Cluelessness: Getting Stupid

Late on a Friday afternoon,  I found myself with two patients (back to back) who were yawning and seemingly drifting off during the course of our conversation.

Now, that could have meant that I was being particularly boring.

But, in this case, it was the manifestation in the office of something that had been going on at home and causing both of them a great deal of distress – feeling overwhelmed and, in the words of one of them, “clueless.”

Both of them were searching for jobs, and both were trying to decide what career path made the most sense, after a long period of limited success and much frustration in their former jobs.

Not surprisingly, they felt anxious and were having trouble making decisions.

With both of them, I could reliably generate yawns and signs of fatigue by turning the conversation to a particular subject – one that evoked feelings of shame or guilt.

This process of shutting down one’s brain is mostly unconscious, but if you pay attention to what is going on, you have some ability to avoid the paralysis that it can create.

The younger of the two, was a young man who recently graduated from college. He recently finished a great experience teaching at a summer camp. And when I saw him right after the camp he was energetic and excited…

But two weeks later he was in my office saying he felt “clueless” about looking for a job.

How did he get from A to B? We tried to diagram the process.8-23-2013 4-25-25 PM

The first thing that happened was that he said to himself, “you need a break after the camp”, instead of seizing on the opportunity to leverage his good energy and make progress on finding a new job. As he said today, he kind of knew that the voice telling him he needed a break was taking him down the wrong path (hence the devil picture).

Then, as his mental energy drifted downward, he began to feel depressed and, at the same time, “clueless.”

What was interesting about the sense of cluelessness was the fact that it was being actively maintained by a set of thoughts that was making him more and more isolated.

His sense of shame and guilt, never far away, was triggered by his dwindling energy, and that led to a series of distorted thoughts (“I am on my own, no one wants to help”) which kept him from reaching out to the many people who could have helped him get out of this funk.

We could both see how what seemed like a simple process of losing energy, becoming tired and unable to think, turned out to be something that was actively maintained by a set of distorted thoughts connected to feelings of shame.

Sometimes our brains can trick us, and that things that seem “inevitable” may be the result of a lot of unconscious activity.

And feelings of being inadequate or stupid often end up being connected to shame and anxiety. A little exploration of what is going on may lead to a solution.