Well, winter’s technically over now. After three months of cold, too much snow, and being stuck indoors, what better way to spend the first weekend of spring than by letting my overactive imagination attack my self-esteem? Ah, spring. Beautiful. Truly beautiful.
All right, let’s get a tad more serious. If you’re reading this, I’m assuming you’ve also had a difficult time keeping your head straight when it starts trying to remind you of all your faults. I’d like to just say upfront that this article isn’t going to give you answers on how to stop an overactive mind from trapping you in a dungeon of low self-esteem. A previous article I wrote explores some options that may help you regain a clearer head, but as of right now, I don’t have any more tips. Sorry. 😦 Instead, I’m going to try explaining what it’s like to get caught up in a cycle of overthinking, anxiety, and depression. You probably know what it’s like, but I’m hoping that by reading someone else describe the experience, you’ll at least take some comfort in knowing you aren’t the only one that struggles with this.
It happens. Some people can handle it better than others. Recognizing that you overthink is always important in order to prevent, or most likely reduce, future incidents. However, overthinking will still happen, and it’s almost never good.
It usually starts with something really stupid. Some small action or trigger by someone (possibly yourself) will send you on a dangerous road, unpaved, full of potholes, and lots of broken glass. Although I spent this past weekend beating myself up, the truth is it’s just another decline in an emotional rollercoaster I’ve been riding for a little over a month now. After looking back on it, I think the main thing that triggered my current state is a picture someone put up on Facebook. (See? Something really stupid.) It was from someone I used to consider a good friend, a picture of her and a group of other people I used to be closer to. They all went out to eat that night, and I guess she felt the need to let everyone know they were there.
I used to go out to eat with these people every now and then. Granted, they weren’t usually experiences I enjoyed. Although I had nice one-on-one interactions with most of them, these group get-togethers weren’t for me. They talked over me all the time. I could try to contribute as much as I could, but I easily faded into the background among people who were louder. It didn’t help that they were all extremely extroverted. Not that that’s a bad thing; I myself can be more extroverted than I give myself credit for. But deep down, I’m an introvert, and that’s not a bad thing either. I prefer intimate conversations that they found a little too serious for a night out drinking. Honestly, that’s probably what created a drift between us in the long run. And that’s fine, it’s no one’s fault, but…
Seeing the photo of them really bummed me out. I’m not sure why. It’s not like I would have wanted to go even if I was invited. Hell, I really don’t like this particular person anymore anyway, and often found myself trying to make excuses to duck out of outings when she was there. And the truth is, I really don’t care that I wasn’t invited. It saved me the trouble of either making an excuse not to go or dealing with an unfavorable situation for a few hours.
But here’s where overthinking comes in. The fact that I wasn’t invited out with people that I used to be closer with did remind me of a lot of issues I still struggle with. Fitting in. Expressing myself. Being left out. Not being as close to people as I would like. Loneliness in general. It reminded me of when I had more friends in high school, good friends that liked talking to me and accepted that I wasn’t always the most confident or outgoing person they could be spending their time with. That led me to thinking of the big falling out we all had when graduating, which involved a lot of distrust and frustration with my inability to raise my self-esteem (which certainly didn’t help my self-esteem). This led me to thinking about community college, which involved a lot of trying to fit into a new place and failing to make any real connections with anyone, all while trying to find my own path in the “real” world. Which led to my four-year school, involving several deep connections that ended rather abruptly and ungracefully. Which led to sorting through all of the possible things that are “wrong” with me, and how I’m going to “screw up” more relationships with people.
All from a photo that I couldn’t care less about. Like I said, something really stupid. Overthinking is balls, man.
You can get pretty irrational when you’ve been overthinking. Trying to explain why something really small is upsetting you can be very difficult. It can involve a lot of personal history and struggles many people either don’t know about or understand. This can cause a lot of anxiety. You’re already making your own problems worse by overthinking, but now you’re struggling to connect with someone by failing to properly explain your thought process without sounding like a lunatic.
So you either beat yourself up even further by dwelling on the fact that you can’t explain yourself, or you keep everything in and try to sort through your feelings on your own. You might be tempted to do the latter, and truth be told, I usually do the same. The thing is, trying to do everything on your own tends to lead to more overthinking, which in turn leads to more anxiety. Then you go back to wanting to talk to someone, but failing to effectively do so…
You know where I’m going. It’s a cycle. And every turn you get more anxious. This is where overthinking turns into anxiety. It’s possible to start overthinking about something and talk yourself out of whatever self-depreciating thing your brain is trying to convince you to feel, but when you let it happen, it takes over. You start becoming aware of a lot of little, stupid details that probably don’t mean anything but you convince yourself they might.
She said “Hi!” the last time I talked to her, but now she just said “hey.” Is she mad at me? Was I too boring the last time we hung out? I guess I wasn’t as upbeat as I could have been. I was in a bad mood about something, but I was having a great time with her! Maybe I should ask. But that would be weird. Maybe I should wait. Yeah, let’s wait. Oh no. Why is it taking so long for her to reply to my message? Maybe she doesn’t want to talk to me. Maybe she really is mad at me because I’m not fun. I’m probably wasting her time right now. I wanted to know if she wanted to go meet up for lunch or something this weekend, but now I don’t know. Even if she does, I’m going to be a mess while I’m there. What if I run out of things to talk about and she doesn’t have anything to say, and we both just sit there like two people on a bad first date? Then she’ll be even more mad at me…
Any conversation in your head ever go like that? When you’re anxious, you become super sensitive. You start looking for every little thing that could possibly go wrong with a situation. It paralyzes you. It makes you nervous to be around anything, including people that care about you. You start making up imaginary situations in your head, often ending in disaster. Sometimes you confuse those made-up events for ones that really happened, and you become frustrated with people for no real reason. You have trouble expressing yourself at all, and you look like a stiff mess. You’re constantly on the verge of saying something, but keep hesitating because you’re afraid of the repercussions. Then all those irrational fears that overthinking brought on start to fulfill themselves. For example, when I become way too self-conscious of what others think, and I start to feel afraid that I’ll screw something in a friendship up, I can be very awkward, say weird things, bring up random questions that make me look like a weirdo, and just overall not be very fun. And unfortunately, it has hurt relationships with people. And it probably could have been avoided if I didn’t “let” anxiety and overthinking take over.
“Let.” It’s a touchy word for those who regularly fall into depressive episodes. On the one hand, we have control over ourselves. We can choose to work out our personal bullshit. We can choose to work on our self-esteem. We can choose to stop overthinking. We can choose to stop letting anxiety take over.
Sometimes we don’t see that choice. Sometime we get sucked so deep into all this, we forget choices are even available. All we can see is the paranoia. All we can feel is the anxiety. All we can do is overthink. It takes a serious toll on our bodies, a toll so big that it becomes a personal accomplishment if you can find the strength to get out of bed and get dressed. And when people tell us we’re “choosing” to be like this, it makes us more upset. No one wants to get caught in this. But there are times we can’t actually see the option to choose. We need some time to get less involved with the intensity, to back a few feet away and see the bigger picture before that option becomes “available.” And unfortunately, that may take some time.
And until that time comes, we have to deal with the overthinking. We have to handle the anxiety. And we usually don’t do a great job. Because we’re stuck, physically and mentally, we overthink even more. We build more anxiety on ourselves. We make ourselves more depressed. We can’t focus. We have more trouble faking smiles. We forget to eat. We eat too much. We try to drown out negative thoughts by drowning ourselves in television, music, YouTube – anything to distract ourselves.
And distractions are one of those double-edged swords. They do help take us out of the noise that made us feel so terrible, but we mistake them for solutions. We can get addicted to distracting ourselves and can end up forgetting to choose to work on our issues once we’re far enough out of depression’s suffocating grip.
It’s hard. Especially when you find yourself repeatedly coming back to this set of behaviors. But keep trying. Don’t ever give up. You have more control of your life than you think. It may take some time, but I promise it’s worth it. I may still fall into these depressive episodes, but I can handle them so much better than I could ten years ago. It just takes some work, and you’ve got to force yourself to do it sometimes.
Try therapy, if it’s possible. I can’t promise all therapists are great, but the ones that are really are. If you’re not ready to open up to other people, I have some recommended reading for you:
When the Past Is Present by David Richo (ISBN: 978-1-59030-571-3) – This book looks at transference, the process of taking old memories and relationships and placing them into new ones. If you feel like someone’s a substitute in your life for someone else, or are afraid of screwing up current relationships by reliving old ones (much like my experience with the photo), then check this book out. At times it feels like it’s pushing Buddhism onto you, but it’s ultimately more self-helpful than religious.
The Undervalued Self by Elaine Aron (ISBN: 978-0-316-06699-0) – This book can help if you have poor self-esteem. It helps you recognize what in your life has made you feel so poorly and how you can learn to love yourself. There are activities and exercises to work on in this book, so be prepared to make time to do them.
The Highly Sensitive Person in Love by Elaine Aron (ISBN: 0-7679-0336-6) – This book is somewhat an expansion on Aron’s The Highly Sensitive Person (which I haven’t read, but have heard is great). For those that are really sensitive, please check this book out. Chances are love has been or is involved, and this book helps you deal with it more rationally, whether you’re in a relationship or not. There were a lot of great pieces of advice in here, and I actually wrote them on index cards that I regularly viewed to help me get over a particularly unhealthy crush.
The Introvert’s Way: Living a Quiet Life in a Noisy World by Sophia Dembling (ISBN: 978-0399537691) – This book is for all introverts that need to feel good about themselves. It helps you appreciate your way of life, learn that it’s not a bad thing if you’re not as outgoing as extroverts, and gives you good advice on dealing with situations introverts aren’t necessarily great with. It really makes you feel like you’re not alone, and has managed to work in some humor that will make you feel like it’s your turn in the sun. The chapters are short, but powerful- perfect if you need to take baby steps to accept yourself.
Chances are at least one of these books apply to you. Look them up for more info if you’re interested.
You’re not alone. Keep trying, don’t give up, and remember to keep breathing. Good luck! 🙂