I walk down corridors at work with ‘resting anxiety face’ and my arms crossed across my chest in a sort of strange and protective manner.
This is not because I think I’m about to be attacked, but because I am constantly frightened that I have upset everyone and that everyone is cross with me and that I’ve done something wrong that I don’t know about and that everyone hates me as a result.
This is not fun.
It’s not just at work that this is a problem – I get home and I feel the same way about my family. I worry that they’re angry with me because of something I’ve done or said. All the time.
As with all things mental, the severity of these feelings fluctuates, but they are never far from the surface. As with all things mental, these feelings mean that it can be really difficult to maintain any sort of relationship with people.
The reason that I’m writing about this today is that I’ve recently been trying really hard to change the way I deal with the belief that I’ve upset everyone I come into contact with. Previously, I used to ask people whether they were cross with me. This was very, very annoying for those people. It is also somewhat of an assault on the way that they present themselves: I don’t want people to think that they’re not being nice enough, or cheerful enough, or begin to doubt the way they appear to other people just because I can’t get my head sorted. I’ve also got to the point where I realise that poor mental health can make you a little bit selfish – sometimes people don’t reply with an email full of smiles and comments about their day because they’re halfway down the meats aisle in Tesco juggling a ham hock and two garlic butter chicken breasts.
What changed, I suppose, is that I realised that ‘thinking people are cross with you’ isn’t a feeling. It’s a thought that I use as a barrier to the real feeling, which is that I’m generally really cross with myself about something or other. And I’m not going to solve that one by constantly asking for reassurance from other people. Nobody can make me like myself and feel satisfied with myself about what I have achieve apart from, erm, me.
So I made the decision that I was going to stop asking people whether I had done something wrong. I try my best not do anything wrong, and to ensure that I don’t upset people. Someone once said to me that if you don’t mean to do anything wrong then you have nothing to worry about. I don’t agree with this entirely: I’m sure there are times when I’ve accidentally said the wrong thing or done something that’s had not entirely positive results for other people. Someone else, however, also said to me that you can’t be perfect, especially not all the time, and this belief is one that I’ve really tried to include in my own.
Something else that has occurred to me recently is that I’m not a vindictive person (whatever my inner self tries to convince me) and I don’t actually want to upset people and so – if I do – then it’s probably an accident. People forgive other people for accidents, and if they don’t then that’s their problem.
Anyhow, I am always up for saying sorry and – like most people – would prefer to just be told if I’ve done something wrong or upset someone.
In therapy, I spent quite a lot of time talking about ‘sitting with feelings’ – sitting with the feeling that you want to purge, for example, would be able recognising that you’ve got those urges and ignoring them without acting on them in any way for as long as you can. It’s bloody painful to sit with any feelings but I know, from past experiments, that it works and that it’s the only surefire way to break a habit.
And so I’ve stopped asking people (on the whole and whenever I can; I’m not perfect) if I’ve upset them. So far, this has resulted in me spending a long time every day retracing my steps to work out where I may have done something wrong, and trying my best to remember every conversation I’ve had to check for errors or potential times where I could’ve said something offensive.
Yes, it’s a waste of time. In today’s society, there’s always something that has the potential to upset someone. Also, it naturally leads to a fixation over small details and thinking I ‘shouldn’t have done’ that aren’t actually important. However, recovery from anything is as much about the process as the goal and I know that this is will lessen as I get more ‘evidence’ that it’s OK to live this way, and that I don’t have to ask for reassurance all the time.
So here I am. Sitting with the feeling that everyone is cross with me. Waiting for the feeling to go away. Which it will, in time. It might be uncomfortable now but, in the long run, it’ll be another tick on the list of things I’ve overcome and another step towards a life free of the constraints of mental illness. A life which is available for everyone, as long as they’re prepared to work for it. Sometimes it’s important to remember that you won’t get any better if you don’t keep pushing forwards.
And that, if you want to win, you’ve got to fight in the first place.