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Trapped in Your Own Story

One of the things I hate the most about my mental disorder is that it forces me to focus on myself. And I don’t mean this in the way that some people say things like ‘I don’t *do* self-care’ or ‘it’s so hard to focus on myself’ - with an undercurrent of ‘I’m so selfless and/or hardworking that I just hate spending time on myself’. Instead, I mean I hate the way that my mental disorder constantly pulls my attention back to my emotions, my memories, and my thoughts.

It makes sense that a mental disorder does this. For one thing, our physical and emotional pain demands our attention. When pain is intense enough, it feels almost impossible to turn your mind to something else. In addition to pain, other negative emotions do something similar. According to the broaden-and-build theory of emotions, although positive emotions help you to pay attention to a wider range of things, negative emotions often force you to focus much more narrowly. Negative emotions act like blinders that pull your focus to your immediate situation, often blocking your ability to see beyond it. This is why, in my darkest moments, it really seems like the way that things are is the way that they’re going to stay. Even if I know that my feelings are probably only temporary, it really feels like they’re permanent. This is similar to when people who deal with chronic pain say that it’s hard for them to really remember what it was like to not be in pain or to imagine themselves in the future without their pain.

And it’s especially tricky because in addition to your experience of your mental disorder making you focus attention on yourself, often the way you treat your mental disorder does this as well. Many different kinds of therapy require you to constantly think and talk about yourself - your memories, your feelings, your thoughts, and your relationships. In a lot of ways, paying more attention to yourself in these ways can be really helpful - to understand yourself better, become more confident in yourself, deal with traumatic experiences, understand your triggers and/or emotional patterns, etc. But, I think it can also have some negative effects. For example, try rating the following on a scale of 1 (= none) - 10 (= the most you’ve ever felt):

a. The amount of physical discomfort you’re feeling right now

b. The amount of anxiety you’re feeling right now

c. The amount of sadness you’re feeling right now

Now, for the next 30 seconds really focus on your internal state - try to pay attention to even the smallest sensations and feelings in your body and mind. And now, do the exercise above again. If you’re like me, and many other people, your numbers went up for at least one of a, b, or c the second time around. There are a couple of different reasons why this happens, but one thing that’s clear is that by focusing more on things like these negative discomforts and pains, you feel them more intensely. Focusing too much on yourself can amplify and prolong your pain and negative emotions.

Another negative effect is getting more attached to your own understanding of your emotions, thoughts, and actions and becoming less open to other ways of understanding. People talk about this happening with the image of ‘wearing paths’ in your brain, like people wear paths in a forest when repeatedly walking along the same line. When you have a certain interpretation that you think about over and over, it becomes easier for you to keep thinking that way in the future - and more difficult to change. Crazily enough, this even happens with false information. The Illusory Truth effect explains that when you’re exposed to a false story or piece of information over and over again, you eventually start to believe that it's true. This especially happens with memories - we often have memories that we don’t realize are at least partly false because we’ve gotten so used to how we understand them. We become so used to how we understand ourselves - the story we tell ourselves about who we are and why we feel, think, and act the way that we do - that we can become trapped in that perspective, without even realizing it.

I used to think that to deal with these negative effects, I just needed to think about myself and my mental disorder differently. If I could just find the right, more accurate story to tell about myself - understand the true causes of some of my feelings, predict my emotional patterns, etc. - then I could make progress. And that can definitely help some people in some situations. But I realized that for me, rather than thinking about myself differently I just had to think about myself less altogether. One way I’ve been trying to do this is by stopping ‘checking in’ with and paying so much attention to my own inner state. I’ve stopped constantly trying to gauge how I’m feeling or reacting throughout the day. One effect of this has been that now when people ask me how I’m doing, I often don’t immediately know the answer. I used to always have a ready and detailed answer because it was constantly at the front of my mind. Now, I need to stop and think about it because I’m actively trying to focus on other things and ‘forget about myself’ in a way.

Now, it’s definitely true that avoiding thinking or talking about yourself can sometimes be a defense mechanism that is ultimately harmful because you’re not dealing with things that you need to deal with. And for some people who naturally tend not to pay enough attention to their feelings, they need to actively try to pay more attention to them. And of course, no one can ever completely stop thinking about themselves - these mental habits are really hard to break, especially when dealing with a mental disorder. But, for me in terms of who I am, the season I’m in, and the point I’m at in how I understand myself and my mental disorder, it’s been worth the effort and incredibly relieving to try to do this. And, one interesting thing about mental disorder is that even though it can definitely feed into this problem - by constantly pulling your attention back to yourself - it can also sometimes be part of the solution. At least for me, it has forced me to really see how the story that I’m telling myself impacts me, how much it can sometimes warp my understanding and steal my attention. It doesn’t let it operate in the background, but forces it into the foreground, where I can see it more clearly.

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