It's no secret that worrying and self-judgment — extremely common behaviors — can interfere with daily life. But you might not know that being too hard on yourself can also lead to, or exacerbate, certain mental health issues. A new study found that having a strong sense of responsibility, coupled with continually being hard on yourself, can lead to obsessive compulsive and generalized anxiety disorder. While some degree of caution and worry is helpful, too much of this behavior can be damaging to your mental health.
Over the course of the study, researchers identified three types of inflated responsibilities that lead people to mentally beat themselves up and develop damaging coping mechanisms. These include responsibility to prevent or avoid danger or harm, sense of personal responsibility and blame for negative outcomes, and responsibility to continue thinking about a problem. In a survey of those involved in the study, researchers found that people who reported feeling high levels of responsibility also exhibited traits that resemble those with OCD and GAD.
Yoshinori Sugiura, an associate professor at the University of Hiroshima, said in a press release about the study, published in the International Journal of Cognitive Therapy, that frequent behaviors related to worry can eventually turn from character traits to OCD and GAD. He uses an example of recording something you need to access later. "You're using two audio recorders instead of one," he explained in a press release. "It's just in case one fails ... having two recorders will enhance your work but if you prepare [too] many recorders ... that will interfere with your work."
On Psychology Today, Robert Taibbi, LCSW, defines this kind of overthinking as "analysis paralysis." He uses a composite character named Jack to explain how overthinking and worrying about making the wrong decision can prevent you from making any decisions at all. "Ask [Jack] about whether he wants to join you for a drink and he says he’ll have to get to back to you. Crafting an email to his supervisor can take up a morning. Deciding where to go for a vacation can take six months of research," Taibbi wrote.
It goes something like this. You worry that any decision you make will be wrong, so you run through endless scenarios in your head. Most of the outcomes are negative, and you feel that if you make the wrong choice, you'll be responsible for some sort of disaster. This leads to not doing anything but worrying, which leads to more worrying. We've all been there at one time or another, but living like this every day can be overwhelming to say the least. What's more, it can significantly impact your mental health and every other aspect of your life.
It's no secret that feeling responsible for making the perfect choice can be paralyzing. When I feel this way, I tell myself that perfect is the enemy is good and there is no such things as perfect. Perfectionism is a subjective term — it means something different to everyone, and sometimes good enough is good enough. "Perfectionism is just another variation of anxiety but is deadly for sorting out priorities — because there are none — and a sure recipe for forever getting mentally stuck in the mud when making decisions," Taibbi said.
Being caught in this kind of vicious cycle can be debilitating. Both Sugiura and Taibbi said that developing coping practices that allow you to create space in your brain can help. "Anxiety makes everything important, and you want to learn to prioritize. Ask yourself: Is this a first-world problem? In the bigger picture of my week, my life, how big really is this problem? What’s my worst fear? How likely, rationally, is this worst-case scenario apt to happen? And if it does, what I can do about it? What you are trying to do here is have your rational brain override your anxious one," Taibbi explained.
Sugiura said understanding why you're doing certain things can help you learn to make different decisions. "[A] very quick or easy way is to realize that responsibility is working behind your worry. I ask [patients], 'Why are you worried so much?' So they will answer, 'I can't help but worry,' but they will not spontaneously think, 'Because I feel responsibility' ... just realizing it will make some space between responsibility thinking and your behavior."
A great way to start making more space in your brain between your thoughts and actions (or inaction) is by adopting a meditation practice. Seriously, it works. I'm a big fan of the free meditation app Insight Timer. It offers every kind of meditation you can imagine, and it tracks your progress to help you commit to a daily practice. Begin with one of the five-minute shorty meditations and work your way up to longer sessions. There are even meditations to help stop negative self talk. Because it's time to stop beating yourself up — you deserve to give yourself a break. And remember, you're doing better than you think.
If you or someone you know is seeking help for mental health concerns, visit the National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI) website, or call 1-800-950-NAMI(6264). For confidential treatment referrals, visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) website, or call the National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP(4357). In an emergency, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK(8255) or call 911.