Silence And The Heart Of The Problem

It can be difficult for me to take a moment to quietly think something over.

I’ve spent so much time trying to fill the space in my life that used to be occupied by friends and living in the world at large. Podcasts, audio books, music, video games, and even talking to myself. So much of what occupies my days is something I started to help me get through the periods when I feel like the weight of the pandemic is going to crush me.

It’s like an old, familiar coping mechanism. I’ve gotten so good at filling silence the instant I start to feel it weigh on me that now, when I need to embrace the silence and solitude I require for picking through difficult thoughts, I struggle against my own ingrained reactions. Like my tendency to make jokes when I’m sad or uncomfortable, this is now a habit bordering on an impulse that is making it difficult for me to live what I consider a healthy life. I literally just had to take almost fifteen minutes of fighting against my instincts to let my mind unclench long enough to come up with blog topics. I put my phone away half a dozen times and never once thought “I should stop forcing myself to work when I’m uncomfortable, so I’m going to spend my break browsing Twitter.” I just found my phone in my hands immediately after thoughts like “I wonder what the weather will be tomorrow” or “I wonder if there’s been an announcement about whether or not there’ll be a new Friends At The Table episode this week.” It is as effortless as setting aside my unhealthy intrusive thoughts and easier than pulling myself out of a depression, anxiety, or obsession spiral.

I’m aware of it, though, which means that I can work through it. Like every other problem that has come up in the past two years, I have the tools and experience to work through it once I realize it’s a problem. I don’t even feel particularly bad about it right now, since I know that it’s a defense mechanism that’s largely still healthy in a lot of ways. It helps me stave off the loneliness I feel as someone still wearing a mask, as someone who lives alone, and as someone whose (emotionally) closest friends live far away. But this defense mechanism is not always something I need.

One of the big distinctions that marks the difference between anxiety and an anxiety disorder is that the former is a common feeling and the latter is something that gets in the way of living a healthy life. I’m not quite to that point with my self-distraction, with my avoidance of silence, but like my forray into Satisfactory, I can recognize that it is going to become a severe problem if I don’t do something about it. The problem is, given how stressful things still are and how anxious I feel about my life right now, I can’t really spare the spoons for exposing myself to something as personally difficult as prolonged silence and solitude.

Thankfully, that’s not strictly necessary even if it would likely be one of the most effective options. One of the most important steps in any mental health treatment plan is doing the work to recognize and name the actual problem. For example, being in total silence isn’t the problem I’m trying to solve. The actual problem is that I’m using multiple sources of sensory input to distract myself from anything that might stress me out. Which means what I need to do is get used to doing only one thing at a time again. Sitting in silence and carefully considering something is one such thing, but so is playing Kirby and the Forgotten Land without listening to music or a podcast. I can work on getting my distraction habits under control by not listening to music as I go on my daily walks or not putting on podcasts when I’m driving to or from work. I still listen to something while doing chores, but I generally just leave it in my pocket instead of skipping tracks or dull bits that don’t hold my attention very well.

As someone who reads about people working through issues themselves or attempting to maintain their mental well-being, I don’t think this specific step gets enough attention. I will admit that my familiarity with working through a problem until I know what is the actual cause is a result of having access to good therapists for my entire adult life (most of the time, anyway). I recognize that for the privelege it is in the US healthcare system, but I think anyone can develop the skills required to figure out what is the actual problem rather than a symptom of it given enough time and guidance or effort. Unfortunately, since I have zero access to other people’s minds, I can’t really describe how it works since my process involves a lot of mental imagery (and thinking quietly to myself, coincidentally).

If you’re trying to work through something on your own and don’t feel like you’re making progress, that’s usually a good sign that you’re working on a symptom rather than the actual problem. If you can gain access to a therapist, I recommend getting their assistance since that is literally their job. If not, tracking patterns related to the issue you’re working on is a great way to find commonalities that might point to the true source. And sometimes you’ll think you’ve figured it out, get it mostly sorted, and then realize in a flash while talking to someone about something entirely unrelated that maybe you were wrong because there’s no way this thing you just thought of is a separate issue. Or you’ll be hanging up your towel after a shower and realize that, because you were just thinking over why you weren’t upset at someone for something they did, that maybe you really are angry at your parents for how the voice in your head telling you that it doesn’t matter if other people hurt you because your feelings don’t matter is actually your parents’ voices.

To be entirely fair, that was the culimnation of years of therapy and work on myself. I didn’t just realize that in a flash on it’s own, but it’s a pretty convincing testament that sometimes the actual problem is not what you think it is.

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