Some of the most annoyingly cliched advice that people prone to depressive thinking receive is to “think positively”; “just be positive”; “look on the bright side”. As if optimism could be artifically made; as if you could somehow fake or whitewash your experiences and feelings; as if pretending would make things better.
On the other hand, sometimes things are fine, in fact things are good. Then, someone observing herself could identify that what is actually going on is not depression or pessimism, but negative thinking; and that the negative thinking is irrational, or harmful; that it’s an internal anomaly that needs fixing.
The other evening I had a revelation that this had been happening to me when I caught myself having a ridiculous thought. It was a little like when you catch yourself falling asleep and realise that dream images have started to float into view. It was the thought that a certain friend would be much happier without me in their life.
Catching myself thinking this was a well-timed wake-up call. Not only is it objectively insane and untrue, but I recognised it as a stablemate of something which happily hasn’t troubled me often: suicidal ideation. There aren’t many steps between thinking a friend would be happier without you, to thinking that the whole world would be better without you in it; and combined with an occasional passing spectre of not wanting to exist, or the longing for the void, that could be a very dangerous combination.
Sitting down with myself and tracing this single thought back like Chinese Whispers, I uncovered a whole story of more and more irrational fears and thoughts that had been developing all day and the day before, until finally, I decided that this train of thought had been triggered by a chance remark by another friend. She’d asked an innocent question about the friendship in question. My answer hadn’t been what she’d expected, and although until then I hadn’t been troubled, I started to be. What if she was right? What if I should do what is expected instead of what I was doing? What if the expected thing is the “right” thing and my way to run the friendship isn’t? Could I correct this and what would happen if I tried? And if I couldn’t, what was the corollary of that for the friendship in question?
Friendships don’t come naturally to me. For proper friendships, I am always starting from scratch and reinventing the wheel. As a result, I always overthink. My attempts to carry out friendships in ‘normal’, chronological ways are always going to be consciously planned and theorised. Is this best? Or this? And my own theory about how to run it develops little by little as I feel my way. Whatever rules other people naturally follow have never seemed to stick. I make my own rules, and I understand that they’re not often successful. My true friends know this and even value it, and they know that they are important to me; and as the friendship gets closer, or when it’s permanently solid, the less I have to plan and construct, and the happier we all are. Or sometimes, a friendship miraculously and mysteriously occurs without me knowing how – but I’ll then try to tweak and plan the maintenance of it. I’ve worked hard to know this about myself and have mostly reached a place of peace with it.
But here I’d really gone all out on the negative theorising and ultra-theorising until, I realised, I could barely function, and it was from what I’d have to make myself admit to identifying as fairly profound anxiety.
I started googling “how to get out of a spiral of negative thoughts”, and was pleasantly surprised that I didn’t have to teach myself the entire theory of cognitive behavioural therapy (although I’d have tackled that with equanimity of course, as it’s the comfort zone! Bring on the research!) because all the advice was along the same lines. You just stop doing it.
A year or so ago I might have reacted with a sarcastic huff and closed all the tabs with comically inadequate frustration-relieving jabs at the mousepad. But I’m in a new era of self-help and mental and physical health now; and I’m ultra motivated to stop doing this. So I gave the whole bunch of American-sounding suspiciously woo-like psychology websites the benefit of the doubt. From this to this to this to this, the story is the same – the key is to catch yourself doing it, acknowledge the irrationality, let the thoughts go, and consciously redirect new thoughts towards positivity and truth.
Although my rational and sceptical brain was bridling at some of the language (as I’ve a tendency to feel immensely patronised by self-help writing), the sheer statistical significance of the fact that all the articles (wherever positioned on the woo spectrum) give the same advice, plus the familiarity of that advice to everything I casually know about CBT combined with the growing warm feeling of inherent common sense the more I read, made me realise that I’ve actually got to take this seriously.
Driving the school run this morning, listening to …maybe Haydn? Something purifyingly classical… produced another unexpected revelation related to the word “should”. What a terrifying, trapping, poisonous word. What “should” I do? How and who “should” I be? How “should” this friendship operate and how “should” I behave in it?
The revelation came out of instinctive rebellion. I realised, pardon my French (quand-même!), but the word “should” can bugger off. I do what I need or feel. I will be who I am and how I can. The friendship is going to operate and evolve how it operates and evolves, and I am going to behave according to my own nature and according to that of the friend.
What a feeling of relief and unburdening that was. So two jigsaw pieces had fallen together with only one left to fall into place later today, before a perfectly formed blog post was to be born.
(A 3 part jigsaw may not sound difficult to you, but if you wish to follow the metaphor, imagine that you have to find the 3 parts in an enormous vat of jigsaw pieces that all look similar. Oh, and people are shouting that you should pick this piece, or this. And in your life so far you’ve probably tried most of them or ended up breaking them or your jigsaw that you thought was finished turned out to be wrong and urgh, end the jigsaw metaphor.)
I am mid way through the Couch to 5K running plan, which is a fitness schedule based on running for longer and longer time intervals. I’m on the start of Week 5 which involved, today, three 5-minute runs with 3-minute walking breaks inbetween. But Week 5 represents the biggest change in the plan so far, as day 2 includes some 8 minute duration running, then day 3 includes a 20 minute run with no walking break at all.
I wanted to plan a tweet. So I started by typing: “Inexorably heading towards
#C25K Wk 5 20 min non stop run.” Then I had a google to see what the advice is for people getting ready to tackle it. The result was a pitiful deluge of forum posts with people who didn’t think they could make it; had got stuck on it for six weeks; thought it was insane and what could be the justification; didn’t believe they could do it and were contemplating giving up; tried but had repeatedly failed.
So I read the answers, by more experienced runners, to these forum posts. And they were all the same. You’ve trained for this. If you’ve done the rest, you are perfectly capable of running this. You’re not alone. It’s a psychological barrier. You’re stuck thinking: I can’t do this! I’m not a runner! But if you’ve been doing this for five weeks, then, actually, you are a runner. And it’s negative thinking, and that’s all. You can do this run. You just have to know that you can do it in your mind.
So I can write the self-help stuff for myself now. “You’ve been working so desperately hard at this sort of stuff for a long time. You’re stuck thinking: This can’t be for me! But you can do this. In your own way. It can only get better. It’s just negative thinking that can damage it. You know, inside, that you can do it. It is for you and you are ready. And you’re not alone.”
So the word inexorably is going. (Though it’s pretty). And there’s only one appropriate ending to this post.
I can do this. I am a runner.