The unexamined life...
July 31, 2008 3:52 PM   Subscribe

How to reflect on uncomfortable events (and relate to them in a healthy way)?

In the past three years I have excessively restricted eating, considered suicide, spent two weeks in a psychiatric hospital (now being treated as bipolar), left college, and witnessed my parents fighting off and on since 2005 (right now they live separately). Leaving college bothers me the most.

I'm generally happy, easy going, and avoid thinking about these things. However, when I do think about what's been happening, I become emotional, uptight, and look to others for empathy.

I have mentioned this in therapy. He recommended I reflect on what's bothering me by myself (not discounting the value of talking things through with someone). I'm at a loss here.

How do I reflect sensibly? I'd like to do this for past and present (and future?) situations.
posted by anonymous to Health & Fitness (10 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Try writing the situations down. Grab a pen and paper, and exteriorise the thoughts and feelings. It doesn't have to "make sense", and you can always burn the papers afterwards.

Try starting with something simple, that doesn't upset you too much, and work your way up from there.
posted by Solomon at 4:27 PM on July 31, 2008

Is it so bad to NOT think about them? I frankly do better when I let the past stay in the past and look forward. I am assuming you are taking steps to make the future better?
posted by konolia at 4:27 PM on July 31, 2008

I've never felt that consciously thinking and reflecting has ever helped me feel better, only worse. At least for past situations you just have to move on and go about your life. Don't block the memories out, but don't think about them too much, either. Avoid swimming in mental circles. Come back to them after they've had some time to simmer, it might be months or even years, but be patient (actually that might not be bad advice for learning how to reflect: learn to be patient).

For future situations, that parts easy: make a five-year plan, or a ten-year plan, or just write down all the things you want to do. I love to do this when I'm feeling down. So many things to do! Do I climb Mt. Rainier next summer or do I go to Thailand and live on savings for as long as I can? Do I work a 9-5 job next fall and build up a bunch of savings or just work part time and live with a bunch of people and work on creative projects? I'd like to spend some time doing some hardcore reading of classic literature sometime, where can I fit that in? Ooh, I just heard a tale of hitchhiking on yachts! I want to do that, too! See what I mean? Chart your life like a journey. (But don't let these things seem like far away dreams, otherwise they'll crowd up your brain and leave you feeling even more down. The secret is to begin!)
posted by symbollocks at 4:57 PM on July 31, 2008 [1 favorite]

for me there are at least three different steps involved in "coming to terms" with particularly bad memories.

the first is a kind of period of getting used to it. initially, thinking about what happened is painful. so i just think about it for a moment, and then go on to something else. repeating this it becomes progressively less painful.

the second, once it's no longer "too hot to touch" is to understand myself. why did i do that? what were my reasons? i'm not being critical, just trying to understand on a basic level. this is kind of connecting with "forgiving myself".

the third is to ask what i can do differently next time. how can i learn from what happened? how can i avoid it again? anyone can make a mistake once, but repeating it is not that smart. so i look at how i can avoid what happened if the same circumstances were to occur again.

that has worked for me in the past. not always - sometimes i repeat the same mistakes. good luck.
posted by not sure this is a good idea at 5:56 PM on July 31, 2008 [4 favorites]

I think that if your therapist recommended something, and you are at a loss as to how to apply the advice, then you should ask your therapist for clarification. It sounds like what's being suggested is that you think about your bad experiences so that you can get to a point where they're just a part of your history.... so you aren't in one of two modes - happy and carefree and avoidant - or triggered to the point of needing a lot of external support. How do you get there? I'd ask the therapist.
posted by moxiedoll at 6:40 PM on July 31, 2008

There's some recent research that suggests that the way the brain processes painful memories is very close to how it handles actual pain. Pain makes people emotional, uptight and needful of empathy and so do painful memories. It doesn't sound like this regularly disrupts your life, so it's not a problem. If you couldn't stop thinking about it and this was making you miserable, or if you were avoiding specific things because they remind you of bad stuff. then you'd need to learn to cope with the pain these memories cause.

Avoiding ruminating on painful memories is one way of coping with them. Only in specific circumstances does it have negative consequences. It doesn't sound like this is the case for you. Eventually the painful memories will get less painful. They'll become something you can take out and look and put away again without the pain. It's trite, but time does heal most wounds.
posted by xchmp at 6:52 PM on July 31, 2008

maybe you need a more helpful therapist... do you like this therapist? have a good rapport? do you feel he is very helpful? shouldnt he be working through this stuff with you?
posted by beccyjoe at 8:11 PM on July 31, 2008

Try reframe thinking of yourself as in a 'better place' now, than then.

When you look at the events of your life as such, you realize you could not be the person you are, without having been that person.

"The road of life has pitfalls and bumps." Keep, always in mind, that you're further on the path to happiness, etc....but it would not be possible if you hadn't had problems before.

For example, you are unhappy that you're not in school; and it is obvious that you will go back, at some point, when you go back to school - you will appreciate it more, be more focused than the 'prior' you.
posted by filmgeek at 9:29 PM on July 31, 2008

I really don't have much advice, but you should figure out if you have in fact resolved how you actually feel about this stuff before you come up with a plan to reflect.

Agree with not sure this is a good idea, except that I have not found that things become less painful, ever, although they do become less likely to leap to mind.

You might also want to stockpile a set of good things to think about, in case you are overwhelmed by the stuff that bothers you and need to switch gears.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 10:07 PM on July 31, 2008

I had to go through a similar process a few years ago. It was incredibly angsty at first - I spent a lot of time brooding. But then I started naturally moving on to the next steps as described by not sure this is a good idea earlier. Luckily, I had friends who supported me, both when I was brooding, and later when I was ready to move on.

I started to think about why these things happened, how they were caused by me and the people around me. And eventually, they weren't painful thoughts anymore. I could analyse them, figure out how I'll do things differently now, and put them in their proper place: the past.

Avoiding thinking about painful things will only work for so long, if there's a part of your brain that is itching to analyse them. They'll pop up at just the wrong time, like while you're in a meeting or flirting with someone interesting :) If you know you need to think about them, you might like to come up with a rough plan, like writing them down and giving yourself good things to think about or do when you feel like it's been enough brooding for one day!
posted by harriet vane at 5:14 AM on August 1, 2008

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