August 20, 2012

Denying Reality

Here is something I vigorously object to: being told that things are not as they are. Oh, you too? WE'RE LIKE TWINS.

In the year I tried psychotherapy, a common discussion topic was my perception problem. For example, that when people are behind me in an aisle at the grocery store or tailgating me on the highway, they are NOT getting impatient, I'm just ASSUMING they are because of my anxiety disorder. And that I shouldn't be upset about asking for a second opinion at the mechanic's or at the doctor's or whatever, because people in those jobs are PROFESSIONALS and they KNOW that that's normal---that while _I_ might feel awkward, THEY know it's the way things are done. It's only my anxiety disorder that makes me falsely assume that they'd feel hurt and upset.

And yet, those psychology-professional claims don't line up with my experience of the world. When I told the mechanic frankly and cheerfully the other day that I was going to get a comparison quote before making my decision, he DID get hurt and huffy: his tone, his attitude, his behavior, and his words all lined up with THAT theory, and not with the theory that he was totally okay with it, so I'm not sure who it is that is "misinterpreting reality" here. And when someone tailgates me and then, at the earliest opportunity, ROARS around me and then zoops back in RIGHT in front of me with an irritable shimmy of the trunk, I can tell they WERE INDEED impatient with my driving-only-ten-miles-over-the-limit. And when someone sighs heavily and inches their cart riiiiiight behind me at the grocery store and starts ostentatiously craning to see around me, it is not that I am IMAGINING that stuff because of some crazy psychotic perception problem: I am PICKING UP ON THE NON-VERBAL SIGNALS THAT HUMAN BEINGS DO IN FACT EMIT.

I think it's not that my anxiety is causing me to imagine something that isn't there, but rather that people like my former psychologists are deficient at picking up such non-verbal signals. Or perhaps they're denying that those behaviors DO exist, on the basis that they SHOULDN'T exist. Like, because my mechanic SHOULD BE fine with me getting a second quote, he IS fine with it.

I realize you could at this point say, "But that's just your ANXIETY DISORDER telling you so"---as if I were saying I WAS INDEED getting instructions from the voices in my head, and that YOU just weren't hearing it.  Well, and that's the tactic the mental health professionals took as well, so you'd be in good company if you went that route. Or I'm sure there's a term for taking one's own problem and turning it into someone ELSE'S problem---like, look at me taking attention off my anxiety disorder by flipping things around and claiming my therapists were the ones who had problems with reality. But at what point does someone else's opinion of how things work trump MY opinion of how things work? Do you see what I mean? This is why "Who is REALLY crazy here???" plotlines are so popular: do I need help because I am especially sensitive to body/attitude/voice language, or should my former psychology team get help because they aren't? Am I imagining things, or are other people failing to pick up on things? WHO here is the one turning their OWN problem into someone ELSE'S problem, HMMMMM??

Now, when they argued that I shouldn't CARE, that was another matter. I might disagree ("shouldn't care about others" is a philosophy we need to actively work on getting MORE of?), but I could see that point: it's good to care about other people's feelings and I don't generally want to deliberately flip that switch off, but there are times when my own preferences need to take precedence (decisions about my own money, for example, or decisions about my own body or my own free time), and in those cases it would be nice to activate a "I might feel an instinct to care---but I should try to SUPPRESS it in THIS case, or at least realize it's unnecessary/silly so it doesn't stop me from doing what I want/need to do" attitude. And THAT seems like a worthy pursuit.

This could apply when, for example, I want to get a second quote on a repair, or a second opinion about a diagnosis: we don't need to deny the reality of a professional's feelings/reactions ("Oh, THEY don't mind!!") in order to argue that we should nevertheless pursue our plan ("They very naturally might mind, but it is still the right decision to compare").

Or maybe I see a post that states that blogging should be a way I disagree it should be, and so I immediately get anxious and upset: this person will think I am doing it wrong, then, and I don't want them to think I am doing it wrong. I may realize I have the right to disagree---but I don't WANT to disagree, I want us to AGREE that I am RIGHT; it would be nice to instead be able to override/dismiss that want. Or when I need to get a second opinion on a medical situation: I WANT the doctor to WANT me to get a second opinion---but if he or she doesn't, I would like to be able to override that want with a shrug.

I'm not sure that's that easy, though. The psychology people I talked to had a "Now that you know you shouldn't care, you will be able to stop! Ta da! It's like magic!!" attitude, but I don't think that's how personality and temperament work.

32 comments:

Suburban Correspondent said...

I'm thinking that the point should be that, regardless of whether or not the other person is angry/impatient/hurt, we waste a lot of energy worrying about whether they are. I don't mean that we shouldn't care; but why shouldn't we assume the best, rather than the worst? Then, the worst that can happen is that we were wrong. Sometimes we will be wrong. But being anxious about it all the time means that the worst is always happening.

I'm thinking that people who are able to operate on a more even keel, day to day, DO care about how other people feel. But they don't let that affect their own emotions - they don't take it as personally.

Robin said...

My husband who is like you (me too, that's why I married him) was told that therapy wouldn't really work for him because he was more interested in analyzing the therapy than addressing his problems. I don't understand how you can't analyze the analysis.

We have fights all the time about how he thinks I'm stubborn because I won't agree with his viewpoint. Then I ask why isn't it that he's the one being stubborn because he won't agree with mine.

What I'm saying is, your questions might be accurate, but they are not helpful. I find it useful to just tell myself that it's not a road worth traveling down because the answers/results don't matter. You might be right about getting a second opinion and the practitioner might know you're right. But it doesn't stop the hurt feelings. It's not worth worrying about because nothing you can do will change your need to get the second opinion or the doctor/mechanic's result of feeling put out.

Once I figure out how to follow that advice, I'll definitely let you know.

Nowheymama said...

Suburban Correspondent just hit it on the nose. You can close the comments now. :)

d e v a n said...

"Now that you know you shouldn't care, you will be able to stop! Ta da! It's like magic!!" ---- OH! If only that were true I would not care about people who honk at me, the clerk with a rude attitude, the people who move away from us at a restaurant before they even sit down (4 kids. heh) and hey! Even my MIL.

Right. If only.

Sarah said...

Love this post because I am the exact same way. EXACT. For my entire life I've been told by people (usually family) "don't worry about what other people think of you" but I too stress about small situations- like if I take extra time at a cash register to let my son press the buttons on the interac/credit card machine because he likes to do it, I am SURE that the people behind me in line (and probably the cashier) are mentally hurrying me along and wondering why I'm pandering to the wants of a toddler- and likely they are not. But in my mind THEY ARE.

But like you too, I have come to realize that sometimes this IS the case. I remember going through that sort of adolescent gawky/awkward phase and being told repeatedly that my looks didn't matter, nobody is analyzing what my hair looks like or what I'm wearing- but that actually IS what people do. Maybe not as often as what I believed in my mind, but I will make passing judgments on someones appearance and I hate that I do that, but I do. So I know other people must do too. So telling a 13 year old girl "nobody at church is going to notice what you're wearing, you're fine as you are" is actually kind of a lie.

Wow that was long-winded haha.

Swistle said...

Suburban Correspondent- Of course. My objection here is to the psychological method of telling a person that reality is different than it is, or that her perceptions are skewed. Denying reality, or telling someone they're too crazy to understand what's going on, is not the right way to get people to straighten out the way they deal with reality.

Swistle said...

Robin- This is exactly what I'm trying to say: that the emphasis shouldn't be on pretending that the feelings don't exist, but rather that they don't apply.

shin ae said...

Yes. Yeeeeessss. For one of my children, a specialist was needed--TERRIBLY needed--and I felt like the GP was missing something, but I was too inexperienced to know that in a concrete way, and this is what happened: At our thousandth appointment for this issue, very quietly and before the doctor came in the room, the nurse recommended a specialist and told me EXPLICITLY that this doctor would not send us to a specialist. There was definitely too much pride, on the part of the doctor, I mean. We went to a different doctor and at the first visit we were sent to a specialist.

I never tell the doctor I'm going for a second opinion. I don't need First Doctor's mess of FEELINGS, I just need a second opinion, which really has nothing to do with First Doctor at all.

I think it's hard not to think of how other people feel, so I tend to keep my mouth shut around doctors, mechanics, and hairdressers; and remember that for me and my family, the responsibility is mine. That person tailgating me is not going to help pay for someone's car or medical care if I speed up and have an accident, so I decide that their FEELINGS are not important enough to sway my decisions about my desire for safety as I drive. AND SO FORTH.

I know I haven't addressed the main point of your post, but I needed to vent. Clearly a sensitive subject for me. And now I will say that (1) You know bs when you hear it, and it sounds like you heard some, so NO. No more school and (2) Those poor psychologists, all locked up. Sounds like they needed crappier insurance.

Swistle said...

shin ae- I WANT TO GIVE THAT NURSE A BIG THING OF MONEY.

Julie said...

That thing about telling you reality is not as you think it is? That's called gaslighting, and it's unconscionable that mental health professionals were engaging it.

Helping you get more comfortable with the idea that YOU are not responsible for the FEELINGS of other people? Absolutely. Reading the minds of other people? Um, no.

(Also, if "intellectual understanding" = "change," well, my life would be radically different, is all I'm saying. People don't work that way. We're more than brains on sticks.

Amanda said...

Hmmmmm. I'm fully on the psychotherapy bandwagon because I cannot manage my anxiety on my own. It's bigger than I am. I fully agree however that simply telling you not to worry about it is, pardon me but, fucking ridiculous. Now I'm worrying that you were told not to worry about it. I could worry about any.thing. Anywho, my helpful bit is that I think I've got SPD. I've got major sensory overload. I'm fully aware of everyone else's feelings and actions and GAH it's horrible. I'm finally seeing a new doc for it and hopefully we can remove some of the stress in my life and I can "just stop worrying about it". Perhaps you've got a bit of the over-sensitive to every.single.thing that goes on around you too?

And to your second point... I fully believe that people in any sort of diagnostic industry should fully 100% expect to be told from time to time that someone wants a second opinion but the idea that they won't get huffy about it is insane. You are essentially saying "I don't exactly believe you. I'd like someone else to back that up." Wouldn't you be a bit huffy? Even if you should expect it? I would die a thousand deaths before saying that and instead would pull the "i'm going to think about it card" and then seek my second opinion quietly.

Allison said...

I know what you mean: how can I work on my reactions to reality if people are saying reality isn't the way it is? It means I just end up thinking other people are kind of dumb and clueless.

Amanda said...

I always write you the longest comments ever. I think I'm going to write a blog called "In Response to Swistle" where I just leave a super long comment to each of your posts.

Lyndsey said...

I agree with you that your perception of reality is in line with my own (and therefore I'm inclined to believe it is true). But I do think the second point you hit is the important one: the not caring. I just think there are various ways of not caring, and deciding what kind of person you want to be. If you care "too much" and spend a lot of energy worrying about others, you're not really taking care of yourself and being the best/happiest person that you can be for your family. At some point you just need to realize that even when you go about your way in a reasonable and compassionate way-- some people are going to take offense. And that's not your problem. As long as you stand behind your decisions (that it IS in fact reasonable to not go 20 over the speed limit, that getting a second opinion is smart, and that you have every right to pull your cart over to the side to peruse the chip selection at your leisure), then I think you do need to work on the "not caring" part to the extent that you let it ruin your afternoon. You can still acknowledge that someone has a problem with you, but if doing the quick analysis of the reasonableness your own actions convinces you that you're not in fact being an asshole, I'd work on changing the internal dialogue from "oh my god they are mad at me" to "wow what an asshole they are. annyyyyways...." :)

Kenner said...

Ooh, I'd never read about that psych experiment you mentioned, but it sounds FASCINATING! Also? I think there are probably some psychologists who are helpful and get it, but it sounds like the ones you saw just didn't understand ;)

Bibliomama said...

That just sounds like bad therapy. At one point, every time my husband left for a business trip I was convinced his plane was going to crash, and I had to leave the news on all night to watch for plane crash stories. My doctor said I could probably use some counselling and asked what I did on my own to stop myself from thinking like that. I said "I tell myself it's stupid to think like that", and she said "yeah, that doesn't work." And yet it sounds like that's what they're telling you to do. Giving you tools to mitigate your reaction to the other person's impatience/hurt feelings/whatever? That would be helpful. Telling you you're delusional about the other person's impatience/hurt feelings/whatever? Not helpful.

KP said...

Oh my god, the "Now that you know you shouldn't care, you will be able to stop! Ta da!" attitude gets me every time. I had a therapist who insisted that if I simply *noticed* my anxiety, I could make it go away. On the contrary, it made me extra anxious, realizing just how anxious I generally was.

I just read a book about Highly Sensitive Persons (which, yes, sounds like a disability or at the very least, some kind of social disorder, but is apparently just a term for people who pick up on a greater level of subtlety in their environment and therefore are easily overstimulated). I found some of it horribly touchy-feely ("Your body is your infant-self! You must coddle it the way you would a baby!"), but one of the most helpful tidbits was this: HSPs are often scolded for caring too much about what people think, and fearing the judgment of others. The author pointed out that you can't function if you are paralyzed by this fear, but that it is in fact PERFECTLY RATIONAL, because people are judging you all the time. The solution is not to say: "you're so irrational! Those people aren't judging you!" but, in fact: "yes, you've picked up on their irritation at your timing and the way they looked at your outfit disapprovingly. NOW you get to choose how much to take their feelings into consideration."

It made me feel so much less crazy for being aware of judgment in so many real-life situations, and not knowing what to do about it.

For me, I think the awareness of judgment, coupled with the scolding from outsiders (including my therapist) that the judgment is all in my head, leads to a lot of the anxiety in the first place. But that's really just me... I know anxiety (and anxiety disorders) can manifest themselves differently in different people.

KP said...

Sorry - just to add, the point the book was making was that HSPs pick up on this level of day-to-day judgment and many others do not, so the higher level of fear-of-judgment is not crazy, it's a natural reaction to what they notice. Not sure if that was clear in the original comment.

Tess said...

I HEAR THIS, and if I may apply it to fitness as well (NOT YOU, TESS!), denying individual reality is what pisses me off about a lot of fitness "pros." Pain is not "fear leaving the body" or some kind of misguided mindtrick or whateverthefuck. Pain is PAIN.

Call me crazy, but I'm not motivated by magical thinking in this regard. What I AM motivated by, is someone explaining in practical terms how I can deal with it mentally and physically. And even THEN I shouldn't be expected to NEVER FEEL PAIN AGAIN since I no longer have any fear that requires EXITING THE BODY.

Also, when you figure out how to stop taking responsibility for the feelings of others, I shall require an urgent telegram. Kthx.

Swistle said...

KP- Oh, this makes my EYES go DAMP! YES. THAT is what therapists should be emphasizing: "You're RIGHT, you DID pick up on TRUE THINGS---and now let's work on controlling your reactions/feelings about those things"!

bluedaisy said...

I really love this discussion- and agree with your last comment Swistle. Unfortunately, there are therapists who do not understand how cognitive therapy is supposed to work and it seems you encountered a few of those. I am going to continue checking comments b/c I am finding so much of this really, really helpful!

Alice said...

i am a weirdo on the other end of the spectrum (i can be like "self, this shouldn't bother you" and somehow that helps me not be bothered) and my sister is most definitely a HSP. i have a vivid memory from right around HS graduation, when my close-knit group of 20 or so friends had realized that since we went to a boarding school, we were unlikely to ever see each other all together again in the future with any regularity, which was very sad & upsetting. my sister commented that *i* didn't seem too upset right then, and i was like "well, it doesn't help to be upset NOW and ruin the time we DO have to hang out with each other, so i've decided to be upset about it later." and then she looked at me like i'd grown a second head.

Anonymous said...

Swistle, you are a genius and know just how to word exactly what I am thinking or feel. Thank you for being the blog I obsessively read.

Nicole said...

Very strange, that psychotherapists would claim that it was just your anxiety that made people seem impatient when they aren't. That's very odd to me. I mean, maybe being anxious makes it seem WORSE, but it doesn't mean that other's feelings don't EXIST. It seems weird to deny that human beings have feelings, even if the feelings are negative, and that we only think they have feelings because of anxiety.

THAT MAKES NO SENSE, PSYCHOTHERAPISTS.

Joanne said...

It's so patronizing to say that to someone. I hate and despise it when just friends of mine do it to me. I remember one time I thought I was going to stay home on a Friday night (this was years ago, now of course it's understood that I'd be home ha ha ha boo hoo) so I told a boy - friend of mine that I was staying in. The another boy - friend of mine called to say he was getting something to eat, did I want to go and I kind of DID, so I did and of course I ran into the first boy and he seemed mad at me. I told another friend of mine and she said oh pish, that's silly. And she also kind of indicated that I was sort of SNOOTY and PROUD that he would even BOTHER giving me that much thought so then I felt like a jerk. The next day the first boy told me, I was so mad at you! I thought it sucked that you said you couldn't go out with me but then you went out with someone else! I apologized, of course, but honestly my first thought was AHA! I knew he was mad! I was right!

Anyways, my point is, it seems unconscionable for a medical professional to do it! To what end? How is that helping you, therapeutically? It's not. That's awful.

The thing is, yes, maybe you are sensitive, maybe OVERLY sensitive? But wouldn't that be a good reason to, I don't know, SEEK MEDICAL, PROFESSIONAL, HELP? That's infuriating.

M.Amanda said...

This is something I consciously work on nearly every day. I can ignore the jerks in traffic, but one-on-one I am constantly debating whether my feelings are just me being overly sensitive and I should get over it or if someone is just having a bad day and I should show a little empathy or if they are being a jerk and should be called out on it. There is so often this doubt. Am I the child pointing out the emperor's nakedness or am I the guy who is convinced aliens told him that Donald Trump is out to destroy the world? And why doesn't it seem like any of the people I argue with questions the accuracy of their perception?

In the end I just tell myself that none of it matters as long as I like the person I am. The rest of the world can hate me, but I can get away from them if I try hard enough. I'm stuck with myself. (Alcohol and drug abuse not being an option.)

Erica said...

One of my college psych professors told us that depressed people actually tend to have a more realistic view of the world, which somehow made me feel...better? Justified? Something.

Mama Bub said...

When I was younger, and convinced that people were talking about me, or making fun of me behind my back, my dad told me that it was a sign of vanity to assume that people are always thinking about ME.

I don't think he meant that I'm vain, I think he was aware of exactly how sensitive I am and was trying to distract me from what others think.

And I really, really tried to remember that through my adolescent years. Unfortunately, sometimes people ARE talking about you, and sometimes you do the right thing (getting a second opinion) and people ARE bothered, because they're humans with feelings, too. And sometimes, they aren't able to let their professional selves override their personal feels, and they let you know how they're feeling. Which seems unfair to you(me) but is it really?

I am HIGHLY sensitive to what other people think of me. To the point that I will inconvenience myself and my family if it means not bothering other people. (This has landed me with a big huge CODEPENDENT label in my therapy file.) My husband is the exact opposite, which is probably good in some ways, but he cares so little about what other people think that it can be a bit hard to understand his position.

I don't have a good way to end this.

Linda said...

This post helped me STAND FIRM and willingly inconvenience someone today!

I called the bounce house place to make a reservation my daughter's upcoming 5th birthday. The website only offered parties to start at odd hours, so 3-5 pm, 5-7pm, and 7-9pm. We don't get out of school till 3:15, so 3-5 doesn't work, who wants a party during the dinner hours of 5-7? and 7-9 is too late. So I asked very politely if they would take a 4-6pm reservation. She said immediately that she would, but then she KEPT SAYING that it messes up their whole schedule and that's why they start parties on the odd hours. I thanked her for her flexibility (both at the time and then again at the end of the conversation) and HELD STRONG because I remembered this post about letting my own preferences take precedence especially in a situation where I am spending a large amount of money. I could tell that she was inconvenienced (because of the way she KEPT SAYING IT), but if I backed down then I (and all my guests) would be inconvenienced and since I am the paying customer, I repeated, "Thanks! I'm so glad you could make this work!"

AND I DID IT ALL ON THE PHONE! WOO!

Swistle said...

Linda- AN ENORMOUS TRIUMPH!

Celeste said...

Maybe instead of thinking about how the only good outcome is everyone feels the same way you do about your dissension, you could mentally rank your perception of their dissatisfaction on a scale of 1 to 10, and decide that only issues that rank above a number of your choosing on your scale merit you caring. You could start low and work your way up. It would be sort of like a mental exertion where first you would condition yourself at a low level and then move on to the next higher one. Food for thought.

Anonymous said...

I highly recommend the book that a previous commenter mentioned, because it totally reframed the way I felt about the EXACT SAME THING YOU ARE TALKING ABOUT. I am, without a doubt, a Highly Sensitive Person. If the book does nothing else but help you realize that being highly attuned to those sorts of reactions IS A THING, then it is still a success.

In conclusion: Go to the library and get this book for a few days. Curl up with it and nod in agreement and pass it to your husband periodically and say "SEE???" and bask in the knowledge that you are not alone. :)