"Not everything needs to be difficult." Whaaaat...??
August 30, 2019 9:55 AM   Subscribe

Through therapy, I have come to realize that I was raised to believe that everything is incredibly hard. Each task is onerous, life is one catastrophe after another, people will expect SO much of you, and you must read into, interpret, and respond to the moods, energies & subtle behaviours of others because that is the way we care for them. Thanks to my upbringing, I now excel in the art of overcomplicating things! How did you re-learn?

The KISS method (keep it simple, [silly]) is one of the more straight forward adages, but is pretty hard to put into play after 3+ decades of this stuff. Plus current day-to-day reinforcement from family members via text/in conversation now.

But not everything has to be overly dramatic. Sometimes life just is.

I'm actively trying to redirect, and acknowledge that this is their way of showing love. "It's actually not that bad. Thanks for your concern! How was your day?"

(Please note that while I am single and open to the idea of dating, I'll save how this translates to relationships for therapy.)

The question that I'd like to focus on is how did you relearn? What inner dialogue do you deploy to actively dismantle the notion in your head?
posted by Juniper Toast to Human Relations (22 answers total) 64 users marked this as a favorite
I have an inherited overthinking instinct myself. I feel you. And you're right, it's a harmful approach.

I help myself fight the instinct not by thinking "everything is simple"; but rather "SOME things in the world are truly hard and/or tricky, and some are easy/simple; I need to conserve my strategizing for the tricky ones. Could this be one of the simple ones?"
posted by fingersandtoes at 10:08 AM on August 30, 2019 [8 favorites]

Wow does this resonate! So of course I am still working on this. But something I ask myself a lot when I notice that I am getting overly worked up about something is to ask: Is this a story I need to be telling myself right now? I read this question years ago on the blog Cup of Jo and it came from her therapist, and I've found it really helpful to interrupt the ongoing inner narrative about what another person must be thinking/feeling, or how bad something is going to go if I don't think of all the possibilities, etc.

Another helpful phrase? Not my monkeys, not my circus. I don't think I got it from this book I'm about to recommend, but they're a related concept and the phrase and book go well together: Facing Codependence: What It Is, Where It Comes from, How It Sabotages Our Lives. This book has done a lot to heal my less than ideal upbringing and it sounds like you would benefit massively from exploring codependency tendencies too, which I say because I think most people would benefit from doing so!
posted by the thorn bushes have roses at 10:26 AM on August 30, 2019 [5 favorites]

you must read into, interpret, and respond to the moods, energies & subtle behaviours of others because that is the way we care for them.

if you haven't come across it already, this is hypervigilance, sometimes a symptom of c/ptsd, so that might be helpful to look into for strategies! for this part of the problem specifically, i've made some progress being around people that i trust to behave well by keeping in mind that momming a capable peer isn't always loving - it's often taken as infantilizing and offputting. i remind myself that i trust this person to take care of their emotions and to communicate for themselves if they see fit. if they aren't bringing something up, even if i'm right about what i'm perceiving, then they don't want it to be my business, and i can respect that. if they're a little irritated but not mentioning it, maybe it won't be the end of the world if they're just irritated for a little bit and get over eventually it in their own way.

i'll still check in with people, but only once, and then i take them at their word and drop it until/unless they bring it up themselves. this also helps me be more explicit in how i do it - "you seem on edge, do we need to take a break?" - instead of tiptoeing around it endlessly and working us both up.
posted by gaybobbie at 10:35 AM on August 30, 2019 [20 favorites]

You're probably a very considerate and thoughtful and sensitive person.

Try to think of it as your brain just trying to help you. We know that overthinking and ruminating doesn't help, but our silly brains don't know that. So I try to be gentle with myself and my brain, thinking "Okay brain, you made your point. Love you!" and move on.
posted by Dressed to Kill at 10:40 AM on August 30, 2019 [9 favorites]

So, I am the world's most uptight traveler. I think and think and try to plan for every possible contingency and have a weird, deep-down feeling that if I don't travel 'perfectly' then something terrible will happen. I arrive waaaay too early at the airport. I over-pack and assign specific pockets in my trousers to travel items and keep special "travel chapstick".

Well, a couple of years ago I had to catch a very early shuttle from a hotel to an airport. I fought jetlag, got up early, packed up carefully, even did my makeup. As I boarded the bus, two women came running out, wild-haired. One was clutching a toothpaste tube with a missing cap. The other had hastily scooped half her things into a plastic bag because she couldn't cram everything back into her suitcase. They flung themselves onto the bus and laughed. I looked at them, ready to judge them for their 'imperfect' travel style, and realised: they were going to end up in the same place as I was. I could stress and berate myself and miss sleep on my holiday in order to travel 'properly', but in the end, I wasn't getting there any faster than they were. In fact they were just as 'proper' as I was, because we had both accomplished the actual goal: get on the bus.

I think about them often, when I find myself wound tight. Accomplish the true goal. So what if you're a mess while you get there. It does help a little.
posted by DSime at 11:14 AM on August 30, 2019 [59 favorites]

A perennial favorite on AskMe, Ask vs Guess culture may help you reframe how you think about whether "you must read into, interpret, and respond to the moods, energies & subtle behaviours of others because that is the way we care for them".
posted by solotoro at 11:34 AM on August 30, 2019 [9 favorites]

My husband asked for help changing the tube in a dirt bike tire and we were struggling with it. We watched a video and the guy said:

“If it’s too hard you are doing it wrong.”

We now apply this to everything. It is our family saying. As a software developer I tell myself this again and again on an average work week.

As far as a mantra to prevent overcomplication in general I have found it invaluable.
posted by hilaryjade at 11:46 AM on August 30, 2019 [46 favorites]

I'm so much more chill than I used to be. At this moment I am trying to figure out why. I think it was partly seeing it modeled and partly living in a variety of different situations:

My older sister is pretty laid back about some things, and I would sometimes see her react neutrally or with laughter at things that were stressing me out unnecessarily. I realized that my stress was rooted in something else (maybe fear? discomfort?) and that there weren't really problems with the situation.

I befriended/briefly dated a man who was sometimes quite spontaneous and was pretty committed to taking advantage of opportunities and living life fully. If there was a gathering an hour and a half away and he had a ride there but not a ride back, he would go anyway and trust that it would work out. It did, sometimes with ease sometimes with effort, and often with great joy. He would say things like, "Should is a dangerous word." He broke my heart but I had a great time and learned so much from him.

So is there anyone in your life who goes with the flow or who doesn't get stressed by the things you find stressful? Or really anyone who has a different orientation to life than you do? Maybe spend some time with them, out and about in the world, and talking about life.

It sounds like you are focusing on interpersonal interactions with those close to you, but in case this is a larger issue:

The other thing that's helped me is that I've lived in a lots of different places, including rural communities, a huge city outside of my own country, a college town in my country, and now a moderately sized city in my own town. I stressed a lot less about American bureaucracy after I lived in a developing country. I'm a lot less fearful of different kinds of places and situations (the woods, being out and about in my city by myself at night) now.

I wonder if doing some traveling to different places might help this. Of course this is a bigger, longer term thing, but have you done much traveling or visiting of places very different from home? Sometimes seeing how different things can be and still be just fine is incredibly helpful in gaining perspective on our everyday lives.

Do you ever do things spontaneously? Without planning? That can be another way to realize that everything is generally going to be just fine. You can take a last minute day trip without any plans or more than a charged phone and have a great time; you can skip doing the dishes and go for a walk with a friend at the last minute to check out some new restaurant in your neighborhood.

I overthink plenty. I can't help it. I think analytically about people and relationships and ideas. I am sensitive to shifts in people's moods that can be helpful for me in noticing when a loved one is having a difficult time. But I'm also able to look for the best in people and take most things in stride. I'm not sure I set down this path intentionally, but certainly having a wide range of life experiences, many of which were stressful but ultimately turned out fine, was a big help.

(And please note that I say this is as a cis, straight white American woman with a fair amount of privilege; your mileage may vary.)
posted by bluedaisy at 12:06 PM on August 30, 2019 [8 favorites]

There's lots of really good advice here especially about meeting other people who do things different and trying to model your behavior after them. If you grew up only seeing one way of doing it and that way is freaking out, it's really hard to just decide to do it differently all of a sudden, but if you have a role model it becomes a lot easier.

Something I do when I think I have gone around and around too much on something is I imagine a big balloon in my hands and I think, ok can I just stop now? And I let the balloon float away and I take a deep breath and see if I can actually stop. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't, but then I just go around one or two more times until I can stop. The good thing is that stopping feels really good which makes me want to do it more. It's one of those few things that's both good and good for you.
posted by bleep at 12:28 PM on August 30, 2019 [4 favorites]

Another thing is that when I'm around my family and they start doing it I consciously think ok there they go doing their thing again, that's the thing they do, to remind me it's not the thing I do anymore and I can't stop them from doing their thing.
posted by bleep at 12:31 PM on August 30, 2019 [3 favorites]

Sometimes it helps me to think: Well, I've memorized my part, and that's my cue, but I don't have to perform today.
posted by Iris Gambol at 12:43 PM on August 30, 2019 [6 favorites]

I used to be a perfectionist (something that my therapist says is rooted in anxiety, YMMV), now I joke with friends that "therapy worked too well on me" because I feel like I'm firmly a member of what I like to call The Cult of Good Enough. I FUCKING LOVE BEING ABLE TO SAY SOMETHING IS GOOD ENOUGH.

This transition happened for me around the time I was in grad school; I told my mom that I turned in a paper that I thought "wasn't perfect, but was good enough." She told me she was so proud of me, because I'd never said anything like that before IN MY LIFE.

What worked for me was:

1. Going on meds that helped with anxiety

2. Literally being so overwhelmed with Life Complications (tm) that I HAD to drop some balls and half-ass things and ask for help, leading to me learn...oh wait, actually, for the most part, there are basically no consequences to not overthinking and doing everything perfectly. I don't recommend the "lose control of your life" method, but I do think it's great to pick some small things and CHOOSE to do them less perfectly. You'll see that it doesn't really matter, no one cares but you, and that leads to some real freedom to CHOOSE LESS in many arenas.
posted by nuclear_soup at 12:50 PM on August 30, 2019 [30 favorites]

This is so me!

What was useful

- working on anxiety in all the ways
- developing empathy for my parents who I definitely learned my "OH NOT THIS SHIT AGAIN" mentality from (and also having to be hyper-aware of their states of mind to avoid them lashing out) after they died and I felt "released" from having to cater to their whims
- letting other people own their own negative feelings about me (this is SO hard) if they're not based on things that are values of mine or general manners (you're mad because I didn't invite you to my summer house during a summer when I had too much going on but we otherwise stayed in touch in a good friendly way? maybe that's on you)
- dating a guy who was MUCH more relaxed and realizing he had about as many "big" problems as I did but he dealt with them differently and was significantly happier as a result? Could I do the same? Working on positive self talk with him in a supportive way (this is important for dating)
- literally counting my blessings along basic axes (are you comfortable, are you fed, are you healthy, are you loved) when I am in a swivet.

And sometimes just failing at some things because you put yourself first when appropriate. Not getting to the place on time but arriving having eaten breakfast and not being that late? Probably a win. That sort of thing. It's hard and some of it you have to try out and see how it feels, but you can definitely adjust.
posted by jessamyn at 1:01 PM on August 30, 2019 [30 favorites]

Does your therapy include CBT? Because it's great at challenging and redirecting unhelpful ways of thinking. It can feel repetitive, but there's something about writing things out that I think can really help rewire the brain. So you write the thing you're worried about. You identify what's up with that, from a list of about 10 common 'cognitive distortions' - Are you catastrophising? Assuming things will definitely end badly when you've no way of knowing? Assuming it's all on you to make things right for everyone? Write out the cognitive distortions. Then write out an alternative way of thinking about things that avoids those distortions. Stop and re-read the whole thing. Realise how the first version sounds kind of bonkers and the second one sounds kind of reasonable. Feel relieved.

Feeling Good by David Burns is the classic MeFi recommendation, but there are loads of resources out there. I do find writing by hand more effective than using apps, though I guess whatever you'll keep using is the best.
posted by penguin pie at 1:13 PM on August 30, 2019 [5 favorites]

- literally counting my blessings along basic axes (are you comfortable, are you fed, are you healthy, are you loved) when I am in a swivet

This is a step or two away from what you are asking, maybe, but Jessamyn reminded me of some recent research I've seen about the value of keeping a gratitude journal. Folks who engage in this regular (weekly?) behavior are often happier and suffer less illness (!) than folks who don't. Here's an example of what I mean.

I did this briefly during a difficult time in my life, and it was a great to focus on some of the good things.
posted by bluedaisy at 1:17 PM on August 30, 2019 [1 favorite]

Focusing on boundaries has been helpful for me. "That will not be possible" is one type of response that people on here recommend a lot. While I don't use it much, I did use it today, and nothing exploded (yet, as far as I can tell, haha). I mentally tell myself "Don't bend over backwards for people" fairly often, because most of the time, even if you really care about someone or something, you will be fine with a less dramatic level of effort and vigilance. Save that energy and effort for when it really matters, not for everyday-level drama. Due to overcomplication, hypervigilance, and other associated maladies, I also tend to overwork, and I've had to give myself permission to at times do what I consider to be slacking but others consider just a normal pace of work. Even when I "slack off," I almost always still end up working more than most people. So let things go a little. It will be OK!
posted by limeonaire at 4:18 PM on August 30, 2019 [4 favorites]

I have gone through some times when so much needed to be done that there was no way to do even a quarter of it, and none of it well - for example when there were repeated medical emergencies going on. That meant looking at the list of everything that needed doing - get the kids home, feed the kids, feed myself, make sure the pets had water and didn't starve, get back to the hospital, pick up discharge meds, etc. etc. and figuring out what the fastest and simplest way of doing them was, and what things could be dispensed with: Okay, we stop at the hospital doughnut shop and pick up plain buns and cartons of milk, the kids eat and drink that in the taxi home in lieu of supper, pets get water and food and a quick petting as we get in the house, but the kids get put to bed in their clothes, or if they can take them off themselves they can do that, but putting away clothes and putting on pajamas gets skipped, but they brush their teeth while I read the bed time story, all of us in the bathroom, and the story gets finished in the bedroom and the tucking in. Then yank all the dirty dishes out of the sink and pile them on the counter so I can quickly throw together some portable food to get us through tomorrow and still get to bed for two-thirty a.m. which means at least four and a half hours of sleep for me...

There is a mindset which looks at the insurmountable and sees what is most critical, and what part of that is most critical. Kids and pets need to be fed and get the basic emotional and security care-taking, cleaning bodies and clothes is less important. If you clean anything clean teeth because neglecting that has a long term bad consequence, whereas dirty hair does not result in toothaches. You work on the critical and long term serious consequences first and ignore the rest until there is more energy and time.

Once you get used to making this kind of judgment it gets easier to skip the less essential things.

With relationships where you have to do a lot of emotional labour the question to ask is if your labour is actually succeeding. So if you find yourself listening to someone vent every evening, you need to question if your listening is making a difference. Very often it isn't. Sometimes listening to someone and trying to support them emotionally can end up even doing harm because you are enabling them to ruminate. It's not smart to try to support someone with those kinds of needs for anything but the short term. If they need their hand held and sympathy every time their exam period rolls around, you really need to question if they would not be better finding a different way to cope than by getting emotional support from you.

It's different with physical care-taking, where someone needs to be fed over and over again. Either they need to learn to feed themselves, or if they can't, then nothing for it, you do have to do that work. But meeting someone's emotional needs very quickly becomes a fool's job - it's Sisyphean labour and you need to find a way to stop doing it because it's a type of enmeshment.

Say your mother in law always needs a lot of emotional support when you travel together - you have to figure out what is the minimum she needs, or it will tend to escalate. This is the kind of situation where you have to reassure her and pack for her the first time, and then the second time you need to reassure her, pack for her, and make her reservations. The third time you need to reassure, pack, make reservations and make phone calls for her to double check arrangements... If you possibly can don't let there be a fourth time. It's a sinkhole you have to extricate yourself from. If her needs are escalating you are not the one who can provide her with support - maybe no one can, but jumping through more and higher hoops for her is not the answer.

The trick is to figure out where you've gotten trapped trying to meet unfillable needs. That's where the term reality check comes in. Is it reasonable or normal to spend seven hours supporting your mother in law's anxiety before every weekend day trip? You have to find a way to find out if you are trying to do the impossible or not. Sometimes you can just talk about it with other people and they will let you know, but sometimes that doesn't help - such as when you have a boss who wants you to do the impossible, or if you are a parent and punitive people tell you that you should be able to do the impossible.

If you can't get a good idea how much work it should really be by checking with other people, then you need to examine the job you are trying to do and ask yourself questions, like is it getting harder and more detailed? Things are supposed to get easier the longer you do them as you get better at them. If they are getting harder something is going wrong. Another question to ask is what the minimum you need to do to finish a task. Then ask yourself why you are doing more than that. If the answer is that doing more is the proper way to do it, you need to think hard why there is a standard like that, and if having a standard like that is not, in fact, preventing the job from being done effectively and efficiently.
posted by Jane the Brown at 4:35 PM on August 30, 2019 [9 favorites]

I don't remember the exact sequence of steps/learning that got me there, but it was helpful for me to realize that I was taking responsibility for both my emotions/actions and other people's emotions/actions, and that it was (in peer equal-power relationships) both infantilizing and controlling of the other person. I needed to let other people take responsibility for communicating their own needs, and if they didn't, that was on them. I don't have the right to make decisions on their behalf about their emotions or needs (even if I'm actually fairly good at reading people); it's not fair to them, even if they invite it. It also meant that I was de-prioritizing my own needs in favor of my mindreading-version of other people's needs, and that wasn't fair to me.

So now I try to remind myself that I have the right to have my own needs and the responsibility to express those needs in respectful ways, and that other people have the same. It's clarified a lot of boundaries for me.
posted by lazuli at 9:30 PM on August 30, 2019 [13 favorites]

Ok, this doesn’t actually make sense, but maybe it’ll help. There’s this line from Hirxhhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: “well, Zaphod’s just this guy, you know?” Which is someone’s stupid relaxed answer to news reporters. Sometimes I hear that in my head when I get too worked up about stuff and it’s a reminder that it just doesn’t matter as much as I thought.
posted by bq at 11:12 PM on August 30, 2019 [2 favorites]

My ex would get into a spiral of anxiety where he assumed the worst outcome for every event and the worst motivation for every interaction. It's naive to always assume the best outcome for every event and the best motivation for every interaction, but it can be helpful to provide yourself with the full range of possibilities if you have a tendency to catastrophize or read nefarious meanings into possibly innocuous interactions.
posted by ChuraChura at 3:52 AM on August 31, 2019 [3 favorites]

I am another hypervigilant and an inner dialogue/awareness that has helped me is realizing that while I am always reading situations, I am not always reading them accurately.

A big realization for me was that, in some situations, the part of me that's reading others is a version of me that assumes worst case scenario as a way of protecting me (usually from social shame/embarrassment). My hypervigilance is almost always a case of living in the past and protecting myself from things that I can actually handle now as a capable adult.
posted by 10ch at 8:04 AM on August 31, 2019 [9 favorites]

Just wanted to add: setting a timer with the goal of finishing a task has helped me to avoid over complicating things. It forces me to focus on essentials and keep moving. Similarly, trying to catch my thought patterns and ask myself, "Is this today's problem? Is it my responsibility?" has helped me realize how complicated my life was because I was worrying about things and people outside my control. Gving myself permission to set healthy boundaries so I can actually prioritize my own health and happiness has been revolutionary in terms of simplifying my life. It's not always easy and perfectionism and family complications send me off track some days. But it is getting easier to refocus myself quickly and get back to calm and simplicity.
posted by scairdy chicken at 12:14 PM on August 31, 2019 [2 favorites]

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