The Advice We Really Need When We’re This Messed Up

It takes having a deep-seated psychological flaw to understand the value of shortcuts.

Take me, for example.  I’m an introvert.  I can masquerade as a severe extrovert for periods of time as long as a weekend, but it completely drains my batteries.  At the end of that period, I’m ridiculously sensitive, taking any slight with the sensitivity of a knife to the chest.  If you mock me laughingly during those no-battery periods, I may react with furious anger, or I may stop speaking you entirely for a couple of days while I learn to get over myself.  Neither’s a particularly good reaction.

Yet I know if I went to the internet to say, “Hey, how should I deal with people when someone injures me during my recovery stage?”, the advice would be, “Well, don’t get injured!  Stop feeling that way!  Why don’t you fix that shit?”

On one level, that’s wonderful advice.  Lordy, if I was less tender during these recharge periods, my life would be less drama-filled.  And certainly I’ve spent the better part of twenty-five years learning to be less angsty, mapping my psyche to figure out whether this is a joke or a legitimate insult, and doing all the things I can to minimize the turbulence of emotions I feel during this time period.

But it’s been twenty-five years, man, and though it’s better it’s not going away.

Like many, I’ve come to realize that after long periods of socializing, I’m going to be in a place where I’m hypersensitive, no matter how I fight it.  Yet a lot of so-called advice centers on the idea that no matter how deeply-rooted your problem is, you can get rid of it entirely with a dash of effort!  So go do that!  Now!  What’s wrong with you that you didn’t think of that?

Sadly, no.  I know some people who’ve spent forty years working on getting rid of their social anxiety, and it’s still there.  There are folks who’ve spent decades working on anger issues, and that fury still burns.  Depression, co-dependency, fear of intimacy… All those things can often be reduced, but they’re never there.

What we need are shortcuts.

We can’t excise these issues, so what we’re seeking is workarounds.  If we’re depressed, then how do we still get to our jobs?  If we’re terrified of going to a party, what spurs will get us out the door?  If I start screaming in the middle of an argument, how do I apologize properly to get back to rationality and kindness?

Yet the Internet is full of people who give kind, well-meaning advice that boils down to, “Hey, just stop being fucked up and then this whole thing goes away.”  Which would be lovely.  But though you should try, not every weak point can be built up to a strength.

Because hey.  Used to be, I couldn’t even talk to people.  I’d shrink at parties.  But I spent years learning how to listen to people and tell stories, applying a lot of effort in discovering the mechanisms of how to make friends and influence people… And now I can be a party-holder, gathering friends about me.

That’s lovely.  That’s the story you want.

But I’ve put the exact same effort into fighting my lack of self-esteem, and though I’ve gone from “Cripplingly dysfunctional” to “working most months,” I think I could live to be 160 and it would never be considered a strong point.  Some weak points just remain weak, no matter how much effort you pour into them.

And so when you ask for help, saying, “How do I get around this?” what you’re often looking for is the very kind assumption that yes, you’ve worked on this, you will continue to work on this, but given that despite all the effort you’re sinking into it, it’s unlikely to go away… so what do you do now?

That’s what we need.  Advice that assumes this is still a problem, and we need handholds to try to drag ourselves around this gaping hole in our psyche.  Those shortcuts are what hold us together when we’re flying apart, and only those who know the truth of this internal error can hand us the keys.

Sometimes, the best advice acknowledges that the central problem isn’t going away, and tells you what you can do regardless.

5 Comments

  1. Miranda
    Mar 20, 2012

    You, as usual, brought up something I’ve been focusing on a lot lately. A weekend of being told to “scratch it and get glad” and of being reminded how lucky and wonderful my life is did absolutely nothing to help my irritable mood and desire to hermit.

    Some of the Get-Over-It advice is a hold over from the idea that mental issues – depression, anxiety, self-esteem, etc. – are all in our heads. Just fill your head with something else and the problem disappears, right?

    Instead. I tend to think of my mental illness as a physical disability. If I were blind, no one would expect me to “Just see!” Not even me. I would work to adapt as much as I can to the world around me but there would be things I wouldn’t be able to do, things I would need help with. This is the analogy I use with myself and sometimes with other people (if they are worth the analogy.)

  2. Jen G
    Mar 20, 2012

    AWESOME. In answer to your question, I can’t tell you how to get around this, but here’s what I did.

    1) When I get into one of my moods, when I cry at the drop of a hat, it’s usually what I concede may be an overreaction to something that could reasonably get most people upset. I just take it to a higher level than I need to. I listen to my inner dialogue about the situation, tell myself it’s ok, then change the language. Rewrite the story, if you will. Listen to my own hyperbolizing and tone it down a bit.

    Example: No, Jen, this ISN’T the worst day of your life. You’re having a bad day.

    It’s taken some time and practice for that voice to get flatly matter of fact, sometimes even a little compassionate, instead of harshly judgemental. But it’s worked, and it works most of the time.

    My response to this voice is one of two things:

    a) “Oh. I guess this ISN’T the worst day of my life.” Sometimes my hyperbolizing leads me to roll my eyes at myself: “Really, Jen? Did you REALLY just think that?” And I can laugh at myself.

    b) *arms crossed, pouty, scowling* “I know I’m just having a bad day, and it’s NOT the worst day of my life. But I’m going to act like it and feel sorry for myself for a little bit.” And I let the hyperbolizing run around.

    THEN:

    2) Tell those around me how I roll, to the degree of detail that they need. These moods of mine predictably last about two or three days. Sometimes they come back if a similar trigger happens later. The best thing they can do is just let me let IT run its course. Don’t feed into it, don’t try to make it better. Just know that I’m having a bad day and let me be. I’ll ask for other kinds of help if I need it.

    Looking forward to seeing you again, luv. I’d love to talk about this some more the next time I visit. Hugs!

  3. kidsis
    Mar 20, 2012

    What I’ve noticed is that those well-meaning folks that pretty much give you the advice to just stop doing something tend to not suffer from the same problem so they cannot comprehend how someone else can have the problem. Or, if they had that problem when they were, like, teenagers and they “grew out of it”, then they have a hard time understanding how something like that can have permanence.

    It’s so frustrating to see someone who is trying to deal with a gap in their psyche ask for help then receive nothing but “just stop doing that” advice. It’s a bit like someone confined to a wheelchair being told “just stand up and grab it” when they complain that they cannot reach something that is on a high shelf.

  4. SapioSlut
    Mar 20, 2012

    Xanax is your friend. Or maybe a bit of weed.

    We all have physical limitations, and sometimes we want or need to push them, and sometimes a chemical can help. If I’m waking up with the alarm I really need that first coffee in the morning. I don’t think of myself as ‘weak’ because of that.

  5. Jericka
    Mar 22, 2012

    I have a light on a timer that helps me wake up in the morning….in addition to two alarms.

    I bribe myself to do things like bills. I put on music, make tea, tell myself that I will at least just get organized, and then it’s easier to get started.

    I make lists of things that I HAVE ALREADY DONE, rather than to do lists, often. I feel better, and actually get more stuff done.

    I shorten my to do lists to the things that absolutely HAVE to be done. Lots of stuff turns out to be optional. Once I have a week where I have been mostly alone, I recharged enough to get much further, usually.

    I’m still looking for more things, but these work reasonably well for me so far.

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