©Arlene R. Taylor PhD
The Constitution only guarantees the American people the right to pursue happiness. You have to catch it yourself.
Perched on the stool, her body language screaming dejection, disappointment, and disbelief, she wailed, “I can’t believe I did it again! I keep taking things personally, jumping to conclusions, and overreacting.” And she covered her face with her hands.
Off and on over the past ten years, Angie had dropped by periodically to chat. It was usually to rehearse another installment in the on-going saga of her life. Typically is was the same chapter, same verse, with just a twist in the details. “Are you here to tell me about the latest fiasco?” I asked. Angie nodded as it all came tumbling out.
Chad called me late afternoon yesterday and suggested we meet for dinner at a new restaurant in town. As soon as we’d placed our order, we started talking about our upcoming trip to Thailand. I told him how excited I was and said, “Since our trip to Cambodia, I think I’ll be a bit more adventurous in trying new foods.”
Chad smiled and said, “I bet we can find you some fillet of fer-de-lance.”
“I didn’t think it was funny so I clammed up the rest of the evening. It really was very uncomfortable.”
Angie stopped her rehearsal and looked at the floor.
“And?” I prompted.
“And I did a similar thing last week when he took me out for lunch,” she continued. “And again the week before that and week before that. I tell you, it’s no fun. I’m 47 years old for heaven’s sake! When am I going to stop?”
“I have no idea,” I said calmly.
Angie ignored my comment and went on. “If I were he, I’d probably stop taking me out.”
“Many men would,” I replied. “It can’t be much fun for him, either.”
Again Angie ignored my comment. “When I think about it now,” she continued, “it was a really clever comment. I mean, I know what a fer-de-lance is. I read about it in one of the Nero Wolf books. You know, the series by Rex Stout.”
“I think the venom only comes out through the hollow fangs,” said Angie. “It isn’t in muscle tissue, which is the reason snake is on the menu in many Asian countries…”
I nodded again.
“What would you have done in my place?” asked Angie.
“If I were you, probably exactly what you did,” I said, smiling. “Most people do about the best they can at the time with what they know.”
“But what would you have done in a similar situation if you were you?” Angie asked.
“I would likely have laughed and replied, ‘Very clever! Fer-de-lance! But I said a bit more adventurous, not off the charts dramatically exotic!’ And, anyway, adventurous never includes anything that ever had a mother or a face.”
“Well, that’s not what I did,” said Angie. “I pouted.”
“An adult pout is really a quiet, emotional tantrum,” I said. “What do you get when you pout?”
“I get letting him know I didn’t like what he said. Then I feel sorry for myself because I’m unhappy. And then I get mad at myself for ruining the event. Then I don’t sleep well and wake up with another migraine...and then I repeat it a few days later...” Angie paused and then said abruptly, “You know, I’m getting really tired of this!”
“Not tired enough,” I said. “At least not tired enough to put in the work to raise your emotional intelligence and choose to exhibit different behaviors.”
“Give me some things to work on,” she said.
“My first guess is that Chad’s comment reflected male humor, and you completely missed it.” Angie nodded. “Women who fail to understand male humor miss a ton of opportunities for laughter. Males are actually very funny. In some studies they came across five times funnier than females. Knowing that, I always choose to think humor first. They tend to use humor to connect with others and can be great teasers, especially with people they care about.”
“But what if it wasn’t meant to be humorous?” said Angie.
“Then it was just that other brain’s opinion, and I choose whether or not to pick it up. Personally, I am at a loss to think of even one reason to pick up another brain’s unkind or negative opinion.” Angie smiled, and we went on to talk about other things to address.
When you choose to take something personally, your brain goes into a poor me stance. Feeling anxious and uncomfortable might trigger your brain to downshift into the emotionally reactive mammalian layer and to leap to a very erroneous conclusion. In Angie’s case she might have thought, Well, you nerd! A fer-de-lance is a poisonous snake. You want me to eat a poisonous snake? The nerve!
Or your brain might slide down into the basic reptilian layer where stress responses are housed: fight-flight, tend-befriend, and conserve-withdraw. Metaphorically, Angie chose conserve-withdraw and disconnected from communicating with Chad, ruining the evening for them both quite unnecessarily. And, in the process, interfering with a good night’s sleep, suppressing her immune system, and contributing to a migraine.
But that’s not all. Because the brain seeks congruence, it begins to recall other poor me incidents from the past. Before long you feel tired and sad as accumulated injustices come to mind. And then comes the overreaction, which is never about the present and always about the past. Something about the present reminded your brain of something from the past, bringing back all the unresolved emotional pain from the past and dumping it into the present moment. This often emotionally beats up the other person in the present, who really doesn’t even know about all the unresolved issues in your past.
An overreaction is a behavioral way of saying that what happened to you in the past was unfair. (It probably was and typically requires that you move through a recovery process to forgive, heal, and move on to high-level-healthiness.) As you over-react, you usually begin to feel indignant about all the accumulated injustices your brain has recalled. As indignation rises, so does the emotion of anger, triggering the release of adrenalin, which gives you a boost of needed energy.
As adrenalin rises, so does dopamine (the “feel better” chemical), which may motivate you to get a handle on your behavior. Soon, however, you realize that you did it again and start beating yourself up for taking things personally or jumping to conclusions or overreacting, which triggers the release of adrenalin and so on. It becomes a vicious circle because you have become, in effect, addicted to your own internal substances.
No, you’re not ingesting anything from the outside. You just trigger their release from your own internal pharmacy through the thoughts you think, the feelings you hang on to, and the behaviors you exhibit.
There are consequences, however. Consequences that include disruption of sleep, nightmares, headaches, suppressed immune function leading to an increased susceptibility to colds, flu, and other illnesses, and possible adrenal insufficiency as those critical glands become exhausted from the never-ending demand for more adrenalin.
As Angie and I discussed this ugly cycle, some of the color drained from her face. “I was miserable as a child,” she said, quietly. “I’ve never been happy. I don’t think I know how to be happy. I do know how to take things personally and create a state of chaos (at least inside my own head) to get adrenalin.”
“That’s very honest,” I said, “and I’m proud of you. You can only deal with what you can label and describe—and you just labeled and described a bottom line: happiness.”
Happiness is a choice. Many people have everything they need (not necessarily everything they want) and could be happy. Yet, they choose to be unhappy. That was demonstrated in a study of lottery winners who reportedly were much less happy after winning than before. People whine and complain, pout and overreact, jump to conclusions and take things personally. This not only impacts them negatively but also every person with whom they come into contact, even poisoning the environment.
“So where do I begin?” asked Angie.
“You begin by choosing to be happy, ongoing. Part of raising your emotional intelligence involves managing your moods. A mood is simply a feeling you choose to hang onto for a long time. You can choose to hang onto happiness. Write down some affirmations and read them aloud to yourself several times a day. Reading aloud is more effective than just rehearsal of rote memorization. Write down some affirmations and read them aloud to yourself several times a day. Reading aloud is more effective than just rehearsal of rote memorization. You might start with:
I have everything I need
I choose to be happy
I like being happy
Everything goes better when I am happy
Being happy helps me stay upshifted
I am happy.
“My brain’s opinion is that emotional Intelligence is a required course in the School of Life and high levels of EQ are essential for anyone who wants to be happy, healthy, and successful. The course work requires digging into family-of-origin work and a commitment to be honesty; the homework is challenging and the exams are often tough to pass, so many people drop out and fail to keep learning and practicing. In my own life, however, the work has been exponentially worth the effort.”
Grabbing pen and paper, Angie wrote furiously. At last she sat up straighter and smiled, not into the camera, into life.
“And Chad?” I asked.
Angie responded. “Some of my behaviors have been most unattractive and down-right dysfunctional. As soon as I get home, I shall thank Chad for his patience and apologize for my episodes of pouting: my quiet emotional tantrums, as you put it. I shall also ask him to call my attention to any behaviors in the future that appear to involve pouting.”
Angie was on her way.