Recovering from childhood experiences is hard work, as readers of my book Daughter Detox well know. One daughter put it bluntly in an email she sent me:
“Will I ever feel confident enough not to overthink every decision and choice? I am fifty but, in here, there’s a kid, worried about falling on her face in the schoolyard or having people laugh at her. What can I do about that? Am I doomed to be an anxious little girl forever?”
The good news is the answer to the question is “no.” but getting there may take a bit of work. It may feel like you’re “overthinking,” but the repetitive thought patterns and worry are really about your inability to manage your emotions, the default position of self-doubt, and, perhaps, your need for reassurance if you display an anxious-preoccupied style of attachment. It may seem counterintuitive but to answer the question, you have to ask yourself some more so you can determine where the problems lie and how you define “overthinking.” These questions are best answered in writing.
- Do I often or always regret decisions I’ve made? Is it a pattern?
- Do I discuss my decisions and choices with others, or do I go it alone? How well is either strategy working for me?
- Am I driven by positives or negatives when I make decisions or set goals?
- Do I see myself as having agency and power—being able to act and deal—or do I see myself as mainly reactive to the actions of others?
Wait a few days and then reread your answers and come up with some small ways to alter your behaviors. Begin by addressing the anxiety that is driving your thinking, and do what you can to defang it. Self-calm by either deep breathing or by visualizing a person you feel safe with or a place that calms you. Reassure yourself. If you are self-isolating, try seeking counsel; another point of view may open up your own. If you are mainly prompted to make decisions by negatives—trying to avoid something, rather than achieving something—think about how you can shift to more proactive ways of behaving. Most important, examine the roots of your fear of failure or making a mistake; is this an old default position you learned in your family of origin? If it is, start arguing with the voice in your head.
How to stop catastrophizing
There are two strategies you can use when you’re beginning to spin and feel utterly demoralized. The first is to imagine the worst-case scenario and to look at it objectively and figure out what you will actually do if it happens. Mentally, this puts the ball back in your court and permits you to become proactive instead of emotionally reactive. Coming up with a plan if this should happen will also make you feel less anxious and besieged.
Spend time thinking about what you will do if what you’re afraid of actually happens, and even better, write it down; think about both the practical aspects and the emotional fallout. Again, you can use this technique to deal with situations that will merely be disappointments on the road of life—such as being passed over for a promotion, not getting a job, or having a relationship hit a rocky patch—or those that are really important and affect your emotional equilibrium, such as the end of a relationship, losing your job, or going through a contentious divorce. I found it a life-saving technique during my protracted divorce, in fact.
The second technique is cognitive reframing—changing how you’re thinking about the problem or situation. While this is potentially a very valuable strategy, it’s also relatively hard to master, especially if you still are learning how to manage your emotions. Reframing does not mean that you’re reaching for those old rose-colored glasses and murmuring that “Everything happens for a reason” and “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” Absolutely not.
Instead, cognitive reframing has you abandon that doom-and-gloom view of the situation and permits you to see it more objectively and, with luck, without all the self-blame and character assassination you often resort to. You know how when you take a photo, you frame the subject and change the perspective by zooming in or out? Or you decide to focus on a specific detail rather than the whole to reflect a different vision? That’s basically what you’re doing when you deliberately reframe; you’re actively shifting your perspective and focus.
Using journaling can be very helpful as you begin to learn to reframe. Let’s say that you’ve had a huge blowup with your husband or lover, and you’re absolutely convinced that there’s no way back from this argument, that he’s going to leave you, and that’s probably your fault. Begin by describing the situation as accurately and objectively as you can, using both distance and a third-party perspective (“cool processing”). Reread what you’ve written and see whether or not your vision of the situation has shifted. What cues or signs did he demonstrate that were positive in nature? What might you have done to shift the tenor of the argument that you didn’t? What would you say if this fight had taken place between two strangers? How would you evaluate the behavior of each of the parties?
The more often you use these techniques, the more comfortable they’ll feel to you and the less likely you’ll be to catastrophize at the drop of a hat.
This post is adapted from The Daughter Detox Question & Answer Book: A GPS for Navigating Out of a Toxic Childhood. Copyright © 2019, 2020 by Peg Streep. All rights reserved.
Photograph by Niklas Hamann. Copyright free. Unsplash.com