My arm hurts today. Specifically, the ulna nerve in my right arm hurts due to the re-activation of an old elbow injury. It's bad! In the USA, we call the ulna nerve the "crazy bone" because a slight tap stings like crazy. It's zapping me good.
I first hurt that elbow about ten years ago when a burglar came out of a closet behind me. It was a teenage girl from the neighborhood, bigger than me, but still just a girl. Didn't matter. She had no business hiding in my closet and she scared the living daylights out of me. The next thing I knew we were wrestling toward the door.
Now, let's get our R.E.B.T. semantics right here. Dr. Albert Ellis made it clear that we distress ourselves with our thoughts, beliefs and self-talk. By learning to correctly say we made ourselves angry or anxious or distressed, we focus on the person who created the emotion and on the person who can change it for the better -- namely, ourselves.
But Al also recognized the "fight or flight" response, which is an instinctive physiological outpouring of adrenaline and other stress hormones when we are under threat. That kind of physiological reaction can happen in a split second and that's what happened to me when I heard the closet door open behind me.
In that situation, I think it's proper for me to say the sound of the closet door opening frightened me. That was the instinctive fight or flight response. A purist might say I scared myself by saying something like, "That noise sounds like a burglar." I'm not that much of a purist. The door opening behind me set my alarm bells ringing and my adrenal glands reacted instantaneously. That's physiological, not cognitive.
But within one or two seconds, I moved from the physiological to the cognitive (more accurately, I moved to the irrational.) What happened was this: I turned and when I saw the girl -- a girl I had known for years -- I enraged myself.
I clearly remember thinking, "How dare you scare me!" I also clearly remember knowing that she would not kill me or even injure me. But I enraged myself to the point of attacking the poor girl because I wanted to punish her. I wanted to punish that AWFUL girl. It was not exactly my most gloriously rational moment.
You see, this event took place several months after my best friends had been abducted, tortured and murdered by a friendly looking stranger. I remember thinking in the split second before the wrestling match started that the girl SHOULD have known it was wrong to scare me after everything I'd been through and that she was just AWFUL for behaving so badly.
And there was one more thought that raced through my mind like a meteor: I can take her!
My next action was behavioral ... I grabbed the girl with the intent of tossing her out the door and onto her ass. Which I proceeded to do, justifying my enraged behavior by telling myself that she was AWFUL for what she did and she deserved the full force of my rageful punishment because she was BAD. Out the door she went, right onto her ass.
The next day I could not lift either of my arms. When I had picked the girl up off the floor, I had lifted more than my own body weight. It was more than I could handle. I had torn up my shoulder joints and partially ruptured the biceps muscle and ulna nerve in my right arm. The girl had hurt feelings.
Now, when my arm aches on cold rainy days, I spend a moment or two remembering why it hurts. Some people might say I was justified in my actions. But I don't think so. Just because I was scared ... just because I'd been hurt in the past ... just because I could get away with it ... none of it justified my aggressive actions. If the girl had been an ax murderer ... yes, my actions would have demonstrated bravery. But it was just the neighbor girl and I knew ... knew ... she didn't want to hurt me. Yeah, she didn't belong in my closet, but that's another story. After it was all over, I learned an important lesson from that girl ...
When we lash out physically or verbally at another person we may end up hurting ourselves more than anyone else ... even when we think our actions are justified. Even when we're scared. Even when we've been hurt. We can't keep blaming our outbursts on physiology, not if we forcefully analyze our thoughts, feelings and actions.
After that episode, I re-dedicated myself to practicing R.E.B.T. exercises every day, just as I did when I was young. If an ax murderer jumps out of the closet, I'll be prepared. And if it's the neighbor girl, well ... I hope I can tell the difference.
Please feel free to post your questions, comments, opinions and critique of my irrational wrestling match.