Help me manage anxieties around getting in trouble/going to jail
September 28, 2023 5:45 AM   Subscribe

I suffer from anxiety which I believe is part of a wider trauma response to an emotionally abusive parent. I'm now 10 years very low contact and have done a lot of work on this in therapy. As I work on it, I'm realising that my anxiety is quite specifically centred on fear of getting in trouble/disappointing figures in authority but am still struggling to move past it and looking for advice on that.

I can recognise these fears are irrationally intense and extreme given my life circumstances -- I have a job which pays enough that I don't have to worry about bills, have never been hassled by the police, my last performance review at work was good, etc. Nevertheless I spend a significant amount of time scared out of my mind and it's significantly impacting my life.

Some examples of specific fears:
- fear that I missed or made a mistake with a tax filing and will go to jail
- fear that i'll give someone the wrong information at work that will lead to claim of negligence
- fear that I'll mess up something at work and get fired
- fear that the house we bought somehow isn't up to code and we'll get in trouble with the city council
- fear that someone will place drugs in my bag at an airport and I'll be detained indefinitely in that country
- this one has lessened the most for me with therapy, but fear that I will lose money by messing up a household related task, and that this will somehow give my partner the right to punish me with some sort of hurtful behaviour

Stuff that makes the problem harder to deal with
- moving country for work every few years and feeling like I'm never caught up on what the rules in a particular place are
- struggling with sense of self and trusting my memories, which causes a lot of 'maybe I did something bad but I just don't remember' feelings
- shame feelings of 'you secretly know you are a bad person and must have done something wrong'
- the emotional abuse being centred around passive aggressive behaviours that felt like punishments if I did something that was disapproved of

As a kid, I think I managed this stuff by being really controlled in how I behaved -- never once getting a detention at school, putting a lot of time into assignments to make sure I got perfect grades etc. As an adult my life is bigger and messier and I realise I have to find a way to handle letting stuff slip sometimes but boy do I not have the coping mechanisms for that yet.

I've been working on general strategies for dealing with anxiety and trauma, but is there anything you've found helpful in dealing with these particular kinds fears? If you managed to mostly overcome them, what was that like? Exposure therapy seems tricky -- I obviously don't want to deliberately break the law or deliberately piss off an authority figure or something.

Also, I don't know if this would be just feeding the compulsive thoughts or not, but if you have a list of the very basic things you need to remember to do as an adult to not break the law (as opposed to things to avoid doing, which are easier for me to remember) that might help. I live in Europe, married, own a house, work full time, no kids, no pets.

As an example, a therapist once responded to my fears that a landlord was annoyed with me for how I handled some email communication by saying 'almost certainly they only really care whether or not you're paying rent every month and anything else is bonus'. That calmed me down a lot I think by giving me a really specific standard to aim for and helping me realise people in authority dealt with a huge range of behaviours and I didn't have to be 100% perfect to not invite some sort of retaliation.
posted by pandabanter to Human Relations (25 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
This sounds really hard, I'm sorry. The thing that jumps out at me is the job that causes you to move to a different country every few years. I can't imagine such a thing. Moving to a different country is a life-changing event that tears up all your relationships, your support network, your sense of home, your knowledge of the culture and how you fit into it. I feel like this is an abusive setup where the only constant is your work and everything else about your life is constantly torn up and you have to rebuild it. That sounds deeply isolating and distressing, and I wonder if this job is causing some of the same feelings that your abusive parent did. That you feel confused about your sense of self and your memories, I think, is because your work is treating you inhumanely, and a change along those lines is needed. If you could pick a place to live, and establish your life that's centered on loving relationships and support and consistency, instead of only on work, I think you will be on your way to a lot less distress.
posted by fritley at 6:15 AM on September 28 [8 favorites]

Gosh I really identify with this. I recommend Pete Walker’s book, “CPTSD: From Surviving to Thriving.” The fear of “getting in trouble” is a fundamentally childlike fear, and one thing I do is to give myself a talk that says:

I am an adult. Adults cannot get in trouble the way children do. No one has the power to get me in trouble anymore, because I am an adult, and I am the one who has authority over me. Other adults may dislike what I do, and they are free to react to what I do, but we are all adults, freely making adult choices. If I want to make a late payment on my rent, that’s my right, just as it’s my landlord’s right to impose a fee for that, and his right to get pissed off, and even evict me if he wants, but that would still not count as getting in trouble, because that’s not something he has the power to do me. We are equals. Even if I were to do something that sent me to jail, I would still be an adult, who had chosen to take that action, and was ready to accept the consequences of my choices, imposed by other adults. I cannot be sent back to childhood. That time of my life is over. I am an adult, and I have the right to make choices and accept the consequences for them. I am not a child, and will never be in trouble again.
posted by Merricat Blackwood at 6:32 AM on September 28 [32 favorites]

To me this sounds like it stems from a feeling that nobody will keep you safe—that if something goes wrong it will be taken as your fault, whether it is or not, and all of the worst possible consequences will fall on you. If that resonates, it may suggest a different kind of exposure therapy—instead of deliberately trying to break the law, can you deliberately (and carefully!) put yourself in situations where you must rely on someone else to protect you, and see that the responsibility for keeping you safe isn’t just on you?
posted by babelfish at 6:32 AM on September 28 [5 favorites]

I have those kinds of anxieties and what works best for me is not to try to reassure myself out of them, but instead to accept that the world is a place where unpredictable and unjust bad things do sometimes happen, and they could happen no matter how virtuous and perfect I might manage to be, because they are not controlled by anything I do. But right now they are not happening to me, and there isn't much else I could do to make my situation resilient in case they happen, so the best option for me is to get on with enjoying my life as it goes on.
posted by Rhedyn at 6:51 AM on September 28 [1 favorite]

I struggle with this too, also after growing up in a controlling (high-punishment, abusive) environment with one particularly unpredictable and occasionally violent parent. It hasn't completely cured it, and it's flippant, but this comic about how being in trouble is a fake idea helps sometimes.
posted by terretu at 7:06 AM on September 28 [3 favorites]

I'm in the UK and am middle class and white, so my list might be different from yours, but basically the things I proactively do to avoid trouble with the law:
  • completing any tax return required in good faith and following the instructions to the best of my understanding (and if it's beyond my understanding, hiring an accountant)
  • paying whatever I have calculated as my taxes when they are due and where possible automatically
  • sticking to the speed limit when I am driving
  • parking where I am legally allowed to and paying for my parking as needed
  • booking my MOT (car road test) annually
  • speaking politely to any police officer if required to do so and complying with their directions
That's it, pretty much.
posted by plonkee at 7:18 AM on September 28

I used to occasionally have similar fears about my job. Ironically the thing that helped most was spending a couple years working in HR - because that then gave me a BIG insight into what the actual process for firing someone was, and that it was ironically more complicated than I thought. If someone actively broke a law or something like that, that was one thing - but if someone just made a bunch of repeated mistakes, there was a very lengthy process the company started first: first they got together with the employee and the manager to create something called a "PIP", which stands for "performance improvement program". This was a three- or six-month plan that both the manager and the employee had to agree to, for things the employee had to do to improve their performance. If they'd gotten better at the end of that time, then they were fine; but if they didn't, or were only halfway, then the employee STILL wasn't necessarily fired; the manager and HR would meet with them again to figure out if they just needed more time or more training. It was only after they'd been through that process a couple times without any improvement that someone was fired.

Note that this was in the US and not Europe, but it reassured me that most companies would much, much rather keep you than fire you, because firing an employee and hiring someone new is a pain in the ass. So if they're going to actually fire someone, it would only be if they'd tried a LONG time to get them up to the performance they wanted, or if the employee had done something actively illegal. So - a single mistake, even a big one, wouldn't be fire-worthy.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:54 AM on September 28

Duh, forgot to add my point - maybe if you know someone who works in human resources where you live, ask them what the general "policy about firing someone" would be for where you live. I've got a hunch that employees have even more protections there than they do here in the US, and maybe hearing what that whole lengthy chain of events is would be similarly reassuring.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:56 AM on September 28

I have pretty bad anxiety and I feel like this sometimes, but much less often than I used to. I often feel unsafe for other reasons, but I have mostly come to terms with my legal and crime anxiety. I agree with the others that trying to ignore it doesn't really work, and whenever someone asks me to "imagine the worst that could happen" I am very good at imagining extremely bad things that could actually happen.

What worked for me was to spend time thinking about the actual probability of bad legal things happening, and how that is affected by the actions I take. So for the tax example (I am self employed so mine are actually fairly risky) when I start to feel anxious about it I look through the tax documents on my cloud backup and see if anything is missing. The last time I did that I actually noticed I had forgotten to pay my property tax on time and felt awful! But then I went to pay it online and they just added a $200 penalty to my normal bill and it was no big deal. And then I added a reminder to my calendar for next year to lower the chance of future problems.

We can never avoid all risk, but there are concrete actions we can take to dramatically lower risk, and it's important to realize and accept when we are making things better. I have a difficult time accepting positive feedback, but I can look at the actions I have taken and identify that I have significantly reduced my risk of being arrested compared to some other people I know. And then I can focus on this risk reduction whenever I get anxious about the really rare cases like planted drugs at the airport. Sure it could still happen, but the odds are low to start with and I make them lower by keeping my luggage with me at all times in the airport. Anything you do to lower risk is important and will make a difference even if you can't know when it helped. And when something bad does happen, you'll be able to deal with it better because you thought through some of the possibilities. The risk of being randomly arrested is low but very real (for Americans at least) and the actions you take help to control that risk.
posted by JZig at 7:57 AM on September 28

How interesting. I had a visceral reaction reading your post, although I don't suffer any of the same anxieties consciously. BUT I recognize the feeling you are describing: it is one that I have in my nightmares!

So what I think you have here is a common, deep-rooted anxiety that people generally overcome with adulthood, but which in you is being badly exacerbated both by predisposition and childhood experience, and by the VERY difficult circumstances of having to move countries frequently, which would make anyone feel insecure and not in control.

For me, the way to deal with this would probably be to make a chart, based on the worries you described above, of the areas in which you feel vulnerable. Codes, job duties, driving rules, etc. What are the likely ways I could screw up at work? Write it all down. And for each one I'd write out two things:

1. a detailed way in which it would realistically play out, if indeed I made a mistake. If I didn't know, I'd research it. So like what would happen if it turned out that my sunroom was unpermitted? Well, I'd get a letter from the city permit office, saying that I needed to modify it or pay a fine (or whatever actually happens.) Then I would meet with contractors to get a bid for the modification, etc. Or what would happen if I drove too fast on a local road? Well, a cop would stop me. They would either write me a ticket (or shake me down for a bribe - I don't know where you are in the world.) Then I would either pay them off, or would do traffic school, pay $300, etc. Anyway, I would research this stuff in as much realistic detail as possible and write it down on the chart.

2. Then on the same chart I would write down what concrete steps I could take to avoid making the mistake. This might include finding out how they train local drivers and picking up a pamphlet on local rules. Or researching local homeowner responsibilities. Or checking your current project at work to make sure its milestones are where they should be. Or hell even meeting with a tax preparer.

I might not actually take the steps. But if they were easy, I might. And the action of researching all of this, and the actionable solutions, and writing it all down in logical step by step fashion, would "park" a lot of the free-form anxiety. And I'd keep that chart handy, and go over it and add to it whenever I felt the anxiety rising.

I do love a chart.
posted by fingersandtoes at 8:06 AM on September 28 [3 favorites]

-- fear that I missed or made a mistake with a tax filing and will go to jail

I feel like a lot of your fears are fears that we all share. It's the second part of your sentences that go differently.

I think what seems obvious is you're missing is the human element of forgiveness and redemption that's baked into a lot of things. Even the IRS. If you made a mistake on taxes, you'd end up calling the IRS to start out. And you'd find that the IRS is staffed with really knowledgeable people who .... want to help you! Their first (and second and third) goal is to correct the mistake, but not to punish, let alone go to jail. Even the "penalties" for underpaying in a year are really not huge. They do not proceed straight to calling the local police to come get you. That's because forgiveness is coded into the system.

You can err, and most people will forgive you. You can even anticipate -- expect! -- that this will be the case. If someone makes a mistake that harms you, you would find a way to forgive in most cases, I'm sure. Systemic forgiveness is also call prosecutorial discretion; in any crime, the state chooses what and if and when to charge. If you made a mistake that ended in a costly house repair, your spouse is pretty likely to understand that it wasn't intentional, it was a mistake that any of us can make, and they will forgive you because they love you and want you to be able to move on from that mistake. I have a friend who worked in building code compliance; the response is similar to the IRS, they just want to work with you (not against you, not punishing you) to get it right. Systemic forgiveness is not evenly applied, of course, and we should be aware of that.

Perhaps your upbringing led you to feel ineligible for the grace of forgiveness. Maybe you made mistakes as a kid that were not forgiven, or given grace. Why you feel this way is up to you to figure out. But you as a human are worthy of, and will likely be given, some latitude to make mistakes in life, and not go straight to jail. I hope this is a helpful perspective or avenue for mental exploration that could relieve some of your anxiety.
posted by Dashy at 8:40 AM on September 28 [5 favorites]

I came to recommend Pete Walker's book, and also to suggest this is not merely anxiety or merely a trauma response ("merely"), this is on the Intrusive Thoughts - OCD spectrum and is going to respond much better to those treatment methodologies than ones for anxiety or childhood trauma.

But I think one of the more powerful CBT-ish rebuttals is, as stated above: adults aren't subject to the kind of punishment children are - both routinely and inappropriately. It is extremely cheap to take things away from children, but it is generally quite expensive to take away something meaningful from an adult - even firing is expensive. Evictions are expensive. The tax authorities want you working and making payments on back taxes, not in jail costing more than you owe. City codes are technically designed to prevent expensive mistakes, but also things have to be fatally dire for anyone to come take your home away from you, because it's very very expensive to do so.

In reality, the most trouble most adults get into is entirely on paper. It's bureaucratic trouble. It's a finger-shake, but most often the finger is just a database query result.

When I went through a fairly intense phase of this in college, I ended up disrupting the train of thought by making myself rate the likelihood it would result in my death or actual incarceration on a scale of 1-10. So your anxiety may be through the roof, but when you do the math you're forced to admit that the threat level of, say, forgetting to renew your car registration last month is a 0, because all you have to do is take a minute and deal with it and it's all fine. Somebody just wants some money, is all. Your anxiety may not care, but your brain at least is learning to re-orient to the practical truth.
posted by Lyn Never at 8:54 AM on September 28 [5 favorites]

Response by poster: Thank you SO much everyone. These are really compassionate and helpful and come at the problem from more angles than I would have considered. I haven't marked any responses because I wouldn't know how to choose but I'll be coming back to all of them a lot, and continuing to read anything new.

I was scared to post something this vulnerable but really glad I did.
posted by pandabanter at 9:02 AM on September 28 [16 favorites]

I've found that it helps me to remember my own track record in dealing with red tape and other stressors. "This happened X times before, I handled it and was fine," seems to calm me a good bit. (I got over a fairly burdensome fear of flying this way.)

I'm just finishing up my very first major-revisions/revise-and-resubmit-with-acceptance-not-guaranteed in a fairly lengthy publication career. This was a thing I was seriously scared of, honestly... and one review being super-angry didn't help at all.

But I've revised papers before, and they were all accepted. I've dealt with angry people before and survived (and this journal does double-blind reviews, so there's a minuscule chance Angry Reviewer even knows who I am). And now I'm almost done, so that's one more notch in my office deskpost.

When I get the next request for major revisions, it won't be so bad because I survived this one.
posted by humbug at 9:10 AM on September 28

One thought that might be helpful is that most mistakes are fixable. You don't pay your rent, you get a notice from the landlord and you get charged a late fee. You miss something on your tax return and you get caught, you get a letter from the IRS to which you get to respond and if you agree it was your mistake then pay what you owed plus a penalty and interest. You forget something that you said you would do for someone, you apologize and fix it. I remember a post on Metafilter where people shared their biggest screwups at work - the most common theme was that the consequences were far more survivable than the poster would have ever expected.

So, I would agree with Lyn Never. Your brain catastrophes and tells you that making a mistake leads to unbearable consequences while in most cases it is at worst merely embarrassing and costs you some modest amount of time and/or money to fix.
posted by metahawk at 9:13 AM on September 28

"I was scared to post something this vulnerable but really glad I did."

I am really glad you posted this. I shared many of the same fears in my younger adult life and am here to reassure you that it does get better. The advice above will help you overcome these fears. As fingersandtoes said, I still experience some fears in my nightmares, but I can laugh them off because I have come to understand that fears are just thoughts that have no basis in fact.

And thank you to all the MeFites for sharing their strategies for overcoming unwarranted fears.
posted by a humble nudibranch at 9:41 AM on September 28 [1 favorite]

I listened to a great audiobook, Fierce Intimacy by Terry Real, that talks about how there were some behaviors that really made sense when we were kids because they kept us safe. In your case, it sounds like perfectionism and hypervigilance kept you as safe as you could manage as a kid. It was an adaptive behavior that made sense for us as kids, when we were powerless and authority figures weren't always trustworthy.

But those same behaviors can be maladaptive as adults and actually make it harder for us to manage in relationships with people we do and can trust. The author, a therapist, gives a lot of examples from his own life.

That framing was really helpful for me. His presentation is quite compassionate, and it gave me a lot of compassion for my younger self and also my adult self. Maybe this is the kind of work you area already doing in therapy, but if not, it's a great listen and worth your time.
posted by bluedaisy at 9:41 AM on September 28 [2 favorites]

I am a lawyer, I am not your lawyer. I am a government attorney in the United States whose office is responsible for prosecuting minor violations, like houses not being up to code or traffic infractions. I also do a lot of employment work on the management side. I've probably encountered about 5,000 people in some sort of trouble like this. Your fear is incredibly common amongst people in America. It is also incredibly unlikely to happen. I say this not to dimish your real, and understandable, fear, but to let you know that lots of other people feel this way and the odds are in your favor. Addressing the specific concerns you have that my office would deal with:

- fear that I missed or made a mistake with a tax filing and will go to jail
My office handles delinquent property taxes. You can't go to jail for those. For federal or state taxes you have to be delinquent for years and totally ignore the taxing authority to go to jail.

- fear that i'll give someone the wrong information at work that will lead to claim of negligence
Your employer likely carries insurance to cover this.

- fear that the house we bought somehow isn't up to code and we'll get in trouble with the city council
This generally is a bunch of warning letters, then a ticket. You don't lose your house over this, you don't go to jail for this.

I am glad you felt safe sharing these concerns, and hopefully you find my answers somewhat reassuring.
posted by notjustthefish at 9:55 AM on September 28 [6 favorites]

I just thought of a humorous thing to keep in mind when it comes to ranking whether a Big Mistake really IS a Big Mistake. It was something another Mefite named FishBike posted in a Metatalk a while back, and I'm just going to post it in here because it's funny and wise both:
This is probably as good a time as any to publish the FishBike scale of Big Mistakes. Basically, you rate the size of a mistake by which field of study is affected by it.

Category 1: Journalism. Your mistake is big enough to be reported in the news somewhere.

Category 2: History. School children decades from now will be reading about your mistake in their textbooks.

Category 3: Geography. Your mistake is bad enough that maps are different afterwards. Entire towns or cities may have disappeared, or people change place names so they can forget about your mistake.

Category 4: Geology. Millenia from now, scientists will be wondering what made that giant hole in the ground or why that mountain isn't there any more.

Category 5: Astronomy. Scientists on other planets, peering at our solar system through their telescopes, will see a bright flash and ask themselves "What the fuck was that?"
Not only is that silly, it can remind you that a lot of the mistakes we each make barely rank on this scale.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:22 AM on September 28 [20 favorites]

I have similar "get in trouble fears". I get called to talk with my boss, rational me knows it's nothing (or her giving me more work to do). Child irrational me goes, I'm in trouble. What did I do now? I'm going to get fired. Or most powerful, what did I do to disappoint her?

The thing I think right after these thoughts flash through my head in a millisecond is "You can't read her mind. You will find out in less than 30 seconds. And 99.99% of the time, it's been nothing (the .01% was me forgetting to mop the lunch room and her asking me to go back and do it. And even then I wasn't in trouble)
posted by kathrynm at 10:22 AM on September 28 [1 favorite]

Category 1: Journalism. Your mistake is big enough to be reported in the news somewhere.

Okay, this ranking of mistakes is brilliant and made me realize that my version of anxiety and fears sometimes manifests as imagining the headline.
posted by bluedaisy at 12:21 PM on September 28

Oh, I thought of another funny thing to keep in mind for if someone seems like they're angrily criticizing you...this is something I saw happen when I was a teenager and working at a McDonald's. Our manager was just having a really bad day one day, and she was stewing about things in the back office. She came out to where the rest of us were working, saw one little thing someone was doing wrong, and it just touched off a whole rant:

"Bobby! The soda machine's blinking on the RECHARGE cycle again, I've told you you need to stay on top of that! And - oh God look at the floor, Denise don't just stand there, you need to mop up! And you, Jerry, help with the mopping, we don't need five people in the drive-thru! In fact - one of you guys in the drive-thru, clean out the shake machine, I've TODL you all we need to stay on top of that...." And she went on and on like that for several seconds, seeing things that needed fixing and barking orders at us, until finally she turned to the spot where guys were making the orders. "And as for you, Phil - "

But she looked, and Phil wasn't doing anything wrong. He had been putting a bunch of hamburgers together, and froze, looking at her. She looked back at him. They stared each other down a few seconds. Then our manager just blinked, and all she said was, "Phil? Your pickles aren't straight!" And then she turned and stalked back to her office and stayed there another hour in embarrassment.

That taught me that managers are human, and sometimes they're in a bad mood and that affects how they speak with you. They're not SUPPOSED to, but once in a blue moon sometimes they slip up like that. If it happens, I realized the best thing to do is to just make sure you're doing your job well, and not take it as a sign you're about to be fired.

(That said, if you're with a manager who ALWAYS takes their bad mood out on you, that's not fair to you and it's worth talking to human resources where you work about it. But if it's a rare could just be that you're not in trouble, it's just that the pickles aren't straight.)
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 12:46 PM on September 28 [1 favorite]

This kind of sounds like "insecure attachment", in which you are afraid of being "dumped"/abandoned by the people around you (whether they be your partner, work supervisors, or civic authorities) if you should make even a tiny mistake. The response is constant hypervigilance. The origin is exactly the kind of childhood situation that you mention. If you have, or can get, a therapist who addresses "attachment" issues, it could help you start examining the "root" of your fears.

What babelfish said above: "a feeling that nobody will keep you safe".
posted by heatherlogan at 2:10 PM on September 28 [3 favorites]

Holy crap, I’ve never seen someone describe this so well. While I agree that exposure therapy is not the way generally, and being a rule follower actually has a lot of perks, a low-key version that did some good for me was to start swearing.
posted by eirias at 4:02 PM on September 28

It might be worth hiring a tax professional who works with other expats like yourself. Not only for the piece of mind, but such a person could probably tell you common mistakes/misconceptions by expats (so you would know what not to do).

Consider that it is a functional society's best interest to minimize the number of people who go to jail (for tax fraud). It costs a lot of money to imprison someone for a year. People in jail are not maximizing the amount of taxable income (present or future). Fellow prisoners can be a bad influence on someone who isn't the "worst of the worst." Plus, sending someone to jail affects this person's friends and family members. Kids might end up in foster care, which among many other harmful effects costs the state money. Elderly parents might need more assistance from the state, which requires more money from the state.

Also consider that the nature of employment is such that the reason why some one is paying you to do a job, is because it is not easy. A good teacher of five year olds knows what is reasonable to expect that age group to know and do. Said teacher wouldn't last long if she expected all of her students to do calculus. Similarly a good manager knows she is managing people, not robots. She knows that it is in the company's (and her) best interest to help her direct reports maximize their accomplishments. People can't do their best work if they are scared or confused. Finding and training new employees is expensive and time consuming so it is preferable to not to need to do that. Someone working in a retail store is aware that customers are going to "mess up" the displays. Customers are never not going to do that, so most retail employees need to have quiet acceptance of other humans being human.
posted by oceano at 5:22 PM on September 28

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