Interpretive Overdrive: A Checklist For Neurotic Introverts

Good working definition for a neurotic: someone whose Interpretive Faculty is perpetually on overdrive. Observe, gentle reader:

  • Normal person in the car:
    Hey, I know this song. [enjoys, sings along badly]

  • Neurotic in the car:
    Should I turn on my Aphex Twin CD? But I’ve been wondering lately whether I am losing sight of how to appreciate beauty, so maybe listening to Aphex right now will accelerate my already-advanced descent into oversophisticated soullessness! I better listen to Bach. But that will stress me out because I’ll be trying too hard to appreciate it. But it might enrich my interior life and possibly begin to thaw the frozen depths of my dormant humanity! Wait, I’m being crazy, forget this, I’ll just listen to country. But do I actually enjoy country, or will I just be listening to it ironically?

    [Skips around for twenty minutes]

    [Shuts off radio in fit of pique]

    [Bursts into tears]

  • The neurotic mind is capable of freighting any situation, no matter how trivial, with unbearable moral weight. “Moral” because, in the neurotic mind, the moral category is so inflamed and enlarged that it encroaches on every other bit of mental territory. Music choice? Maybe it has some moral elements, but mainly it’s a matter of preference: What do I want to listen to?

    In other words, a neurotic is somebody who has a really hard time knowing what he wants.

    If you’re an introverted neurotic, the most morally fraught questions are often the social ones. Should I go out or stay in? Going out might mean more effort and energy than I’m willing to put forth; or it might force me into a situation where I feel inauthentic; or it might involve tolerating people who make me uncomfortable.

    But staying in might mean loneliness. It might mean an intolerable sense of my own antisocial tendencies. It might mean that those tendencies will, fed by one more weekend spent alone, become so entrenched that my very heart will turn into a bitter, frozen wasteland — total self-enclosure — hell.

    “Whoa, slow down, buddy,” says my hypothetical, hypernormal interlocutor. “It’s not the end of the damn world, you know!”

    Yeah, I know, and I can tell myself that all day long, just like an anorexic person can tell himself that he looks just fine how he is, but it won’t necessarily help.

    I keep a mental list of questions to help myself figure out whether I should go out. I’ve just never made them explicit before. Here they are, best as I can nail them down.

    1. How long has it been?
      When’s the last time I did something social? If I’ve already been alone all day, or even for two days, I might still feel fine, but that doesn’t mean I’ll keep feeling fine. I know my limits, and it’s good to act before I reach those limits.

    2. How long will it be?
      Maybe I don’t feel like going out right now, but when will my next chance be? I’m not such a social butterfly that I have my pick of invitations any night of the week (or weekend), so I have to act prudently. If winter’s coming, you store seeds; if an especially lonely time is on the way, it’s good to store up social interaction.

    3. Do I even like these people?
      Sometimes I’ve put so much pressure on myself to go out, see somebody, DO something, that I’ve ended up spending time with people I don’t even want in my life. That’s not good for me, because I’ll feel rotten and resentful and judgmental and inauthentic. And it’s not fair to them, because I’ll be sending mixed friendship-signals. Sometimes it really is better to stay in, EVEN IF that’s what you already wanted to do.1

    4. Did I make a commitment?
      If you told somebody you’d go, I’ll almost certainly go, even if I don’t feel 100%. This might or might not be a moral issue — some people would argue that saying “Sure, I’ll go” is generally understood as “Sure, I might go” — but I want to be known as somebody who, if he says he’ll do a thing, he does it.

    5. How important is this to them?
      Opting out of a night at the bar is one thing. Opting out of a close friend’s wedding is another. That doesn’t mean you have to go to every wedding you’re invited to; it just means you’re not the center of the universe. Overcoming your own tiredness for somebody else’s sake — even if you have a legitimate need for alone time — can be a great act of love, and no act of love is ever wasted.

    If, even after all that calculus, I still can’t figure it out, sometimes I just ask myself: can I survive the wrong decision? Let’s say there is One Right Decision2 about this Friday night, and say I pick the One Wrong Decision. What will happen — and can I survive it?

    If I stay in when I should’ve gone out, will my heart become a hardened shell overnight? Is it the very last chance that my friends will ever ever ever give me? Will I lose all capacity for human contact and maybe even for human speech, and be reduced to gibbering and grunting?

    Probably, but at least my cats will understand me.

    1 Some of us neurotics have this thing where, if we want to do a thing, it must therefore be the wrong thing to do. This is a lie, but you’d be surprised how powerful a lie it can be.
    2 (But there isn’t.)

    20 Comments on “Interpretive Overdrive: A Checklist For Neurotic Introverts”

    1. Briana says:

      Great as always, Joey. I pick up more tools for my mental health toolkit from you than from anywhere else.

    2. ajohnny says:

      You wouldn’t consider Aphex Twin’s music beautiful?

      1. Some of it yes. Some of it no. Some of it yes but somehow in a different way from, say, the beauty of Brahms. Some of it I am utterly unsure. (But regardless, I really like him and am super excited for Syro!)

    3. Laura says:

      Thanks for writing this! This kind of stuff goes through my head all the time, especially for social things. It’s oddly encouraging to know I’m not the only person who over thinks the heck out of pretty much everything!

    4. Searcheress says:

      “I told XY that…” (some rather innocent and goodwill sentence)
      “Was that wrong? Will I be misunderstood so xy will feel bad because of wrong interpretation??”
      “I made a mistake by saying that…”
      “Maybe I should explain myself to xy so it won’t be hurt people..”
      “I will explain, but I hope it won’t make things worse..”
      “Uh, my brain, my brain…”
      “You know, xy, sorry for saying that..”
      XY: “Ha?? What are you talking about, I don’t remember you saying that..”


      Yes, neuroticism meets OCD and they both have fun..

    5. Matt P. says:

      Yup, definitely sounds familiar. I continue to search for the line between enjoyment and indulgence, and it’s tricky. Not everything material needs to be purely utilitarian, but once I start down some roads I have a hard time letting up.

      The best thing I’ve found is to pray for a little while every morning. I shoot for 15 minutes, but if things are so crazy I can only do 5, that’s okay. Five seems to be my clear minimum. But I need to be in silence, on my knees, for that time. During that time I do my best to make conscious contact with God. It helps me very much to talk to God out loud, because then I’m pretty sure I’m not sliding into reverie. And during that time (even if it’s only when my timer goes off), I try to ask for guidance throughout the day and invite God to direct my life. No matter how much I might be screwing up, I do know that I’m sincerely trying–or at least trying to try–to do God’s will.

      Now here’s the hardest and trickiest part for me: having prayed this, I have to trust that God is actually doing it, no matter what things look like during the day. That whatever I do or don’t do, and whatever small choices I’m making, I have to trust that God is guiding it/me/everything. I can tell it’s working when I’m slightly uncomfortable with the idea of taking things to extremes (including angsting) and so generally tend to take it easy.

      For what it’s worth.

    6. Lydia says:

      When I saw the title of this post I knew it would be an especially good one. What I did not expect was to see two of my biggest worries – the first footnote and the One Right Thing – explained and exposed for the lies they are. Thanks so much for writing and God bless : )

    7. K says:

      The One Right Thing usually ends up ruining other Mildly Good Things or even Pretty Good Things, darn it all. And yet, there it is, every time.

    8. S. says:

      Very well written, Steve. Aphex Twins/Bach passage made me smile — been there too many times! Not that you don’t already know this, but prayer is an essential medicine for the neurotic. I don’t know how to get through the situations you’ve described above without prayer. “Be still and know that I am God.”

    9. Mrs. Amens says:

      YES!!! To all of it. I am an introvert and neurotic. And I drive the people in my life crazy just by being in my own head so much that I can hardly figure out if going to the grocery store and saying “thank you” to the cashier counts as a worthwhile and reasonable social interaction capable of sustaining me for a few more days.

    10. Grayhead says:

      Well said, Steve.
      Neurotic introversion loves company, humor, and beautifully precise
      articulation. So thank you! 🙂

    11. Angela says:

      I am a introvert, but I don’t think a neurotic…that being said, I hear you with the social decisions…should I go or should I stay? If I do go someplace, sometimes I feel like I’m making myself go, but in the long run, I’m glad I went else I’ll miss out on things….that being said, my family has banned me from the radio when we are driving someplace since I tend to use the skip button like the channel changer on a t.v. remote. Then there is that one time I listened to one song for three days straight at college….just got back into liking it again….over think and enjoy at times….but I do get out….sometimes.

    12. Caroline M says:

      This is hysterical. So much of what I used to think was “being a good Christian with a sensitive conscience” was just me being neurotic. Turns out that sometimes it’s OK to just listen to the music without turning it into a moral/ artistic conundrum.

    13. Alex says:

      You have cats? I knew you were a cool guy.

    14. Michael says:

      I sometimes think that another way of saying neurosis is ‘I care too much’. If I can sometimes divorce myself from the anxious feelings I’m having over a choice then I can look at it objectively and see reality for a brief bit.

      Its like when Gandalf parts Sauron’s dark illusions for a short time so the truth of things can be revealed, if that makes any sense. The more I push against the fear the stronger I get in parting it to see through my own eyes rather than through the eyes of fear.

      Sorry, I just watched The Hobbit a couple of days ago. 🙂

    15. Taylor Whittenton says:

      I have been thinking so long about what kind of personality I have and this hits it on the head! I was cracking up at the complete accuracy of the discussion. It is true, every decision, whether how small takes is a process and effort is made to make sure the right decision is made!

    16. Becky says:

      Joey, I read about your blog in an article and had to visit. I suppose you will get a lot more traffic now that you are better known. I hope that you do, because you are a charismatic writer with important things to say that aren’t being said enough. I’m Catholic too, a much older Catholic than you! I’ve seen the Church change in outward rubrics — I was raised and schooled when Mass was in Latin, we kids collected pennies for the pagan babies, and my only teachers were nuns. I was lucky enough to have wonderful teachers, only one or two who were particularly crabby, and I miss the Sisters very much.

      Your interview for the article was a balm to my spirit … the last few weeks have been difficult for me as a Catholic and a thinking human being. The issues of gay marriage, the Charleston killings … there has just been so much hate on both sides that I have found myself feeling more and more sad and disheartened. I’m mainly targeting right now the terrible things that are being said about the Church’s teachings and Catholics as a whole. I can hardly stand to look at Facebook anymore, although I’ve always enjoyed the fun stuff. Hate and ignorance about the Church are all over the place, and it seems impossible to be of any use in making any change. My spirit is rather low, as you can tell! Your candid and thoughtful responses during the interview made me feel better, and also reminded me that it is mostly the extremists who are posting and commenting and being quoted by the media.

      This particular post interested me because I too have the problems you speak of. I’m manic-depressive, Type 2, which is primarily depressive. Anxiety is such a disabling thing when it strikes, and for me too is accompanied by a running commentary of neurotic worry. It’s no fun, that’s for sure. Well, this is an awfully long comment, but I just wanted to say hello, I’m glad I saw your interview, and I’d like to follow your blog. God bless you.

    17. Vikki says:

      I found this wonderful!!
      I was reading the car radio example, and I was like, “Yes!”

      “Whoa, slow down, buddy,” says my hypothetical, hypernormal interlocutor.”
      ,“hypernormal” 🙂

    18. Anonymous says:

      What’s with you?

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