By Freddie Cocker
It’s a strange and scary time to be writing an article like this right now. There are many people in a worse-off position than me, perhaps it’s a form of ‘survivors’ guilt’.
Having recently finished a second batch of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), I thought it was important to reflect on what I’ve learned, the tools I’ve gained from it and how I’ve grown as a person from it.
A few months ago I wrote an article on Vent about how I had been struck by a really horrible and crippling overthinking crisis.
Triggered by events in my love life but looking back had probably been threatening to surface for quite some time, on one particular day, it created a suicidal thought to appear in my head for the first time in over 5 years.
Thankfully, it exited my head in about 20 seconds but looking back, I’m glad that suicidal thought happened because it broke down the denial, I had been in about getting more therapy and made me ask questions about myself I had never done before.
For some reason, I thought that as long as I kept opening up about all my past traumas and experiences that my mental health recovery would just be one continuous upward curve, even though I actively tell people that recovery is not a straight line.
I thought that doing more therapy would be re-treading old ground or opening up wounds that had been healed. This was the wrong mindset entirely and I’m glad I came to the realisation that I needed more help.
Fast forward a few months and through the CBT and the work I did with my therapist, I began to analyse some of the reasons why I overthought to such an extent and how it formed one part of my much larger experience living with Anxiety.
The first thing which helped massively was to develop some mental tools that I could use in my head to try and stop overthinking at the source.
Many people who have gone through therapy will know about the ABC method (A for Activate Event, B for Beliefs and C for Consequences).
This has been unbelievably helpful in rationalising a particular event or situation which I am liable to overthink about.
I analyse what can happen in a productive way and breakdown the negative thought patterns I was creating about it, whether that be through imagined consequences that would never happen or more likelier ones which I can approach with a clear head.
What I began to realise through this therapy is that actually, my overthinking didn’t just infect my mind when it came to: girls, making mistakes or the anxiety of telling someone I’ve made a mistake, it’s affected every facet of my life and how I interact with the world.
What it boils down to I have learned is the idea of control and the impact that losing control of a situation in my head can have on me.
One such example to demonstrate this is how overthinking affects how I perceive people or more accurately, how I think people perceive me.
What being bullied has given me amongst many things is an incredibly high vigilance about how I am perceived in certain social situations.
Having been seen as a ‘victim’ and been treated as one for the best part of 9 years, coming out of that school environment I very quickly had to develop social skills and the ability to defend myself that would ensure the 9 year old child and 14 year old teenager within me who were seen and viewed themselves as victims would be protected.
A consequence of this protective behaviour and something which my friends have often noticed I do over the years is a mental ‘tick’ of constantly self-deprecating.
Whilst it’s obviously important not to take yourself too seriously, I was so careful (probably to the point of obsession) for people not to think that my highly-extroverted behaviour was a product of self-inflated ego or arrogance, my overthinking made me develop extremely negative and probably toxic self-confidence and self-esteem issues.
As a result, every time I would say something positive about myself in a one-on-one situation or a group situation, I would say something negative or something light-hearted about myself immediately afterwards.
Eventually that behaviour became so second-nature that I didn’t even notice I was doing it. Indeed, it took one of my best friends to point it out when I was 18 for me to actually realise it was a thing.
Another way this overthinking manifests itself is in how I feel I am being perceived or want to be perceived.
This is largely through comments people make to me on an everyday basis. One of my biggest mental health triggers is when someone labels me or makes false assumptions about me.
People have often commented on my outwardly extroverted nature. Some perceive it as confidence, for others it might just be bubbly or friendly behaviour.
When people use the former, my stock response is “I’m not confident, I’m just extroverted”. It’s as if my mind views self-confidence as some toxic and harmful personality trait I must immediately expunge from my being.
It’s taken until now for me to analyse why I’ve done this. What I believe I was doing in these situations is fighting against someone creating a perception of me which I can no longer control. If I lose control of that opinion (especially if it’s a friend or someone I like as a person), then that affects my mental state.
By labelling me without knowing my story or simply knowing me on a deeper level, I instinctively put up a guard between myself and that person until they show themselves to be someone I can trust or get to know better.
Unintentionally hurting someone, whether through an inappropriate joke or a genuine honest mistake, can also knock me for six.
Reading or misreading a text message which my mind processes as me having made a mistake or hurt someone often provokes an instant anxiety attack.
All of these ticks most likely feed into trust issues and a form of people-pleasing anxiety that bullying exacerbated or created and it’s incredibly frustrating and annoying to have.
I’ve tried to remedy this by getting closure with people. In some cases, this has helped massively in not overthinking about a situation in the past. However, I cannot always expect closure on every negative situation I’ve ever had. Life does not always work like that.
I remember making an honest but at the time bad and insensitive mistake with a very good friend in the last year or so and so many of these ticks came rushing to the surface: the instant anxiety attack knowing I had accidentally done something wrong, the instant and multiple apologies and then the horrible anxiety afterwards not knowing if I had closure.
I was so anxious to try and know if they had genuinely accepted my apology my mind began to think of numerous good deeds I could do for that person as if by doing them, I could somehow change their perception of me or the mistake itself.
It’s very easy to get in a horrible and never-ending overthinking cycle that way.
Thankfully, through the therapy, I’ve come to realise that I can never truly impact anyone’s opinion of me, regardless of how much good I do.
There is no point me trying to apologise a million times to a person in the hope I can claim closure on it. Once is enough.
That’s not to say I am still hyper-vigilant not to exhibit this in the future (I’m probably a little scared not to do it too), such is its association with toxic behaviour, either in a relationship or a friendship.
I cannot spend the rest of my life fighting against people’s perceptions of me just because I did it so much in school. In that environment I was in a place of immense pain and suffering. I’m not in that place anymore and if I continue to do that, I won’t have much of a life.
I still care what people think, largely my friends or those I actually care about but no longer am I wasting energy on either changing people’s perceptions of me or changing myself to fit in either.
Either you take me as I am now or you don’t and that’s the best approach for me to have.
The therapy also helped me heal some very old wounds in my personal life which have allowed me to have better conversations moving forward.
This is not to say those wounds have healed completely but I’m definitely on the right track.
I hope by doing this therapy I’ve also broken down some sort of stigma that surrounds therapy itself. I’ve never been one to talk about my mental health all the time and there is always a time and a place for it in every social situation but hopefully I’ve made it something which people can talk to me about or other people in their life who’ve had it.
I guess when you strip away everything, therapy is just physiotherapy for the mind isn’t it? If you badly injured your knee, you’d get it rehabilitated so why not your mind?
I still have a long way to go and there are some fresh and quite stigmatising traumas in my mind that I need to address in due course but I’ve never been more comfortable in my own skin than I have at any point in my life and that can’t be a bad thing…right?
Freddie Cocker is the Founder and Editor-In-Chief of Vent.