gotten in fights before because he will not shut up about how much he hates Brussels sprouts. I love Brussels sprouts! How could you not love them when they're done right, all roasty with garlic? But the thing is, he's different from me. He's a person who puts hot sauce on everything, for example, which is something I can't do. Our tastebuds are different. And if people's tastebuds can be that different, doesn't it make sense that the big priorities and preferences in life are going to be different, too? Someone not liking Brussels sprouts when I do doesn't mean that they're right and I'm wrong (or vice versa). We're just different.

Those people who don't do what you would do - they're doing something different because they're not you. That's the only reason. Try to be grateful for it. I surely have had lots of moments feeling grateful that I don't have those four kids my sister has.
posted by something something at 11:28 AM on June 17, 2014 [4 favorites]

For me, the quickest way out of this is through it. If my anxiety is acting up, when someone talks about their different decision, I have a moment of "oh my god everything I've based my life on is wrong, wrong, irretrievably wrong. I didn't do what they did. Their choice has x, y, and z going for it, and there's no way to change my decision now, and I'm doomed."

The impulse to defend my decision, my reasons for it, why my decision is right for me, etc. is defending against that feeling. Defending against that feeling gives it power, it legitimizes the feeling as something to be afraid of.

But if I let that feeling of doom wash over me, and really sit with idea that that other person is right and I'm wrong, and I made a big life-altering mistake, meanwhile I just do some slow breathing and counting to 10, while being super duper wrong and foolish and being a big old mistake-maker, eventually it starts to seem like being wrong is maybe not such a big deal. Even if I did make a bad decision, that's something humans do all the time. And if the worst-case consequences do happen to me, maybe I'll be able to handle them when I get to them.
posted by Bentobox Humperdinck at 11:55 AM on June 17, 2014 [4 favorites]

When I'm facing a big choice, I try to remember that there are often many "right" answers to any complicated question. Every option has advantages and disadvantages, but in the end, I will probably be happy with whatever decision I make.

I think that putting huge weight on ourselves to make the right choices may just be a way to try to exert power over our lives... If I'm very careful, and really think carefully about this decision, and do all the research, then I can make the choice that will make me happy. The corollary to that is that the other choices would make me unhappy—but that doesn't necessarily follow.
posted by BrashTech at 12:00 PM on June 17, 2014

I let go of this particular tendency by reminding myself that however 'wrong', counterproductive, or downright absurd people's decisions may seem to me -- the machinations behind their reasoning, modes of thinking, priorities, etc. have been molded by their own personal experiences which I am entirely outside of and therefore should learn to be more careful and compassionate in questioning.
posted by tackypink at 12:12 PM on June 17, 2014 [2 favorites]

Things like this are a large part of why I disabled my Facebook account - not because I couldn't change the way I thought, but because it just gave me too many opportunities to dwell on other people's minutiae and it was driving me a little crazy. It's done a world of good for my general anxiety about other people's stuff. YMMV.
posted by minsies at 12:42 PM on June 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

Let go of the idea that there is some right answer out there, or that someone out there is doing it right.

Everyone is just flying by the seat of their pants.

And everyone has their persnickety little preferences. I hate bungalows, for example.

There is no 'winning' at life, whether you bought house X or house Y, or popped out 2.8 kids instead of 1.2 kids; you don't get a report card for your life.

FWIW I've found meta-filter very helpful for learning how to state my opinion, back up my opinion & feel confident in my opinion & decisions, even when I feel like I'm getting dog-piled on about it.

You know what, write your rebuttal to that guy. Get into a big ol fight about it. Do it enough times until you realize how pointless all that arguing is... you're both right and no one has to change their minds about anything; no one is the lesser for their choice.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 12:49 PM on June 17, 2014 [2 favorites]

I agree with other above that this insecurity related to anxiety, and therapy helped me a lot with being secure in my own decisions and letting other people live their own lives. One exercise I sometimes do might help, too.

When going about my business, someone will do something "wrong". I watched recently as a woman hustled through a thoroughly red light with a stroller, making cross-traffic brake. I caught myself thinking angry thoughts at her "wrongness" and tried to think of every compassionate possible reason she might have done that. Maybe she has to drop off the baby and get to work, and her boss will dock her pay if she's late! Maybe the baby is sick, and she's rushing off to the doctor! Maybe the baby's older sibling is in some kind of trouble and she needs to go save it!

By the end of my musings, I'd gotten to thinking she might've just been in a hurrying mindset because it was rush hour... and that was ok. Not the decision I would make in the same situation, I hope, but not my decision to make or judge, either. In the end it made no difference to her behavior, but it sure made my brain a nicer place to be spending time.
posted by ldthomps at 12:50 PM on June 17, 2014

My wife struggles with this too. She's come up with a mantra: "Not my life, not my problem." Those six words, repeated when your brain starts to get spun up about something that you can't control and that doesn't affect you, can be very helpful.

On another level, echoing what others have said: for any given life situation, there is very rarely one "right" way things go. There's the way you do it and there's the way others do it, and the Venn diagram of those two things doesn't overlap as much as your brain is trying to convince you they do.

Good luck.
posted by pdb at 1:25 PM on June 17, 2014 [3 favorites]

You've gotten great advice, so this is just another data point. I'm curious, so I encourage you to be curious, as to whether you're bothered by other people's dissenting decisions:

1) ALL the time? Like, does this happen every time someone makes a different decision from you, like if your dining companion chooses to get appetizers and not save room for dessert, and you really like dessert, are you similarly bothered, or primarily when reading things on the net?

If this is only with strangers on the web or in articles, it may be that you imbue people you don't know with a power to judge you, invalidate you and your decisions, or otherwise give them the power to make you question yourself in ways you would not do if the actual humans you know expressed the same opinions. (In other words, maybe you see the flaws in the humans you know, but ignore the potential for flaws in the logic of strangers?) If it's this, you can either try to read fewer of these online things (as I often do when an AskMe type of question makes me fighty) or work on your empathy and give yourself permission to accept that random strangers have different needs from your own and that it does reflect on your decisions AT ALL.

1a) Do you have this same feeling when fictional characters make choices different from your own? If not, perhaps you could try, in an almost cartoonish way, telling yourself, "Oh, that random person in that article doesn't even really exist!"

2) Only when their explanations are given? For example, if you don't care if a stranger prefers the suburbs to the city, but then if someone gives an explanation for the choice (like choosing the suburbs over the city because of the cost, quality of schools, and potential risk), it's easy to feel like the random person (or SOMEone) feels that you've made the wrong interpretations regarding these same facts. Whether or not the facts are debatable, can you take a step back and say, "Ah, these facts are not applicable to my life, so this person must be so different from me as to make their point invalid WHEN APPLIED TO ME, but it's interesting to be reminded that it might be applicable to someone else," perhaps?

3) Only when their explanations are given but only when you don't have a chance to know their specific circumstances? Like, if you knew that person in the above example had a special needs child and a recent financial catastrophe, and an anxiety disorder stemming from a childhood trauma related to finances, would you be less inclined to get stressed out and take it personally? If you know someone else's specific circumstances but still discount their coming to a different decision, then therapy may be more helpful. If, however, you can be empathetic when you have the full picture, it might help to make up a story in your head about why "this" person has different needs, even when the story doesn't present them.

We're all a little bit solipsistic, so it's easy to be surprised or even angry when everyone does not act/do/think as we do, and when we can't immediately dismiss them (because they're just random people we'll never know), we doubt ourselves. That self-doubt isn't bad -- it seems us growing as human beings. But can you take that self-doubt and use it as the basis of a conversational experiment in your head, and be the Sherlock, so that when you feel the anxiety bubbling up, if you can't step away, you can step towards it but peer at it dispassionately? Maybe even do it cartoonishly (even if in your own head)?
posted by The Wrong Kind of Cheese at 5:55 PM on June 17, 2014

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