Only a Dream

I woke up well before my alarm this morning, heart pounding and mad as hell.  Barely alert enough to realize the dream I’d just left was just a dream, I began to chew over my anger, nursing it along and working to get back to the dream and the person who had infuriated me.  A half hour later, when my alarm ended my mixed dream/awake state, I was still furious.  Even after a shower, my mood had hardly shifted, which was rather disturbing.  By the time I left for work, my anger was a shadow, and by the ride home, I could barely remember the dream itself, much less muster any strong emotions that I’d held tenaciously just 6 hours earlier.  Upon trying to recount the dream and subsequent anger to a friend, I was left bumbling around with the fuzzy thoughts dreams usually leave and the frustration that what made so much sense at the time is nearly impossible to retell now.

During that powerful yet completely useless emotional episode, I had a realization.  Over the years, I’ve grown to understand that our emotions about people and situations spring from our often limited and always biased understanding of a situation.  Being painfully human and limited thus, our perception of an event is only that: our perception.

In this lateral view, the cerebral cortex is the outer folds. The limbic region is in the center. It can be hard to bridge those few inches.

In this lateral view, the cerebral cortex is the outer folds. The limbic region is in the center. It can be hard to bridge those few inches.

It’s not the truth.

It’s not the whole story.

It is, at best, like looking through a telescope at the night sky.  That single magnified circle is hardly the entire heavens.

But it’s easy, comfortable, and natural to assume that what I see is the omniscient view of the situation.  Sure, in my rational part of the brain (which is silenced as soon as a strong emotion comes along), I know my view of a situation is limited. In the middle of the tempest of my fury, however, that rational part of my brain is difficult to access.  When that emotion-generating limbic system is activated, we have to force ourselves to use the thinking cerebral cortex. Simply put, it takes effort, practice, and training to think when angry.

So anger management is a two-part process. One must override the lure of the limbic system and return to the thinking cortex and then use that cortex to remember that one’s view of the situation is just that — one view.  Simple? Not for me, but it gets more doable the older I get and the more I practice.  Let’s assume that I’ve (at least some of the time) mastered returning to my thinking brain when my anger flairs.  I have two choices then:  stew mentally about why I’m justified to be so angry or back up and remember there is always more to the other person and situation than apparent from my viewpoint.  It’s not hard to do the first, but the second takes far more mental will-power and tenacity.

Since I no longer have a domestic partner with whom to be angry (they are such a convenient source of limbic activation), I find my anger usually directed at my kids.  I don’t go around yelling and furious all day long or anything close, but they’re the ones I see much of the day, and we all have a tendency to vent onto each other.  Let’s take a, well, hypothetical example.  Let’s say a child fails to complete an assignment.  Again.  Let’s say instead of getting to that assignment like fur on a bunny that he’s leafing through a Star Wars book/comic/website.  Again.  Let’s say his other work has been, to be generous, less than focused that day.  And wasn’t any better the three days before.  Let’s top it off with a mom who worries that if her son continues to behave like typical 13.9-year-old boy instead or morphing into a mythical 13.9-year-old crazy-about-schoolwork kid that he’ll live in her house until he’s 37.

Through mom’s eyes, her son is slacking again, defying her instructions, wasting time on meaningless drivel, lolling about, and doesn’t he smell kinda ripe?

“Did you finish your essay on Handel?” she asks, knowing full well he hasn’t.

“Oh.  No.  What was I supposed to do?  I’ll get to it later,” says typical 13.9-year-old son, never looking up from his current preoccupation.

Mom’s limbic system goes nuts.  Anger rises, and along with it, her voice.  Maybe the word lazy slips out.  She goes on for a while, about opportunities missed in life, the importance of follow-through, how kids who don’t turn in Handel essays end up jobless, in the streets, or worse, in their mom’s basements forever.  Mom rants.  The boy looks dejected. Soon both are miserable.  The essay?  Still unwritten.

What went wrong?  Mom got mad because her son isn’t doing what she told him to do.  Is it justified to feel angry, disappointed, and, perhaps, a bit anxious about a pattern developing?  Perhaps.  Is mom justified in venting all that onto her son?  Perhaps not.  There’s at least one other side to their situation.  What’s up with the son?  Is he low on sleep?  Is he feeling down and out?  Is he unsure of what to do, despite multiple (but, to him, possibly vague) instructions?  Is he angry at something, avoiding the assignment in protest?  Is he afraid of doing a poor job on the essay?  Is he just a kid on the cusp of puberty completely focused internally?

Let’s back up the conversation.  Instead of yelling and accusing, mom asks (calmly) why the work isn’t done.  If her son is uncertain, she may list a few options, such as lack of understanding, worry, lack of interest.  After all, she’s not in his head and can only imagine what her 13.9-year-old might be thinking.  Sure, he’s not done what he was told to do.  That’s an indisputable fact, but mom can only dream what his motivations may be to have been noncompliant.  And dreaming up those motivations is what’s leading to most of the anger, not the non-compliance itself.

Most of that anger is based only on a dream, on imagined reasons for the problem.  Limited by our own limited perspective and hampered by our personal angst, expectations, and experiences, it is easy to react strongly to what see though our pinhole through which we view the world.  Ask some questions, and the pinhole widens.  Even acknowledge that the target of your angry feelings has his or her own angst, expectations, experiences and limited point of view and you have a better chance of  checking your anger before it leaks out your mouth.  So much of the drama we experience in our minds is the product of our rather active, wholly human imaginations.  Just like our dreams.

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