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How’s your dashboard working? More on trust

13 Jul

Soooo… a few posts back I promised to write more about trust.  It’s a huge topic, and I don’t think I’ll get to the end of it any time soon. But here’s the next installment…

I believe I stated previously that so-called ‘negative’ emotions like fear or anger aren’t actually bad things – they’re like all emotions, and emotions are signals to tell you what’s going on – like emotional dashboard lights.  Are you in the right gear?  Do you need to add oil to your car? Is the door shut?  Emotions are designed to work the same way; they ‘light up’ when there’s a ‘go ahead’ or ‘don’t do that right now’ or ‘proceed with caution’.  That’s a good thing, and even when we wish the situation was different, knowing what’s ahead is usually better than stumbling in with no warnings.  However, emotions don’t always work properly, and even when they do, they don’t always agree with the emotions of the guy next to you.  When that happens, it can be a problem.  It can be a BIG problem.

Continuing with the ‘indicator light’ analogy – have you ever driven a car that has a permanent indicator light on?  Or one that flickers on  off regardless of what’s actually going on in the engine?  (If this has never happened to you, feel free to buy me a new car whenever you want 😉 )  For those who haven’t driven older cars, or who don’t drive (or who never bother with looking at the dashboard); cars have a LOT of potential indicators. Nearly everyone relies on things like the speedometer & gas gauge.  Many years ago when I was just old enough to be out on my own, the car I drove had a broken speedometer. As far as it was concerned, you weren’t going any miles (or kilometers, for that mater) per hour at all.  That meant you had to pretty much guesstimate based on how fast other traffic was going, and slow down just in case if there was a cop around.  Things like the speedometer & the gas gauge tend to be passive – if they’re broken, they simply don’t register anything.  Emotions like that are more like some kinds of depression – everything is flat, and it’s hard to know what’s really happening, because not much is showing up.

Cars also have a bunch of lights &/or sounds telling you things like your oil is low, your engine is too hot, you need to get the engine looked at (nice vague warning there).  They might make noise if a door is open or a seat-belt unfastened – some even have a recorded voice telling you just what’s happening.  My current car has the ‘check engine’ light permanently on.  In this case, it doesn’t mean anything except that the car is coming up on being old enough to vote and over time even cars that are well cared for get some quirks. I can ignore that light. It’s small, it’s unobtrusive, and I know it’s not a problem. But what if…

What if I was driving a car that had Every Single Light on? Or if every light randomly went on & off many times in even a short drive? That would include the turn-signals, that also make a click-click-click noise, and the ‘open door’ dinging sound, even if the door was closed.  Add a random beep or a voice that was supposed to signal a loose seat-belt (my car doesn’t have this, but many cars do) – but did it just on a whim, regardless of seat-belts actually in use?  I don’t know about you, but I’m thinking that a short trip, just a mile or two away, would be driving me nuts.  I kinda think I wouldn’t want to go out in that car unless it was an EXTREME emergency.

This is what it’s like for people whose emotions are too sensitive.  Instead of useful spikes & drops & flows of feelings that help gauge a good (or bad) day, it feels like EVERY day is flickering and dinging and beeping and pretty much, you just want it to stop!  There’s currently two common diagnoses for this kind of feeling. One is Anxiety Disorders – situations where all the worry lights, fear sirens, anxiousness beeping are all going off – and you really don’t know why.  It could be in the middle of the frozen foods or at the park or in church – often the emotions don’t seem very related to actual problems at all.  What they do relate to is messages from way back in the brain that made sense at one time.  There are different kinds of anxiety disorders, but they all refer to having a brain that’s not giving emotional feedback properly & usefully.

The other common diagnosis is ADD, which stands for Attention Deficit Disorder.  It used to be called Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD) if lack of attention made someone hyper, and ADD if it made them zone out.  Then the powers that be changed the name, and now it’s all ADD, with different subtypes (hyperactive is one, lack of attention is another, and so forth).  There’s a lot of controversy about whether ADD is real, if it’s overdiagnosed (especially among children who naturally need to run around and whose attention spans aren’t very big yet).  However, for people who do have it, it’s more like different indicator lights going on & off.  Instead of overwhelming emotions on full force, ADD is described more like ‘okay, I’m interested in math… no, wait, I’m tired.. no, I’m too hyper, and anxious… and so forth.  Interestingly enough, some research suggests that kids & teens who have anxiety disorders often act more like someone with attention problems than anxiety problems.  If you’re anxious or can’t trust your own signals, you’re going to be pretty distracted!

Bringing this back to the real world, feeling emotions instead of a dashboard full of lights – what do we do about it???  This is a situation that isn’t about a rational way to trust someone else, it’s about trusting yourself.  How do you trust yourself to know what you need and want when your ‘dashboard’ is that screwed up?  Where did it start?  Why is it doing this?

My own perspective is that most people start with something that actually does provoke a real emotion.  There are theories that all anxiety or ADD are entirely based on brain chemistry and can be fixed with medications, but I think that most often, a real incident came first.  Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), for example, is considered a type of anxiety disorder, and it is by definition cased by going through a traumatic situation. That’s a fairly obvious example, even if the recovery part isn’t nearly as simple. There are other situations, though, that can provoke ongoing anxiety without being as obvious.

When I was a kid, my mom gave me a strong lecture on not trying to catch bees.  I was young, I was interested in bugs & birds & animals & plants and was in general just the kind of kid who would try to catch a bee and end up stung.  So she told me not to catch bees, that bees would sting, that stings were ‘ouch’.  I developed a bit of a phobia of bees for a while. It was like my emotional ‘look out for the bee’ light went off if there was a bee anywhere nearby, not just if it was close enough to cause a problem.  Eventually I worked at getting over that fear (aided partly by being a teenager who didn’t want to look scared in front of my peers).  But a mild phobia of bees was also likely very helpful when I was a child.

What if it hadn’t stayed mild?  What if my brain had decided that beetles look kind of like bees (and start with the same syllable), so I should be scared of them, too?  What if I had then noticed that an awful lot of bees, and beetles, were found outside and decided I shouldn’t go outdoors?  If events in my life had gone in a different direction I could have all-out agoraphobia (fear of being outdoors), and I wouldn’t have any idea where it came from.  My ‘warning system’ would be going off too often for too many reasons; but it would have had a starting place, and things that bumped it up along the way.

Dealing with an overwhelming ‘dashboard’ of emotions is NOT easy!  By the time everything is signalling, it’s pretty hard to trace it back to one bee.  Sometimes people can, and need to, and other times they can’t, and shouldn’t. There are quite a few tools to help, but it treatment can still be like a baffled mechanic trying each thing in turn to see if it makes a change. The important thing is, you aren’t crazy, you have some very sensitive emotions, and even better, your brain can help fix itself!  A car has to rely on a mechanic, but a brain can learn to re-work its emotions. Some people need to know what caused the problem, and others just need to work toward the solution.  Both methods are okay, and when I’m working with someone whose emotions are overwhelming them too much, we can do either or both – whatever seems best.

Part of that process ends up dealing with trust.  There’s knowing why things got screwed up, there’s helping the brain learn or re-learn how to give feedback in ways that are useful and functional. And then there’s learning to trust yourself – both to trust your emotions, and to trust that if you have a bad day it’s not the start of a bad life.  Healing from anything is going to involve some times that feel all wrong. Sometimes you even learn more when things go wrong, because you can see what they are and what happened NOW, instead of trying to untangle possibilities from way back when!

Trusting yourself to trust.  That’s an awfully big job, but it’s one that’s so very worthwhile.

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