Therapist

Is it bad to psychoanalyze yourself

Monkey Mind

“Explanation separates us from astonishment, which is the only gateway to the incomprehensible.” ~Eugene Ionesco

We are taught from a very young age that it is our responsibility to reflect on the motives behind our actions and behaviors. From the time we can form sentences, we are asked the questions: “Why did you make that choice?” and “What made you do that?”

These questions often follow bad behavior and punishment. Our parents were trying to teach us, with the best of intentions, that we are responsible for our own actions.

This is a necessary lesson for young children, who are discovering their autonomy and the consequences of their behavior in a social world.

To a certain point, we should be held responsible for our actions, by others and ourselves. A conscientious person practices self-reflection and recognizes the origin and causes of thoughts and feelings when possible.

But for some of us, myself included, it feels like every thought and behavior needs to be analyzed.

Self-reflection, rumination, and justification fill my day and keep me up late at night. In order to maintain a sense of self-control and discipline, I dissect every emotion I feel and every action I take, all the while building a psychological narrative for my life.

For a long time, my drive to understand my behavior was an asset. I could explain my actions and thoughts more maturely than other kids, and adults prided me on my reflective nature.

When I was younger, I was blessed with mental health. Because my mind was functioning correctly and promoting the right behaviors and feelings, it was easy for me to explain and justify my actions. For the most part, they were appropriate and positive.

If I did act slightly out of line or overreact to a situation, I could assemble a psychological justification for it. Whether I dipped into parental relationships, miniature traumas from kindergarten, or a mere misunderstanding, I always managed to justify my behavior with sound psychological reasoning.

I thought of myself as my own personal therapist, totally capable of unearthing the intricate details of my inner psyche.

I perceived myself to be in total control of my feelings and my life. My brain was subject to my willpower. Most importantly, I was never at a loss when asked the question: “Why did you do that?”

The summer after I turned sixteen, my mental health began to unravel. I began to use my copious willpower and self-control to lose some weight and increase my fitness level.

At first, I did have control of my weight loss, and my brain’s intentions lined up with my conscious goals. I looked great, I felt great, and I hadn’t faltered a single day in my diet and exercise routine.

Then, some time in August, my weight-loss spiraled out of control. I became more restrictive and ramped up my exercise. My behavior, once a matter of conscious decision, was inexplicable to me. The thoughts in my head, centered on weight loss and extreme exercise, were loud and unintelligible to me.

For a while, I kept these thoughts quiet, telling myself that I would soon get control of my brain. I didn’t want to admit to myself or others that I had lost control of my thoughts and feelings.

I felt weak and stupid because I couldn’t understand my own behavior, and I felt the need to punish myself for failing to comprehend my mental state. Unfortunately, the easiest way for me to punish myself was to lose more weight and push myself even harder in my exercise.

My parents and other adults in my life did notice that I was losing weight, and asked me what was going on.

I cycled through faulty lines of logic—school stress, loneliness, a desire to be “healthy” taken too far—but I knew that none of these explanations was entirely correct. I would tell those around me that I had finally figured out the true root of my restrictive eating, only to continue the next day.

Nearly a year after this began, one of my favorite teachers suggested that we have a talk about my mental health. I told him about the craziness of the past year, and came clean with the fact that I didn’t understand my own mind anymore. I apologized profusely, waiting for him to question me about my social, emotional, and academic life to find answers.

Instead, he told me something I will never forget:

“Avery, you don’t have to understand. No one can really understand everything that they say or do. We aren’t supposed to figure everything out, because life is messy and not everything can be analyzed and justified. Some things are just incomprehensible.”

Some things are just incomprehensible. Hearing this lifted a huge weight from my shoulders. It was okay to rest in a state of unknowing, to breathe, even in the midst of confusion.

After this conversation, I was finally able to accept that my brain is only partially open to my conscious analysis. I can justify some of my actions, but sometimes I will feel or think certain things that can’t be rationally explained. I realized that I am allowed to understand only a fraction of what it means to be human.

In lieu of our talk, I stopped trying to justify my behavior, and instead focused on what I could control: my reaction to my thoughts and feelings. When thoughts enter my head, I can decide how to respond to them, even if I can’t understand where they came from or why they are surfacing in the moment.

Paradoxically, accepting that I do not and cannot justify all of my thoughts and behaviors has been the single most important step in recovering my weight and my mental health.

I no longer need to punish myself for failing to understand. I can love myself without absolutely knowing myself, just the way I love others without understanding their every thought and action.

At first, when talking to my family and friends, I expected them to be disappointed in me when I confessed that I couldn’t make sense of my feelings and behavior. Amazingly, the opposite happened: People felt closer to me than ever before, and found me more relatable because I too struggled to understand myself.

The truth is, none of us will ever fully grasp the origin and cause of our every thought, feeling, and action. Neurologically speaking, we actually aren’t supposed to; scientists now know that we can only infer and predict many of our actions, just as we predict the actions of others based on limited information.

Letting go of our constant self-analysis and rationalization is scary at first for people like me, who take pride in self-control and reflection.

However, by accepting that you cannot know or explain your whole self, you liberate yourself from the constant burden of rumination. You are free to control what you can control—your reactions to thoughts—and to let the rest come and go.

Next time you ask yourself, or someone asks you, “Why did you do that?” you have the right to say, “I don’t know” if the answer truly eludes you.

Of course, in some situations, it will be necessary to get to the root of a problem, especially when dealing with relationships. Even so, you have the right to not know yet; some feelings and habits can only be understood with time and distance.

It’s okay to tell others that you need time and space to process your thoughts, and that, for the time being, you cannot offer a succinct explanation.

They say that the only thing as complicated as the universe is the human brain. Both are chaotic, awe-inspiring, rife with contradictions, and impossible to fully comprehend. That is what makes them, and, by extension, life, so exciting and beautiful.

About Avery Rogers

Avery Rogers is a high school student in California. She aspires to be an author, spiritual writer, and neuroscientist when she grows up. She is the creator and host of the Brainstorms Podcast, a neuroscience podcast for teenagers. She also runs a personal blog about love, spirituality, and the meaning of life at on her blog Pluto’s Journal.

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mixed feelings is a weekly advice column dedicated to self-understanding—not necessarily self-betterment. Every Wednesday, a different mental health expert, author, or journalist will respond to your problems and existential questions. If you like this sort of thing, why not subscribe?

Hi mixed feelings,

I’m afraid that I’ve picked up some of the toxic tendencies from a friend (let’s call her Lisa) I had a falling out with. She had a very dominant personality and went to school for social cognition. I felt she always forced whoever she was interacting with into the role of “the patient” while she took on the role of the “expert.” Lisa was very manipulative and lied to me many times…but I put up with it because there were moments when she was a good friend. 

I fear that our friendship was built on some sort of codependent trauma bond, where she conditioned me to be vulnerable so that she could get high on her own insights by psychoanalyzing me. This isn’t to say that it wasn’t sometimes helpful; Lisa did allow me to see certain patterns in choices I’ve made, but sometimes I felt like she was reaching, trying to force connections that just weren’t there, or unfair to other people involved.

Recently, my partner told me that his best friend thinks that I psychoanalyze him. I was angry, not because I felt it wasn’t true, but because it partially was. I enjoy talking about why human beings do the things we do…but I worry I am doing all the same things [to my friends that] Lisa did to me. 

There are so many people nowadays that are trying to better themselves by entrenching themselves in mental health content—how does one turn off the urge to psychoanalyze a friend and just be there for them? Are there ever instances where psychoanalyzing a friend is ok?

Best, Overthinker, she/her/hers

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Dear Overthinker,

I once had a toxic friendship. I thought this friend was cooler, prettier, and more impressive than me, and I was willing to do anything—even sacrifice my sense of self—to get her to like me. For a lot of reasons, she thought I played the victim in our friendship. I thought she played the perpetrator.

When I look back now, I see my own toxicity in the relationship. She was right; I did like playing the victim. When she groveled to mend our friendship, it was a way to get her to prove she liked me. I now realize that changing myself (or allowing myself to be “de-selfed” as psychologists call it) to fulfill her needs was a choice I made rather than something she forced me into. I could have set boundaries, distanced myself, or confronted her before things boiled over. Although it’s never our fault when someone harms us, being passive to toxicity is a choice, just like perpetrating it is. 

I sense your fear of psychoanalyzing masks a deeper one: of being similar to someone you saw as toxic, and consequently, being toxic yourself. To tackle your desire to psychoanalyze, we need to untangle why becoming like Lisa scares you so much in the first place.

Splitting

Calling someone toxic is often a form of “splitting”. Splitting means seeing someone as all bad or all good, and is often part of processing grief around the end of a friendship. Splitting soothes our grieving because it convinces us that there’s nothing to miss, that our righteous, bitter, and sad emotions are all justified, and that the other person is fully at fault. But splitting has its costs. 

There’s nothing to ponder when we label someone toxic because splitting reduces a narrative and crushes wondering. It keeps us from investigating our role in a dysfunctional dynamic. What if instead of seeing Lisa as someone who “conditioned [you] to be vulnerable,” you saw yourself as someone who was vulnerable to the wrong person? This may feel lousy, but it grants you agency and control—that you can consent to relationships, rather than being dragged into them.

Rehumanizing Lisa, seeing her as flawed but human, can also help you acknowledge—rather than shut off—the parts of you that identify with her. When Lisa psychoanalyzed you, you may have admired the side of her that was intellectual and knowledgeable, but were put off by the side that was judgmental. Knowing this is useful because shutting off sides of who you are doesn’t work. Eventually, those sides sliver out, sometimes possessing the rest of us in their desperation to be seen.

Your Shadow

There are times when we’re so put off by someone that we live our lives trying to be anti–them. My father was dominating, and I hated it, so I’ll be submissive. My aunt was critical, so I’ll never speak up. But in shaping our personalities to emulate someone or be their opposite, we abandon who we really are. According to Carl Jung, “Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves.” 

I know you’re probably afraid that if you acknowledge the Lisa side of you, you’ll end up like her. But that’s not how it works. Jung argues that “everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is.” When we confront this shadow side we often feel shame, as we realize some qualities we detest in others, we find in ourselves. But the more you reflect on your shadow, the more you get to decide how it shows up.

You Can’t Bury An Urge

I’m sensing psychoanalyzing may be fulfilling a need from your shadow side. Once you understand your need, you can meet it in ways that feel better to you and your partner. If you find that psychoanalyzing comes from a desire to feel superior, you can choose to do other things that give you a sense of superiority, like playing a sport you’re good at. If it’s to understand things deeply, you can analyze your favorite television characters. You can find ways to honor the part of your shadow side that wants to psychoanalyze without psychoanalyzing your friends.

In relationships, psychoanalysis is something I generally avoid. We were corrected by our professors in graduate school when we psychoanalyzed too much, because when we did, we were often more concerned with feeling helpful than being helpful. Have you ever felt like a friend was trying to fix a problem for you when you just needed to vent? Their solutions might have rung hollow because they didn’t acknowledge what you really needed: to feel heard. To really be helpful, we need to give people agency. Instead of solving their problems for them, we need to sit alongside them as they struggle to figure out their problems for themselves. 

“How does one turn off the urge to psychoanalyze a friend?,” you asked. The urge to psychoanalyze is like any urge. We don’t overcome urges by burying them. We overcome them by acknowledging and understanding them, then being mindful when they bob up. Doing so will require you to acknowledge that you and Lisa may share a shadow side. To know yourself, even your shadow, will set you free from being controlled by it.

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