Thursday, March 27, 2008

Gayle's Most Irrational Moment

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.



Sanjay said...

Hi Gayle!
Thanks for sharing this with us. When we are confronted by an adversity, as you were, the information from the sensory organs is directly sent to amygdala, a small structure in the brain which is the seat of emotional memory. The amygdala reacts instantaneously (amygdala hijack!), one feels the emotions without the conscious brain (prefrontal cortex) knowing it.

But soon the prefrontal cortex (the thinking brain) also receives the information. We think about what is happening. What we think now will decide what emotion we CONTINUE to feel. We can't do anything about the amygdala hijack. But, as Albert Ellis said, we can choose what to think! Thus we have a good amount of choice. Thank God for small favors! (Oops, there is most probably no God!)
Regards, ~Sanjay~

Anonymous said...

That’s a first-rate story, very well told. I like your analysis of your actions, Gayle, but also think you may be being too hard on yourself. Where is the unconditional self acceptance in this tale? I don’t think it is irrational to strongly prefer our closets unpopulated by neighbourhood thieves. I wouldn’t want even friends and relatives popping out of mine!

Given a second shot at the encounter, how would you behave now? A Mahatma Gandhi might have offered the girl a cup of tea. How many of us are that saintly?


Gayle said...

Thanks for your responses!

Amygdala hijack! That's what I experienced when I heard the closet door open behind me. An instantaneous, instinctive, physiological reaction Then, within, a split second, I started choosing my reactions. Thanks, Sanjay, for that cogent explanation of the physiology of the reaction. I liked that a lot.

Steve, you ask a great question, one I've asked myself. Given a second shot at the same encounter with the same girl, I hope I would chose to behave in a way that did NOT result in a serious injury to me, one that still causes pain ten years later.

If I was in a similar situation with a different intruder, I hope I'd have enough wits about me to run away. Given my small size, choosing to wrestle an intruder, when I had any other option, represented an irrational choice. With that particular girl, I really could have asked her to have a cup of tea. But, as I said, that's another story.

Albert Ellis told us that forcefully analyzing and critiquing our thoughts, feelings and actions is an important part of unconditional self acceptance. That's what I try to do. I try to uncover the thoughts and beliefs that trigger my emotions and my actions. I also look for patterns.

In my opinion, when I jumped that girl and wrestled her out the door, I was giving into short-term hedonism. Think about that for minute. It gave me momentary pleasure to vent my self-created rage on the girl.

I'd been under considerable stress for months due to a serious crime and here was another crime (although no where near as serious.) It would be easy for me to say that it was just too much and I could not control myself. But that would be dishonest. I'm good at remaining within the bounds of socially accepted behaviors.

I think I did what many people do who are under stress. I found myself in a provoking situation AND I realized this was a place where I could vent all my stress and get away with it.

That's not a flattering thing to say about myself, but part of unconditional acceptance is accepting the flaws without trying to justify them away.

Instead of venting my stress, it would have been better if I had chosen "flight" instead of "fight." I could have just as easily run out of the house to safety, where I could call the police to come haul the girl away. In fact, the police were there within minutes. The neighbors had heard me roaring like Godzilla. They called the police because they'd never heard me scream or swear ... and I was doing both with gusto.

No one, not a single person, criticized me for my actions. I didn't criticize myself either. But in R.E.B.T. tradition, I chose to analyze the thoughts and self-talk that triggered this unusual turn of events.

Short-term hedonism may be a factor in situations where people chronically vent their negative emotions and distress on other people. I'm not much of a venter, but I have friends and family who strongly believe that venting negative emotions is necessary for emotional health and well-being. I disagree.

I tend to think that venting gives some relief in the moment, but it may have negative long-term consequences on relationships. I've been discussing this concept with several people and we have mixed ideas on it. We're still working on the definition of "venting."

Here's my question: Can taking out our negative emotions on others be construed as a form of short-term hedonism? Your comments are welcome.


Sanjay said...

Dear Gayle,
I think that taking out our unhealthy negative emotions on others(eg, anger) may be called a type of short-term hedonism. It has bad short- as well as long-term consequences.

Expressing healthy negative emotions (eg, disappointment), without putting down others, is not short-term hedonism. It is likely to have good short- as well as long-term consequences.

Regards, ~Sanjay~

Anonymous said...

Interesting topic, this question of venting and short-term hedonism and definitions. The more I think about it, the larger the subject seems to be.
Is “venting” limited to the quasi-‘spontaneous’ explosion of anger and negativity?
If so, I’m not much of a venter either. I could count on the fingers of one hand the number of times I’ve shouted at anyone in the last 15 years and still have some uncounted fingers.

But: sit me at a typewriter and I can work up quite a head of steam. In my early 20s I earned my living as a music critic, paid to be opinionated. I can’t say I was exactly a model of fair-mindedness. Is venting better or worse if you get money for it?? As a professionally angry young man I blasted a lot of egos, not only damning music that fell short of my arbitrarily determined subjective standards (i.e. my taste), but also often enough its makers. Criticism, I plainly see today, can be just a high-class term for ranting, as Al might have said. Did this variety of venting do me, as a practitioner, any harm? Yes and no. On the one hand I taught myself, long before I’d heard of REBT, not to be overly upset by the waves of indignation I frequently stirred up. On the other I acquired an army of enemies some of whom are still mad about things I wrote 30 years ago. That’s less positive!

Football fans on the rampage…that’s also venting as short-term hedonism. And the negative consequences may include injuries, damage to property, and court appearances.

How about Protest as hedonistic venting? Throwing rocks at policemen, and the self-righteous kick that might be derived from that. And how would we differentiate between levels of degrees of venting there? Would we agree that the act of hurling a stone at a London bobby at, say, an anti-globalization rally, is less defensible than the act of throwing an identical stone at a Chinese cop in Lhasa last week?? Can ‘venting’ be discussed without regard to its motivation?


Anonymous said...

Steve, you raise some interesting points. Before I discuss them, I'll see if I can post this ... I'm thwarted, trouble posting. Pretty sure it's operator error.

I'l be posting comments soon.


Gayle said...

Steve, I appreciate your comments. Short-term hedonism and protest often go together, in my opinion. Throwing rocks, breaking windows, destruction -- yes, it may feel good in the moment, but does it advance one's political goals? If it doesn't, then it's self-defeating.

I'm politically active and I've been known to disrupt public meetings. During a particular dire stretch of time, one government agency hired armed guards because they weren't sure what I might do next. I took that as a major compliment! What I did was go to public meetings carrying a big box of public records. When an elected official pronounced a lie from on high, I'd bounce up and shout, "That's a lie!" And I'd have documentation to prove it. In short, I was a pain in the neck and I was breaking the rules. And it was highly effective. Other citizens started jumping up to support me.

Was it short-term hedonism? I don't think so because it was actually difficult and risky. Most people would call me an introvert, so calling that kind of attention to myself was not feeding my ego. It was more of a mortification. But the issues were so important that it seemed worth the risk. I'd REBT away my feelings of shame or fear and go for it. Seeing that I had the facts in hand before I jumped up shouting and that the reporters were willing to report those facts, I didn't have to jump up too many times.

Would I ever throw a rock? Doubt it. One of my mentors in community organization said, "A guy has to be a political idiot to say that all power comes from the barrel of a gun when the other side has the guns."

I can generalize that to saying a person has to be a self-defeating short-term hedonist to say that power comes from throwing rocks when the other side has guns, tear gas, tanks and the power to put you away for years.

One of the things REBT has helped me do is regular cost/benefit analyses of my political actions. It was worth the risk of being arrested, on TV, for interrupting a public meeting while holding written documentation in my hand. It was not a very big risk. Every time I jumped up, the meetings were recessed and the officials would come back ten minutes later to say they had "misspoken."

If I'd jumped up to hurl insults or call names or toss rocks, it might have felt good. Let me tell you, there were insults and names in me wanting to burst out. There were. Never rocks. Insults would have felt gratifying because the situation did present frequent frustrations and name-calling would have allowed me to vent that frustration. But venting would not have advanced my goal. When I disrupted a meeting, it was never on impulse. It represented a calculated political action meant to advance a particular agenda (which was advocating fair play toward the elderly, disabled and lower income citizens who were in danger of losing their homes due to a public policy that benefitted a few multi-millionaires at the expense of many ordinary people.) My side won.

If you're going to be a political protester, it helps to put your goal in front of your impulse for immediate ego gratification or for the pleasure of seeing your opponent squirm or lose control in the moment. So, yeah, I'm pretty sure that tossing rocks in protest -- especially when the other side has tear gas, bullets and tanks -- represents short-term hedonism.

Steve, I hope we can also talk about your career as a professional angry young man and critic. That just happens to be the heart of a discussion I'm having with another professional angry young man/writer. But I would like his permission before I talk about it, eventhough his identity will remain anonymous. I'd value your insights.


Sanjay said...

Dear Gayle,

I admiration of you has increased after I read your these comments.

I am thinking about the protests being made by people of Tibet against China. Chinese have guns and are using them. If Tibetabs don't even protest, what rational options do they have?

I think it may be rational to protest peacefully against the Chinese clearly-evident misdeeds in other countries and various world forums rather than in China (where doing so may invite death).


Steve said...

I wouldn’t want to tell Tibetans what rational thoughts they should be thinking at this time but I hope they can draw consolation and courage from the facts that:

1) Through the Chinese occupation of Tibet the world has learned much more about Tibetan Buddhism than at any other period in history. Attempts at ‘cultural genocide’ often misfire and this is a classic instance.

2) In the Dalai Lama, the Tibetans have a spiritual and political leader like no other figure on the current world stage. In his non-violent protest, sustained in exile for half a century, he embodies the concept of Unconditional Other Acceptance. Dr Ellis suggested that the Dalai Lama had surpassed him in this sphere: “Fully accepting and practicing UOA is almost against ‘human nature.’ As far as I can see, the Dalai Lama, after many years of training and practice, now had it. But I don’t, only partly. Back to the drawing board!” (Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy, Prometheus Books, 2004. P. 154)

3) The Chinese may control Tibet but they cannot control the thoughts of the Tibetans. (As TIME magazine noted, “By showing how Tibet can exist internally, in spirit and imagination, even if it is barely visible on the map, the Dalai Lama has been suggesting to Palestinians, Kurds and Uighurs that they can maintain a cultural community even if they have lost their territory.”) (And there is a lesson there also for post-AEI Ellis followers too.)

4) The Dalai Lama has argued that there are things also to be said in favour of the “progress and material development” that Beijing has forced upon Tibet. Frustrating as it is in many respects, underlining the Buddha’s promise that life is suffering, the situation is not, even now, 100% bad. And:

5) The months ahead, with critical attention focused on the Olympics, will likely embarrass China into reformulating at least some of its Tibet policy

Gayle said...

Steve, your comments represent some very nice wisdom. I have pondered responding with my thoughts about the Chinese occupation of Tibet, but that gets very complicated. I have been lobbying my congressional reps for months concerning American trade agreements with China and other countries that have flooded markets with fake medications, adulterated pet foods and toxic children's toys.

There was one line in your message that grabbed me by the heart and it wasn't about Tibet. It was about the future of REBT. You said: And there is a lesson there also for post-AEI Ellis followers too.

Eventhough the REBT community has lost its headquarters to occupying forces, we can maintain a cultural community in exile. This blog, the websites, the forum and soon to be announced initiatives represent ways in which we can continue to promote and benefit from Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy.

In the last year of his life, Albert Ellis asked us to use REBT in our own lives and to teach it to other people so we can enjoy personal happiness and promote world peace. That's what Al said. He saw REBT as a way of life that could promote peace on a small scale -- in our own lives -- and on a larger scale. The Dalai Lama's actions certainly represent an embodiment of Al's hopes for the future.