How to handle politically-driven self-doubt/anxiety?
November 10, 2017 4:56 AM   Subscribe

I have rumination spirals that feel unhealthy/unproductive, but simultaneously totally correct with respect to my personal progressivism.

So. I’m male, white, cis, liberal, and a bit neurotic. The deal is: my brain/gut go into on obsessive churn when I read certain well-expressed and well-founded sentiments about sexism/racism, privileged people who are clueless about them, privileged people who performatively signal “getting it” by talking not only about patriarchy and white supremacy, but about how their own cluelessness contributes to those things, etc…

I don’t even have to read anything like that to start the anxious spiral; it also comes when I think about the future, myself, the news, etc. Specifically, whenever my self-image becomes slightly too loving/compassionate (e.g. when I imagine getting better at home maintenance skills because I’ve read the threads here about unequal emotional/mental labor, and I hope I can be a decent partner in a future hetero relationship) the inner voice says ”OK, do you want a fucking cookie?” or “Women aren’t characters in your narrative” or “Of course a man’s gonna make this issue all about himself” or similar.

I know this voice is melodramatic (it happens when I haven’t said anything publicly at all). It’s probably a way for my brain to smother some genuinely uncomfortable realizations about itself, or to excuse me from real work, or something.

But… the voice’s origin is an internet snark machine which, when it comes to worldly and national events, has proven basically right about everything from my birth to the present year (especially this present year, sheesh). So my cognitive dissonance comes from squaring “White men! Are clearly! The worst!” with “I personally am at east kind of okay, and there is plausible hope that I can become even better”. The negative self-talk still seems objectively irrefutable, on rational grounds, and logically inescapable (those takedowns could, in principle, occur in response to any possible idea or action).

Fellow liberals with anxiety (or, fellow anyone with anything), how do you disentangle meaningful self-awareness from harmful OCD/rumination? Just how possible is it to reach a point where you don’t even worry anymore about being a “good enough” human (with all the attendant worries that observing oneself as “good enough” automatically falsifies the observation)?

I guess the real issue is: Can I ever stop being so about me?
posted by InTheYear2017 to Society & Culture (22 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I’m not sure if it helps, but if it does — if there’s anything in the world that it’s okay to be disproportionately about you, where ‘you’ is a cis, straight, white, middle class guy, it’s your own interior monologue — that’s how being a person works. ‘All’ about you is still bad, but you’re allowed to focus more on yourself than on the rest of the world.

More generally, I am only barely less privileged than you are (all the same categories except I’m a woman). What works for me is assuming that I’m not good enough — I’m being an asshole about things in ways I haven’t figured out yet. So I try to keep an eye on myself for specific ways I’m screwing up, and fix them when I spot them. But between moments when I’ve got some particular issue I’m working on, I don’t really worry if I’m ‘good enough’ because I’m completely sure I’m not. That sounds depressing when I say it that way, but it works for me.
posted by LizardBreath at 5:07 AM on November 10, 2017 [1 favorite]

"I guess the real issue is: Can I ever stop being so about me?"

Yes, by practicing what you preach. By which I mean - it's a good thing that you're reading about issues relating to your societal role and position as a privileged, (probably) well-educated, white male. But actually being a good person - or a good 'guy' - comes down to interacting and engaging with others, and in my experience (speaking as a fellow neurotic person), that's the only way to get out of my head and into the world. I'm also not sure if the self-deprecating interior monologue is really helpful, in general. You can be mindful of your behavior and aware of your privilege while still assuming your identity. You can still be (and are allowed to be) a confident person.

Women aren't and shouldn't be "characters in your narrative", indeed. They're actual persons out there and in your life. I know it sounds simple, but just be nice to them, and kind to yourself. (And maybe take up a role as a volunteer to contribute to your community in some way?)
posted by Desertshore at 5:20 AM on November 10, 2017 [4 favorites]

I guess the real issue is: Can I ever stop being so about me?

The best way to stop being about yourself in this navel-gazing fashion is to do tangible, real things to be about other people. There's never going to be a point where you think yourself into having a better impact on the people in your life and in your community who are getting the brunt of this. You have to do shit.

Volunteer (nearly every women's or PoC organization I know needs people to stuff envelopes, raise money, manage websites or databases, or do other thankless jobs for them), donate to causes that address issues, and support the people in your life by relieving them of some of the emotional labour they're doing for you. As a cis-white-male, I go back to the emotional labour thread every six months or so and read it again because invariably I find another 2-3 things that I can fix in my relationship with the women in my life today. It's filled with tangible, real-life habits that you can fix.

Stop thinking and start doing is the best way to actually stop being about yourself all of the time. You don't have to be perfect to volunteer.
posted by notorious medium at 5:59 AM on November 10, 2017 [5 favorites]

Christianity, and I hope other religions, has come up with some systems and mechanisms to handle this kind of thing which I think could be adapted to non-deistic people. Things like the idea of forgiveness coming from self/outside the self, confession, penance (usually mild but appropriate), humility, brotherhood, the idea that we are all sinners but that there are someone believes us worth saving, etc.

Please don't read these words and think I mean something trivial, or that requires a "church", just that there are specific ways that churches have addressed this kind of thing that might be relevant. Maybe there are ideas that can be adapted.
posted by amtho at 6:03 AM on November 10, 2017 [1 favorite]

Thank you LizardBreath, Desertshore, notorious medium, amtho. Your answers are insightful and give me a little more hope/confidence I can reverse the spiral -- do better to do better to feel better, and so on. Appreciated.
posted by InTheYear2017 at 6:50 AM on November 10, 2017

This is going to be an answer specifically to your concerns about politics, not mental health. (I mean I might accidentally say something useful about the mental health component but I'm not super qualified to talk there)

Accept your imperfection. By that I don't mean throw your hands in the air and say "fuck it, white mans gotta white man." But what I wish men and white people would understand about this world we're all living in is that sexism and racism are systematic and widespread, and that one person (or even a lot of people) cannot fix them through personal perfection and failing to slip ever. I think the negative self-talk is keeping you in a place where you're focused on achieving that perfection, and I really think that's antithetical to successfully practicing anti-sexism and anti-racism in a lot of ways. (For one, any school of thought that puts the burden on individuals to just stop being sexist/racist ignores how deep and embedded these systems are, and I think it's very very important to see them clearly. I also believe that separating individuals into "the good ones" and "the bad ones" is a way to distract us from the fact that we're all stewing in it.)

I had this whole thing typed up about how I've seen most of my white friends stumble and say mildly racist things and then do better, but we are SO focused on perfection and good/bad in our culture that I'm afraid your takeaway may be "oh my God you know that many racists???", and so I think maybe a better analogy is politics. We still occasionally fall into the trap of relitigating the primaries on this very site, right? And there are so many bad feelings among Democrats on Bernie vs. Hillary, on people's pet issues, etc. But I would so much rather have the Bernie people and the people who disagree with me on random issues to come sit with me and write postcards to voters and call their congresspeople, over having them agree 100% with me on everything and sit in their homes and do nothing. Effort over ideology.

Keep educating yourself, keep trying to be better (without expecting perfection), definitely volunteer or take action if you can. You're okay.
posted by sunset in snow country at 7:12 AM on November 10, 2017 [15 favorites]

As another liberal with anxiety, this post about scrupulosity that has concrete strategies for dealing with it and not letting it take over your life was really helpful to me. And generally, the same way you deal with any rumination would help - acknowledge when you have these thoughts, acknowledge that they're not useful, and leave it at that. Don't follow the train of thought, and don't beat yourself for having the thoughts, just let them sit there and be boring.
posted by gaybobbie at 8:12 AM on November 10, 2017 [1 favorite]

I feel like you missed what happened since this summer, and especially on this past Tuesday?

This year was the best thing that ever happened to this country because folks are waking up, promoting civilized humane values by re-engaging with society, culture, and especially our governing process. Truth about corruption and abuse of power is spilling out everywhere! Viable third and fourth parties are emerging. Folks are realizing how government is supposed to serve their needs and the balance of power is shifting. Lots of women, people of color, and transgender candidates flipped seats on Tuesday and won their election race. The demographics of elected officials is changing rather quickly (finally!) to represent the diversity of our population. Dude, it's going to be OK!!

I've been on your rollercoaster, I'm going to help you out with some facts that have helped me...

After WWII, academics were interested to know how people in Germany and Italy embraced fascism or authoritarianism. Studies showed that about 30% of any group or population gravitated towards conservative or authoritarian ideas no matter what. And what does the figure "30%" remind you of? Yep, the approval rating of a certain person that represents everything you are neurotic about. That means there are 70% of Americans (and people everywhere!!) that believe in equity, justice, and treating each other with respect, listening to diverse viewpoints, and consensus generally. Now, for some reason (let's ignore the speculation for now) only 40% to 46% of ALL Americans vote in federal election years, less during local only years. I haven't looked up the stats for last Tuesday's non-federal election, but for that many seats to have flipped, for many candidates who are not white men to get elected, many many more Americans than usual exercised their values and voted at the polls. Gotta be.

In short, our society is no longer the frog slowly boiling in the pot, unaware of the increasing heat. It got dramatically hotter overnight a year ago this week, and after a period of shock people woke up! People are getting a grip on how money, privilege and power have shaped our nation and culture away from the majority's values of inclusion and responsible government. They realized they didn't have to let the system roll over them, or accept being marginalized, or let greedy crazy fuckheads take over our lives.

Folks aren't going back to sleep. The submission that comes from shocking events is wearing off.

You personally combat your neurosis by taking actions congruent with your values (getting involved in your community in some way) + focusing on some sort of practice that keeps you stable while the world around you catches up to your worthy expectations of it. Meditation, cycling, yoga, martial arts, surfing, hiking handgliding - whatever! Just stay moving. Moving your body re-directs your mind.

Hope that helped. I have more to say on this, but overall, this has been the best year since 2000 & 2001. The rubber finally met the road, I see sanity breaking out all over the place. It's going to be fine. Get involved and keep moving.
posted by jbenben at 8:30 AM on November 10, 2017 [2 favorites]

The negative self-talk still seems objectively irrefutable, on rational grounds

sure it is. so what, though? this is no different than if you got stuck on two plus two equalling four and kept going around and around trying to think of a way out (what if it's five? but it's FOUR! what if I make it one and three instead of two and two? NO STILL FOUR AND NOW I'M HYPERVENTILATING etc.)

the logic flaw isn't (necessarily; I'm not trying to analyze it all) in any of your conclusions or your thought process about identity and politics. the flaw is in your illogical conclusion that you can't permit yourself to stop thinking about a true thing. there is virtue in figuring out the truth, but you've done that -- you don't have to stay there, you can move on to e.g. what you should do with yourself right now. if you can't stop running through it after realizing that, the problem has nothing to do with the truth value. it's a regular old anxiety/intrusive thought issue and the way to fix it should be the same way you'd fix obsessive and intrusive thoughts about anything else: with deliberately imposed distraction and discipline, and outside help and medication if those don't work.

this is a problem of form, not content. negative self-talk isn't a position so it can't be refuted; it's a behavior, like hitting yourself with a hammer. the problem is not the specific nature of the conclusions you've reached; if you were a conservative, you could get into this kind of thought pattern about religious or sexual guilt and it would feel about the same.
posted by queenofbithynia at 9:52 AM on November 10, 2017 [6 favorites]

What queenofbithynia said.

It’s probably a way for my brain to smother some genuinely uncomfortable realizations about itself, or to excuse me from real work, or something.

Here's the thing: it doesn't actually matter why you're ruminating; what matters is that you currently have a rumination habit.

The distress you feel arises from the fact that extended rumination is in and of itself mentally draining, not from what the thoughts involved are about.

If your response to noticing that you're ruminating again is to start attempting to analyze why you're ruminating, then all you've achieved is switching channels; what you need to do instead is turn off the TV. So decide on some moderately physically demanding activity that you'd normally put off until you felt like it, and commit to doing that for at least ten minutes whenever you notice you're ruminating again. Works for me.

As a side benefit, when an opportunity to help somebody else out next presents itself you'll be physically fitter.
posted by flabdablet at 10:23 AM on November 10, 2017 [4 favorites]

Some of the cognitive dissonance is the clash between "people I care about are being hurt" and "the world around me is mostly a decent place, full of people just trying to live out their lives" - it's easy to see the specific incidents that cause damage but harder to see the longstanding patterns that support oppression, racism, misogyny, and so on. It's hard to connect the message of "people like me" (white, cis, etc.) "are causing all this harm," and "most people I know aren't trying to hurt anyone."

So when someone of a less-advantaged background says the game is stacked against them, you can't always see how that's true. You want to trust their perceptions and their judgments - you KNOW that the harms you see described, day after day, come from somewhere and that somewhere is not "they deserved it" - but you can't sort out where it comes from.

A lot is victim-blaming. A lot of "problem-solving" is victim blaming. For example: Women get assaulted on campus at night. Suggested solution: women don't go out alone at night. Nobody ever suggests, "men shouldn't be allowed to walk around alone at night; they need to have a woman with them," even though it's men causing the problems. The solutions seek to prevent discomfort of the advantaged group, even if they're the source of the problems.

It's a big jump for those of us who grew up with that kind of privilege, to stop looking for solutions that start with "I haven't done anything wrong so I shouldn't be inconvenienced by this." You have to recognize yourself as part of a group - you have to think of "cis white guy" as your identity, and ask yourself, what do I, as a cis white guy, want? And how much of that am I already getting? Why am I getting it and someone else isn't? How can I change that?

Bad news: Changing the pattern might make your life worse, and it's hard to fight for things that will hurt you. Good news: Much of the country has honestly spent years fighting to make things worse for everyone in order to "punish" the people they think deserve it. They want people to oppress more than they want prosperity for all - and that, you can fight to change.
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 10:33 AM on November 10, 2017 [1 favorite]

right now your politics is your identity. and identity politics and liberation are two very different things. the former fixates solely on characteristics, the latter is philosophy

when politics is your identity, you're more fixated on how you're seen by others instead of what you believe to be true. when you care about liberation, you're acting in accordance to an ethical and moral belief, one that sees how expansive and pervasive systems are, and that part of the work in all of this is being able to accept criticism, to be able to intentionally sit with it, and to genuinely appreciate that the hurt behind the criticism is as real as the pain you feel for being criticized

you might find it useful to look up local Theaters of Oppression or Oppression/Anti-Racism workshops. these will run you through a lot of exercises, lived experiences, and interactions with others in which you will need to be able to confront your identity and your privileges, what it means to you and others, and how to accept it for what it is. your takeaway in these spaces will critically need for you to be able to decenter your own experience such that you're able to trust that others' experiences are just as valid as if you had experienced it yourself

I do not recommend leaping directly into a PoC/queer/women-led organizing space and making them carry the burden of having to deconstruct your hangups for you. they have neither the time nor the energy do deal with you and to shelter you. the trainings I mentioned above are specifically created for people like you to attend before you get into these spaces. seek them out if you can. you're on a long journey to a good thing - now you just have to put your money where your mouth is
posted by runt at 11:03 AM on November 10, 2017 [3 favorites]

sunset in snow country: Thats's a sharp comparison you made. I think I'm going to start referring to my inner spirals as "re-litigating the primaries of my life" or something. That captures both the apparent importance (the presidency is a big deal!) and uselessness ( because the future and success are what matters, not the past or internal division).

Thanks again to everyone for answers
posted by InTheYear2017 at 2:13 PM on November 10, 2017

I'm basically you by description, and I also have some, though less, of the self-doubt motivated by my politics and values, in light of my various privileges and my thick skull.

I think the advice I would give is:

1. If you use Facebook, maybe don't any longer. Almost everyone is their own worst self on Facebook, and that includes good people with good politics. But more than that, the whole platform is based on the loathing of self and others at some core level, it is not going to help you be a less anxious or more useful person of privilege in the world.

2. Instead of online posts and takes, consume longer form media and art made by the non-cis/white/liberal voices you would otherwise be exposed to on the Internet snark machine.

3. Seek out people in the world, the sort of interactions that challenge you to be a better person and a more useful occupant of your own privelege; try to do this in ways and circumstances where you aren't requiring emotional or intellectual labor of them - maybe it's a book club, political campaign, escort shifts at a women's health clinic, cool local informal sports club, maybe all these things. Is there an organization where you live that does good work in the immigrant/refugee community, where some or most of its decision-makers are immigrants/refugees? Any community of any size over a couple hundred thousand people is likely to have these spaces if you seek them out.
posted by kensington314 at 2:37 PM on November 10, 2017

Hmm yes to many of the things said above. Especially re interacting with other humans , in spite of all the voices in your head / rumination... Of course , i dont really know you so maybe you're already doing this .. So i just have the question: are you gettinng out enough? Talking to other people enough?
posted by elgee at 3:53 PM on November 10, 2017

I'd like to very strongly recommend therapy to do something about that mean shitty voice in your head.

Especially if you try meditation, exercise, volunteering and socializing - all good things to try - and still find yourself struggling.

Good luck.
posted by bunderful at 8:46 PM on November 10, 2017 [2 favorites]

P.S. Medication has also helped me. Immensely.
posted by bunderful at 8:54 PM on November 10, 2017

elgee a: So i just have the question: are you gettinng out enough? Talking to other people enough?

No to both. And that's been a problem for a long time, well before I got into political stuff. I really like interacting with other people, but arranging those meetings is very anxiety-inducing, the whole "But what will they think of me asking to hang out with them", and I know I'm not alone in that. Thank you.
posted by InTheYear2017 at 6:26 AM on November 11, 2017

queenofbithynia is bang on the money in my opinion. flabdablet is also correct that it may help if you can think about ruminating as a behavior you're doing, rather as something that just happens to you: thoughts certainly pop up of their own accord, but that doesn't mean you have to chase them.

Often anxiety is about trying to figure something out that seems both urgent and intractable: in your case, it's the question, "am I a good person?" This is the kind of question that not only doesn't really have a satisfactory answer, but where the answer is actually totally irrelevant to your life and everyone else's. Whether or not you're actually a good person or a bad person doesn't really change what your values and goals are. It doesn't change how you treat people, because those people aren't impacted by the label you've assigned yourself.

Also, counterintuitively, these kinds of thoughts have a quicksand quality where the more time you spend frantically trying to figure out an answer to this question, the more it will kind of consume you, even if you get momentary relief. Another analogy is scratching an open wound: you're just preventing it from healing. So a different approach is to practice just noticing these thoughts while not responding to them, contesting them, trying to cope with them, checking/researching, etc.

If you aren't in therapy that's probably a good idea. I'm not a therapist but in my experience, approaches that incorporate mindfulness, metacognition, and response prevention are the most helpful for this kind of existential OCD/anxiety. (I end up recommending Mark Freeman from Everybody Has A Brain a lot here, but I really do like his YouTube videos on OCD/anxiety.)
posted by en forme de poire at 10:55 PM on November 11, 2017 [4 favorites]

Oh yeah, SS(N)RIs can be helpful for many people. Side effects ended up being too annoying for me but they did absolutely do their job when I was taking them, and the cost-benefit ends up being different for everyone. (And I might end up going back on them in the future tbqh.) There are a ton of options these days.
posted by en forme de poire at 11:02 PM on November 11, 2017

nah, you're not the worst, i am, honest. I used to believe that i was the cause of all the evil in the world and that if i killed myself eternal life and peace and happiness would break out - most people do when they're in the deeper suicidalness. You're not as far along as that, but i don't think you should address the reasons you use for blaming yourself but the fact that you are. I used to argue that it's immoral to be happy because you're forgetting about the one third of people who are hungry in the world right now. Logically, that's a pretty good argument, but it remains unlivable by, you do have to be happy it's not optional. I actually had chronic depression but i didn't know it then. I'm not saying you're anything like as bad as i was, and i'm just projecting, but i may be right. Don't assume the problem is political. Constant self-criticism is a big problem for lots of people. A famous example is women who think they're not beautiful enough. You think that's not related to you, but it is the same thing in different clothes.
posted by maiamaia at 6:45 AM on November 21, 2017

also, politics consists of: rightwing: "hate them! they're taking our money and our stuff!"
leftwing: "hate them! they're abusing other people and oppressing them!"
all media is like an alarm call warning you of danger or evil. Reread articles and see if there is actually danger or evil: usually, rephrased, the content is banal and incapable of bearing the emotional load forced on it.
The media has to keep you in a state of hyper suspense (or rage, fear, anger, heartbreak etc) or you won't keep buying it (the selling-papers model is still how it's run, they haven't come up with another one yet). You know how fakey the drama in soap operas is? Ditto media, unfortunately.
Now i know i am autistic but interested only in people not things (normal for autistic women), i realise politics is my soap opera: i'm incapable of doing feeling or understanding plots based on underhand machinations, jealousy implied by sidelong glances, anger from implied insults, etc, too subtle; the rules, offences, engagements and enmities of international politics are spelt out enough that it's clear what's happening and why. It's a drama where i know all the characters and i can always dip back in and get hooked. But it's a drama with very, very bad consequences for your temper. You turn bitter and ranting, and that doesn't make you friends (well even i am not interested in other people's rants). It's not a coincidence that political fanatics like bitter ranting: it's a forum for it, a place to go and do that. If you want to do something else, you have to go somewhere else. Or, try to get your news headlines somewhere bland (local press, bbc) or do without them completely for long breaks?
posted by maiamaia at 6:52 AM on November 21, 2017

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