Why do I feel wrong all the time, and what can I do about it?
August 17, 2021 1:49 PM   Subscribe

I've often had a feeling - not constantly, but on and off - of feeling that I am doing everything wrong. Lately, it's been getting worse, so I'd like tips from anyone who's found a way to deal with feeling something similar. Apologies for the heaps upon heaps of beans inside.

I've often had a feeling - not constantly, but on and off - of feeling that I am doing everything wrong. It's a kind of diffuse shame that's not linked to just some types of actions, but more generally any given thing that I happen to be doing - my choice to engage in one type of activity over another at that specific moment, the music I'm listening to, the way I cook or clean, my overall life plans. I'm constantly worried either of being inadvertently rude or self-centred, or about being a doormat.

Lately, probably because of displaced covid stress and/or the need to start applying for professional leadership positions, it's been getting a lot worse, and it's started to affect my work. My work is very flexible and self-guided (I'm a researcher), and I have several projects running in parallel. When I'm working on Project A, I make progress with the help of lists of tasks, but the whole time I feel deep shame 1) about the way I've listed or split up the tasks and, especially 2) about not working on Project B. If I switch to Project B, I feel that that, too, is the wrong choice, and that I should be working on Project A. I have a strong sense that I cannot let my coworkers know that I'm working on Project A, otherwise they'll judge me for working on Project B (or vice versa) - even though I know intellectually that they wouldn't. It's started to lead to general procrastination and trying to hop between tasks in a way that doesn't really work. Sometimes I am in tears feeling that I am doing literally everything wrong, and that I'm...just basically fucked, since regardless of what I do I'll inevitably end up unable to take care of myself, succeed, or fulfil my obligations. I have recurring nightmares about accidentally killing children or pets (I don't have either).

I suspect that there are a couple of contributing factors:

- growing up (and, frankly, still, though it affects me less), my father had very strong opinions on...pretty much everything, and he would give me exercises or tasks to 'help me figure things out in an independent way' (but which needed to involve me coming up with the 'right' solution, i.e. his one). The idea that my mother and I might have equally valid opinions, tastes or ways of doing things just weren't (and aren't) part of his worldview.

- I was exposed to different cultural influences from both parents, my school, and the wider culture of the country we were in. Generally I consider that to have been a blessing, but it meant that I sometimes got teased or ridiculed for doing things in the way more common to one of those cultures rather than to another (e.g., if I used phrases commonly used in my school in front of my parent who shared that language but was used to more old-fashioned phrasing, or if I brought food to school that was common in the culture of my other parent)

- I live in yet another country now (Spain), and I enjoy being here in general, but I'm constantly afraid that I will be judged (including professionally) for behaviour that doesn't fit with the dominant culture here. Contributing is the fact that I don't actually *want* to fit into the dominant culture. I find it more formal and more strongly hierarchical than I'd like, and sometimes low-level sexist - and since we're a multinational workplace with an international focus (research), I feel that I should be able to push back more and be myself. When I try to do so, I feel wrong because I'm being a bad guest in this country, and also scared that any judgement I incur will affect me professionally (even though this is over trivial things like word choices, or what I'm wearing). When I do, I feel wrong because I feel that as a more senior person I should give be an example in speaking honestly, taking initiative, and being myself. People here also often comment on others' clothes or habits, which makes me super paranoid that they similarly notice every small thing that I do (so, the usual words of reassurance that other people don't think about you, which worked well for me when I lived in Canada, aren't helping me here).

- I have always been physically clumsy and forgetful. Especially when I'm stressed or if I'm in a new environment, I lose things, leave things behind, drop things, walk into things. So to some extent the need to make sure that I'm doing things 'right' is real - if I slip up and don't pay attention, that's my wallet gone or a piece of lab equipment broken.

I went to a couple months' worth of therapy recently, and while my therapist was kind and reassuring I don't feel that I was able to really convey the problem to her. I was interested in trying to get at and address the root issue, and we spent a lot of time focusing on one specific example (sending emails in a timely fashion, because I was agonizing about my word choices). Throughout, I had a strong feeling that I was wrong for being there and taking up my therapist's time with a trivial problem at a time when people are struggling to cope with covid-related grief, trauma and job losses. She did ask what I meant by 'wrong' a lot, but I didn't really know how to answer (as in, yes, I know that the idea of 'wrong' is a bit silly and that I'm an adult, but the fact that this isn't a logical feeling is the whole reason why I'm trying to understand and solve it). She told me that I seemed like a kind and considerate person, and that I should be guided by my values - but that doesn't really help in cases where I'd like to be more assertive, or when I'd like to simply stop feeling that I'll be judged for everything. Her final suggestion was that I write "I am good enough" on a piece of paper and look at it. That honestly feels a bit silly, and so far it's not really working for me.

I'm trying to figure out my next best steps. The therapist I went to was one of the few who speak my native language here, but she can't legally make formal diagnoses. I could go back to her, request another therapist at the same centre who speaks my language, try remote therapy with somebody in another country, or try a therapist who's in the Spanish system (my Spanish isn't great but I can hold a conversation in it, including in the workplace). Or I could work through it myself using online or other resources. I'm trying to prioritise getting enough exercise and sleep.

For anyone who's gone through something similar, what helped, and/or how would you suggest that I start to (re-)tackle this in therapy? Extra helpful would be answers from anyone in academia. Thanks!!
posted by anonymous to Health & Fitness (18 answers total) 32 users marked this as a favorite
I'm a researcher in academia who struggled with similar feelings of guilt and anxiety, and CBT therapy helped me a lot. CBT is very good for situations like this where you need to sort of retrain your brain out of unhelpful thought patterns.
posted by omnie at 2:26 PM on August 17, 2021 [2 favorites]

When these feelings come up, do you ever interrogate them? I get this too sometimes because I'm sometimes driven to spend a lot of time on something because it feels right to me personally but I'm never quite sure if my perception of what's right matches everyone else's. And frequently it actually doesn't. And unfortunately we're not all gathered around a campfire where we can actually just share with each other what we're doing in a rational way.

So the way I try to get around this is to just make sure I know why I'm doing something and I can speak to why I'm doing it that way; even if someone disagrees, and that's fine, I have a rational justification. And sometimes when I'm doing this, I realize I don't actually know why I'm doing it, or I find that I can't justify it. In which case then it's time to get back on track - check in with someone, or go back to my plan.

What this looks like in practice is I just ask myself real quick, does this feel right? Why am I doing this again? What kind of artifact am I going to have when I'm done? Who is waiting for this? How does this fit into the bigger picture? I've practiced this enough that these questions just kind of flow in and out of my train of thought while I'm working and I can quickly give myself a thumbs up and keep going or a thumbs down and pause to go back to the big picture again.

So like I would say that when that voice says "Intellectually, they will not judge you for working on Project B." Follow up with: "Project B will be due on ___ and therefore now is the time to work on it. I reviewed my plan and it's solid. They're waiting for me to complete this. I won't have enough time later if I wait." Then you have to accept what you just said as true in your gut. I know it sounds easier said than done, but it has to be done. The more you do this the easier it will become.
posted by bleep at 2:26 PM on August 17, 2021 [2 favorites]

Are you familiar with Brené Brown? She talks and writes extensively about shame. You could start here.
posted by bluedaisy at 2:44 PM on August 17, 2021 [3 favorites]

anonymous/OP you might write the mods and provide a temporary email address (eg naggingfeelings@gmail.com or what have you) and have them post it to your thread here, so folks can write to you. this not being reddit, there might be folks that would like to respond but perhaps not publicly. link to contact mods is https://faq.metafilter.com/261/anonymous-comments
posted by elgee at 2:54 PM on August 17, 2021 [3 favorites]

I'm sorry that you're having such a challenging time. It sounds like a complex set of factors coming into play to make it difficult to know how to act best.

I can't speak to to all of the factors, but regarding the cultural immersion piece, I recommend the book Cultural Dexterity: How to Adapt Your Behavior Across Cultures without Losing Yourself in the Process. It has a nice model of how within every culture there are ranges of what is normal behavior, and that the key is think about how your behaviors can shift to hopefully still fit within your range of comfort while looking for how you can start to fit within the norms in the new culture. While it doesn't give you specific answers on exactly what to do, I think the model might be a helpful way to envision options for action. Since you are in an especially complicated overlap, it even might be helpful to think about the situation as the overlap between your home culture, your business/research culture, and Spanish culture.

Sending warm thoughts your way!
posted by past unusual at 2:57 PM on August 17, 2021 [6 favorites]

You might want to consider getting assessed for ADHD or at least doing self-assessments and reading up about it. I similarly have intense fears of what other people think, a general feeling of inadequacy, and anxiety about whether I'm doing things correctly. I was recently diagnosed and it explains a lot. Your description of your internal experience is extremely familiar and relatable to me.

I think anxiety is a really common manifestation of ADHD in later life, especially undiagnosed, where because of experiences where you blurted something out and felt judged, forgot something important, failed to correctly prioritize your work, etc you have an ingrained habit of worrying about whether you're doing things correctly. It's somewhat different than anxiety about similar things in someone who does not have ADHD, because it is clearly founded in real experiences and realistic risks. This has gotten worse as my work has gotten more complicated.

However, I feel like my brain overcompensates and the anxiety extends to things like you describe where it makes no sense to worry about being judged. For example, I worry that people will notice when I arrive a bit late and have a coffee with me and think that I had time to get there on time but chose to get coffee instead. I imagine conversations in my head trying to justify minor mistakes or choices and keep iterating on them. I really agonize over my word choices in emails as well, worrying about how people will interpret my tone or what they will think of me. Trying to argue myself out of thinking this way has not been successful, since obviously I know that these don't make sense.

Low self-esteem is also an extremely common problem with ADHD. One book I read by a physician specializing in ADHD made a point that most of his patients almost apologize constantly.

As far as what to do about it, I have found that reading more about ADHD has helped me understand better what is causing some of these patterns. Even if you don't have it, it sounds like you are experiencing similar issues and so this might be helpful. This blog post from David Cain of Raptitude was posted on the blue recently and mentions some similar issues to what you are experiencing, for example this, which reminds me of what you mentioned about worrying about being inadvertently rude or self-centered:

ADHD makes some people talk too much, too loud, too freely. For some of us it manifests the opposite way. I overcompensated for my inclination to say things at inappropriate times by consciously clamping down my own speech, and never saying anything without conscious forethought.

He also said the following about excessive self-monitoring:

As I moved out of childhood, the self-monitoring became something I was always doing. Believing you generally “don’t get it” has a devastating effect on every aspect of life except spending time alone with your hobbies. Every social activity is difficult when you know you probably don’t get how it works. I always felt like I was always a moment away from revealing my complete inability to be an adult, so I monitored everything I said or did obsessively. I wouldn’t just admit I liked a particular movie, for example, in case I missed the part where everyone decided it was childish or taboo to like that movie. So mostly I said nothing, and when I did say something, I had reviewed it in my mind and determined it would probably go over okay.

I recently listened to this podcast episode which is an interview of a psychiatrist, Jud Brewer who wrote a book about dealing with anxiety and taking a different approach to coping with it. He suggests you can't think yourself out of the problem, and should instead focus on bodily experiences of the anxiety and trying to break down anxiety as a habitual pattern of behavior. This made sense to me since thinking incessantly about how I'm going to avoid messing things up is a coping mechanism for the anxiety but also produces more anxiety. CBT would probably also be helpful in challenging the patterns of thought, but I've found that taking his approach of seeing the anxious thoughts themselves as a habitual coping mechanism and focusing on the body rather than trying to argue myself out of them has sometimes helped. Trying to develop other coping mechanisms to replace the worrying about what people think of you might help. The other thing I try to keep in mind though is that changing any individual habit takes additional energy on top of what is used in the rest of your life, and each of the anxious thought patterns are habits that individually will take an investment of time and energy to improve. I have to try not to give up because I can't fix everything at once, don't see immediate improvement or because it feels difficult.

You might also be experiencing some imposter syndrome so you do not feel as confident that you know how to handle your job and feel like you don't belong, including for the cultural reasons you mention. Suggestions for coping with imposter syndrome might help.

Fundamentally though, at least in my case, these feelings are really deeply rooted and will take a long time to improve. That doesn't mean that they can't improve though. As I've started to understand better what patterns have caused some of these problems, I've had significant feelings of grief over struggle that I could have avoided if I had been diagnosed earlier. Things have started to slowly improve though, including with the worries of feelings of being judged and general feeling of low self-worth.

You have to honour the fact that your struggles are real and significant and not compare them to other people. In your case it sounds like there's a lot of internal suffering, and you shouldn't discount that and compare it to other people's more visible problems. My therapist tells me a lot to not be so hard on myself. It's easier said than done to internalize that and believe it other than in an intellectual sense, as you have found with your therapist's suggestions. The fact that you have been educated and worked in so many different cultures and circumstances is impressive and you have to keep in mind that living and working in a country with a different culture and language is inherently difficult and you should give yourself credit for that.

I don't know exactly how to go about changing this, but perhaps you might find there are some activities that give you a greater sense of satisfaction and connection with other people and provide a more visceral rather than intellectual feeling of self-worth. It might help to not just think about stopping yourself from thinking negatively, but also intentionally thinking about yourself positively. I'm sure there are positive sides of some of these character traits, like having habits of being more considerate of other people since you are thinking about them more, and being more organized than someone who doesn't inherently struggle with organization. But now that you have developed those habits, maybe you can trust yourself to keep doing those things and try to focus your energy on something else.

Even if none of this is helpful, I can tell you that you're not alone in feeling this way, and that at least for me it has been something that can get better.
posted by lookoutbelow at 3:03 PM on August 17, 2021 [24 favorites]

I have this in spades. My head is a constant babble of voices telling me I'm doing everything wrong. Whenever I'm at work I'm worried about my partner. Whenever I'm with my partner I'm worried about work. I struggle with basic tasks like washing a dish because I'm so fixated on doing it wrong that I often ... do it wrong. Or I'll obsess about various self-care or mental health improvement techniques, none of which have made any difference. I'm clumsy and forgetful and chaotic and destructive. I lose things and break things constantly. I've almost run people over while driving because I was too off in my own head to notice them... all of which makes me panic and doubt myself even more. My life is largely out of control and I'm in a constant state of panic about this. etc.

The only thing that has worked has been to just take charge and do things assertively. There is no cajoling or convincing or changing your mindset that will be enough. You hvae to make your own voice louder than all the others. As in, "I am washing this dish". "I am working on Project A". No justifications, no bargaining, the fact that you are deciding to do it is sufficient. I like to use the imperative tense, like "open" when opening a door, "become clean" when cleaning a dish, "help me with this" when talking to people, etc. And then when you inevitable fuck up, because we all do and it's normal, you just adjust and carry on. When you hestiate about what to do, just decide to do something (there's always something to do) and do it. It will feel weird but it gets easier. Then you'll start to realize just how much you've been avoiding and how little you've been accomplishing all this time, but that's another story.

I face all kinds of internal resistance against being assertive, like I associate being assertive with being "abusive", "bad", "wrong" etc... this is no doubt due to childhood conditioning. Also as a Canadian and ex-academic I think we went through some of the same cults, I recognize the signature. Don't stress it or think about it too much. Just keep being assertive.
posted by PercussivePaul at 3:17 PM on August 17, 2021 [4 favorites]

I'm a researcher at a university, and I also have unreasonable shame about many of my interactions with people. It is definitely worse now because of COVID stress / unclear or poorly thought out COVID guidelines.

If you haven't tried it yet, personify that shame voice and ask it why it would say that to you. Your psyche is probably trying to protect you in a way that isn't adaptive right now, and it can work surprisingly well to just say "well, I decided I would work on these parts of project A now, and that's fine because I have project B scheduled for later." Be gentle with the difficult parts of yourself, they are often trying to keep you safe.

Separating the planning the work and the work like you've been doing is also good. When that voice comes up while you're working, sorry but you have to wait until it's planning time again. Try to make some categorical decisions about when you speak up at work and what you wear and then the decision is made, you can revisit it on X date or if Y bad consequence happens. You can influence but cannot actually control your feelings, you need to make space for having the bad feeling and still doing what you decided to do. Evaluate later if you were actually doing something shameful or if it was actually fine.

These are basically CBT tactics, +1 to looking for a therapist with that as a modality.
posted by momus_window at 3:25 PM on August 17, 2021

Yes, I have this. In my case, it is usually shame.

It is better than it used to be. I suspect medication, therapy, a partner who shows me compassion when I mess up and encourages me, and some amount of "exposure therapy." I do things that trigger that feeling, but the situation is such that feeling that way is so utterly ridiculous that it helps me understand that it is an irrational residue of the past.

Kristin Neff has an amazing website on self compassion that is useful. Echoing the rec for Brene Brown too. And if you ever want to get into therapy, "Acceptance and Commitment Therapy" (ACT) is known to help with this.
posted by crunchy potato at 3:46 PM on August 17, 2021

I strongly recommend investigating the concept of self-compassion. I have benefited greatly from learning about it, and putting it into practice. This MeFi thread is a good place to start.
posted by Artifice_Eternity at 6:35 PM on August 17, 2021

lookoutbelow mentioned ADHD; here is a basic ADHD screening questionnaire [pdf in English].

I want to also mention the possibility of autism (I'm a female academic scientist, and it turns out I'm autistic as I found out only last year); here is a basic autism screening questionnaire in various languages.

These are not diagnostic but may give you leads to find out more on your own.

Your mention of agonizing about word choices in emails struck a chord for me. :/ So did your bonkers useless therapist. And so did your worry about being inadvertently rude or self-centred or being a doormat. :/ :/ And lots of other stuff.

If you do think you might be autistic, the best way [in my opinion] to learn more is to talk to other autistic people. It depends a lot on the country, but formal diagnosis of autism in adults (especially those who aren't men) is usually (a) extremely difficult, time-consuming, and expensive to obtain and (b) basically useless in terms of actual help. ADHD is different in this regard because generally one has to be diagnosed to access medications that actually help a lot with ADHD (I don't have ADHD, as far as I know).
posted by heatherlogan at 6:37 PM on August 17, 2021 [3 favorites]

Sorry, I should add that the point of learning whether you might be neurodivergent (ADHD, autistic, etc) is that, if you are, it gives you an actual REASON for why you see, do, and understand things differently from most of your peers. If it's this, knowing it makes it not "wrong", just different and removes a lot of the shame (as well as some of the anxiety around trying to mask all the time). [Sorry this is not super coherent, I should wait till tomorrow when I have more time to write this...]
posted by heatherlogan at 6:42 PM on August 17, 2021 [2 favorites]

You have anxiety and/or depression. Your brain is generating the chemicals that make you feel shame and then you are looking for reasons for the feeling. But the feeling came first.
posted by Jacqueline at 7:24 PM on August 17, 2021 [7 favorites]

Another therapeutic modality to consider is Internal Family Systems. It’s all about getting to know and learning to love all the parts of yourself, including your shame, your anger, your forgetfulness, etc. I’ve found I can see the value each part of me brings to my life and my coping mechanisms, and meet each part’s needs, much better than when I was just trying to shove everything down. Getting curious about the parts and what they’re trying to communicate with me has given me a HUGE shift - from feeling like I never want to be in my own head and just wanting to escape to feeling much more comfortable with and interested in my internal workings. It’s obviously very much a work in progress for me, and probably will be my whole life, but I still highly recommend checking it out.
posted by bananacabana at 7:31 PM on August 17, 2021 [1 favorite]

I came here to mention ADHD as well. lookoutbelow’s answer is excellent. I have ADHD and I experience many of the feelings you’ve described.

For me personally, CBT hasn’t helped much — I need a therapeutic approach that’s less “in my head” and more about addressing my body’s physical reactions to anxiety.

Autism and general anxiety disorder are a few other things to look into.

You could consider handing or reading this post at your first appointment with a new therapist, if you feel like you have trouble explaining your problem “on the spot”.
posted by mekily at 8:40 PM on August 17, 2021 [1 favorite]

One more thing for ADHD: here is a recording of a recent 1-hour talk by a professor who was diagnosed with ADHD a year or two ago, about his experiences.
posted by heatherlogan at 6:10 AM on August 18, 2021

Hi! I thought I had a handle on my family stuff but recently I started doing EMDR to deal with exactly the kind of constant self-doubt and shame that you're describing. And it turned out I had A LOT more to deal with vis a vis my family and childhood and that while talk therapy didn't make much of a difference for me, this kind of embodied therapy has been incredibly powerful. It might be worth a shot. Wishing you all the best!
posted by jeszac at 10:38 AM on August 18, 2021 [2 favorites]

I've been thinking about this thread a lot, and had one more suggestion in case anyone looks here. I like a lot of the advice above about challenging the shame voices and breaking down the thoughts, but personally trying to implement those things turns into circular or chaotic thinking and somehow beating myself up for not doing a good enough job trying to fix things. But I've found that if I work things out on paper and keep them close by, if my brain wants to go that road again I can tell myself I already did that. I'm plagued by indecision at work a lot since I'm new to everything and the decisions have such big consequences so any time I'm not sure what to do I just start writing it out on paper and work from there. The key is though that it's not so much doing excessive planning, but instead writing about what I'm feeling that's getting in the way, or listing what I'm worried about to get it out of the way. It helps to compensate for less working memory. Hope that helps someone.
posted by lookoutbelow at 12:44 AM on August 19, 2021 [5 favorites]

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