Mind traps and the need to get things right
I get stuck in mind traps. I’m sure there’s a more clinical term out there to describe what a mind trap is, but for now, if overthinking, rumination, and a compulsive need to get things right got together for a party, they’d make a mind trap. And I get stuck in them.
The experience of being in one is like a sickening feedback loop that sees me frantically searching for validation and assurance that I am about to, or have just made the right choice. They always seem to be fixated around a right choice. My mind obsesses over the details of each possible outcome of my choice, playing them out in my mind’s eye like a movie preview. These thoughts spurn contingencies and backup plans, which each need to be played out and analysed. My mind gets faster and faster until I don’t even give the individual thoughts time enough to play through before the next one kicks in. I start to panic, realising I’m stuck. Unable to sit with my decision, or unable to make one in the first place.
As a recent example, at the beginning of this year Nathan and I bought a car. I did an extreme amount of research so that I could determine which car would be the right choice (spending countless hours pouring through online forums and reading reviews), yet whilst driving home after my purchase (in said car), my mind started to question the choice I had just made. Have I made the right decision? Should I have gone for a different model? What if this turns out to be a really bad car? The should I’s, have I’s, and what if’s came pouring in thick and fast, and a heart-sinking resolution quickly set in as I realised that I really had made a terrible decision, wasted a ton of our money and by doing so had just blown a hole through the bottom of our financial plans for this year, quickly sending them to the bottom of the ocean. Things escalated pretty quickly on that one. Of course the irony of Tim Rice on the radio at the time singing Always look on the bright side of life was completely lost on me. When I eventually pulled into the driveway I was well and truly stuck, and on the verge of a panic attack.
You might tell me to go a little easy here – after all, buying a car is a pretty big decision, and I admit that this particular episode was worse than most (I can often pull myself out). But it’s not just the big decisions that get me. I can get stuck choosing what clothes to wear to work in the morning, choosing a café that will work for everyone, or even making sure the throw cushions make the perfect statement when I walk into the room (I’ll rehearse these walk-ins to make sure they do). Ridiculous I know. If there isn’t a predetermined right or wrong, I’m in danger.
Mind Traps are also largely unpredictable. Some days there will be no triggers, whilst other days a small trigger can cause a massive cascade. They are exhausting, upsetting, and often leave me feeling like I’m a failure who can’t make a simple decision.
Back to the car. Nathan was understandably concerned by the expression on my face when I pulled into the driveway, and jumped in the car to go for a spin with me. Five minutes down the road he told me it was a great car, that he really liked it, and that I’d done well with the purchase. Bingo. With those few words he pulled me right out of it, and I was good to go. I just needed someone else to own the problem and the solution with me. I’ll get to the importance of this later.
After I published my last blog entry I was overwhelmed by the number of people who contacted me to thank me for sharing my story. Many of these people – people who I always thought lived that ever elusive ‘perfect life’ – are on a very similar journey to that of my own, and expressed that reading my blog allowed them to breathe just a little – because they’re not alone in this. This has made me wonder then how many people out there get stuck in mind traps just like I do.
A quick Google search brings page after page of articles on rumination disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, anxiety, and depression. These issues seem to be present in epidemic proportions, and the numbers are only increasing.
I have no idea where the compulsive need to get things right really comes from; I’ve considered things like the conditioning and teaching we receive from a very young age that getting things right – like the answers on a spelling test, or an A+ performance at your piano exam – means you’re loveable, good, and likely to succeed, and I am also quite certain that a major culprit is the constant messaging through media, advertisements and popular culture telling us that the ‘right’ choices lead to longer, happier, healthier, more zen and fulfilled lives.
Perhaps us anxious folk are just a little more conscientious when it comes to getting things right than most people, and this, coupled with a personality that gets fixated on the little details is the perfect mind trap combination. Either way, I’ve decided that for my own journey, I need to address this. So I’ve started a little experiment.
I’ve learned that experiments are really good for me. Experiments are controlled exercises that have a beginning and an end, with the purpose of testing a hypothesis or theory. When applied to a journey around anxiety and healing like mine, experiments take the pressure off. The environment of an experiment allows me to play around and try different things on my own terms and in my own time (I learned about this and so many other things from Sarah Wilson’s First, we make the beast beautiful: A new story about anxiety – a must read).
So, leaving my ponderings on why we feel the need to get things right for another day, my experiment begins with a simple theory; Mind traps are only bad if you get stuck in them.
You see, from the outset I recognise that running in the background of my mind traps lies a pretty incredible mind. I can visualise, interpret, and process large amounts of information very quickly, which often allows me to see solutions to problems in a unique and creative way. It certainly gives me an edge in my professional life – it’s just when it gets out of control that it becomes a problem. My approach then is not to diagnose or ‘fix’ my mind, but rather experiment with placing some boundaries around where I will and won’t let it run free in the first place – theoretically preventing me from getting stuck in mind traps any longer.
To begin with, I’ve started to intentionally recognise when a mind trap is approaching – the tell-tale sign being a feeling of indecisiveness along with pressure to make the right choice. Recognising the scenarios that lead to mind traps is so important. It’s like wet concrete on the sidewalk – if you can see it coming, you can move around it.
Once the trap is recognised, I place a few mental barriers around it (visualising helps). Firstly, I ask myself how important this really is in the scheme of things – perspective. Secondly, I get clear on whether there is a ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ solution to be found, or is this something subjective – clarity. Thirdly, if needed I’ll share the burden with someone else – safety in numbers. This relates to the importance of what Nathan did by owning the problem and the solution around buying the car with me. On a side-note, Nathan and I now have a little arrangement; either of us can play the ‘I just need you to make a call on this one’ card, and we’ll know what that means, and step in and make the call for each other.
Once the barriers are in place, I step around the mind trap and simply move on, using perspective, clarity, and safety in numbers to help. And that’s it. A simple process, three little barriers and a touch of mindfulness.
So what are the results? So far, I’ve used this approach on a handful of potential mind traps; getting dressed in the morning, buying a new mobile phone, choosing the tiles for our house, planning events, even choosing what to eat for dinner. I have to say the results so far have been incredible.
I’ve been at this experiment for over a month now, and haven’t gotten stuck in a mind trap once. I’ve slipped around the edges a few times for sure, but each time, one of my barriers has kicked in and stopped me from falling in.
To say this is liberating is an understatement. Not only has this experiment begun to free me from getting stuck, it’s started to give me some beautiful space to explore. Without worrying about everything right or not, I’ve been able to start reflecting deeply on what’s actually important to me, and begin redirecting my energy into these things instead – things like reconnecting with people I’d long abandoned because of my anxiety, listening to people and being with them, and enjoying the rare and precious quiet moments of any given day.
I’ve been able to experience peace with decisions I’ve made, and when things haven’t gone to plan or have changed at the last minute (as they always do), I’ve had the freedom to just go with it. It’s been a lot of fun to be able to simply decide not to care about things I don’t want to care about, to sit for a while in ambiguity and the unknown, and know that not only is this OK, it’s where so much of life lies.
I feel as though I’m only just touching the surface with this experiment – as with all good experiments, this one has lead me to more questions, or rather, a more questioning mindset that I want to explore. So I’ve decided not to put an end date on it, but instead leave it running and see what happens next.