Moving out of one's own head.
July 22, 2006 8:48 PM   Subscribe

I live in my own head too much. I over-analyze my own feelings/thoughts as well as the actions of others. How do I overcome this?

While this practice sometimes leads to very reasonable/helpful observations about people, which ulitimately help me interact with them in a more healthy way (i.e. avoiding fights), it also often leads to instances where I read too much into things and make false snap judgments. I want to stop this, as it can feel like torture at times. Often an event or specific painful feeling from a past event can get stuck in my brain, and I am suddenly caught in (what Lewis Black once described as) a mobius-strip like mental loop for a long time. It is not a pleasant feeling and in extreme cases will have negative impacts on my mood, appetite and sleep.

How do I keep positive aspects of observation (ones that help me avoid fights and be considerate of other's needs) while avoiding the ones that make my mind feel like a prison? I've tried therapy in the past, but it soon felt more like a chore than anything else. I'm looking for techniques that will calm me down and change my train of thoughts in these instances.
posted by piratebowling to Human Relations (25 answers total) 95 users marked this as a favorite
Welcome to the club, man. (or lady. are you a pirate lady?) This sounds exactly like me! My husband doesn't understand why some of these things bother me so much. It's interesting that you use the word 'torture' in your question, because I describe this also as "torturing myself." It may simply be that this is the kind of person that you are, and there isn't any changing it. There's a certain level of having to accept who you are here, for me at least. That said, I often close my eyes and repeat "it doesn't matter" to myself, and think about something positive that counterbalances whatever seemingly awful thing i'm thinking of. It isn't perfect, but for me, it's a start. I'll be watching this thread too.
posted by theantikitty at 8:54 PM on July 22, 2006

I feel like this from time to time. What usually brings it out is physical interaction, with anything. The more I'm interacting with things I can touch/feel/etc, the less I'm in my own thoughts.

Therapy, to me, always seemed to try to force you into your thoughts when you weren't there. I kept thinking, "yes, I'm already there, now what."

But really, being involved in the world around you is the way out (and you can balance it.
posted by devilsbrigade at 9:18 PM on July 22, 2006

Best answer: I have had this problem for a while now - although it is related to a more general tendency of thinking too much. What I have been trying to do (and this is where meditation can help), is not pursuing each and every thought that comes up in my head. This takes a level of mindfulness, and I have been getting better at it. I have noticed my tendency to over-analyze someone's behavior has decreased - the thoughts do come up, but I just let them go soon after.
This thread that I started may be of some help to you..
posted by raheel at 9:27 PM on July 22, 2006

Recently, I've been reading Buddhism Without Beliefs, which was reccommended to me in this thread. Although I have a difficult time meditating, I've found a lot of the philosophy to be helpful.
posted by Afroblanco at 10:04 PM on July 22, 2006

Best answer: I've struggled with this my whole life.

WRT therapy: if you have persisting issues that are affecting the fulfillment of life, you might take another go at it. The right relationship is everything. But then again, therapy is work... it is going to feel like a chore but you should also feel (in the long run) like it is going somewhere. Maybe not week to week, but you should feel some positive change over the course of months-years. (I did about 5 years weekly).

An antidepressant (in my case Paxil) dramatically decreased this sort of negative self-talk. But it wasn't perfect. For one thing, it did dampen positive as well as negative aspects of my interior dialog. It made me more complacent. And it negatively affected my sex drive (at the time I didn't think it was that dramatic, but my wife assures me that the affect when I stopped taking it was, um, notable). I felt like I'd gotten what I could out of it and I stopped (I took it about 3 years, 2 in therapy and one out). These kind of thoughts increased but I feel like I deal with it better.

The thing that has done the most for me is a practice of what I guess you could call discernment and counter-talk. If I'm worrying about something that isn't happening and I can't do anything about, I notice that and I sort of state it firmly to myself, inwardly. "That isn't happening. Nothing you can do about that." It takes work and it doesn't halt things but over time I found it's allowed me to take better control, and it allows me to give free reign to thinking that has a similar dynamic but which I feel is positive. Likewise, if I'm overthinking what someone might be thinking, I might respond "you don't know what they're thinking. Why don't you give them the benefit of the doubt or ask them?"

The thing is, for people like us these mental "alternative realities" become very vivid and we make the mistake of treating them as if they are real. Practicing identifying them as what they are (thoughts and nothing more) and subjecting them to a more objective analysis puts them more in their proper place.

It's harder and less simple than it sounds. I still work on it a lot. But the process becomes increasingly internalized. A big benefit of therapy for me was that my therapist suggested a lot of valuable insight into possible motivations of negative cycles of thought. A lot of it came down to control. We can't control a lot of things - what people think of us, bad things that might happen to the people we love. But in our mental landscape we are much more in control. We can respond to thoughts in others that may never be voiced.

I'm sure others will bring it up but I suppose the classic remedy to the chattering mind is meditation. I wish I could provide personal insight into its efficacy, but I've as yet not succeeded in making this kind of practice a regular part of my life. Hopefully someone who has may check in and offer their experiences.

Don't give up. My brain still gives me plenty of trouble but it is a lot better now than it was for most of my life. And it continues to improve.
posted by nanojath at 10:06 PM on July 22, 2006 [5 favorites]

I used to be extremely introverted and lived in my head like that then for some reason I got really chatty in my mid-twenties. Like, irrititatingly chatty. I think I jut got tired of keeping everything inside. On the downside I'm kind of annoying bit on the upside people talk to me all the time now about everything and no-one is afraid to tell me what they think like before so I actually know what people think about stuff instead of having to guess.

It's been interesting.
posted by fshgrl at 10:09 PM on July 22, 2006

Get out and socialize more, even if it does not feel comfortable.
posted by caddis at 10:28 PM on July 22, 2006

Well, it might be prudent to begin by trying to stop your overanalyzing of your overanalysis.
posted by Matt Oneiros at 10:28 PM on July 22, 2006

Being on prozac for a while helped me a lot with this. I'm not saying that you should be on prozac, or that medication is the answer to your problems, etc. But when I get into the sort of mentality you're describing, I can say to myself: 'If I was on prozac right now, I wouldn't be obsessing about this, because it's bullshit.' And that in itself helps me to let it go. It's like muscle memory.
posted by bingo at 10:34 PM on July 22, 2006

I fixed this problem by doing social stuff. Take dance lessons, take a backpacking vacation olo, find a group that does a hobby you like, stay far far away from the internet, heck, get together on a regular basis with a group of friends to kick back a beer or 12.
posted by ruelle at 11:24 PM on July 22, 2006

I used to do something like that. What cured me was working for 18 months in an acute psychiatric facility. Of course, it could have been me just growing out of it as well, but I did get a lot of mental peace suddenly at around that time. OK so work was a bit stressful sometimes *cough*
posted by singingfish at 1:07 AM on July 23, 2006

Often an event or specific painful feeling from a past event can get stuck in my brain, and I am suddenly caught in (what Lewis Black once described as) a mobius-strip like mental loop for a long time.
Try this, practice retro healing, send comfort to that 'you' in the past suffering, and open yourself to the comfort that you may receive from 'you' in the future. (an organizational psychologist recommended this to me) or and try bird watching, gets you out of your self and involved in the world of nature.
posted by hortense at 2:37 AM on July 23, 2006 [1 favorite]

Sit in front of your computer or a piece of paper and write what you're feeling, stream-of-consciousness style. If you get stuck, just sit and wait for the next part to come. Keep going until it's all out. Save it somewhere private if you like. Then forget about it. This should take care of the looping thing.

I'm not sure what you mean about the "false snap judgements", are you just talking about being oversensitive and taking offense at things too easily where none was intended? I don't know if it will help you, but the reason that I almost never get pissed off at anyone is that I have a basic world view that pretty much the entire human race (including me!) is only just about keeping it together most of the time, which the exception of a few unusually unthinking and/or insensitive people. And even for that second category, it really is just the way they are and still boils down to ordinary human weakness.
posted by teleskiving at 2:43 AM on July 23, 2006

Best answer: I used to be a "psychic" armchair psychologist. I KNEW what people were thinking -- or at least thought I did. I prided myself on how good I was at it. I used to hold court by summing people up in a pithy, entertaining way. A guy would say, "I hate that movie," and I and would say, "of course, he really likes it, but is ashamed to say so." If someone asked me how I knew, I would say, "Oh come ON. It's obvious." And I really believed this. On the negative side, I also "knew" when people disliked me, even when they claimed otherwise.

All of this is strange, because I'm otherwise devoted to the Scientific Method -- and these observations were ANYTHING but scientific. They were gut feelings -- which had some probability of being correct, because I AM good at reading non-verbal signs -- but I had decided they were DEFINITELY correct. Gospel. Based on flimsy, totally subjective evidence.

Then one day the tables got turned. A friend accused me of thinking something negative about him that I didn't think. I tried to tell him he was wrong, but he just KNEW he was right, and he was really angry at me about it. I pleaded with him: "You can't know what I'm thinking," I said. "Oh come ON!" he replied. "I KNOW. It's OBVIOUS!" Nothing I said could convince him otherwise. I felt completely trapped. And I lost him as a friend.

After that, I vowed to change. I realized that I'd treated many people exactly the same way he'd treated me. I had been sure I was right -- and maybe I was. But so was he. And he was WRONG. The thing is, I could see his reasoning. If I had been him, I would have made the same assumption. But still, it WAS wrong. He assumed he could read my mind, and that was his mistake and my misfortune.

Here's what I learned: you CAN'T read other people's minds. You DON'T have psychic powers. You may -- like me -- have very good hunches. But that's all they are. Hunches.

I decided they were unhealthy, and I gave them up. This was VERY hard, because -- as I said -- they were a matter of pride. It did help me do re-devote myself to the Scientific Method. I refuse to believe anything without some sort of external evidence. Something is NOT true just because it FEELS true. (Which is not to say I devalue my feelings. I think feelings are really important. But they're indicative of something going on in ME -- not necessarily something in the outside world.)

Now my motto is "Give everyone the benefit of the doubt." If I get a hunch, I either have to confront someone about it or give it up. By "confronting someone," I mean that I have to admit to having a FEELING and ASK if it's based on reality. "I feel like you're mad at me. Are you?"

If the person says, "No," I must accept it. It's not fair to him to say, "I know you are!" I DON'T know. Only HE has access to his own thoughts.

I'm sure there are limits to this. I'm not a masochist. I won't continue to hang out with someone who continually throws non-verbal aggression my way. But the key word there is "continually." To my surprise, I discovered that when I gave up being "psychic", most the the continual stuff -- or my perception that there WAS continual stuff -- just stopped. I realized that I had mostly based my analysis on ONE event. Someone might just have been having a bad day -- might have been a bit pissy or something -- and I had built an entire edifice on it.

All of this has made me a kinder, more tolerant person, and I wouldn't go back for the world. But I'll be honest and say that there have been some drawbacks. Besides having to give up my social-status as "Dr. Freud," I've become less fun in catty conversations. A group of friends will all decide that Amy is Jealous and will want me to play along. I can't. The best I can say is, "She might be." Or "I can see why you think that." That's not fun. So people quickly learn to leave me out of those games. It also sometimes earns me a reputation of being naive. If you're not willing to say, "Oh come ON! It's OBVIOUS. Just look at the expression on her FACE!" then you obviously don't GET it.

But the worst thing is seeing other people do it. People do it all the time. They read each others minds; they read my mind. I hate it. And I now see how often it leads to needless pain. And once someone gets a psychological profile in their head, it's impossible to get it out of their heads. "How can you know?" "Oh come ON!"

The classic example is A deciding B is thinking bad thoughts and deciding it in an unfalsifiable way. If B claims A's interpretation is wrong, A counter-claims that B is lying or in denial. Beware of that. A good scientist NEVER makes an unfalsifiable claim.

I see it here on Metafilter every day. Someone posts something, and a zillion little Freuds just "KNOW" what he REALLY means. I hate, hate, HATE it. But I refuse to give into it. I also hate being holier-than-thou. So I don't lecture people about it. It wouldn't do any good, anyway. The best I can do is live MY life well.

I also notice my wife doing it all the time. She sounds like you. Someone will say one tiny thing to her, and she'll decide it's an insult. I DO try -- gently -- to point out that she doesn't have enough evidence to decide that.

One thing I've learned by observing her and myself: if you give up snap judgements, you have to live in a world of uncertainty. The positive of snap judgements is that you always have a clear picture of the world. It may be wrong, but it's clear. I think that's much more important to my wife than it is to me. It USED to be important to me. I valued clarity over accuracy. Now I've become okay with, "I don't know." Gradually, I've even become comfortable with, "I may never know." Did George just insult me? "I can't know, and I may never know. So I guess I'll give him the benefit of the doubt and assume he didn't."
posted by grumblebee at 4:04 AM on July 23, 2006 [204 favorites]

I think nanojath has some words of wisdom. What you call "torture" I call "imploding." Thoughts can get stuck inside you. Getting them out through physical contact (a hug from someone close to you, for example) or screaming into a pillow are a couple ways to dislodge the internal mental logjam. Finding what works for you may take time. But recognizing the thoughts for what they are (as others here have illuminated) and then "exorcising" them out of you in some positive way seems to be a plan.

In addition, I have always found that you can't be mentally exhausted and physically exhausted at the same time. So when my mind gets full of "stuff" I exercise. When I'm physically spent my mental state is quite relaxed.
posted by Taken Outtacontext at 5:11 AM on July 23, 2006 [1 favorite]

Personally, I think the problem is plain old bad parenting. I find that you only see this sort of oversensitivity in beautiful and/or intelligent children who are used to special, excessive attention from adults. They end up interiorizing the states of others (since it so often feels good) and becoming deathly afraid of criticism and failure. This isn't really a bad thing, as you point out, being highly attuned to others can lead to a card-in-the-sleeve situation, but it often paralyzes you, preventing you from acting in a meaningful way. The commonly recommended solution to breaking out of any sort of paralysis is to do something right now. It doesn't matter what you do, it doesn't matter if it's smart or stupid, right or wrong--you just have to do it. The next time you find yourself 'obsessively doubting' you might try asking yourself, 'In the simplest terms, what is the problem? And what can I do right now to fix it?'.

On a longer timeline, you may have a problem believing in yourself. If your valuation of yourself is too tied up in what others think then you're always going to be vulnerable to this excessive self-doubt. Find a hobby to develop your belief in yourself. It doesn't have to be anything special. The only criteria necessary are (1) you have to enjoy doing it (2) it has to be difficult, you should really suck at it and (3) there has to be a clear, objective way to measure your progress. This will lead you to tame your excessive self-doubt and it'll 'rewire' you to respond more to numbers and less to what you (think) other people are thinking.
posted by nixerman at 6:23 AM on July 23, 2006 [8 favorites]

Welcome to the club indeed pirate.

First off, if this thread gives you anything I hope that you will reckognize that you are not alone. You are not a freak, nor is there something "wrong" with you. The fact of the matter is that life is painful, and we all find ways to cope with pain. This happens to be yours, and it happens to be the same coping strategy a lot of naturally intelligent people turn to when their emotions or ecperiences threaten to become overwhelming.

I've been working on this aspect of my personality for a while now myself. After years of therapy I finally broke down and decided to investigate some anti anxiety medications. A friend who has been on one for some time convinced me that I was suffering unneccesarily, and it turns out she was right. The med that I'm on doesn't suppress any of my feelings, it just raises the threshold before I get overwhelmed by them. It's been a huge change in my life.

That said, drugs certainly aren't for everyone. I would urge you to seek the advice of a competant psychiatrist, one who will say up front that they won't perscribe if they don't feel it's necessary (unlike a lot of general practicioners who dispense paxil like candy).

One other bit of advice that my therapist has been repeating to me like a mantra of late is, "Now Is Not Then." Without knowing your story, I'd hazard a guess that you probaably went through some pretty significant stress when you were younger. Many of the behaviors which upset you NOW might be necessary coping mechanisms you developed in order to survive whatever was going on THEN.

Now that you're older and in a better place, you reckognize that these behaviors are holding you back, but you don't know how to stop them, since they seem so ingrained. The trick is to get that part of yourself that still sees the world as threatening to relinquish that worldview. This is a job best suited for therapy with a skilled, compassionate psychologist. It sounds like you past experience with therapy was with someoone who wasn't what you needed. It can be tough to find the right match, but it's important to stick it out and trust your instincts until you find someone you can work with. It's almost impossible to undertake such a change on your own. Remember, therapists are merely people too, and they come in all shapes, sizes, and flavors.

Please feel free to email me if you'd like to talk more about this.
posted by perelman at 6:26 AM on July 23, 2006 [1 favorite]

Dance. No matter what else you do, dance. Whether its in a class, in a club, or in your living room... Dance with abandon.

The best way to get out of your head is to get into your body.
posted by lucidreamstate at 6:30 AM on July 23, 2006 [3 favorites]

EXACTLY what grumblebee said. A million times over. Stop overanalyzing, and actively choose to think differently. Assume that everyone is well-intentioned and doing their best, and is living at face value, until proven otherwise. You will go crazy considering all nuances and other possibilities (I certainly have), and it's exhausting, crippling, and pointless. I don't think this means you lose your gut sensitivities (the ones that keep you out of fights, as you say). For me, at least, those are deeply ingrained (biological even?) and can be there at a moment's notice; they are a part of me for better or worse. I choose not to entertain them and let them rule my life anymore. Or at least I try very hard. It takes effort, and sometimes I slip up.
posted by unknowncommand at 6:42 AM on July 23, 2006 [4 favorites]

Oh man, as somebody who often says the right thing in the wrong way, I THIRD what Grumblebee said. Trying to guess at people's "real" motivations is a sure fire way to be wrong most of the time. All you can do is give people the benefit of the doubt as to their intentions.

I came across an awesome post recently from somebody who was in the hot seat because of another person's misinterpretation of some innocuous statment they had made. It went something like: "If there is more than one way to interpret what I just did or said, please choose the one that doesn't make you angry."

Swear to god, I just about had it tattooed on my face.
posted by Aquaman at 9:30 AM on July 23, 2006 [10 favorites]

Not obsessing about what other people are thinking and giving those people the benefit of the doubt do not have to go hand in hand. People are very often *not* well-intentioned and 'doing their best.' But that doesn't mean you have to take responsibility for their bullshit. When I'm in danger of obsessing about what someone thinks, I often say to myself, 'You know, if you knew what they were really thinking, you'd probably be so disappointed at their general lack of intelligence, integrity, and understanding of life in general that you'd hit yourself for even spending a second on this.' It's a technique that I've found to be very effective, and has on a great many occasions been borne out in reality.
posted by bingo at 10:12 AM on July 23, 2006

Man oh Man! I've said Aquaman's sentence so many times to people, especially ex-girlfriends, before I wised up and realized that some people just aren't able to do it. Their emotions might as well be imposed upon them by an external force for as objectively real as they think their perceptions and reactions are. You just gotta identify those people, and realize you'll never totally see eye-to-eye with them, unless you learn how to communicate with them on their level, which means learning how they see the world. It's so totally unfair.

Aquaman: "If there is more than one way to interpret what I just did or said, please choose the one that doesn't make you angry."

Piratebowling, The trick is to realize that you aren't your reactions. You aren't your decisions. You aren't your emotions. You're something totally separate. Someone else could be in the same situation and perceive it differently, and you'd both be right. Give yourself permission to be wrong about what other people are thinking or feeling, and realize they're probably wrong about you, too, and it doesn't matter in either case.

Just chill, hang out, talk about things you find interesting, laugh at things you find funny, and do the things you love.
posted by Mr. Gunn at 4:16 PM on July 23, 2006 [3 favorites]

God, I love this place. So much wisdom and compassion, it is humbling to read these replies. This one's a keeper for sure.
posted by vac2003 at 2:43 AM on July 24, 2006

Response by poster: I really appreciate all the feedback. I considered posting this anonymously because I felt sort of embarassed by it for some reason, but I'm glad I didn't. The feedback has been enormously helpful, especially in helping me realize what a common thing this is. Although there probably is no one "best answer" for this, I marked a few that I felt gave good specific techniques or advice for dealing with this.

Again, thank you all. If there is more advice, keep it coming.
posted by piratebowling at 7:53 AM on July 24, 2006

Just a small point that might or might not be of use. Confirmation bias is a concept in cognitive psychology that says you tend to notice or search for evidence that proves your hypothesis more than you notice or search for evidence that contradicts it.

For example, if you suspect that a friend has just slighted you in some way, when you search your memory you are probably more likely to sieze upon examples of behaviour that could be interpreted similarly, as opposed to examples of friendly, supportive behaviour.

Just being aware that this kind of bias exists could help change your thinking. When you start gathering mental "evidence" that supports view X of a person, see if you can remind yourself that you are probably unconsciously blinding yourself to evidence that supports totally different views.

In the end, the logical conclusion should be that you will never really know the "true" answer, because you will never be able to completely remove your own bias(es) from the interpretation. Therefore, you should keep an open mind, and try to give other people the benefit of the doubt, as others have said above.
posted by UbuRoivas at 11:08 PM on July 24, 2006 [1 favorite]

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