Eight Fundamental Tools to Crazy-Proof Yourself
Learning to protect ourselves from destructive chaos without losing the spark.
Posted Feb 14, 2020
The psychoanalyst Harold Searles (1965) noted, “...the initiating of any kind of interpersonal interaction which tends to foster emotional conflict in the other person—which tends to activate various areas of his personality in opposition to one another—tends to drive him crazy.”
Crazy-proofing is not running from connection, but forming healthy bonds. There is a good kind of crazy we want to honor—freedom, imagination, spontaneity, and creativity.
Others can try to drive you crazy, for a million different reasons, sometimes nefarious, often not. Living in fear is not a viable solution for the complexities of human existence. We are born crazy, in a way. How do we best play our cards?
Eight Essential Ingredients
These ideas bear repeating. They easily slip from memory, especially when things get heated up. They require practice to change brain and behavior, and while kind of sequential, they are also non-linear and usefully incomplete.
1. Know Thyself: Self-awareness is the foundation. Know your levers, know what all your buttons are, as if you were another person who was trying to manipulate you. Step outside of yourself without losing yourself. Self-doubt is your ally. Recognize when you need help and get it, no matter how challenging.
2. Write Your Own Operator’s Manual: Putting self-knowledge into practice requires being able to slow down thinking, under conditions of anxiety, perceived and actual threat, and a variety of other powerful feelings, in order to catch yourself in the act of reacting emotionally—before it is too late.
Once the brain enters a reactive state, it is much harder to interrupt than preventing it from going there in the first place. It is possible to learn to interrupt and de-escalate oneself, though, which is an essential skill to develop. Map yourself out clearly, without becoming a robot.
3. Slow Down and Think: The TARGET Model is helpful, looking at how the brain’s executive, memory and alarm systems can get tangled up, allowing triggering situations to take normal functioning offline, and allow distress-based systems to take over—getting “brainjacked.” Over-learn alternative, adaptive responses for when things get hairy.
Bion’s notion of thinking as a mature mental apparatus that allows us to make sense of confusing, contradictory realities and annihilation-level anxiety is useful, rather than intellectualizing everything—using the hard truths for growth, without masochism. Don’t drive yourself crazy.
Mentalization is a kind of core pathway to sanity, defined as: ”...the process by which we make sense of each other and ourselves, implicitly and explicitly, in terms of subjective states and mental processes. It is a profoundly social construct in the sense that we are attentive to the mental states of those we are with, physically or psychologically” (Bateman and Fonagy, 2010).
4. Know the Context: What is your general emotional and mental state entering a situation? What are you carrying with you? Were you just in a fight with someone close to you? If so, your brain will interpret that business meeting very differently. It takes grit to look oneself squarely in the face, bracing and empowering.
5. Defeat the Inner Gaslighter: By perceiving our capacity for self-deception, non-judgmentally, we recognize and avoid self-gaslighting. If we don’t fool ourselves, it is much more difficult, if not impossible, to be tricked by others.
Working on a great self-relationship, we learn to distinguish accurate intuition from misleading gut-reactions and healthy spontaneity from rash impulses. Betrayal becomes less catastrophic when we don’t go all in, right away… or hold ourselves back too long, ensuring loss by deprivation. We learn give-and-take with others—"relationship sanity."
6. Emotional Capability: Dealing with one’s own emotions requires skill and practice. Like a language, emotional fluency is learned most easily by immersion in a secure family. It’s harder to learn later on, though often not as hard as we imagine. Key areas of dysfunction include suppressing emotions, not processing feelings, having chaotic, dysregulated emotional states, avoiding feelings altogether, and experiencing “impoverished,” grayed-out feelings. Learning to hold emotions, to make use of uncertainty and ambivalence, is inestimably useful.
7. Learn to Read Others: Becoming liberated from the mental noise of being driven crazy, confusion gives way to relative calmness and clarity. The brain circuits which process information about ourselves and social information are closely related. When we fine-tune our inner states, our ability to make proper sense of social situations improves.
8. Deep Self-Care: Compassion is acting to reduce suffering when it is observed. While it is helpful to think about “self-compassion,” it is hard to build compassion for oneself and not others, or compassion for others and not oneself. Compassion keeps us from getting burned by empathy when others' needs threaten to use all our resources if we tend to over-give.
How can we give ourselves license to put ourselves in harm's way when we vehemently stick up for others? Like justice, compassion is blind, seeking to average out suffering across the whole system rather than playing favorites. Empathy alone can lead to trouble, in the absence of self-knowledge.
Many roads lead to Rome. It's important to get educated and get help when necessary. It's too easy to rely on self-sufficiency. On one hand, haste makes waste. On the other hand, a stitch in time saves nine. A good place to start is educating oneself on what change looks like. Structured approaches, a couple mentioned here, can be very informative.
DBT (Dialectical Behavioral Therapy) addresses steps toward balance: distress tolerance, emotion regulation, mindfulness, and interpersonal skills. DBT was developed to treat Borderline Personality Disorder, and is useful for complex trauma, eating disorders, and other issues.
Good old-fashioned therapy, with a solid therapist, goes a long way. Regardless of the approach, it is important to have clear goals and intentions, guidance through uncertainty, and ways to check in and course-correct to avoid getting lost for too long. Surrounding ourselves with healthy relationships rather than people who drive us crazy is like sobering up from a dysfunctional relationship addiction. It's hard to be self-righting when disoriented; getting grounded is a good place to start.
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