There are a lot of things about ourselves we take for granted. Most of us don’t spend a lot of time thinking about the reasons why we do certain things, because if we did, it might be uncomfortable – or we might learn some things about ourselves that might help us out.
This was part of what happened with me at Menninger. My team (my psychiatrist, social worker, and my contact nurse for the day) would get together every week for rounds, and I would come in and talk to them about concerns I had, directions I wanted to go with my treatments, or how I was feeling. If I didn’t have an abundance of material, they would start to ask questions or pointing out things they had noticed about my behavior, whether over just that week or my entire stay. For the most part, rounds were relatively tame; while they asked challenging questions and tried to push me harder, I knew that was what they were supposed to be doing and I accepted it – at least, until one week.
I went to rounds with nothing in particular to talk to them about; I figured that my team would have something to say, and that we could easily occupy our time discussing that. I was right, but it wasn’t easy. What my team did was tell me that they felt I was doing very poorly at introspection – that is, looking inside myself to look for the reasons why I did certain things, rather than look for external answers or study other people.. The two examples they pointed out were two things I was employing, unconsciously, at that exact time – my tendency to fidget and to answer challenging questions and statements with vague or nonspecific answers. They felt that, unless I spent some time thinking about things like that, that much of my treatment would be fairly useless.
I left rounds feeling like I’d been hit by a Mack truck. I had spent a great deal of time during the worst periods of my depression being inwardly focused, but mostly that had been about how worthless and hopeless I was. This was different, and it was hard. I didn’t want to look at myself that closely, because I was afraid of the things I might find out.
My fidgeting is something that probably anyone who knows me and watches me for more than a few minutes notices. I tap my feet, bounce my legs, swing my knees, crack my knuckles, rub my hands together, roll my shoulders and my head (often with a serious of distressing cracks)… I do this all the time, and most of the time, it is unconscious. I don’t even notice I’m doing it. And, when I started to think about why I did it, it is because, on some level, I am constantly anxious. Often, it is kind of unspecific anxiety, and so it helps to release nervous energy. But when things in my life are making me more anxious, then I fidget more, whether faster, or more often, or more intensely. It’s a pretty good sign of my anxiety level, and yet it was something I had never even considered.
My answering of challenging questions with vague and nonspecific answers was the other example my team gave me, and I thought long and hard about that, as well. I don’t know that there was a specific reason that I did it, but it became clear to me that it was a defense mechanism to avoid answering things that made me feel uncomfortable or conversations that would take me places I didn’t want to go. Unfortunately for me, those were often places and things I needed to discuss in treatment if I wanted to try and change they way I was thinking and to let other people in. I’ve asked a number of people close to me to call me on this if they notice it. But it’s not even my primary defense mechanism socially.
My primary social defense mechanism is humor. When things start getting too serious, or too emotional, and I want to try and lighten things up so I don’t have to explore areas that may make me hurt or feel uncomfortable emotions (which, at the moment, is still most of them), I look for ways to tell jokes or make amusing comments. To cover for my insecurity and feelings of shame about being in mental treatment, and of needing treatment, I often tend to make jokes about ‘being shacked up in the wacko basket’ or the like. I put an amusing face on a serious topic, and keep myself from having to feel the associated emotions, while often also deflecting the conversation to something more pleasant for me.It is something I had noticed myself early on in my treatment, and pointed out to others so that it would be easier to notice, but there are times I still find myself sliding into that.
The one behavior that may be least obvious to other people, but the one which probably involves the people closest to me the most, is my overly vigilant behavior. When I am out in the company of people who I care about, in places where I don’t feel safe or secure, I tend to become extremely aware of what is going on in the area around me. I know I can’t control things, but I feel that I can at least protect my friends if something happens. There’s a reason for this, which I won’t go into now, but essentially, it means I am constantly scanning the area, assessing potentially threatening people. I tend to walk slightly behind and to the left of someone I care about, which lets me match their pace, see where they are at all times, and, if necessary, shove them aside in case of attack. If I’m in a group, I stay until I can make sure everyone I care about is accounted for; this led me, at Menninger, to stay behind at meals until the last people I was close to left even when I had a sufficient level of privilege to leave earlier. I know that this behavior isn’t realistic, and that in all likelihood my friends and loved ones don’t need a bodyguard, but it’s something I find myself doing regardless of necessity. Largely, it’s because I don’t feel any concern for my own safety, but I feel intense, painful anxiety at the thought of losing someone I care about, and so I do whatever I can to minimize the chance of that happening.
These are just a few of the more obvious things that I found out about myself while doing what my team had asked me to do, and there are more, though I figure these examples are enough to illustrate my point. While it can be uncomfortable to leave that part of our head that never looks inward, we can find out a lot of things about ourselves that we weren’t really aware of if we do. Some of those things will be uncomfortable, and some of them we’ll want to change, and there are others that we’ll look at and be happy for or proud of. But turning your investigative capacity inwards rather than outwards, I have found, is a rewarding experience. You might not find what you were looking for, but you will almost certainly find something of worth.