I don't want to be Danny the Downer
January 25, 2008 6:24 AM   Subscribe

I have a tendency to focus on the negative, and to be really hard on myself. And in describing my life to people (namely, women) I tend to be overly self critical. I don't think this is working for me.

Any suggestions on not being like this?

The thing is, I'm pretty good at a lot of things. I'm a somewhat talented musician and a pretty good photographer. I've done a lot of things and I always get to be pretty good at what I do. But I set up really high standards for myself and they are often times very difficult to achieve. Sometimes I do, sometimes I don't, but it's always hard.

Other times, I just describe things worse than they are. Someone (uh, a really cute girl that I really liked) asked me if I enjoyed playing music, and I was like...I enjoy it but it's really hard. And it is really hard for me. I'm a sort of loner person and dealing with a bunch of disparate personalities can be really tough. But I do get great pleasure out of it. It's just accompanied by a lot of annoyance in the process.

Part of it is that I have some strong guilt about ever lying or bullshitting anyone (Catholic much?). So for some reason I feel compelled to tell everyone everything, good and bad, about a situation.

Another part is that my mother tends to dwell on the negative in any situation and my father is a major worrier. I've developed skill in both those categories.

I think there are good parts of all of this...I'm always learning things and trying to improve my skills. I don't really see it as a bad thing. I worry more about the way it makes people percieve me. Like, say, on this date, where after a while I think the woman was looking at me like...'you poor man, I wish you'd go easy on yourself'.

I've been thinking lately that it might be good, at last, to find a good therapist. Unfortunately I'm so totally broke I don't think I can afford one, at least in the short term. Any suggestions for the meantime?
posted by sully75 to Human Relations (27 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
For some reason, I'm reminded of last year's discussion about raising smart kids. Does any of that ring true for you?
posted by MrMoonPie at 6:33 AM on January 25, 2008 [1 favorite]

You're depressed. You probably don't like yourself much. The things you're describing are merely symptoms.

Yes, you should see a therapist. Until then, I'd recommend smiling a lot. Big smiles. It's surprisingly therapeutic.
posted by mpls2 at 6:38 AM on January 25, 2008

I'm like you, sully75 - I tend to focus on the negative, and it can bring the people around me down. Although I'm no doctor or therapist, here are some things I've found help me.

In the short term (that is, in a social situation where you don't have much time to process and react), realize that you're often volunteering too much information. You mention your answer to the cute girl about playing music. The best answer there would be "why, yes I do". Don't volunteer the rest unless she specifically asks you about it. Then, turn the conversation away from yourself and towards her. "Do you play music yourself?" would be a great comeback.

In the longer term, I've found that just being aware of my penchant for negativity helps a lot. Once I'm aware of it, I can mentally check myself. Always ask if the belief rolling round in your head is at all rational or logical, or whether you would ever expect that standard of perfection from someone else. If you can't prove your belief beyond a shadow of a doubt, or if the expectation applied to someone else makes you recoil, it's a great indicator that you need to re-think things.

You say both your folks tend to be worriers. That's a great place to start - simply being aware that you've been trained to think this way for a good portion of your life.

One final note. Don't expect to get it right, right away. You've had a lifetime of thinking one way, and your brain is comfortable doing things that way. It will take practice to make the change to a more positive way of thinking.

Best of luck.
posted by LN at 6:45 AM on January 25, 2008 [1 favorite]

wow, sully75, i know where you are coming from as this can almost be a description of me, particularly the part where you say Part of it is that I have some strong guilt about ever lying or bullshitting anyone. and definitely you are right that a certain amount of this does lead to good in that you are never resting on your laurels, thinking that good enough is good enough.

while i have a tendency to negativity and worrying anxiety, fortunately, i have also been blessed with a (sometimes annoyingly) optimistic side that prevents me from being such a downer. but i won't lie to you: i spent years in therapy working on a lot of underlying issues and i would whole-heartedly advocate therapy to anyone who even remotely thinks they might need it.

but since you can't afford it right now, i would suggest that, as a start, for strangers and people you don't know very well at least, to not view answering only in the positive (while ignoring the negative) as "lying" or "bullshitting" because you are telling the truth, just not all of it. it might seem superficial to you—and in a lot of ways it is because, for the most part, strangers and casual acquaintances aren't really looking for anything more in-depth than an easy, pleasant reply. once you accept that, then it becomes, maybe not entirely natural, but easier to just keep your answers on the light, positive end of the spectrum.

once you get to know someone better, they will be more interested in more in-depth answers from you, and you should give your whole opinion. if you still think you are dwelling too much on the negative, then you should ask your good friends to point that out to you when you do so that you can "catch" yourself and keep it in check. i know that when i go through phases where i am just negative about everything and everyone, if i don't really pull myself back and check myself, it becomes a pretty self-perpetuating downward spiral and even i know that's not something i want to be around.
posted by violetk at 6:49 AM on January 25, 2008

Have you considered that you might do this to get attention?
posted by electroboy at 6:56 AM on January 25, 2008

OK, I'm here to shill for Dialectical Behavior Therapy techniques once again.

Maybe you can start by modifying your own self-talk. Observe your inner monologue and see what you're telling yourself. I'd be willing to bet (having recognized this in myself, and finding it an ongoing challenge) that you're talking some pure crap on the inside. Doing this (and it takes time! You've likely been doing this for a looooong time.) can help you get out of that negative mindset. Here are some of the cognitive distortions you might notice once you begin really observing what you tell yourself.

Here's a link to some skills you can learn that might help a bit. Explore the whole DBT Self-Help website, I've linked to as well. It might not make total sense right this second, but I always, always recommend it.

I really think these skills I've mentioned are the first step and tackle the root of the problem. Eventually and with practice your negativity will lessen. Then once you get a little cash or can find a therapist you can afford, find one that can help you find a DBT group to accompany your therapy.

I think you'll find that the issue of describing yourself to others will come along with this inner change.
posted by Stewriffic at 7:03 AM on January 25, 2008 [5 favorites]

There's no shame in being a downer. Life isn't all chuckles and grins (er, please ignore my username). But there really is a lot to be thankful for. Might I suggest that you spend more time with your family? As in, really make an effort by calling them, visits, etc. They will listen to you and love you and ask for nothing in return.
posted by Laugh_track at 7:10 AM on January 25, 2008 [1 favorite]

I forgot to mention that DBT was first developed for people diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder, but is commonly used for depression as well. Frankly, I think everyone in the world should take a course!
posted by Stewriffic at 7:14 AM on January 25, 2008

Let's say I'm visiting a friend and I see he's bought a lottery ticket. I remember the winning number from reading it in the paper that morning, and I see that he has it. Clearly, he doesn't know this, because I just heard him say, "I shouldn't buy lottery tickets. It's a waste of money." I say, "Yeah, you're right. It's a waste."

I'm lying.

We tend to think of lying as hiding the bad stuff, but it's just as much a lie to hide the good stuff. So when a girl asks you if you play music -- and you know you do, and you know you're pretty good at it -- you're lying to her if you say, "Yeah, but it's really hard for me." You're lying, because you're omitting the good stuff.

Being honest is presenting the whole picture, good and bad.

I'm not seriously suggesting that, when someone asks you a simple question, you launch into a big lecture. But I think this may be a useful thought experiment for you. Reality is not bad. Reality is not good, either. Reality is complex, containing both good and bad things. Many people have trouble dealing with that complexity, so they create a mental model of reality that's simpler -- a cartoon reality. Some people craft a happy cartoon; others craft a sad one. When you live in a cartoon, it's easier to make decisions (I know life sucks, so I'm going to do X), but the cartoon is still a cartoon.

Is a lion a good creature or a bad creature? Silly question, right? It's a beautiful animal; it's also very dangerous. It's good and bad. Ignore either side, and you're not really understanding lions.

The bravest thing you can do is to confront the reality of life.

Some people (I've been guilty of this) think that by focusing on the good stuff, they'll forget the bad stuff. They'll get too conceited, etc. That's crap. You won't forget the bad stuff. It will always be obvious. Admit that the good stuff exists! Accept that part of reality.

I'm talking to myself as-much-as to you, because I have the same problem, and I don't always practice what I preach. Partly, this is because I don't think much about the past. Sure, I've achieved some great things, but there's an "ed" on the end of "achieved." Once I've finished something, it doesn't interest me any more. It has little emotional impact on me. When people tell me to focus on my achievements, I can do it, but it leaves me cold.

Instead, I obsess about the future (I wish I was better at just living in the present!). I'm always trying to achieve something more complex than the stuff I've already achieved, and that's the stuff that interests me. So, like you, when someone asks me if I do something, my gut makes me want to say, "Yes, but I'm not very good at it." That's simple the truth of my current struggle.

But there's a way to talk truthfully about such struggles without being negative. Rather than focusing on the fact that you haven't achieved your goals yet, why not focus on the fact that you're striving for them? That's attractive. We all like people who are ambitious and industrious.

Do you play music?

Yes, I'm currently working on this really tough guitar piece. It's whipping my ass! But I'm determined to lick it. I'm going to keep practicing every day until I get it right!
posted by grumblebee at 7:19 AM on January 25, 2008 [11 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks for everyone's thoughts and suggestions. There's a lot of really good information here. I really appreciate it.

For the record, just wanted to say that I'm crazy about both my parents. They've been really supportive and helpful. We have very different goals in life and that's been a challenge. I talk to my parents often (like daily) and I'm very thankful for our relationship. It's just when my dad sends my daily traffic failtality reports from my home state in an effort to make me drive carefully, it reinforces some negative energies...

The DBT information was really interesting. And the article on gifted children: gifted and talented program/check, lazy tendencies/check, over praise/check, lowest common denominator achievement/check.

I've thought about all this before but I guess as I get older and have the last 10 years to look back on (I'm 32), I can see myself more clearly, good and bad. Like I said, it doesn't bother me so much as it bothers me how others see me, but that does bother me.

Actually it bothers me too. I'd like to be gentler with myself.

Thanks so much, all. I really do appreciate it.
posted by sully75 at 7:25 AM on January 25, 2008

Maybe you're just taking yourself too seriously? It's more fun to find the humor in your mistakes and flaws than it is to try to pretend they don't exist. I love that world-famous physicist Max Tegmark has a page on his site (see "goofs") where he celebrates some his worst screw-ups plus those of his friends and family, scored according to a system that factors in embarrassment, expensiveness etc.
posted by teleskiving at 7:32 AM on January 25, 2008

Hello, male version of me. I'm just like you, down to the "I'm good at stuff but don't acknowledge it" (Impostor Syndrome, anyone?) and the super honesty and the worrywart parents (except it's my mum that's both Madam Negative and Madam Worrier, and talking to her drives me nuts). "you poor man girl, I wish you'd go easy on yourself" is exactly what my friends and my boyfriend tell me; I've seriously burnt out (dangerously) over this.

Therapy helps. Is there an option to do therapy for cheap or for free? In Brisbane I benefited from the Brisbane Minds program where 6 sessions of a therapist are subsidised so you only have to pay a very small fee per session. Also talk to the Samaritans/Befrienders in your area; they could be helpful.

Good luck. I know it's hard; I'm working through this every day. If you need to talk, just drop me a MefiMail.
posted by divabat at 7:43 AM on January 25, 2008

Pratice constant gratitude. Or, at least try to flip the negative situations around as they arise.

Had a shit day at work? Be grateful that you have a job to bitch about and that, if so inclined, other opportunities exist for someone with your talents.

Depressed at the most recent email from your father which includes traffic fatalities in your area (per your example above)? Be grateful that you have loving parents who care for you, and whom you (apparently) have a wonderful relationship with, as that is not the case for many others. Their love for you may show itself in odd ways, but it's still love, and that's something to feel good about.

Sprain your ankle in a fall? Take it as a reminder that you have a working ankle to walk on and that yes, it will heal.

These are all somewhat iffy examples that me seem a little happy-go-lucky, and this is by no means a cure-all (many of the other responses have excellent suggestions as well), but trust me when I say that I exhibited ABSOLUTELY the same behavior you currently do (one sister called me "Negative Ned" for years which makes me laugh now - it didn't then), and I found this technique was a great "in-the-moment" way to remind myself of how fortunate I am on so many levels - many of which were pure luck and had nothing to do with me.

It can be difficult to practice at first, but if you're even slightly diligent you might be quite surprised at the results to your overall attitude.

As for being bothered how other people see you (which I always struggle with myself), just remember that you cannot please everyone - no matter how hard you try - but you can and probably have pleased many with your music, friendship, etc... But, when it comes right down to it, other people's opinions of you are really none of your business anyway.

Be grateful that this is something about you that you're able to work on, and that you can always improve - in anything.
posted by Rewind at 8:06 AM on January 25, 2008 [1 favorite]

this may sound silly, but one thing that i did that actually seemed to make some sort of good difference:

i took a big fat black sharpie, and on a regular piece of printer paper i wrote in big enough letters to fill the whole page:


and i taped it to the bathroom mirror, so i had to see it everyday.

it actually helped me to have a daily reminder because i feel like may times it is pretty easy to focus on the positive if only i could remember to do so.

anyway, it seemed to make a good difference. i moved over the summer and i hadnt put another one up yet, but this reminder (of your post) encourages me to do so, so hopefully i will when i get home from work.

good luck.
posted by gcat at 8:40 AM on January 25, 2008

Rewind's answer reminds me of something my therapist "prescribed": every day right before bed, I write down what "worked" that day. Sometimes I focus on particular personal goals (dealing with conflict, for example), other times, just nice things that happened. It can help in refocusing on the positive, rather than obsessing on the negative. And in bad times, it's something I can reread and remember that there ARE good things in life.
posted by epersonae at 8:52 AM on January 25, 2008 [1 favorite]

Wow; I can definitely relate...

It’s got self-help for self-help junkies and bliss-for-ninnies written all over it, but I’m still quite impressed with many of the ideas and resources in this recent book.
posted by dpcoffin at 9:02 AM on January 25, 2008

Response by poster: Burhanistan, that's a really good point. I do tend to talk about my relationship with whatever I'm involved in rather than the thing itself. Which is not inevitable because I am excited about the things themselves. Perhaps talking about my relationship to them inevitably comes across as introspective and critical.
posted by sully75 at 9:36 AM on January 25, 2008

I haven't read much of the other answers because I'm lazy.

But it sounds like you've got it in your head that, whatever your foibles are, they are utterly unique and must be declared immediately, like a firearm in your luggage, and that to conceal them for even an instant is a lie.

Everyone has odd little defects that make them less than perfect. We're people. You are under no obligation to announce them to everyone you meet. They certainly won't be telling you everything that's wrong with them, so why do you have to wear the Scarlet "A"?

Meeting people has always been about putting your best self forward. They'll find your faults in time, just like you'll find theirs.
posted by Doctor Suarez at 10:14 AM on January 25, 2008

IANAD, but it sounds like anxiety with depression. The negative inner-voice that keeps you down on yourself was once described to me as "having second child who you can't send to its room." The constant feelings of being down on yourself make yoy depressed.

Then there is talk therapy, and sweet, sweet, Celexa. Man, that stuff is awesome.

YMMV, but this probably isn't something you can beat on your own.
posted by 4ster at 10:59 AM on January 25, 2008

whups, i should have said that it was a physician who made the "second child reference."
posted by 4ster at 11:01 AM on January 25, 2008

The Greatest Salesman in the World by Og Mandino.
posted by JaySunSee at 12:54 PM on January 25, 2008

Since you say you are broke and can't afford a therapist, I very highly and strongly recommend the classic "Feeling Good" by David Burns. Many therapists recommend it and its as close you're gonna get to actual talk therapy in a book.
posted by Defenestrator at 2:34 PM on January 25, 2008

I pretty nearly could have written this myself, so will be watching with interest. Grumblebee seems to be brilliantly insightful, as usual.

I will say that I didn't find Og Mandino especially inspiring when I ran across Greatest Salesman; half of it is about how incredibly, mystically powerful the other half is, and the other half is about reading affirmations to yourself every day, mixed with a generous portion of spiritual slushie. (Honestly, if the most revolutionary thing the teachings of Jesus inspire in you is 'Hey, I can use this to tell people about being better salesmen', y'ain't been reading too close.) YMMV; obviously JaySunSee liked it rather better than I.
posted by eritain at 3:07 PM on January 25, 2008

... and that's what focusing on the negative looks like. In case, you know, anyone needed an example.
posted by eritain at 3:08 PM on January 25, 2008

Best answer: Here's the thing, to me. That dinner was a blank slate, an open space. In that vacuum, with your words, you painted a scene of "music is great but hard, disparate personalities, annoyance." Into that empty space you were enjoying with her, you conjured up a scene with a little vague 'great' but some very specific and imaginable annoyance.

Is that the world you want to live in for that short moment shared with her? No? Okay then, fake it until you make it, and verbally create a better space. "It's great. Some challenges, but the amazing [specifics specifics] make it worthwhile."
posted by salvia at 12:08 AM on January 26, 2008

And you could also view being pleasant a courtesy. Making someone's world temporarily a nicer place is a kindness you do for others. (Kindness is Catholic too, right? Maybe?)
posted by salvia at 12:09 AM on January 26, 2008

I have some strong guilt about ever lying or bullshitting anyone (Catholic much?). So for some reason I feel compelled to tell everyone everything, good and bad, about a situation.

Evangelical much? Heh. I hear ya, I do the same thing. You and I have gotten great at describing the bad about a situation. We say "Oh yeah, things are great except this is horrible and that sucks and EVERYTHING IS SO HARD." That's not a true picture of the situation, because we're great at describing the bad and we skip right over the good. We're lying!

So, let's try to get good at describing the good parts, just to balance things out. I can say, "You know, I had a really stressful week at work, but the projects I'm working on are really challenging me and I'm learning a ton of stuff. My coworkers are working their asses off and I think we'll manage to make all our deadlines." You can say, "I'm working on a new song and it's so difficult, but I really enjoy it and I know it's going to make me a better musician when I get it right."

Maybe we'll figure out how to describe the good and combine it with our ability to describe the bad, and then we'll get a more balanced story. Most likely, our newfound ability to describe the good will help us see the good more clearly, and then we won't be so consumed by the bad. It's not that the bad won't exist, it just won't be the only thing that exists.

Another version of this is the "high low" relationship game (which I think I saw on Defective Yeti, but now I can't find it). Basically, you tell your partner (or whoever) the high point and low point of your day. The point of the game is to foster communication, but I'm bringing it up now because I usually find it hard to choose just ONE low point, and difficult to think of a high point. It gets easier to think of a high point when I need to do it every day. It shifts my focus a bit. Maybe start journalling your high-lows for each day?

Feeling Good was helpful for me. There are probably millions of used copies on Amazon.
posted by heatherann at 8:58 AM on January 26, 2008 [1 favorite]

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