How do I stop?
April 2, 2016 2:12 PM   Subscribe

I get into these vicious cycles around this time of the year, in which I make a minor social faux pas and can't stop rehearsing it in my head and feeling weird about it. I then become hypersensitive, and try to apologize or compensate, through which I make more social mistakes. And it keeps going on. HELP ME STOP MYSELF!

Every year around this time-- end of the academic year-- I become hyped up and overwhelmed on a year's worth of panic, anxiety, and feelings of inadequacy. I invariably overthink some little thing someone else in the department (I am a phd student) have said or did which triggers an avalanche of weird social behaviors and feel like I am doomed forever.

I don't know if anyone really actually notices how high strung I get, or anyone actually cares. But my subjective experience is pretty disorienting-- I feel very surreal and hyper-vigilant and feel like I am going crazy. I get caught up in feeling like I've made a lot of mistakes that I must correct, which usually makes thing worse.

Every year I then go into the summer and then return to normal after about a month or so feeling like this, but I would rather just stop the avalanche altogether. Things are starting this year-- I've said a few awkward things and am now trying to stop myself from making things more awkward, but it's really hard. How do I do that? How do I shake out all this obsessing thoughts about various ways I have made social faux pas, about whether or not I've made people angry or uncomfortable, and about how I feel like I've ruined everything?
posted by atetrachordofthree to Human Relations (14 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
1) What ultimately hit me like a sack when I was around 45 or so was the realisation that, yes, I am rather insanely important to myself, but I'm not nearly as important to other people, so whatever I say or do usually doesn't matter unless I'm openly rude, which I avoid. People usually don't remember your faux pas (they rarely remember your excessive apologising either) because people are too concerned with themselves most of the time.

2) The other thing that I realised around 55...well, hm: I do occasionally remember something really thoughtless, stupid or gauche that I said to someone long ago. Remembering it makes me usually so embarrassed even 35 years after the fact that I usually make a tiny squeak or hum a spontaneous nervous melody even before I can think, and then--
Then I realise that the person I spoke to is actually already dead.

It all doesn't matter. What matters is that you are you, and comfortable with it.

If rationalising yourself out of your apologetic anxiety minefield doesn't work, talk to a professional.
posted by Namlit at 2:26 PM on April 2, 2016 [16 favorites]

What are you getting out of this behavior? When I do what you are describing, what I'm getting is an odd, painful sort of control. Whatever trivial thing I did is weird and bad, but it's not going to get weirder and more bad. It's known whereas the future (exams, grades, whatever) is unknown. So yeah, it feels bad but it's a known bad. It's not like that big, horrible, unknown bad of the ominous future.

The only thing that stops it for me is recognizing the pattern. I'm obsessing over (trivial) because I don't want to deal with the stress of (whatever).
posted by 26.2 at 2:44 PM on April 2, 2016

If you're not prepared to see someone about this, there are many many many books (and probably videos) about social anxiety and common CBT-style methods for dealing with it.
posted by Lyn Never at 3:14 PM on April 2, 2016

I typically find this time of year very difficult for very similar reasons to your own (although I'm not in academia now, it does seem to be baked in). This is in the context of a broader tendency to anxiety and (to a lesser extent) depression, which may not be the same I can only tell you what works for me, and it's pretty obvious.

Firstly, medication. There were times when I was OK without an SSRI, but there were recurring times when I'd end up a mess, in painful and exhausting anxiety for days on end and obsessing about my actions and what other people thought about them. I still get anxious and worried, but I don't get broken down by it in the same way. If you are losing your quality of life a couple of months a year, I'd at least consider it.

Secondly, meditation. I know that mindfulness is all the rage, and I know that might make it seem like another too-easy answer. However, in terms of "recognising the pattern", as 26.2 says, practising just paying attention to what's going on, without trying to run away from it (that awful battle to force bad social memories out of my mind) or run after it (trying to think of some plan to make it alright), is really useful. Doing something that is structured around acknowledging anxiety, without trying to eliminate it, helps me to not spiral further into anxiety. I might not feel better, but I don't make myself feel worse, and so get back to a decent position more quickly. I have found the Headspace app good for this - I think mainly because it has a counter of continuous days meditation, which encourages me to keep practising even when I don't feel like it, just to avoid losing my high-score. Shallow but effective!
posted by howfar at 3:24 PM on April 2, 2016 [1 favorite]

Sometimes I get in my head and overthink things. One thing that helps me is to take a step back - rather than rushing to confront, discuss, or apologize, take a walk. When I'm a little calmer, talk to a trusted, level-headed friend. Often their perspective helps me decide what to do.

Another thing that's helped me is realizing that I don't know a single person who hasn't committed a faux pas. Most decent and thoughtful people, when they see your faux pas (if they even notice it) will think "well, I've done the same" and move on to thinking about something else.

It's also helped to stop taking responsibility for how someone else *might* have taken something. They are grownups, if they are deeply offended by something I did they can talk to me, and I can apologize or explain then.

And sometimes I tell myself "It's okay, it's okay" and shift my thoughts to something else. Nobody else is perfect, why should I be?
posted by bunderful at 4:08 PM on April 2, 2016 [2 favorites]

I try to remind myself as much as possible that everyone is too wrapped up in their own drama to pay much attention to things like minor faux pas. We are all the stars of our own lives, and the equivalent of a heart-stopping season finale in my life is a one-off line in your filler episode.

Put yourself in someone else's shoes. If the situation were reversed, would you be as upset by the situation as you are now? Would you even notice? Or would you be kind, assume the other person was just having an off day, and quickly forget it even happened?

Assuming you've done no great injury and have apologized if warranted, try to show yourself that same kindness whenever you start to dwell on it. The world will keep turning, people will forgive and/or forget, and you will be fine.
posted by fox problems at 4:18 PM on April 2, 2016

Let this be your mantra:

1. Yeah I guess I fucked up a little there.
2. Whatever.

Repeat as often as possible.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 6:09 PM on April 2, 2016 [9 favorites]

I agree with St. Peepsburg. I'd even add a #3:

"No one else will remember this a week from today."

I think about stuff like this when I am stressed out. I'll remember embarrassing things from LITERALLY years ago. I am quite sure in 99.9% of these cases I am the only person who has ever thought about the incident after it happened, never mind years later.

I don't feel like this as often as I used to. It did really help when I realized everyone else is too busy thinking about themselves to worry very much about what I'm doing.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 7:02 PM on April 2, 2016 [1 favorite]

What ultimately hit me like a sack when I was around 45 or so was the realisation that, yes, I am rather insanely important to myself, but I'm not nearly as important to other people, so whatever I say or do usually doesn't matter unless I'm openly rude, which I avoid.

Coming to this realization helped me too. It turns out I'm not that important, and neither are you (no offense). Knowing this, made these small faux pas that much easier. When there are giant screw ups, then I just apologize once and mean it.

In terms of obsessive thoughts around it though, it sounds like this is anxiety driven. Have you considered seeing a therapist around breaking the cycle using some behavior modification? Alternatively you could pause when you get into these cycles and think: "What is it I'm really stressed out about. Oh right - that damn paper!! Let's focus on that!!"
posted by Toddles at 8:09 PM on April 2, 2016

Great suggestions. I would add that sometimes it helps to allow the feeling you are having (shame?) to be in you as you acknowedge how it feels, while NOT thinking, which can be tricky. To do that effectivelyit heplps to make sure youknow what feeling you are feeling, as an example using your words, "I feel like i have ruined everything",which cannot be, as ruining isnt a feeling ( I'm not trying to be picky but to point you to see it is a belief (thought)and that is not what you are feeling butwhat you are thinking. Its seasier to know what you are feeling when you identify feelings only using emotion words, so you can then go into the true feeling and notice where it is in your body so then it becomes,.."I believe(think) I ruined eveything and I feel (whatever emotion) which allows you to hone in on feeling when you identify what it is, allow it to be there sans thought, breathe, try to relax and the body sorts it out in time and practice.
posted by RelaxingOne at 8:10 PM on April 2, 2016 [1 favorite]

Yeah, you can be sure people are generally not even noticing - and if they do notice then they just found out you're a little bit weird, but it's very unlikely that they care much about that.

After all, we humans all a little bit weird, when you get to know us. If you want people to get to know you, you'll have to accept that they'll discover your weirdness.

I get traumatic flashbacks to trivial stupid things I said decades ago, that probably nobody even remembered a day later. I've learned to just think of something else, when that happens. Before I was able to just stop it, I would distract myself - pick up an instrument for a few minutes, watch a funny video, do some duolingo, whatever.
posted by foolfilment at 11:17 AM on April 3, 2016

Not sure how helpful that is but one thing that really made a difference for me was medication. I got an SSRI for something (I thought was) unrelated and one of the most noticeable effects was worrying less about other people's judgement of me.

Otherwise, taking care of my overall health, especially going for regular walks outside greatly increased my social resilience and took my mind off things.

Hang in there.
posted by M. at 12:50 PM on April 3, 2016

I totally agree with what others have said: the realization that others don't think about me nearly as much as I think about myself is helpful in putting aside those moments in time that we tend to obsess over. Nobody else is really doing it, so I don't have to, either.

Also, I find that some of those opinions that I project onto myself are voices that I heard early on in the development of my self. Feeling inadequate, for example, can come from our formative years and the authoritative voices that were directed towards us as we developed a sense of identity. A big realization for me is that it is somewhat absurd to let me five year old perception of self still tell me how I should be feeling and responding to life (we do carry these early voices around for a really long time). Sounds obvious perhaps, but talking with a counselor (especially in the areas of attachment therapy) can really free some of those negative mental habits that we can know to be negative and incorrect, but still embrace despite our best efforts.

Also, one final realization that I had: as I get older, I tend to be much more understanding of people who make social blunders, and this really is an ideal that I first saw in others that I can embrace and admire. I then realized that if this is the case, I certainly owe myself the same consideration. Additionally, many people are already extending you the grace and understand that we sometimes have a hard time learning to extend to ourselves. We simply have to jump on board and do the same. Once we internalize this, we can consider those who do not have the same mindset as not being worthy of our continual mental energy, because they fail to fall under the category of good or kind behavior. As we learn to admire good and kind behavior over time towards others who are likewise imperfect, we tend to not be as concerned with the opinions of people who don't, as they now appear to be making the more major faux pas.
posted by SpacemanStix at 1:44 PM on April 3, 2016 [1 favorite]

I used to have a huge problem with this and it calmed down as I got older, only to come back WITH A VENGEANCE a few years ago when I was in an emotionally vulnerable place and generally trying to re-learn all the ways I'd been interacting with people. What helped me was just admitting it -- which meant being willing to be vulnerable, but was so rewarding. I learned to say "oh man, I'm totally beating myself up over some dumb thing I said the other night" -- not to anyone who was there the other night, necessarily, but just being open with people in general about the fact that this is how my mind works. What I found out was that this is how everyone's mind works. I mean, people are telling you this, and it's true, but for me there was no substitute for opening up about my anxieties and having everyone relate, instantly, and bond closer instead of being freaked out or backing away.
posted by babelfish at 4:23 PM on April 3, 2016 [1 favorite]

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