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Since starting psychotherapy, I’ve been a bit more able to consciously assess the type of thinking I do. It’s not easy, and there’s a wide-open rabbit hole just at my side, waiting for me to trip and fall, helpless, into its grim depths of constant thought checking and obsession.
It’s difficult for me to be aware of unhelpful thinking patterns without immediately wanting to fix them – which is, of course, part of the problem in the first place. I have spent so long trying to fix myself by monitoring every single thought, that I have become part of the problem, and not the solution.
My list of five ‘bad habits’ is not meant as a means to punish myself; I recognise they are bad, or to be more kind, unhelpful; my acceptance and awareness of them may help me to address and change them in time, but I can’t let myself stumble into the bear trap of trying to constantly find an answer. They are present, and deeply deceptive at times; but my focus does not always have to be front-facing. They can continue to whir and flit around the background whilst I turn and face the rest of the wasteland.
It’s possible that I don’t really need to explain these, so familiar they must be to many. I expect that these patterns manifest in different ways with everyone, and this is just how they present for me. Without further preamble, here they are:
1. Black and white thinking
This is a stone-cold Steve Austin classic. I’m not sure where it comes from, perhaps from my crippling inability to like or appreciate anything I have ever done or said, but it has always seemed to me as though there are only two outcomes or reactions for things said and done; right and wrong, white and black. This particularly applies to myself – I am far, far more likely to give another the benefit of the doubt than myself.
An ex-boyfriend once commented on my propensity for fairness, my ability to evaluate situations or behaviours and comment on the perceived equity of any outcomes (Spoiler: it’s highly unlikely he still thinks this is true of me). I have been known to be quite a fair and reasonable person – when it comes to others.
When it comes to anything that I am experiencing, through my own actions or those of others, it’s far less (or more, depending how you look at it) complicated. I am either RIGHT or WRONG. GOOD or BAD. Any other directly opposing dichotomies are also welcome.
An example: if, as is completely fucking normal in an adult relationship, I find myself slightly irked by something my long-suffering partner has/has not said or done, I am almost incapable of viewing it for what it is, (a normal fucking human emotion) and instead dramatically conclude almost immediately that it must be because I do not love him. Thankfully, there is usually enough sensibility cowering in a corner of my brain to prevent me from saying this out loud, but still there it sits, triumphant, another hard-earned nugget of ‘proof’ that I am inherently bad.
Black or white – it’s either one hundred percent rosy or it’s royally and explosively annihilated. There should be no shades of grey, no thank you E.L. James, not today! This black and white thinking has made the realities of adulthood difficult at times. Breaking up with long term partners has never gone smoothly, as though my years of trying to ensure everything was smooth sailing were speedily unravelled and the relationship hurtled into shitdom with the a force equal to the immense effort I had previously expended trying to avoid said shitdom.
Understanding that, just as I graciously allow for others, my feelings are often messy, cloaked in uncertainty and my actions equally confusing has not come to me with ease. I can look at a situation (another example: the dissolution of a friend’s marriage) and completely understand the difficulties both parties faced, the complex feelings that must have led to whatever actions occurred, and be wholly aware that people fuck up, feelings change and it doesn’t necessarily make them bad people. I am like a larger, significantly less-green Yoda.
When it comes to applying this grace, understanding and empathy to myself I’m like Jabba the fucking Hutt. Black or white; bad or good, simple as. Despite my evidently complex mental health needs, I somehow fail to see that I am a dynamic, changing human with an emotional spectrum as wide as the Vredefort crater.
2. Mind reading
Speaking of Yoda, here we discover the ancient technique mastered by so many of us with anxiety in particular. It’s truly amazing how we can, with x-ray precision, understand and even predict exactly what another person is thinking, isn’t it?
These habits, as I think and write about them, are certainly more intertwined than I first realised. Of course, if I’m rampantly declaring my own actions as utterly inhuman and evil then it stands to reason that others must feel the same, and as such are secretly harbouring the most vehement of grudges against me, intensifying with every interaction I force upon them.
If I am off sick from work, my colleagues must be thinking what a lazy, useless piece of human garbage I am, discussing in hushed tones how I must either be faking it or have some sort of exotic venereal disease. There’s absolutely no possibility that they could notice I wasn’t there and continue on with their day as normal, no, they gleefully jump on the chance to disparage me and not a jot of work gets done all day.
Should I, perhaps, venture into the well-trodden fields of shaming myself and my body, it only seems natural for me to assume that everyone else sees me the way I see myself – they think I dress badly, my hair is terrible, I am overweight and, of course, ugly. When I think about, for example, being clad in a bridesmaid’s dress, the bride and groom will definitely wish they had never asked me, such is my expertise at looking awful and ruining all their photos.
I’ve often bemoaned the fine line between perception and paranoia – I am, both fortunately and unfortunately, quite a perceptive person and can pick up on subtle changes in people and the emotions that may accompany this. This makes me an often kind, understanding and empathetic person.
Of course, this delicate empathy is outweighed by the lunatic ferocity with which I assume someone’s thoughts or feelings are somehow related to me. My partner cannot simply sit quietly, be angry or upset without the instant appearance of my face at his shoulder, imploring him to reassure me that it is not my fault, such is my conviction that his thoughts and emotions are directly related to something I must have done.
It’s completely self-obsessed, but not in a smug, Made in Chelsea sort of way. More of a desperate, perverse way that causes me to constantly read the minds of others to prove what a worthless heap of tripe I truly am. So strong are my mind reading skills that when someone subverts my expectations and tries to tell me something nice, I don’t believe them and remain convinced that they are thinking otherwise. Perfect.
3. Comparing myself to others
I mean, of course. Why wouldn’t I? Again, in order to prove to myself that I am the world’s worst failure, it’s essential to hold myself up against my friends, family, people I vaguely know and strangers on the street.
When I am depressed (and even when I’m not), it’s almost too easy to look at the lives of others, and convince myself that compared to them and their experiences I am useless, worthless and boring. It doesn’t matter to me that I’ve spent the best part of the last four years, and several years on and off before that, trying to manage my ever-declining mental state, or that it’s really quite impressive I managed to maintain the facade of being functional for as long as I did. Never mind that I’ve been too busy waiting for doctors or therapy appointments, getting used to high doses of psychoactive medicines and riding out the symptoms of severe depressive and anxious episodes.
No, none of that matters. Instead I should be in the same position as my peers; I should have the job of my dreams, I should be doing something worthwhile… ‘should’ is slowly becoming one of the more dreaded words in my vocabulary, such is the weight of its impact on my being.
I should have travelled more. I should own a home, be engaged or married, be successful at work. I should not have barely left the flat (never mind the country), I should not be slowly chipping into my savings to survive and I should certainly not have been sacked from two jobs on the bounce.
Not only do I persist in comparing myself to those whose situations are wildly different to mine, but even more dangerous and bewildering is the comparisons I make between myself and those whose situations are similar. This stranger on the internet hasn’t recovered from depression – well in that case, I shouldn’t either. I don’t want to appear as though I’m not committed to it.
I find it immensely difficult to deal with other people who have mental health issues. I constantly compare my story to theirs, and feel inadequate if I do not match up. I might see someone whose self harm scars are more obvious or numerous than mine, and instead of feeling that sad kinship one might feel, I become concerned, aggravated and even jealous that my own scars do not correctly reflect my experience, that this other unfortunate soul is somehow better at being ill than I am. Not that they are, or have been more ill and in need of help – no, that they have been better at it and I, as usual, have not been good enough. When I stop to think about it, it’s pretty fucked up that my depression literally tells me I’m not good enough at it. I mean, come on. Talk about meta.
4. Expectations of myself and others
The comparisons I make inevitably lead to some rather laughable expectations of myself; my own familiarity with my thoughts, my illness and my behaviour leads to unfair expectations of others. Needless to say, when these expectations are not met I struggle to understand and to cope, often sinking deeper into misery as I wait for the ground to just hurry up and swallow me.
My mental health has been closely related to my working life based on my comparison to others and subsequent expectations of myself. If I feel I should be doing something different, or moreover that other people expect me to be doing something different, something better… well, I just get plain old sad, listless, demotivated and quickly manage to convince myself that my job makes me worthless as a person if it isn’t 100% perfect, noble, well-paying and fitting with my values. I wouldn’t expect anyone else to put themselves under that sort of pressure, but it’s completely necessary for me to do it, otherwise how will I ever stop being a total turd?
It has taken me an embarrassingly long time to realise that my worth is not defined by my job – unless I choose it to be. It’s taken me equally as long to discover that my expectations of people are based on my own ludicrous thoughts and behaviour – how I would think about and approach something is usually going to be pretty fucking different to how others would, given my swathes of self-loathing, desperate need to please people and commitment to doing the ‘right’ thing.
Sadly, it’s not an easy thing to accept. I can recognise that my expectations may be hugely out of kilter with how someone else perceives a situation, but it does not make it any more manageable. I find it difficult to comprehend that others do not bend over backwards to consider the needs of others, or spend days agonising over things before making a decision; and even longer afterwards. This relates to work again – the way I might be treated as a new employee is often completely different to how I would, and have, treated people in the past. If I expect the level of dedication, compassion, hand-holding and general fussing that I would give, I’m usually going to be in for a considerable disappointment.
I also expect people to be as critical of me, and themselves, as I am. Apparently, this is not the case and certainly explains why bona fide knobheads swan around the place without a care, not stopping to think that something terrible might happen as a result of a two minute conversation they had last Wednesday. I suppose it’s somewhat of a relief when my biggest critic is myself, but I’m often left wondering what those who simply accept themselves actually think about. What do you do if you aren’t berating yourself for not meeting expectations that have fuck all basis in reality?!
5. Thinking about thinking
Now, this one is my favourite. It’s so difficult to explain and understand, and I can’t catch myself doing it with anywhere near as much regularity as I can other bad habits. This comes from my constant need to monitor every single fucking thing that goes through my head – was that a negative thought? Was that an anxious one? Did I catastrophise then? Am I thinking this because I am depressed or because I think this is what depressed people feel like?
It’s absolutely, excrutiatingly exhausting and until recently I didn’t even know I was fucking doing it. It comes as no real surprise that I was always on the verge of sleep, a bodily and emotional fatigue so acute it’s a wonder I ever managed to get out of bed. My brain, quite literally, would not stop. No thought went unobserved, I would carefully calculate its impact and try to keep track of every little whisper in the fog of my brain. My reasoning was simple – if I got to know my depression, really got to understand it, then I would constantly be aware of what was going on. I would be able to counter it, to keep an eye on it and give it what for.
This did not work. Surprise, motherfucker!
Instead, what I was doing was focusing intently on my negative thoughts, and unwittingly being drawn further in with each attempt I made to observe myself. I became obsessed by my depression, without even realising. Such was my obsession with my thoughts that I barely noticed the other things that were happening – lack of motivation, lack of energy, lack of interest in doing anything other than being depressed. I thought about my thoughts, and occasionally work. I was so overtaken with these thoughts that I started to think I was choosing to be depressed – I would observe so many ‘depressed’ or ‘negative’ thoughts that I started to assume I was just creating them because I thought I should.
I had been doing this for years, and whilst it made me able to articulate myself quite well to medical professionals, I never felt that I truly got to explain myself, and potentially overwhelmed a fair few of them with the vast volume of information I imparted. My thoughts were something with which I was very familiar, but I had little understanding of how they affected my feelings and behaviour. I thought if I was keeping track of them that it would somehow make it better.
Whilst I was well versed in monitoring my depressive thoughts to the benefit of absolutely nobody, I was never as good at doing with anxiety, and instead sort of assumed that it was just the way everyone felt. When anxiety struck me badly recently, it became apparent how out of touch with these thoughts I was, how I had not controlled this disorder the way I had with depression. It took me by surprise, and I was not well for a while, but constant monitoring and evaluation of my thoughts would not have stopped that. It was almost a relief (albeit a horrible, sweaty one) that I didn’t know what was going on. I could just let it happen.
Now I am aware of this thinking about thinking, I try not to go down the rabbit hole of thinking about how I think about thinking… I mean, it doesn’t make any sense written down, so it certainly doesn’t make sense in my head.
Holy hell, that was a wild ride.
Well done if anyone made it to the end – I didn’t expect to write for this long, but I’m glad I did. I am, of course, fighting the urge to go back and add reams more to each paragraph, to explain in minute detail exactly what I mean, and really make you understand. That is absolutely not going to work, and if I tried anyone who reads this may well end up as mentally unstable as me.
Do you have any bad habits you’re aware of? How do you try to combat them? I’m interested to know, so leave me a comment if you like.
I hope this made someone, anyone feel slightly less alone or helped someone to understand the ridiculous ways in which our minds work sometimes.
That’s certainly it from me and my brain for now – thank you for reading.