First of all, why do people think it’s okay to stick gum in random public places? I will step in gum, realize I stepped in gum, and then silently resign myself to have that gum be part of me forever. Maybe that’s a little melodramatic, but brace yourselves because I’m about to make it worse with a cheesy transition: The problem with gum is that it’s sticky, and unfortunately, the same can be said of life. (Did you cringe? I cringed.)
Sometimes people or situations hurt us in ways that get stuck in the grooves of our mind. It leaves a sticky little scar that won’t seem to really heal. What’s something that’s gotten stuck for you? Something that you feel should have been long forgotten, but still pops up to rear its ugly head? Maybe it’s something that was painful in a way you didn’t understand, or something that struck a chord very close to some big insecurities.
For me, one of those somethings is my relationship with a former boss of mine. They were a perfectionist who I desperately wanted to please, but somehow always felt I couldn’t. I would work myself so hard to meet (and preferably exceed) their enormously high expectations. At the end of the day, I would get in my car and replay all the interactions that made me feel like I hadn’t. This little exercise in rumination made me feel incompetent, worthless, and anxious. I thought if I just tried harder, if I just did better, I could avoid “failing” and feel so much better. Spoiler alert: it didn’t work, hence the fact that I’m writing about it now.
Some of those memories are ones which part of me feels should be distant and fuzzy by now, but I can’t seem to shake the reverberating cruelty of what this person said to me. Why? Why can’t I just forget it, dangit?! Move on already!
Often times, our intuitive reaction to these painful thoughts is not very helpful. Just like we quickly pull our hand away when we touch something hot, our first instinct is to draw back from these memories/thoughts and think of something else. We think, “Nope, that’s scary. Thank you, next.” Because thinking of something else provides a temporary relief of those anxious symptoms, we are likely to keep responding that way in the future. What ends up happening is a cycle where we give this memory power over us: saying it’s too much to think about makes the memory bigger and makes us smaller.
So, one solution is to resist that urge to pull your hand away from the thought, and instead lean in to that feeling of discomfort. For instance, when I think of those interactions with my former boss, I need to reflect on the following in a curious and non-judgmental way: Why does this feel important to me? What did this situation touch on? What was I hoping for, and what did I need?
In answering these questions, the reason the memory got stuck for me becomes clear: it feels important because I have a need to succeed in whatever I do. I have a what psychologists call “a fear of negative evaluation,” so I work really hard to be “perfect” at whatever I do. Usually, this means I do well, but when that’s not how the cookie crumbles, it can be really hard for me to still feel okay. So, it makes sense that I was hoping my boss would approve of my work. I was hoping they would say, “I can see how hard you’ve been working, and I appreciate it. I think you’re doing a good job.” I needed to feel like I was okay, that I was secure in that relationship. When I think of it that way, I’m not judging my past self for having some unreasonable desire for approval, and I’m not judging my current self for still struggling with it.
Once we are approaching our sticky memories with simple curiosity that’s free of judgment, it takes away some of their weight, some of their power. One thing I sometimes laugh about with clients is that half of the problem is: we are anxious about our anxiety and depressed about our depression. So, it’s really important to approach our thoughts and feelings with a posture that seeks to understand, but not judge. Rather than saying, “Jeez, what is wrong with me that this bothered me??” I try to say, “I can see why this would be really impactful for me in the moment. It makes sense that it would be hurtful!”
Quick caveat: There are lots of other things we can do to experiment with how we think about these memories; if you’re interested, read the upcoming “Cognitive Restructuring” and “Mindfulness” posts!
The last thing I’ll mention today is that sometimes it can help to create meaning out of a situation that was painful. For instance, when it comes to my example, it helps to think of what I learned from the experience. In my case, I’ve come to realize that how my boss treated me manifested the way I sometimes treat myself. I can be equally hard on myself, making myself feel as if nothing I do will ever be good enough. Although I don’t have control over how I am treated by others, I do have control over how I treat myself. What I needed from my boss is something I can give myself: grace that says, “I see how hard you’re working, and I’m proud of you. I think you’re doing a good job.”
Disclaimer: Online resources are not a substitute for therapy. The content above describes strategies I have found to be helpful when addressing anxious thoughts. These strategies are not meant to address trauma, abuse, or grief. What is shared on this blog is my own experience and descriptions of others’ research findings. What is written is not endorsed by or reflective of my program of study. Should you hope to find a therapist near you, you may visit PsychologyToday.com. Additionally, the national suicide prevention lifeline is 1800-273-TALK.