Signs of progress… Yesterday, I was pretty worn out after a long day of work. I was supposed to leave for my vacation in the afternoon, but I had too much to do, so I ended up working through the evening to at least make a dent in what was happening with work.
After that, I got into the beginnings of a very familiar argument with someone over a topic that’s very touchy for me. Things have been tense for over a week, since the Boston Marathon bombing, which injured some friends of friends and had everybody at work talking and stressing… talking and stressing…
No matter where you are, these kinds of events can really take a toll on your mental health, and I was a little worse for wear yesterday — between not getting to leave for vacation on time, having to rush to fix all kinds of stupid sh*t that got screwed up because somebody at work didn’t want to do their job, and feeling pressured by my family to spend time that I don’t have, visiting them… and (had I mentioned?) working like a crazy person all day.
So, when this argument started, I could feel the familiar rush of indignation, getting upset because I “know better” than the person I was getting into an argument with. They were making unwise choices about their health, not taking care of themself, and then getting all tweaked because they have health issues. Uh, d’uh — you eat crap, you don’t exercise, you have no apparent regimen in your daily life, and then you complain about not being able to do things you used to do, and you’re freaked out about illness and getting sick and coming down with diabetes or a heart attack… without ever doing anything about it. I get so frustrated with this individual, whose behavior seems to have no connection with what they actually want to have happen in their life. It’s maddening.
And of course, I know better.
I started to get really tweaked over it, getting angrier and angrier with them over what they were doing and saying and how they were acting. Then it occurred to me — I’ve had this exact same argument with this person for years and years, and it never gets resolved. We just get pissed off at each other, go our separate ways for a bit to cool off, then get back in touch as though the whole thing never happened. There’s never any resolution, because they think they’re doing things right, making choices that make them feel good in the moment but which have been shown by tons of medical evidence, to do them harm in the long run. All they know is “the now” and all they really strive for in their personal life is to be “present in the moment”.
Yes, it sounds insane to me — trading your future for the sake of the now — but that is their perspective, and in all the decades that I’ve known them (they’re one of my longest friends), they have never felt or acted or believed any other way. And the times when they did have little health scares, they were back to their old ways, as though they’d never had the scares.
But as I sat listening to them, I could feel myself getting more and more tense, feeling myself really stressing over it… while they just carried on talking about things as happy as a clam. And when I said something about being concerned for them, they snapped at me… and I could feel that old argument coming on again. I noticed that in my own body, my head was starting to feel tight and pressurized. And my heart was starting to pound. I was starting to sweat, and my thoughts were starting to repeat over and over the same arguments and concerns I’ve had for years — like they were a dog chasing its own tail. I was getting really uptight, really stressed, and I was on the verge of flipping out at them — as I have often done in the past.
But I stopped. I stopped the downward spiral, I stopped the dog chasing its tail. I knew I was tired from a long day of working. I knew I was upset about not being able to leave on time for my vacation. I knew my patience had been running thin since about 10:00 that morning. I knew that where I was going was NOT a good place to be.
I also remembered what I’ve heard and read in a number of places — the average emotion lasts about 90 seconds. Its biochemical “recipe” gets into our blood — and then can get flushed out in less than two minutes. If left to its own devices without any kind of intervention on my part, it will dissipate and disappear. I don’t have to do anything, if I don’t much care for the experience — just breathe and let it go its own way. On the other hand, I can choose to feel something different and let that get into my system for a longer period of time.
So, if I’ve got 90 seconds to work with, that gives me a choice — I can either dive into whatever I’m feeling and get all worked up and bent out of shape, like I have countless times. Or I can distract myself (I’m very good at that), breathe, let my system chill out, and NOT have the same shouting match that has been the buggaboo of this friendship since almost the beginning.
So, last night I chose the latter. I distracted myself. I just sat there quietly while they talked, and I didn’t get into it. I was upset at first, but after a little while that feeling dissipated and I started to feel sane again. The dog stopped chasing its tail. The tension and pressure in my head relaxed. And even though I was still irked by what they were saying and doing in their day-to-day, that feeling didn’t “own” me the same way it usually does. I was able to tell them what I felt and how I was feeling, in a sane person’s gone of voice… and then let it go. I didn’t get into the blame, the fear, the anxiety, the frustration. I “went there” for a little bit, last night. But then I let it go and did something else with my attention. I stopped the flash flood of emotions before it got started.
And you know what? When I didn’t fly off the handle and yell and criticize and attack, the person on the other side of the discussion could actually hear what I was saying. They could actually get that I was concerned about their health, that I was worried about how much money they were spending on junk food, and that my frustration and anger came out of concern for their health. It wasn’t about me trying to shame them. It was about me caring about their well-being and wanting to see them have a better life and do better with themself.
And it helped. Last night could have kicked off a really shitty vacation for me, starting me off on a foot that started with a blow-out, me not being able to sleep from being so friggin’ tired, having my chemistry out of whack, and having yet another instance of an impossible argument that never gets resolved.
I can’t say I’m that encouraged by my friend’s choices. And I can’t say I’m that optimistic about their long-term health and happiness. But for me, at least I didn’t drown in a flood of emotion that just swamps me and makes me feel really, really terrible. When I get that upset and blow up, the biochemical residue stays with me for days and drags me down, making me depressed and wiping out my self-confidence.
Today I don’t have that problem. And my friend doesn’t have to go through their day with the memory of yet another one of my blow-ups. Today I get to start fresh. Everybody does.