I come to you today with a Controversial Opinion, a counterpoint to the deeply held belief of Our People that Processing Everything With Everyone All The Time Is Good. My take? There is such a thing as too much processing! Stop over-processing, my dear sweet emotional talkative queer angel babes! Truly, for the good of us all, but most specifically: for the good of yourself!
Lesbians love to lean into a good stereotype, and what is more stereotypical than a bunch of dykes over-processing their feelings before, after, and during a long night of hot queer sex followed by a morning after decision to U-Haul together with your combined 17 cats? This is a funny joke to laugh at, I guess, but we’re all getting older and marching slowly (or quickly, depending on your perspective / cynicism about climate change!) toward death and I think it would be a good idea, as we near the end of 2019, to think about the ways over-processing actually harms us and the relationships we are often trying to foster when we engage in this behavior.
I am by no means saying it is bad to want to discuss your feelings, be open and honest, and communicate directly. Y’all know I love nothing more than a solid round of direct communication! But somewhere along the way, we as A People seem to have interpreted “direct communication” to mean “share every single thought I’ve ever had with every single human I feel remotely intimate with, sometimes including and especially thoughts ABOUT that human” and that, my loves, is Not The Way! Back in February we tackled another lesbian stereotype and talked about how casual dating amongst queer women is actually possible, and that acting like it isn’t is a lie we tell ourselves when we don’t feel like doing the work of enacting boundaries and other healthy behaviors that facilitate casual dates. This is a similar scenario – despite what gay media and your codependent BFF may tell you, queer women are actually capable of not over-processing every tiny detail of our lives 24/7. It just takes a tiny bit of work, self-awareness, and a desire to break this bad habit.
So, to recap and get on the same page, let’s review what direct communication looks like. Direct communication means you’ve checked in with yourself, you have a clear idea of what you believe to be true and what and how you’d like to share it, you say what you mean kindly but honestly, you make space for the person or people to respond with their own (hopefully) direct communication, and then you discuss collectively what make sense to do next. The conclusion is not always what you want it to be – sometimes there is no way to compromise and sometimes you will still feel hurt or misunderstood – but there is no space for plausible deniability and you have said what you intended to say. Great! Comparatively, what does over-processing look like, you might ask. Great question! You know when you have a conversation with someone (a friend, a date, a stranger) and everyone communicates what they need to – you share your feelings, she shares her feelings, y’all wrap it up and go home or go to sleep or whatever – and then, a wave of regret washes over you. Fuck! There was more you had to say! You have additional questions! You have a couple of clarifying statements! You are really sad about how the conversation ended! You’d like to revisit it! You know that feeling? I would invite you to consider… maybe taking a pause when you experience that! And then… maybe doing nothing, instead of anything. Because that, my pals, is what over-processing looks like.
It’s so hard, I know. I totally get it. I really, really do. Sometimes I think when I give advice I must seem like such a cold-hearted bitch and y’all must just roll your eyes and think well, Vanessa’s a Capricorn with no feelings and a bizarrely logical code of ethics, she can’t possibly understand what I’m feeling because she’s not emotional and always doing just fine so what the heck does she know about my RICH INNER LIFE, and I would like to promise you, at this juncture, that nothing could be farther from the truth! I have a lot of big logical aspirations and I write about them in these advice articles on Autostraddle dot com, but the unfortunate truth (for me! For my patient pals! For my therapist!) is that I am just as human as the rest of y’all and my advice is often either stuff I’ve learned from fucking up very badly or stuff that I hope to internalize myself. Which is all to say – I actually do understand that usually over-processing comes from a place of feeling deeply sad, deeply misunderstood, or deeply anxious. Unfortunately… that doesn’t change anything for us here. I still think we need to stop doing it.
If you’re going through a breakup and you and your ex have already had the baseline necessary conversation or conversations about why things have ended and they’re trying to take some space… respect their boundaries. Do not keep talking in circles. The fact is it’s over and there’s nothing left to say — at least not to your ex. If you’re casually dating someone and they’re a great communicator and everything is going smoothly but you’re experiencing some intense feelings based on unresolved issues in a past relationship… it’s very possible that you do not have to share this with your casual date! Obviously if you’re experiencing PTSD or need to take specific physical or emotional care around certain things you should share that (if you feel comfortable), but if casually dating a respectful and kind babe is bringing up some personal work you need to do, that’s possible to accomplish in therapy or with friends and does not need to be something you discuss with the cutie who takes you out to dinner twice a month. If you have a crush on someone and they gently tell you it’s not mutual, no follow up is necessary (again, at least not with them personally, although you will probably want to talk about your feelings with your own pals with no relation to the crush and obviously that’s fine!). If you wanted to be friends with an acquaintance in your new town and she never seems to have time for you, accept that for whatever reason she is not available for friendship. If your mother-in-law is a nightmare but you only see her once a year and your spouse agrees she is stressful and upsetting, maybe just mutually agree to hold your breath for the annual reunion and don’t bother picking a fight with your partner about the exact tone of her bullshit year after year – alternatively, explain that you will no longer be going to the reunion and then stick to that plan. The point here is to communicate directly, accept whatever outcome, and then… do not keep overthinking and over-processing hoping for a different outcome. I know. Extremely hard. And yet!
To reiterate: The difference between communicating directly and over-processing, in my opinion, often lies in the question: what is your end game? When you communicate directly, you are trying to make sure everyone has the information they need to make informed decisions about themselves and the dynamics. There isn’t really an “ulterior motive,” you know – it’s not a trick or a long game. It’s really just honest and direct and kind. When you over-process, in my opinion, you are often trying to shift the dynamic or force a change in it. If your answer to the question “what is my end game?” that question is ever anywhere in the realm of “changing how a person who is not me thinks, feels, or acts towards me,” I’d argue that is an over-processing situation that does not need to occur. You can’t change how a person who is not you thinks, feels, or acts. You also aren’t able to change someone’s perceptions of you! If your desire to continue processing is based on the idea “oh, I suspect they think X about me but I want them to think Y!”, that is also a no. It’s a waste of your time, it will 99% not work, and it’s disrespectful to their agency and autonomy.
Going back to the idea that reeling in the desire to over-process can actually be the most self-caring choice one can make, I want to point out that picking at something or insisting on having multiple conversations about the same topic can actually sabotage a connection that would’ve been fine if you’d let things be. Over-processing about an issue can lead to one or all people in the conversation feeling very burnt out (and potentially even willfully misunderstood), it can make it seem as though you are relying on one human to take care of all your emotional needs (whether that’s true or not, it’s not a great feeling to hold), and it can feel confusing or hurtful (especially if you’re projecting things other folks have done to you onto a person who has not actually done anything wrong!). It also honestly does not always lead to more clarity – I can sometimes pinpoint the moment when communication turned to over-processing because it then led to miscommunications and I always wish I’d stopped the conversation before we got to that nightmare turn.
Processing everything all the time is not only not good, it is actually bad! I know it can be really hard, but I also believe in you and in me and in us when I say I think we can stop doing this!
Here are some things you can do instead.
Having feelings is normal. Experiencing a range of emotions? Depending on your perspective, either a positive or negative side effect of being a human with a brain and a heart! Working through the messy stuff that lives inside your brain and heart in a safe space curated by and for you, that will not actively harm others, that you can keep extremely secret until the day you die or even burn ceremoniously if you’re feeling really wild? Such a good way to cope with stuff we might otherwise be tempted to over-process! Journals rule and were literally created for over-processing. Bonus: no one will ever text you to ask if you’re subtweeting them, you can use colorful pens and stickers if you feel like being creative, you can literally say whatever you want, the act of writing privately can actually help you sort out confusing emotions so that you’re better able to communicate clearly and directly when it’s the right time to do so, and okay, watching a journal catch fire in a blaze of glory is pretty satisfying.
2. Talk to your therapist
Okay, so the key point of this particular advice is that it’s not necessary or appropriate to process every single thing with every single human. That doesn’t mean you can’t process every single thing – I too have an anxious brain that overthinks every aspect of the universe, and I love paying someone to work with me gently to unlearn my unhealthy behaviors, encourage me to put certain things down or away at least for now, and to kindly call me out when I am doing myself more harm than help. I know that going to therapy is not an option for everyone, unfortunately – it can be difficult to find a good therapist, it can be cost-prohibitive, etc – but if therapy is an option I truly cannot think of a better way to curb the urge to share inappropriate things with folks in your life who do not need to hear it. Nothing makes me feel more powerful and grounded than when I say, “I’ve been working on some stuff in therapy, but I don’t think we need to process it together because it’s really my stuff to deal with, not yours.”
3. Talk to a trusted pal who is not involved in the situation
Again, I’m not advocating that you bottle up your feelings and never share them. I think talking about our stuff is really helpful and necessary when it comes to learning about ourselves, learning how to be considerate and kind humans, and working through confusing scenarios. The key here is that you do not necessarily have to process with your date or your lover or your partner, especially if your concerns are about that person! My very first girlfriend, whenever we had a fight, would want to process things with me afterwards. She was often very mad at me for things that to be completely honest were not my fault but were rather things that happened to involve me that were activating a lot of her past trauma. That in itself was okay – like not my favorite thing in the whole world, but understandable. But you know what was not okay? Asking me to process that stuff with her! It did not solve a damn thing, it made me feel terrible about myself for things in her history that truly had nothing to do with me, and I really believe it harmed our bond because I ended up feeling both guilty and resentful. I used to ask my ex to talk to her friends about these issues, but she never wanted to because she said she couldn’t trust them as much as she could trust me. So she continued to process with me, about me, and listen, we’re not together anymore! All of which is to say: it’s really good to have a few trusted friends in your life so that y’all can reciprocally process things about other people together! Find someone trustworthy, patient, kind, and honest. It’s never a bad idea if a friend can gently but firmly point out when you’re working yourself up into a spiral over something that really should not be taking up so much space in your head, or when you’re misreading a situation. Some folks seem to think true friendship means always saying yes to your pal, but I’d disagree – invest in the friendships where y’all can kindly point out when someone is wrong. That’s the sign of a true friend.
4. Wait it out
Listen: everything is temporary. Literally every single thing. That includes feelings. When I told a pal I was writing this article because I was tired of everyone over-processing things, she nodded vehemently and said some very sage words: “Sometimes what feelings are, are just fucking feelings.” If you’re really feeling the urge to say something that you’re not sure you should say, or bring up a topic you’re not sure you should bring up, just wait a minute. Then wait another minute. Repeat as long as necessary and see if you really need to say anything at all, or if your feelings or the situation shift before you need to address that thing that seemed so dire 72 hours ago. As my mother always says: “You can always go back and say the thing you didn’t say, but you can never unsay a damn thing.” My mom is right. Keep waiting. No, I mean it, keep waiting.
5. Truly Accept That Another Human Being Cannot Give You The Closure Or Satisfaction You Seek And Welcome Joy And Serenity Into Your Heart, Amen
This is life. Sometimes things just feel bad! It sucks, but it’s reality. The idea that if we just process something enough another human being will give us the closure or satisfaction we seek is a lie. Usually you still feel just as bad after an over-processing session, just slightly more unhinged and also often dehydrated. And for what? Did you get closure? No. Did you get satisfaction? Probably not, if you’re being honest! The thing is, some things things just feel bad, and you have to sit with it and let it be until it stops feeling bad. That might take a really long time. I’m sorry. But no one else is gonna fix your life, not even if you have a really solid over-processing date. Most of the time giving another human space, keeping healthy boundaries, or respecting their wishes not to discuss a certain subject after a reasonable amount of communication has already occurred will do more to yield the results you want than talking about it just one more time. But even if it doesn’t, there’s nothing you can do about it. Best to grab your journal, take a deep breath, and start processing with the best human on this planet for you to process with: yourself.
Okay! I am ready for your thoughts! I have to be honest though, I told my therapist, a queer woman, I was working on an article about the epidemic of queer women over-processing and she nodded sagely and said, you’re absolutely right, so I feel very validated in this Hot Take – but feel free to disagree with me (and my therapist) in the comments.