Sunday, August 26, 2018

Basket of Resentment

 I was back at work last week, all in one place rather than bouncing around in coverage, and so got dragged in to the controversies that part-timers usually get to ignore. Two of these are among the most dreaded at psych hospitals: a pathological parent who is guardian over their adult child whose behavior carries legal implications.  This usually takes the form of refusing treatment on behalf of their child which the man desperately needs. I also had a male with borderline personality disorder, which is uncommon and generally more intense. Such cases can split staff into opposing camps, demonstrating the Tim Tebow Effect, in which everyone is certain that their point-of-view is not being heard.

I had been largely spared this for the last eighteen months, and largely for the last three years. It was not fun to re-enter the world of conflicting orders and meaningful irritated comments from coworkers. I had felt comfortable being the bearer of bad news in such situations for years, as I believed it bothered me less than it bothers others to be disliked. Suddenly re-experiencing that after being away from it was a surprise.

I am not as immune I had thought. Not only did I find myself thinking Wow, I had forgotten how uncomfortable this is, I also had anxieties and resentments that I had largely put in the past start occurring to me again.  These were unrelated to work.  How, then, were they popping back into my head again?

I had a  combination of frustration, resentment, and the front edges of helplessness in trying to resolve one contradiction without having to kick it back to administration pointing out the conflicting orders they were giving (because that runs a risk of escalating everything rather than fixing it). I found myself arguing in my head about a conflict at a church I left thirty years ago, and another with my late stepfather in the 1990's, my uncle in the 2000's, plus a couple of more recent online or email arguments. None of these bore any relation of content to my current controversies.  What they had in common was the feeling. I found myself counting my steps when on a walk, an OCD (which is an anxiety disorder) calming response that had become rare the last three years. There was a subplot of people trying to condescend and make me feel small.

There is emotional memory as well as content memory, at least in my head. I think this is true for depression and anxiety as well. Our emotions are rather generic, made subtly different by the more sophisticated parts of our brains but still essentially the same chemicals flowing about in our brains. From the neck down, we're mostly just rats, a psychiatrist friend used to say.  Big rats, but not all that different. When one gets depressed about something, the emotion tickles any number of memories, offering them up as possible explanations before.  Here is the basket of things that have made you feel this way in the past.  It's probably one of these now.

The bad result of this is fairly consistent for me. Now I get upset over those other things all over again. Old guy metaphor alert: It is like a skip in a vinyl record. The more times this happens the deeper the gouge becomes and more likely the needle will follow the skip instead of the track. Dragging the song out of it often involves playing it over at a different speed many times - there were other techniques - until the proper track was the dominant one again.  Or sometimes, just not playing that song at all.

This is not a brand-new idea to me.  I have mentioned it here before.  Yet it came home to me with particular force this week because it had become less-common. I assume this occurs with positive emotions as well, but I don't pay attention then, because I have no motivation to fix it.

Cross-posted at Chicago Boyz.


bs king said...

Interesting. I've had a very similar phenomena occur with the emotionally-clustered memories coming back all at once, and it's always struck me as odd.

I know the phenomena is pretty common with grief. People who power through a death of a loved one at one point in their life can be totally undone by a different death years late, even if the second person is less important to them. Taking the first few steps of grief can retrigger emotions that weren't dealt with years before.

I'll have to go look up the reference, but I read recently that when people are asked to recall a specific happy or sad event (like "name a happy memory from your childhood"), some number of people actually go general instead of specific. "I liked when my mom and I used to go to the park sometimes" vs "one day my mother took me to the park and we bought ice cream and it was a lot of fun". Apparently those who gave general answers had a harder time letting things go from the past.

I think our perception of memory still focuses too much on factual recall, and not other types of information we are storing, or how we may be playing it back. To use your record analogy, it's like we only focus on the songs on the album, not what the album is actually made of.

Brad said...

I see this skipped record effect on a loved one. It makes her completely unable to deal with current issues because current issues are overwhelmed by a lifetime of stored hurts.

Tom Bridgeland said...

For decades I stored resentment of high school slights and recalled them in detail, becoming angry. I was eventually able to give them up, mostly. Part of this was actually meeting some of these people as adults and realizing that they had turned out pretty decently. Those bad people I remembered were long gone.

Now, whenever these negative thoughts pop up, as soon as I realize what I am doing, I try to laugh at myself and turn my mind to better thoughts. It usually works.

In the Bible we are told to 'turn away from sin'. This is not a figurative expression, but a literal one. As a bachelor I was a hound dog, chasing women constantly. When I married I resolved to give this up, and I found that literally turning away, at the very least turning my head away from the sexy woman, but better yet turning my whole body physically away, was an effective way of turning off the habits I was trying to break. The sexual temptation was sharply reduced by the physical action of turning away.

In a similar way, mentally 'turning away' from habitual negative thoughts and turning to better ones really works. The expression 'nursing a grudge', feeding it, concentrating on it, caring for it, growing it, turning to it rather than turning away from it is a great way to destroy your own happiness.