The Room Where It Happens
September 14, 2016 7:22 PM   Subscribe

How do you trust yourself? How do you draw upon a consistent sense of your goals and preferences and actual emotions about things?

I've never been good at consistently interpreting how I feel about things -- I mostly think a lot about a plan, feel a wave of emotion that pushes me in one direction, feel a lot about that, swerve again, etc. It's exhausting! And I'm especially exhausted with confronting the same issues again and again with the same results (e.g. "maybe I should pursue this sub-specialization at work" leading to "I enjoy this when I'm getting positive affirmation!" leading to "without that affirmation, I'm actually not that interested in it" leading to setting it aside, until I try again). I usually do eventually take action, and in retrospect I take generally positive actions with the big picture things, but I know that I burn myself out in the process -- one therapist told me I ruminated more hours of the day than anybody she'd ever worked with. Woof.

Upon reflection, I really think what's going on here is my inability or reluctance to read my emotional cues honestly in a way that would help e access a more consistent and trusting sense of self. And the result is I spend a lot of time feeling sideswiped and battered around by emotional reactions and decisions until I arrive back in a situation that I've been many, many times.

There's a lot that converges here, but I think the part I'd like to hear from folks about is how do you learn lessons from your own experiences that you can consistently draw from? How do you learn to turn up the volume on the right parts of your emotional feedback to situations and maybe make space for other emotions but not let them into the driver's seat? When you find yourself circling and circling around the same life decisions, how do you go all in with the enduring parts in a way that allows you to weather the inevitable emotional costs and compromises along the way.

At the risk of making this too muddled, I know one other element for me is ambiguity -- I'm very bad at tolerating ambiguous situations. So when I reflect inwards and arrive at "be open to things and don't force anything," I inevitably derail that state with very strong attempts to make sense of situations or decisions one way or another. Do you have any suggestions on how not to do that, congruent with this idea of trusting yourself?

Thanks in advance for any thoughts you have. Even writing this out was a huge relief.
posted by elephantsvanish to Human Relations (14 answers total) 56 users marked this as a favorite
Dialectial behavior therapy was enormously helpful to me for issues like these.
posted by listen, lady at 7:49 PM on September 14, 2016 [2 favorites]

I've suggested here Constructive Living before on the green--it taught me to acknowledge my feelings but that they don't have to dictate my actions. Some people liked it.
posted by Ideefixe at 8:15 PM on September 14, 2016 [2 favorites]

For some of us, learning to trust ourselves takes work and does not come naturally. I'm in this group and it sounds like you are too.

For me, I was forced into reality suddenly when I realized I'd been living my life for someone else. Then suddenly my true feelings about things became clear. In your case it seems like you may be seeking external validation and when other people see you as "Cool Person Who is Into X Thing", your need for external validation is sated and you don't actually NEED to do X thing.

The short answer is: stop giving a fuck what other people think. What you want to do is what you want to do, and that's fine, even if it isn't socially approved. Want to sit around all day watching TV? Go ahead, no need to feel guilty. Want to go out and run for 10 miles? Why not?

This is much easier said than done. For me, it helps to remember this is the only life I've got, and if I don't spend it doing what I want to do, what's the point? If I'm not honest with myself about what I really want out of life, why even live at all?

Therapy can help with this, also journaling.
posted by a strong female character at 8:15 PM on September 14, 2016 [13 favorites]

I also came here to suggest Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT). It took me until my mid-thirties to realize that I didn't know how to trust myself or my emotions. My therapist used a combination of DBT + Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), which meant that week after week we would look at an incident and then I would have to feel it in my body. Only then would I try to name it. And for the first years I really couldn't. But being able to hear my own voice again for the first time since childhood this past spring has made all the effort and discomfort and stark pain worth it.

Try to find a skilled and gentle therapist to help guide you through this.
posted by A hidden well at 8:16 PM on September 14, 2016 [6 favorites]

For me, the most relevant emotion in decision making is fear. Does a certain choice make me afraid? Is it a fear of risk or a fear of being trapped, etc.? Sitting with my fears around a decision is often the best way to discover my true feelings.
posted by emjaybee at 8:19 PM on September 14, 2016 [3 favorites]

I've come to the tentative conclusion that the reason I have so much less energy than other people is that anxiety is wearing me down.

One idea from CBT (I think) is to limit your ruminating to a specific time period. Maybe not every day at 7pm, but just Saturdays from 9 to 9:30 in the morning. Like intrusive thought in meditation, just push your worries out over to the appointed time. Say "no" and try to engage with some other activity. (Because you know that hours and hours of thinking tend to circle around and a lot of the repetition isn't efficient. Ten, twenty or thirty minutes is enough time to have many, many thoughts.)

Did you grow up with a parent that denied your feelings, even "Of course you can't be warm; put your jacket on" and/or a lot of other disrespect of your agency? Or maybe from a teacher, friend or partner. Does part of your negative inner voice really come from the past? Is there someone important in your past who expressed a low opinion of you?
posted by puddledork at 8:29 PM on September 14, 2016 [6 favorites]

one therapist told me I ruminated more hours of the day than anybody she'd ever worked with

If the therapist didn't bring up OCD in this context, it's good you're not seeing her anymore. What you describe going on in your head is textbook compulsive thinking--the "C" in OCD.

I think a diagnosis of OCD is what you should see a therapist about.
posted by BadgerDoctor at 8:46 PM on September 14, 2016

I am alexithymic so I have a lot of trouble identifying my emotions beyond "I'm upset". It's unclear whether this is an issue you are experiencing or not.

One of the biggest things that has helped my anxious rumination and processing is journaling/keeping a diary. The point is that trying to explain the thing to an audience, and being able to see that explanation written out, helps me figure out what is going on, and focus in on what is actually bothering me (what am I scared of?). I find that if I just think about something, it will keep spinning in my head for much longer because I can't keep track of where I was, whereas if I write it out I'm more likely to "move forward". I generally keep writing until I reach a point where I can reassure myself that I'll figure it out/be OK, but that's not always possible. (I don't reread entries and I don't think that's a good idea if you're already prone to getting stuck.)

I found that I had no idea what I wanted, so I spent some time asking myself that. I needed to start small, with things like "if I could have anything to eat right now, what would I eat?" (and no judgment!!! regardless of the answer), because I was so wrapped up in other people's expectations and demands that I couldn't find which way was up at all. As I got more confident and realized that I actually had preferences for things, I was able to ask myself more intimidating questions about what I wanted my life to look like. This really helped me develop a better sense of my goals and what was important to me, but it was really scary at parts because I came into conflict with what I was taught was The Only Reasonable Way.

You might benefit from CBT/DBT/Mindfulness techniques for emotional management. Your emotions are allowed to exist. You don't need to respond to every emotion you feel. You don't need to analyze every emotion you feel. When I start to go down the anxious 'what if" rabbithole, I frequently have to resort to mantras to get myself back out, things like "you're getting upset about something that hasn't happened yet".
posted by buteo at 9:25 PM on September 14, 2016 [3 favorites]

I started by some simple principles that reassured me and let me be kind to myself. Developed via therapy, and a bit of asking people how they felt.
- emotions are less of a computer printout, "I feel x" and more of, well, a feeling. The phrase, "they pass like summer storms" helped me too - they come and go. They're not as clear and precise as thoughts, which is both scary and eventually kinda fun
- this bothered me at the start, but got better with time and when I realised this was fundamental to feelings
- I don't have to act on, name or identify every emotion I'm feeling
- many people have no idea what they're feeling at any point. This stuff isn't easy
- being hungry or tired makes me feel angry or sad. Eating/sleeping makes me feel better. These feelings don't feel that different to deep personal preference feelings really. Totally OK, again many people, really struggle with it.
- Feeling ambivalent is not just normal but good. Feeling a mix of things is not bad - I was taught it was but that person was wrong.
- There's no need to police your or others feelings. Like digging sand with your hands.
- Confronting that the two models I had for emotion from my parents were bad but in different ways

Hopefully this is of some help and yes, DBT sounds useful.

Good luck, this is definitely do-able/a learned skill.
posted by eyeofthetiger at 11:07 PM on September 14, 2016 [4 favorites]

When I learn something that I want to keep as a principle for decision-making, I write it down. I have a list of these "Things to trust even when it doesn't feel right" principles. These days I refer back to them mentally, but I started out by writing out my situations, applying the principles, imagining how they'd look applied throughout the day, etc. I have things like, "When in doubt, default to ____" and "The most important thing for me to get done here is ____. After that, it's ____." I can release other priorities because I feel I've spent the time to make sure it's what I care about and basically want; I can't have everything, but I have the things that matter most to me. Sometimes I take a short break during the day, or do some meditative reflection in the morning or at night, or pray, and think about all of this.

Over time, I take on new ideas and shift my principles, but I'm thoughtful about it--if I notice I've been using different priorities for a while, then I ponder it and let myself explore whether this is a real shift I want to consider, or a brief deviation from my continued goals. This intentional practice is the reason I can now go through my life making decisions that align with my inner self and my goals in life. (And the reason I spent part of the past year feeling really off-base, as I had started to act in a more reactive and less proactive way--not that that's wrong, just something that makes me uncomfortable. But I may decide that "responding in the moment" rises higher on my list than it used to. :))

As a data point, my therapist is treating me for the obsessive-thoughts part of OCD (known informally as Pure OCD, or POCD). Although I just learned about it as an adult, it turns out I've been managing it throughout my life with strategies like the one above.
posted by ramenopres at 8:37 AM on September 15, 2016 [3 favorites]

I have definitely had a lot of difficulty with this in the past. For me it was coming out of a very controlling relationship and realizing that I had a hard time even seeing what my real wants or desires were in a given situation. I went to therapy for a long time, and here are some of the things that really helped:

My therapist used to help me sort of trace back the path of my anxiety. We would start with whatever feeling I had in the moment (stressed, worried, nameless feeling of dread, etc) and then he would slowly work backward with me through my week, helping me to discover the things that might be contributing to those feelings. By the time we got through the week, I usually realized that my own feelings were completely valid in response to the events of my life, which really helped me in learning to trust myself.

Then we did a lot of work around emotional reactivity, and being able to separate my emotions from my actions (such as, feel a lot of anxiety about work leading to deciding not to go to work). He also gave me a lot of language and support around recalling what I had done in similar situations in the past, ie, did I succumb to the anxiety and fall apart every time? Or were there times when I had felt the same and yet had persevered and gone through the feeling (whatever it was) to make a decision that made sense for me? So he would say things like, when was the last time you were in a situation like this? What were your feelings then? How did that go? What did you decide to do then? I think for me a lot of it was that I just didn't really know the right questions to ask myself to figure out what I wanted to do, and he helped me to form a system of questions to help me make decisions.

Hope that this helps, take care!
posted by fairlynearlyready at 9:39 AM on September 15, 2016 [2 favorites]

Have you taken any statistics classes or read up on statistics?

I have a really high tolerance for ambiguity. I always have, but taking statistics and processing insurance claims for more than five years helped firm up my understanding of a) confidence levels in decision making b) which factors matter more and c) going ahead and making a decision in spite of uncertainty.

You might try reading books like How to lie with statistics and books on negotiating, such as Getting to yes. You also might try watching TV shows about real world police work, like Cold Case Files.

I kept a dream journal for years. It tells me what my subconscious thinks, though it comes in coded symbolic language. I still pay attention to my dreams and I feel very impaired if I can't remember any dreams for too many days in a row. When that happens, I nag my sons for feedback because I trust them.

When I am really stressed about a decision, I brainstorm a list of parameters and then research what answers fit those parameters. If I run across an option that doesn't fit those parameters but seems especially appealling, I revisit my list of parameters and the logic behind each and I wonder what it would take for it to make sense. If it is too much money, is there some way to make it make sense financially? Is the budget really a bright line, or are there benefits to this choice that would offset the cost and make it work?

I also was married to a soldier for a lot of years. The military has a lot of good rubrics for making decisions under circumstances where lives are on the line and where that fact is sometimes outweighed by larger concerns. One saying I learned from my husband: "Sometimes, a 90% solution now is better than a 100% solution later." Perhaps reading up on military history and how decisions get made in times of war will be useful to you.

When I find myself desperately wanting a definite answer and realizing that does not work, it helps to define why that does not work, when or under what circumstances it will make sense to make a firm choice, and what are the short term goals until then? Then make short term decisions in accordance with those parameters.

It might help you to read up on research into brain wiring. People who are not strongly emotional have trouble making snap decisions because emotion is a form of memory. It is shorthand for "Yes, I have strong positive associations" or, "Nope! I have strong negative associations." Snap judgements are a bit more prone to error than well researched, well considered decisions, but they tend to serve well in dangerous situations where time is of the essence.

I think if you educate yourself more about how to effectively make decisions, your tolerance for ambiguity will go up. The reality is that no one is ever 100% certain about anything. But some factors matter more than others. This fact was strongly reinforced for me when I paid insurance claims: A single strong piece of evidence outweighed multiple weaker pieces. Think about circumstantial evidence versus, say, DNA evidence. Circumstantial evidence is suggestive, but not definitive. It can be easily overturned by forensic evidence that proves the opposite.

I have come to think of confidence as being about statistical confidence. This is a technical term in statistics that defines how certain we are or how much room for error the data has. A single piece of information may be wild coincidence, which is part of why anecdotal data is so often decried. A few dozen observations is suggestive, but still has a lot of room for error. Many thousands of observations makes it clear that you can fairly confidently predict that X leads to Y most of the time.

So, if my data is solid and my decision-making rubrics are solid, I can make a confident decision, in spite of a lack of absolute certainty.

Nonetheless, I spend a lot of time ruminating about certain things, trying to shore up both my data and my decision-making parameters and rubrics. I am okay with that and rarely feel tortured by it. I have a very high tolerance for ambiguity and that tolerance gives me room to contemplate various possible scenarios and dig deep into the decision-making process during the time when no decision actually needs to be made yet. It gives me broad latitude for playing with mental models and entertaining possibilities without commiting to anything.

Then, when the time comes when a decision must be made, I know I am making the best decision possible, even if the choice I make is imperfect. In other words, the decision-making process is as solid as I can humanly make it, even though if I were psychic or a time traveler or something, I might make some other choice. So, tomorrow's news might make me wish I had chosen otherwise, but I do not look back on it and feel dumb. It was the best decision under the circumstances, given the available information.
posted by Michele in California at 10:43 AM on September 15, 2016 [3 favorites]

What has helped me:

*Recognizing that the ability to trust myself starts with having a firm grasp on my values. I focused on developing a personal value system that is true to myself and reflects the person I aspire to be (i.e. more courageous than cautious, more charitable than critical, more optimistic than cynical, values spiritual growth, takes the high road over the path of least resistance, etc.).

*These values determine my priorities in life, and knowing my priorities helps me compartmentalize what is intuition and what is emotional reaction (which often clouds judgment) - so that I can see the big picture of ambiguous situations clearly and make decisions accordingly.

*Acting according my values (1) creates a stronger sense of self which is helpful in summoning necessary courage to make sometimes difficult decisions in the face of uncertainty and (2) brings a deep sense of peace after, regardless of the outcome.
posted by tackypink at 4:54 PM on September 15, 2016 [3 favorites]

I just stumbled onto this very late, so maybe my answer will go unread, but I wanted to weigh in because it seems to align with something I've been thinking about myself recently. I'm going to flatly go against what a strong female character advises when she says to do whatever you want to do whenever you feel like it. That may be the right advice, but it might not be. For me, at least, living that way has been a big problem and the source of stagnation. I've recently come to see that I live very impulsively, that I do what I want when I feel like it (I have a structureless freelance life) and that this way of living is seriously undermining my larger goals. When hard things come up -- things I'd like to do because they align with higher goals but that I don't, strictly speaking, have to do -- I often don't do them. They're hard, unpleasant, boring, will cause me anxiety, etc. There's an endless list of reasons not to do these things, and nobody cares if I do them or not, so I don't do them, or suddenly lose interest and begin thinking I should be doing something else. And I don't move any further on my larger goals. Forgive me if I'm totally projecting my issue onto you, OP, but right now I'm all about the idea of sticking with something even when enthusiasm wanes, because waning enthusiasm might be a con. And sticking with something that you keep circling back to might be worth doing. Seconding the person who recommended Constructive Living (which is what I was searching for when I landed on this Feelings are great, but the trick is knowing when to heed them and when to ignore them.
posted by swheatie at 6:41 PM on October 24, 2016 [1 favorite]

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