Is It Just Me?

By Lenore Skenazy

Wondering if your neuroses, phobias and eccentricities are normal? Never fear; you’re in good company, according to our panel of experts.

Is It Just Me?

Am I the only one who thinks landlocked boats are ominous? Anyone else out there who loves the smell of wet paint and dirty socks? Surely others share my suspicions that Brad Pitt and Danny DeVito are brothers. No? Well, I know one thing: a lot of you have odd peccadilloes too. So we’ve shared a list of our readers’ obsessions and anxieties with therapists, doctors, professors and gossip columnists (OK, not them) in hopes that they could answer the question … Is it just us?

I hate getting presents. Every time I get one, all I can think is, Oh, great – now I have to get her a present. Am I a grinch?
Technically, the Grinch did not hate getting presents at all. He liked them so much, in fact, he stole them. So for what it’s worth, you are not a grinch. Perhaps more reassuringly, you are also not alone.

There’s actually something called gift-giving anxiety, a condition described by University of Michigan professor D.B. Wooten as anxiety based on “the need for approval and fear of being seen or judged in a negative way.” When getting a gift means giving one – and giving one means worrying whether the gift is thoughtful, reciprocal or expensive enough – naturally it’s not fun to get a gift. It feels like you’ve been given a test.

“There are a lot of sitcoms based on this,” chuckles Alan Hilfer, chief psychologist at Maimonides Medical Center. He recalls a sitcom-worthy situation with friends who travelled a lot and always brought him back a gift. “I’m not saying it was expensive. They’d go to Colombia and bring me back a bag of coffee. But that meant then I’d have to remember to pick up a present for them.”

This was so pointless – annoying, really – that eventually the doctor called them on it. “I said, ‘You don’t have to bring me something, because I really don’t like to look around for something for you.’ ” Except he put it more diplomatically: “Please! Spend the money on yourself.”

Poof! The problem (and gifts) disappeared. So it may be worth exploring – delicately – the possibility that both you and your gift-givers want out.

My friends say I am obsessed with “conspiracy theories”. I say I am obsessed with the truth. Honestly, can’t everyone else see the plots, machinations and treachery that I see?
No, they can’t. But that doesn’t mean that they are blind or that you are a fruitcake. “For society to work, we need the people who are ultra-relaxed, but we also need the worrywarts,” says Howard Forman, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Albert Einstein College of Medicine. The worriers are the conspiracy theorists – folks who won’t rest till they put the pieces together.

Such folks can go off the deep end, of course, and you don’t necessarily want to sit next to one of them on a plane. But they can also go off and discover that the US National Security Agency has been listening to phone calls – an idea that would have sounded completely paranoid before whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed that it’s true.

Our world is complex. It is filled with things we’ll never understand. Looking for a conspiracy is a way to gain a little sense of power, says psychiatrist David Reiss: It feels like you understand what’s happening, even if others don’t. An explanation, even one that sounds bizarre or frightening, feels more satisfying than no explanation at all.

Smells that everyone else seems to find awful, I love! Wet paint! Petrol! Even (can I admit it here?) the smell of dirty socks – they sometimes smell like roasted nuts. Am I wired wrong?
There’s a bell curve to all experiences, including how things smell to us, says Reiss. That means some people are always going to be more sensitive to certain odours, loving or hating them.

But beyond that, smells are like songs: intensely evocative. The olfactory nerves go directly from the nose to the limbic system, which is the part of the brain that stores memories and processes emotions. So if you fondly remember your mother taking care of you when you were sick, Vicks VapoRub may smell like heaven to you, as will dirty socks if you and your brother used to play in the woods and come home happy but stinky. The smell brings back the feelings, without you necessarily making the conscious connection between then and now.

By the same token, if you threw up at your pizza party when you were six, one whiff of pepperoni could send you running from the room, even to this day … leaving more pizza for the rest of us.


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