DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: So, of my many neuroses, two of them are general anxiety and depression. And… they can get pretty bad.
See, sometimes I f
k up. Everybody does. But because of how my mind works, oftentimes the line of thought following my mistake escalates into what my family calls a “pity party;” I hide in my room, crying because I’m overwhelmed by my emotions, and there’s nothing I can do but wait for the episode to pass.
Here is my concern: I worry that, even if I am handsome and friendly and good-hearted (which people have told me I am), I can’t imagine any woman being willing to deal with my depressive episodes. Maybe they’d tolerate it ONCE, but when it happened again they’d get sick of it and piss off.
I freely admit that I’m a crybaby, and once I get stressed and upset, there’s nothing to do except wait for that mood to end. Because I can’t exactly cure my mental problems, there is nothing I can do to change it.
My friends have told me that any woman worth dating would be understanding and try to help me, but… somehow, I doubt it. I literally can’t imagine a potential girlfriend wanting to stay with my after two of my breakdowns. Humans have limits on the amount of BS they’re willing to tolerate. It’s not realistic.
What do I do about this?
Devil May Cry-Baby
DEAR DEVIL MAY CRY-BABY: You’re right and you’re wrong at the same time CBC. You’re correct in that you are going to have an incredibly hard time finding and keeping a girlfriend if you’re having these breakdowns on the regular. While people don’t need to be in perfect shape – physically or emotionally – in order to date or date successfully, they do need to be in good working order. Nobody, men, women or non-binaries, want to sign onto a relationship just to be somebody’s full-time therapist. Most people have enough on their hands keeping their own s
t together; having to be in charge of somebody else’s emotional state is too much to ask for.
And to be honest, it’s an unreasonable ask. NerdLove’s first rule is “Handle Thy S
t“; you need to be able to take care of yourself. If the slightest mistake sends you into a screaming depression where you have to hide away to cry… well, you’re gonna have a hard time operating in the world, period, never mind in a relationship. Relationships, after all, will involve conflict. It’s an inevitable consequence of being involved with another person with agency and wants and needs.
But you’re wrong that there’s nothing that you can do about this. There’s a difference between feeling helpless and being helpless. Part of why this continues to be a problem is because you’ve decided that this is inevitable and unfixable.
That ain’t true. What you need to do is start to build up your emotional resilience so that these emotions don’t overwhelm you at the first sign of trouble.
The first step is that you need to start learning how to process your feelings. This means that instead of just letting them run wild, you start to note them. That is: you don’t just run off and wait for the thunder and the rain to pass you by, you start to be mindful of those feelings. You need to name them, describe them, get your head around the exact shape, texture and trigger. Are you feeling despair, hopelessness or helplessness? Despite how similar they may seem, those are three entirely different emotions. Why do they hit you so hard that you have to flee from them? What, specifically, triggers those feelings? Is it the sense that failing at something makes you a failure? Is it the belief that you shouldn’t fail at this because someone else wouldn’t? Is it a worry that you’re not as competent or skilled as you should be at your age and stage in life?
The more mindful you are about your feelings, the better you are able to handle them in a healthy and productive manner… as well as working around those triggers.
The second step is that you need to embrace failure. The trick to becoming emotionally stronger isn’t to never screw up, it’s to recognize that failure won’t destroy you. Not being able to do something isn’t a mark against your value as a person; it’s simply a fact. You attempted to do something and it didn’t work. What’s important is what you do next. You can let that setback destroy you, or you can learn from it. Understanding why you failed or f
ked up is crucial, because this is how you eventually succeed. Maybe the way you were approaching the particular task or situation was just sub-optimal. This means that you need to try another approach, one that may work better for you. Maybe it was just pure bad luck. In this case, you just need to take another swing at it. Maybe it’s true that you can’t do that thing, whatever it is. OK, fine… so what can you do to work around that limitation and still achieve your goal?
Accepting failure as something that will happen and reframing it as something to learn from and overcome, takes away its horrible power. You’ll get knocked down, but you’ll know that you can stand back up again and keep going.
The third step is to let go of this all-or-nothing thinking. The fact that you may or may not have a chronic mental health condition doesn’t mean that this is a binary state. It’s not “perfect mental health” or “constant crying jags”. You don’t need to be Jonny Stoic, stonily unfazed by life in order to improve. Even a tiny improvement like speeding up the amount of time it takes to process and let go of those feelings of stress, will make your life immeasurably better. By focusing on the idea that if you can’t be cured, then you can’t do anything, you’re choosing to never find ways to mitigate your problem and make it more manageable. The fact that it may never go away completely doesn’t mean that you can’t find a way to make it something you can live with and work around.
And that’s why the fourth step is simply to get help. The fact that you have neuroses or anxiety disorders doesn’t mean that you’re doomed; it means that you need to find ways of working with them. You may not be able to cure them, but you sure as hell can find ways to manage them. This may mean medication – depression and anxiety can often have a neurochemical component. It may mean talk therapy, where a counselor or therapist teaches you coping mechanisms and ways to defang your triggers. It may involve something self-directed, like the cognitive behavioral therapy exercises from sites like MoodGym. Or it may involve some combination of all of these. There’s no shame in accepting that you can’t just force yourself to not have these incidents; as much as we like to mythologize the rugged individual who doesn’t need anyone else, no man is an island. We all need help from others from time to time. The only shame comes from not getting that help and continuing to suffer out of a mistaken sense that you shouldn’t have to get help.
There’s hope for you, CBC. You just have to reach out and take it.
You’ll be OK. I promise.
All will be well.
Please send your questions to Dr. NerdLove at his website (www.doctornerdlove.com/contact); or to his email, firstname.lastname@example.org