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Archive for November 12th, 2018

At the end of the last post I asked whether there was no hope for improving our ability to manage our primitive reactions.

One thing that can begin to help is learning to understand how we fail to deal properly with such triggers as they occur. Some of these responses to a trigger are conscious: many are not, or we are at least not fully aware of them. Although our culture influences their exact shape, records suggest that these defective strategies for managing the crocodile inside have been with us from our earliest days.

Some of our responses to a trigger from the crocodile within are more obvious than others. We’ve all seen it or done it ourselves – the traveller who dashes onto the platform in time to see the train pulling out and completely loses their cool, launching into a high decibel rant, or you drop the Clarice Cliff vase your mother gave you onto the tiled kitchen floor and burst into tears as it breaks into pieces, swearing at yourself at the same time.

Others are more hidden. You break the vase but you pretend that you don’t care. You get a dustpan and brush and sweep up the mess, dumping it into the bin along with your feelings, with only a tightening of the lips to hint to an astute observer that you maybe a little bit miffed.

‘Sorry, mum,’ you might whisper to yourself, ‘but I never liked it much anyway.’

An even less obvious sign of crocodile fear and anger blended could be those times when we find ourselves asserting our side of an argument with an absolute sense of superior understanding and justification. It’s as if our grasp of the truth is incontestable. Nothing that anyone else can say will shake our belief in our own rectitude. This stems, I believe, from our sense that our world view is an extension of our self, and any attack on what we think is an attack on us, hence the element of fear, and it must be repelled at all costs, hence the presence of some anger.

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy explains this clearly. We need a sceptical attitude towards descriptions especially in relation to descriptions of the self (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy The Guilford Press: 1999 – page 182):

. . . when a person identifies with a particular conceptualisation, alternatives to that conceptualisation can seem almost life-threatening. The . . . frame here seems to be “Me = conceptualisation” [i.e. I am exactly what I think I am] and its entailed derivative “Eliminate conceptualisation = eliminate me” [i.e. If you destroy my idea of myself you destroy me]. [Thus], we are drawn into protecting our conceptualized self as if it were our physical self.

To help people step back from such identifications they liken the mind to a chessboard. We mistakenly identify with the pieces, not realising we are also, perhaps more truly the board (ibid. – page 192):

The point is that thoughts, feelings, sensations, emotions, memories and so on are pieces: they are not you.

How do we fail to deal with the crocodile?

What are these 4Ds and how do they work?

The acting out of anger on the railway platform is the result of a level of disinhibition, an inability to contain or control the flood of feeling, so it spills out against the world around us, creating a drama that usually impacts unpleasantly on others. Or, perhaps more accurately we willingly throw it at people and things.

It is a close relative of the feeling of drowning in sadness and distress that can be quite overwhelming, such as after breaking a precious object or relationship. We tend to subside into a heap, and, although it is perfectly obvious to everyone around us that something is the matter, we are not deliberately trying to discharge the feeling by throwing over others. It is important to make a distinction here between drowning and emotional blackmail. The latter is a deliberate attempt to manipulate someone else into meeting your demands by showing them how ‘hurt’ you are. People fake illness for the same purpose. The portrait below was triggered after Lowry had looked in the mirror during an exhausting and stressful period of his life, when he was the sole carer of his demanding and by this time bed-bound mother, who had decades of experience in using her apparent illnesses to exact compliance to her every whim from those closest to her.

Head of Man with Red Eyes (Image scanned from L S Lowry: a life by Shelley Rohde)

When we pretend to ourselves we’re not feeling anything we’re in denial, to use the Freudian term: disowning is the existential word for it, and discounting is a variant Transactional Analysis uses quite frequently. They all amount to much the same thing. We try to convince ourselves it’s not there, and sometimes we succeed. Unfortunately attempting to bury it in this way does not prevent its leaking out in other ways to our own and others’ detriment.

Dogmatism concerns the doggedness with which we stick to our opinions and assert them no matter how obtuse or wrong-headed they might be.

In almost every case the cause of all this discontent, whether we act it out, bury it, turn it into an argument or are overwhelmed by it, lies in our inability to unhook ourselves from the brain noise generated by our crocodile inside. We think it’s all we are at that moment in time. In essence, we think it’s who are.

This means that if we have no doubt that our anger justifies any kind of action on our part we will attack without scruple, and may face severe consequences. What else could we do?

If we have doubts about the correctness of hitting someone in the face for stepping in front of us in the queue, we may swallow our anger and pretend that we don’t care, which may pre-empt the possibility of our making a legitimate protest. What other way do we have of resolving the clash between our feeling and our scruples?

If fear or sadness completely overwhelms us, we may convince ourselves we are weak and useless, and miss a whole host of opportunities to improve our lives. That’s inevitable, isn’t it?

What choice have we got?

Our culture makes us all too prone to repression (convincing ourselves we’re not experiencing something when we are), acting out (expressing whatever we are currently experiencing and ignoring the consequences until it is too late), or feeling overwhelmed (caving in under what feels like a tsunami of distress). Any of these can feed into a pattern of dogmatic assertion.

We don’t hear or see much about a more creative way of responding, which is a key to positive change. This other way I’ll call containment.

This means that we can hold an unpleasant feeling in mind without hitting someone, hurting ourselves, pretending it’s not there or arguing a point with undue stubbornness. What’s more we can do this long enough and often enough to think about, reflect on and inspect the feeling from various angles and work out the most constructive response to it. We can do this by realising the feeling is not all that we are, it is not who we really are, it is simply a transient state of mind or underlying influence generated by one archaic aspect of our brain, the inner crocodile, immensely useful to us in times of real danger when we lived in caves but only occasionally of real value now. Nowadays it causes more problems between us and is seldom needed to protect us from tigers, even in India – we’ve exterminated a lot of those dangerous animals outside but left the most dangerous one inside untouched.

So how do we learn to contain and ultimately correct our corrosive reactions? More of this next time.

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