11 Steps To Happiness For The Highly Neurotic
As high school experiences go, mine was pretty miserable. Last week was my ten-year high school reunion, and while I had an absolute blast, I couldn’t help but remember the pure angst I lived in for those four years. On the outside, there was virtually no reason for all the inner turmoil I had as a teenager. I had a great family, loyal friends, and did well in school. We all have our issues (squabbles with friends, issues with parents, mean boyfriends, etc.), but for the most part, my life was pretty solid.
The problem was my head. I was so neurotic that my mind turned every interaction I had into incontrovertible proof that I was a loser. I was convinced my friends didn’t like me, my parents loved my brother more, my boyfriends were going to leave me, I was ugly and uncool, and my life was going nowhere.
Why did I think this way? Why was my inner life so twisted up when my reality was so positive?
SEE ALSO: Understanding The Art Of Surrender
As I got older, I discovered that some of it had to do with genetics (my father is the same way), and some of it had to do with what’s known in the recovery world as the “unsatisfiable mind,” an affliction common to alcoholics and addicts that catastrophizes normal events in a person’s life. I would see two friends talking, for instance, and be convinced they were talking about me. For better or worse, this is still the way my mind works, unless I’m taking really good care of myself.
Sitting at a table at my high school reunion, surrounded by love and excitement (and actually able to soak it in!), I wondered if there was anything that could have helped me during those high school years. I remember trying to fix myself, knowing there was something “off” about my thinking. I would read self-help books about building confidence, but would be convinced I was doing the exercises wrong, no matter how hard I tried. I went to therapy, but thought, somehow, I wasn’t being honest enough with the therapist, or else it would have worked by now. I asked friends for advice but would never remember to take it. I’d be told to “love myself,” but who the hell knew what that meant?
Looking back, I wished I’d had a book specifically written for over-thinkers. A book that would give me short, step-by-step instructions on how to get better. In fact, it wouldn’t even need to be a book. It could just be a list! I was really into to-do lists back then. So I after the reunion I sat down and compiled a list of things that might have helped me, written to get past the labyrinthine obstacles my head always used to put in my path. If you’re anything like I was, this may help you too.
Note: I am NOT a mental health professional. I always encourage therapy and outside help for those who want to get better (as mentioned below).
Now get out your overly-detailed weekly planner and start scheduling:
1) Identify the people in your life whose words and actions consistently make you feel less valuable
NOT the people who are so great that they make you feel shitty about yourself in comparison. I’m talking about people who put you down in small ways— ways you may tell yourself are totally harmless, but actually kind of hurt. If you’re confused about the difference, imagine that the words and actions of the person in question are in a scene in a movie. If you were watching that movie, would you be like, “Wow, that person’s a dick!”? If so, and he or she or they consistently acts like that, that’s your cue that this person is making you feel less than valuable.
It’s not you, it’s them. Trust yourself enough to know that you’re not crazy, this person is just an asshole. You don’t need to ditch them immediately, just be aware that they do this to you. Ditch them when you’re ready to. If you can’t seem to ditch them because you kinda like that they’re being mean to you, just be aware of that. Don’t worry about it too much. A lot of us do it. Do the next steps consistently and this may change.
2) Identify your (potential) addiction
People like us are often addicted to something. Are you drinking too much? Are you smoking weed every day? Can’t stop eating cookies every night? Become distraught when your love interests aren’t texting you back? Think about dying when you get less than a B on an assignment? You, my friend, may have an addiction (or two or three)! If the word “addiction” doesn’t work for you, how about the word “preoccupation”? Is there something that’s taking most of your attention and energy during the day?
Don’t worry, you don’t have to give it up yet. Just take note. If you’ve dug deep and discovered you really don’t have an addiction, skip this step.
3) Do fun activities
Make a list of things you would do with a boyfriend or girlfriend or partner on a lazy Sunday morning (making a delicious breakfast, taking them to yoga, going to see a movie), and then do two of those things with yourself per week. Don’t overthink it. Anything that seems fun.
What is this “fun” I speak of? “Fun” is what happens when you are doing something that brings your body and mind good feelings when you do it. You know you’re having good feelings when you don’t feel like stopping while you’re doing it. Fun does not mean “something you think you should do to make yourself more cultured or successful.” Fun could be video games. Fun could be decorating ugly T-shirts. Fun could be playing tennis. Just let yourself do it. If the only thing you can think of that sounds like fun is something that pertains to your addiction, ask someone you trust what they do for fun. Then try that. Twice a week. Every. Single. Week. Until you can think of something else to do that might be fun.
4) Do things you think you will need
Make a list of things you would need from a boyfriend or girlfriend or partner (affection, listening, emotional support, someone asking questions about your life, someone to make eye contact with, someone to buy you presents, etc.). Make it specific. Not, “someone to make me feel good about myself.” HOW would they make you feel good? By giving you compliments? By leaving you love letters? Give yourself two of those things per week.
If one of your things was, “someone to ask me questions” or, “listening” then get creative. Write a letter to yourself and read it back. Ask yourself questions in writing or out loud, and answer them. Don’t overthink it. Literally ANY ATTEMPT at this will be good enough. Even just picking up the pen and writing one question is enough. I mean it, you. Stop overthinking.
5) Drink water every day
A lot of it. If you feel like drinking all that water is a waste of time, because you have so much other stuff to do, take a different vitamin for every sip. That way you’re killing 2 birds with one stone, which we all know you love to do.
6) Get a therapist
Meet with at least 3 before choosing one. Choose the one you like most. What does it mean to like a therapist? It means your body feels relaxed in the room with them, you are not smarter than them, and you feel that they are listening to you and interested in you.
DO NOT OVERTHINK THIS. If you like more than one of them, choose the one that is most convenient for you, time-wise, cost-wise and location-wise. If you don’t have insurance or can’t afford a regular therapist, look into therapy at a counseling center or university near you. You can usually get someone for $25 or more. Either way, meet with at least 3 before you make a decision.
7) Identify the things that you’re doing in your life that you don’t like doing
What does this mean? What qualifies as something you don’t like doing? Let me explain: if you signed up for a weekly ceramics class and you DREAD going every week because you have so much other stuff to do, but once you get there you LOVE being there, this counts as something you like to do! If you hate being there once you’re there, this qualifies as something you don’t like to do. If it’s something you look forward to and once you get there you hate it, this is something you don’t like to do. If you don’t know whether you like it because every time you’re at the class you spend so much time comparing yourself to everyone else that you get too stressed out to enjoy anything, keep going to the class and trying to focus on the few moments when you’re actually MAKING CERAMICS and seeing whether your body and mind are saying, “Yes! More of this!” Or, “Ugh, this is tedious.” If the latter, find a new class.
You may not like going to school or work. This, unfortunately, is not something you can do much about. Find something you can do to make going there less crappy. Maybe bring a yummy flavored coffee to school and take small breaks from Algebra to imagine you’re sitting at a cafe in Brazil reading a book. Befriend a cool teacher who has similar interests. Join a club that ACTUALLY interests you, not one you think you should be in for college applications. Look for a job that makes you happy, or at least less miserable than your current job. You don’t need to LEAVE your current job yet. Just start looking for a new one.
8) Imagine you are your own child
Not a bratty, irritating, dumb child; a sweet, smart, beautiful old-soul child who you LOVE. Who looks at the red and black pieces on your Connect 4 game, turns her head to the side, smiles, and says, “They look so happy.” Have you ever met a kid like that? If you’re not a kid person, think of an animal you’ve felt that way about. Something you love so much you’d do anything to protect it. If you don’t like children or animals, imagine any person you love a lot. Or just a person who doesn’t suck. Whoever or whatever inspires the most love in you, use that. Now imagine you were entrusted with caring with that person on a day to day basis. What things would you do for that person that you’re not currently doing for yourself? Do 2 of those things per week.
9) Sit and breathe
Set a timer on your phone for ten minutes and sit in a comfortable place. Breathe with your eyes closed for those ten minutes. Switch positions if you get a cramp in your leg— it doesn’t mean you need to start all over. I give these instructions instead of saying “meditate” because we all know what a landmine that word can be. I’m not asking you to meditate. I’m just asking you to sit and breathe for a certain length of time. Let your mind go where it will. If you feel inspired to, focus on your breathing or the sensations in your body. If you don’t feel inspired to, think about whatever you want. Try not to strategize your day, or your life, during this time. If you find yourself strategizing instead of just thinking, breathe, and turn your thoughts to something else.
10) What would you do if you were the last person on earth?
Ask yourself—if you were the only person left on earth, and had access to unlimited resources (food, water, books, TV, internet, transportation, etc.) what would you do? Would you go snowboarding? Would you fly to the Irish countryside? Would you raid a museum? What books would you read? What movies would you watch? Where would you travel? Make a list of ten things you would do. Take a good look: this may be your first clue as to who you really are. A beginning of the answer to the question, “Where do I belong?” Add to this list whenever a new idea comes to you.
11) Forgive yourself
LET YOURSELF OFF THE HOOK FOR NOT DOING STEPS 1-10 perfectly! Do not use these steps as a way to beat yourself up. This is the only step you MUST do perfectly.
Finding my place in the world took me years, and I’m still learning so much about how to be a human being every day. But despite my head’s insistence that success and popularity would make me happy, the thing that actually did the trick was peace of mind. Strangely enough, once my insides calmed down, really exciting opportunities started to filter into my life. It was like my inner tornado had been monopolizing the space my life—not leaving any room for good stuff to come to me, no matter how hard I worked.
So stop rushing around, my neurotic friend. Your life can be indescribably wonderful if you let it be. Perhaps you already know this, and this tidal wave of goodness is actually your biggest fear. (Spoiler alert: it is.)
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