Answering the question: What is wrong with me?

June 11, 2020

By Saretta Herman, MSW, RSW | Clinical Director

Let me start off by saying, if you’ve ever found yourself wondering what is wrong with me? know that you’re not alone. Thoughts and doubts of this nature are common among people of all ages, backgrounds, and health profiles. Even the happiest person you know has likely wondered this exact same thing a time or two themselves! It’s natural. 

Most people have wondered if there is something wrong with them when they’ve experienced a period of stress that’s hard to manage or when having new or intense symptoms that can be uncomfortable or even frightening. 

At their root, thoughts such as this are often a result of anxiety. The good news is that by making note of the thoughts, emotions, behaviours, or body-based symptoms that led you to these thoughts, you’ve actually made a productive first step to addressing the root of the experience!

In this article, I’ll explain what leads someone to wonder if there is something wrong with them. I’ll then dig into a few different approaches that can be taken to start feeling better. 

Uncover the phenomenon 

When asking yourself what is wrong with me? you’ve engaged in a pattern of self-talk that’s attempting to uncover the root of an unfavourable behaviour or experience. It’s important to note that the question itself is not the problem, rather it’s the self accusatory way in which the question is being asked. The question, what is wrong with me? suggests the thought “there is something wrong with me”. Instead of blaming yourself, it can be helpful to try and understand what’s leading you to feel the way that you are feeling. Reframing what’s wrong with me? to something like what’s going on that I’m feeling/behaving this way? or what’s bothering me? can help lead to a more productive process of discovery.

For example, if you find yourself experiencing constant feelings of fear or worry and as a result you’re left wondering what is wrong with you, the true problem to address is not what is wrong with you, but rather what is perpetuating these unwanted feelings

Rather than focusing on negative questions or judgments pointed at the self, focus on the experience or behaviour that you’d like to address and instead, ask yourself why am I feeling this way? and how do I manage these feelings productively? 

Learn to identify the source

The first steps after you’ve found yourself wondering what is wrong with you is to identify the source or trigger of this kind of self-talk. It’s understandable that when you're going through a difficult or distressing experience it can be hard to take a step back from the feelings of self-doubt. 

One trick to finding the source of the problem is to use the negative thought (eg. what is wrong with me?) as a mental flag or road block in the flow of consciousness running through your mind. When you hear those words run through your head try to stop and think what thought or experience preceded it. Were you having trouble sleeping? Were you ruminating about work while at dinner with a friend?

It’s possible that you’re thinking this because of a range of symptoms such as:

  • Racing thoughts
  • Using more substances than usual
  • Experiencing fear/worry
  • Feeling sad
  • Feeling conflicted in a relationship
  • Not sleeping
  • Ruminating

It’s also possible you’re concerned because someone you know recently pointed out some specific trait/behaviour or change. Regardless of the source of the problem, the key to addressing the resulting feelings of self-doubt is to clearly understand the trigger.

Mental Health as a Continuum 

Emotional and behavioural variance is a normal part of life. Everyone experiences emotional highs and lows throughout their life and even throughout their day! This is exactly why mental health is not all or nothing, but more accurately understood on a continuum and why it’s common for mental health diagnoses to shift over time. 

Individual mental and emotional health is not set in stone, nor is there a magic pill or one time fix for mental health issues. Like physical health, it’s important to address issues or illnesses as they arise and to maintain healthy habits in the times in between. 

Let’s use anxiety as an example to explain the variance of experiences. Anxiety is both a common emotional experience as well as a diagnosis. The American Psychological Association describes anxiety as an emotion characterized by feelings of tension, worried thoughts and physical changes like increased blood pressure. 

Someone who experiences high levels of anxiety over a significant period of time that impacts their ability to complete everyday activities might be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder and treated according to their individual health profile with the help of a licensed professional.

On the other hand, anxiety is a common experience for many people. It is a natural reaction to uniquely stressing situations. Some examples of situations that would provoke anxiety in many of us are public speaking, exams, or first dates. 

Find the problem-solving approach that’s right for you

When looking to address your own personal experience it’s important to understand that there are a wide range of treatments for emotional and behavioural concerns. Keeping in mind that mental health is a continuum, it will be up to you to decide whether to address concerns at home with resources, or whether to seek support. 

All of the solutions listed below can be practiced independently or with guidance from a mental health professional. When appropriate, a mental health professional can help you further understand the issue, causes, and different ways to feel better. While sometimes for some people, professional support is truly needed for recovery, for others a mental health professional can act as a sort of “personal trainer” to keep you motivated, accountable, and on track. 

If you or someone you know is in crisis and require immediate assistance, call 911 or go to your nearest hospital emergency department. For more information on available mental health support resources in your community, please visit www.layla.care/resources

The following are common solutions that can help to address negative thought patterns or self-talk like asking yourself what is wrong with me? 

1) Symptom-focused approach

A symptom-based approach is exactly what it sounds like. It’s focusing on the symptoms you are experiencing as a way to inform and guide treatment. 

The first step to this type of approach is to identify the problem as we outlined above. The next step is to use an evidence based method like Cognitive Behavioural therapy (CBT) to treat the symptoms and manage the problem. 

A CBT-style approach to self-treatment includes looking at what thoughts and/or behaviours are driving symptoms and how to shift those thoughts/behaviours to more helpful ones. 

For example, let’s say you have a presentation coming up for work and you feel anxious every time you think about it. You could explore what the specific fear is. Maybe it’s the thought of messing up or people judging you. A CBT approach would generally focus on what’s called “exposure” therapy for this type of performance anxiety which would involve gradually facing your fear of your presentation through engaging in behaviours that cause similar feelings of anxiety until the anxiety comes down to move on to something more challenging. You could present in front of a mirror, videotape yourself, present in front of friends or loved ones, etc. until you gain more confidence through seeing:

  1. You don’t generally mess up your presentation that much
  2. When you do mess up, you’re able to recover
  3. People don’t judge you negatively while you’re presenting

This felt experience seems to be important to reducing anxiety. Additionally, there are CBT strategies to help you balance out anxiety-provoking thoughts such as “I’m going to mess it up” or “everybody’s going to judge me”.  

There’s plenty of free information and resources online for CBT strategies and techniques. Some of my favourites are the tips from Anxiety Canada or the worksheets at PositivePsychology.com

If you’d like to spend some real time familiarizing yourself with CBT techniques and strategies, I recommend investing in an introductory book or guide on CBT like one of the following:

  • Cognitive Behavioural Therapy by Lawrence Wallace
  • Mind Over Mood: Change How You Feel by Changing the Way You Think by Dennis Greenberger, Christine A. Padesky and Aaron T. Beck
  • The Anxiety and Phobia Workbook by Edmund J. Bourne
  • Retrain Your Brain: Cognitive Behavioral Therapy in 7 Weeks: A Workbook for Managing Depression and Anxiety by Seth J. Gillihan

2) Mindfulness

Mindfulness is a practice, based in Buddhist philosophy, of being aware of and focused on the present moment and welcoming one’s experience with compassion and non-judgment. Mindfulness has been brought to the West and to the therapy world by people such as Jon Kabat-Zinn (who developed Mindfulness-Based Stress-Reduction) who conducted extensive research on mindfulness practices and their ability to reduce distress and improve wellbeing. 

As a practice that’s deeply rooted in philosophy, mindfulness could help you change your relationship to a thought such as “what’s wrong with me?” through meditative practices that may help you cultivate attitudes such as: presence (maybe nothing’s wrong right in this present moment), non-judgment (dismantling the idea that something is “wrong”), acceptance and curiosity (changing your relationship to the symptoms that are causing distress), and self-compassion (holding your experiences with love and kindness). 

Mindfulness may help you cultivate equanimity, which I’ve best heard described as a boat that rises and falls on the waves, but does not tip over. Mindfulness does not stop us from feeling pain but can help us from getting overwhelmed by it. 

In keeping with the example of anxiety, someone who takes a mindfulness approach would consider the fact that despite their feelings of anxiety, they themselves are not that anxiety. They are simply the observer of those thoughts and emotions passing through their mind and body. This is an experience that the person has, it does not define the person.

There is a wide range of mindfulness guides and resources available online, in books and in apps. 

Some great books for those interested in exploring mindfulness include: 

  • Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness by Jon Kabat-Zinn
  • The Mindful Way through Depression: Freeing Yourself from Chronic Unhappiness by J. Mark G. Williams, John D. Teasdale, Zindel V. Segal PhD and Jon Kabat-Zinn
  • The Wise Heart: A Guide to the Universal Teachings of Buddhist Psychology by Jack Kornfield

Some easy to use apps that can be helpful for independent practice include: 

3) Strength-based/solution-focused approach

A strengths base or solutions-focused approach is when you focus on what strengths, resources or supports you have working in your favour and use information or learnings that you’ve gathered about what’s worked for you worked in the past to help with your current situation.

A good first step to any strengths base or solutions-focused approach is to ask yourself what would it be like if you woke up tomorrow and the problem was gone? By imagining a situation in which this problem is eradicated, you can help to identify the changes that need to happen to get you there in real life. It’s best to focus on realistic, concrete steps that you can take to start making changes. To help identify steps you can think about things that have worked in that past. Maybe you’ve been in a similar situation before and got through it? Maybe you have good coping skills that you haven’t been using lately. This is all information you can use to start working towards solutions. 

Just the act of starting this process is a strength; it shows motivation to improve your situation. You may also have resources such as friends, family, a job, money, or abilities that you haven’t thought of that could help you through this challenging time. 

4) general self-care practices

One easy and accessible problem-solving approach that can be practiced by anyone, anytime, is that of general self-care. 

Self-care is any activity that you do deliberately in order to take care of your mental, emotional, and physical health. Sounds simple, right? You’d be surprised how often self-care is overlooked. 

There are no set parameters around what is or isn’t considered self-care. What works for you might not work for someone else, and that’s okay! Self-care is meant to be something that you find fulfilling,relaxing, or restorative. If you know you should work out but you absolutely hate to run, don’t book a 5k run as your self-care for the day. 

Some great examples of self-care activities are:

  • Exercise/movement 
  • Eating well (try to avoid too much caffeine or processed sugar)
  • Sleep hygiene
  • Reading a good book
  • Chatting with a friend
  • Reflection (journaling)

We know that good self-care is critically important to improve mood and reduced anxiety but it can be hard to motivate ourselves to make time and spend energy on these types of activities. To start with, try scheduling in time for self-care asan easy and effective way to ensure that you’re making a point to take time each day to care for your mental health. 

Taking action

Once you’ve acknowledged the negative thinking and identified the source or trigger that led you to those thoughts, you’ve already taken important first steps on your journey to improved mental health and wellness. Approaches to problem solving like the ones listed here are a great way to explore the problem further and to identify helpful tools and strategies at home on your own, or with the support of a mental health professional. 

Like any mental, emotional or physician health journey it’s important to know when to seek professional help. If you’ve tried strategies like the ones listed in this article but have seen little improvement, if symptoms feel overwhelming or beyond your control, or if you're having other problems as a result of your symptoms like major issues in relationships or at work then it might be time to see professional support from your doctor, or a mental health service provider like Layla or others. 

Struggles with mental and emotional health can be incredibly difficult. And sometimes that makes it tough to get started on the road to feeling better. Luckily for you, you’re already on your way! 

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Note that this article should not to be considered medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment and should not be used as a substitute for medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Layla is not a healthcare provider so your use of this article is at your own risk. If you or someone you know are in need of immediate care, or are in crisis or danger of harm, call 911 or proceed to your nearest emergency room immediately.