Why we can't have nice things
That's it, you've really done it this time.
I went away for a few days, up to Montréal, and didn’t take my dogs with me. This is not the first time I’ve left them with friends while I’ve gone away, but for some reason, this time I had a lot of anxiety about it. Out of nowhere! Ugh, what a JERK anxiety can be, amirite?
The thing that kicked it off is that the morning I was taking them over to my friends’ house, Buttercup got out of the house without a leash. Butter is, let’s say, of the sassier and more adventurous kind of small dog, so she thought it’d be fun to walk down the street while I followed behind, trying not to actually chase her and get that game going. I offered treats, every enticing thing I could think of, all in my I Am Absolutely Not Freaking Out Right Now! calm voice (imagine the sound of someone slowly letting out a balloon and this should approximate it well for you). Eventually a neighbor tricked her into staying put— you can always count on Butter’s need for human attention, just like her mama— and I brought her back inside without incident.
My anxiety decided that this was clearly an omen of bad things happening while I was away. There is zero rational explanation for it, since friends Donovan and Ty are basically every dog’s dream of caregivers, and the gremlins loved staying with them before. It’s extremely hard to be a woowoo, believes-just-about-anything-once kind of person and then suddenly decide that a bad omen is not real. It feels like you’re trying to have your cake and eat it, too. “Ohhhhh, you only want the good omens,” the Universe says to you. “It doesn’t work like that, toots!”
I was then also flooded with the punishment demons. “Oh, you want to go to Montréal? For fun? You don’t deserve to have fun! Here’s what happens when you want to have fun— your dogs will pay for it! Muwahahaha!”
What I finally remembered is that this feature of human brains—it’s a feature, not a bug— activates when we feel out of control of a situation that we desperately want to have control over. This one actually has very little to do with what the Universe thinks we deserve and don’t deserve. This one is literally all in our heads.
When we have no control over a situation, those of us who skew towards anxiety, intrusive thoughts, and obsessive disorders often start looking for ways that we could control the situation. The more ridiculous, the better. It’s so intolerable to our tiny brains that we cannot prevent anything bad from happening ever that we glom onto the explanation that gives us the illusion of the most control. And if we’ve got shame demons at the ready—and if you don’t, please write to me immediately and explain yourself—they’re right there to swoop in and support it.
I’ve been reading a really fascinating book about where those demons come from, and the basic idea is this: 1. Something bad happens to you, generally when you’re little. And “bad” can be anything from your parent didn’t pick you up fast enough when you cried to actual abuse or neglect— it’s a spectrum. 2. Your brain can’t fathom that someone you are absolutely 10000% dependent on is not unconditionally reliable at all times (because who is, really). 3. Thus, your brain constructs a way for you to be in control of the situation in the future: by making it your fault this time that the thing you needed didn’t happen. 4. Rinse, repeat, til the end of time.
Your brain is actually trying to keep you safe at all costs. Like, really: at all costs to other needs your higher self might actually have. So when it’s faced with an unknown or an unsure situation, it harkens back to days of yore when you felt unsafe or unsure. It says, “Hey! Remember that time? That was probably your fault!” so that you feel like you have (and had) control over the events. Then it says, “DON’T DO THAT AGAIN, EH?” But you’ve already bought a plane ticket! So, you (and by you, I mean, me) obsess over why going Montréal is worthy of vicarious punishment through your dogs.
I wish that just knowing why this happens would make the ruminating/obsessing disappear, like a magic wand or the reveal at the end of an episode of Scooby Doo. “A-ha!” I want to say. “I’ve discovered your ruse, brain!” Alas, it doesn’t work like that. That mechanism is always going to be there, and it just takes a lot of practice and tools to work through it. DBT skills like “check the facts” have helped me tremendously, but it’s a long-haul. A lifelong haul with lots of opportunities for practice, sigh.
If you’re a ruminator/obsessor/intrusive-thinker, how do you handle your brain in these situations?