I’m sorry. I have no idea who owns this image or who I should give credit to. But it is absolutely fantastic.
I woke up this morning after a very long sleep feeling particularly unrefreshed, fuzzy-headed and achy in that weird “I’m not really that old, but I seem to suddenly have arthritis kind of way.” You know, where everything mysteriously hurts just a little. Every joint seems to be creaky. All of your muscles are stiff.
And then I became irritable and frustrated with it. Which is even less fun than just being tired, fuzzy-headed, and artificially arthritic.
Now, my experience with waking up like that is that not much I do makes a difference. Or, it makes a difference, but only sometimes–and apparently randomly. Sometimes activity that gets me moving–a walk, a brisk bit of dusting–wakes me up and makes me feel better. Just as often, it doesn’t. Sometimes an unexpected pleasure lifts my mood and puts me to feeling right again. But those are hard to plan for.
As often as this low-energy state mysteriously lifts, it remains exactly the same. And I go through the whole day feeling as precisely lethargic as I did when I woke up.
In other words, getting irritable and frustrated at waking up feeling exhausted makes exactly zero difference. It just makes the whole experience that much more unpleasant.
But I had trouble letting go of my unpleasant feelings.
In fact, a little voice spoke up and said something about the irritation being necessary to motivate me to improve things. Which, of course, is nonsense, since I’ll take a walk anyway. And I can’t plan in an unexpected pleasure.
So it made me think.
Because I had a dream about something very similar. Not quite as exciting a dream as the Neiman Marcus one, but revealing nonetheless.
I dreamed I was a having a conversation with someone that I don’t actually know in real life, but in my dreamworld seemed to be something of an acquaintance. She was tapping her foot incessantly and twiddling her hands. She was impatient. I wasn’t any more happy about waiting for whatever we were waiting for than she was, but I had opted for sitting very still.
We were comparing notes on our impatience-managing strategies. Actually, not really comparing notes so much as arguing about it. I explained that my physical state affected my emotional state. Being physically still–breathing deeply and slowly, for example–calmed me down, and being calm made waiting less annoying and more pleasant. She said I was just repressing my feelings.
Fully awake, it’s fairly obvious I was having a conversation with myself. And that my acquaintance was trying to explain some of the reasons I unnecessarily perpetuate unpleasant emotional states. I think I must. Otherwise, I’m just repressing my feelings, and I also won’t be motivated to change my circumstances.
That’s not really true. I don’t have to keep feeling angry about something in order to be able to right the wrong that has made me angry. All I really need to do is note that it did make me angry. And I will proceed from there.
Dan Gilbert makes the rather excellent point that the purpose of our emotions is to orient us toward novel or unexpected information in our environment. “Oh, look, they serve really good cake here!” So then I remember that that’s the place to pick up a cake when I need it. “Damn, he’s a jackass.” And then I remember not to get too close.
We then rapidly employ cognitive strategies that restore us to baseline, so that we are then ready for the next bit of novel or unexpected information that needs our attention. We are not supposed to be on cloud nine all the time. Nor are we supposed to be indignant and pissed off.
But here I am resisting that return to baseline because I think I shouldn’t. I feel actually compelled to maintain this unpleasant emotional state.
If you ever met my mother, you’d probably have a better idea why. I think now she was (is) a borderline/narcissist blend, which meant she was histrionic a good part of the time, and she also expected to be at the center of the universe far more often than was entirely reasonable.
Grown-up tantrums were a weekly occurrence.
As a young person, the most maddening part of her personality for me was how little sense her thought processes seemed to make. I didn’t intend to pick up her bad habits, but I have.
Magical thinking was one habit. Resisting the return to baseline seems to be another.
There are some things we learn because people specifically instruct us to do them. “Brush your teeth,” our parents tell us. So we brush our teeth every day and we keep doing it even after everyone has stopped reminding us. We learned because we were explicitly taught. Other things we learn because they just seem to make sense. We notice the soap doesn’t sink in the bath, and when we push our plastic bath toys down to the bottom of the tub, they pop back up again. So we start learning something about density. Restricting my emotional expression is an example of that in my life. Being cold and unemotional seemed to hold off the worst excesses of my father’s sadism.
And then there are other things we learn just because someone does them in front of us enough that it just seems to be what people do. Like talking, or wearing clothes. Maintaining emotional states longer than necessary may be one of those.
One remarkable aspect of borderlines is that they maintain emotional states longer than most other people, especially very negative ones. Returning to baseline is a lot more difficult for them than for most other people. And so they do spend a lot of time either very angry or very sad. It’s really not much fun. But my mother also seemed to maintain very “happy” states for days on end as well. She didn’t return to baseline too much. She didn’t feel calm, mildly content, and at peace much. If ever.
And maybe I learned that just because it’s what she modeled for me. I certainly doubt my mother told me that I needed to keep feeling because repressing my emotions was unhealthy. Although she could have. My mother started psychotherapy when I was about two. She did spout a fair amount of muddled-up psychobabble.
Still, she may have maintained emotional states for long periods for completely different reasons than I told myself. She might have not known how to return to baseline. Or intense emotions may have made life seem more exciting to her. She may have resisted the return to ordinary life because she didn’t want to be ordinary. She wanted to be grand.
Still, I can tell you that life in the middle is easier and a lot less stressful than being wound up into some kind of emotional pretzel all the time. The “I” of my dream is the one I agree with in my waking, sentient state (even if I am a bit sleepy). Both my acquaintance and I were going to need to wait. Much better to just make the best of the waiting.