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Too Self-Absorbed? These Tips Can Free You From ... You

Know anyone whose ruminating leads to depression or anxiety? Maybe you?

Source: Pixabay
Source: Pixabay

Solutions offered for detrimental self-absorption vary mostly on the basis of what drives such self-defeating rumination. Does it relate mostly to depression? Anxiety, phobia, panic attacks? PTSD? Some sort of obsessive-compulsive disturbance? A substance, activity, or relationship addiction? ... Or, could it be tied primarily to unhealthy narcissism—or even a full-blown narcissistic personality disorder (NPD)?

Because the remedies for self-obsessive depression and anxiety—and many other psychological maladies encompassing these elements—need to be distinguished from the suggestions generally proposed for narcissistic disturbances, I’ve decided to devote one post to each of these two major categories. After all, if the functional dynamics of one set of psychological difficulties contrast rather sharply from those of another, the “cures” for them will differ, too. So they’re best discussed separately.

For example, the ruminations of the depressed or anxious individual frequently reflect how critically they think of themselves—compared to the self-obsessions of typically smug, self-satisfied narcissists, who are much more critical of others, while routinely reflecting on their own (self-alleged) superiority.

But focusing our attention first on those afflicted with depression or anxiety (and frequently both), it’s useful to point out that depressed individuals tend to be past-oriented—repeatedly obsessing over enduring symptoms, past events, and unresolved issues—while anxious individuals are future-oriented, worrying about what hasn’t even happened yet ... but which they fear could turn out badly. The reason this post suggests similar remedies for these two complementary mood/emotional afflictions is that they’re both dominated by negative thoughts. And such a key similarity hints that in both cases any comprehensive solution must involve the sufferer’s being helped to scrutinize—and reassess—the rationality or usefulness of their pessimistic, self-defeating perspective.

Many of the points below are adapted from the work of Edward R. Watkins, Ph.D. (Research Clinical Psychologist at the University of Exeter). His 100+ publications cover this area more comprehensively than any other author, and the piece I’ll frequently be referring to—“Cognitive-Behaviour Therapy for Depressive Rumination” (2010)—cites a plethora of studies confirming not only the necessity of getting excessive rumination under control, but also the most effective cognitive-behavioral methods for achieving this task. Additionally, as Watkins recognizes, most of these depression-alleviating techniques can be applied to anxiety disorders as well.

What perhaps most needs to be emphasized here is that ruminative thinking is evaluative thinking. Whether it’s depression or anxiety, ruminators compare themselves unfavorably to others, believing their problems are somehow unique, or at least less resolvable than others.’ Stuck in a seemingly endless feedback loop, they torture themselves with discouraged, worrisome thoughts. Anguishing over their problems—and so, making them appear even worse—they experience great difficulty coming up with tenable ways of disentangling themselves from this largely self-constructed morass.

What’s also common in those with depression and anxiety is that their aversive thoughts are distorted or exaggerated. And the reason that therapy can be so helpful for them is that they need someone whose authority they respect to introduce them to a fresh, more hopeful outlook that directly counters their stagnant, self-thwarting one. Absent some kind of external intervention, the unfortunate result of all their obsessing is, as Watkins puts it, “increased sadness, distress, and anxiety, reduced motivation, insomnia, and increased tiredness, self-criticism, pessimism and hopelessness.” [Whew!]

But before going further, I’d like to make the caveat that not all rumination is unhealthy. Sometimes, what looks to the outsider to be damaging self-absorption actually represents a positive effort, though laborious, to work through a problem—however many “stuck points” might regrettably be part of the (eventually) successful process. So it’s really a matter of appreciating when your rumination has ceased to be productive—when, with a mind or will of its own, it’s merely cycling back and forth without any coherent or meaningful destination. As Watkins summarizes it:

Recent experimental research suggests [and the author cites no fewer than six studies here] that there are [two] distinct styles of rumination ... a helpful style characterised by concrete, process-functional and specific thinking, versus an unhelpful, maladaptive style characterised by abstract, [negatively] evaluative thinking.

To expand on the maladaptive style of rumination, it might be added that it’s about—as Tim LeBon, Ph.D., portrays it—“dwelling on, brooding, going over things again and again, stewing on things, chewing things over [and over], [and, mostly as a result of all this self-talk] procrastinating” (from “10 Things I Learnt From Ed Watkins’ Workshop on CBT to Treat Depressive and Anxious Rumination,” 2010). Moreover, such excessive deliberation is linked to overgeneralization (“I never do anything right”), impaired problem-solving, and a more depressed/anxious state of mind and feeling.

The reason that getting out of yourself and taking constructive action are such important ingredients in Rumination-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (RFCBT) is that in both depression and anxiety avoidance is typically what results from such obsessive thinking. Whether it’s withdrawing from others or, more generally, removing yourself from any situation possibly involving risk (which, all too often, is linked to rejection or failure), your self-protective passivity will serve to maintain—and even heighten—your depression or anxiety.

The conundrum here is that, immediately, your avoidant behavior may somehow keep (or seem to keep) your doubts and fears “in check.” For at least it enables you to escape having directly to confront what you’re obsessing about. But since this defensive strategy doesn’t—and can’t—affect any resolution of your difficulty, the self-torture that’s part and parcel of over-thinking your dilemma can continue indefinitely. And such a “noose around your neck” will only tighten as you persist in anguishing over your situation.

This is why Watkins, and many others who’ve done research on the self-absorption that characterizes depression and anxiety, offer a series of steps to extricate yourself from this largely self-imposed bind. And you begin by doing a functional analysis [sorry for the jargon] of your quandary. Even though these suggestions are offered specifically to the treating therapist rather than the patient, you might still ask yourself:

(1) [Antecedents] What’s the nature of my ruminative, obsessive thinking? What do I believe is its purpose? What triggered my “mulling it over” so much? What did I first notice in my thinking? in my body? When, where, how—and with whom—did this occur?

(2) [Behavior] Then what happened? And how long did it last?—and how did it end? Was I thinking a lot about the past? trying to figure out what it all said about me? Posing to myself a lot of worrisome, or doom-and-gloom, “what ifs”?

(3) [Consequences] Was my thinking helpful? In what ways might it have been useful? How was it NOT helpful? What do I think my rumination was trying to accomplish? And what actually was the result? Did it make me feel different? What have been the long-term consequences of my rumination? And what—finally—would I like to happen now?

Such self-questioning can help identify both the positive and (much more likely) negative consequences of your self-absorbed, repetitive thinking. And, in order to reach the greatest possible awareness of how this habit “operates” in you, it can be very helpful to keep a diary. That way you can “catalog” precisely what you need to focus on changing.

Remember, to the extent that your protracted thinking about something leads to productive planning and problem-solving, or to more scrupulous decision-making—or even making peace with a serious loss in your life—you hardly want to “vanquish” it completely. (Just try to get through this arduous process as efficiently as you can!)

But if it’s really more like wasting your vital energy chasing your own tail, you’ll want to muster the courage to address what your fears and self-image deficiencies have—till now—compelled you to avoid. And this will probably require you to develop more self-confidence than you presently have (a subject unto itself, and one which you might wish to consult the Web for suggestions).

So, going beyond your initial ABC analysis of your self-absorbed thinking (i.e., “Antecedents,” “Behavior,” & “Consequences”), what else do you need to do to rid yourself of unproductive rumination?

Besides becoming much more cognizant of its precipitants, the RFCBT model also advises patients to (1) alter their “processing” style: to explore times when they were able to “engage,” or “flow” from one thought or activity to another; as well as (2) learn how, in evaluating different situations, to be more compassionate toward themselves.

As regards the first remedy, Watkins and others recommend scheduling sessions of (let’s call it) counter-absorption—such as becoming immersed in a project, sport, hobby, set of exercises, or task at work. And if, in the moment, engaging in a “substitute” activity isn’t feasible, you might try “accessing” them, and their accompanying feelings, through employing appropriate imagery. Doing so isn’t to be seen as a distraction here but a way to get back to a more concrete, focused processing style, which in turn will help free you from your pernicious feedback loop.

As regards the second remedy, cultivating greater self-compassion is a way of reducing the perpetual self-criticism so typical when you’re suffering from depression or anxiety (not to mention OCD, PTSD, addiction, etc.).

Can you be kinder in how you think about yourself? Physically and mentally, can you begin to nurture yourself in a manner that your original caretakers maybe could not? If you’ve shown compassion for others (including your children), can you discover how to transfer some of this compassion to yourself? Ask yourself what thoughts accompany your benign feelings for others. Can you find ways of applying these same empathy-evoking thoughts to yourself?

Frankly, on their own, many people simply can’t do this, so working with a professional may be imperative. But even if this is a problem for you, it certainly can’t hurt to first investigate books and articles that enumerate various ways to, well, love yourself more. One major problem that can stand in the way of effecting the change you desire is that if you had a difficult childhoodnecessarily preoccupied with how you needed to think and act to avoid harsh criticism or punishment—you may never have been able to develop an adequately healthy, caring attitude toward self.

Anxious/Free Images from Pixabay
Source: Anxious/Free Images from Pixabay

So, if during your upbringing, obsessing about negative consequences was actually an adaptive coping device, then, unless you’re able to internally communicate to your past self that you’re now grown up and possess resources they lacked, that earlier (scared) self will strive to protect you from potential failure by, ironically, undermining your efforts at change. And if they do, don’t get angry with them but gently seek to convince them that they no longer need to be concerned about their parents’ reactions.

Additionally, let them know that though you realize they’re only trying to safeguard you from (perceived) harm, that by prompting you to stay absorbed in ruminating rather than taking action they’re no longer being helpful. Convince them that they can now trust you (their adult self) to act on your own, and so finally let go of their “outdated” (and perverse!) sense of obligation to you.

Finally, in all fairness, it should be added that many writers, such as Bruce Hubbard, Ph.D. (“Obsessive Thinking, Worry, and Cognitive Behavior Therapy,” 2010), also take into account the biological disposition to engage in rumination, stating: “Brain imaging studies indicate that obsessive thinking is associated with a neurological dysfunction of unknown cause that forces thoughts into repetitive loops.”

So if adhering to the “best practices” for ameliorating your obsessive tendencies seems a lot harder than you anticipated, consider that these habits may be partly “hard-wired,” or "programmed," through genetics—as well as having become "conditioned" because of how, as a child, you felt you needed to worry about things to protect yourself from a punitive, or emotionally volatile family.

Watkins also points out that one reason standard CBT—vs. RFCBT—has some serious limitations is that if your depression is distinguished by uncontrollable rumination, using thought-restructuring techniques typically leads to “yes, but ...” reactions—as the train of self-defeating thoughts barrels forward. However, recent CBT developments can reduce depressive rumination through “behavioral activation” (BA), which involves both activity monitoring and activity scheduling, in order to help patients overcome the avoidant behaviors that give rise to, and exacerbate, the depression.

Additionally, Watkins discusses MBCT (Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy), a complementary approach that incorporates elements of Kabat-Zinn’s (1990) stress reduction program. This ancillary method, or set of meditative exercises, has been shown to help prevent relapse by having patients develop a moment-to-moment awareness of sensations, thoughts and feelings. In other words, MBCT enables those prone to depression and anxiety to cultivate a concentrated here-and-now focus—vs. their maladaptive “backward,” or “forward,” orientation.

As Watkins duly emphasizes:

Ruminators tend to be passive, abstract and evaluative, focused on analysing and intellectualising events in their life, with overgeneral and global thinking. Therefore, therapy needs to shift patients away from this pattern, by directly coaching them to be more concrete, specific and grounded in experience ... Thus, given the choice between talking about something [which could end up making the therapist a co-ruminator!] vs. trying something out in an experiential/imagery exercise or behavioural experiment, choose the latter as it shifts the patient away from the thinking style associated with unhelpful rumination.

On the internet, most of the popular writings on self-absorption center on getting outside yourself as the main “cure.” And if, more than anything else, your struggles relate primarily to being overly self-centered, and in a way that links to depression, anxiety, or any of the other maladies tied to this, such an energy shift to things and people outside yourself can be extremely beneficial.

So I’ll close this piece by briefly—and very selectively—citing other sources that advocate “other-directedness” as a way of resolving problems sourced by excessive self-absorption. In an article called “Important Things to Know If Your Relative Suffers From Depression” (12/23/2008), journalist Samantha Gluck notes that:

Being self-absorbed has an immediate effect of narrowing one’s focus and blurring one’s vision ... If, on the other hand, you think more about others’ well-being, it immediately makes you feel more expansive, liberated and free. Problems which before may have seemed enormous would then seem more manageable.

Similarly, writer Paul Dooley, in his “Are Anxious People Self-Centered?” (05/13/2009), argues that “although it may feel counter-intuitive to our anxious minds, we should bring those we love closer and do more for them to help ourselves get outside of our own heads. To help us slow down the constant chatter of anxiety.”

And lastly, consider the title of a Psychology Today post by Douglas LaBier, Ph.D.: “Suffer From Social Anxiety? Doing Something For Others Helps” (08/14/2015). Examining research studies on this all-too-common form of anxiety, LaBier concludes that much social anxiety can be alleviated simply by being kind to others and performing acts of service for them.

Making pointed use of the term “ego fixation,” LaBier emphasizes that “our hurt-ego reactions to personal slights, real or imagined; our trumped-up sense of self-importance; [etc.] ... are the root of many emotional and physical conflicts.”

... Which can be seen as taking us back to the title of the first part of my 3-part series on the subject: namely, “Self-Absorption: The Root of All (Psychological) Evil?”

Immediately above is the link to that post. The final piece in this series (part 3) focuses specifically on a different kind of self-absorption: that is, the unabashed self-centered preoccupations of the narcissist—and its possible remedies. Here's its title and link: "Can You Help a Narcissist Become Less Self-Absorbed?"

If you could relate to this post and think others you know might also, please consider forwarding them its link. To check out other posts I’ve done for Psychology Today online—on a broad variety of psychological topics—click here. Follow me on Facebook and Twitter.

© 2016 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All rights reserved.