Something's Not Right... - Justin Lioi, LCSW - Brooklyn, NY

Do you ever feel that way? Just some sense that things are off. You ask yourself, “Why do I feel the way I do?”

It’s especially distressing if you can’t figure out the “why?” We feel better knowing that we have a good reason to not feel better.

In the past, this feeling would arise for me right after something awesome happened. Something I was really psyched about. A few hours or days while I’ve been in the “good place,” something starts eating away at me. I can get hyper aware of mistakes I’ve made, the many ways that I’ve fooled myself (and everyone else)–and then a sense of blah-ness settles in.

This mixes with shame.

Mixes with self-doubt.

Mixes with anger at myself, at friends, family, relationship.

There’s a part of me that wants to do so much, but quickly becomes overwhelmed by all that there is to do, and I just want to collapse on my bed and binge watch something mindless on Netflix and eat donuts. It may even take some time before I ask the question, “Why do I feel the way I do?”

It happens much less now that I’ve become more connected to what’s actually going on, but it’s a strong feeling memory.

Different from how you deal with situations like this? Maybe, but I suspect there’s a core similarity to the feeling.

Clues That I’m Trying to Avoid Something

How do you get from here to there? There’s a few steps.

First, I had to begin noticing when the discomfort starts to arise. Not when it’s already arrived and I’m on my fourth SVU episode, but early on. Sometimes there are things I fall into that are indications that I’m avoiding a feeling, and I’m avoiding it so well that I don’t even notice I’m avoiding it.

As a therapist you become pretty self-aware, but there always a part of me that adapts to try to slip one over on me. Now it’s just the recognition that I want to leave my office to get a Zebra Cake that is my nudge.

I’ve got some other benchmarks, too. I bite my nails. I do this regularly, much more than my dentist wants me to (which is never), but during times that I’ve avoiding a feeling (anger, sadness, fear, helplessness—even happiness sometimes!) I bite with more vigor. It’s a time to ask myself why I’m feeling this way.

Here’s another one: an inability to read a book I’m enjoying. I love to read. I’m always deep into some book on some topic. You can see from many of my posts that I’m pretty avid when it comes to both the printed or the digitized word. But sometimes I just can’t focus. It could be something easy, something I’m really interested in, but I can’t get through a few paragraphs before I realize that I have no idea what’s going on.

One more: sweets. When I’m choosing two donuts in the middle of the day even after lunch, i know that there’s a feeling I’d rather “swallow” than sit with.

Connecting With Others is Key (but there are other ways while cultivating those connections)

My best antidote for any of these is connection. Connecting with another person and letting them know that I’m feeling “off” even if I don’t know why I feel the way I do. I need to talk it through it with someone who’s not going to try to solve my problem. Who’s not going to judge me. Who’s not going to make it about them. Who’s going to hear me, commiserate, empathize, and remind me that I’m not forgotten about.

Sometimes I simply need someone to remind me that I matter.

Does that make me sound fragile? So be it. After years of trying to do it all on my own–to be the strong, silent person who never asks for help–I decided that it makes a lot more sense to reach out than to pull in.

It’s hard to find the people who can do this for us, but we all owe it to ourselves to cultivate them.

Sometimes people aren’t around and we need some coping mechanisms. These aren’t substitutes for other people, but they’re also not just band-aids. We need to find the right balance for us of connecting inwardly and outwardly.

Find two or three things that work for you. My go-to’s: meditation is great. A walk is terrific. A structured break of some kind is ok, too (by that I mean, “Justin, you are allowed to watch one episode of Person of Interest, and then you will go back to returning all those emails.”)

Make sure you have some activities that you can do anywhere. I can meditate on the train. I can put headphones on at the supermarket or take a walk at lunch time. Etcetera, etcetera…

Know Your Signs

The first step, though, is learning your signs. What are the indicators that tell you that something’s not right? That nagging thing that doesn’t makes sense, that desire to know, Why do I feel the way I do?

If you’re having trouble coming up with these on your own, you might need to ask someone else. Find a good friend or close family member, just someone who knows you well. Someone who can tell when you’re in a bad mood, or knows you enough to know when you’re about to get upset. After you listen to what they say–as non-defensively as possible!–then you need to start noticing the signs too.

Here are a few familiar ones:

  • making fists
  • stomach churning
  • headache
  • tired
  • lack of/increased appetite
  • activities to zone out to: porn, food, substances, etc

Once you have that, use one of the coping skills you’ve chosen and see what happens. Do you still go down into that spiral? If done regularly, it’s not that you won’t feel down or angry or annoyed, but it will hopefully not last as long and the pain won’t be as sharp.

This isn’t something that changes overnight, but acquiring some beta version of tools you can use when things are mildly annoying can help you fortify what’s in your toolbox for when life is really testing you. If you’d like to go deeper and look at what would be a stronger benefit for your individual situation, please get in touch with me for a free phone consultation.

Justin Lioi, LCSW is a men’s mental health and relationship expert based in Brooklyn, NY (and online throughout New York State and internationally.) He received his degree from New York University and has been working with men and their families for over 10 years. Justin is on the Board of the National Association of Social Workers and writes a weekly column for the Good Men Project called Unmasking Masculinity. He can be found on local and national podcasts talking about assertiveness, anger, self-compassion, all with the goal of becoming the man you want to be. He works with all men but has a particular focus on providing counseling for fathers (and guys hoping to become dads!)