I originally had intended today’s post to be about insomnia because boy howdy did I ever get a shitload of that last night instead of actual sleep but plans change. Instead, this week I’m going to talk about an interesting phenomenon that not just mentally ill people but pretty much everybody experiences, transference or displaced emotions.
Negative emotions are just part of the human condition. No way around it. You got life, you get negative experiences and you wind up with emotional states you don’t always enjoy very much. Unless you’re some deeply twisted psychological masochist who gets off on being angry or sad which is probably a whole string of posts and maybe a career-making paper for some clever shrink.
Sometimes you can do something about those emotions. Let’s say you come home and find the dog has gotten into the garbage and spread it, and a largish quantity of “Hi, I’m a dog and I just ate several pounds of rotting domestic refuse and don’t know how to use the toilet” by-product all over your home. Odds are you’re gonna be pretty angry. But it’s anger from stimuli you can do something about. You can put the dog in his kennel, pick up the trash and mop up the other stuff. Stimuli, emotion, effective response. Pretty simple.
But suppose you’re angry because it’s tax time and you got several thousand dollars of bad news from your tax preparer. And you come home and the dog is barking his head off because he’s a dog and dogs tend to view it as their job to alert you to any and all possible threats. Even ones that aren’t really threats like the neighbor slamming their car door three houses down or another dog walking by on the sidewalk outside.
Odds are you’re pretty pissed about the whole tax thing. Maybe I need to get out more but I’ve never met anyone who was happy about writing a check for five grand when all they got in return is a great big box of not going to jail for tax evasion. Can’t really do anything about why you’re angry. Well, you can but most of what you can do falls somewhere between white collar felony and act of domestic terrorism. So yeah, you’re pretty much boned for non-prison/massive gunshot-related trauma options.
So you have to just soak that anger and contrary to popular belief most people who aren’t cyborgs can’t just clear their mood with a shake of the old emotional etch-a-sketch. That shit takes a few hours or a few days to move through your system and in the meantime you’re still getting bombarded with other stimuli. Like the dog. Who won’t shut the fuck up . Because he’s a dog and barking is one of his defining characteristics.
You can do something about the dog. Problem is you have to do the right something and in your current mood that may be tricky. Emotions are energy. And just like any other form of energy their natural inclination is to express themselves via the path of least resistance.
So maybe you’re upset with the IRS at about an eight on a one to ten. That’s probably reasonable. But you can’t do anything about it. So you carry it around while it works it’s way through your system. Then you come home. You just want some quiet and a drink. Maybe a lot of drinks because shit man, five grand. And the dog won’t shut up.
That’s normally good for a two, maybe a three. It’s annoying but you know it’s not that big a deal and if you distract him or tell him to chill out he’ll probably ease up. Only problem is, that energy from the tax thing is still rolling around and it has now found an outlet. So instead you find yourself contemplating responses that will get you turned into a “This is what the world’s biggest asshole looks like” meme. Not because of what the dog is doing but because you have gone and put the emotional energy from the tax thing onto what the dog is doing. You can’t do anything about the taxes but hoo-boy can you ever do something about the dog. That is transference. You take anger or sadness or whatever that you can’t apply to a solution to Problem A and you incorrectly apply it to Problem B.
Sometimes that can be healthy. Like suppose you have a fireplace and a wood pile. You can take the energy from Problem A -the tax thing- and apply it to Problem B -a pressing need for a bunch of split wood to have a cozy fire with. Sometimes it’s unhealthy. Like when you take that same energy and apply it to a solution that centers heavily around treating the dog like a soccer ball. The one is a healthy outlet. The other is just being a dick and nobody wants that.
So there’s a couple things you want to do whenever you get angry or sad or otherwise feel a negative emotion. The first thing is to figure out why you’re feeling the way you’re feeling. Maybe you can do that, maybe you can’t. Sometimes we just have irrational emotional states. Kinda a defining trait of being emotionally unwell.
The next thing to do is figure out if everything you’re feeling is because of whatever it was that just sparked off your mood and if not how much is. That can be hard. Believe me, I know. I’ve spent decades dealing with this stuff and I’ve only been able to manage it with any consistency in like, the last, I dunno, five or six years maybe. But you have to do the work needed to get into a habit of successfully doing so.
In the first place putting emotional energy on stuff it doesn’t belong to is unhealthy . You’re not managing your emotions at that point and you’re not really a person. Not a thinking, tool-using sentient being. You’re a reactive animal just lashing out at their environment without consideration to whether or not the target of their actions is the right one. Kinda like a two year old who is actually pissed because they’re tired but is having a fit because they lost the receipt that Mom let them hold from the grocery store.
In the second place it can be destructive. It can cause you to lash out at people and things that don’t deserve to be targeted. Most people, if they fuck up and aren’t complete jerks will eat a bit negativity as long as it’s legitimately about something they did wrong. Those same people are going to be a lot less patient about just being your little friggin voodoo doll. Refusing to do the work required to ensure that you are directing the right quantity of feedback at the right target can cost you friendships, romantic relationships and jobs by the score. Trust me. I speak from experience on all three here.
The process takes time. It takes work . You have to be willing to do the work and be patient with yourself . There are few things harder than being rational and analytical when you’re in a keyed-up emotional state. But the alternative is to piss people off, burn down your friendships and if you have any self awareness and/or respect wind up feeling like no small amount of a jerk when you’re in a less agitated place.
So how do you do it? The first thing to do is to calm yourself. . Not easy, I know. Remember; thirty-odd years at this and I still don’t always succeed. Breathing helps. Take a deep breath. Hold it for about a five count. Let it out. Hold it out for five. Repeat three to five times. Controlling your breath helps control your heart rate and your adrenal levels and both anger and sadness have an adrenal component. It also helps oxygenate the brain and your cranial grayware works WAY better with more 02 than less.
Once you’re less upset take a look at everything that happened recently. How long ago did it happen. Was any of it stuff you wanted to do something about but realistically couldn’t and therefore were having a harder time moving past? Humans genetically select for problem solving. We just naturally feel more at peace when we can Do Something about whatever is upsetting us because it wasn’t so long ago that an inability to Do Something about what had us upset probably meant an increased chance of getting messily dead. If we can apply ourselves to any kind of a fix we have an easier time letting it go even if it really sucked. If we can’t, the reverse applies.
Once you’ve done that ask yourself if it’s possible any of what you think you’re feeling right now is actually carry over from the other thing. Don’t automatically assume that it is because that is being dismissive of your own emotions and that’s unhealthy too. Just try to work out how you felt about the same exact situation you’re in when it happened without the other stuff happening too. Odds are you’ll remember feeling differently those times you didn’t have whatever else it was looming over you. At that point you can, with a bit of effort, compartmentalize what’s going on and apply the right amount of energy to the specific problem.
The important thing is not to lash out at anyone or get physically destructive. Don’t take your day out on your friends or your co-workers or your pets. They don’t deserve it. If you really need to blow off steam do so in a healthy way. Hit the gym, do some pushups. Find some strenuous chores to do. Whatever. Just find an outlet that doesn’t cause you to hurt anyone around you. Not physically and not emotionally. And if you have to, give yourself permission to actually say “You know what, I’m pretty sure that what I’m feeling is being fueled by some other stuff .” . Literally, say it. Language is tied to emotions but it isn’t driven by them. It’s more a tool for their expression. If you’re talking you’re giving more processing power to the rational parts of your brain and less to the smashy/hurty apelike parts.
Work with yourself. Practice figuring out how much of what you’re feeling is due to the thing that just happened under less intense circumstances. That way when you’re in an elevated emotional state the mechanisms and the coping skills with be in place and will be habitual. You just have to apply more emotional muscle to it.Above all, be patient with yourself. Hold yourself accountable when you slip up but don’t beat yourself over the head. Literally or physically. Just own that you screwed up and commit to doing better next time.
I wish I had some witty remark to sign off with but I don’t. I’m running on five hours of sleep and five grand of bad news from the IRS. Brain is not braining as brain as brain brains. Suffice to say that there was a time when my default setting was exactly what I told you guys not to do earlier in this post. I busted my ass for years at identifying how much of my mood from minute to minute was really about what was going on or the result of carrying some earlier stuff around. Like say getting too little sleep and too much financial bad news. And while I am a long way from perfect at it even now, anyone who knows me will tell you there’s been improvement.
Short version; if I can do it I have confidence that you can too. I just spent ninety minutes of my life writing this post when I had a mob of other shit to do and frankly was in no mood at all to write any of it. I wouldn’t do that if I honestly believed it was wasted effort. Work the program. Be patient with yourself. Have the guts to ask your friends for help if you need to. There’s no shame in that and in fact it takes a lot of courage. And then, take it one occurrence at a time. Effort will become success, success will become habit, habit will become the new normal.
Have a good one everybody. See you next time.